Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

Rewards and Motivations, Nine Years On

First, thanks to the thoughtful and generous Mike Walker for prompting me to write a follow up to this post from many years ago. The question I posed was how I could use small rewards to motivate changes in my behaviour. The best suggestion I got when I posted the question on Facebook was to give money to causes I positively didn’t support if I failed to follow through on my goals. I never tried this but now I’m revisiting the question I may give it a try.

Since I wrote the post, I’ve come to realise that I’m just not a reward-oriented person. No amount of carrot dangling or stick waving will get me to do something I’m fundamentally not inclined to do, or even shift my priorities to make one thing more likely than another. I think psychologists call this “being intrinsically motivated”, although those closest to me probably prefer the expression “lazy and wilful.” What I’ve found (and I share this in case it’s of use to other lazy, wilful people) is that to change my behaviour, I have to take advantage of my laziness and wilfulness. This amounts to two things in practice.

The first is to make the activity, as far as possible, intrinsically enjoyable. I like intellectual problems, so anything that can be made into a puzzle will engage me immediately. I like to build my understanding of things, so anything which involves experimenting is a winner (I’ve managed to improve my sleep recently on this basis, by managing my evenings in a new way, but crucially, by measuring the effect this has in a systematic way. Yes, I am a nightmare to live with.) I like being able to show off, so anything which gives clear results is also easy to get excited about.

The second is to take advantage of my laziness. This means making it as easy as possible to do the thing I want to do, and difficult to do things I don’t want to do. I’ve managed to lose a lot of weight over the last few years by having a meal plan which means I don’t have to think about what to cook, and simply not buying a lot of food which is easy to prepare but high in calories. The meal plan makes it easy to get things right and not having “bad” food around makes it an effort to get things wrong.

I still haven’t cracked taking regular exercise. I did better at this, for a while, by making it into an intellectual problem, and then by thinking of it as physical therapy (which didn’t make it enjoyable but made it feel irresponsible not to do it, piquing my narcissism), but neither of these proved sustainable. Fundamentally I don’t enjoy it, and doing it is always going to be significantly more effort than not doing it. And I’m never going to be good enough at anything in that line to be able to show off. What makes it worse is that my body responds very unpredictably to exercise – the actual exercise can leave me anywhere between exhilarated and nauseated, and the two days afterwards I can find myself enthused and energised or depressed and lethargic. A bad half hour at the gym can render me unproductive for two to three days, and I’ve no way of knowing in advance whether any given half hour will be a good one or a bad one.

I should probably try to invent a new form of yoga or something.

In the meantime, I’m also experimenting (see?) with a new approach to things I buy for myself. I was thinking, at Christmas, about how the adult experience differs from the childhood experience, and it struck me that as children, new toys come in two big waves – Christmas and birthdays – and this makes those times exciting (I know, I know, it’s just wall-to-wall sentiment here). So now, if I decide I want to buy something like a DVD or a new shirt, I put the money into a savings account so that I can buy it on my birthday. The reality is that I’m not actually that interested in having or owning things, so this is likely to result in me not buying quite a lot of things at all, but at least it gives me a little something to look forward to.

I’ll let you know how it works out in about ten years’ time.





Filed under: Uncategorized

Why I Didn’t Like Blade Runner 2049

Let me say at the start that there is a lot to like about this film. It’s visually wonderful, and the soundtrack is perfectly suited to the mood throughout. There is some depth to the character of the lead, and the generally understated script is carried off well by the cast. If you haven’t seen it, then despite what I say in the following, I’d encourage you to do so.

So what’s the problem?

Warning: What follows contains spoilers in spades, and won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the film.

Let’s begin about two-thirds of the way through the film where we have what was for me a pivotally problematic scene, in which K has sex with a prostitute who is made to resemble Joi, his digital assistant. Having an intimate relationship with a non-human counterpart (as K has with Joi) is more-or-less messed up whichever way you look at it, laying on a spectrum between bestiality and droit de signeur, but the film does nothing to explore this either morally or psychologically. This is forgivable, though; it’s plausible that in some future the practice would be normalised. But a scene in which a man has sex with one woman while literally projecting his preferred partner onto her – with her complicit in the projection – invites a whole stream of commentary on the nature of intimate relationships which should be irresistible.

To its credit, the film makes it clear that it is Joi, and not K, who has hired the prostitute and has control over the situation, but this only raised in my mind quite why she has so much autonomy in the way she spends K’s money.

The scene, however, serves two purposes in the narrative. First, it consolidates the position of Joi in K’s emotions, setting up her later destruction at the nadir in the casino. Second, it allows the prostitute to plant a tracker on K allowing the replicant army to follow him to Las Vegas later in the film.

The problem with the replicant army is that they are basically redundant. They do three things: first, they patch K up after the nadir; second, they tell K he is not the replicant child; third, they ask K to kill Deckard. K doesn’t kill Deckard, would have found out from Deckard that he wasn’t the child, and could presumably have patched himself up, being a replicant and all.

Worse, the motivations of the replicant army make no sense. If Wallace Corporation find the replicant child, the result will be replicants having children, which will bring about (ostensibly) the revolution the replicants want. In fact, it will do so much more convincingly than the replicants holding up one example and saying “honest, guv, she was born not made.” This redundancy is emphasised by the somewhat “tacked-on” feel to their involvement – they are hinted at a couple of times before the nadir, make one appearance after it, and are never heard from again.

By the time the identity of the replicant child is revealed (a clever twist which I didn’t see coming despite it being clearly signposted), Deckard is in the hands of Wallace, and things become more problematic still. It appears that Rachel and Deckard were matched by the Tyrell Corporation in the original film precisely with the intention that they should have a child. With certain assumptions about the relationship between Tyrell and Wallace, this explains why Rachel’s file is tagged for special attention when K makes his visit at the start of the investigation, but leaves us puzzled as to why these organisations lost track of the technology which Wallace is now hoping to recover, and, come to think of it, how finding the child – rather than the parents – will help him.

A more satisfactory setup (IMHO) would be Wallace to take the view that replicants having children threatens his bottom line, and therefore seeking to kill the child. This would have given two clear forces in the narrative – K, Deckard and the replicant army fighting to keep the child hidden and alive, and Joshi and Wallace fighting to find and kill her.

Let’s return to the nadir, though, and the problematic status of Joi. The aim with the nadir in a narrative like this is to make us watch the hero stripped of everything – he is left battered and bruised by our enemies with no hope of accomplishing the goal we are invested in. This allows us to watch him make one final resolve, risk one final sacrifice, to bring about the conclusion we are hoping for.

When Luv destroys Joi, then, we are witnessing another thing being taken from K as part of this process. However, we don’t really have a sense that the assistant is actually a person for whom we have independent regard and concern, perhaps because she is acorporeal but also perhaps because in the set-up for her demise she speaks of herself as a piece of software. This means that this scene feels more like the Doctor losing his Sonic Screwdriver than a man witnessing the death of his partner. There is, though, a much deeper problem in that while by this stage in the film, it’s rather unclear what it is K wants – what conclusion we are supposed to be hoping for –it is clear that Joi isn’t relevant to bringing it about. While we might feel a little sorry for K – assuming we’re not ambivalent about his dysfunctional relationship with Joi in the first place – nothing happens here which really develops the plot.

It’s part of the narrative form that at the nadir the hero is left for dead rather than actually killed, but there are more convincing ways to accomplish this than having the villain simply not bothering to kill him. Luv is revealed in this scene as the cardboard cut-out sadistic sidekick – she destroys Joi just to torment K, but inexplicably, leaves K alive.

On this note, it’s worth pointing out that, similarly, Wallace is a cardboard cut-out supervillain, only a slip of the pen away from sucking his pinky and asking why he should make billions when he could make millions. Certainly he offers us neither the disinterested poise of Tyrell nor the artless menace of Roy.

Luv’s sadism, of course, is there to give us a sense of satisfaction when K finally kills her. I liked the idea, in this scene, of setting the final conflict against the sea wall (an echo of the rain in the final scenes of the original), but I found the whole thing a bit confusing. It seemed to me that the water level in the craft was at times higher than the water level outside, despite being on level ground. I might just have been tired. However, I was more distracted by a deeper problem with this scene, which is that the detail of the action depends crucially on the limits of the special powers of the replicants, which are never properly established. The tension in the scene depends on Deckard’s inability to break free of his bonds, so we need to know just how replicant-proof these are. In the end, Deckard seems unable to free his hands but K is able to break the restraints with only a little effort. At one point, Luv succeeds in stabbing K which would be a decisive blow in a fight between a replicant and a human, but in this case we have no way of knowing if it is a mortal wound or an uncomfortable scratch.

Most of all, though, by this time I’d more or less lost track of why I was supposed to be rooting for K. K’s character is very likeable, and has the same workaday, pragmatic non-hero feel that Deckard offers us in the original, and Gosling carries it off superbly. The lack of overt heroism makes it difficult, perhaps, for us to root for him in a simple, cheerleadery sort of way; our engagement with him, and his goals, is necessarily richer but for that reason more ambivalent.

At the start of the film we see a policeman trying to do a good job which is not the stuff of epic tales but gives us plenty to admire and engage with. As the film progresses, this turns into a man trying to establish his identity. I had genuine difficulty caring about this. Questions of personal identity are not the things of which gripping drama is made. Ostensibly, the film addresses this by making K’s survival contingent to the answer to this question, and for a while (between his discovery of the date carved into the tree and his failing the baseline test) this works well, although the threat is never very clearly articulated and certainly never very present. Once he fails the baseline test, though, it doesn’t matter whether he is the replicant child or not, from this point of view; it’s just something he wants to know. However, he doesn’t seem to want to know it very much. Joi makes the case that the possibility of him being the child makes him special, but he resists this (in a way which is beautifully consistent with his character); and when he meets Deckard, his questions are cautious and circumspect, rather than direct and urgent.

By the nadir, then, we have in K a very likeable character (despite the whole abusive cybersex thing) with whom we’ve built up a relationship but whose goals aren’t especially exciting for us. Even if we are captivated by his rather muted ambition to discover whether or not he is the replicant child, immediately after the nadir, both we and he have the answer to this question. Mission accomplished: he isn’t the child, he’s just part of the cover.

At this point, K is somewhat perfunctorily and ambiguously enlisted into the replicant rebellion. This has had little or no setup, and (as noted above) nothing the replicants are doing makes strategic sense. It isn’t clear to what extent K really signs on here; certainly, he doesn’t follow through on the replicants’ request to kill Deckard. Instead, he does what the narrative requires, which is to rescue Deckard, despite having no particular reason to do so. Worse, though, we have no particular reason to want to see him do this. We’ve only spent ten minutes with Deckard on screen; he isn’t particularly likeable; he isn’t trying to accomplish anything we particularly care about other than protecting a child who he has never met. If, at this point, K had decided to leave Deckard and the replicants to their own devices and concentrate on not being killed by his colleagues at the LAPD, we couldn’t really blame him.

Instead he sets about rescuing Deckard and reuniting him with his child. We’ve been in the cinema for three hours, and instead of seeing our hero getting what he wants – and indeed what we want – we get to see someone we’ve spent ten minutes watching get to meet an estranged family member he presumably never had any expectation of meeting, and who we care even less about than we care about him. He has made no sacrifice for this, suffered no hardship, and generally done nothing to make us think he deserves it. Perhaps here we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Deckard from the original, the iconic figure of Harrison Ford providing the continuity. Meanwhile, the man we have come to know and like and sympathise with is lying outside in the snow, maybe dying or not (because we don’t know quite how resilient replicants are), maybe in danger or not (where did the car come from? Can it be traced? Are the LAPD looking for him yet?), but presumably only just able to restrain himself from turning to the director and saying, “again, what’s my motivation?”

What is truly, madly irritating about this conclusion is that it takes a basically sound sci-fi premise, builds an interesting, slightly dystopian vision of the future around it, and then bottles out and becomes a film about how great it is having kids. I don’t have kids; I don’t empathise with this premise; I wanted something more for my three hours.

Now, all these criticisms can be dismissed by saying that Blade Runner simply didn’t set out to be the sort of film I am asking it to be. This is not supposed to be an edge-of-the-seat-Bruce-Willis-with-a-big-gun action flick. This is a science fiction dystopia with philosophical pretensions, a work of art combining elegant, beautiful images with an innovative, captivating soundtrack. And I have to admit that on the last two points, the film succeeds.

Were it not for the philosophically empty, family values conclusion, this response might have some weight, but in the end, it doesn’t bear analysis. The film starts very well from a philosophical point of view, establishing in the opening scenes that it will not retread the ground of the original. K is a replicant, and knows he’s a replicant, and that’s that. In an early scene between K and Joshi, the film sets out some interesting problems. How are we to maintain a distinction, morally, between replicants and humans? How do we justify summary execution of the former while protecting the rights of the latter? Is the matter of genesis – “born not made” – part of the answer? If so, is K right to accept the mission he accepts? And what sort of choice does he have? We are told in the very opening moments of the film that obedience is built into replicants of K’s design, but how is this enforced? When he says he doesn’t know that disobedience is an option, is he speaking literally, or alluding to some possible (and presumably terminal) punitive consequence? How are we to feel about Joshi, and the society portrayed, in either case? If K concludes that “born not made” is critical in the assignment of rights, does he have sufficient autonomy for this to constitute a moral dilemma, or does his nature mean he is bound (physically) to obey and is, as an agent, simply along for the ride?

Having alluded to all these exciting and interesting questions, the film does absolutely nothing to explore any of them. Instead, it follows all the tropes of a Bruce-Willis-with-a-big-gun action flick – the hero has a quest, the quest puts him in danger, he gets beaten up and stripped of the things he loves, makes a resolve to strike back at the villain and ultimately triumphs. Having failed to explore its philosophical potential in favour of these things, though, the film does them in a rather second-rate way.

There are lots of obvious ways a sequel to Blade Runner might have been a failure. A thoroughgoing attempt to make this into an action flick would have been disappointing and tasteless, and a simple repetition of the material of the first film pointless. This film does not fail in any of those ways – it displays imagination and a great deal of art. It is, in many ways, a beautiful film. While it succeeds, I think, in its aesthetic and historical ambitions, for me it failed in its emotional and intellectual ones. I spent three hours in the cinema; I wanted to see something more satisfying than Harrison Ford meeting his daughter.

Filed under: Film + TV


Ashamed at her task
Death handed Life a Lie
And Life marched on
While all around him lay
The broken souls of those
Who knew the truth

Filed under: Writing

Pub Fights with Famous Politicians

You’re in a pub with a famous politician and someone picks a fight with you. What happens next?

Paul Nuttall decks the guy before he can get a punch in. The situation escalates and in no time the whole pub is fighting.

Jeremy Corbyn patiently explains that, if you really understood the history of the conflict, you’d see that the other guy was in the right.

Tim Farron tries to change the guy’s mind by telling the guy that when he started picking the fight, he didn’t really understand what it would involve.

Nigel Farage puts on a show of friendship, buys the guy a pint, then gets the landlord to throw him out and bar him.

Nicola Sturgeon says the fight has nothing to do with her and insists she should ask how many of her mates agree.

Theresa May snaps her fingers. Demonic hordes materialise and eviscerate your opponent leaving him bloodied and paralysed. Providing medical assistance proves impossible as you no longer have an A&E department. Nonetheless the DWP declares him fit for work. In return for her services, May takes your pint and gives it to her millionaire husband.

Donald Trump agrees to negotiate with your opponent on your behalf. In the end they agree that they can both punch you a dozen times.

Filed under: Humour

a mind wanders

The taxi driver’s phone rings. He doesn’t answer, choosing instead to concentrate on driving me to my destination. At least, I assume that is how he thinks. Perhaps, though, he just doesn’t want to answer the call, it is someone he doesn’t want to speak to. I cannot tell. I wonder who it might be. I know nothing of his friends, of his family. What is his life like? How is it different from mine? Does he have children? Was he born here? Does he live with a wife, a mother? It seems absurd; we are sitting just a few feet apart and yet the courses of our lives are almost entirely separate. But for the few minutes of this journey, we stand apart completely. And even these few minutes are governed by silence, not uncomfortable, but part of the form. We might make conversation, of course, but it seems that neither of use would take any great pleasure in it. A transaction, a game in which we are not fully present as people. And a game in which I have the upper hand. Throughout the ages, the customer exploits the artisan. How long have there been taxi drivers? A hundred and fifty years maybe. And in another twenty, perhaps there will be no more. Perhaps they will be replaced by robots, or perhaps society will fall apart, and there will be no cars, no easy journeys. We are playing a game located in a specific place in history. A particular set of economic conditions that mean I sit in silence in the back of a car, part of a tradition that will soon pass away. This is how people of a certain class move from one place to another in my lifetime, in his lifetime, at this point in the story of humanity. Moving from place to place because our world is articulated, broken apart by function. To do this we must be there. So we travel, we move about, we traipse from place to place. And time, too, is articulated: if we want to do this we must do it then. And there is a multitude of thens, a multitude of journeys, taxi drivers for a century carrying me there to do this because it is then. And before that there are other places, other journeys, because that is how the universe is built. Time is what stops everything from happening at once, as Einstein said; and space, I suppose, stops everything from being in the same place. Space makes individuals possible, means that you are not me, that I am not the taxi driver. Space necessitates motion, and motion only makes sense if there is space. Motion, location, neither comprehensible without the other. Here is not there because I have to move from here to get there; I can move to there because there is not here. Two complementary ideas, each dependent on the other for meaning. Or is there some more fundamental thought, some concept that might underpin them both, explaining them, and perhaps illuminating something more profound?

The phone stops ringing.

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Age of the Troll

Flame war (n): a lengthy exchange of angry or abusive messages between users of an online forum or other discussion area.

Troll (n): One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

Iain Duncan Smith has done Remainers a huge favour with these remarks reported in the Express. It’s a favour because it enables articles like this one. IDS, we are to believe, is an idiot, a man fundamentally misinformed and so caught up in Europhobic zealotry that he is willing to tear up the constitution if it gets him what he wants, a man with no respect for the country’s traditions, a man who cannot be trusted. By implication, the whole Leave camp is similarly ignorant, similarly ill-informed, similarly driven by emotion rather than reason. We woz right all along: Brexit was a mistake, a deception, a moment of madness, and must be stopped.

And we are again a step further away from building consensus, from having a rational exchange of views and concerns, from healing the division in the country and pulling together the best of our nature and abilities to find a way forwards.

The picture that has emerged since the referendum is that Leave voters (and I’m sure the same is true of Remain, although I don’t know of any evidence) had much more nuanced, reasonable and well-informed opinions than the Leave campaign itself. People were motivated by very reasonable concerns and took time to inform themselves about the issue. The Leave campaign, for example, spoke of extra money for the NHS; this didn’t fool Remain voters – but it didn’t really fool Leave voters either.

Yet it isn’t the reasonable case for Leave, the case that had decent, rational, well-informed people across the country convinced, that Remainers heard. I’m pretty sure that the converse is also true; the appellation “Project Fear” doesn’t attach to my reasons for voting Remain, but might be an apt description of the way the Remain campaign was heard in the Leave camp. Instead, we heard a shifting chimera of misinformation and jingoism which hardly amounted to an argument, let alone one worth answering.

This latest spat over IDS is more of the same.

IDS could, of course, have kept his mouth shut. But equally, the Express had no particular journalistic duty to report his remarks. He isn’t a cabinet minister. He has no role in the Brexit process and presumably no particular influence in it. He is not an expert on the constitution nor, one would think, particularly influential as an MP. In short, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks in the great scheme of things.

So we must ask, why do the press keep pouring oil on the fire? If I wanted to play my hand here, I might argue that the right-wing interests behind the mainstream press have no interest in a reasoned conversation about Brexit lest the Leave camp come to their senses and change their minds. This would be unfair, however: I’m sure there are just as many cynical interests on the Remain side who are equally worried that, given a real conversation between real people, support for derailing the Brexit process would wane.

There is in fact a much simpler explanation: as one social media expert put it, angry people click. People buy papers that make them feel part of the drama. No-one wants to read tedious articles about the UK constitution. If IDS had said “Naturally we are frustrated by this delay but accept the lawful intervention of the court, in line with statute and legal precedent” it wouldn’t sell a single copy. In short, it is in the interests of the media to perpetuate the flame war, to reduce us to caricatures of our reasonable selves, and to have us hurl abuse rather than take one another seriously.

The public are caught in the middle of a flame war with media on all sides playing the trolls. Mainstream and independent media are, I think, equally complicit, but the real villains are people like you and me. Every click that’s preceded by a sigh and a “for goodness’ sake!” is another bone thrown to the trolls and another splash of oil on the fire.

This state of affairs is, I think, the natural product of a world in which there is more news media than we can possibly consume, but it serves powerful interests superbly well. Busy trading insults, we forget who the real villains are: rapacious businesses mistreating their employees, construction companies assuring that the housing ladder is missing the bottom few rungs, a banking sector that does little for the real economy, an incompetent government intent on dismantling social security and the welfare state, and a press controlled by too few people and too strapped for cash to do real journalism.

We have to find it in ourselves to rise above our simpler instincts. We must all be better men and women, and take pause before we bang our heads on the walls of our echo chambers. We shout at the press for being biased, for getting their facts wrong, for inflating and conflating the issues; but the truth is that we are the ones paying them to do so. There’s no harm in a little drama and no reason why one shouldn’t read things that confirm ones beliefs; but we have to stop shouting, and start listening, if we’re going to come together as a nation and find a way through the challenges ahead.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Oh, das Rheingold!

To the tune of “My Darling Clementine”

In a cavern, in a canyon
By the mighty river Rhein
Dwelt a race of dwarfs a-workin’
In a hot and fiery mine

One amongst ’em went a-swimming
And, enticed by maidens three
Tried to goose them and seduce them
But was spurned for all to see

He grew angry and frustrated
He was furious, he was sick
And the maids he then berated
And his name was Alberich

Thus rejected, and dejected,
He abjured all earthly love
And he stole the sisters’ gold there
Glistening in the sun above

Now that gold, it was enchanted
And such mighty power did bring
That the dwarf all love recanted
And he made a magic ring

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Oh das Rheingold is divine!
But we needed something shorter;
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Meanwhile Wotan was a-gloatin’
O’er his castle in the sky
Which he’d had two giants build him
For a promise and a lie

His wife Fricka had a sister
And he’d promised in his pride
That the ones who built the castle
Would then have her as their bride

Poor old Freia, ‘tdid dismay her
To be used as payment thus
And it made old Fricka bicker
With her spouse and curse and cuss

Wotan, calmer, tried to calm her
Then his plan he did reveal
He had asked the trickster Loge
To find a way to break the deal

Enter Loge: quite the rogue, a
God who’d been around the earth
To discover from the lover
What they deemed of equal worth

East and West and worst and best and
Rich and poor and young and old
There was but one thing that men would
Trade for love, and that was gold

He told Wotan, sugar-coatin’
This bad news with an appeal
That the gods restore the treasure
That old Alberich did steal

Loge shared it, Wotan heard it
And it came into his head
That the treasure of the maidens
Might be used to pay instead

Both the giants, they agreed it
Though of Freia they took hold
Giving Wotan until sunset
To deliver Alberich’s gold

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold,
Oh das Rheingold is on tour
We began the show at lunchtime
And we won’t be done by four

Follow fire and follow anvils
Follow smoke and follow grime
Go through mountain, cave and cavern
And you come to Nibelheim

There is Alberich, who with magic
Has enslaved the Nibelung all
And has forged a magic helmet
Making him invisi-ball

All the Nibelung work for Alberich
Mining gold for all they’re worth
And the treasure, ‘tis his pleasure
For he hopes to rule the earth

Enter Loge, enter Wotan
And they start to hatch their plot
They must get the gold from Alberich
Whether he agrees or not

Wotan chatters, Loge flatters
Of the helmet they enquire
And the dwarf boasts of his treasure
And the fear he can inspire

Loge praises Alberich’s helmet
But he’s playing now for keeps
So he asks how he’d prevent that
Someone steals it while he sleeps

Alberich quickly dons the helmet
(Such a terrible mistake)
And he shows how it allows him
To become a giant snake

“But could you be something smaller?”
Loge asks him in a goad
And to demonstrate his power
Alberich turns into a toad

In an instant Loge, Wotan
They both pounce upon the dwarf
Bind him up in chains and shackles
And then drag the poor dear orf.

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Oh the scoring is a hit
But it takes a dozen porters to get the
Anvils in the pit

Poor old Alberich, held to ransom
Must relinquish all his loot
For the gods they want the treasure
And the helmet charmed to boot

He surrenders all the Rheingold
But the ring he still retains
But the gods insist on adding it to
Their ill-gotten gains

Wotan rips it from his finger
Alberich swears and shouts; and worse
Lays on those who own the ring a
Truly terrifying curse

Our two giants come to Wotan
All their payment for to find
And the god he puts before them
All the gold that Alberich’s mined

So the question then arises
How much gold is Freia worth?
And the giants have the answer:
Make a pile of Freia’s girth

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Costs a fortune if it’s staged
But there’s usually concessions
For the students and unwaged

So the goddess Freia stands there
By this process much abused
And to satisfy the giants
Every piece of gold is used

But the giants find a chink through
Which the goddess might be scanned
And the only gold that’s left now
Is the ring on Wotan’s hand

They can’t stand it, and demand it’s
Added to their sordid fee
But the god, he starts a-shouting
“No, the ring belongs to me!”

Hark! a voice comes from the rafters
Telling Wotan to desist
And he scans the gods around him
Wondering what it is he’s missed

For ’twas Erda, and we heard her
Sing a story of the deep
For the waters hold her daughters
And the gold is theirs to keep

Good ol’ Wotan starts emotin’
‘bout the power of the ring
But our Erda cries blue murder
And berates the greedy king

Wotan hears her, and he fears her
So the ring he will release
His compliance leads the giants
To depart the gods in peace

But the giants start to quarrel
And to squabble and to scold
And the one he kills the other
And then leaves with all the gold

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Oh das Rheingold is a thrill
We’ve been here two solid hours
And the music’s playing still

Wotan’s happy with his castle
Having beaten all the odds
And he calls its name Valhalla
As a home for all the gods

Dear ol’ Freia, slightly greyer
Can return to tend her tree
Giving all her golden apples
And their immortality

Cousin Donner smiled upon ‘er
And a storm he quickly sowed
Giving thunder for a fanfare
And a rainbow for a road

See the gods, they cross the rainbow
Leaving Loge feeling vexed
He will not go to Valhalla
‘Cos he knows what happens next…

Oh das Rheingold, Oh das Rheingold
Take it from the horse’s mouth
How four dozen simple verses
Save you visiting Bayreuth!

Filed under: Humour

Some Thoughts on the Economics of Brexit

I have no special expertise in economics, but my reasons for voting Remain were economic ones, so I thought it was worth setting them out in the unlikely event that anyone cares about why I voted as I did.

Letting the Dust Settle

Once Article 50 is invoked, two processes begin. The EU decides on what basis they are willing to relate to us moving forward, and the ROW (Rest Of the World) starts positioning itself to do the same. The ROW can’t really decide what to do until the EU has spoken, but some groundwork can be done. At the end of these processes, we have a new trade agreement with the EU and new trade agreements with ROW.

How long will all this take? Trade agreements typically take about eight years to negotiate and there’s a general expectation that Article 50 takes two years to run. Let’s think optimistically, then: let’s say we wrap up Article 50 in one year, and the ROW negotiations go quickly and take just four years, and can start at the same time as Article 50, so we have a four year period of negotiation in total.

Pessimistically, after two years of Article 50 we still don’t have a deal we can live with so we hang in for another year, and the ins-and-outs of those negotiations constantly undermine our negotiations with ROW, so the clock on ROW negotiations doesn’t start until those three years are up, and then it takes the full eight years to negotiate new trade agreements. That gives a pessimistic figure of twelve years before the new set of agreements are in place.

Let’s split the difference and say eight years. No; let’s err on the side of optimism and say six. Now, once the new agreements are in place, businesses have to figure out how to take advantage of them before they really contribute to the economy. That’s probably going to take a year or two, but again, let’s be optimistic and say that this happens right away.

Investor Confidence

Over those six years, British businesses represent a greater investment risk than they did before the vote. An investment isn’t risky because you think it will fail; it’s risky because you don’t know if it will fail or not. Once Article 50 is served, investors will look at British businesses and think “I don’t know if this is a safe place to put my money, and I can’t know until these negotiations are concluded.” Now, I’m not saying that suddenly British businesses are going to become toxic – there will still be people happy to invest in them, but even in the optimistic case, British businesses will become a riskier proposition than they are at present, and remain a riskier proposition for six years.

Now, investors have a choice of where they put their money, and basically there are four relevant options: commodities (eg gold, oil); foreign businesses; British businesses; and government bonds. If British businesses become riskier, then the others, by comparison, become less risky, so money will move away from British businesses to the other three.

British businesses do not have to stand by helpless, of course. What they have to do to get money flowing back is to increase their profitability. The more the potential profits, the greater the risk investors will tolerate, so if you suddenly find you’re a riskier investment, the thing to do is to improve your margins.

How do businesses do this? The easiest thing to do is cut costs, because you have much more control over costs than income; and the easiest cost to cut is labour, because that’s the one you have most control over. So, you lay off staff and you cut wages; you defer recruitment; you demand that your staff work harder. In short, unemployment rises, wages fall, and working conditions get worse. Businesses can, of course, increase their prices; this leads to inflation, with everyone able to afford less. Living standards generally go down and the value of savings is eroded.

As unemployment rises, and wages fall, people have less free cash so the domestic market for goods and services starts to shrink. Businesses lose revenue, and the uncertainty about long term trading prospects makes it difficult for them to compensate for that by exploiting foreign markets (there are no new trade agreements in place at this point, remember). There is a risk, then, that we get caught in a vicious cycle, with rising unemployment leading to falling sales leading to rising unemployment, against a background of increasing prices.

Economic Growth

Thinking optimistically, we might be able to cause just enough unemployment to retain investment without the economy flat out collapsing. If we’re pessimistic, then even retaining a small amount of investment will pull us into recession. Let’s split the difference, and say that the economy flatlines – no recession, but no growth.

No; let’s be optimistic again. Over the last couple of years, UK GPD has grown by about 0.6% every quarter. Let’s assume that, instead of recession, or even flatlining, the reduction in investment just causes a bit of a slowdown and the economy continues to grow at half that rate. We’ve established a period of six years for the dust to settle, that is, before we see the benefit of new trade agreements. Over this time we would see the economy grow by 7%. This compares to it growing by 15% if we continued growing at our current rate. That is, Brexit halves our prospects of economic growth over the next six years, even thinking optimistically.

This is all crystal ball stuff, of course. But, it’s hard to see how there won’t be a reduction in investment in British businesses, given that they become a riskier proposition; and it’s hard to see how that doesn’t cause some reduction in economic growth; so the question is how much reduction it causes. Saying we avoid recession is pretty optimistic; saying we retain a reasonable level of growth, as I have done here, is even more so.


Let’s try to stay positive though; Brexit, we might say, wasn’t meant to be a quick fix. Let’s say this is a ten year project, so we need to allow ourselves four more years to recover that loss. We’ve had six years of higher unemployment, lower wages and worse working conditions, but let’s say we can stomach another four. The end of uncertainty, let’s say, restores investor confidence and money flows back into British businesses. Left to its own devices, GDP growth would return to 0.6% per quarter. If we’d had a steady 0.6% growth over those ten years, the economy would have grown by 27%. To get the same overall growth after six years of limited growth, GDP would have to grow by 1.05% per quarter for those four recovery years.

That growth would have to come from improved trade, ie, selling our goods abroad (because that’s the only positive economic change Brexit gives us). Again, let’s be optimistic and assume we can do this right away – businesses don’t have to spend time marketing, establishing their brand, setting up operations etc. At the end of those six years, GDP would be within a gnat’s of £3tn, compared to the £3.2tn we would expect without those six limited years. Over those four recovery years, we’d expect GDP to total just shy of £12tn, compared to £12.9tn without the limited growth. So, over those four years, increased trade has to pull in a little under £900bn, or about £222bn per year, to compensate for our loss.

Let’s again be optimistic and assume that our trade with Europe remains the same, so all we have to do is boost ROW exports by £222bn (we don’t have to make up any lost trade with Europe). In 2015, our exports to ROW totalled £171bn. In other words, to make up for lost growth, we would have to significantly more than double our exports to ROW. If this doesn’t seem unrealistic, try to consider what it means in terms of individual sales, of actual business people finding actual customers. Imagine you’re a salesperson, and your boss comes to you and says “I need you to sell more than twice as much as you sold last year, and all your additional sales have to come from outside Europe.” With the best will in the world, how do you rise to that challenge?

So, thinking optimistically, with everything going smoothly and no catastrophes, we are looking at six years of increased unemployment, lower wages and worsened working conditions, and even in ten years, we will still be suffering the loss. We’re not talking the end of civilisation here; I don’t expect to see Westminster Bridge in flames or the Four Horsemen galloping across it. But even in the best case, the worst off in this country are going to be even worse off than they are now, for at least ten years. That seems an awfully high price to pay for any other benefits Brexit might bring us.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Beating the EU Bogeyman

When a child tells us they can’t sleep because they are afraid of the bogeyman, it is tempting to hear “blah blah blah bogeyman” and launch into a long explanation about how the bogeyman isn’t real. This, of course, accomplishes nothing, because what we really need to hear is “I’m afraid”: afraid of the terror of my nightmares, afraid of the wild animals which might lurk in the darkness at the end of the bed, afraid that when I wake up, you won’t be here. Only when we hear this, and take it seriously, can we make the bogeyman disappear.

The debate on EU membership has focused on three issues: cost, immigration, and sovereignty. For remainers, these are non-issues: the cost is just a membership fee for a club which brings many benefits; immigration is a way to add human capital to an economy which isn’t always successful at producing it locally; and there are sufficient constitutional safeguards in place to mean we still have effective control of our own laws. The assumption, then, is that leavers just don’t understand the facts (a view reinforced by the distortion of facts by leave leaders) and that if things were just explained properly, leavers would change their minds. The bogeyman isn’t real.

This, of course, accomplishes nothing. What we need to hear in “I’m afraid of immigration” is not “blah blah blah immigration” but, of course, “I’m afraid.” Afraid I will lose my job or remain unemployed; that my children will spend their lives chasing one zero-hour contract after another; afraid that the world is becoming a place I don’t understand, and cannot navigate; afraid that the people who make the laws that govern me don’t know what matters to me, don’t have my interests at heart, and hide behind so much bureaucracy that I have no way to hold them to account.

These fears are quite understandable. While levels of employment are high, the terms of employment are, for many people, increasingly unfavourable: Mike Ashley is the tip of the iceberg in a world where people who rely on tips to make ends meet see their employers take a cut out of them. Equality legislation has created a fairer society but an unfamiliar one (even though I’ve been campaigning for LGBT rights since my teens, I still get disorientated when my gay friends talk about their children). Technology has connected people in new ways, but by that very process has created new modes of exclusion. The right’s inability to distinguish racism from nationalism has made us queasy at the thought of taking pride a national identity, and the papers read by the people who run the country spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of living in another one.

This isn’t to say that every leaver is motivated by ill-targeted anxiety; there are those for whom there are clear and well-reasoned arguments for leaving, but they are not typical. The success of UKIP at the last election should have made it clear that there was a significant proportion of the population whose concerns were not being addressed by the mainstream parties. The mainstream parties – giddy with an unanticipated success on one side, torn apart by the reality of defeat on the other – ignored this. Thinking of Farage as a rabble-rouser implicitly characterises his supporters as rabble: people, perhaps, to be brought around by a superior rhetoric (the bogeyman isn’t real) but not people whose needs, and values, and fears had to be taken seriously. Not merely an oversight, but an arrogant one, and one for which the country may pay the price in a few days.

It is hard to know how these fears may be put to rest, but in the time that remains between now and the referendum, there is perhaps the chance to listen to them, not at the institutional level, to be sure, but at the personal one. There is a slim opportunity for remainers to reach out to the leavers they know and try at least to take them seriously, not in blaming the EU for their worries, but in what those worries really are, and what can really be done about them. The bogeyman may or may not be real, but the anxiety is both real and well-founded, and we owe it to our future to take it seriously.


Filed under: Politics

That Birthday Dinner Party in Full

Rose Biscuits

These, like many of the evening’s dishes, were obtained from the Good Food Network. GFN have lots of good stuff and are great to deal with – it’s well worth checking out their site.

Watercress Soup with Rosemary Sourdough and Homemade Butter

The soup was broadly based on this recipe but I used about half the quantity of peas, potato and onion and omitted the cream. Crucially, instead of vegetable stock I used the stock from poaching two ham hocks on a previous occasion.

The bread was sourdough made by my usual method, adding two teaspoons of rosemary. TBH I don’t think the rosemary added much but double the quantity might have made a more definite impression.

I made the butter using guidance from this article. I don’t own butter bats so had to wash and dry the butter by hand. This was an absolute nightmare; I think butter is one of those things best made in a factory, unless you happen to have a source of particularly good cream.

Beech Smoked Mackerel

This was another acquisition from GFN. The salad was just a mixed leaf salad, dressed in the oil from the mackerel mixed with a little tomato puree.

Goat’s Cheese and Walnut Tart with Avocado and Lime Caviar

The pastry for this was a high-fat shortcrust pastry, using 2:1.2 flour to fat, with the fat made up of 3:1 butter to lard. I blended everything in a food processor and added 1 egg yolk (for about 130g flour) and enough water to just bring it together as a dough. I’ve been experimenting with pastry recently, including using the traditional French “fraiser” technique, and I have to say the dough I got using the food processor was just as good.

I lined the tart cases with the pastry and left them in the fridge for an hour before trimming them and baking them blind for 10 minutes at 200C.

The lower layer of the filling was a crème patisserie made with 25g flour, 2 egg yolks, 250ml milk and 100g of ground walnut, seasoned with a little salt and pepper (and, of course, no sugar). I would have used 4 egg yolks but ran out of eggs!

The upper layer was goat’s cheese blended with just enough cream to make it flexible enough to pipe using a piping bag, and a little (1 part in 20, roughly) parmesan for a bit more flavour.

The tarts were baked for about 20 minutes at 200C, until the cheese browned.

The avocados were just ripe; I didn’t do anything other than peel and slice them.

To make the lime caviar, I put a bottle of vegetable oil in the freezer for a couple of hours. Then, I mixed 80ml of lime juice with 1tsp of glucose and 1g agar-agar, and brought the mixture to the boil. I let this cool for about 10 minutes, then filled a tall half-litre glass with the oil and used a pipette to drop droplets of the lime juice mixture into it.

This process is very sensitive to the temperature of the oil and the size of the droplets. If the oil is too cold, the droplets don’t sink; if it’s too warm, they don’t solidify properly and stick together at the bottom of the glass. If the droplets are too small, they don’t sink; if they are too big, they don’t solidify properly on the inside so they don’t stick but are prone to bursting. If you have problems with the droplets sinking, a little nudge with the back of the pipette will usually get them moving.

This is really a matter of trial and error, but on the plus side, if the lime mixture solidifies while you’re buggering about, gentle reheating will bring it back to a liquid state. Also, if you’ve got the lime mixture right, it should solidify when you let it reach room temperature (because that’s essentially what you want the droplets to do).

The droplets will hold in the oil for a few hours (if need be). After this, tip the mixture into a sieve and gently rinse the caviar with cold water. You should find that the individual “pearls” will separate reasonably well, but too much poking around or exposure to water might reduce the lot to a limey slush.

Tarelli Biscuits with Chilli Garlic

These were just two acquisitions from GFN served together.

Salmon with Pesto and Peccorino with Polenta

This was a Delia recipe. The polenta was made with 1L water and 300g cornmeal, 0.5tsp salt and a little garlic olive oil. I find it easiest to make polenta by putting the cornmeal in the pan with the salt and adding cold water; this means no lumps form. I then bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly once it gets above about 40C. Once it thickens, I keep it at a medium temperature for five minutes, stirring constantly. This takes a lot of effort, as the mixture is very stiff, but it gives a good result if you’re after something which will set and stay set when reheated.

The cooked polenta was allowed to set in a baking dish then covered in garlic olive oil and baked at 200C for about 30 minutes.

Figs in Chocolate

Another GFN purchase

Violet Ice Cream with Crème de Banane

There is some consensus that this was a bit of a triumph, but the recipe is actually very simple. The ice-cream was made with 500ml custard (3 eggs, 400ml milk, 100ml cream, 2tsp cornflour) and 200ml Moulin de Valdonne Violette Sirop, available from French Click. I also added 4g of ice cream stabiliser which gives a smoother, softer ice cream.

The violet cordial is a beautiful intense purple, and has the look (when diluted in water) of particularly attractive stained glass. I was hoping this would carry through to the ice-cream, but this instead turned out a sort of baby blue / aquamarine.

I served each individual ice cream bombe with a couple of teaspoons of crème de banane and some crystallised violet petals to give a little crunch without adding the saltiness of a biscuit.

Filed under: Uncategorized

My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

My links