Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Bees, and independence

About ten years ago, when the Scottish National Party was still in opposition (and I was still an active member), I confronted Nicola Sturgeon after a party meeting and told her that if I heard her say 'the minister must resign' just one more time, I'd tear up my membership card and leave the party. We've heard very little of that refrain from the party since; not, I suspect, so much because of what I said (although I hope it helped), as because for a good part of that time the party has been in power.

Don't get me wrong: I still want independence. It's unfinished business. And I honestly think it will make the world (and Scotland) a better place. I still work for it. I still campaign for it. But it isn't, for me, the most important issue on the the political agenda now, by a long way. The most important issue on the political agenda has to be the preservation of the planet as a viable habitat for humans into the future.

That is very challenged at the moment. It's challenged first and foremost by global warming, and the most important contributor to global warming is burning fossil fuels, which makes all the arguments about whose is the oil under the north sea a bit moot. It would be better for all of us if the oil stayed where it belongs, under the north sea, and the carbon it represents was never returned to circulation. But another very significant challenge is ecocide, the accelerating destruction of major parts of the ecosystem which supports all life on this planet. And one of the key elements of ecocide is the genocide of the bees.

Why bees matter

During the middle ages, and on through the early modern period until the voyages of Captain Cook, sailors on long voyages commonly died of scurvy. Scurvy is a particularly horrible way to die. Your joints and bones hurt. Your teeth fall out. You die slowly in fever, with jaundice, nerve damage and a range of other symptoms. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, and vitamin C is produced primarily in flowering plants. Thiamin (vitamin B1) is also essential to human life, and is also produced primarily in flowering plants.

Bees pollinate flowering plants. They aren't the only pollinators of flowering plants, of course, but they're by far the most common and effective. For the majority of species of flowering plant they are effectively the only pollinators, because most other pollinators are specialists which concentrate on only small groups of species. Furthermore, of course, many of the same factors which are causing the collapse of the bee population are also causing other pollinator populations to decline.

Flowering plants provide us with fruit, and if they aren't pollinated, they don't fruit. If they don't fruit, of course, they also don't set seed, and while a number of food plants can be propagated vegetatively (i.e. without seeds) the vast majority can't. There are two special cases among plants commonly eaten by humans. Peas and beans very largely self-pollinate, and don't need pollinators; figs are pollinated by a specialist species of wasp. For the rest, we depend on bees. If bees go extinct, the flowering plants mostly go extinct within one generation, and with them, the species (including homo sapiens) which depend on them for food.

Yes, gentle reader. You. You and your children. Without vitamin C, you die. Horribly. This matters.

The role of neonicotinoids

Bees are dying. That isn't controversial. At the rate at which they are dying, they will be extinct in only a few decades. There are many factors which are well understood which contribute to the death of bees; one is the Varroa mite. But another that certainly contributes is the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids are neuropathic - they work by causing brain damage in the species they affect. They affect almost all insect species, including species which predate on pest species; but, in particular, they affect bee species. Bees affected by neonicotinoids suffer brain damage and lose the ability to communicate and to navigate. They also die. Neonicotinoids are typically used to treat seeds before planting, and persist in the soil for a significant period (years) after the treated crop was planted, affecting other plants growing in the same soil and the insects that pollinate them.

The role of Richard Lochhead MSP

Richard Lochhead is Scotland's minister for Rural Affairs and Environment. In theory, under the devolution settlement, he actually has no role in this, because the issue of licensing of pesticides is something the UK negotiates at a UK level with the rest of the EU. So he could have sat on his hands and stayed schtum. He should, of course, have protested vigorously against the UK government's intention to vote against the ban on neonicotinoids. That was in Scotland's - and the world's - vital interests. But he did neither of these things. He chose to cave in to the demands of the agrochemical lobby, against Scotland's interests, and support the UK government.

Let's be clear about this: it wasn't Scottish industry he was supporting. There is no major Scottish manufacturer of these toxins. They are made principally by Bayer, a German company - and Germany (which has already unilaterally imposed restrictions on neonicotinoids) voted to ban them. So a Scottish National Party minister backed a German company against the Scottish people. I'm not alleging he's personally corrupt - I'm not saying he was bought and sold for German gold - but this was at best a profound error of judgement.

But - we won the vote, didn't we?

Despite Richard Lochhead, the EU did decide to ban neonicotinoids. Temporarily. For two years. Two years during which, because the stuff is persistent in the soil, it still won't be possible to do any conclusive science because the whole environment will still be saturated with neonicotinoids. And so, in two years time, the same lobbyists with the same grubby money will still be whispering in Richard Lochhead's ear (if he still holds the Rural Affairs brief), still saying that it isn't 'conclusively proven' that neonicotinoids are 'the cause' of the catastrophic decline in bees. Nobody said they were the cause. They're a cause, in a multi-factorial problem, and they're a cause we can affect.

This fight is not won. It will come back in two years time. And meantime, the stuff is still in the soil, still contributing to the decline of bees. We haven't won anything. Yet.

If independence changes nothing, it's not worth having

Independence, in the modern world, is a limited concept. Much of what any nation does is constrained by its relationships and agreements. And, as I've said above, independence is not the most important political issue facing us today. Independence isn't good for its own sake. It's good if it helps us create a better Scotland and a better world. A more liberal, equal, self confident Scotland; a more peaceful, secure world. A world with a future. A world, specifically, with food for the future - with flowering plants - with bees.

But what the SNP has been telling us these past few years is that if we vote for independence, nothing will change. We'll keep the monarchy. We'll keep the pound. We'll stay in NATO...

And now this.

We're used to Westminster politicians doing the bidding of well-funded lobbyists; we're used to the sleazy world of not-quite-blatant corruption they inhabit. We know that part of the reason that the English NHS is being sold off to the private sector is because (mainly American) health companies donated largely to the Tory party. We know that part of the reason the government bailed out the banks with a trillion pounds of our money (which, gentle reader, includes fifteen thousand pounds of your money) is that the financial sector has been exceedingly generous benefactors of both main Westminster parties.

The SNP need to wake up and smell the coffee. Without activists, we won't win the referendum. Without activists, they won't win the next Holyrood election. If all they can offer activists is the same old same old - same old monarchy, same old NATO, same old kow-towing to big business - why the HELL should we waste our energy working to win these things?

The minister must resign

I don't, any longer, have a party card to tear up. The relentless surge towards the 'central ground' which the party has been pursuing over the past decade left me behind years ago. I am, like most activists, of the left. But I urge all those of you who do still have party cards to tear them up, and to write to Richard Lochhead explaining why. And for those of us who aren't party members, but are working on the referendum campaign, we need to work through Radical Indpendence and the National Collective to push the idea of a Scotland that dares to be different.

The Scottish National Party has to show us it understands this. Richard Lochhead needs to show us he knows he was - badly - wrong. He clearly does not have the judgement, the clarity of vision, the understanding of the issues to hold a rural affairs brief.

The minister must resign.


Sunday, 28 April 2013

A rant concerning bees and poison

This is the text of an email I have just sent to Richard Lochhead MSP (Richard.Lochhead.msp@scottish.parliament.uk), the current Minister for Rural Affairs. I very strongly urge you to write to him, too. I strongly urge you not to copy my text, not least because my text is extremely intemperate, but also because the more different messages he gets from different people the more persuasive it will be.

Standingstone Farm,
Auchencairn,
DG7 1RF

Dear Richard Lochhead

I was shocked and angered to see on the BBC website today that you are backing the interests of foreign pesticide manufacturers over the vital interests of Scottish farmers.

Without bees, there will be no neeps with your haggis; no kale, either. There will be no raspberries to serve afterwards. There will be no rapeseed oil to fry your mars bar. Without bees, we shall have no plums, sour or otherwise. We shall have no apples. There will be no heather on the hills. No clover will fix the nitrogen in our pastures, no wild flowers will bloom in our meadows.

To put all that at risk to save two years of poison-peddlers profits is shameful, contemptible, unworthy of you and of this nation.

I have worked for the SNP at every election these past forty years. Just yesterday, I was on the street campaigning for Yes Scotland. But you make me wonder why I bothered. What is the point in seeking independence for this nation if you will sell our interests to foreign agribusiness at the drop of a hat? Independence is worth having if - and only if - it makes a change. You seem determined to persuade me that it will not.

Shame on you.

Simon Brooke

Monday, 22 April 2013

Harem: Notes and clarifications


Harem is fiction, but it's fiction based in the real world. However, it's a real world slightly modified.

In part seven, Fiona says to the American journalist that 'there is no road' from Seyðisfjorður to Loðmundarfjorður. In the book, she's deliberately lying; in the real world, she's right. There is no road, and, furthermore, if there were a road, although she's right that it's only eight miles, it would be a tough ride on a bike with a wean on the back - there's a high (and steep) ridge to cross. I do not know whether there are really hot springs in Loðmundarfjorður, but it isn't very likely - it's quite a long way from current volcanic activity. The Kárahnjúkar dam, and the aluminium smelter at Reyðarfjörður it was built to serve, are real, and the controversy over their building was real and painful in Iceland. Indeed, all the places I describe in Iceland, with the exception of the house at Loðmundarfjorður and the road to it, are real.

Blackwater tarn, and the house on it, do not exist. If they did exist, they would be somewhere near the hamlet of Holm, above Holmfirth in West Yorkshire. The unnamed village in which Jane Wilkinson lives (end of Part Two) is entirely imaginary.

The city in which most of the action takes place, and where Þórr Goðursson plays football for 'United', is consciously based on Manchester, and that's partly made explicit in that Tracey Culverton works for Greater Manchester Police; you may think of the city as Manchester if that helps you. It does, after all, have an iconic town hall. Barcelona, where the Harem later relocates, is clearly a real city (with a real football club). But the roundabout where Fiona meets Kate, the cafe where she meets Eleanor, the office where she works, the hospital in which Kate and Eleanor work, are not based on any real places. The Edinburgh Evening News, on which Fiona had her first job, and The Scotsman, on which her then-husband worked, are both real newspapers, and Leith Walk in Edinburgh, where their flat had been, is a real place. The Examiner, a left-leaning broadsheet Sunday newspaper with supplements, is clearly more like the Observer than the Sunday Times.

As a work of fiction, the characters are all imaginary, although one or two real people get mentions (Graeme Obree, for example, whose photograph Þórr has on his wall, is a real person). There are a number of real world professional footballers who hail from Iceland, but Þórr is not based on any of them. Indeed, I know almost nothing about them; I know almost nothing about football. I've never in my life been to any football game. I hope this isn't too obvious from the text. I wanted to place a young man in a culture foreign to him and far from his home, and Iceland is a place for which I have strong affection.

Harem: Genesis

On the 25th November 2005, the footballer George Best died. Of course I was vaguely aware of who he was; he'd been, in the real sense of the word, a celebrity for most of my life. But I knew only the grossest outline of his career. After his death, I read a long obituary - possibly in the Observer - and was interested enough to later watch a television documentary about his life. It struck me as extraordinarily sad that a young man of such talent had been so overwhelmed by sudden wealth and the sudden sexual availability of women that it had essentially destroyed his life. It started a train of thought running, about how a young man, far from home, would cope well with those pressures.

That's one of the roots of my novel Harem, and it's the root which actually started me writing. But it's not the only root, and arguably not the main one.

I was brought up a Quaker and a pacifist. The problem of conflict in society was something that interested me as a young man: what it's functions and evolutionary drivers were, and how, in a civilised society, we manage and control it. I was interested by a paper by Johan Galtung of the University of Lund on 'Entropy and the General Theory of Peace'. In this paper, Galtung argued that messier and more complex interrelationships between groups and nations led to more frequent, lower level, more easily resolved conflicts, and that by contrast simpler, more clear cut, more structured interrelationships - such as the then current stand-off between the NATO and Warsaw Pact powers - would lead to fewer but much more intense, destructive and hard to resolve conflicts.

I was also interested at the same time in what I saw (and still see) as the problem with the nuclear family: one single relationship actually cannot, I believe, carry all the emotional burdens that adults from time to time need support with, and so as we retreat more and more into our pair-bonded couple relationships, the rate of relationship breakdown actually increases. And relationship breakdown, when children are involved, is inevitably damaging, I believed then (and still do). So a social organisation which could provide a stable environment for children even if one relationship broke down would, I thought, be a good thing.

To investigate these related issues I set up a three year study in which I went and investigated conflict in a number of small intentional communities. My research hypothesis was that I would find a positive scaling of conflict intensity with social structure, and an inverse scaling of conflict frequency, in these small communities consistent with Galtung's social entropy hypothesis. The deal I did with the communities was that at the end of the study, they would get a copy of my report. They never did, because I felt that what I learned in one community might have been explosively divisive for that community, so I did not publish the result at all. My research hypothesis was not confirmed by the study, because of confounding factors I hadn't anticipated. One was an effect described by Benjamin Zablocki in a study of US communes as 'cathexis': the presence of a loved charismatic leader in a community sharply reduced the experience or expression of conflict. There is, on the small scale at least, a measurable social benefit in dictatorship.

The loved charismatic leader could be a spiritual leader, or, in Zablocki's study at least, a sexually dominant individual. It didn't seem to make much difference; where such a leader existed, groups were much more stable. And where such a leader didn't exist, competition between men for women - for sex - was a significant cause of conflict, and relationship breakdown, where it happened in communities, very frequently led to one or other partner being driven out of the group. There was one community I studied where this did not happen - where the community was able to accommodate a remarkable number of pair bond changes within the community. I very much respected them, but one of the features of that community was that the average age was considerably older than the norm.

Another confounding factor really surprised me: even in the liberal, well educated, idealistic communities I was studying, the oppression of women - as measured by their relative experience of conflict - shone out so brightly from the data that it very nearly obliterated everything else. That really made me think.

I went into this study believing that the optimal social structure was loosely structured collections of people within which couples could form and reform fairly fluidly. What I learned is that that doesn't work. What I learned is that men are a significant cause of conflict, and that given that one man can father children on many women, a viable community really doesn't need more than one. Which is to say, lads, that the vast majority of us are redundant; and, as I'm not particularly alpha or charismatic, that includes me.

It seemed to me at the end of my study - and now, twenty five years later it still does - that the optimum organisation of society for social harmony and for the care of children is the 'pride of lions' model I've outlined in the novel: a bonded group of women with strong links of affection and mutual dependence between them, with one man. The man doesn't have to be the leader, and in the novel I've tried to show that in fact he is not. The man is also, I believe (although the novel doesn't show this), essentially replaceable.

Novels are driven by conflict, which makes utopian fiction hard to write. The major conflict in this novel is the transfer of the effective alpha role from Kate to Fiona. I needed to show this not only to drive the plot but also to try to persuade you, the reader, that such a conflict, in such a group, would be survivable.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Average size of holdings

I posted yesterday about the exponential land tax, and that's raised some questions about how it would affect ordinary farms. So as background data, here is some information about the average size of holdings.

TerritoryAverage holding size (Ha)SourceNotes
USA181US Department of AgricultureQuoted as 449 acres
Czech Republic152.4European Commission
Scotland101Scottish Government2010 data
UK70.8European Commission2007 data
Denmark62.9European Commission
Germany55.8European Commission
Sweden43.1European Commission
Netherlands25.9European Commission
Norway21.6European Commission
Italy7.9European Commission


This broadly confirms my belief that the average size of holdings in Scotland is unusually large. My broader argument, of course, is that it is pathologically large, but this post is about data, not argument, so I won't expand on that here. The only country in the EU which currently has an average holding size larger than Scotland's is the Czech Republic, at 152.4 hectares (2010 figures, source European Commission). It's worth noting, however, that across the EU as a whole, the trend in holding size is upwards, and this is particularly true in eastern Europe; the average Czech holding size has doubled in the decade 2000-2010.


Friday, 19 April 2013

On the benefits of Exponential Land Tax


In my recent essay on land reform - written in haste for a consultation that was closing - I wrote briefly about the merits of an exponential land tax. The exponential land tax is a variant on a flat land tax which scales exponentially rather than linearly with the size of the holding.

I wrote:

"A variation on the flat land tax which I personally would prefer, but for which I do not believe it would be at present possible to build a democratic majority, would be the exponential land tax. Under this tax, a land owner would pay one penny on the first hectare of his holding, two pence on the second hectare, four pence on the third, eight on the fourth, and so on. This eminently reasonable scheme would see tax of about ten million pounds on the thirtieth hectare. As before, land on which tax was not paid would revert to common. Such a tax would drive rentier landowners and private sporting estates out of Scotland within a decade.

Obviously the starting point and scaling factor could be adjusted, but the principle that larger holdings should be taxed more seems to me socially beneficial."


Clearly, there is merit in the idea that large holdings should be taxed more heavily, pro-rata, than small holdings. This would have the effect of breaking up larger holdings and engaging more people on the land. Equally obviously, the exponent of two, described in the brief statement above, is too high (although it makes the principle of the system easy to understand).

Background

Scotland has some good productive agricultural land. I would not want any taxation scheme to deter positive economic agriculture on good land. But even on good land in Scotland, the minimal economic holding (by which I mean, not a holding which can necessarily provide sufficient financial income to support a family, but which can provide an income equivalent to at least the minimum wage for the hours taken to farm it - I don't see anything wrong with part-time farming) is about ten hectares. Anything smaller than that and you are essentially messing about (full disclosure: I have less than five hectares). It does not, in my opinion, make sense to have a deterrent tax on holdings less than one hundred hectares, and I know a lot of people would say that a larger holding size is desirable.

But, for me, part of the reason for introducing a land tax is precisely to take Scotland's marginal and vulnerable lands out of agriculture. Grazing sheep on steep hillsides just is not sensible and is not good use of land. Over only a few generations the land degrades into eroded wet desert, and the destruction of scrub and erosion of topsoil contributes not only to the despoliation of our hills but to the flooding in our valleys.

Equally, the extensive drainage which is going on now on wet land across Scotland is a real cost to our environment and our biodiversity. The green plovers and curlews which were distinctive creatures of this landscape in my youth are now largely gone, and though they are among the most obvious of our losses they're by no means the only ones. Food production is a good thing. More, it's essential, and will become more essential over time. We need productive agriculture in Scotland.

It doesn't entirely follow from that that we need capital intensive agriculture, with large inputs in fertiliser, feed, diesel fuel and drainage. Yes, intensive agriculture can produce more calories of high-value food per hectare, but only at the cost of more calories of both diesel and imported cereals, which could otherwise be used for human consumption. In short, I'm not persuaded that intensive agriculture produces a nett increase in food. This thought is relevant to the issue of holding size, since larger holdings are required to support the capital overheads of more intensive farming. Taxing to deter large land holdings will have the consequence of deterring more intensive agriculture, except perhaps on the very best land. It's important to be aware of this. As far as I'm concerned, that isn't an unintended consequence.

Calculation and possible values

So, holding that in mind, what are the sensible bounds between which an exponent for an exponential tax might be set? Recall, the tax payable on hectare N is N times the basic taxable amount c raised to the power e, where e is the exponent, so the total tax on the holding is

Σ1..n(cn)e

Suppose the exponent is 1.01, the basic taxable amount is £1; then the tax on a holding of one hectare is one pound and a penny; tax on twenty hectares is £22.23; and tax on 100 hectares is £172.18. This is, essentially, too low to have any realistic effect, and in fact, too low to be worth collecting. Tax on a thousand hectares would be only £21,131.34, which, while high, is not deterrant. At an exponent of 1.05, however, still with a c value of £1, tax on a twenty hectare holding is £34.71 while tax on a 100 hectare holding is £2740.52. This is tax worth collecting, but at the same time not unaffordable on a holding on productive land.

But for a thousand hectare holding, still on that same 1.0 constant and 1.05 exponent, the tax would be £150,000,000,000,000,000,000 - yes, that's right, 15 followed by 19 zeroes - more money than in the whole national economy. Large estates would simply vanish overnight - cease to exist. No large landowner could possibly afford to pay the tax, so the large estates would either be broken up into smaller holdings, or would revert to common. This is the desired consequence.

Obviously the government would from time to time fine tune the exponent, but values between 1.02 and 1.07 seem most reasonable to me. A constant of 1 seems to me simple, and the only reason to change it would be if the government wanted a higher starting point for the tax - which I would not see as desirable.

Collection

The exponential land tax would be very cheap and simple to collect. The land registry means that who owns how much land is unambiguous. Because the tax takes no account of improvements or of market value or of land quality, it is unambiguous how much tax should be paid. Finally, because in default of payment ownership of the land ceases and the land reverts to common, landowners who wished to maintain their holding would be highly motivated to ensure the proper tax was paid.

Avoiding avoidance

What large landowners, faced with this scheme, will do, of course, is to set up hundreds of separate limited companies each holding a small amount of land, and the scheme will not work unless this evasion is explicitly designed around. Therefore, two or more holdings which are found to have substantially the same beneficial owner will be counted for the purposes of the exponential land tax as the same holding. This must be so whether or not the holdings are contiguous; every beneficial owner must be taxed on the entirety of their holding. Where a land-owner, through anonymous overseas trusts or however, manages to evade tax for a number of years, the tax authorities must be empowered to levy back tax when the evasion is discovered. As the back tax on large holdings would bankrupt any entity on Earth, no-one is going to take the risk of doing this, so avoidance should not be very much of a problem.

Application

Local government in Scotland is horribly over-centralised. There is an enormous democratic deficit, and to address this we need to put large amounts of discretionary public money at the base of the pyramid: in the community councils. Therefore it seems to me that the beneficiaries of land tax should be the community councils. Such a transfer of taxation income to community councils and by implication away from the existing over-centralised councils (since I envisage that land tax would to some extent supplant the existing council tax) would require, obviously, some transfer of responsibilities and powers, but that should probably be the subject of a separate essay.

It's obvious that introducing an exponential land tax as outlined above would mean that some land simply became uneconomic to hold in private hands, so some land would revert to common. Common lands need to be managed locally, so once again the simple solution is to make community councils the authority responsible for managing common lands in their area. Some community councils might not feel competent, and some community councils might not wish to manage common lands, so there should be a state appointed common lands factor to whom community councils who wished so to do could delegate management of common lands in their area.

Conclusion

Exponential land tax would be an effective and simple to implement, and would rapidly change the pattern of land-holding in Scotland from one dominated by landed estates and very large commercial farms to one of small to medium holdings and common lands. It is my firm opinion that this would be a good thing.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Hegemony and madness: I rage!


[I wrote this in 2002, occasioned by the incarceration in mental hospital of a friend; I haven't published it before, but now I feel it may be useful to several people whom I know are presently going through periods of difficulty]

All of us are biased. All of us have our own demons, our history, our prejudices, our own understanding of the world; it is impossible for anyone, no matter how concerned, no matter how caring, no matter how professional, to truly act as advocate for another. Only the individual can speak for him or herself. And yet when an person is vulnerable, when their confidence is undermined, when they are going through difficult and unpleasant experiences, that person is not in the best condition to fight their own corner, to argue their own case. When a person is vulnerable, they may need an advocate, however imperfect, to argue their case. And when a person is vulnerable, they are most vulnerable to exploitation by would-be advocates who wish to argue another case.

So the best anyone can do when trying to present a case for another is to make their own biases, their own history, explicit: to make visible to everyone concerned where the advocate is coming from.

I have my own experience of mental hospitals and of mental health professionals. As individuals, those I have dealt with have been without exception admirable people, concerned, dedicated, caring, and professional. I had a very disturbed childhood which culminated in an eleven month incarceration in a psychiatric hospital; during my adult life I've had two serious episodes of disturbed and difficult behaviour which led me to accept out-patient psychiatric treatment. I have had a very fair opportunity to observe and assess psychiatry at close quarters.

And I have learned a very profound antipathy to its methods, its practice, and its ethics.

On the nature of psychiatric illness

Everyone, all the time, has some degree of stress, anxiety, fear and emotional turmoil. This is normal. It's normal for these things to fluctuate throughout one's life; it's normal to have bad times in one's life when they increase. As these things increase, of course, there comes a point where it is difficult for the individual to carry on the basic activities of normal life; as these things increase there comes a point where the individual's behaviour begins to disturb others. But there is no qualitative difference, no step-change, no break point along this continuum. There's no objective point at which one can say, by reference to an objective measurement, that this person is ill (although there may - will - come a point at which one says 'I can no longer cope with this person's behaviour').

Contrast this with those things we normally call illnesses. When I have a cold, I cough and sneeze and everyone can see this. When I have flu, my temperature fluctuates, and this can be measured using a thermometer. If I had anaemia, the proportion of red cells in my blood would fall, and they could be counted. If I had diabetes, the proportion of sugar in my urine would increase, and this could be demonstrated by chemical analysis. If I had cancer, there would be a hard lump of demonstrably abnormal tissue somewhere in my body, and it would be growing.

This isn't to deny, of course, that medical doctors use observation and judgement in their diagnoses, but nevertheless their discipline is primarily technical and objective. Contrast mental health professionals: they use no thermometers, no pressure cuffs, no stethoscopes; and it's natural that they do not, because they have no objective symptoms to measure.

Whereas the medical doctor is in some sense a scientist, or at least recognisably a technician, the psychiatric doctor is a priest, a magi, or a judge; his tools are observation, comparison, judgement and hegemony.

If I accept the judgement of a medical doctor that I have flu, it does not in any way affect the objective fact of whether or no there are actually active influenza virii in my body, and it does not in any way affect my cure. By contrast, if I accept the judgement of a psychiatric doctor that I am schizophrenic, then I am schizophrenic, and my chances of recovery are immediately and drastically diminished. Before, I was going through a bad time, and I knew I was going through a bad time, and I knew what I had to do was get my act together, sort my life out and get on with it. Now I am mad. My recovery is no longer within my own hands, no longer my own responsibility. I have an illness, which can only be cured by taking toxic drugs - tranquillisers which will damage my will, make me more docile, make me less able to assert myself and get my life back onto an even keel; and anti-psychotics which will gradually eat away at my brain's ability to function, and give me the shakes which will mark me out in the street as a madman. With every day that passes, full recovery to the person I was before becomes less and less possible, because the mental equipment to enable that recovery is being gradually eroded. Gradually I learn to be a sick person, a docile person, a grateful recipient of the essential medicines of the wise doctors. Gradually I learn no longer to have the ambition to be a full member of society, no longer to seek to take my part in its civic life.

The human brain is a curious organ, curiously self referential and recursive; if you can persuade it that it is sick, it is sick. Of course, persuading it that it is not ill is not sufficient to make it healthy, to reduce those levels of stress, anxiety, fear and emotional turmoil back to levels which are tolerable to the individual and to those around the individual: but it hands the responsibility of behaving normally back to the individual where it belongs. It returns autonomy.

Axiom: in a free society, the autonomy of a person is inalienable

In a free society, an underlying assumption - an axiom - is that individual members of the society are moral beings with responsibilities, duties, and rights, which they exercise autonomously as independent agents. That is what a 'free' society means, and is what distinguishes it from a tyranny.

So if human rights have any meaning in a free society, the most precious right - the most inalienable right - must be the right to autonomy. To live one's own life, make one's own decisions, make one's own mistakes, and live with the consequences.

Thesis: suicide is not the worst thing that can happen to a person

There's an unexamined assumption which underlies the medicalisation of society that the worst thing that can happen to a person is that they can die. Thus anyone who attempts suicide is necessarily acting irrationally. This assumption does not bear examination. No-one now believes in (or admits to believing in) an arbitrary, harsh or vengeful deity; society is divided between those who believe in a life after death supervised by a good, just and loving deity, and those who believe there is no deity and no life after death.

Lemma the first: supposing there is a deity

If someone finds life to be intolerable, and commits suicide deliberately, is it credible that a loving deity will condemn that person to further punishment? Such behaviour would clearly be unjust and unkind. So a loving deity (if there were one) could not do it. Suppose someone who does not on the whole find life intolerable commits suicide in a brief moment of despair, is it credible that a loving deity would impose eternal punishment for the unconsidered action of a moment? Such behaviour would - again - clearly be unjust and unkind. So a loving deity (if there were one) could not do it. So there can be no religious grounds for viewing suicide, in itself, as leading to further suffering.

Lemma the second: supposing there is no deity

If someone finds life intolerable, and commits suicide, then their experience ends. It ends completely, as though a light were switched off. They can experience no more suffering.

Thus by dilemma, the worst consequence for the individual of suicide is an end to suffering. For the people who surround the individual, of course, there is loss, grief, and possibly guilt, so suicide is not without consequence; but there are worse things. After all, for some people (Diane Pretty died today), life is intolerable.

What is all this about?

Two months ago, a friend of mine tried to kill herself. It was a spur of the moment action, but followed a period of several months during which she'd been getting progressively more anxious and less confident of her own ability to cope with her life. She's been incarcerated in a mental hospital ever since. She's a very important friend to me, because she's the person who principally helped me through my own most recent very difficult period, about eight years ago. It would be wrong to say we were close friends, but we are, I think, good friends.

One can never tell how close someone else's experience is to one's own. It's very easy to see analogies between what one understands of someone else's life and what one knows of one's own. I perceive that my friend's experience of the bad times in life are similar to my own, I feel that this was what enabled her to be so supportive to me, and I feel empathy for her; but I cannot tell whether she feels that my experience is similar to hers, and in her present vulnerable state that doesn't feel like something I can ask.

But I look at her condition, and how she is being treated - how her dignity is being assaulted, her autonomy denied, her will suppressed - and I rage. I rage. I rage inwardly, of course, because my rage is my problem and doesn't help her, because until she can present a meek, placid, docile face - until she can at least pretend to have clipped wings - she will not be let free. But inside, I rage.

'You can't leave until you accept you're ill'

From the point of view of the medical professional, this statement makes some sense. If you believe a person is chronically ill, and needs drug therapy to stabilise their condition, then clearly you believe that they should keep taking their drugs for their own good, and they won't do this unless they believe there is a valid reason to do this, because the drugs are toxic and have unpleasant 'side' effects. So that, unless they come within your mind set, accept your hegemony over their condition, they aren't safe to leave.

But compare this with two other forms of statement:

'You can't have parole unless you confess you're guilty'

This, of course, is a form of statement still used in the British penal system: in order to qualify for parole, prisoners must confess to the crime for which they've been imprisoned. Innocent people who maintain their innocence can't have parole.

'We won't stop torturing you until you confess your heresy and recant'

The famous inquisition standard. Very tough if you're not a heretic.

What these statements have in common is that the institution  requires the individual to accept the belief state of the institution, before the individual can be relieved of the treatment which is appropriate to that belief state. Why is this?

Because in each case, the treatment of the individual by the institution is unconscionable - impossible to reconcile with conscience - unless it is justified. To deprive a free individual of their autonomy, to hold them captive, to forcibly or coercively feed them toxic substances - all these things are utterly unacceptable behaviours unless you are in some sense doing it for their own good.

However, while is is arguably a matter of objective fact whether or not someone has committed a crime (even though the process of detection and justice may be flawed), it is not a matter of objective fact whether or not someone is mentally ill. It's a matter of subjective judgement; a matter, ultimately, of tyranny.

And this tyranny is very clear in the treatment of my friend. We go, together, to find the nurse who is 'in charge' of her 'care'. May she, she asks, come out for the afternoon with me a week hence? 'Perhaps' is the answer. 'If you're well enough'.

What does 'well enough' mean in this context? Does it mean 'if your temperature has fallen back to normal'? Does it mean 'if the bleeding has stopped'? Does it mean 'if your blood-sugar level has fallen to this value'?

No.

There are no objective measurements of 'madness'.

It means 'if we say so'. It is arbitrary tyranny at it's most naked and blatant. It can too easily mean 'if you're docile enough'; too easily mean 'if you accept our hegemony'.

But this tyranny is not merely evil in its own right. It's also, in the case of people who are going through difficult periods in their lives, desperately counter-productive. For many people - as for my friend - a major part of the stress which made her vulnerable in the first place was anxiety about being able to retain her independence, anxiety about being able to continue to earn a living. To recover, to become (from the viewpoint of the mental health professionals) 'well', she needs to recover her sense of mastery over her life, her sense of being in control of her destiny. In a simple word, her autonomy.

Yet imposing hegemony on her, denying her her freedom, denying her her autonomy over her own body serves to undermine, to erode these very things. To reduce her from a free, creative, capable member of society into a docile, pill-popping dependent. And the tragedy is that in the eyes of the mental health professionals, this is a positive outcome. It's a positive outcome because the individual, reduced to this dependent, tranquillised,  medicalised state, will stay alive. Set free, restored to her autonomy, allowed to take her own decisions, to take her own risks and make her own mistakes, she might yet freely choose to die.

Well, so she might. That's her inalienable right. To die is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. To be diminished, to be caged, to live with clipped wings, to be drugged into docility: these are worse things.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A letter from a Wicked Uncle

(this is mainly in reply to a blog post from my niece)

There are no conclusions. We live in a narrative arc of which we shall not live to see the end. I also am mad, but it does not matter. My goal - and, I suggest, yours also - should not be to cease to be mad, not be to be 'cured', but to live well and fruitfully as we are. To quote a famous prayer

Give me strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Yes, I do think the cause of the modern epidemic of mental illness is a sickness of society, not of individuals. I do think that those of us who manifest the symptoms of that illness are the canaries in the coal mine. You're right, of course, that for each of us, one of the seeds of our madness is childhood trauma - different childhood traumas, granted, with different impacts - but that doesn't invalidate my thesis. One can absorb just so many blows before a bone breaks, a blood vessel bursts, an organ shuts down, and equally the mind can accept just so many insults before it, in its own way, manifests injury. In a less sick society, would your childhood trauma have tipped you over into what the psychiatrists describe as 'mental illness'? Would mine?

I don't know. We can't know. But I suspect it would have been much less likely.

In any case, I don't think that doping myself into a condition in which I can tolerate society as it is is a solution which benefits anyone. But, I am not you. I have been able - I have been fortunate to be able -  largely to retreat from the world, to isolate myself to a high degree from the strains of our society. You cannot easily do that. You have to find your own way of living with the Black Dog, and it isn't for me to criticise your choices.

We spoke a lot yesterday about narratives, and memes; about narrative elements such as the king or magus - for example Myrddin, now usually known as Merlin, who was reputedly both - going mad and living wild in the forest for seven years. Tellingly, much the same story is told of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, almost a thousand years before him. About memes which repeat in many narratives. I have not consciously emulated Myrddin, that is not why I am here, but nevertheless my own narrative does in part repeat that meme. There is benefit for someone who is primarily a thinker in retreating from the world, in surrounding themselves with small physical tasks, with constrained possibilities; it helps one to slow down, to unwind, to separate the significant from the trivial. It also allows painful processes which exist below the layers of the conscious mind gradually to work themselves through.

Again, though, I have as a privilege the possibility of such a retreat, and you do not. Whether it would be good for you or not, you cannot be criticised for not taking an option you haven't been offered, and I'm not criticising. I'm also not pretending that I know that it would work for you. I don't.

But your distress at the sea of knowledge which you cannot navigate, which threatens to overwhelm you, is exactly the sort of distress which a retreat into simpler life, into simpler social interactions, into simpler tasks can address. No-one now can know the entirety of human knowledge. If that were ever possible, it was already ceasing to be possible by the fourth century BCE. Consequently, if one seeks to do something useful with knowledge, one must find a niche within knowledge in which one can do creative work.

We spoke yesterday about the software stack. Below the sort of software I write, there is a servlet container, a database engine, and some other essential daemons. These, I need to know how to command directly; I must know how to speak their languages, how to invoke them, how to address them. How to command them. But below those daemons are system libraries, and those I don't need to know much about. I need to trust them, as I need to trust the daemons. but I don't need to understand them. Below the system libraries is the operating system kernel. It is twenty years since I really understood what happens in the kernel. I don't need to. Again, it is sufficient that I trust. Below that again, the BIOS, and below that again, the microcode. All these layers are software; below the software stack are the hardware layers, which these days I really understand hardly at all.

I trust them. That is what matters. I understand the relationships between the intellectual artefacts on which my work sits, and I trust the competence and integrity of the people responsible for those artefacts, and that enables me to do useful work.

Software is a metaphor, of course. What is true of the software I write is just as true of my philosophical explorations. I build on ideas from Popper, from Kropotkin, from Feyerabend. They, in turn, built on ideas from further back in the history of philosophy. I have to understand, to examine, to question, to criticise the arguments of these people on whose my work is based, and in doing so I have to have at least some idea of the tree which stretches out beyond them. But if I trust those people on whom I found my argument, part of that trust is that I trust them to have examined those on whom they found theirs, and so on back.

So what I'm saying to you is that, in your studies, your task is simple. To find people who have produced useful work on which you can build. To establish whether you trust them. And once you've established that you do, treat them as your rocks, and build with confidence.

Your work - and mine - is something we can change. Have courage. Do it.

Your madness is, I suspect, something you cannot change - something which will be with you for the rest of your life. Find strength. Thole it. But, more than thole it, try to carry it gracefully, for your own sake and for the sake of those around you. That is certainly what I believe about my own madness, and how I attempt to bear it.

Madness is not easy. It's not fun. I wish that it could be taken away from you (and from me). But I have walked the path before you, and I am still walking. It is possible to live with it. It is possible to live well with it. Have hope. You can do this.

The Great Replumbing


You'll recall, if you've been reading this blog with any attention, that I built this house in a hurry, as protection from winter, at a time when I was broke and suffering significantly from depression, and with the intention that it should be a temporary dwelling while I sought planning permission for the house I really wanted to build.

There were things which were done poorly, partly because I was broke and partly because I wasn't anywhere near the top of my game. I salvaged a gas hob a caravan that was being demolished. It was free, and was a heck of a lot better than the camping stove I'd used in the summer palace, but it was partly broken and burned poorly, creating lots of soot. I couldn't work out how to get to the jets to clean them, and over time all my pans became hideously sooty. Over the past six months, I've become increasingly aware that the dirt it was producing was itself depressing me.

Then, the hot water system. The hot water system was put together in a hurry, and not well. I plumbed the hot cylinder directly into the thermosyphon circuit rather than using its indirect coil, largely because doing so used less copper pipe and copper pipe is expensive. This meant, of course, that iron sludge from the back boiler in the stove accumulated in the cylinder and stained the hot water, which again isn't perfect.

Furthermore, the water in the cylinder boiled if I tried to get the oven hot enough to cook in, so the amount of cooking I could do with the stove is limited - I could neither bake nor roast.

I'd intended to put the bath under the stairs, behind the back of the stove. Again it meant less plumbing, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn't want to put the bath directly against the clay-rendered walls because, of course, water has a rather disastrous effect on clay render. But in practice the inevitably dark corner of the house between the wall, the bath and the hot water tank became and remained a rather dirty dumping ground for all sorts of unwanted items, and that too left me less than cheered. Finaly, I'd made the structure which supported the water tank very quickly and not well out of unwanted left-over scraps of wood, and it looked a mess. It reminded me whenever I saw it of how rough I'd been when I made it.

Taken together, all these things mean that I'd never actually photographed that corner of the house, which is why there's no real 'before' picture in this post. And so many things in the house needed to change. One of the things I planned for this winter was what I called in my head 'the great replumbing'.

Firstly, I have panelled the rear corner of the house with match-boarding, on the back wall up to 'dado-rail height', on the north wall right up to the wallhead. This is a bit experimental. In theory you shouldn't have any structure joining the sill plate to the wall plate on a structural bale wall, because the bales should be allowed to compress naturally. However, the walls have been up eighteen months, and they have not compressed very much; furthermore I'm guessing that they've done most of the compressing they're ever going to do, at least until the house finally rots.

Secondly, I've made a new cabinet - properly, or, at least, very much better - to house the water cylinder; this one has a proper storage cupboard, with a door, under the cylinder, and an airing cupboard beside the cylinder.

 Then I bought a second hand gas hob unit off eBay, which arrived beautifully packaged. It doesn't exactly fit into the cabinet I made for the old one, but is good enough. It burns clean, is easy to maintain, and as an added bonus, has four rings instead of two.

I bought two radiators, one a heated towel rail, one a panel radiator as big as I could fit on the back wall. The objective of this was mainly to be able to pump heat out of the stove without boiling the water in the cylinder.

And finally, with help from Fred Coleman, I replumbed. The thermosyphon circuit now goes through the indirect coil in the cylinder, so the water in the hot taps is now clean. The central heating circuit is taken off thermosyphon circuit, bypassing the cylinder, to allow me to dump heat. An electric pump is designed to circulate water through the central heating circuit. The bath is moved into the back corner of the house, against the newly panelled walls.

And a lot of this has worked wonderfully. The house is so much cleaner! The former dumping ground is now definitely the most attractive, well finished part of the interior. With the central heating pump running, the house becomes very warm - warmer, even, than urban people keep their houses. The pump is quiet, and seems to use very little electricity. The new hob improves life enormously.

So what hasn't worked, or, at the moment, doesn't work?

I can't heat the hot water above tepid. For some reason, the water is preferring to circulate through the central heating circuit rather than through the coil. This is really critical, because for me long hot baths are essential to a good life. Also, the thermosyphon circuit still boils, if I run the stove too hot, so I still can't bake.

Obviously these problems are related. If I could get the hot water to heat, it would take heat out of the thermosyphon, which wouldn't boil nearly so easily, so I could run the stove hotter for longer. [Later: the problem proved to be an air-lock, and simply fixed. Now I can have hot baths again and bake. It's still possible to boil the water, however - one big radiator is not enough to dump all the heat my stove can produce]

The solution I'm considering is to fit a venturi tee to the return side of the thermosyphon circuit, where the central heating rejoins. This would mean that the pumped water in the central heating circuit would entrain water from the coil, effectively sucking hot water through it. However, as far as I can see it would still mean that the cylinder would only heat significantly when the pump was running, so I'm not convinced this is the optimum solution. What I want to do is heat the hot water preferentially  and then switch on the pump when the hot water reaches a pleasant bath temperature, in order to dump excess heat into warming the house.

However, the great replumbing has crystallised a thought which has been growing steadily in my mind for a year now. I like this house. I like it very much. I'm happy with it - contented with it. I don't actually want to build another.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Winter Palace as philosophical object


The first little pig built his house of straw, and so did I.

I've written previously about this house as structure and as politics. Now it's time to write about it as a philosophical statement, and as a philosophical statement, the fact that it is built of straw is significant.

It's not actually built from straw grown in my own field; it was meant to be, but as I have written earlier in 2011, due to heavy rain through the back end of the year, my barley crop failed and I was unable to harvest straw. So, actually, there are 'food miles' - litres of diesel consumed - in transporting straw. But not many.

Similarly, the timbers of my roof were not actually cut in my own wood. They could have been, but I have few trees which are yet big enough and in any case there would not have been time to season the timber. The roof lining is plywood from Finland, so more food miles - but it is at least spruce plywood, so the same species as most of my own trees. The floor planking is tropical hardwood, from Malaysia. But it was imported fifty or more years ago, to form the floor of a school in Glasgow; I have it second hand, literally recycled. Counted in terms of cost to the planet, my re-use of the floor planking seems to me to be better than free: carbon that would otherwise have been put back into the cycle is conserved out of cycle, for now. The bearers are of oak, but again it's re-used, second hand railway sleepers, and in any case I've personally planted thousands of oak trees - to use some oak seems to me justifiable. Apart from that, all the timber in this building is spruce and larch produced in Scotland. There are food miles, but not in the global scale of things many.

Furthermore, all of these materials - except the Malay hardwood - are local to this landscape. The render on the walls, of clay, is also local to this landscape. When I cease to maintain the building, when the roof starts to rot (as it will) and ceases to be watertight, when water gets into the straw and rots it too, the building will revert very quickly into compost - into fertile soil from which new trees will grow. Within fifty years, it will be gone completely, leaving no trace. The impact of this building on this landscape is extraordinarily light.

The stranger in this woodpile is, of course, glass. The front of the building has a lot of glass. The back window, also, obviously, has glass. Less obviously, both floor and roof are stuffed with glass fibre insulation. I would hope that when I'm gone someone will rob out those window units and re-use them somewhere else, but if they don't, glass is fundamentally only silica which is itself native to this landscape.

Still, I don't like the idea of leaving behind panes of glass which may break, become hidden in debris, and later cause injury to passing animals or people.

There's also copper - a small amount in electrical cables and a more significant amount in plumbing - but that is precious metal and one can be reasonably confident that that will be robbed out and re-used. My good enamelled steel bath is also an asset which I'm sure someone will re-use for something, even if it is only as a water trough for animals.

So yes, it isn't perfect. This is not the platonic eco-house. It would have been better had I used sheep-wool as insulation, and better still if I had come up with some more bio-degradable solution to glazing. But for all that, this house is light on the land; this house will leave little trace. And I'm proud of that.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Madness as symptom


OK, I know this is something of an obsession of mine, but that's OK. I'm mad, and mad people are allowed to have obsessions...

This morning on the radio yet another 'scientist' was interviewed about a theory he had of what's 'wrong' with mad people, and how you might 'cure' it. I get seriously pissed off about this trope.

What's wrong is, it's category error. It's missing the point. What's wrong with mad people is that there is nothing wrong with mad people. Granted it isn't comfortable being mad, granted we'd all of us very much rather not be mad. But there's nothing wrong with us. We do not have a disease. We are not a disease. We are a symptom. What's sick is society. We are people with a lower tolerance to stress - and with more dramatic abreactions to stress - than the norm. We're the canary in the mine shaft. We instrument the level of stress and disharmony in the societies in which we live.

Mass-prescribing anti-depressants and anti-psychotics does not solve any problem at all; it does not cure any disease at all. It's like prescribing cough-linctus to asbestos miners. Mass prescribing anti-depressants and anti-psychotics masks a symptom, and the consequence of symptoms being masked is that no-one gets round to curing the disease.

What's sick, is society. We are the symptom. Cure the disease, and the symptom will cure itself.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Bother, said Pooh

People who keep up with my news will be aware that three weeks ago, I very stupidly dug through my own electricity cable. I actually got it fixed last week, but we've had a fortnight of uncharacteristically calm weather; the wind has not blown, and consequently despite the repaired cable my battery bank has not recharged.

And consequently I have been being extremely parsimonious with electricity, because, essentially, I haven't had any.

And consequently I've been more or less off the net. While I was off the net, the node of Amazons cloud which hosted journeyman.cc died, and the image of journeyman.cc was lost.  Unfortunately, the backup was not complete. That was my fault, not Amazon's. I lost much more than just my blog, but my blog was one of the things that was lost. Of course, I had planned to transfer my blog here - to blogger - for some time, but I hadn't done it. I shall transfer all the stories which were in my backup of the database here shortly.

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