Sunday 19 June 2011

In praise of Digital Audio Broadcasting

Every once in a while, a revolutionary new technology comes along which is so much better than the technology it replaces that it immediately sweeps the old away and supplants it utterly. Digital Audio Broadcasting is a case in point - a technology which wholly eclipses the primitive and outdated Frequency Modulated VHF system.

Let's start with audio quality, which is, of course, what audio broadcasting is all about. Admittedly, when it has good reception, an antiquated FM radio has slightly better audio quality than DAB. But when it doesn't have good reception, the audio quality of FM degrades markedly. All radio systems suffer from time to time from poor reception and interference, of course, but DAB handles these in a far preferable manner: when DAB cannot provide an optimal listening experience, it cuts out entirely. After all, silence is golden, and who wants to listen, for example, to a weather forecast or a traffic report, or an important news story, with a degraded signal?

DAB values silence so highly, indeed, that it will use software glitches to sometimes introduce periods of silence into your listening even when reception is perfect - a truly wonderful innovation.

Then there is the matter of the time signal. For fifty years or so the BBC has broadcast the Greenwich time signal several times a day. FM radio, and its predecessors such as Long Wave, transmitted this signal virtually instantaneously, allowing people across the nation to set their watches to precisely the same time. Obviously, this meant that when you were late for an appointment, there was no excuse.

Fortunately DAB changes all that. DAB not only introduces a delay, critically it introduces an inconsistent delay. No two DAB radios will play the time signal at the same moment. No-one can say how much the time signal on a particular DAB set will be delayed. Consequently, everyone's watch is set to a slightly different time. No longer is anyone embarrassed to arrive late  for a meeting.

Again, FM receivers can typically pick up only a few stations, typically including local ones. For example, here in Scotland, FM provides only BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, and BBC Radio Scotland. By contrast, on DAB, many stations are available. For example, BBC Radio Scotland is available everywhere in the United Kingdom except Scotland - clearly a better service.

But finally, in these eco-sensitive times, we must come to the issue of energy efficiency. While an old-fashioned FM radio will run for only a few months - rarely as much as a year - on one set of batteries, a DAB radio will run for many hours, sometimes even into days. The consequences of this innovation for energy consumption and for toxic waste are little short of revolutionary.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Introducing the Winter Palace

I started this section of my blog developing ideas about a really ambitious home I wanted to build. I eventually came to the conclusion that that first design was either too expensive or, if done cheaply, too environmentally unfriendly. So I developed a second, simpler design which still had a lot of interesting features. It was always obvious that it was going to be hard getting either design past planning permission. It was also always obvious that while I might be able to live in a vestigial shelter in the woods in summer, that wasn't going to be possible in winter. So there had to be a plan B; a plan B that could be quickly and inexpensively implemented to provide cosy and weatherproof shelter for the winter, and that that plan B would have to be implemented if I didn't have planning permission by midsummer.

It's midsummer. I don't have planning permission. It's time for plan B.

I've been developing ideas for plan B for as long as I've been working on the croft house designs. The original idea was to build a tiny Tardis like structure, based on what I've learned from yacht cabins - the smallest possible space in which I could live and stay warm. Later, I considered a log cabin - which would be less than ten feet square - built in the space underneath the Summer Palace. Both of these are still possibilities, but about six weeks ago, I made an interesting discovery.

This farm is called Standingstone. It's part of the old monastic grange of Hazelfield, and Anglian name which means 'stony field'. The grange of Hazelfield stands within the vicinity of the village of Auchencairn, a Gaelic which means 'stony field'. You might be excused for noticing a thread here. The fields hereabouts, while fertile, are extremely stony; the whole valley is the terminal moraine of a long-vanished glacier. So for three thousand years people hereabouts have been clearing the larger stones off the ploughland, and dumping them in land which isn't fit for ploughing.

And one of the places people have been dumping stones for generations is in my wood; that's partly, I suspect, why there is a wood here now. It was always wet land - probably a willow carr - on the banks of the burn, not fit for ploughing. So my predecessors have dumped stones in many places through the wood; but in one particular place on the eastern edge of the wood I found a huge pile, some seven metres long, five wide and one high, with an almost flat top. It's a perfect, self draining, foundation for a small building. I've spent some time tidying it up and adding to it - about seven cubic metres of stone we've picked off the ploughland this year.

Given a foundation like that it's obvious that a bigger, more comfortable cabin can be built - still in the wood, still discreetly sheltered, but neither tardis-like nor minimalistic. So I plan to make use of that seven by five metre platform to build a seven by five metre dwelling. I plan straw bale walls, possibly using the straw from my own barley. I plan a wooden floor and roof largely using wood from my own trees. The straw bale walls will be half a metre thick, so the internal space I'll be left with is smaller - about four metres (13 feet) by six and a half (21 feet). Of that, the western two metres will have a sleeping loft over a small kitchen and a small bathroom. Almost in the centre - between the kitchen and the living area, beside the ladder up to the sleeping loft - will be a wood fired cooker with a back boiler to heat water. The remaining four metre square area will be a multi-use eating, working, and entertaining space - a living room, in fact. The whole east end of the building will be mostly glass, facing out onto my own meadow.

So, this is nothing like as ambitious or interesting a structure as either 'sousterran' or 'singlespace' designs. I still intend to try to get planning permission for something more interesting (and a bit larger). But the cabin in the woods means I'm no longer under time pressure; planning permission is off the critical path.

One question remains: if I can't get planning permission for what I really want to build, how can I get planning permission for the Winter Palace? The answer is I can't, and I'm not even going to seek it. The winter palace won't be visible from anyone else's property. As a structure, it's justifiable either as a tool store or as a wood shed, neither of which I'd need planning permission for. If in the end the planners require me to pull it down, I can disassemble it with small loss.

As I've said, I've already started to level the foundation. Alex and I will start to mill timber for the winter palace in the next couple of weeks. I plan to have a 'barn raising' party to put it up, which will be either on the weekend of 20th-21st August or the 17th-18th September, depending partly on when I can get straw. Pencil those dates in your diary now!

Saturday 11 June 2011

On war, and elites

Wars are not won by elites. Or, to be more precise, twentieth century wars were not won by elites. From the middle of the bronze age to the end of the medieval period wars were, more or less, won by elites - for very long periods an elite warrior, equipped with the best armour and the best weapons of the time, was able to slaughter the peasantry almost with impunity. That's why the epic battles of both Scotland's and England's national myths - Bannockburn and Agincourt respectively - were each in their time so shocking: largely elite armies were defeated - at Bannockburn by careful choice of terrain, at Agincourt by the use of the most basic of peasant weapons - by largely non-elite forces. These battles were, in their time, exceptional. Until the development of the reliable portable firearm the elite warrior was perceived as invincible. And all too many of the elite families who established their power with a destrier and a suit of plate armour still have it.

I've always thought it was interesting how the enclosures - the great land seizure by the elites from the commons - occurred just in the period where the elites no longer had anything to offer the peasantry. Formerly, they had offered protection - from other robber barons like themselves - but after the restoration of the monarchy in the United Kingdom they could no longer offer this. Armies such as Cromwell's New Model Army had established once and for all that a disciplined mass of inexpensively equipped commoners could beat any elite force. But in that historical moment of the restoration, with the nations of Britain war weary from fifty years of conflict, the elites - largely those same elites of destrier and plate - still had residual power and prestige, and they used it to steal the land.

But that's not, as Arlo Guthrie famously put it, what I came to talk about. I came to talk about the draft.

The First World War - even more than the Crimean and Boer wars which preceded it, but similarly to the American Civil War - was a war of the masses: fought by the commons, suffered by the commons... but very largely fought in the interests of the elites. For the first time, the elites needed the commons. In order to win the war, the elites had to engage the commons. The Russian elites failed to do this, and they suffered revolution. The Western elites took a different tack: they offered bribes. In the United Kingdom, homes fit for heroes. More democracy. They offered, but in the economic chaos of the nineteen twenties and thirties, they largely failed to deliver. In particular, though the economic suffering of the thirties hurt everyone, it hit the commons far harder than it hit the elites.

Yet only two decades later the elites needed to engage the commons in another mass war. Half hearted promises no longer cut it. The elites had to demonstrate that they were sharing the suffering...

Where does this essay come from? It comes from a short but pungent pamphlet written by a hero of the French resistance, Stephane Hessel, 'Indignez-Vous', translated into English as 'Time for Outrage'; I commend it to you, gentle reader. Go out and buy a copy. It comes from a column I read recently in the Guardian, about the state of the United States economy, which I foolishly failed to bookmark and now can't find. Both pieces make exactly the same point: in the desperate economic conditions of the end of the Second World War, in times of chaos and dislocation, the west could afford health care for all. We could afford homes for all. We could afford pensions for all. Now that we are, collectively, far richer, we can't. And the reason was this: in the aftermath of the Second World War, across the west, the elites paid - both as individuals through their income taxes and death duties, and corporately through taxes on businesses - a share of taxation which reflected their privilege. They paid their share because they needed to. They paid their share because they needed us.

They no longer believe they do.

Modern war is fought with precision munitions, with drone aircraft, increasingly with robots. Hugely capital intensive weapons; but they relieve the elites of the need to deploy a mass army. Of course, these capital intensive weapons are paid for by the taxes on the poor, but the poor cannot escape taxes. Of course, large profits can be made from the manufacture and sale of such weapons. Of course, these capital intensive forces are good at 'shock and awe', much less good at holding territory - which is why the war in Afghanistan is currently being lost and why the war in Iraq probably will ultimately be. But the west does not actually want the territory of Afghanistan, and all it wants from Iraq will be pumped out in twenty years.

More than this, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pose no existential threat to the Western elites. Yes, we're fighting the war in Afghanistan in reprisal for Al Quaeda taking out the World Trade Centre, and the deaths of the bankers (and others) who worked there; but the derivatives broker, the arbitrageur, the financial engineer of today does not see Afghanistan or Iraq as a real and present danger to his life, let alone to his wealth and power.

The threat of war no longer frightens the elites, and they no longer believe they need an engaged citizen army to protect their interests. In short, the elites no longer feel any common cause with, or need for, the commons, except as what elites have always seen the commons as: a herd of host organisms on which to parasitise.

The banker with his million pound bonus sees no reason to share it. The futures-market gambler with his billion dollar profit sees no need to consider the community. Sharing - community - is for losers. There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are Ferrari dealers. If the tax regime under which he lives and works proves too onerous, to keen to encourage equity, he'll leave and seek another. And so we've - all the nations of the west - engaged in a race to the bottom. Lower taxes on the rich - never mind, the poor will pay. Lower taxes on the corporations - never mind, the poor will pay. But we've got to the point that the poor can't pay, because the rich are taking so large a share of the sum total of all the resources available, there isn't enough left. And so our health systems crumble, our public infrastructure is sold off, our social care fails. This doesn't worry the elites, of course. A helicopter flies over all traffic jams. The elites don't need 'socialised' health care or social care - they can buy their own.

I write this in the aftermath of the 'banking crisis', the 'financial meltdown' in which the taxpayers - which means the poor - of the western world struggle to repay the losses made by irresponsible gambling by the rich. Are the rich paying? Surprise, they're not. Throughout this recession, the very rich have continued to get richer. What we've seen has not been, in fact, a banking crisis, just one more step of the ratchet which moves wealth from the poor to the rich.

And the question has to be asked: have the people of Ireland benefited from their low corporation taxes? Have the people of Iceland, Scotland and England benefited from bank deregulation? I would argue we haven't. Closing down the City of London wouldn't make the United Kingdom richer; indeed, it probably is true that in aggregate is would make us poorer. But what wealth was left would be shared much more evenly, so the interests of the rulers would not be so sharply at variance with the interests of the ruled. For each of us individually, our spending power would be at worst not much reduced; for us corporately, our corporate interest would be once more in the provision of a social structure which supports everyone, including the poorest.

Oh, and, by the way, 'equity', for those who found my use of the word strange, does not mean a negotiable instrument. It means fairness.

Friday 10 June 2011

Things I miss

The Summer Palace
This summer of homelessness - even if I chose it, even if it is a gamble which still may pay off with something wonderful - has been tougher than I expected. This essay is to acknowledge that, and to celebrate those aspects of our modern western lives which actually are to be valued. So here's a list of things I miss...

Being warm

It's a fortnight before midsummer, late morning, and my fingers are so cold as I type this that the joints hurt. My bedding is damp again, not because of rain driving in - except during the big storm, it hasn't - but just because of the humidity in the air. I do have a little woodstove - borrowed - but because I have no walls it's ineffective either at raising the temperature or at cooking, so I don't use it much.

Closely related to being warm,

Hot water on tap

I'm a person who likes to be clean. I like to have a hot bath every night. I like to wash my dishes in hot water. Lots of hot water. Here, I haul every drop of water I use - at minimum from the water trough on the far side of my croft, but in practice usually from the farm, because the trough is open and therefore not clean. I use the wheelbarrow, so I'm not actually carrying it, but it's still five hundred metres over the hilltop; hard work. To heat it, I have my small kettle and my small gas stove. A cupful or two is easy to heat. A bathful (even if I had a bath, which I don't)? Impossible.

And next down the list

Dry boots

I have boots, of course. I have two pairs of boots which cope reasonably well with wet weather. But in the long periods of wet weather I've had I've twice got to the point where both pairs were wet. Boots are important. Wet boots are miserable. And drying boots out once they're wet comes back to being warm.

These are the critical things. Of course, there are things I have which if I lacked them would be critical. I can get clean water. I can afford food. I have friends. I have the National Health Service. And I do have security of tenure - I own this land, no-one can throw me off it. Less critically, but contributing to my quality of life, I also have technology - my laptop, my phone, my camera - and somewhere I can go to recharge their batteries.

Less important stuff

So having dealt with the critical things, what are the other things I miss?

Water on tap

Digging a track down the field and laying in a water pipe is going to cost a big chunk of the money I have, and it can't be a priority. I may not be able to do it straight off. But using water without having to think about whether there's enough, whether it will run out, what the cost of fetching it will be... that's a luxury.

Artificial light

OK, I have a storm lantern. Just at present it's out of oil and I ought to get more but haven't. But it doesn't throw a lot of light anyway, so I don't use it much... of course, it's summer. Of course, it never really gets dark at this time of year. In winter, artificial light may feel more important. Just at present, it's surprisingly minor. But... over the year as a whole... over the year as a whole, rather to be desired.


I have had a computer network connection into my home since 1984. Then, it was a 300 baud modem; then, it didn't connect to the Internet, because JANET had not yet been connected to the Internet; JANET ran on coloured books over X.25 rather than on TCP/IP. I used network chat to communicate with my profoundly deaf tutor. Later, I ran UUCP over a 2800 baud modem; it wasn't until 1993 that I had a PPP connection feeding real-time Internet protocol - and the then new Web - into my home.

Of course, I still have a network connection. The GPRS connection that my phone provides is far faster than those old modems. But in the meantime, the Web has developed to assume fast links. Web pages are graphics heavy, and call down complex JavaScript libraries or Flash animations. Browsing the Web on a slow connection is far more painful than it was seventeen years ago. I don't need a broadband link. I can live without it. But... it would be nice.


To get broadband here, I'm going to have to relay wifi over the hill. That means I'd need electricity in two places - one on the hilltop to drive the relay, and one in my home to receive it. Trecking over the hill to recharge laptop and phone batteries once a day - as I do now - won't cut it. On the other hand a mains connection is out of the question, since I can't afford one, let alone two. Laying cable is a non-starter, not only because of cost but also because of lightning strike issues. The hilltop relay can probably be solar powered, and reasonably low cost. But if I'm going to power a transciever at my home, I might as well have electricity for other purposes - powering a computer, for one; powering a bit of electric light, for another. So a wind turbine of about 1600 watts - and batteries to buffer its output - is the sensible way to go. And that doesn't come cheap. So electricity is a nice to have. It isn't a priority. But I would like it.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Two referenda?

Two referenda? Aye, right

Our Liberal 'Democrat' Secretary of not-very-much, Michael Moore (no, not the famous Michael Moore, the other one) thinks we need two referenda to achieve independence. What has he been smoking?

The theory of it starts here: the Westminster parliament, in its Scotland Act, did not cede to the Holyrood parliament the power to hold legally binding referenda. So, says Moore, a referendum held by the Holyrood parliament cannot be legally binding. So, says Moore, we need a subsequent referendum, promoted by the Westminster parliament, to complete the process.

There's a certain amount of sense to it: this much. The first referendum would empower the Scottish Government to negotiate with Downing Street on the terms for independence; and the exact terms of independence are not clear. There are natural resources, financial debts, military forces, foreign embassies, and many other complex issues to apportion. After an agreed apportionment has been made, there's some sense in going back to the people and asking whether they want independence on those terms.

But that's not what Micky Moore is arguing. He's not arguing on the pragmatics, but what he perceives as the legalities. Only the Westminster parliament, says Mouse, can hold a legally binding referendum...

But here's the rub: it can't. It never has been able to. It can't because there's a critical difference between Scottish legal theory and English legal theory. Mouse, being (Northern) Irish, can't really be expected to know this. Under English legal theory, Parliament is sovereign. So no referendum, not even one it has itself called, is binding on the English Parliament. But under Scottish legal theory, the people are sovereign. So any referendum of the Scottish people, even one it hasn't itself called, is binding on the Scottish parliament.

So let's get down to realpolitik: do we need two referenda? The first gives Scotland the authority and the clear democratic mandate to negotiate. For the rump of the United Kingdom to seek to impose unfair terms would be unwise, if not improbable. If an equitable settlement could not be negotiated, then grass roots pressure in Scotland would rapidly ramp up. Finally, no Scottish government is going to accept an inequitable settlement. So if we get to the point of an independence bill, we will have a (reasonably) equitable settlement. In that case, would we need a second referendum? I can't see it. The government have been mandated by the people to negotiate to achieve this end, they've achieved the end, where's the problem?

If the government reached the conclusion that an equitable settlement could not be reached, then I can see a point of going back to the people and say, ok, this is the best we can do, is it good enough? But that's a different issue. That's an issue which arises when negotiation has, in effect, failed. We hope that won't happen.

But for Micky Mouse to tell us, now, that we have to have two, that we have to have two because Westminster is sovereign? Aye, as they say, right.

Monday 6 June 2011

On living rough with cats

Ivan and Penny in the Summer Palace
We're all familiar with the image of an urban rough sleeper with his mongrel on a string. Rough sleepers commonly have dogs, and it's easy to understand why. A familiar animal - an animal which offers some affection, some uncritical regard, and, at night, some warmth - has to help a person cope with the extremely tough life a rough sleeper has to cope with.

But you don't typically see rough sleepers with cats. Cats are different from dogs; they are much more self sufficient: specialist individual predators, able to feed themselves adequately in most British landscapes. A closely related species is even native. Cats don't, in fact, need us. When they choose to live with us it's from choice. That choice is certainly based on some simple pragmatic considerations. If we have the resources we can provide regular palatable food. If we have homes, we can provide comfort and warmth - which cats love - and a degree of security. We also, if we have homes, provide stability of place - a fixed base, a hub for a hunting ground. Cats do like a familiar hunting ground.

Cats are different from us - so different that any attempt to think ourselves imaginatively into their minds is at best uncertain. Do they feel affection, bonding, identification with us? To some extent it seems that they do. It certainly comforts me to believe that my cats love me. And their behaviour does suggest this.

Ivan regularly comes up to me and writhes on his back inviting me to tickle his tummy. Penny is cuddled up to me as I type this, and often chooses to sit close to me. When I walk through the woods both of them usually come with me, and often when I leave the wood now they follow - something which is becoming problematic. Today, Penny twice followed me all the way to the farm - mainly, I think, to hunt rabbits on the hilltop. At night, both sleep on (and Ivan frequently in) my bed. Of course, part of this is warmth. Now, at lunchtime on the 5th of June, close to mid day and close to mid summer, I'm wearing six layers of clothing (including two wool jerseys and a jacket with a fleece lining). I'm wearing a hat and gloves. I'm cold.

The cats have, of course, fur coats. Penny has an exceptionally soft, thick one. And, today when the wind is in the east, I'm sure there are warmer places in the wood than this. So I don't believe that it is just - or even mainly - for warmth that the cats stay with me.

But that is the point. Home for us, now, is this rough platform in the wood, sheltered from the rain by a tarpaulin, from the wind not at all. It isn't comfortable. It isn't warm. It is in a fixed place - one I own, one I cannot be evicted from. And that fixed place is in a wonderful hunting environment for small predators. There are mice and voles aplenty, and one of them (I think Ivan, but I'm not yet sure) has started to bring home rabbits. It's also (although I doubt the cats can know this) a very safe place for them. The nearest road is half a mile away. There are no traps or snares or poisons on my land. And I am able to feed them - on food they like - regularly and reliably. Finally, there's no competition here, except from the badgers. While several of my co-conspirators have dogs, none have cats. I haven't seen or heard another cat since we arrived here.

But the question is, will they stay? Why should they? All around my land are hunting territories equally good, in which they could easily find themselves courie holes equally comfortable. Indeed, neighbouring territories have more rabbits - there are none locally here. As they increasingly follow me further from the croft they are seeing these potentially better territories. Hunting rabbits is not only clearly more fun than hunting other prey, the rabbits are also clearly more palatable. Rabbits which are brought home are always partially eaten, whereas mice are often left intact. As they catch more rabbits, they're less dependent on me for palatable food.

There's a problem in that. Between the wood where we live and the hilltop with its rabbits is my hay meadow. For me, it's a glorious place; for the cats it's huge and hard to cross. They can't see over the grass, so it's hard to navigate. They can cross it using a curious bounding run which rather resembles dolphins at play - leaping out of the grass high enough to get a glimpse of the horizon. But that's clearly strenuous. The meadow is also clearly - especially when a kite flies over fast and low, as one did this afternoon - a very scary place. Consequently they both prefer to have me with them when they cross the meadow, and will sit on the fenceposts and call until I escort them.

So I am anxious about them leaving. I fear that they may find a place closer to the rabbit warren which is (at least) as comfortable for as the Summer Palace. It would be a big deal for me; I have lost or abandoned so much else in my life, they're pretty important. I need to get a more secure and comfortable home for myself before winter, because in bad weather the Summer Palace is pretty tough; but far more than that I need to provide them with a more secure and comfortable home.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License