Monday 26 September 2011

State of Play

Roof trusses for the Winter Palace
I last posted here about my life and the state of the farm in May; it's time to post again. It's autumn, and I have now spent five months living in my simple tree house. And actually, that's mostly been good. I've been, over all, much more comfortable than I expected, and the cats have certainly liked it. But the tree house - my 'Summer Palace' - was always only intended to be a temporary structure. I was going to live here until I'd got planning permission to build the house I wanted. Well, I haven't got planning permission - not because it's been refused but because it's all taken much longer than expected.

The summer has been, as you'll know, both wet and cold, but for me it's been a mostly contented time. My home - not just my little shelter, but my wood and my whole croft - is exceptionally beautiful. It's also a very calm and quiet place, except for the one weekend of the year they hold a rock concert just beyond my wall. I've had a good hay harvest, and still have barley standing which I hope to harvest soon.

But summer is ending, and the Summer Palace will not be a pleasant place to spend the winter. So I'm now working on a Winter Palace, a much more comfortable but still temporary dwelling. Because I don't have planning permission, I'm going to build it in my wood where it can't be seen from anyone else's land. As a house it will be small - six metres by four metres inside, with a sleeping loft at one end. But of course the house isn't the whole of my home, because I have so much space outside.

It will have luxuries: things I've missed, this summer. It will have running water. It will have hot running water. It will have - luxury of luxuries - a bath, with hot running water! Being built of straw bales it will be extremely well insulated. And at the centre of it will be a stove which will warm the house and heat the water. Also, having a watertight, weathertight home means I will be able to bring my books - and many other treasures - out of storage. It probably won't have electricity, but I don't miss it much.

I've already completed much of the main joinery for the Winter Palace. The bales are here in the barn. I have two weeks to complete the foundations and gather the last of the materials, and then, on Saturday 8th October, I'm going to hold a party and all my friends will gather to put the house together. I expect we'll get it up in one day, and that I will sleep in it as early as the 9th.

There are things about the Summer Palace I'll miss. I'll miss the airiness and the simplicity; I'll miss the birds in the branches around and the gentle swaying of the trees. I do plan to take the Summer Palace down - partly because it will suffer from winter weather, and partly because I intend to reuse some of the timber. But I think I shall rebuild it next summer, partly as a spare room but also partly as a place to spend summer nights, especially if I have someone special to enjoy those nights with.

Monday 12 September 2011


My summer residence is supported on seven spruce trees. In the time I've been here - since early May - the BBC have twice forecast hurricane force winds. The first time, I abandoned ship - but they exaggerated, it was only storm force. This time, I haven't abandoned, and it's now too late to do so. The wind on the hilltop is too high to safely evacuate the cats. I suspect, and hope, that the BBC are exaggerating again, but earlier this morning I described the wind as the second strongest I'd ever experienced. That's no longer true.

It literally is not possible for a grown man to stand upright in the gusts on our hilltop now. I know that, because I've just been there. So I'm going to have to stay put. On the plus side, my wood shows no evidence at all of windfall trees. So far as I can see, no tree of the present generation has ever blown down. And although I have thinned a little, I've been careful to preserve the green edge of the wood - I really think it's wind-firm.

However, the seven trees that support the summer palace are - like all the other trees in the wood - swaying with alarming amplitude, but, of course, with different frequencies. That gives the platform an uncomfortably sharp, unpredictable motion, like a hovercraft in a short chop. I think it's safe enough. The ropes aren't going to break. As I said I don't think the trees will fall; in fact the trees supporting the platform are less likely to go than others, since they are coupled together and thus none of them can sway to the amplitude they would alone.

I've taken down one of the side-walls the summer palace had, to allow the wind to blow through unobstructed. Having less of a sail, I hope, will reduce the risk of damage. I'm still a little concerned about the roof going.

I've pitched my tent a little bit away in the wood so that, if the summer palace becomes uninhabitable, I have somewhere to retreat to... but actually I think the worst I'm risking is seasickness. The worst of the wind is expected to be through by nightfall. I think I'm all right. The cats clearly don't like the conditions and Ivan in particular is clingy, but I think they're OK.

Wednesday 17 August 2011


When someone approaches my building, the first thing - and the dominant thing - they're likely to see is the fenestration. That's because pretty much everything else is buried in the hillside; the only face of the structure that's exposed is the south face, which is primarily glass. My intention has always been to use commercial patio door units, because they're mass produced they're far cheaper than any custom unit I can make myself, while having well engineered latches and reasonable insulation.

In the 'sousterrain' design, the shape of the fenestration was to some extent masked by the eyebrow lintels and flying butresses. All the swoopy curves of the exposed concrete structure relieve the industrial regularity of the windows. In my first 'singlespace' drawings, I set the window units back behind the pillars, and thus behind the ring-beam and its braces, and this too masks the shape a bit.

But in reconsidering the front joinery I've considered first that the elements of the frontage are extremely visible, and second that they're exposed to weather. While making the rest of the structure in softwood seems acceptable to me, using oak for the front pillars and lintels will both reduce maintenance and add elegance. Given that it's only five pillars and four lintels, the increased cost is not going to be high. And it you're going to do that, the relatively lightweight 200x50 mm lintels of the front ring beam as originally planned are going to look wrong (and in any case require a lot of additional joinery to make a weatherproof space). Better, I thought, to make them true lintels, with a section of 200x200 mm or possibly even more. Yes, more expensive and not required from an engineering point of view, but the fenestration can now be fitted directly into the aperture between pillars, sill and lintels, completely solving the weatherproofing problem.

The trouble with that is, if the pillars are still roundwood, the only place the windows can now go is between the centres of the pillars, or else you're back to bodging the weatherproofing. Which means you can't easily get well engineered braces in front of them. Mind you, there's no longer an engineering justification for braces - all they're doing is relieving the shape of the aperture. If the windows are to be set futher back into the aperture, the pillars must be sawn wood - but they can be sawn to the angles I want, so that can be a feature. And I can have braces.

And the windows themselves?

OK, let's start with the ideal. If I were a plutocrat James Bond villain, the windows would drop vertically into wells in the floor to open them, and would be closed by hydraulic lifts or something similar. In summer, when the weather is warm and pleasant, I'd like them just not to be there at all. If not a plutocrat but merely very rich, I would have a custom made fold-and-slide door, where there was one continuous track and all the leaves of the left-hand two apertures folded and slid left while all those on the right-hand two folded and slid right. That would achieve almost the same end result - in summer, a clear space open to the outside - although the folded leaves would now intrude into the living space on either side of the single opening.

The whole point of this design, however, is that I'm neither a plutocrat nor rich. I'm poor. As I said to the woman from the planning department, the whole purpose of this proposal is cheap hooses for puir fowk. A single two metre by two metre fold and slide unit in oak veneer - not even real oak - costs of the order of £1,200 ex VAT, so the four of them cost £4,800 ex VAT. Solid oak costs more. That's in a structure which, even with my oak front joinery, has a materials cost for everything else except the front windows of under £7,000.

So, here's the rub. I can halve that cost by using uPVC units. uPVC units come in at £600 per unit, or £2400 for the whole set. But can I really live with uPVC?

Let's go back to the matter of doing things on the cheap. Makers of sealed glazing units often sell units that have been made but which weren't used in the project for which they were made, cheap. This is because once made they can't be refashioned, and if they aren't a standard size then they're pretty much scrap. So you can get cheap units but you're unlikely to get the size you want. Poor self builders often start by buying these cheap units and then making their window apertures to fit the units they've got. I could, and probably should, do this; if I can get units which are almost the right size it might even be worth respacing the pillars a bit to fit them.

However, that means spending out on the fenestration right at the start of the project. I don't want to do that because if I'm going to run out of cash at any stage I want to run out of cash with a weatherproof structure. Window apertures can be made good cheaply with weatherboard (at the cost of no daylight). A bloody great hole in the roof can't be made good cheaply.

But also, I don't, in the end, know how much I've got to spend. The financing of the farm is complicated and not relevant here, but it's possible that in due course I'll get some money back - possibly as much as £20,000, which makes a difference. If I don't get any of it back, then I'm going to have to see what cheap fenestration I can get. If I get a little, then four uPVC units are not a lot of money. If I get more, then I can have oak. But if I get a lot of it back, a custom fold and slide isn't utterly impossible... and it would make a significant difference to the space.

One question that I haven't answered in all this, and which will have to be answered, is... where will the cat-flap go? Penny and Ivan are going to be seriously unamused if there isn't a cat-flap, and I'm going to be seriously unamused if I have to keep getting up and going to open the door for them.

Plan B

Of course Plan A is to get planning permission. Of course Plan A is to live in a proper, legitimate house, pay council tax and have my rubbish collected in bins. But that may not happen. It, actually, may not happen for three reasons. Firstly, and very probably, planning permission may simply be refused. That is actually pretty likely - I probably have less than 50% chance of getting planning permission anyway.

Secondly, planning permission may be granted but it may be granted too late. I must have something considerably more comfortable and weatherproof than the Summer Palace before winter; neither my mental nor my physical health would stand up to a winter spent literally out of doors. So if I haven't got planning permission by mid-July I have to go to plan B anyway.

Thirdly, planning permission may be granted but I may not be able to afford to build to the quality required. This is complicated. In theory one third of what I invested in the farm is loan, to be repaid. It was never likely that it would all be repaid, but I was hoping that half of it would be. This now looks unlikely. If I had got half back, I would have £16,000 to pay for materials for my house, which may sound ludicrously little but actually as self-builders of houses with planning permission can reclaim VAT it's effectively £20,000 and it is - just, barely - enough. But unless I get some of the loan back I have £6,000, and that just isn't.

Of course I could get a mortgage - I do own the croft - but I'd have to get a steady job to repay it, and I really don't want to do that.

So there has to be a plan B, and plan B is about counting assets.

I have several hundred harvestable sitka trees. I have a growing barley crop, and shall have straw by autumn. There is also wool, but asking around I find that unless you treat wool with some fairly nasty insecticide it doesn't make good household insulation.

However, a log cabin is possible using materials I don't have to pay for. If I build a roundwood pole structure with straw bale walls, I need to pay for the render on the walls... at least, in theory I could make it from raw materials, but that's too complex and I don't have time. But the render is affordable. Unless I thatch the roof - which takes skill I don't have, and longer, better quality straw than I'm likely to get - roof insulation also needs to be paid for. In any case, windows, hardware, electrical installation and drainage need to be paid for. It may be, for the first winter, I have to do without electricity all together. It may be, for the first winter, that I have to do without glass.

But a habitable house for £6,000? Yes, I think it can be done.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Building plan for the Winter Palace

If the bothy I'm wryly refering to as the Winter Palace is to be built in one weekend - hopefully in one day - a lot of preparation has to be done first. Let's start with the basics: materials.

The winter palace comprises straw bales, timber, render, insulation and a few other things. It would be elegant if the straw bales came from barley crop and, in theory, they might. But I'm not confident that my barley will be ready to harvest in time, so it would be prudent to get bales from another source. Similarly there would be a lot to be said for using timber from my own wood; in terms of energy and the environment it would be the best solution. But I'm not at all confident we can mill enough timber in time and even if we do it will be horribly unseasoned. So, again, it may be prudent to buy the timber from the builders' merchant.

On the matter of render, the choices are clay or lime. I'll need between two and three cubic metres. Clay will cost the labour of digging it and hauling it on site; lime will cost real money. Lime is the preferred option but may simply be unaffordable.

Tasks to do in advance

Level the rails

The bothy will be built on three oak rails lying on a stone foundation. The foundation is in place now, but not perfectly level. Some components of the rails are cut, but most are not. Getting the rails to site will need, probably, Alex's Unimog. The rails will then need to be assembled on site and levelled. That's a job for probably two people over two days, in dry weather.

Cut hazel rods

The bale walls will effectively be nailed together with hazel rods; I need about one metre of rod per bale, or 130 metres of rods. I could actually do that myself in a couple of days and fetch them back in my car, but it would be easier with two people and a trailer; again, this is a dry weather job. (Update: I've already cut 100 metres of rods)

Dig clay

If I can't afford lime render I'm going to have to dig clay. Three cubic metres is a lot of digging. Also, I can't really haul that back in my car, I'll need to borrow a trailer and something to pull it. Two people, one day, and again dry weather would make it enormously more pleasant. On sober reflection, three cubic metres of water is (obviously) three tons, and clay is substantially heavier than water; so that's quite a large trailer and it probably needs to be a tractor!

Prefabricate sub-assemblies

One of the issues with a straw bale structure is that although bales from the same batch - baled with the same baler on the same day with the same tension settings of straw from the same field - are likely to be consistent in length, you don't know until they're delivered exacly what that length will be. The walls sit on a sill plate and are capped with a wall plate, each of which will be essentially a box structure. The box structures can be prefabricated, but need to be constructed to the maximum likely length and designed to be easily shortened on the day.

The roof is supported by four main trusses. Again, the trusses can be prefabricated. The front and rear trusses will probably eventually have windows in them, and it's possible that the frames for these windows can be prefabricated at the same time.

There will probably be a back door and there will certainly be a front opening. Each of these openings needs to be framed so as to support the walls. The frames can be prefabricated.

All this prefabrication can take place in the Void, so can happen on wet days; but it can't happen until I have timber and I'd estimate that it's at least a week's work.

Lay the floor

The floor can't be laid very long before the main build since it won't benefit from getting wet, but it doesn't need to be laid on the very same day as the rest of the build, provided it can be protected by tarpaulins. Laying the floor is neither hard nor especially time consuming; two people could easily do it in one day and I could easily do it by myself in two.

All that adds up to a fortnight of my time and a few days of other people's time, over a period of six weeks; it shouldn't be impossible.

On the day

On the day I propose to have four teams, Carpentry, Catering, Transport and Walls.


The job of the Transport team is obviously to make sure that everything is on site when needed. If we have a spell of settled weather this isn't an issue since everything can be stacked on site in advance. Render can be stacked on site in advance anyway. But otherwise I'll need a tractor or 4x4 with trailer, and one or two people to help load/unload. Until the bale walls are built the Carpentry team can help Transport.


The job of the catering team is to feed everyone.


Walls team starts the day by assembling the bale walls onto the sill plates, which should already be in place, and staking the bales with the hazel rods. Apart from the front opening and the rear door there are no holes or other openings in the walls, so this should be very fast - an hour at most. Obviously it's important that they be vertical!

Once the walls are up and the wall plates have been fitted, walls team's job is to apply render. About 2.5cm of render has to be applied to both inside and outside of the walls, all over. However, as rendering is going on the carpentry team will be working on the roof, so some co-operation will be needed, and generally the carpentry team's needs will take priority.


The Carpentry team don't start work until the bale walls are up. Until then, they can help transport team bringing materials to site. Once the walls are up, they install and fit first the wall plates, then the main trusses and their cross-braces, then the inner vapour barrier, then the purlins, then the insulation and the outer vapour barrier. At this point the roof is more or less weatherproof and the walls are protected; if this is as far as we can get that's OK.

However, I'm hoping we can get further. If we have enough carpenters to divide into two teams, one team will be set to cladding while the other is set to lining; if not, cladding comes first, lining happens later, and, indeed, need not happen as part of the build weekend.

If there's time it would be nice to dismantle the summer palace, and to use its wood to construct the bed-loft mezzanine. It would also be nice to have the flue fitted.


The object of the weekend is to get main structure up and weatherproof. It isn't intended or expected that to have a completely finished building. Render will have to dry before the interior walls can be painted, and that must be done before furniture can be moved in.

I don't envisage fitting the back door, or panelling or glazing the front opening, as part of the build weekend. This is partly because I will need through draught to dry the clay render, and partly because frankly I haven't a clue yet how I'm going to fill the front opening (although, obviously, as much glazing as possible is essential). The rear gable opening is also intended to be eventually partly glazed, but it may be partly panelled before being erected.

While I shall almost certainly sleep in the new structure on the Sunday night (because the summer palace will very likely no longer exist) I don't expect to be fully moved in until 17th October.

Towards a farming plan for the West Croft

My objective for farming the West Croft is to essentially make as large a contribution to self sufficiency as possible, while minimising cash inputs. I'm not significantly concerned with maximise cash profit, although I can't afford for it to become a major cash drain.

I intent to continue to farm the croft as organic, not so much because I believe in the benefits of organic food but because I want to maximise biodiversity and minimise long-term environmental impact. It's no great advantage to me for the croft to be registered organic, since the difference in profit between certified organic production and uncertified production is unlikely to cover the cost of registration, but if the croft continues to be covered by the Standingstone registration that is in my interests.

These objectives need to be balanced against constraints.

Cropping the croft without fertilising it will lead to impoverishment in nitrates. Also, regular cropping of the same land will lead to a decline in meadow herbage, which is not what I want. Organic fertiliser is expensive, and, from the point of view of a registered organic holding, not permissible as the major source of fertiliser anyway. So I need to maintain pasture under grass/clover with some shit-producing animals as a significant part of what I do. It could easily be all I do...

During years under grass/clover, and particularly with animals, nitrates build up in the soil. During years under crop, the nitrates deplete. Scottish Agricultural College recommends an organic cycle of three years grass/clover, one year cereal, one year roots, one year cereal. This doesn't appeal to me as if I plough up my land three years in succession every six, I'm going to seriously degrade the meadow herbage.

At the same time modern tractors and combines need a lot of turning room. Therefore, economically, I ought to treat my whole croft as one field. But if I do that there's no reservoir on my land for herbage species to recolonise from (there is of course the commons). Also, treating the whole croft as one field means that in any one year I have only one sort of produce, so I'm forced to trade most of it in the cash economy since I'll have more of that product than I need, and will be short of other products which I also need.

Three park strategy

These considerations make me feel that there's merit in a three park plan: to divide my current 2.9 hectares of arable into three roughly equal parcels each of slightly less than one hectare each, with more-or-less permanent fencing between. This means that in any one year I can have all three down to grass/clover, two down to grass/clover and one down to crop, or one down to grass/clover and two down to crop.

If two adjacent parks were down to the same crop in the same year it would be good to be able to remove the fencing between them, but this may be more work than it's worth. If I'm going to have crops, I need to be able to use a tractor from time to time, and given the park sizes it needs to be a small one. It could be mine, or communal, or shared, or contracted in (although contractors rarely have small tractors).


I like to eat meat; not a lot of it, but some. Keeping hardy livestock involves little work and helps fertilise the land. Livestock slaughtered and butchered for home consumption require remarkably little bureaucracy and hence, cost. Cattle, sheep and pigs are all possible. However, pigs are particularly hard to fence, and sheep (especially lambs) are fairly hard to fence.

Regardless of species, I could buy weaners in the spring, fatten through the summer and slaughter in the back end, or I could keep my own females and breed from them to produce animals to slaughter.

For cattle a stocking density of two cows (including suckling calves) per hectare is often recommended, with up to three stirks per hectare. Galloway cattle are particularly hardy and low maintenance, and they are, after all, bred for precisely our conditions. A viable strategy would be to have two parks as pasture at any one time; to have two cows, serviced by AI each year, and run the calves with their mothers for twenty-four months until slaughter. This would produce an average of two beef carcases per year at around 300Kg live weight, each yielding about 200Kg meat. That's more than twice the meat I need for own use, so one animal could be sold each year.

For shelter, access to part of the wood in winter is probably all Galloways would need, but a small cattle shed would be a good thing.

For sheep, stocking density is about six ewes per hectare, each producing on average two lambs per year, so probably eleven carcases per year at about 30Kg each live weight. This means only one park would need to be devoted to livestock in any one year. The advantage over cattle is more slaughters per year means less meat in storage at any one time, and meat is eaten fresher. Also, it would be possible from an economic and husbandry point of view not to produce much excess. The downside is that slaughter is inevitably a pretty grisly and horrible job, but doing it more often would get one accustomed, I suppose. If I kept just one park of sheep I could put one park down to hay each year, which could be a cash crop.

Sheep wouldn't strictly need shelter and definitely shouldn't be allowed into the wood, but a small shed would nevertheless be useful for lambing.


The SAC states that the average yield for oats in Scotland is 5.92 tons per hectare, but that's assuming conventional production; if I half that to around three tons/park (given I have organic production and that my parks are shy of one hectare) that's a reasonable target. Thus if I grow one park of oats every two years, that gives me

250Kg own use for two years (I currently consume about 0.5Kg of oats a week, but if I baked oaten bread or oatcakes could easily increase that)
175Kg reserved as seed for next planting
2500Kg available as cattle feed or to sell

To have oats in my rotation requires that I have a granary capable of holding at least 3 tons of oats (5 tons capacity would be better given that I may be being overly pessimistic on yield), and a means of hulling and rolling small quantities of oats at a time.

As to root crops, the obvious one is potatoes. The trouble is I don't actually much like potatoes. Also, mechanically harvesting one hectare of potatoes is almost certainly uneconomic, and manually harvesting a hectare of potatoes is a lot of work. Onions seem to be doing reasonably well for me this year despite neglect; the parsnips I planted this year seem entirely to have succumbed to slugs. If I add roots to my rotation, it seems to me best to divide a park into strips of early, main-crop and late potatoes, onions, and possibly brassica roots such as swedes or parsnips. This means that they won't all come ready for harvest at the same time, spreading the labour of manual harvest over several months. It would be possible to have strips of green brassicas (cabbage, chard, etc), courgettes and peas in the same park since potatoes and brassica root crops will need regular tending for slugs and weeds anyway, so the additional work would be low.

You can't reasonably store root crops over two years, and I can't afford to devote one park a year to roots, so I'd need to sell surplus production in producing years and buy in non-producing years - possibly in an arrangement with another Standingstone croft.


At present my feeling is that my best plan would be to divide my croft into three parks and to seek to buy two Galloway heifers in calf next spring. I would then run a rotation with each park doing two years pasture, one year oats, one year mixed roots. But I'd be very interested in other people's comments on this plan! This plan assumes that the commons remains permanent meadow (which is the current plan) and thus serves as a seed source and genetic reserve to keep repopulating my parks with meadow herbs ('weeds'); if the commons is not managed as permanent meadow I may need to set one of my parks as permanent meadow, in order to maintain biodiversity. This would mean either that I could not practically keep cattle, or that I could not grow crops.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

On heiding thistles

The symbols we choose tell us something about how we see ourselves, and, perhaps, a little of how we really are. Only in Scotland would we seek to extirpate our national flower. Only in Scotland would we celebrate a poem which speaks of doing so. Only in Scotland would we be utterly confident that we will never succeed.

The thistle is a hardy creature. It will grow anywhere, on the poorest soils, in the harshest conditions. It defends itself fiercely with many sharp weapons. It cheerfully travels great distances to find a new home. And wherever it grows, it throws up its gay plumes of flowers, each armed with a potent hand-grenade of seed...

The thistle endures harshness and poverty and creates beauty; it spreads widely. But it's prickly, over-aggressive, defensive, leary of the world, and offers little freely to anyone else - except the bees. It's little wonder than one of Scotland's best-loved history books is called 'The Field of Thistles'.

I write this after a day heiding the thistles in my fields. This farm is organic; we use no poisons. That means that to control weeds, we need to stop them seeding. In meadow or pasture the thistle is a weed, unpalatable to most grazing animals. So we must seek to control it, to cut down each flower before its little hand grenade can explode into a puff of silky down. A little thistle down goes (literally) a long way, so in a sense in heiding my thistles I'm benefitting my neighbours as much or more than myself. And it's sad, because they are things of beauty, besides being a good food source for bees.

But I need not fear to lack thistles next year. Every thistle my neighbours miss will contribute a drifting orb of down to bring that army with its bold, cocky purple plumes back to my fields next year. Not even the Scots can extirpate thistles.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, 
The trembling earth resounds his tread. 
Clap in his walie nieve a blade, 
He'll mak it whissle; 
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned, 
Like taps o' thrissle. 

Friday 22 July 2011

The state of social media


You post to the social media system of your choice. Your friends - the friends you choose and no-one else, unless you choose to make your post public - see it on the social media system of their choice. If they choose to respond, they respond to a common thread which all your friends (and possibly theirs, if you've allowed that) can see, limited by the specific capabilities of their chosen system. For example users of one system might see the discussion as a branching threaded discussion like Usenet, while others see a single unbranching thread. Common conventions for tagging, reposting and referencing other users are used across heterogenous social media systems.

Impossible? Technically, no.

Parts of this vision exist. Firstly, let's hear it for Diaspora, which I shall review in more detail below. Diaspora already - by default - allows a post to be reflected out to both Twitter and Facebook; as Diaspora development moves fast, I expect Google+ to be added very soon. You write once, but it creates three separate threads, so that those who respond on Facebook do not see responses posted on Diaspora, and vice versa.

A plugin for Google's Chrome browser called 'Start G+' adds features to Google+ which provide a considerable degree of integration between Google+ and both Facebook and Twitter; not only does it allow forwarding of posts to Facebook and Twitter but it also integrates other people's posts from Facebook and Twitter into your Google+ Stream. At least, I believe it does. The problem is that to do so it depends in part on the author's own server, and either because that server is extremely overloaded or because my Internet connection is poor I can't get this to work.

Reality: Diaspora

Diaspora is really very good. The user interface is slick, clean, elegant, easy to use. Although there isn't a dedicated Android app, the web interface is adaptive to the device and works just as slickly on a hand-held as it does on a desktop. The developers are thoughtful, engaged and responsive. In terms of features, Diaspora is most similar to Google+ - your contacts are organised into groups called 'aspects' which are essentially the same as Google+'s circles.

Best of all, Diaspora is designed for a distributed world: the project is open source, and rather than one organisation owning all Diaspora servers the whole idea is that different Diaspora servers owned by different organisation should interoperate, and that if your home is on one Diaspora node your posts can by seen by friends on any Diaspora node. Furthermore, since the interchange protocol is open, there's no reason in theory why Google+ or Facebook or LinkedIn shouldn't write their own sharing interface which allowed them to look to Diaspora like any other Diaspora node, this achieving the vision I set out at the top of this essay...

No technical reason, that is. No reason except the commercial reason. We'll come back to that later.

In summary from a software point of view - from a usability, design, and technical point of view - Diaspora is the best social network system out there today. I really, really recommend it. Sadly, I think it's doomed to fail, which again I'll discuss when I get round to talking about the commercial background. But at present it's the best there is.

Full disclosure, I put seed money into getting Diaspora up and running. I'm glad I did. I think some good is bound to come out of the project.

Reality: Facebook

Facebook is the incumbent. It's very simple to use, works well and looks smart. Most importantly, it has critical mass - it has the users. All your non-geek friends - if they have a presence in social media at all - are on Facebook. And because it (deliberately) doesn't interoperate well  with other social media, to talk to those friends you have to be on Facebook.

Facebook isn't technically so shoddy, either. With the amount of money they have to spend they certainly should not be! They do have an answer to Diaspora's aspects and Google+ circles. It's called 'groups', and almost nobody uses it. Why not? The functionality is hidden and the user interface isn't very good. And that sums it up for Facebook, really. It's grown like topsy, without a clear vision of the architecture; it's got the users; and now, provided it offers those mainly non-technical users a consistent and familiar user experience, it really doesn't have to try very hard.

Reality: Twitter

Twitter isn't really trying to out-Facebook Facebook. It's trying to do something distinctive and unique, and has succeeded, probably, past its creator's wildest dreams. Twitter is not a platform for private discussions between friends - there's no way you can prevent a tweet being retweeted by anyone who can see it. Threaded conversations are handled poorly (although they are supported to a degree). And, of course there's that notoriously short post length.

What Twitter does, though, it does well. It does live events better than anything else at present (although Google+ clearly intends to challenge that).

Reality: LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the one of the current generation of social media systems that I've been on longest. So what to say about it? It's social media for business people. It makes a virtue of dullness. Everything on it is dull. The people are dull. Even the people whom one knows are emphatically not in the least dull - like my good friend Andreea - appear dull in their LinkedIn profile. No-one I'm connected to posts anything interesting there except me, and I only do because I have it automatically pick up my Twitter posts. It probably has some excellent features, but frankly who cares? It's dullsville. Dull.

Reality: Niche systems

LinkedIn might be seen as a niche system for dull people. At the other end of the scale, Fetlife is a niche social media system for interesting people. I'm sure there are a lot of other interesting and good niche systems in other areas of life, but I'm not aware of them.

Fetlife is social media for sadists, for masochists, for bondage sluts, for transvestites and for transexuals, for people, generally, of transgressive sexuality. It's unsurprising that many people don't choose to express that side of their personality on mainstream social systems; for many people their sexuality is at least to some extent hidden from their colleagues and friends.

Surprisingly, Fetlife don't use a generic SM engine (sorry!). They roll their own. And actually it's very good. It is in some sense a hybrid between a social media system and a forum/newsgroup system - the main feed shows your friends' activity like Facebook, but most activity takes place in discussion groups which are mainly public (although many are moderated). Look and feel is excellent; performance is excellent; user experience is very good.

Underneath it there's some very solid software engineering, with a lot of thoughtful data-caching and graceful failure code. Specific parts of the system, particularly in these geeky data-management areas, are released as open source, but the core engine has not been, yet. Like Diaspora, Fetlife is under very active development, with a sufficiently small user community (hundreds of thousands, not millions) to allow the developers to be responsive and engaged with their users.

Reality: Usenet

Usenet is a dinosaur - a beloved dinosaur, but a dinosaur - and it is dying. It was - once - very vibrant. It predates not merely the Web but the Internet itself, and its faults have informed the features of the social media systems of today. Essentially Usenet is an anarchic peer-to-peer amalgam of servers owned and managed by different institutions, which share with one another a vast collection of hierarchically organised discussion groups. Some of these are technical in nature, but many are in effect social clubs.

So, what are these faults and how do they influence the design of modern systems?

Firstly, the institutions which own the systems gain little financial return from running them. While some are now run on a subscription model, usually the service is provided for free or bundled in with other services. For this reason the actual owners of the core servers have little resource to dedicate to manage the system and have offloaded that responsibility onto 'democratic institutions' of users. In theory, that seems a good thing, but it results in control being put into the hands of people who have literally no interest at all in the success and vibrancy of the system and are often more interested in playing politics than carrying out the responsibilities to which they've been elected.

The remainder of the problems all come back to that first problem, because in fact all the problems with Usenet are technically fixable - if those with the power to do so had the will.

So the second problem is the lack of verified user identities. It's fairly easy to make a post to Usenet which appears to come from some other user. It's extremely easy to set up multiple posting accounts and to make attacks on other people from behind the barrier of anonymity. There are very few sanctions which anyone can use to dissuade antisocial behaviour, because the antisocial person can easily abandon one identity and reappear with another.

As a matter of design Usenet is a broadcast medium. You can choose not to read certain identities messages (by using a 'kill file), but you cannot choose who can read what you post. You send your message out to a specific group, but you cannot exclude anyone from reading that group. That's not a fault, it's a decision. But I think that modern social media's mechanisms for optionally limiting ones posts to circles of known, chosen people is a consequence of learning from the social consequences of this aspect of Usenet.

Finally, Usenet's user interface is horrible. To be precise, there are many client applications which provide a frame to Usenet, and those have better or worse user interfaces. But under it everything is plain unstyled text geared to a mainframe era 80 column teletype. For the upcoming generation, it's simply bizarre that anyone should choose to read such ugly and poorly formatted text.

Reality: Google+

Google+ is the new contender. It has learned a lot from a series of relatively-failing social media systems which Google has tried. It's feature-rich and slick. It looks very good. Features are mostly intuitive and easy to find and to use. It has all of Facebook's functionality, all of Twitter's, most of Diaspora's; and, in addition, a built in realtime chat/video conferencing system which is significantly ahead of the Facebook chat system (although I don't yet know how useful this is). Furthermore, it integrates seamlessly with Google's existing mail, talk, photo storage (picasa) and calendar systems and I suspect will soon integrate with Google's groups system.

Google is putting a lot of investment into this, a lot of good design and a lot of infrastructure. It already all works - and it all works fast.

Of motivation and potential

I've said already that I think Diaspora is the best of what's out there. I've said also that I don't think it will win. Why not?

Microsoft have, over the past two decades, captured and held the world market in word processing. A major part of the reason is the appropriately named 'network effect' - in order to exchange documents with people who use Microsoft's word processor, you have to use Microsoft's word processor yourself. Markets with network effects are intrinsically monopoly-generating. It's in the interest of commercial companies to seek to establish monopolies, of course; they're profitable. Governments can seek to oppose this - and, in the case of social media, easily could by requiring a common, open, discussion interchange API - but Governments move extremely slowly and this market moves fast.

To provide a useful service you have to capture the majority of users within a population; otherwise, your users' friends will not be on your system and your users won't be able to communicate with them, so will move to other systems where their friends are. This is the 'network effect'.

To capture the majority of users, not only do you need to have the buzz and brand stature to capture a lot of interest quickly, you also have to have the infrastructure to provide responsive performance for all the users who choose to adopt your system. You have to scale very fast. And it helps if you have a lot of users to start with.

To pay for that infrastructure, you have to have a means of monetising the system. The infrastructure does not come cheap. Diaspora's model does allow some nodes to carry advertising. It does allow some nodes to be paid for by user subscription. But it also allows some nodes to be free and without advertising, and there's a lot of users who would prefer to use such nodes. Many such servers will be run by amateurs, will have low power and low upstream bandwidth. There's no way obvious to me that Diaspora can load balance. Slow servers in the network will, I suspect, slow the performance of the whole system.

Furthermore, there's no powerful central body with sufficient media clout to promote the system. Ten million people have joined Google+ in a fortnight; I doubt that number have even heard of Diaspora, in a year.

The Diaspora team's motivation is to build cool software. They are building cool software; they're succeeding. But their other motivation is to provide people with the means to keep their personal data out of the clutches of the big corporations. Both Google and Facebook have the same fundamental: to aggregate data about every person on the planet in order to be able to sell us as market-fodder to other corporations. This is lucrative; it makes money. It makes money which helps Google and Facebook hire good engineers and build good infrastructure which can support a fluid, responsive user experience.

Knowledge is power; knowledge about us is power over us, and there are very real civil liberties issues about corporations having so much power. As we've seen with News International, for one corporation with its own political agenda to control the majority of media through which flow the key day to day information within a polity is inherently corrupting.

Which brings us, finally, back to Diaspora. Diaspora offers a mechanism to support a distributed and potentially heterogenous cloud of 'pods' each providing a home for different groups of users. No one organisation controls, and, provided Diaspora have got their security right, no one organisation can see the data of all the users. But all the users on all their different home 'pods' can nevertheless collaborate with one another, share the information they wish to share with the people with whom they wish to share it, and engage in conversations as they choose. They can also discover their friends across the Diaspora cloud.

As I've argued above, there's no technical reason why Facebook or Google+ could not configure their service to appear to the Diaspora cloud like just another Diaspora 'pod'. Then, users on Facebook could share information with, and join in discussions with, their friends on any other social network which also conformed to the Diaspora APIs (including, obviously, Diaspora). Such an arrangement would also make it easy for users to choose to migrate their 'home' social media system from one provider to another - you could move all your contacts, all your circles, all your pictures from one home to another, and continue to share and converse with the same friends.

There's no techical reason. But there's a strong commercial reason why Facebook, at least, won't do this (and why Google probably won't either), unless they're forced to. Everyone uses Facebook, because of the network effect: your friends are there, so you have to be there. But overwhelmingly we don't feel warmly towards Facebook itself. The company is widely distrusted, and the software doesn't seem much loved. If it was easy to move, if it was easy to share with friends on Facebook from outside Facebook, Facebook would lose users; probably, quite a lot of users.

Google, on the whole, is still a more trusted brand than Facebook. But the days of 'don't be evil' seem to be fading into a more naive past, at least in the public perception. I've started to be concerned about how much Google know about me; not because they now know more - they've known a very great deal for very many years - but because I now trust them less. And I think many other people trust Google less than I do. They, too, stand to be losers from a more heterogeneous social media landscape.

Government - either the US or the EU - could, of course, require major social media systems to open up, through a mandated open sharing API possibly derived from Diaspora. That's what would, I believe, happen in an ideal world. If it does happen in the real world, however, it's likely to be botched and too late. Government processes do not operate at the speed of modern technical innovation.


Which means, in the end, I come down reluctantly on the side of Google+. It offers a slightly more fluid user experience and a slightly wider range of slightly better functionality than Facebook, from a slightly more trusted monopolist. Most of my friends are not geeks. My chances of dragging my friends to Diaspora are slim, because they won't find their friends there. And, if there were to be a mass migration from the corporate systems to Diaspora, I think it would be extremely hard with no central organisation and no significant revenue stream to make the system scale. So I think Diaspora will probably lose, and that Google+ will probably over time supplant Facebook as the place where tout le monde et sa femme hang out.

Monday 18 July 2011


It's been a big week here on the farm; so big, a journal entry is required. But so big too that, here in the lull that follows, my memory is already confused. I'm setting down events as I remember them; I could be wrong.

The core of it has been hay. We decided, early in the year, to put the majority of the farm down to hay as needing least work. We all knew that this would be a busy year...

We've needed to harvest the hay for a while; it's been ready. Finn had bought - out of his own pocket, as his own property - the basic equipment needed: a mower, a hay-bob, a baler. All of them were old, second hand, sold, in fact, as scrap. But Finn, our smith, is talented with metal mechanisms, and he fettled them up and made them work.

Cutting hay in Scotland is gambling. Once it's cut, it needs to dry in the field for a few days before it can be baled. To aid it drying evenly, one must turn it regularly - hence the need for the hay-bob, a device which in one configuration lifts loose hay up and throws it backwards in a wake as from a speed-boat, and in another gathers it up into neat rows to await the baler. The thing is, you need a run of (reasonably) dry days; you have to time your cut to fit between one Atlantic depression and the next.

The first time I thought we had an opportunity to cut, Finn wasn't ready. The second time, Finn judged the weather wouldn't hold (he was right; it didn't). Last Tuesday was the third time. Alex and I were on the sawmill cutting wood. We were concerned about the hay cut. All the hay cutting machinery is Finn's, and he wasn't happy about anyone else but Willie using it. Finn's first baby was due that day. But, as we were muttering, Finn and Willie turned up, and through the day we saw and heard them working on the north croft, cutting and turning. Also on Monday, Alex and Alice's caravan arrived, on Mark Wilson's huge trailer.

Mark is a farmer from Screel, the other side of the village. He fits every urbanite's stereotype of a farmer, a man more of muscle than of mind but with an inexhaustible supply of agricultural anecdote. His father and grandfather were famous locally for their heavy horses, but Mark's metier is machinery: tractors, diggers, harvesters. The bigger the better.

One day, one croft cut. We had four to cut...

Wednesday, I set the day aside mainly to help with haying, but Finn and Willie weren't ready for help, so I got on with the office instead, with some help from the kids. Outside, Alex and Alice were sawing. Finn's baby was being born. Willie was cutting and turning the electric croft. By late afternoon, Finn was back and baling; Alice and I went down to help by stacking bales, clearing space for the baler to work; about seven, Finn had finished baling for the day, and after some discussion with the others, I walked home over the hill, calling Penny back from hunting rabbits in the hilltop gorse as I went.

Thursday morning as I walked back up to the steading I saw to my surprise what appeared to be a massive haystack on the north croft. In fact, it turned out to be something better: Mark Wilson had returned shortly after I had left, and, with Alex, Alice and some others, had got the caravan off his trailer and stacked it instead with some two hundred and fifty bales. By ten o'clock the whole gang had assembled, and, with the dew evaporating, while Finn continued to bale the north croft, Alex got his mog hitched up to the trailer, and pulled it back to the old byre in the steading. We offloaded the bales by hand, stacked them, went back out to the field, filled the trailer again.

When I was a child we did the hay harvests like this: pulled in everyone who was available and manhandled bales onto and off trailers. At age eleven it was my job to drive the tractor which ferried bales back to the barn, because everyone who was strong enough to lift a bale was lifting bales. But by my teens we used the 'square eight' system: a special sledge, pulled behind the baler, automatically arranged the bales into a two by four square, and released them in that square into the field. A special grab on the front loader of a tractor lifted those eight bales together, and laid them together onto the trailer, rapidly building stacks. Hay harvest became quicker and needed less hands. Since then, of course, most commercial farmers have moved onto round bale systems - bales so large they cannot be manhandled, can only be moved by machinery.

But here at Standingstone, this year and probably for the forseeable future, we're fifty years in the past. We don't even have a bale elevator. We don't ourselves have a trailer suitable for moving bales. And here at Standingstone, on Thursday, with rain forecast on Friday, Finn was still baling on the North Croft. Ruth phoned James Baird, another local farmer who still has old fashioned square baling kit, and asked him to come to turn and bale the electric croft.

Meantime, under bright warm sunlight, with Mark's huge trailer filling like a top-heavy Spanish treasure galleon, we cruised around the North Croft collecting another great load of bales, and ferried them back. At some stage we stopped, briefly, for lunch. At some stage, Ruth, going down to the village for more diesel for the tractors, returned with ice lollies. By four it was clear that we would struggle to get all the bales in - we were not finished on the North Croft, not started on Electric Croft - and we phoned round friends to try to drum up more help. Friends came, and we worked through the evening, bringing home a third great galleon-load. And though it was hard work, I think the whole crew were finding it fun.

Finally, every bale from the North Croft - dry and pale and sweet smelling - was safe in the old byre. I arranged tarps over the damaged skylights in the byre roof. We ate an impromtu evening meal at Ruth's. and then went to stook the bales on the Electric Croft, to expose them to air; they hadn't really had enough drying time, nor been turned enough. Cloud was blowing in threateningly from the west, but there was no more we could do. The light was fading from the sky. All of us were stumbling with exhaustion. We went our various ways home, and, as usual, I collected Penny from her happy hunting ground in the gorse.

Friday was an altogether different game. Alice, Meg and Rosie had a dental appointment. Finn was caring for his new family. Willie, who's mother's funeral had been on Thursday, was (unsurprisingly) not back. Also, it was cold and windy, and the threat of rain was lowering on the air. So it was a reduced crew - Alex, Ruth, Gavin, Kein, myself and, after a short while, Girl Alex - who set to work.

Our plan had been to make stacks in the field, and get as many bales as we could back to the Void to dry under cover. But there weren't enough of us, and we were all exhausted. So we built one stack - not very large, and frankly, not very good - and filled the big trailer just once before the storm came in. In the wind and the beginnings of stinging rain, we struggled to get tarpaulins over the lot; the rest of the bales we just stooked. Fortunately, James arrived with fresh muscles, and helped greatly.

I staggered home through wind and thin rain, made myself a good meal, and turned in early.

I was awoken at half past three in the morning by torrential downpour combined with wind which whipped my wood, setting the summer palace swaying. Spray drifted in on the wind, making everything damp. I thought of my impromptu tarpaulins on the skylights, and realised that they weren't likely to survive this weather. So I got up, and dressed, and trudged up to the farm, and spent two hours fighting with tarpaulins before the rain front blew through and I went back to my damp bed. But I was up again before lunchtime, to go into Castle Douglas to buy some corrugated plastic sheet as a better repair to the skylights. With help from James, I got that in place. And then I went back to bed.

While all this was happening on our land, beyond the dyke the Wickerman festival - still in theory a week away - was starting to set up its tents and staging. For fifty-one weeks of the year, my wood is one of the quietest and most undisturbed places in Scotland. This week? Not so much. Machinery, shouting, bashing and clanging, and the occasional blast of over-loud music goes on from dawn until dark. Nevertheless, through Sunday I mostly slept.

Today is Monday. The stooks on the Electric Croft are mostly still standing, but they're awfy wet. The tarps on the stacks are still in place. My home, too, is wet, and bitter cold forbye. The wild weather persists, and the noise beyond the dyke destroys the peace. I'm still tired. I'm damp - my bed is damp, my clothes are damp - and I'm filthy. I hate being filthy...

In truth I'm a little demoralised. Thursday was brilliant. We all worked together. We had a great time. But we got one croft's worth of hay won. Another croft is cut and may still be won, but the longer it sits wet in the field the less chance we have of winning it. And whether we win it or not, we'll have to pay James Baird for baling it. Two crofts aren't even cut, and, if they continue to be beaten down by the weather, won't be worth cutting. Even if we can cut them, I'm not sure we can get the gang together for that sort of heroic effort again. And our late sown barley is looking very poor, while our neighbours is already in ear and starting to ripen. I think it's likely that we're going to make a loss on farming operations this year.

We've also exposed tensions that we need to resolve, about how we manage the land. Amongst all the other things the question has suddenly blown up over whether or not our produce is certified organic - because the farm has had no money, we've been delaying paying our dues to the Soil Association. Now, they're insisting on us getting our return in today. Amongst everything else on Friday there were tense discussions about whether this was worth it. And the issue of the farm having no machinery of its own, and having to hire Finn's or bring in outside contractors, also needs to be addressed.

There's been a great deal positive in this week. But it's also been tough.

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.

Monday 23 May 2011

Tactical retreat in the face of overwhelming force

Well, we're no longer in the Summer Palace. Of our twenty days there, it rained on nineteen and blew a gale on five. Last night, the BBC was forecasting gusts of 82 miles per hour - literally hurricane force.

By dawn it was obvious that I couldn't really depend on the roof surviving; even if it did, sheeting rain was falling and fine spray was blowing through the Summer Palace, making everything wet. The shipping forecast was more soberly predicting force ten, and the BBC's 6am domestic forecast had dropped it's prediction to only 70 mph. If I'd just been myself I'd probably have tried to hold out, but the idea of trying to catch the cats after the roof had gone didn't appeal, and I decided to abandon ship while I could. I started to make things as secure as I could.

Neadless to say I didn't have the cat's transport box down at the summer palace. Ivan, who'd slept cuddled in with me all night, was still under the downie, so I emptied the cooking box and unceremoniously bundled him into it. I wheelbarrowed him over the hill to the farm; at the top I could barely stand.

With Ivan in the car I took the transport box back. I was wearing my waterproof sailing jacket with the hood pulled right down as tight as it would go; I'd deliberately left my glasses off for fear they blow away. The rain on my face was like buckshot. Needless to say, the cat  box blew clean out of the barrow.

I'd expected Penny to be hard to catch, but she'd been sleeping in her usual place in the structure of the roof, which was by now moving quite a lot, and when I called to her she climbed up through the roof structure to where she could see me. She was distressed and clearly couldn't get down by herself, so I hauled her out and bundled her into the box. Then I took down the one wall I have at the palace because it was acting as a sail and clearly making matters worse, bundled my bedding into plastic bags and hauled all my furniture into the centre of the platform, covering it with a strongly lashed tarpaulin before leaving. The roof may go but I don't think the platform will.

We're staying with friends for a couple of days while the weather abates and I get stuff dry, but then we'll go back. But after this a more permanent structure becomes more urgent - it won't wait for autumn, or for planning permission.

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