Monday, 29 September 2014

The smoking ban didn't work, did it?

The smoking ban in pubs, the thing - the silver bullet - that would suddenly change the world and stop every one smoking was introduced in 2007. And look folks - it didn't work, there was no accelerated decline in smoking and one-in-five of us still smoke. So we've shut down thousands of pubs, destroying business and creating unemployment to achieve almost nothing at all.

And now because that hasn't worked, the public health fanatics want plain packs for fags. Let me tell you now - it won't work, no even a little bit. And those ban-fans will be back with their next wheeze (which, of course, won't work). Look guys, we're grown ups. We know the risks. We know smoking increases our chances of dying a premature, painful death. Some will make the choice to smoke. It's their choice too, and they should be allowed to make it.


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Perfecting tyrrany


A really striking excerpt from a paper called 'Perfecting Tyranny...' quoted by Don Boudreaux:

Those who have developed a comparative advantage in innovating and implementing state-produced social control via foreign interventions will benefit in the form of higher wages by employing their unique human capital domestically.  Specialists in state-produced social control are able to suggest and implement new techniques and organizational forms of state social control on the domestic population based on their experiences of doing the same to distant populations.  The result is that domestic activities, whether in the public sector or the private sector, are influenced by the experiences and skills gained during the coercive foreign intervention.  As this process unfolds, the distinction between the state-produced social control used abroad and state-produced social control used domestically becomes blurred.

Not sure I entirely agree but it is food for thought in these troubled times.


Saturday, 27 September 2014

Alan Johnson - nannying fussbucket of the week


Alan Johnson the chirpy cockney lefty pundit who used to be a health minister under Tony Blair wants to ban Coca-Cola:

One thing: a single proclamation; a dictat that required no pandering to public opinion or consultation with a focus group. It’s simple. I’d ban Coca-Cola and all its offshoots, lookalikes and variants.

Free from the constraints of good sense, this blokiest of ex-MPs reveals himself as just another health fascist. And it helps that Coca-Cola is a faceless American corporation, one of the dark and sinister groups manipulating our gullibility and corrupting our youth. Now I think Coca-Cola is revolting stuff but millions every day enjoy the pleasure of drinking the foul muck and it's none of my business to be calling for bans or anything of that sort.

Fizzy-pop isn't especially good for us but then neither is that lovely chocolate fudge cake Alan's auntie probably used to make or those wonderful hand-made traditional sweets sold in that lovely old-fashioned shop on the high street. Sweetness - whether from sugar, fruit or honey - is wonderful, a joyful pleasure for young and old alike. Johnson, like all the rest of the health fascists, would have us live in a dull, drab world where nannying doctors dictate where, what and when we all eat.  A world where little brainwashed kids - in Johnson's words - lecture us about our sins:

The result will be an army of happy children marching forward together, eyes bright, teeth gleaming; instead of teaching the world to sing, they will teach it to stop consuming sugar.

If anything should be banned, we should start with ghastly, self-righteous health facsists like Alan Johnson.


Cities are cheaper...


We sort of knew this I think but it's good to be reminded that the process of growing food in the countryside and transporting it to cities is a very efficient system - indeed that food in cities is cheaper:

This paper uses detailed barcode data on purchase transactions by households in 49 U.S. cities to calculate the first theoretically-founded urban price index. In doing so, we overcome a large number of problems that have plagued spatial price index measurement. We identify two important sources of bias. Heterogeneity bias arises from comparing different goods in different locations, and variety bias arises from not correcting for the fact that some goods are unavailable in some locations. Eliminating heterogeneity bias causes 97 percent of the variance in the price level of food products across cities to disappear relative to a conventional index. Eliminating both biases reverses the common finding that prices tend to be higher in larger cities. Instead, we find that price level for food products falls with city size. 


Friday, 26 September 2014

Is the EU more Holy Roman Empire than nascent super-state?


I've thought something like this for a while:

These attitudes suggest that the EU could be devolving from a nascent super-state to something that increasingly resembles the Holy Roman Empire, a fragmented landscape of small, unimportant states wrapped in a unitary, but ephemeral crepe.

If this is so - and I fear it is, the need for a sustainable reform of EU institutions become imperative. Without this Europe as we know it could well collapse into the sort of bickering autarky that organisations like UKIP and the Front National increasingly present as their preferred future.

We need to begin presenting an internationalist alternative to both petty nationalism (UKIP, SNP, FN, etc.) and to the fortress Europe policies of the EU elite. Only Britain has the desire right now to have that debate and, in the UK, only the Conservative Party dare challenge both those sclerotic EU institutions and isolationist nationalism. And that referendum is essential as the lever to make Europe change.


'Of Mycelium and Men' - thoughts on the evolution of fungi...

Steve Manthorp wanted me to call this 'Of Mycelium and Men' and it's such a good title I have shamelessly thieved the idea. The posting is prompted by two things - the announcement of a project to study the evolutionary history of fungi by the US National Science Foundation and my recent reading of Jeff Vandermeer's 'City of Saints and Madmen'.

The research project first - it looks at zygomycetes which are believed to be among the first terrestrial fungi forms and perhaps a critical factor in the development of land plants. Zygomycetes are filamentous molds similar to those we see sometimes on old bread or fruit that is starting to rot. Anyhow, we don't know much about them - Jason Stajich, an associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology at the University of California, Riverside, explains:

"Despite zygomycetes' critical ecological roles and importance to human civilization, they remain understudied and their evolutionary relationships are still not well understood," Stajich said. "This is likely a result of some of the difficulty in culturing many of the species, but also because, in general, too few researchers have been studying them."

The research will examine the symbiotic and parasitic relationships between these early forms of fungi and the plants and animals on which they host - and hosted. And it's here that the 'City of Saints and Madmen' came to mind. the book - a collection of short stories set in a fictional city called Ambergris - has at its heart the uneasy relationship between man and mushrooms. The city is a human settlement placed in the heart of an older, grander and more complex city built by super-evolved mushroom-like humanoids, the 'Grey Caps'.

Perhaps, by design or accident, Vandermeer hit on a strange truth - fungi are an overlooked essence in the development of sophisticated life but we see the myco-world as parasitic, feeding on death and decay rather than creating and enhancing. So our response to the mushroom is fear and repulsion:

Manzikert found the gray cap repellent, resembling as it did, he is quoted as saying, "both child and mushroom", and if not for his fear of retaliation from a presumed ruling body of unknown strength, the Cappan would have run the native through with his sword."

In a weird way Vandermeer's fantasy echoes the research Prof. Stajich and his colleagues are undertaking:
 resolving these earliest branches in the fungal genealogy scientists can study what the likely characteristics of ancestral fungi were, and determine what traits emerged first and were necessary as part of the transitions of life from aquatic to terrestrial ecosystems.

Read more at: resolving these earliest branches in the fungal genealogy scientists can study what the likely characteristics of ancestral fungi were, and determine what traits emerged first and were necessary as part of the transitions of life from aquatic to terrestrial ecosystems.

Perhaps, from out of all this we get a glimpse of a future mushroom world!


Thursday, 25 September 2014

The garden city - a stultifying, depressing but comfortable, car-free suburban zombie-land

I've known David Rudlin and Nicolas Falk from Urbed off and on for about a dozen years mostly because they've both been involved in some of the thinking - good and bad - about the future of Bradford as a place. And like many in the urbanist and urban design world, David and Nick are, I fear, a little trapped in a planning model rather than a people model. The solutions Urbed produce are - at the macro level - about deciding things for people collectively or, worse, about trying to second guess the aggregate impact of millions of consumption decisions.

Urbed were the winners of the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014, which focused on "how best to deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular." And, in Urbed's slightly disruptive tradition, the winning entry rejected the old 'new town' model of the garden city in favour of large urban extensions. It's well worth reading how Urbed responded to this brief because it reveals a very high quality of thinking about the challenges of a brief to deliver places rather than a new generation of uninspiring, predictable housing estates.

Given the brief Urbed's response was exciting, challenging and stimulates us to think about the model for future development in England. However - and this is what I will examine in the rest of this article - the approach is profoundly illiberal, assumes that more fixing of the housing market is needed because our planning systems have skewed that market and fails to consider how travel, communications and work will change over coming decades.

Writing in New Start, Nick Falk sets out some of the essentials that lie behind the Urbed entry.

Tomorrow’s cities not only have to be affordable in a world where few earn enough to make a deposit on a house, but also to cut carbon emissions, and create a sense of community. Letchworth was built at a time when the man was the breadwinner, working locally, and when energy was delivered by the coalman. Various religions brought people together; alcohol was banned, and people made their own entertainment. The motor car was hardly practical for most people’s needs.

The problem, as Nick recognises, is that the system we have of designating land for development (while protecting most other land) results in unaffordable housing. In Surrey there is famously more land given over to golf than to housing. It's true that our system of housing finance has also contributed but the primary cause remains the deliberate limiting of land available for the development of housing. Indeed, Falk notes this - although he may not have meant it this way - when he says:

...we have to find ways of doubling housing output and locating them where there is easy access to jobs and services, and this means taking much of the risk out of development.

Put more simply (and from the perspective of the housing consumer rather than the urbanist or planner) we need to build most of the housing in places where people actually want to live. This is something of a challenge and isn't met by the Urbed approach of urban extensions but rather by something that Nick Falk rejects - small scale developments in local communities that act to sustain those communities as places. The problem is - as Falk comments - the 'experts' reject this approach:

Through focus groups, we found that not only was there a general feeling among professionals that concentrating growth in a few planned settlements would produce better results than spreading it around, but we also identified ways in which a ‘social contract’ might be negotiated. 

This preference is determined not by the economic realities of housing demand but by a concern with 'climate change' and 'low carbon'. Thus we reject the idea of extending a village with, say, 400 homes to be one with 600 homes (thereby securing the future of the village pub, the post office and the shop) because such development is predicated on the motor car as the primary means of transport.

The result of this is that development simply doesn't meet either need or demand without public subsidy. Indeed, Nick recognises this with his proposal to freeze land values. Ostensibly this freeze is to prevent 'speculation' but, in reality, it represents an enormous public subsidy to those developing the garden city. Indeed, it is clear that - if the Howardian model is to work - such intervention is inevitable. In effect the state identifies a given area for development and takes the additional value rather than allowing this value to accrue to the land owner. The idea that this can happen without compensation is nonsensical.

Nick Falk also cites places like Freiberg in Germany as examples of how this 'social' development approach has worked. Now, it may be that this is the case for some but if the only option for the young worker in the South East of England is such a place, I fear that they'll still look in envy at those in million pound homes in gorgeous Surrey villages asking why. Indeed, this is the vision Nick Falk would impose on those young workers:

In Vauban, if Rieselfeld residents are to be believed, green living is compulsory. 'It jumps in your face a little,' Claudia Duppe warned me, 'and there is a lot of social control. If you walk into the quarter with an Aldi carrier bag, it's, "Sorry, I'm not talking to you; you shop at a discount supermarket and you don't buy organic." It feels claustrophobic, because everyone expects you to behave in the same way - and of course you are not allowed to have a car.'

This would be the triumph of the urban planner, a place where a supposed 'social contract' determines every last thing about the way people live forcing on them a constricting, unnecessarily dense urbanism where there words of Jane Jacobs critique of the garden city become stark and depressing:

...the creation of self sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.

This, rather than the shining city on the hill, is the reality of the garden city. Nick Falk would have us create pretty 21st versions of Stepford, Connecticut (or at least its fictional version). Places where conformity with the 'social' rules are enforced by what began as a charming 'common weal' and quickly becomes the suppressing of difference - a modern prohibition.

I do not want to live in this socially contracted world of Falk's 'pocket utopia' for that supposed perfect place is anything but perfect. Instead it is the creation of planners who see people as things to be placed in carefully designed 'communities' and 'neighbourhoods' rather than as free agents able to, through their interacting with others, create real communities and real neighbourhoods - places that work. Some people want to live hugger-mugger in dense city places, some want space to breathe and a view and others want a variety of choices in between. For a few, Falk's 'green wonderland' would be just the ticket but if this is presented as the future of the urban place it will be one free from creativity and edge, bereft of individual initiative, a stultifying, depressing but comfortable car-free suburban zombie-land.