Monday, 29 January 2018

Rewiring the equine brain

A newspaper article took my eye today, about the capacity of the human brain to rewire itself after a brain haemorrhage.

It put me in mind of an episode from the later life of Pat (foreground), which I should perhaps record because I thought it so unusual.

When he was already quite old for a thoroughbred, Pat suffered a stroke one day while out in the field with his pals. We realised there was something wrong when he remained lying down when all the others gathered at the gate to come in to their stables.

I took a halter and went to see what was wrong. Though at that point he did not seem especially distressed, he was at first unable to get to his feet. Eventually he managed it with a struggle. Then I discovered he couldn’t walk. It took a long time to encourage him out of the field. He finally settled on a crabwise motion and seemed to have pretty well lost the use of his nearside hind leg. Once he was in his stable, other disturbing symptoms appeared.

The vet was promptly summoned. He prescribed medication and told us if the horse lived through the night he would survive. When I asked about the leg, he replied that the area of the brain controlling the nearside hind was gone beyond recovery, but another part of the brain would evolve the capacity to take over this necessary function. I’d never heard of anything like this.

Following the vet’s instructions we nursed Pat through the next couple of days in his stable and then took him out to the field. All symptoms other than the leg paralysis had now disappeared. He was even able to walk more or less in a straight line without weight-bearing on the damaged leg. However as soon as he saw his pals in the field he decided he would canter over to them. Because only one hind leg was pushing him forward he almost went sideways. This obviously surprised him, but since he could stand, walk and graze he was much happier out than in his stable.

To cut a long story short, things turned out exactly as the vet had predicted. The damaged leg had swollen and never went all the way back to its normal size and it also took a long time to heal the suppurating sore that developed on the cannon-bone while he was semi-incapacitated, but gradually he recovered the use of the leg and even the ability to canter in a straight line.

I have no idea who may be interested in this story, but I felt |I should tell it anyway.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Quora Question:
What are the differences between continental European and British mentality?

Questions inviting sweeping generalisations are all right if you don’t take them too seriously. For example, how much sense does it really make to argue that Swedes, Swiss and Spaniards all share a common European mentality, without even beginning to ask the same question of the heterogeneous British?
We might shed a very little light if we consider a few of the less outrageous over-simplifications regarding how the political, cultural and economic environments differ. Please forgive an element of English drollery in what follows. If you don’t detect any, please forgive its omission.
1. To begin traditionally, as they say, at the beginning. An island tends to be harder to conquer than part of the mainland. For almost a millennium (with the arguable exception of 1688) Britain has not succumbed to invasion. The Swiss have managed something similar by living in the inaccessible Alps, but foreign armies have marched and counter-marched over much of the rest of Europe. I suspect this may influence Europeans towards being more willing to co-operate with each other in order to avoid such things in future. The British are understandably less worried about something that never happens anyway.
2. Many European countries have for historical reasons adopted Roman Law. This system lays down in great detail what citizens may do and forbids everything else. It is far too much trouble for them to enforce this system in the same detail and they usually don’t. By contrast British Common Law assumes that the citizen may do anything the law doesn’t specifically forbid, and the relatively few forbidden things things have historically been policed quite rigorously. Sadly during The UK’s EU membership these two systems became mixed up, so we now have very detailed Romanesque regulations policed with typically-British vigour. This is the worst of both worlds and, amongst other calamities, makes it impossible for replica Edwardian sweetshops to sell humbugs by the quarter.
3. In the UK the Agrarian Revolution, including the Highland Clearances, preceded the political revolution we call democracy. Accordingly Britain has no numerically-significant peasant class. In much of Europe this process was temporally reversed, peasants got votes before losing their land and consequently numerous very small landholders still have a lot of political clout. Rural people (not to be confused with commuters) don’t think like urban people.
4. In the UK the Industrial Revolution also preceded democracy. As a result a well known German exile in the British Museum reading room wrote a book predicting the British capitalist system would be overthrown by the workers. However the British intelligentsia read the book and decided to forestall the revolution by inventing social democracy, passing Factory Acts, introducing compulsory education for all, social security, the NHS etc. As a result British workers decided they now had too much to lose and wouldn’t have a revolution after all but would leave that sort of thing to Europeans.
5. Despite point 3 above, Britain curtailed the power of absolute monarchy at, by European standards, a very early stage of its history, emphasising that government required the consent of the governed, or at least those of the governed who had lots of money. By contrast much of Europe has only recently emerged from the grip of totalitarianism or dictatorship and has relatively shallow democratic roots. From this side of the Channel it sometimes looks as though Europeans tolerate more nonsense than they should from the powers that be, with the honourable exception of French small farmers (see 3 above) who are even better than the British at not tolerating it.
6. The English invented Anglicanism so they could reject the authority of the Pope without having to be protestants either. As a result they became merchants instead and gave up religion except on Sundays. They pressed this reform on the rest of the UK with incomplete success. The rest of Europe however fought lots of wars about religion and hence take it very seriously.
The above are, as Jerome K Jerome might have said, a few idle thoughts of an idle fellow and I refuse to go to the wall for any of them.
Except the inalienable human right to sell humbugs by the quarter.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Quora Question:
Why did Britain vote to exit the EU?

EU organisation diagram
I must reduce the number of questions I answer on Quora. One of these days I need to write something somebody will pay for. But meanwhile:

I can’t speak for my country.

I personally think the proximate cause was the unwillingness of the EU during Cameron’s negotiations to offer even minimal gestures towards reforming those policy areas that raised concern in the UK. They did this in the full knowledge that Cameron needed a deal he could sell to the electorate. Instead, he was humiliated. After a widely-derided effort to suggest that he’d obtained worthwhile concessions, he effectively had to drop the whole subject of the supposed reforms from the referendum campaign.

In respect of immigration, the critical issue was the way the economically-unsound idea of free movement of people had quietly replaced the economically-sound idea of free movement of workers in EU treaties. The latter is about allowing factors of production to move to areas of gainful employment; the former only makes sense as part of a political project and throws intolerable burdens on to the public and social services of richer member countries. It’s worth noting that other members subsequently adopted restrictions they’d refused to Cameron.

Let us also for a moment consider the alternative to the UK leaving. Remainers argue their position was the status quo; it was not. The EU has two major projects that define its objectives; these are the Schengen Agreement on open borders and the Euro single currency. The UK had already decided to opt out of both. We had no influence on these two central issues. Hence we could only ever have been a fringe member going forward.

In particular the Eurozone members collectively outvote the non-members in the EU. They meet together, without the non-members, in order to agree a common position before EU Council meetings. One Eurozone meeting even decided to commit EU funds to a bailout scheme despite the UK, a major contributor to EU funds, not being present at the table.

In summary, I rather think the EU left the UK.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Quora Question:
Was Brexit a success or a failure?

Former European Emperor
I find it remarkable that so many consequences are already attributed to something that has not yet occurred. Let’s be clear. Effects follow causes, not vice versa. None of the current alleged consequences of Brexit are actually consequences of Brexit.

The debate, the vote, the negotiating process and all the attendant hullabaloo have their own consequences of course, but these are primarily down to political dogma and to good and bad expectations which remain to be tested by experience of reality. Even the post-vote depreciation of sterling was natural, given the hysterical forecasts of catastrophe should the result be ‘Leave’. Positive influences, such as trade agreements with third countries, are not yet allowed, so negative expectations at present have the field largely to themselves.

Even after the formal exit in 2019 and the transition period, it will be years before an impartial assessment can be made. Partisan assessments will of course be made much sooner. Indeed, as is only to be expected, Remainers anxious to be proved right are already seizing upon every bump in the road as evidence.

Sadly they themselves are creating bumps which might not otherwise have occurred. They encourage the EU to believe the UK may yet change course. Accordingly Brussels glibly offers a return to the fold whilst deliberately making exit as difficult as possible. Brussels has already undermined the EU nationals section of last month’s preliminary agreement.

Naturally Brussels wants us to stay. We are a major contributor and the Commission is resisting the budget cuts that ought to flow from reduced membership. The other members’ hearts are open but their wallets aren’t.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Quora Question:
Should there be a second EU referendum in the UK?

Advocates of a second referendum seem to hold simultaneously two incompatible propositions:

1) The issues involved in the first referendum were too complex for the masses to understand.
2) The complex terms of an eventual exit deal can be put to the electorate in the form of a simple yes / no question.

Among the grounds for holding a second referendum is a claim that only one side misrepresented the facts in the first referendum. It seems we have forgotten Project Fear, with its immediate recession, emergency punishment budget, World War Three etc.

As a general rule I am not an enthusiast for referenda. Experience shows them to be socially divisive blunt instruments, splitting families and communities, reducing complex shades of grey to simple black and white and arousing passions that are not easy to quell after the event. General elections, by contrast,  give almost every voter some sort of stake in the outcome; few are left utterly without representation. A referendum is winner takes all, however small the majority.

However, the EU Referendum eventually became necessary because all the major political parties of the UK supported membership and selected parliamentarians to reflect that policy.  For forty years opponents had no opportunity to vote against a process that steadily eroded the sovereignty of their country. I suspect a majority of voters might still support membership of the sort of Common Market that we were told we were joining in 1973, but not of an inexorably advancing European superstate, To rage against the result of the first popular vote on this issue in four decades carries more than a whiff of anti-democratic elitism.

Inevitably the ordinary citizen, who has his own life to live, is not an expert. That doesn’t make him ignorant of how his own life is affected by the issues. The failing of our modern system of representative democracy has been the emergence of a class of professional politicians with no experience of the normal world in which their constituents live. In consequence three quarters of parliament were Remainers but the country as a whole voted Leave.

Given that almost all the political, commercial and financial elite spent months predicting chaos, it is a tribute to the resilience of the UK's economic system that the immediate aftermath of the Referendum was not vastly greater instability than in fact occurred.

Just as in the Scottish Referendum, the losers are immediately enthusiastic for a re-run. Economically speaking, nothing could be worse than the prolongation of uncertainty. It damages business, deters inward investment and is a self-inflicted wound which the country can do without. Business can adjust to in or out but not to an eternal argument.

Because the truth is, a second referendum will by no means show a clear and settled popular will. Is it not far more likely the national mood will swing periodically against the status quo just as it tends to do in general elections? How many referenda will be a sufficient number? I very much doubt that agitation for a re-run will ever be quelled if we once start along this road.

Let us instead look for the opportunities of a potential worldwide future rather than hankering after a primarily EU past.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Quora Question:
Is it time for the British to come into the 21st century and have an elected Head of State?

Let’s begin by distinguishing the role of head of state from the role of head of government.

The minimum function of a head of state is to symbolise the unity of the nation and to exercise that symbolic role in representative, ritual and ceremonial ways that help keep the body politic together. It is difficult for a partisan figure to symbolise national unity; by definition he or she has supported one political viewpoint and opposed others in the past and his or her one-time opponents may be reluctant to give such a figure the benefit of any doubt.

The function of a head of government by contrast is to serve as head of the executive, that is to say to be in charge of getting the work of government done. In a democracy this role does not require unanimous support; customarily it is supported by a majority or the largest minority, though there are exceptions to this principle.

Some constitutions combine the two roles, though not always comfortably. These are known as executive presidencies. They range from what are effectively autocracies to highly polarised and divided democracies, though sometimes you do find an individual capable of transcending party animosity and becoming a genuinely national leader. Where such a figure fails to emerge there is no obvious alternative as a national unifying force. The role may fall to an independent judiciary or sometimes society may suffer a loss of cohesion.

For this reason there is merit in keeping the roles of head of state and head of government separate. Since the head of government is elected it is probably best if the head of state is not, because you don’t want a struggle between rival mandates.

The virtues of a monarchical system include new incumbents having experienced an apprenticeship, sometimes accepting an increasing share of royal duties as the reigning parent ages; it is rare for a complete ingénu to ascend the throne not knowing how to behave. As long as the restrictions upon this role are understood by all it is nowadays rarely controversial.

By contrast it is quite common for incoming political heads of government to lack experience or knowledge, resulting in errors of policy in early years.

You probably couldn’t introduce a monarchical system today, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer fit for purpose or could easily be improved upon. Remember the guiding principle of management by exception - ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

What's wrong with Sheffield Wednesday?

Football is a ritualised form of tribal combat. Desmond Morris pointed that out long ago. When political units outgrew regions and became countries, it was no longer considered acceptable for the warriors of one region to attack and pillage the homes of neighbouring tribes. But that doesn’t mean the tribal mentality has been eradicated; it is merely sublimated.

English football has become big business, earning huge sums in television revenue and sponsorship, paying to its star players the sort of wages that ordinary people can’t even dream of.

Nevertheless it is a fundamental error to regard football clubs as simply companies like other commercial operations and their supporters as customers. The typical football fan is not able to switch to another supplier of this product if he doesn’t like some aspect of the way his current team is run. His football club is more than his family, it is his tribe; it is part of his identity; its successes and failures are essentially his own successes and failures.

Like all tribes, football clubs have totems. In the minds of supporters these totems are invested with mystical, magical properties. Listen to disgruntled fans singing that their current crop of players are “not fit to wear the shirt” and you get some sense of this. The shirt is the greatest of all totems. It has a hallowed tradition and new owners of clubs interfere with that totem at their peril.

For example, just because Cardiff City was acquired by an owner who considered red a lucky colour didn’t mean the ‘Bluebirds’ team shirts could be changed from blue; this move was insulting to the tribal gods. Not only would disaster and discontent follow hard on the heels of this unwise change, such evils would continue until tradition was restored and the tribal gods appeased.

To me therefore the reason for Sheffield Wednesday’s travails this season after two consecutive appearances in the promotion play-offs is painfully obvious. They stopped playing in blue and white stripes. Worse, they did this in the club’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary season.

Vulcan is displeased. All the gods of steel-making are displeased. Their wrath is terrible. The tribal totem has been disrespected and good times will not return until proper tradition has been re-established.

Don’t wait until next season, club-owner Mr Chansiri. Blue and white stripes should be restored at once. The tribal gods won’t wait.