Busy Doing Nothing


All Out War – The Full Story of Brexit, by Tim Shipman

‘Brexit Bust-Up’, would be a better title. For someone like me, who remains convinced that being a part of the EU is clearly best for the UK, this book is a painful read. Don’t get me wrong, it is very well written, is a very balanced account and the personal views of the author (Tim Shipman – @ShippersUnbound), Remain/Leave, don’t shine through. But, oh my, what a monumental car crash……no-one comes out of this well – the ends appear to justify the means, with Leave winning the referendum arguably because they were more focussed on winning (rather than needing to keep the collateral damage to the Conservative Party to a minimum) and therefore willing to do whatever it took to win: exploiting people’s baser instincts, included. Raw recent history.

Of course, in something as complicated as membership of the EU, it wasn’t, and isn’t, as simple as that. General euroscepticism has been building progressively for the last 20 years at least, and in the minds of many the benefits of belonging to the EU have become strongly associated with being a member of the liberal metropolitan elite. As the inequality gap has grown, especially since the crash of 2008, the anti-elite hostility has grown too. The aforementioned elite, across the West, seemed unable to respond to this in a convincing manner, and many political elites have paid the electoral price. This, in my opinion, prepared the ground for the Brexit vote.

One of the strengths of the book is that it gives the backgrounds of the key players, the networks and provenance. Most of the key proponents of Leave appear to have been anti-EU for a long time, objecting in principle to the transfer of sovereignty that being a member of the EU entails. I regard this as being a legitimate point of view, but I consider the political and economic benefits of EU membership to far outweigh the loss of sovereignty. Unfortunately, the battle over Brexit wasn’t fought on the field of sovereignty and reasoning; if it had been the outcome would have been more intellectually satisfying. It was fought on the field of emotions, which is very much less concerned with truth and reasoning, and more open to abuse.

The book doesn’t consider the democratic legitimacy of the referendum outcome, instead focussing on what happened and what the key players thought. My own view is that the referendum was part of the UK’s political system of governing, and that it isn’t anti-democratic to challenge the course of action we should now follow, nor to seek, within the confines of the law, to prevent Brexit. The consequences of Brexit are very far reaching, and definitely non-trivial; considerable further thought and proposals for alternative courses of action are entirely appropriate. Of course, only if the field of truth and reasoning is being considered, rather than the field of emotion.

This is a page-turner well written book; I highly recommend it.

Germany to Germany: Diary 1990; Guenter Grass

At Home, 28 December 2017
Several days ago I started reading Guenter Grass’ From Germany to Germany, Diary 1990. It was a Christmas present. I’m not particularly into fiction, so I was only vaguely aware of Grass; enough to know that he is an important German author, but not much more than that. Of course, 1990 was an important time in Germany, given that the Wall came down in 1989 – and I remember that very well. Grass was politically active, and very highly respected by the Germans, both East and West, as far as I can tell from the book. He flits here and there, from one reading event to another political gathering; and it’s fascinating. I do wonder, however, why I find it fascinating…..I’ve read a few diaries from political figures (Alastair Campbell, Chris Mullins, Alan Clarke, Chips Channon), and Golo Mann’s History of Germany, so this Grass volume resonates a bit. He was also an artist, and some of his sketches are also in the book. So far I’ve reached page 100.

At Home, 29 December 2017
Herr Grass is very worried about climate change. More and intense storms than usual lash the Continent, spring is early, and the summer very hot. His eyes are burning (old age?), and Iraq has invaded Kuwait. Also, German reunification rushes headlong, in a manner likely to leave the GDR bankrupt and beholden to the West Germans (who will be the overlords) – Guenter isn’t happy, and despises Kohl’s urgent opportunism and bypassing of the constitution. I remember at the time, there was concern for what reunification would bring for the rest of Europe……a strong Germany at the centre, with Poland again squeezed by its powerful neighbours – the rest of Europe recognising that reunification was inevitable (especially morally), and wondering if the existence of the EC could prevent political and economic catastrophe; so far, yes, but what happens when the UK leaves?

At Home, 30 December 2017
He likes his complicated family and his food, gardening and drawing (in pencil and charcoal). I’ve finished reading the book. At the end, Guenter reviews the year just past (in terms of political events, and his work achievements), and plans out his work year to come. Medium term planning, I guess: but it includes two new novels – The Call of the Toad, which he has been outlining all year, and a second, new, piece of work based on Fontane. By the end of the year (1990), a start has just about been made on the first….and the second will take five years to write (including the research). This is the professional writer at work – planning novels over a period of years; sketching plots and characters, and perspectives, and required research. Gulp. Fascinating – and the book ended with a sketch of a toad. Peeling onions next?

A Map of the Invisible – Journeys into Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth

(Available from Amazon)
I have been on a journey myself over the last few years. It started when I read Professor Butterworth’s previous book, Smashing Physics, which tells the story of the discovery of the Higg’s boson at CERN, from the perspective of the experimentalists (Jon is an experimentalist who splits his time between UCL in London, and CERN in Geneva). The book got me interested in physics again.
(I’m a Chemist; an organic chemist. When I started University in the early 80s I thought I was going to be a Physicist; but I couldn’t hack it; I became a Chemist instead – but I don’t regret it)
I knew enough to appreciate the story Jon told, but not enough to really grasp the detail. So, I set about looking into some of these areas, starting with Special Relativity and then General Relativity (I’ve blogged about this here). Contrary to my expectations, General Relativity was at least graspable, even if the maths was very unfamiliar to me. Given this apparent success, I moved on to looking into the Quantum world. My slow progress has been hinted at in some blog posts: QM3. I have read a number of books in 2017 on this subject (see bibliography below), in an attempt to understand the quantum world. It has been fascinating. The Quantum world is truly bizarre, like something out of a Sci-Fi novel, with strange effects and exotic objects with imprecise properties. Eventually I have concluded that understanding isn’t possible – the mathematics can, though, be used and does appear to be an accurate description of the Quantum world, and can be used to make predictions. And this leads to the Standard Model of elementary particles – which is what A Map of the Invisible is about.
Given all the reading I’ve been doing about QM, I am very aware of the vast amount of experimentation and theoretical explorations that Jon has condensed down into a summary of the Standard Model. What Jon has also managed to do, though, is to communicate what we still don’t know, and where future studies might take us. The use of the map analogy, couched within a framework of the journey, very effectively conveys the dynamic nature of this area; both in its history, but also in its future – this is a very live area of research. It is also a very difficult area to grasp, and the map analogy is a good framework for constructing a mental image of the Standard Model.

What would be good, though, would be an accompanying large format (A0?) poster of the maps, annotated with what we know about each elementary particle.

+A Beautiful Question – Finding Nature’s Deep Design: Frank Wilczek

+Quantum Mechanics – The Theoretical Minimum: Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman

+In Search of Schroedinger’s Cat – John Gribbin

+Schroedinger’s Kittens – John Gribbin

+You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Richard Feynman

+Inside the Centre – The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer – Ray Monk

+The Strangest Man – The hidden life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius – Graham Farmelo

+The Quantum Story – A history in 40 moments – Jim Baggott

Partially read:

+Quantum Mechanics – A complete introduction: Alexandre Zagoskin

+Quantum Theory – David Bohm

+Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe – Roger Penrose

Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future (from @paulmasonnews)

I have just finished reading Paul Mason’s book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future. Scary stuff; and not because this is a rant by an extreme left wing political economist/journalist – because it isn’t. This is a serious attempt to analyse where the world is heading, what it means, and what can be done to prevent disaster.

Where is the world heading?

– Neo-liberalism is dead

– Climate change is a world-changer, and a new energy economy is required

– The ageing of the world population, coupled to migration, is also a world-changer

– Public debt is unsustainable and 60% of states are heading for bankruptcy by 2050

Paul’s view is that the global elite is in denial, and have no solutions to these problems. The market will not solve the problems.

So far, little to disagree with. What are the solutions? Paul offers some sense of the required direction of travel, rather than a step by step set of instructions. Centralised, strategic and fast action is required, with states acting together; revolutionary reformism leading (after a possibly lengthy transition) to Postcapitalism. This requires willpower, confidence and design. The key principles are:

– creation of a zero carbon economy

– production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; reduction of necessary labour time to as close to zero as possible (automated economy; less work, more non-waged activity)

– ecological sustainability

-human attitudes to work and societal structures need to change

-maximisation of power of information; allowing networks to attack societal (and other) problems and arrive at solutions collaboratively

-society to become overtly ethical

Very revolutionary, but not in a ‘up against the wall’ sort of way. The transition to a Postcapitalist world doesn’t abolish the state; it requires states and politicians to step up to the plate, and confront the structural problems facing the world, and to take the painful measures required. The transition cannot be left to market forces, although these can be co-opted to nudge the system into the desirable pathways to change.

Clearly, I’ve left a lot out. Recently, Paul Mason seems to have become a figure of fun as far as the rest of the media is concerned. I think that’s a misunderstanding. This book is definitely worth reading.

Time to re-think ‘secondary ready’

When I recently reviewed last year’s posts, I was rather shocked to find that I hadn’t written one post on education. In a year. Not one. Then, in early January, there was a small controversy about the use of knowledge organisers in primary schools. This got me thinking. Generally, I think we want too much out of primary schools. I think that some of the ‘desired’ outcomes are problematic (e.g. KS2 SATs results), and that these generate rafts of methodologies, which leads to a negative feedback loop. Eventually, what is achieved isn’t what was really wanted – too much of the cul-de-sac, in fact – but is what we get. 

What do we want out of primary schools? We want kids to be ‘secondary ready’, equipped to make the transition to secondary school (don’t get me started on the move to re-introduce selective education at 11 on a wider scale than at present)……of course we do; we want them to be able to read and write, and be numerate – but, much of the stuff they are supposed to be able to do now when they move up into secondary school, I learnt well into my secondary education. I think we need to re-think what ‘secondary ready’ should really mean, and to re-think what we get kids to do in primary. 

(Don’t think that I have low expectations; I don’t, see this)

Quantum Theory (notes 4)

Since June 2016 (here), I’ve been resting from the task of attempting to understand Quantum Theory. I needed additional reading material, and Christmas afforded the opportunity to obtain it. Amongst the trawl are: Quantum Mechanics – A Complete Introduction (Alexandre Zagoskin), and The Quantum Story – A History in 40 Moments (Jim Baggott). Also, there are a number of books to add colour: Fashion, Faith and Fantasy – in the New Physics of the Universe (Roger Penrose), Schroedinger’s Kittens (John Gribbin), The Strangest Man (Graham Farmelo), Inside the Centre – the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Ray Monk), and Surely you’re Joking Mr. Feynman! The last of these I’ve finished reading, and I’m half way through the Kittens. And then, last week, an email arrived from Amazon – one of those ‘Because you bought this, we thought you’d might want to buy this’ emails. Normally, these are deleted without engagement, but this one caught my eye. It was advertising the book in the picture. The Ladybird book of Quantum Mechanics (by Jim Al-Khalili), just published – only £5.99 (special offer).
Too much of a temptation. It’s arrived and I’ve read it. Honestly, a Ladybird book of quantum mechanics – how can a scientist not buy it?

(last page:)