Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Facts and Fantasies

A comment left yesterday on one of my recent posts flagged up one of the problems of the 'information age.' It has never been easier to disseminate and promote misinformation and conspiracy theories. Some of the ideas the commenter posted came from a blog he/she obviously reads and believes. I followed his link and found the blogger promotes just about every crazy conspiracy theory available. It starts off by claiming that the "Arab Spring" is a plot managed by the CIA and NATO to destabilise the Middle East. According to him, the CIA 'runs' Al Qaeda and 'arranged' for the destruction of the Twin Towers.

It isn't the first time I've encountered these beliefs. They are fairly widely held - and it must be said that they are promoted by various governments - in the Middle East. This is where the internet comes into play, because they invariably cite as a source, or as 'proof' one or more of the more rabid conspiracy theories promoted by some of the more way out conspiracy theorists based in the US or the UK. Michael Moores fiction, Fahrenheit 911, is frequently quoted as 'proof' and presented as a 'documentary' which 'proves' that George W Bush ordered the destruction of the Twin Towers to 'justify a war against Islam.'

It highlights two problems in my view. Apparently no 'government' source in the west is trusted, but every 'opposition' source is to be taken as 'truth' no matter how far fetched. It is, of course, made all the more credible by the fact that we know our government's often 'spin' the truth and omit the inconvenient or damaging from their reports. It is this that gives the conspiracy theorists an open platform. "If they're saying this ... what are they not telling me?" becomes more than a simple mantra - and, if we are honest, we all have that thought when dealing with Government Press Releases, the Media and political announcements. The classic email sent out by one of Blair's aides on the day the Twin Towers were destroyed - the infamous "today's a good day to bury bad news" was merely a confirmation of something we already new about government "news" management.

The second problem is that many, especially those living in countries like Syria or Iran, often do not have access to any information sources that do not meet their government's 'message' about the 'enemy.' This is where the conspiracy theorists in the west play directly into the hands of the propagandists in those areas. The constant stream of books, films, YouTube clips and sheer fantasy poured onto the net by them feeds the hatred many opponents of the western ideals and way of life use very effectively to foster hatred of us and everything we cherish. One can only wonder what motivates them and what their idea of a 'perfect' society looks like. Given that some are rabid believers in the right to arm themselves with every kind of weapon of destruction and others are tree-hugging vegans, I don't think we'll see anything constructive emerging from their campaigns anytime soon.

What certainly is needed is an acknowledgement of past mistakes by government and by the various 'Intelligence' Organisations. Much of what we are now seeing in terms of terrorism, piracy and political upheaval is a legacy of the Cold War. The Taliban rose to power with arms and support from the US, and have now rejected everything their benefactor stands for. The same has happened in a number of other countries. One could mention Mugabe, the Marxist Regimes in Angola and Mozambique, the various factions in the former Belgian Congo, Vietnam, North Korea and West Africa. If we were given an honest acknowledgement of exactly who did what for who in those areas, we might be in a position to roll back a lot of the mythology about what is happening at present.

Personally I don't believe that the CIA, NATO or MI5 are involved in 'destabilising' the Middle East. I do believe that the 'Intelligence Services' of many countries are active there, since knowledge, advance warning and even support for diplomatic efforts depend on knowing what is happening 'on the ground' and who is or is not involved. I also recognise that there are some things I cannot be told at this time for a whole variety of reasons - including the fact that it might actually inflame things in the minds of some if it were made public.  Diplomacy and negotiations in an inflamed climate of distrust can all to easily flare into violence when it is 'spun' or manipulated by someone with a violent agenda.

What my search (perhaps trawl is a better expression) turned up yesterday is that while there are plenty of factual and informative sources available on these matters, there is also a plethora of extreme conspiracy fantasy out there - and that is a sad reflection on the ability of those posting it to consider the impact their fatasies are having in reality. If anything is a threat to our freedom of thought and expression, it is probably the dissemination of 'fantasy' as fact by these groups.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Question Of Perspectives

As the Tropical Storm, Sandy, moves up the Eastern Seaboard of the US we are being bombarded by images of the storm lashed coast and the flooding in Manhattan. Thirteen people have died so far, one the Captain of the replica HMS Bounty, who appears to have stayed with the wreck of his ship. A little research, which apparently the news headline writers haven't done, suggests that Sandy may well be doing a great deal of damage to property and infrastructure, but is not the 'killer' that some previous storms have been. One, which hit in 1938 killed well over a thousand people in the same area being hit by Sandy. Another, in 1949, achieved wind speeds that make Sandy's more like a strong gale, and others for which there are records stretching back into the 18th Century seem to have achieved a higher death toll and more flooding.

What has changed since 1949 is that we now have satellite images to allow us to see the extent of the storm. The true extent of the 1949 Category 5 hurricane can only bee seen if one pieces together a whole battery of aerial photographs. It is also worth mentioning that Sandy was only a Category 1 Hurricane (wind speeds under 90 mph) and though it has picked up strength and may, in colliding with a cold front over land, produce some really devastating effects, it will also, as hurricanes do when they move onshore, begin to break up and lose strength. Another major change since 1949 and 1938 is the expansion of the infrastructures and the extent of cities and towns. Population density has exploded, so has our dependence on power infrastructures and, of course, in this age of 'instant' commerce, any closure of the Stock Exchange is likely to cause massive financial losses. Records from the 19th Century and the early 20th suggest that Lower Manhattan and other parts of the Big Apple conurbation have seen these massive tide surges before - but developers hadn't built in the flood prone areas then. Nor was the sea shore so densely built up or populated.

As I write this, Sandy is being referred to as a "super storm" and a "tropical storm" and no longer as a "hurricane." That is, I suggest, rather an irrelevance if you're one of those whose life is affected by it. I've experienced at first hand several typhoons, at least three cyclones and one "super typhoon." I've also experienced having my home flooded and, as an emergency service worker, I've had to deal with flooding in the homes of others. In recent years I have experienced the flooding of my then home town, which knocked out the power to my home and worse, the supply of fresh water. One fire station I served at was also flooded out in one of these. I have every sympathy with those affected. Storms like this are hugely disruptive and cause massive disruption and distress. But, we do have to keep them in perspective. They are natural events, they do not signal the "end of the world" and the damage they do can be, and will be, repaired.

If they teach us anything, it is this, that we are foolish if we continue to build cities, houses, vulnerable infrastructures, in areas that will flood when such a storm strikes. The second, and perhaps equally important thing it teaches is that we are not in control of the weather and never will be. We are helpless in the face of natures wrath and it is foolish to think otherwise. What we do need to do is be better prepared and learn the lessons of the past to make better use of resources, better use of land and take more notice of natural patterns. Reality is not a computer simulation and it is not 'fair.' Yes, we have moved out of the jungles and savannas our ancesters wandered, but beyond being able to make small 'local' alterations to that environment, we really haven't managed to gain the sort of control of nature SciFi writers of the 1950s and 60s postulated.

We need to get things into better perspective and stop forming opinions based on sensational headlines. We live in an 'information' age, but we seem unable to make good use of it. That seems to me, to be the greatest failure of our generation, and it is a major reason for our lack of perspective on so many things.


The Blog 'Real Science' has a photo from 1900 which shows what the storm surge and a hurricane did to Galveston - killing 8,000 people. Now that, is a hurricane.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A 'Liberal' Dichotomy

Language changes, so do ideas, beliefs, our understanding of nature and our knowledge. Some ideas and beliefs do become untenable in the light of scientific discoveries, others are so deep rooted in a person's psyche that they cannot bring themselves to see any other point of view. This brings me to the "dichotomy" that has puzzled me for some time. Why is it that so many who proclaim themselves ideologically "liberal," adopt often extremely illiberal and intolerant positions? Why do they strive to shut down debate and often trot out the mantra that 'some freedoms/rights must be restricted' in order to promote others that have little foundation in either reality or, until recently, law?

The classic example is the "liberal" meme that labels anyone who disagrees with the latest 'liberal' idea or mantra as a 'fascist.' What drives so-called 'liberals' to seek out 'offence' everywhere they look? Surely, if the Oxford English Dictionary is correct in its definition of the word, a "liberal" is one who is tolerant of all points of view? One who is prepared to listen to someone else and seek accommodation? 

I would regard myself as a 'natural' conservative, but I would also consider myself as 'liberal' in many of my views. I don't agree with extremism in any of of its guises and I certainly do not support the suppression or oppression of any group on the grounds of race, creed, gender or sexual preference. Obviously there are things I draw the line at, and I would have to state that I don't believe in "revolution" as a tool for effective or long lasting change. Revolutions frequently cause more injustice and alienate more people than they benefit. Evolutionary change takes longer, but is often far more effective - but present day "liberals" seem to have adopted the concept that only a revolution can produce the Utopia they want as quickly as they want it. Again, we hit the dichotomy. When the pitfalls are pointed out, you get one of two responses - "those who won't be 'reasonable' about this must be marginalised" or "some people must lose out in order for the majority to benefit."

I always have a problem working out who the 'majority' are when, quite often, the evidence suggests the 'beneficiaries' will be fewer than 20% of any given population.

It does appear sometimes that in their pursuit of securing the 'rights' of some popular minority group or position they see as 'oppressed,' they are prepared to sacrifice the interests and the rights of the majority. It does frequently appear that "liberal" has become synonymous with dictatorial. Increasingly the stance of 'liberals' has become one of imposing a draconian regime to compel. Persuasion has been abandoned, and so has accommodation. Ancient 'rights' to freedom of expression, freedom of choice and even freedom of movement are now under threat. That last being one of the prime targets of the attempts to impose restrictions on travel in personal vehicles and force everyone - except the ruling and liberal elite - into public transport. 'Liberals' have invented a new range of 'rights' for criminals and minorities which, it appears, always trump the rights of the majority to see justice done or to exercise the right to dissent from the 'common ideal.'

This, then, is the dichotomy. It appears that 'liberalism' has adopted the tactics and the methods of the very ideology they purport to despise and wish to stamp out - fascism.

A truly liberal dichotomy. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Running for cover?

The headline which greeted me this morning on the News Feed was that many 'Stars' of the 1970s and 80s are deeply concerned about the Savile Enquiry currently being conducted by the Metropolitan Police. The report mentions that many worry that their 'hedonistic' lifestyles back then may have left them open to accusations of abuse of minors ...

Pigeons coming home to roost sprang to mind. I see that already someone, presumably in Scotland since I saw it on a blog favouring Scottish independence, has drawn up a list of Labour councillors, MPs and luminaries who also have 'form' in this prediliction. Plus, I note that Gary Glitter has been arrested again. Yes, I expect there are a lot more 'Stars' - who the last government showered in 'Honours' like Savile's Knight Bachelor - who are dreading a knock at the door and a visit from Mr Plod or his mates.

What this affair is doing is exposing to view the emptiness of the self-promotion and adulation of 'celebrities' who often have very little talent beyond knowing how to take advantage of any and every opportunity to advance their own interests. It is a shame it has been allowed to reach this point.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Let the winter games begin?

It snowed overnight. We have about two inches of the stuff everywhere, and it hasn't actually stopped yet. We have another, though less serious problem, we haven't changed our tyres yet, which means we cannot legally go out in the car until the snow is gone. Germany is quite strict about this and insists on 'winter' and 'summer' tyres for 'Autos.' There is a diference in the handling of the car between the two as well and one does have to adjust your driving slightly after changing over.

Our current problem is that we store our 'winter' and 'summer' sets (whichever isn't on the car) with a tyre company in Hahn, and they can't sort out the change over for us until next Saturday (or we can collect the tyres and do it ourselves on Monday). It's our own fault, we discussed having it done at the beginning of the month, but then we had a warm spell and we still haven't had a frost. Oh well, a few days at home won't hurt either of us.

Interestingly, the crane flocks don't normally begin their migration until the first frost hits their 'summer' habitat around the Baltic. We witnessed a small group migrating in late September (which prompted us to discuss changing the tyres) but then there were no more migrations. Yesterday a huge flock passed, heading south in the drizzle and low overcast and others apparently passed during the night. Seems the absence of frost has caught them out as well.

Must be Global Warming ...

Friday, 26 October 2012

Arab Spring? Or Fundamentalist Triumph?

The much vaunted 'Arab Spring,' so widely welcomed by the liberal and left of the political spectrum in the west, doesn't, at first glance, appear to have produced much more than a change of ideologies. In many it hasn't produced the hoped for 'greater liberty' and 'freedom' that many western commentaters thought it would. In Libya, Tunisia and Egypt Muslim fundamentalists have become the govering parties. This has, in Egypt, proved to be bad news for Christians - and the Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Churches are a large proportion of the population.

In Syria the regime, underpinned by Hezbollah, Iranian 'Revolutionary Guards' and Russia and China, has managed to keep the lid on the popular revolt, resulting so far, in an estimated 30,000 casualties. Understandably their neighbours are not happy about the possible spill-over into their countries. Lebanon has already seen a part of it with the Hezbollah murder of their Security Minister - an attack that killed eleven others as well. Understandably the large Christian community in Lebanon are unhappy about the Hezbollah influence within their own government either. Turkey has had to deal with shelling and air strikes into its territory from Syria and probably the only thing restraining Erdogan is the knowledge that any response can only provide his won fundamentalists with an excuse to start a revolt.

As Christians in Egypt are discovering, they are now increasingly marginalised, their faith mocked and misrepresented with impunity and their members beaten, killed or dragged off to jail on trumped up charges of "disrespecting Islam." A 'freer' and more 'democratic' society is a long way off. As a recently broadcast rant from an Egyptian Mullah shows, Christians are now in real danger in their own land.

Further east, the Bahrain 'spring' seems to have fizzled out, crushed by the Sunni King and his Saudi allies. Similar uprisings in Yemen and elsewhere brought initial changes, but once again the hardline fundamentalists have managed to grab the real power and the much lauded 'freedom' western media were celebrating seems to have vanished into the sandy landscapes.

It begins to look as if the western welcome for the 'Arab Spring' was premature. If this was the 'Spring' the liberal media proclaimed, I suspect the 'Summer' is still a long way off.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Death of the Beeb?

Probably not, but the Saville scandal will, I think, rock a lot of their rather cozy little cliques and expose quite a few things the supposedly 'unbiased,' 'national' and 'apolitical' broadcaster would rather not have aired. It seems incredible that this sexual abuse could take place in the dressing rooms of the studios without, at the very least, the knowledge of the supporting crew. And, if they knew what was happening, it is inconceivable that the production staff and their managers didn't know. However, it does appear that this is merely the tip of a rather large and extremely nasty iceberg.

For a long time now there have been complaints that the BBC is biased toward a particular political party and ideology. "Internal' enquiries in response to complaints have always delivered a whitewash, though the last one I read actually did level a number of criticisms - which where airbrushed out of the news reports and discussions. It has long been known that the "discussion" programmes they air use a carefully vetted list to 'select' audiences, with a strong bias in the selection. Some presenters have dared to speak out against this - and paid the price of seeing their shows axed or their contracts 'renegotiated.'

The bias becomes most obvious whenever there is any report on anything to do with "climate change" or the Middle East. One could be forgiven, if one watched only the BBC's reports, for believing that Israel is the perpetrator of all attacks taking place within its own borders. The BBC seldom reports the daily rocket and missle attacks from Gaza into Istaeli territory - but any response is given front page headlines. Likewise the reporting of anything that can be punted as "climate change for the worst" is repeated ad nauseum, but anything which suggests a different pattern is played down or ignored. Watching any so-called 'interview' of a politician reveals most clearly which way the BBC leans politically now as well. Anyone from the 'right' of the political spectrum can expect a rough ride. The questions are loaded, the audience, if it is a 'debate,' loaded with people selected for their 'left' views. Anyone from the 'left' gets a noticeably different reception. The questions are obviously designed to be less confrontational, the interview much more chummy, with less interruption of any answer and a sympathetic 'audience' in the studio. On the rare occassions they permit someone from the 'skeptic' position onto a panel in any debate on 'climate change' you can see the same loaded bias.

It is alleged that the BBC in London takes over 17,000 copies of the Guardian newspaper daily and that news 'editors' instruct 'reporters' to follow the Guardian leads. I learned, from a BBC news reporter I know, that often their reports are little more than a paraphrasing of whatever the Guardian published. Another source informs me that the Guardian's reported 'public' circulation is around 30,000 from news agents and news stands with a total of 250,000 on 'subscription.' The bulk of these apparently going to the Civil Service Departments, the NHS and Unions. That rather suggests that the BBC alone is subsidising one newspaper at the taxpayers (or should that be Licence Payers) expense.

What this does suggest is that the BBC has, for far too long, been 'managed' and controlled by a small group from the political left. It does not live up to its much vaunted standards, it is not unbiased and it is certainly not 'apolitical.' Once it was a model for accuracy, integrity and truthful reporting. Sadly it is now exposed as no longer fulfilling any of those ideals. Don't get me wrong. I do believe that there are a lot of good reporters trying to do a good job, delivering real reports and trying to present an accurate picture of what is happening. Sadly, it is how that material is presented and used and finally aired that is the problem - and that leads straight back to the BBC HQ in Broadcasting House. It is there that the 'slant' is determined, the choice of 'story' to be presented and the 'editing' of clips into 'sound bites' which give the 'right' narrative are fitted together.

The Saville affair is the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot wrong at the BBC and it is high time the whole management, the whole internal ethos of chums looking after chums, looking after celebrities looking after each other was examined, perhaps broken up, and certainly changed and restored to its original ideals.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Bad Managers - a hangover from the past?

An interesting article I read today, has sparked a number of thoughts. The article concerned, written by a management consultant, Peter Hunter, is titled "Leadership: Management failures of the 20th Century" and the author makes some good points. However, I find I can't agree with everything he says, primarily because, while he's focussed on the 'Class' differences in the early 20th Century in Britain, they don't translate readily to other countries where similar bad management practices show up. It is very easy to suggest that 'management' is run along the lines of the traditional landowner/mill owner lines of "I own it, therefore you will do as I say," and in some instances that is certainly the impression one gets, but it isn't the sole reason, in my view, for this type of attitude.

In my view one of the major distinguishing features between the style of senior management that used to be found in commerce and industry (and it must be said, in many public services) is that the modern 'manager' is far less likely to know or understand what the people he or she 'manages' actually do. All to often, especially at points in a hierarchy above 'middle' manager, you find people who have come into an organisation at that level. Frequently either directly as a 'graduate' entry or from an unrelated activity at a similar level. The 'knowledge gap' that exists between them and the staff they manage is often unbridgeable and results in almost instant conflict. The 'manager' is forced to hide behind 'authority' and so you revert to the type of management the author of the article describes as being 'wedded to the past, the style of owner imposing his will.'

Yes, I can identify with that management style, I've suffered under it for the last few years of my career. However, a worse situation arises when the manager does have the knowledge and the skills, but kowtows to the dictats of those above him who don't. Now you really have a situation fraught with potential conflicts. The 'workers' are telling their 'manager' that what the people above him want/say/demand can't be delivered or will generate a problem and he/she says, "I know, but I can't tell them that ... I've promised we'll make it work." The workers aren't idiots and they instantly spot the fact that the inclusive plural doesn't include the manager if things don't go the way he/she has said it will. As Mr. Hunt says, the workforce is now better educated, better skilled and doesn't fall for this sort of cop-out.

In any activity one always finds that things go well when the workers and the 'managers' are working to the same agenda and as a team. It falls apart as soon as there is a second agenda. The classic example is the Union Shop Steward who runs a personal agenda 'on principle' against the 'management.' By constantly throwing in objections, valid or not, to any proposal or change in operations, he (or she) drives a wedge between the workers and the managers. Again, personal experience showed me that a single individual on a Watch was the root cause of all the disquiet. This barrack room 'lawyer' was stirring up the rest of the crew with small out of context 'facts' and suggestions as to what was intended. Thus he was able to constantly confront the 'managers' with a long list of gripes and complaints from the men. In this case it backfired, when one of the men decided to bypass him and go for a direct interview with the Divisional Commander. I'll say only that the very same officers he'd been so determined to undermine actually had to step in and prevent the rest of the crew from lynching him.

But, sadly, bad management is what fuels Union/employer bad relations. As some readers know, I have a very low opinion of Trade Unions and Trade Unionists in general. Many in the UK are now multi-million pound corporate operations in themselves and behave in the same manner as the 'corporate bosses' they purport to oppose. I do believe they have a purpose, but it is not to set 'national' or 'international' policy for governments or even to determine who should rule or who should manage and control the sources of employment. As Marx wrote, if I am a skilled worker and I don't like the way my current employer is treating me, I should get on my bicycle and find another! What the current crop of Trades Unions do, if they bother to represent the worker members properly, is try to maintain an unworkable socialistic 'status quo.' Unfortunately, inept and downright incompetent 'managers' play straight into their hands.

Mr. Hunter suggests that the problem is that 'managers' are still thinking like 19th Century Mill Owners and Landowners, but I would suggest that the problem is twofold - the heavily unionsised workers are also thinking that way. They don't want to negotiate, often they simply want to table demands and compel the other side to comply. Listen to the rhetoric - it comes straight from the 19th Century and they are still fighting battles that, in many other countries, have long since been laid to rest. Indeed, they've been laid to rest in the UK, but it is now in the interests of the Unions to keep the fear of a return to such conditions high among the workers. It is equally unfortunate that there is a degree of what I shall call the 'politics of envy' at work in some of this. A few years ago I listened to a group of students discussing how much better the world would be if everyone, from the cleaner to the CEO earned exactly the same. They really couldn't see that there would be no incentive for anyone to strive to do anything well under that regime.

Currently we do have some bad management in commerce and industry. I would suggest that it is a result of far to great an emphasis being placed on 'transferability' of 'management skills' and the resultant placing of people in positions of management over functions and activities they, themselves, cannot do and have never done. I agree entirely with Mr. Hunter that there needs to be a complete overhaul of management and a move to making sure that people are selected for these positions because they possess -
1. The ability to lead and manage,
2. A sound knowledge of the activities, processes and businesses they are in,
3. Are given the right training and support to manage the people they supervise and lead, and
4. Know that the people above them are technically competent to understand any requests, problems and solutions that may have to be brought 'up the line.'

One of the things that bedevilled my last few years in my career, was constantly having to explain the most basic technical issues to people who (a) were only really interested in how much, (b) why, if we did not have it, we would be unable to do what they required, (c) would make the decision based on whatever was more 'sexy' at that moment in time, and (d) blame me when their decision not to support something or provide some service or equipment, meant I would be unable to deliver.

All to often that is what really frustrates 'the workforce' and the 'middle manager' who is doing his best to keep his head above the rising tide of frustration beneath him, the constant demands from above him and the stress of having to explain everything to people who really shouldn't be attempting to 'manage' the operation or the company they claim to lead. As 'management structures' have grown and extended many of the issues Mr. Hunter mentions have been exacerbated, and, contrary to senior management and management consultants ideas, it is often the 'middle manager' who saves their bacon and is not the person causing the problem.

All too often now one sees people appointed to positions on the basis of 'social/gender/racial awareness' and not on expertise or ability. Not everyone has the interpersonal skills to manage a team, but this is seldom considered. As I learned eventually to my own cost, often it is a case of having the face or profile that 'fits' the selection board's profile - and frequently that is NOT the published profile. I would therefore argue that the problem Mr. Hunter identifies is more than just a case of a bad management style 'hanging over from the past' it is, at least in part, a result of the selection of people for promotion based on a range of things which do not necessarily qualify them for the position they are about to be thrust into.

I'd suggest that what he, and other 'management consultants' need to look at is how we change the idea that a grocery store manager can 'manage' a technical service without ever having any knowledge of the technicalities of the service. That is where the major problem lays. Someone thrust into managing something he/she cannot themselves do, who can't talk the talk with their underlings, has no option but to fall back on the 'do as you are told' method of management.

Until we break that cycle we will continue to have 'bad managers' in every industry, service and commercial activity.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

What do the Dead Sea Scrolls 'reveal'?

The simple answer is probably 'not a lot' for the vast majority. However, it is a lot more complex than that. They do give us a lot of insight into the Jewish scriptures of the time and they provide an insight into Judaism as it was at the time of Christ. Do they tell us anything about Christianity? Not really, though they do reveal that the books of Esdras and one or two other 'Apocryphal' books (in the KJV anyway) were not the 'invention' of Christian writers, but existed before Christianity.

One interesting thing we do learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the Qumran Sect were not the owners of all of the scrolls, in fact they probably owned very few of them. We also learn that they were distinctly different from the early Christians who were more all embracing and even allowed and encouraged Gentiles to join their communities. The Qumran Sect, who shared the belief of a Messiah who would die and rise again, were obsessed with 'purity' and would never have admitted anyone or anything 'unclean' into their enclave.

Prior to the discovery, and often painful examination of the scrolls, almost everything Western (and it must be said, Eastern) scholars knew about pre-Christian Judaism came from the the Apocryphal books and parts of what is known as the "pseudepigrapha." The scrolls revealed a great deal more. Before the scrolls were discovered, there was no extant literature in Hebrew or Aramaic from the pre-Christian period. Now scholars had a treasure trove. Indeed, the scrolls provided us with a wealth of apocalyptic Jewish writing which had previously been thought to be fairly restricted. Unfortunately the 'management' of the translation and distribution of the material gained from it was kept strictly under control and a lot of people felt they were being deliberately excluded or prevented from seeing for themselves what the scrolls contained.

Probably the saddest thing about the Dead Sea Scrolls is the controversy that still surrounds them. Partly because scholars and academics failed to understand the desire of 'ordinary' people to know what was in them, the interpretations and translations were not made widely available. That gave conspiracy theorists a field day - especially as the only 'official' interpreters and scholars were Roman Catholic. Translations were disputed by those who felt certain that 'Rome' was 'hiding' the truth or misrepresenting the scrolls. There were even lawsuits about it. As an article in the Huffington Post puts it, the area that has suffered most from the controversy is the study of their relevance to Christian origins.

There are still those who refuse to accept that there is nothing in the scrolls which undermines Christianity. There is still controversy over the length of time it took for the translations to be made more widely available and there are still those who use this to drive their own agendas. For them the truth, the real material, will never be enough. They will always be convinced that something 'vital' to their cause or view is being withheld. That is a pity, for, in the main, the sources and material revealed in these scrolls reinforces rather than undermines Christian teaching and understanding of the direction and shape of much of the Early Church.

I commend to those interested, a new book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls; A Biography" by John J Collins.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Making a mark?

I have recently been intrigued to see how many former South Africans are making a mark in a wide range of fields. I first began to notice this in the UK when I began bumping into former South Africans in shops, factories and even my local doctors surgery. Several times we had a 'locum' from places I once knew well, and we even had a locum veterinary surgeon at one point. The Peugeot car plant in Swindon employed a lot of former SA engineers and the list certainly didn't stop there.

It came even more into focus when I received an invitation to attend a fund raising 'event' for my Old School Association in London. It turned out there were a lot of former pupils there, many in senior positions in law, architecture, construction, medicine and finance. Most of them definitely well connected and known as 'movers and shakers.' Nor are they the only well connected former South Africans in the UK and in Europe. There are many in Germany I have found, though it does come as a bit of a shock to hear someone speaking English with a strong 'Sarff Efrican' accent in the aisle of a supermarket in rural Germany. From my contact with my old school, I now know that many of my former classmates are scattered around the USA, Israel, Australia, Canada and Europe. Like the Irish in the 17th to 19th Centuries, we have become the world's 'Wild Geese.'

While in the Middle East a few years ago, I learned that there are a very large number of former South Africans working in the oil and gas industries. There I was told that they were popular because they had a 'can do' approach and were prepared to find solutions rather than see obstacles to getting something done. I've several times been accused of this myself during my career in the UK, and it is something I now recognise as being a bit of a hallmark of the 'colonial' mindset. Perhaps its something in our genes, perhaps developed from the experience of our forebears who had to try and create a nation out of a wilderness. They were always short of tools, equipment or support - so they made do, create what they needed, or found a new way to do things. Yes, they did get a lot wrong, we all still do, but the key we all had is that we'd rather be accused of having attempted to 'do' rather than of not having tried anything.

I was reminded of this last night as I watched the news on the television which included an item on the raising of the Costa Concordia. I was surprised that the man in charge of the attempt is a South African engineer. He's using an innovative method to attempt to lift and recover the biggest shipwreck anyone has ever attempted to lift. OK, I'll confess I am slightly tickled to see he is using a technique first attempted by a scrap merchant from the Midlands, named Cox, to recover the sunken German battleships in Scapa Flow. Just goes to show, the equipment is no longer crude and 'home made' but it is the same idea taken a step further.

What this suggests is that while white South Africans may no longer be able to make a mark in that country or to call it 'home,' they are at least being seen in a positive light, as entrepeneurs, reliable and enterprising workers with a lot to offer. I think it's worth celebrating.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Date to Remember

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led a fleet of 27 ships-of-the-line into the definitive naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. He tackled a combined French and Spanish Fleet numbering 33 ships-of-the-line including the giant Santissima Trinidade with her 136 main guns. They also had two 112 gun ships, the Principe de Asturas and Santa Anna.

Nelson's tactics were revolutionary and extremely risky, but they worked. His two divisions of ships cut the Franco-Spanish line into three sections and his ships then proceeded to annihilate the centre and rear of the enemy fleet while those in the van, mainly Spanish, could - or wanted to - do little to help.

One reason for this was that HMS Victory, herself a big ship with 104 main guns, passed directly across the stern of the French Commander-in-Chief's flagship. Her first savage broadside, preceded by the lethal fire of the 68 pdr Carronades on her forecastle, rendered the Buccentaure unmanageable with her steering shot away and her gun decks turned into a carnal house. Worse, for Admiral Villeneuve, most of his staff died in the fusilade - and as a result, he was more or less cut off from his fleet and unable to pass his orders, or enforce them. Nelson's second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Collingwood led the second division in the 100 gun Royal Sovereign. One can only imagine what the conditions were like - even the exhibition at the Museum in Portsmouth can only convey a very basic idea of it.

In a battle of this sort, individual ships found a target and hammered away at it until one or other could no longer continue. At Trafalgar the carnage was appalling, but worse was to come. Having captured around 10 French and Spanish ships when battle finally ceased, the British found themselves compelled to anchor and attempt to patch up ships and rigging so they could sail to Gibralter for more permanent repairs. The weather, however, had other ideas. In the storm which blew up, a number of ships sank, many more were driven onto the rocky Spanish coast and wrecked. The storm killed more men than the battle with the French losing over 13,000 men, killed wounded and captured to the British 1,666 killed and wounded.

The battle put an end to Napoleon's ambitious plans for an invasion of Britain, and he turned his attention Eastward instead. A move that led directly to his abortive invasion of Russia and Waterloo. I shall be raising a glass to Nelson, Collingwood and all the brave men (and women) who took part in this momentous battle, setting us on the path to our present. A pity our current crop of so-called leaders have forgotten all the lessons of history - if they ever knew them.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Keeping the Cash Flowing ...

Every once in a while I stumble across a blog, paper or news report which catches my attention. One such is this lengthy, but very well researched treatise on the Blog Anthropogenic Global Bias. I found it fascinating, I have never before come across such a clearly assembled collection of evidence to support the argument that the AGW debate is being steered and controlled in the interests of protecting a very large 'industry.'

Rather than try and summarise it, I'm posting the direct links to the sections of his paper. I think many will find it as enlightening as I did. It also says a great deal about my topic for yesterday and the feeding of people's fear of the future, the present and anything related to change ...

     2.1. Want to do something constructive? Blow up a dam – James Hansen
     2.2. If science fails, ideology should do it – Mike Hulme
     3.1. Baseline à la carte – Tom Wigley
     4.1. So exactly what is your process, Professor?
          4.1.1. I’ll delete the file – Phil Jones
          4.1.2. Avoid litigation, you may lose – Ben Santer
     4.2. Death of a hockey-stick – D’Arrigo et al
     4.3. A load of garbage – ‘Harry’ Harris
     4.4. The truth can be so confusing – IPCC
     4.5. Hide the incline – Michael Mann
     4.6. Important to choose the right assumption – Phil Jones
     5.1. Perjured conclusion – IPCC 2
     6.1. We’ll keep the red flag flying here – Czarina Browner
     6.2. Given that AGW exists… – the IPCC’s neutral brief
     6.3. Our policy is clear, we just don’t adhere to it – EPA
          6.3.1. Underwhelming transparency – Ms Lisa Jackson
          6.3.2. So how does one get to be a scientist? – EPA
     7.1. The Biased Broadcasting Corporation
          7.1.1. Socialists triumph, Hurrah! – Jane Garvey
          7.1.2. Alarming revelation: science not settled – Peter Sissons
          7.1.3. Balance inappropriate, at last it’s official – BBC Trust
          7.1.4. Hide the stasis – D’Aleo and Watts
          7.1.5. Synthesis? Leave it to the NGOs – Roger Harrabin
     7.2. More honoured in the breach – Journalists’ Code of Ethics
     7.3. Rice production increase ‘overlooked’ – ‘Guardian’
     7.4. Denialists needn’t apply – ‘Nature’
     7.5. Keep your friends close – IPCC’s expert reviewers

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Doomsday Age?

Two items have come to my attention today. The first is a news item proclaiming that some 'big name movie stars' are rushing to sign up to a new film punted to 'prove' that the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001 was a 'conspiracy' by the Bush Administration. One of the 'stars' claims he changed his mind on the official reports after his son showed him some 'new' evidence about the collapse of building 7. It seems the urge in Hollywood to believe their own illusional world exceeds any vesitiges they might have of common sense. As the saying is, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and they rush to prove it with their willingness to listen to any and every hair-brained doomsday merchant.

The second thing that caught my attention today is an article in Psychology Today entitled "This New Age of Anxiety." It touches on the plethora of movies rushed into creation immediately after the tragedy, perhaps the most pernicious being the Michael Moore manipulation of fact to create "Fahrenheit 911" which I note the BBC is still promoting as a "documentary." OK, so Moore and the BBC HATE G.W. Bush ut is this really an appropriate way to attack him? Through a tragedy and a deliberate act of terror?

Reading the article it struck me that we have a crazy situation. We live in an age of unprecedented access to knowledge and information, yet we seem to prefer to allow ourselves to be fed selective bits and to always bias toward believing the worst - and never doing a fact check. And, when we do, it is usually a "Google it" and pick the first article on the list if it agrees with or confirms our bias. In "This New Age of Anxiety" the author, Mathew J Edland MD, lists five common obsessive anxieties in our age: -

Political Anxiety
Economic Anxiety
Planetary Anxiety
Fear of the future, and
Information excess ...

Distrust of politicians has seen an explosion of growth in recent years, and with it a distrust of anything and everything a government tries to communicate. This is what drives the majority of people who refuse to accept that the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were destroyed by terrorist action. The really fanatic followers of that school of thought don't care how much they damage the credibility of their nation abroad, or how much ammunition they hand their very real enemies in the Middle East - as long as they can air their views and bring down the Washington government. It's a dangerous mindset, the same sort of mindset, ironically, found among those who join organisations like Al Qaeda.

For another group of followers of the "it couldn't have been a terrorist attack" school of thought, it is their own perception of the position of the US as the most democratic, most free, most powerful nation on earth that blinds them. One of these 'truthers' as they call themselves, states that he doubts 19 Saudi Arabians (Fact check, 15 were registered as Saudi Arabian, the remaining four carried Egyptian or UAE passports) could have attacked the most powerful nation on earth. According to him, 'some of these people didn't even know how to fly.' Again, I'm not all all sure where that one has come from since most appear to have at least taken flying lessons, and once an aircraft like this is airborne, turning, aiming and crashing is probably the easiest thing in the world. All you really need to know is how to either guide it by adjusting the instructions to the autopilot - or turn it off and use the yoke and rudder pedals. As usual, Hollywood is falling for its own hype and imaginations are now in high gear.

Economic anxiety is rampant. No one trusts banks, bankers or government Economics Minsiters any longer. Certainly not after the economic collapse of 2007-8. A lot of people now spend a lot of time worrying about their incomes, the security of their possessions or their homes and the possible future their children and grandchildren face. One could say, "it was ever thus" but there does seem to have been a massive upsurge in people taking extreme measures to secure their wealth. On the other end of the scale are those who have simply given up and make little effort at all.

Then there is that favourite - Planetary concern. I've certainly addressed this one often enough. Nature changes, it always has, and I've no doubt it always will. It has changed us through evolution and it is still changing us, even though we are now changing nature as well - and I'm NOT talking about climate here. We are certainly changing the environment. Every paved street increases rainwater run-off, every white painted roof changes the local rainfall pattern (True! A recent study shows that this measure REDUCES rainfall in an area by up to 16%). The truth is man has been changing nature since we first discovered how to grow crops to feed ourselves instead of having to push mammoths of cliffs and gather berries and nuts. What has changed since the beginning of the 20th Century is that the human population has exploded - particularly in those countries where the ecological balance is probably at its most delicate. One can understand this 'concern,' but, as the article I linked earlier points out, for some it has become almost a phobia. I would say that for many it has become a religion, just as the distrust of politicians has led some to turn 'proving' events like 9/11 were 'The Government trying to trick us' seems to have taken on the status of a Credo.

As for fear of the future, the problem appears to be how much we know about events and possible events. I would also suggest this is further fuelled by the "Fourth Estate's" penchant for sensational headlines. "Near miss by Massive Asteroid" screamed a recent headline. The sub headline reported that scientisits had calculated it might collide. What didn't become apparent until almost the end of the piece was that the calculations showed a one in heaven knows how many, chance of a collision occurring in several thousand years. Other similar 'dire predictions' include one from last year that the €uro had less than two months of life left to it. I have to say its a pretty lively corpse, but I've not seen any retraction of that headline. We are constantly bombarded with messages regarding 'safety,' suggesting we are all likely to be maimed or killed getting out of bed. Our children are constantly told they are in danger of sexual abuse and we are told there are threats of terrorism, Islamification and probably little green men from somewhere outlandish as well. No wonder some people tell their physicians they "Can't see a future."

The information age has its drawbacks. We get far to much information thrust at us, and the human brain isn't good at processing out the 'noise' I don't need to be worried about - especially when a lot of it is about potential threats. We are also not good at checking our facts. Often we half hear something, or here it, but then process it through our bias filters and arrive at something less than what was actually said. This is a major problem. Throw in the fact that most of our "fact checks" are now a quick check on "Mr Google" and the problem is compounded. Not everything on the internet is factual, nt everything is correct, and there is probably as much misinformation out there as fact.

I agree with Dr. Edland, we do live in a new Age of Anxiety. I'd love to say to some of the angst ridden Doomsayers I encounter from time to time  - "Get a life! Grow up, there are no monsters 'under the bed'" - but I'd probably be breaching their "human right" to be paranoid ...

I just hope this excessive anxiety streak and obsession with Doomsday passes soon. Unfortunately, I suspect we need to evolve out of it - and that probably means a whole new human species. Oops, I think I've just started a new phobia for some folk ...