Show Me The facts

The question, “Show me the facts” is sometimes asked to evaluate an idea. Although the question appears reasonable, closer analysis indicates its reasonableness can be superficial.

Every day of my life, when the sky is not fully overcast, I see the sun rise in the east, climb to a zenith and then descend towards the horizon where it sets in the west. I have made this observation in arctic Norway, at Cape Agulhas in South Africa, on the coast of British Columbia and in Hong Kong. I have made this observation at all times of the year throughout all my life. I have never seen an exception to this observation and when I discuss it with other people, I invariably learn that they have seen the same thing. I have read that the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Egyptians, Arabs in the Middle Ages, Babylonians and Mayans used their observations of the Sun’s path around the Earth to calculate accurately the Sun’s position in the sky for every hour of the day during every day of the year. I have also learned that modern astronomers calculate the Sun’s future position from past observations of its path around the Earth. It is reasonable to accept the geocentric theory that the Sun orbits the Earth, as it correlates with my experience, with other people’s experience, with precise scientific observation and with astronomical calculations. Then I read in books that modern astronomers have rejected the geocentric theory and accepted the heliocentric theory that the Earth orbits the Sun. Both ideas are theories, because they explain the facts. No one has ever observed the Sun going round the Earth or the Earth going round the Sun.

Why do educated people accept the heliocentric theory, even though it contradicts what they observe every day? According to astronomers, the geocentric theory cannot explain the following groups of observations, while the heliocentric theory can explain them:

  1. The phases of Venus. The Moon reflects the Sun’s light onto Earth. During a lunar month the Moon’s position relative to the Sun and to the Earth changes, which causes the Moon to exhibit phases – New, Gibbous, Full and Gibbous again. Like the Moon, Venus reflects sunlight onto the Earth. As Venus and Earth both orbit the Sun, the position of Venus relative to the Sun and to the Earth changes, which causes Venus to exhibit phases like the Moon;

  2. The periodic retrograde motion of planets. Planets usually move westward across the sky from one night to the next. Periodically planets, however, appear to do a backwards loop and head eastward. in the Earth’s sky. This is known as retrograde motion. Planets orbit the Sun at different speeds. Mercury and Venus, being closer to the Sun orbit faster than Earth does, while Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, being further from the Sun, orbit more slowly than Earth does. When Venus or Mercury overtakes Earth, it appears to do a backwards loop in Earth’s sky. When Earth overtakes Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune, the planet appears to do a backwards loop in Earth’s sky;

  3. Stellar parallax. During the course of its annual orbit round the Sun, the Earth changes its position by 300 million kilometres. This change is enough for a star that is close to the Earth to appear to move relative to stars that are further away from Earth. We see this effect when we drive past buildings. Seen from our car, buildings change their position from being ahead of us to being behind us. Distant buildings do not change their position as much as near-by buildings, near-by buildings appear to move relative to distant buildings. This effect is known as parallax. As the Earth obits the Sun, stars that are near to Earth appear to change position relative to stars that are distant from Earth. In 1838 Friedrich Bessel used the parallax of 61 Cygni to estimate the distance between the Sun and 61 Cygni;

  4. Stellar aberration. A star can appear to move slightly in the sky from day to day. In 1727 James Bradley suggested that this phenomenon was due to variations in the Earth’s speed as it orbits the Sun. In the 20th century Einstein’s theory of special relativity adjusted Bradley’s mathematics without changing his basic explanation.

How many people, who accept the heliocentric theory, could list these four observations? Few of those people, including myself, have actually made any of these observations for themselves. Large numbers of people accept the heliocentric theory, because of hearsay. This raises an important question, “Why do we accept one idea and reject another when we have not observed any of the relevant facts for ourselves?” This question is particularly pertinent when the idea appears to contradict our personal experience, as is with the Sun’s daily movement across the sky.

Surveys of the reasons why people voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum indicate that voters accepted the message on the Vote Leave Bus that leaving the EU would give the UK Government an additional £350 million to spend on the NHS per week. The same voters, however, rejected statements by economists, the Governor of the Bank of England and the Managing Director of the IMF that leaving the EU would cause Britain to be poorer.

Why do we accept some statements and reject others? In many criminal trials witnesses give contradictory testimonies. Some testimonies imply guilt and others imply innocence. Some witnesses are lying, while others are telling the truth. The jury has to decide what is true and what is false. How does a jury answer Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?”

The internet has made more information more easily available to more people than in the past. If everyone applied the rules of logic to the same data, they would reach the same conclusions. In the age of the internet, however, opinions seem to be diverging more than converging. People do not appear to reach conclusions by the application of logic to data.

Do our opinions simply reflect the consensus of the group to which we belong? Many cyclists think some motorists are road thugs, who treat cyclist as roadkill on wheels. Many motorists, however, dislike cyclists, because they ride two abreast, disregard the highway code and slow down traffic. Cyclists and Motorists often reflect the attitudes of the group to which they belong. Both groups are of course right and wrong. Some cyclists do disregard the rules of the road and some motorists do drive dangerously close to cyclists. Other cyclists and motorists behave properly.

In the Trumpine era of fake news and alternative facts, it is more important than ever that we are able to assess the veracity of information. How do we do this?

I admit it. I enjoy reading the Economist. I find it insightful and on occasions amusing. I also realise that the Economist has a very definite world view. It believes in free markets, the decriminalisation of drugs, and an open society, in which information is shared. It has strong antipathy for President Trump and for Brexit. I believed that as long as I understood its world view and position on issues, I could read the Economist without having my views shaped by it. Then I read an article, in which the Economist polled its staff for the worst international airports. The results of the poll agreed with my selections for the worst two international airports. Nether airport is well known. Neither is Changi, JFK, O’Hare, Heathrow, Gatwick, Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle, Dulles or Frankfurt. The result of the poll deeply concerned me. Is my mindset so shaped by the Economist that we even agree about airports? Is my world view that of the Economist? Are my tools for testing the veracity of facts, tainted by that weekly? I sometimes wanted to scream at right wing Americans, “There are other news sources than Fox News”. Perhaps they could have screamed at me, “There are other news sources than the Economist”.

Being human, we have emotions, prejudices and preconceptions. All of them influence our interpretation of the world around us. We are not purely rational animals. We do not always act in our own best interests. We make mistakes.

A democracy assumes that the people will not elect a criminal to leadership. What happens when the people make a mistake? When that happens, a potential conflict arises between the democratic vote and the rule of law? People seem to choose sides based on political affiliation rather than evidence. In Nazi Germany the population continued to believe and trust Hitler, even as the evidence for his wrong-doing mounted. The Anglo-Saxon nations looked at Nazi Germany in the belief that such a thing could never happen in their countries. Were they correct? A frog can be boiled alive by raising the temperature of the water, in which it is swimming comfortably, by one degree at a time. We can lose our democracy by one tiny event at a time. How do we know what is true, when so many of our opinions are based on hearsay? How can we judge properly?

With so many opinions pointing in so many different directions, it is more important than ever to listen openly to a wide range of opinions. Yet it is so easy to tune into just Fox News or just CNN to evaluate Donald Trump, or indeed to listen to Theresa May on Labour’s antisemitism or to Jeremy Corbyn  on Tory antiafrocaribbeanism.  I just wish politicians would recognise that ordinary people are at the sharp end of their politics, whether they be African Americans and Mexicans in the USA, or Jews and West Indians in the UK.

Advertisements

A Message to APOTUS

School shootings in the USA should be none of my business. I am not American and I have no national reference for them. Since the massacre at Dunblane primary school in 1996, there have been no mass killings in UK schools, and Andy Murray, who survived the Dunblane shooting as a child, has won Wimbledon twice.

As John Donne wrote, however, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”. To his credit the current US President showed his involvement with mankind when he responded to the 2017 London Bridge terrorist attack. To his eternal shame his response contained no ounce of sympathy for the victims or Londoners. Instead he tweeted: “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!” (11:43 AM – Jun 4, 2017). In that tweet he linked massed violence in the USA to massed violence in the UK and gave every Briton the right to comment on gun violence in America. Mr Trump, the apprentice president of the United States (APOTUS), I, a person, am declaring independence from your bullying. I am exercising my unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of your stupidity.

According to APOTUS, a mass shooting is a mental health problem and the solution is to put armed guards in schools. This  solution makes APOTUS a mental health problem. It has to be one of the most stupid political ideas I have heard this year and I live in Brexit Britain, where political stupidity is a daily Parliamentary pantomime. An APOTUS school is not exactly the kind of loving, caring and learning environment where I would want my children to discover their life skills. Inside an armed fortress they would learn that the world is a violent and dangerous place, where the best survival skill is to be violent. What role model do we want for our children – a caring, stimulating teacher or a grim faced guard? No good primary school teacher, I know, looks like he or she has just returned from a tour in Afghanistan.

APOTUS stated that if he had been at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he would have run into the classroom, whether he were armed or not. Fake heroism never looks good, especially if you  wriggled out of serving in Vietnam. The real heroes, if you can talk about heroes of this tragedy, are the children who have transformed their grief, their sorrow and their pain of losing friends into a national campaign. We should not empathise with them. We certainly should not hero-worship them. We should simply listen to them, as we listened to Malala Yousafzai – another victim of a school shooting. Every child has a unalienable right to grow up and learn in safety.

On the 14th February, 2018 Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut spoke in the US Senate, “This happens no where else but the United States. This epidemic of mass slaughter. This scourge of school shooting after school shooting.” Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was in Connecticut, the Senator has every right to comment, and his comments are right. The relentless chain of school shootings only happens in America.

If Senator Murphy is correct, and he is correct, and APOTUS is correct, then the USA has more mental health problems than any other developed nation by a wide margin.  APOTUS may actually be correct. As evidence I cite two facts. Firstly, Americans elected Trump as their APOTUS. Secondly, APOTUS proposes to solve the school shooting problem by putting armed guards in schools. This is exactly what is needed. The children can now be caught in the cross fire between intruder and guard. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland had an armed guard, who has been criticised and sacked for not intervening. Perhaps his decision actually saved students’ lives. Perhaps it did not. I certainly would not want my children to be caught in the middle of a gun battle. Even if they were not physically injured, that memory would scar their minds for the rest of their lives. And Americans are worried about the impact of TV and video game violence on their children.

Gun groups have offered to train teachers to use guns to defend their students. This is an idea of genius. This is an idea whose time has come, because it is fully consistent with the APOTUS nation. I first heard the idea after the Sandy Hook massacre. I wondered then, “Why arm the teachers? Arm the kids, instead. There is only one teacher in a class. There are many more kids. The kids would bring more fire power to bear on the intruder. Then imagine the training they would receive by toying with guns in school breaks. Imagine the fun of playing Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, or Muslims and Seals with real guns. What an effective way to get rid of school bullies. As the NRA argues, guns level the playing field between the physically weak and the physically strong. The bullied could terminate bullying with one squeeze of an automatic’s trigger. Hasta la vista, bully.”

Senator Murphy is correct. The shame of mass shootings in the US lies with Congress, which continues to do nothing.

Every country has its mentally ill. Every country has its nutcases. Britain is notorious for its eccentrics. Fortunately, they tend to become comics like Chaplin, Sellers, Cleese, Palin and Atkinson. I doubt the US has more mentally ill people than anywhere else. The difference between the US and Europe, however, is that American nutcases can acquire guns legally. European nutcases cannot.

When I cycled through the Western United States, I saw massed graves beside pioneer trails. I realised that for  19th century settlers (Anne Coulter please note that I used the word settlers) Washington was a continent away. The settlers had to stand on their own two feet. They had to defend themselves, because help, law and order were not round the corner. I have also cycled past places in England called “The Buttes”, where in the Middle Ages Englishmen practised archery on Sundays, so the nation would be ready to defend itself. England had a militia of bowmen and they served us well.  Archery at the Buttes was the foundation of England’s victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. The difference between Britain and America is that Robin Hood lived 800 years ago, while Wyatt Earp died in 1929. Gunslinging America is much more recent than bowslinging Britain. In America gunslinging is tradition. In Britain bowslinging is folk law.

In 2004 I was living in Saudi Arabia when the Al Qaeda insurrection began. In the early summer of that year Al Qaeda terrorists were killing a westerner a week in Saudi Arabia and we were terrified. Some Americans wanted the right to bear arms, so they could protect their families. Being British this made me very uncomfortable. In Britain guns are for grouse shooting and security professionals, like the army and the police They are not for personal defence. Since the notion of guns in the house next door made me feel less not more safe, I asked a pot-bellied, overweight and underfit middle-aged American:

“You think you could defend your family?”

“I sure do.”

“Even against fit terrorists, who trained by fighting your marines in Afghanistan?”

“I reckon I could take down a few.”

Does this sound familiar? Think vacuous tweets. Think bluster and boasting. Think APOTUS.

On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at The Route 91 Harvest Music Festival on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving 58 dead and 851 injured. Afterwards, Caleb Keeter, a guitarist with the Josh Abbott Band, wrote a message on Twitter:

“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with [concealed handgun licenses], and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless. We couldn’t touch them for fear police might think that we were part of the massacre and shoot us.”

Caleb Keeter put his hands firmly round the problem. More guns do not make us safer.

APOTUS you are right. The perpetrators of mass murders are undoubtedly mentally deranged and need psychiatric help before they kill but this is not a mental health problem. Europe has as many mentally ill as the USA. Europe has a quarter of the homicide (that is guns, knives, poisons and all other murder mechanisms combined) rate of the USA. The difference is that mentally ill Europeans do not have the right to bear arms. So tighten up the gun screening. Ask a prospective purchaser, “Are you or have you ever been mentally ill?” That question is going to do wonders for people suffering from paranoia. It proves what they always thought. Even the government is out to get them. Why won’t the mentally ill  tick the box to indicate they are not mentally ill? After all thy are mentally ill. How will these mentally ill people be found and treated before they commit these atrocities? Is the following scenario realistic? A man, because it is almost always a man, voluntarily goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doctor, I feel real bad. I am planning to shoot up my class mates, my college, my town or my place of work.” People usually go to a doctor after their symptoms are indicated. Going to a doctor after mass killing symptoms are indicated, will not bring the victims back to life. It may stop the perpetrator’s next shooting but most mass killers kill themselves after killing their victims. They tend  to do it once. Parents also say goodbye to their children in the morgue once. Identifying the killer’s mental illness will not return children in the morgue to their families.

The ironies are deep. Last August we were not allowed to carry bear spray from Canada into the USA, because bear spray is an offensive weapon in the USA. Is an AR-15 an offensive weapon? The American right regards abortion as murder but believes that pregnant women should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. Either killing is wrong or it is not.

The rest of the developed world sees this problem clearly. Only America is blinded by its own gun smoke. Perhaps the USA should relax its gun laws, so everyone can carry guns to defend themselves. Then they can learn the truth by shooting each other. Darwin’s theory implies that communities that ban guns would tend to survive, while communities that do not ban guns will shoot themselves into extinction but then many on the American right also deride Darwin. Did the election of APOTUS say anything about mental heath in America? If he were ever to read this, which is highly unlikely, he would Tweet something like “So rude. Sad.” Of course Tweet-blasting Sadiq Khan after the London Bridge attack was not rude. Of course the children who came to discuss gun violence with him in the Oval Office were not sad. Does the saying about stones and living in glass houses also apply to people living in a glass Whitehouse?

We gathered before beginning our Transam ride across America. I was nervous. I wondered if I would fit into the group. Then one cyclist said, “On a previous ride, a policeman asked the other riders, if they would object to his carrying a gun.” As a Briton, I remained silent. As a Briton I thought, “There are two kinds of rational reasons for carrying a gun – the personal reason and the public reason. The policeman may have felt personally insecure without a gun. If that were true, would I want to spend 83 days in the company of such paranoia? The policeman may have felt we were about to cycle through public areas that posed a threat to our lives. If that were true, why was I going on the ride?”

I think that is the root of the gun issue. Why do you want to own a gun? Do you own it for sport or for hunting? Then only carry the gun to a sporting event or a hunt. Private gun owners in Britain can only carry them to a sporting event or a hunt. Ironically many on the American right would ban swimmers from strolling down main street in their swimsuits, which are sporting equipment. Do you carry a gun because you feel insecure? Then as APOTUS suggests get your insecurity treated. Carrying a gun will not solve your mental health problem. Do you carry a gun because your environment poses a threat to your life? Government has to address that problem, because if guns are banned, the violent will use knives, as in London. If knives are banned, the violent will use crow bars. One of the most important jobs of government is to protect the weak from the strong, because the strong can protect themselves. Government not guns should level the playing field. It was different in the American West 150 years ago. Government was a long way away. It is time for America to grow past its Wyatt Earp past, just as Britain has grown past its Robin Hood past.  There have been key moments when Britain and America have matured as nations. Let this be one of those moments. Let the humanity expressed in the Declaration of Independence in 1776  be the tradition in 2018. Let gunslinging become folklore.

APOTUS learn to govern your own country and stop commenting on foreign countries. Prior to the London Bridge twitter-storm I accepted that criticism could be leveled at Britons for commenting on US gun violence but a saying will enter our common language, “People who live in internet-connected Whitehouses shouldn’t send tweets”. So rude. So sad.

Standing on the edge of a precipice enjoying the view

When Americans visit Europe, they see the age of our buildings, our culture, our science, our art, our literature and our technology. Some of them feel that their country is young – both immature and youthful.

By global and even European standards, however, the American system of government is old. The Thirteen Colonies declared independence 13 years prior to the French Revolution and 92 years before the unification of Italy and of Germany. I think I am correct in writing that the only modern systems of government established before America declared its independence were those of the United Kingdom and of Switzerland.

In the last 250 years the two principal Anglo-Saxon nations have given the world two things – its primary language and democracy. Sadly, the giving of those two gifts accompanied subjugation of indigenous peoples from Oregon to the Mediterranean to Africa to India to New Zealand. The two gifts, however, have played a vital role in shaping our modern world for the better, I believe.

In 2016 for the first time in 250 years, Anglo-Saxon democracy faltered, as both the UK and the USA turned inwards to Little Britain and America First. The rest of the world has looked on in amusement and horror as Washington and Westminster repeatedly pressed the self destruct button. I have no idea how it will all end but Britain at least is learning that the age of Anglo-Saxon imperialism is over. We cannot send a gunboat up the Liffey to subjugate Dublin into agreement over the Irish border issue or up the Bruxelles Charleroi Canal to subjugate the European Commission to stop the free movement of people within the single market.

In 2016 Mrs. May readily picked up an impossible hand dealt her by the EU Referendum. We are only certain about the value of the hand: 52 to 48. The composition of the hand is unknown. Politicians guess that the ace cards were immigration, the European Court of Justice, political union, the undemocratic nature of the EU Commission and globalisation. In reality they have no idea. Some commentators even suggest that the EU Referendum result was a protest vote against austerity. In a survey of its employees the Nationwide Building Society found that the principal reason for voting to leave was the Leave Campaign’s promise of an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, which the Leave Campaign jettisoned after the referendum. Ironically, the 15% decline in the value of sterling since the referendum has made medical equipment and drugs more expensive. The referendum result made the NHS worse off. As more EU nationals employed by the NHS leave, because of a weak pound and fears over future rights, labour shortages and costs will rise in NHS. This, however, was not the only issue that the British public bought as a leaving lie.

As the negotiations with the EU drag on, other lies will become apparent. It is already abundantly clear that EU commerce is willing to sacrifice the UK market to preserve the integrity of the far larger EU single market. This has made the Leave Campaign’s “have your cake and eat it” economics, appear a little naive. As we move forward, we will find negotiating trade deals with China, India, the USA and elsewhere to be a nightmare, because our economy is less than 5% of the global economy and other countries will not wish to upset the EU by favouring the UK. The largest impact will probably be on our largest exports, which are in financial services. The loss of passporting rights throughout Europe will seriously undermine our financial services. There will also be a similar impact on manufacturing, since UK industries are part of an EU network that integrates specialist engineering sites across Europe. Engine blocks, for example are shipped from the UK to Italy for specialist coating. I can hear the Brexiters crying, “How do you know?” Well, I don’t but neither do they know that the UK will be able to negotiate free trade in financial services across Europe and free trade deals around the world. Given, the evidence of the negotiations with Europe so far, I would not bank on such promises. In the City of London the banks have been remarkably calm, which implies that they have already developed their post Brexit plans. Watch the plans unfold in 2018.

So far the only European winner in this sordid mess has been the Republic of Ireland, which carefully played its hand of trade, peace, border and friendship to ensure that Eire will be a primary, if not the primary, point of entry for EU goods into the UK. Well done the Irish. An Irishman once said to me, “What do you find floating in the Irish Sea?” “An Englishman who just told his last Irish joke.” I think Brexit is the last Irish joke, and it is on us.

A further complication on the issue of trade is Rotterdam’s Europort. Imports into Europe arrive on large ships into Rotterdam, where their cargo is broken into smaller cargoes that are shipped up the Rhine on barges and across the Channel on smaller vessels. How will this work with Britain outside the EU?

I doubt the negotiations will end well for the UK. The only hope is that there will be a vote when the results of the negotiations are known and the British people will look down the precipice of Brexit, to which they have been led by deceitful politicians, and cry, “Don’t jump”.

In the wide sweep of history these years will probably be remembered for ending the Anglo-Saxon Aberration. For 18 of the past 20 centuries China had the world’s largest economy. For two centuries first Britain, then America, had the world’s largest economy. Since much of the modern world has been shaped by the twin Anglo-Saxon ideals of democracy and free trade, the future China again era may be very different. In the next two years Britain will rapidly learn that it doesn’t punch above its weight. Further down the road the USA will have to get used to the post Trumpian cry of “America Second”. I think in her heart Theresa May knows this but across the Atlantic the great illusionist has deluded himself with his own illusions. It is time to wake up and smell the sweet and sour pork.

As Alan Sugar said during the EU Referendum campaign, “Why would you give up a market of 500 million people?” To Britons on the precipice, I say “Enjoy the lovely vista of independence. Then look down and feel the economic vertigo. It is not too late to pull back”. To Americans, I can only say , “Why did you think the best way to drain the swamp was to put another alligator in the swamp?” When’s the ‘gator huntin’ season.

We are irrational animals after all.

Russian Roulette in Vegas

A history undergraduate told me the following story, which although amusing may well be apocryphal. A group of history students came across a statute from Middle Ages England, declaring that all males had to practice archery on Sundays at the town buttes. The students located the town buttes on a map. Then one Sunday they set up archery targets on a street that had been built over the town buttes and began to practice archery.  When the police arrived and accused them of causing an obstruction, the students were ready with a copy of the ancient statute. The police responded by charging them for not wearing Lincoln green.

Like the laws relating to archery our road laws need to be modernised.

On the 21st  September  Heidi Alexander, the MP for Lewisham East pressed the House of Commons to extend the dangerous driving law to include cyclists,  after  Kim Briggs was tragically killed by a cyclist, who had to be prosecuted  under an archaic law relating to wanton or furious  driving of a carriage.

I fully support Heidi Alexander’s initiative, because all road users should face the same penalties. At the same time there should be tougher penalties and legal processes for the dangerous and abusive actions of motorists with respect to cyclists. These include:

  1. Not leaving a 2 metre gap between the vehicle and the cyclist;
  2. Yelling abuse at cyclists, which can cause them to lose control of their bikes;
  3. Cutting sharply in front of cyclists, which has caused me to come of my bike;
  4. Pulling out of a side road right in front of a cyclist;
  5. Not giving an oncoming cyclist enough space by driving in the centre of the road. I believe without adequate proof that a van driver did this to me, knocked me off my bike and broke my hip;
  6. Overtaking a cyclist then breaking just in front of the cyclist. I saw a car do this to Nick Davison on Puttenham hill. Luckily Nick is a good cyclist and managed to swerve out of the way. A driver did this to me on a steep hill between Reading and Oxford. I still do not how I stayed on my bike;
  7. Cutting up cyclists riding two abreast without knowing that the Highway Code allows cyclists to ride two abreast. Cycling safety experts believe this is the safest way to cycle, because it makes cyclists more visible and makes it easier for vehicles to overtake a group of cyclists properly. Cycling two a breast halves the length of a group of cyclists. The problem is that some drivers see it as their right to scrape (sometimes literally) past cyclists without giving them a two metre gap. Cycling two a breast forces the driver to overtake by going onto the other side of the road.

Heidi Alexander you are right to want to impose the same laws on all road users. Please remember that every year more cyclists are killed and injured than kill and injure on our roads. Please use the tragic death of Kim Briggs as a platform to make our roads safer for all road users- especially the more vulnerable users –walkers, horse riders and cyclists, who are not protected by a metal box. I am a hobbling example of this.

The US also needs to modernise its laws. After the horrible Borough Market attack, which left 8 people dead and 48 injured, President Donald J Trump tweeted, “ Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!”

Once again Mr. Trump you got it wrong. I am sorry for being so blunt but you really do need to put America first before criticising other countries. What is your position after a white gunman fired off in Las Vegas on October 2nd, killing 58 (not 8) and injuring 515 (not 48)? Do not make some inappropriate response full of your thoughts and prayers. At least your predecessor admitted that his thoughts and prayers were inadequate and the image of Obama thinking and praying is far more believable than Trump thinking and praying. Instead of bashing Mr Khan over the Borough Market incident, you could get your own house in order.  Yes, Europe has a serious problem with home grown terrorists but America has a serious problem with home grown lone gunmen. Both problems need to be addressed.  I doubt that it makes much difference to the victims or their families if the killer were black, white or brown, or if he (why is it almost always a he?) used a gun, a truck or a knife. People, who were loved, were injured or killed by people, who failed to love.

When I cycled across the USA, I saw the wagon ruts in the prairies and the graves of the pioneers, and I understood the need for self-reliance and self-defence   when the law in Washington was so far away. I understood the roots of a gun culture. Then I also read about Robin Hood, Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, and understood the need for a bow culture in 15th century England. I  realise that since Agincourt was in 1415 and the pioneers headed west in the latter part of the 19th century, the time of the bow is much further away in England than the time of the gun in America but just as the road laws need modernising in Britain, so do the gun laws in America. It is completely crazy to state that the problem is not with guns but with people, just as it is completely crazy to state that when more drivers ride bikes, more drivers will treat cyclists safely. There will always be terrorists, whether they be knifemen with a perverted religion or lone gunmen with a perverted grudge.  There will always be stupid cyclists and stupid motorists, including me on occasions. Let us stop slinging mud and start addressing our common problems. People should be able to go about their lives without fear of abuse, injury or death, whether they be music lovers in Las Vegas, food lovers in Borough Market, cyclists on Leith Hill or pedestrians in South East London. There are simply no excuses left. Stuff the politics. Even if they do not really care, politicians must act. People are dying, while Neronic legislators play crowd-pleasing tunes on their vote-gathering violins. Mr. Trump and Mrs. May, it is not America first and it is not Britain first. It is people first.

Experts Be Damned

I recently read two articles that made me rethink my world view. The first was in the Economist (I think). It showed data  indicating that a significant number of Americans believe President Trump more than long established venerable news sources, such as CNN, NBC and the New York Times. This horrified me, because a primary role of the press in a democracy is to hold politicians (and by becoming President Trump is a now a politician) to account. It is deeply worrying if the press is less trusted than a key politician, whom they must hold to account. Has the press failed us?

The second article was written by Katty Kay of BBC North America.  She argued there is a significant chance that Trump will win a second term. With his latest approval rating at 37.4%, one might be tempted to suggest that Katty Kay has, like many other established news sources in North America, lost credibility. Her article, however, offers an interesting insight into the modern age. According to Katty Kay, Trump’s victory in November, 2016 was due to a few thousand votes in three key states. To retain power, all the President has to do in 2020 is retain those votes. Katty Kay argues those voters supported Trump, because they were angry with the direction that America had followed under recent Administrations, and the Obama Administration in particular. The Economist’s own analysis of the November election by congressional district, concluded that the Trump vote was highly correlated with neither unemployment nor poverty. It was highly correlated with race, especially with the poor white population. This is the group that politicians in the USA, the UK and throughout the EU have ignored for too long, as they have focused on the needs of women,  ethnic minorities and sexual minorities. Much needed to be done for these three groups. Much also needed to be done for poor white males. Katty Kay’s conclusion was that Trump voters  do not care if Trump does not implement a single policy, as long as he prevents the implementation of policies that have relatively disfavored them for decades. Essentially liberal politicians, particularly of the left, have lost touch with their electorate. Jeremy Corbin managed to reconnect with the Labour Party base in the last UK election, while Theresa May, predictably perhaps, appeared to be out of touch with ordinary Britons. She is of the political elite.

When every economist, including Christine Legarde and Mark Carney, warned of the disastrous consequences of Brexit, many Britons with little or no economic expertise dismissed their views. just as Trump supporters dismiss the New York Times and CNN,  as purveyors of fake news.

I believe that the internet may have much to do with the debunking of experts. On a desert trip in Saudi Arabia a respected local expatriate amateur astronomer was describing features of the clear night sky to his enthusiastic audience. One member of the audience, however,  was using Google Sky on his tablet to verify what the astronomer was saying.  This would not have happened five years previously. All the non-astronomers would have lapped up the amateur astronomer’s words. Today a lot of information is readily available on the internet.  It is very easy to verify and debunk information that is presented by an expert. This is good. Experts, like politicians, should be held to account and  the internet helps ordinary people like me to find the relevant  information. Expertise, however, has changed character. The easy availability of information reduces the value of an individual’s knowledge and places more emphasis on the individual’s interpretation and application of knowledge.

For example, the following question used to find its way into the Cambridge Physics entrance exam- “Estimate the mass of he Earth’s atmosphere.” I did an internet search on the answer to that question and the most popular answer was  “Multiply the surface area of the Earth in square metres by the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the Earth in kilograms per square metre”. This answer is not incorrect but it does not take into account that the density of the Earth’s atmosphere decreases as you move away from the surface of the Earth from 1.225 kg/m3 at sea level to around 0.4kg/m3 at the summit of Everest and zero in space. At the same time the acceleration of gravity decreases from 9.81 m/s2 on the Earth’s  surface to zero in outer space. Even in the age of America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent and Arab’s Got Talent, the popular vote does not necessarily find the correct answer to a problem.

An Oxford history student once told me that the history  questions asked at “O” Level (UK’s exams for 16  year olds), “A” Level (UK’s  exams for 18 year olds), the end of first year examinations at university and the end of third year examinations at university are same. The expected answers, however, are very different.  From 16 to the end of university history students are expected to develop better historical skills and understanding.  A student is expected to write a very different answer in the last year of university to at the age of 16. Are we all equally able  to interpret the data that is so readily available?

For example, everyone of us knows, because we have been taught it since we were children, that the night is dark, because our side of the Earth faces away from the Sun during the night. When I was 17, I attended a lecture by Hermann Bondi, the astrophysicist, during which he demonstrated that in a static universe the night sky should be twice as bright as the day sky. His explanation was that there 1,000,000,000,000,000,0000,0000 stars in the universe. If you compensate for the effect of all the stars’ distances from Earth on dimming the star light, the massive number of stars means that the Sun, which is an average star, would actually block the light from around half of the stars in the universe and cast a starlight shadow on the Earth. Professor Bondi’s calculation demonstrated that day should be darker than  night. This is Ober’s paradox.  You can read about it in:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olbers%27_paradox

Things are often more complex than they may seem.

Just as it is right of journalists to critique politicians, it is right of all of us to critique journalists.  Although their reporting must withstand our scrutiny, we should acknowledge the journalists’ professional expertise. As we expose the inadequacies of other people, we should remember our own.  The internet, however, has changed the world of information. As knowledge has  become less valuable, its interpretation has become more more valuable.

When Israel invaded Gaza in 2008, the Israelis banned all journalists from Gaza. Citizen journalists in Gaza  uploaded video reports onto the internet. These were uncensored by the Israelis and by professional journalists. Their veracity was uncertain. Lyse Doucet of the BBC showed some of them with out comment  to the Israeli  authorities. The real news story was their response, which frequently exposed their conduct of the war.  In my view this was journalism of the highest caliber. Lyse Doucet neither took the citizen journalists at their word nor rejected their reports. She simply used them to allow the Israeli military to expose themselves. Her expertise was not what she knew but what she knew how to do.

,

 

 

Dr Who and the gendics.

So the the time travelling Time Lord is really a gender travelling Time Lody. As a father of three daughters, whom I told, “This is the dawn of the female millennium, go for it”, this should be a wonderful moment. And it is.

I have reservations, however, and they are important. For many years now I have been deeply concerned about the plight of undereducated white heterosexual males, for whom there is no social action group. The film The Full Monty commented on this. Lads, who had grown up with their hardworking manual worker father, sitting at the head of the table at the family Sunday lunch, found themselves unemployed in a world where their sisters, wives and girl friends could get service jobs. In this new world the strippers were male, because women had the money.

Since then we have progressed not only socially but sexually. Long-term stable relationships have become less usual. More women are single parents, which is hard on them and hard on their children, especially their sons. I believe the social consequences are massive. For example there has been the rise in child abuse. No children should be verbally abused, physically abused, sexually abused and even killed by a new man, who comes into their mother’s life, but they are.

The shoe murder is an example:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/21/man-found-guilty-battering-stepson-to-death-shoe

Why should a woman not be a single parent, if she wishes? Why should she not have a series of short-term relationships? Why should she not bring a new man into her life? Of course she has every right to all three. Also her children have every right to grow up in a secure supportive environment. Too often the new man threatens their safety.

The problem for a boy can be multiplied, if the new man does not offer the lad a good role model. There may be resentment, because he is not the boy’s father. More dangerously, there may be resentment because he is not the man’s son. When the lad goes to school, the majority of his teachers are female, which again weakens the male role model. Who are his accessible male role models? Film heroes are fictional. Film actors are chosen for their on-screen abilities not their father figure abilities. The same is true for sports stars and pop stars. Of course you have wonderful examples such as Jermain Defoe and Bradley Lowery but its exceptionalism contributed to its wonder.

Some commentators suggest that children should be raised by society. The problem is that I have never met society and simply by expecting someone else to do something about the child, could let the child fall through a social crack.

Now we have femalised a male star role that stretches back through my childhood. Could we not have had a black Dr. Who? Or an Asian Dr. Who?

Do not misunderstand me. I think a female Dr. Who is really great and Jody Whitaker seems to be a good choice but please amidst all the struggle for a fairer society let us not forget the plight of the under-educated white male, whom we cast in the stereotype of white van man. When reading this please remember I am a cyclist, who feels constantly threatened by white van man, SUV woman and BMW person. Society seems to have forgotten the plight of this social group, whom robots and self driving white vans are going to crush into dust. They are angry. They carried the Brexit vote and Donald Trump rode into the White House astride their shoulders. They are not female. They are not gay. They are not lesbian. They are not transgender. They are not Afro-Caribbean . They are not Asian. They are not Muslim. They are not disabled. There is no social action group for their needs.  In many western countries, where they are a major part of the population, politicians have ignored them for too long.

Manchester Madness & London Lunacy

Mamdou had been voted the noisiest student at his university. When I said, “For a student in Manchester that was quite an achievement”, he replied, “Come off it, John, it wasn’t Liverpool.” Mamdou had greatly enjoyed his Manchester years and learned something about British culture. As a Saudi Muslim, I imagine he was very upset by the attack after the Ariana Grande concert.

When Elizabeth, my wife, heard that a suicide bomber had attacked a female singer’s pop concert, with classic female intuition, her first words were, “all those young girls”. There can be few softer targets than girls at a pop concert having a bop and a giggle with their mates. Adult heavy metal lovers at the Bataclan they were not. At least some of the Borough Market victims could defend themselves and each other with chairs and bottles. As parents of three daughters, we were devastated. I cannot imagine sorting through my daughters’ rooms after such a loss. I think we would have to move house. Even that would make little difference. All Muslims I have known adored their children. How could any true believer do this? Only a coward would attack such a soft target. May Allah banish him to the depths of hell.

As our hearts reached out to the families of the victims, we read about Marcin and Angelika Kils. They had paid us the huge complement of leaving their Polish homeland to live in York. As good parents concerned for the safety of their daughters, they had driven from York to Manchester and were waiting for the concert to end in the foyer of the venue. The irony of their journey cannot be lost on Wars of the Roses buffs. Now their daughters, Alex and Patrycia, are orphans in a foreign land that has chosen to separate itself from their parents’ native Poland, in part because their parents paid us the huge complement of choosing our country over the land of their birth. Trumpist Brexiteers feel the shame, as our hearts nearly break for the two girls. I hope we Britons smash our prejudices and embrace them and take care of them.

When I arrived at the door of Tahir’s office, his office manager said, ”But Mr. John it is Ramadan”. Remembering my manners, I replied, “Ramadan Kareem”.

“Ramadan Kareem Mr. John.”

“Is Mr. Sabir in his office?”

“Mr. John, everyone knows that he takes his annual leave in Ramadan. He goes to Makkah to pray.”

I was devastated. Everyone did not include me. I had not appreciated that Tahir was very religious. He did not sport a big beard. He did not wear a short thobe. He never discussed Islam. He never tried to convert me.

Several months later, after an intense business meeting, the conversation turned to heaven. Tahir leaned towards me and gently whispered, “John, I really want to go to heaven.” Perhaps, it was his frank honesty, perhaps, it was the strength of his quiet conviction or perhaps it was the child-like simplicity of his faith, but I have never heard a more powerful declaration of faith in my life. No erudite theological argument, no come to Jesus moment, no passionate sermon and no heart-felt prayer has ever approached the power of Tahir’s words. I knew that he had shared the core of his soul with me. This was the centre of his life. I was deeply moved.

Many times simple acts by Muslims have touched me. Time and again I have been bowled over by their kindness to strangers. The extraordinary gesture of lifting the right hand to the breast bone, literally meaning you have touched my heart, is a wonderful expression of thanks. It is such a contrast to tossing a casual “Cheers mate” into the wind.

Now we have had another London truck and knife attack. Non-Muslim prejudices declared, “Islamicists”. Muslims  hoped not. Sadly prejudice trumped hope. Once again Muslim community leaders and clerics declared that their thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. Once again they distanced true Islam from the violent jihadists’ world view. This is the right thing to do. They are correct in their sentiment. They are correct in their interpretation and expression of Islam. We, however, are concerned. The words are fine but where are the actions?

President Obama said that one of things he disliked most about serving as President was sending his thoughts and prayers to the families and victims of yet another mass shooting, knowing that he could do nothing to prevent the next mass shooting, because so many Americans regard the right to bear arms as sacrosanct under their constitution. Similarly, thoughts and prayers are all well and good but I plead with all British Muslims to cleanse this canker from your communities before it is too late. Show us in your actions that you are appalled by Islamicist violence. Words are not enough. Do something about it, because non-Muslims and the government cannot.

Once again the future comes out of the American west. On the 26 May, 2017 in Portland Oregon Jeremy Joseph Christian verbally attacked two Moslem girls, then fatally stabbed two people and injured a third when they came to the aid of the girls. In court he declared himself a patriot. I am terrified that if the Muslim community does not act swiftly and decisively, the neo-fascist far right will cleanse the canker themselves. They will purify England’s green and pleasant land by making it very unpleasant. For years I have been concerned that the multicultural west has ignored the views and values of less educated white males, because they are not black, gay, female or any other sort of minority. Out of the frustrations of this group came the Nazis. They were the bedrock of apartheid. They are the foundation of support for Farage, Trump, LePenn and Wilders. They are angry, they are dangerous and they have been gaining power. In America they are in power.

Trump, as usual, could not help himself. President Macron, fully aware of France’s struggles, tweeted: “In the face of this tragedy, France is more than ever at the side of the United Kingdom. My thoughts go to the victims and their loved ones”. Instead of this kind of sentiment, Trump entered into another spat with London’s Muslim mayor by misunderstanding and deliberately misquoting Sadiq Khan. Then he surpassed himself by tweeting, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!” Mr. Trump, they used knives and a truck, because we have not had a gun debate in Britain for decades. Imagine if Britain had USA gun laws. The London terrorists would have used M16s and some of the people defending themselves and the other victims would have hit back with hand guns. The death toll would have been even more horrific. When the police arrived, whom would they have shot – the terrorists or the defenders?

After the Sandy-Hook primary school massacre, some right wing Americans suggested that arming teachers would protect the kids. Why stop there. Arming the kids would bring a whole classroom of fire power to bear on the attacker. Just think what games the kids could play during their breaks. Finally, the victims of school bullies would get justice. Please remember that in a year there are more shootings in Los Angeles schools than in the whole of the United Kingdom.

US Senator Mark Warner told CNN, “The Muslim American community is better integrated into US society. That’s always been our secret sauce.” He is correct. Many Muslim Americans are descended from Middle-Eastern professionals. Many British Muslims are descended from Pakistani mill workers. When my second daughter was training to be a doctor, she said that she was glad to be working in Barrow-in-Furness, because most of the other medical trainees were gay or Muslim. She studied rather than dated. Gradually, Britain’s Muslim community is moving forward. Progress is slow but in the right direction. Senator Warner, as your President knows, London is the first major western city to have elected a Muslim Mayor, which would have been impossible with the Muslim vote alone.

In 1991 the USA horribly suffered the largest Muslim terrorist attack of all time. Now Europe has a problem with Muslim terrorism. There are, however, more deaths from massed killings in the USA than in Europe every year. The American perpetrators tend to be unhappy white males. This is just the group who will one day in Europe respond viciously to the violence that Muslims have perpetrated with knife, truck, gun and penis against non-Muslims. Now is the time to remember that we were all born of two parents before faith and culture divided us. All of us have mothers. We cannot avoid the fact that we all look pretty much the same. Sadiq Khan is human. He is clearly not a bear. Like him Mr. Trump you eat, breathe, were elected and even tweet. You are more similar than you are different.

Now is the time to embrace our Muslim fellow humans. Now is the time to embrace our non-Muslim fellow humans. European mass murderers tend to be unhappy Muslim males. American mass murderers tend to be unhappy white males. The common problem on both sides of the Atlantic is unhappy young men. The common solution is that love trumps hate. We must give all our people a chance. I know this is obvious, just as I know it is difficult.

This is my challenge to British Muslims. “Wake up and clean up your mess before neofascist white males clean it up for you”. This is my challenge to non-Muslims, “Give all our fellow Britons a chance, so they can create happiness in their lives. Happy people do not blow themselves up. Happy people do not deliberately drive vehicles into other people”. This is so obvious that it seems trivial. Why then cannot we do it? I have heard many answers to that question. They all sound like lazy excuses to me.