Another perfect moment in British colonial development

Another perfect moment in British colonial development

I am in London for a week doing some research with small area analysis, and on the weekend had a brief opportunity to actually see the city. As is traditional by now on my annual trips to London, I visited the World Wildlife Photography Exhibition (which was a bit weak this year, I thought), and having a bit of time to kill wandered up the road to the Science Museum. Here I stumbled on a small and interesting exhibition entitled Churchill’s Scientists, about the people that worked with Winston Churchill before, during and after the war on various projects, and Churchill’s powerful influence on British science.

This year will see the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and you would think by now that popular culture of the victorious countries would finally have got to the point where it is able to handle a more nuanced analysis of the politics of that time than mere hagiography. It’s clear that the allied powers were uncomfortable about some of their actions during the war: the careful elision of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and his fliers from peacetime awards is an example of British squeamishness about the morality of the bomber war, but this squeamishness doesn’t seem to have manifested itself in any kind of clear critical reevaluation of the behavior of the allies at war, at least in popular culture. This silence is starting to be broken by, for example, Antony Beevor’s uncomfortable discussion of rape in Berlin, or his discussion of the treatment of collaborator women in Normandy; but it is generally absent from public discussion. Churchill’s Scientists is, sadly, another example of this careful and deliberate overlooking of the flaws of wartime leaders and their politics when presented in popular culture.

The exhibition itself is small and interesting, walking us through various aspects of the scientific endeavours of the pre-war and post-war eras. It describes the scientists who worked with Churchill, their relationship with him and the public service, and how science was conducted during the war. Churchill was very close friends with a statistician who advised him on all aspects of war endeavours, and also was very supportive of operational research, which was basically an attempt to revise wartime strategy on the basis of evidence. The achievements of these scientists given their technological limitations are quite amazing: drawing graphs by hand on graph paper to attempt to explain every aspect of the statistics and epidemiology of rationing, conducting experiments on themselves to understand the effects of low-calorie diets, and feverishly working to improve tactics and technologies that were valuable to the war. The post-war efforts were also very interesting: there is a life-size installation showing the original model of myoglobin, which was studied using x-ray crystallography and then built by hand using cane rods and beads to create the three-dimensional structure. There is a telling quote about how scientists became used to asking not “how much will it cost” but “how quickly can we get it done and what do we need?” There are also some interesting examples of how the wartime expectations of scientists translated into peacetime success: they had contacts in the ministries from their wartime work, they were used to having funds and knew how to raise money, and they had access to hugely increased resources as the ministries dumped wartime surplus in universities and research institutes. In the 1950s this translated into rapid advances in medicine, genetics, nuclear power and astronomy, all of which are documented in the exhibition.

There are, however, some political aspects that are overlooked. Currently in the UK there is an ongoing debate about whether to stop conducting the Census because it costs too much, and it is clear that since the war there has been a shift in funding priorities and a move away from the idea that science should be funded at any cost. I would have been interested to find out how this happened: did Churchill change his attitude towards funding for science or was this a post-Churchill trend? Was Churchill the last of the Great Investors? What did subsequent conservative party leaders make of his legacy and how do they talk about it? Why is it that the country that invented radar, that perfected antibiotic production, and that contributed more than any other to modern geographical statistics and demography, can no longer “afford” the census? Was the war a high point and an aberration in the history of British science funding? Did its successes distort the post-war scientific landscape and expectations? None of this is really described in the exhibition, which limits itself to Churchill’s positive legacy, and doesn’t seem to want to explore how it was undone. There is also a bit of attention paid to female scientists in Churchill’s war efforts, including women who developed X-ray crystallography and did important nutritional epidemiology research. But we know that much of the computational work done in the war and immediately after was also done by women, but they were slowly squeezed out of the industry after the war. I would have been interested in some description of what happened to all those female scientists and ancillary staff after the war – were they forced out of science the way women were forced out of factory work, or did Churchill’s support for women in science during the war permanently change the landscape for women in science? It seems clear that Watson and Crick’s work – initially sparked by x-ray images of the DNA that are shown in this exhibition – must have been built on the work of crystallography’s pioneers, who were women. But where did those women end up when the war effort wound down?

The other aspect of this exhibition that is sadly missing is a discussion of Churchill and his scientists’ darker sides. We are introduced to the exhibition through Churchill’s love of flying; the website for the exhibition quotes him talking about new technologies in aerial bombing; and the exhibition itself talks about his support for a British nuclear weapon. But nowhere in the exhibition is his enthusiasm for terror bombing discussed, nor the unsavoury way in which he developed this enthusiasm, running terror bombing campaigns against Iraqi tribespeople in the 1920s. Arthur Harris is only presented once in the exhibition, dismissing a biologist who proposed a campaign of tactical bombing of railway junctions (he “wasted his time studying the sexual proclivities of apes,” was the dismissal); but nowhere is the corollary of this position – Harris’s lust for destroying cities – mentioned, or the extensive scientific work that went into developing the best techniques for burning civilians alive. In the year that western governments will demand Japan apologize for its wartime atrocities (again!), one would think they could at least mention in an exhibition on wartime science the extensive research that went into perfecting the practice of burning Japanese civilians alive.

In case one thinks this might have been just an oversight on the part of the curators, later we see a more direct example of this careful elision, when the exhibit focuses on Britain’s post-war nuclear weapons program. Again, we have been presented with Churchill’s direct interest in blowing stuff up; here we are shown video of a nuclear test, and discussion of the research that scientists were able to do on the environmental and physical effects of the bombs. The exhibition doesn’t mention that many of these tests, conducted in Maralinga in Australia, were conducted on land that Aborigines had been expelled from and were unable to return to. It also doesn’t mention the contamination of Aboriginal customary lands, any possible harmful health effects for Aborigines living in the area, and the controversies of the Maralinga inquiries and subsequent compensation for soldiers and workers. Not even a one sentence reference.

Given that we know Churchill was a deeply racist man who supported colonialism and had no interest in the rights of non-white British, it seems hardly surprising that he might have had a slightly cavalier attitude towards ethics in research and military tactics where it was directed against Iraqi tribesmen or Australian Aborigines. It seems like 70 years after the end of the war it might be possible to start talking about this stuff honestly outside of academia, and to publicly reevaluate the legacy of men like Churchill, and many of his senior scientists, in the light of everything we know now, rather than simply portraying all their efforts through only the lens of wartime heroism. Churchill was undoubtedly a great man and a powerful leader, and the world owes him a debt of gratitude. He was also a racist and a colonialist, and some of the decisions he made before, during and after the war may not have been either right or the best decisions for the time. It also appears that despite his greatness, the legacy of his interest in science and education was soon undone, and the reasons for this are important for us to consider now. What does it say about Britain that 70 years after the end of the war it is still not possible to honestly assess Churchill’s wartime efforts but only to extol his great contribution to science; yet 70 years later his contributions to science have been so far wound back that the government is considering abolishing the Census? Does such hagiography benefit Britain, or British science? I would suggest not.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are going to see a lot more public discussion of the actions and contributions of the great people of that time. I fear that this discussion is going to be very shallow, and sadly empty of any attempt to critically reassess the contributions of the people involved, and how they shaped our post-war culture. This exhibition is a good example of how the war will be presented this year: stripped of moral context, all uncomfortable truths banished from discussion, and all long-term ramifications for post-war politics and culture carefully sanitized to ensure that no difficult questions are asked, or answered. Perhaps we aren’t doomed to repeat history, but I think this year at the very least we are going to be bored stiff by it.

The Shaikh would not approve!

The Shaikh would not approve!

I discovered tonight that my blog has come to the attention of a Muslim scholar in the UK, in a piece he wrote about the UK census. Like me, this scholar noted the obssessive focus of the UK press on the growth of Islam, rather than the explosion of atheism[1]. Unlike me, the writer of this piece didn’t comment on the simultaneous release of gay marriage laws that privilege the bigotry of the mainstream churches. I wonder why?

Anyway, in previous posts here I have presented the use of Tolkien by fascists as evidence in favour of my thesis that his work is racist. So it’s only fair that I hoist myself on my own petard, and have a look at what kind of people hold my work in high esteem[2]. If we can find even one work by this website that supports the veil, then surely I’m anti bikini? Right?

Fortunately, the Islam21c website gives a convenient collection of all the works of the scholar in question, Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, so we can read his opinions in full, and an interesting read they are. Essentially they read like your standard form of leftist religiosity, with perhaps a touch more homophobia and prostration than one might see of a Catholic liberation theologist, but generally in the same vein – they’re the sort of thing that a mainstream leftist christian in America would probably approve of (minus the “peace be upon him”s) or that a conservative Australian catholic unionist (or even Tony Abbott) could get behind. They also have a particular theme that you won’t find in the works of a “mainstream” religious activist in the UK – how to deal with being a Muslim in Britain. And in this regard they don’t read particularly differently to the opinions of a practical Marxist or fascist, in that they attempt to provide guidelines for how to conduct oneself in a world that one simultaneously appreciates and enjoys, but finds morally bankrupt and which (to a greater or lesser extent depending on one’s political and religious leanings) rejects you or your kind. Thus we find advice on whether or not to vote (do so, but do so from a framework of minimizing evil, and aim to follow the advice of Muslim scholars about which party to vote for); advice about how to respond to the killing of bin Laden (which, funnily enough, contains no advice; but condemns al Qaeda while blaming everything on America); an opinion on the London riots (morally reprehensible, but driven by racism and the exclusion of the poor from education[4]); and recommendations about banking practice (if you hold views which require a boycott, as do e.g. vegetarians or environmentalists, then you need people to gather information and present their opinion of whether particular products are valid to use[3]). Every gold card should have a fatwa!

More interesting is the site’s attempts to describe the nature of the hijab (voluntary, but recommended to all), the issue of immodest hijabs (yes, they exist!) and the problems inherent in treating the hijab as a symbol of identity rather than an act of worship (I actually thought these readings would put many a post-structuralist feminist to shame); and most interestingly, its ongoing series of posts on what it means to be British in an Islamic context, built around a debate with another Islamic scholar about the role of music (very appropriate, given the strength of British culture in the production of music). Would that mainstream journalists in the UK could put as much thought into these issues as this obscure website has done! In this context I thought the open letter to David Cameron was particularly impressive.

Although I think I can say I disagree with almost everything on this site, I think I understand the fundamental struggle it describes: to try to live according to a strict set of moral precepts in a world that doesn’t agree with them, or that agrees with them in principle but doesn’t support them practically. You can see this from christian fundamentalists, vegans, pacifists and some kinds of Marxists and libertarians, and the personal struggles their websites describe are all the same. Unlike some christians in the west, though, this site is more honest: it directly blames the Japanese tsunami on a failure to embrace the correct God – a view this tired atheist would have once got angry about, but now appreciates for its cruel honesty. The more times that religious people say things like this, the more potential followers they will lose, because in statements like this they reveal the fundamental cruelty of the god they claim loves them, and the responsibility of all right thinking people everywhere to oppose those gods if they were real. Anyone who submits to a god that kills 10,000 people even though they have never had a chance to convert to his “love” is lacking some fundamental understanding of what compassion is. Or is being very bloody-minded. Either way, it’s better that these things are stated openly than clothed in mealy-mouthed excuses about “the problem of evil.”

Anyway, the post-colonial critique of mainstream analyses of Islam was good, as was the debate about what it means to be British, and the subjugation of nationalism to the greater struggle – very much in keeping with the major streams of international socialist thought. Shame about the hocus-pocus, but you can’t have everything – but who cares when you can hoist faustusnotes on his own petard, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that my website is opposed to bikinis!? And, no doubt, objectively pro-terrorist …

fn1: incidentally, my spell-checker notes that “Islam” requires a capital “I” whereas “atheism” does not need a capital. Typing here, I also note that “Christianity” requires a capital “C”. I think this is bullshit. I think in all future posts, I will capitalize the “A” in “Atheism.”

fn2: my claiming that this islam21c blog holds me in high esteem might be stretching it a bit, but we don’t get a great many hits around here, so please go easy on me.

fn3: In Australia, vegans generally told each other that Toohey’s Red and Coopers were safe beers to drink

fn4: but your average rioter probably doesn’t want to assume this means they receive any sympathy – if our friendly shaikh had his way, they’d be getting a hand amputated!

The UK Census was released today, and the Guardian is “live-blogging” the details[1]. As a statistician I feel obliged to comment on the census, because it’s a fundamentally important part of modern cultural life. As an opinionated bastard, I also take great joy in the release of figures I can distort to suit my view – just like the commenters at the Guardian – so let’s dig in and see what we can say about the UK Census.

Why is it important?

I’m pretty sure someone with more energy than me can trace all of modern statistics back to an Islamic scholar, or worse still, a Frenchie, but as far as most people care modern statistics – and, especially, modern demography – owes a huge debt to the British. The census began in 1801 but Britain has been keeping some kind of records since before they invented the clock, so their contribution to the body of human knowledge is worthy of respect. Furthermore, London has been a very international city for a long time, and the rest of Britain an inward-looking maelstrom of anti-foreigner weirdness, and because British government has generally failed to implement anything resembling a sensible multicultural policy, what happens in London and the way British people regard what happens in London is very interesting to those of us who are a little more sanguine about racial issues.

Foreigners and the tabloid press

The Guardian reports in its headline that now almost 1 in 8 people in Britain was born abroad, and “white British” ethnicity is a minority in London (at 46%). This is the Guardian, that doyen of leftist politics. Check out the comments to that article: almost everyone is commenting on or arguing about the issue of foreigners in London, and aside from one faux-cynical comment about the rich getting richer, no one is noticing the strange economic phenomenon of the decline in home ownership, and if anyone notices the radical changes in religious composition it’s to worry about a tiny minority of Muslims, not to notice the explosion in atheism. This is the prestige that the British ruling class use to pull off their magic trick of robbing the poor: they get everyone looking at the weirdo foreigners while they steal their stuff. Of course it’s all irrelevant: 24% of the Australian population was born overseas, and no one gives a toss. Our Prime Minister was born overseas (in Wales, no less! can you imagine?!) But in Britain having half that many people born overseas is the main point, all else secondary. And as we can see, what is secondary is perhaps much more important than the number of foreigners in the country.

Race vs. origin: a strange British obsession

The debate in Britain about race is a strangely obsessive thing. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) offers a set of something like 15 ethnicities for respondents to choose from, including the ludicrous category of “White British,” which must really mystify any Americans staying in the UK during the census period. What can they class themselves as? Of course there are other equally ludicrous ethnicities, such as “Black African,” which put Ethiopians, Zulus and Nigerian Yoruba in the same ethnicity. What is the point of this? Who does it help? From an epidemiological point of view it’s a complete waste of time. Genetically it’s meaningless – everyone in Iceland, whose DNA has been mapped, gets classed in the same category (“White Other”) as everyone from Hungary. Where do Australians get placed? (There is not – yet – a category for “Mostly White Mongrel”).  This categorization says so much more about the ruling majority’s petty obsessions than it does about the population of Britain, and is a classic example of a classification system that obscures anything meaningful, while revealing a set of pre-conceived preferences that serve only to reinforce a certain worldview.

But this census the ONS did a remarkable thing: for the first time in the 200 years of the census they bothered to ask respondents what language they speak at home, and so we get to learn something of the actual ethnic make-up of the nation, rather than the ethnic composition imagined by those who think the elision of Hungarians and Icelanders is useful. We learn that 91% of British people speak only English at home, and 4% can speak no English at all. Compare this with ethnically “homogeneous” Japan, where about 2% of the population are non-Japanese: so probably about 1% speak no Japanese. Is it really such a big difference?

In Australia we don’t ask about “ethnicity.” [From memory] We ask three questions: where you were born, what languages do you speak at home, and are you Aboriginal? The latter is asked because of the continuing challenges facing Aboriginal people (especially discrimination) and the importance of cataloguing and understanding their culture; the former two questions were a deliberate decision of the Hawke government to make census data representative of modern Australia. In modern Australia, if you are born in Australia you are Australian, and the assumption should be (and generally, is) that your ethnicity is irrelevant. This means that if someone came here from the UK we don’t care if they are black, white or “Asian”: we only care about the fact that they are new to Australia and the languages they speak. From a data-driven point of view, ethnicity is a highly charged and complex notion, debated and disputed at every level – from the genetic and the political to the personal. My father, for example, believes that he is “White English” and he and his friends – all of whom, incidentally, believe I am not “white English” because my Grandfather is Spanish – refuse to write “White British” on the census, and deliberately select “other” so they can write “White English.” The ONS doesn’t report this little protest movement, as far as I’m aware, though I don’t know why: “White English” is as meaningless a category as “black African,” so why not include it? The truth of my father’s situation is much more deeply embedded in other census data – born in Britain, speaks only English, lives in a trailer park – than in the supposed purity of his genetic heritage. Who cares what percentage of his heritage is saxon vs. French? But my father does, because while he is very easily tempted to represent himself in terms of lost and mythical racial categories, it is extremely hard to get him to think of himself in terms of functionally useful social phenomena, such as home ownership or social class. And this is the great trick of the British race “debate”: it gets all those little Englanders to identify with their white overlords, rather than with the gypsy down the road who is in the same economic position as them.


In the religion category we find that the UK has finally caught up with Australia – and at a rapid pace – with 25% of respondents endorsing “no religion” compared to 15% in 2001. This is a rapid change, and indicates that support for mainstream religion in the UK is declining rapidly, with the main increase being amongst those who reject all religion. The other main article on the Guardian site as I write this is the government’s announcement that religious groups will be given the right to “opt in” to gay marriage laws – that is, they will be automatically assumed to be discriminatory bigots unless they raise a finger to indicate otherwise. Can we think of any reason why the proportion of people who are non-religious might be increasing rapidly in the UK?

Sadly, the number of Jedi has declined by half since the last census, from 390,000 in 2001 to 176,000 now. At least the ONS was brave enough to report this cute little protest movement – the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) refused to release the figures.

Home ownership

The other remarkable finding in this survey is that home ownership rates have declined, from 69% to 64%, even though the population is ageing and so should be expected to have higher rates of home ownership. How is it that the UK has gone through a 10 year long housing boom (that ended just 2 years before the census was taken) yet the number of people renting has increased by almost the same amount that the number of owners has declined? It can’t be because of a general all-round decline in wealth – the number of cars in ownership has increased by about 9%, even though there was no car ownership bubble. So what happened? This should serve as a reminder to everyone that privately-financed housing bubbles are the antithesis of the housing dream: they concentrate the market in the hands of those who own capital, giving them rentier’s power over an essential service. Of course, over the coming days all debate will be focused on race and immigration. How convenient for the rentiers…

The myth of British education and Australian ignorance

The proportion of people in the population with a degree education of any kind increased to 27%, finally breaking even with Australia. Of course, the population has increased by 5% since 2001 – while the British newspapers would love to blame every decline in living standards on foreigners, I’m willing to bet you a groat that they don’t point to temporary foreign migrant workers – mainly skilled labourers, I suspect – who might have bolstered those figures. Already the comments in the Guardian are complaining about “white British” who can’t get a job or a house, so I guess they won’t be rushing to praise the the high levels of education of foreigners in the UK. It’s another example of the sad decline of the UK relative to the rest of the world that with a 4% increase in education level they can finally cut even with the colony they shipped their criminals too. From a great colonial power to a nation that sits hunched over its census reports, bemoaning the shrinking number of “white British” people, and wondering why …

Still, at least the Church of England will be protected from having to offer equality to gays…

fn1: noone who “live blogs” in the Guardian ever turns up in comments to defend their crappy opinions[2], so it’s not actually a blog at all. They should instead say “we are using an annoying and inconvenient format to report important news as it comes in, so that we can attempt to trump the Daily Mail even though they’re much better at getting scoops than us, and don’t belittle themselves by pretending that they care about new media while patently failing to understand it.”

fn2: actually a couple of the anti-sex work campaigners do pop up in comments, but this is because they have blogs of their own and take new media seriously. Monbiot – who for all his chardonnay sipping faults is one of the best and most honest opinion writers in Britain – also engages with his commenters[3]. The rest of them act like what they are: idiot journalists who’ve been forced to produce their second rate thinking in a stream-of-consciousness format, which is really embarrassing for the average journalist[5], especially since the people who are best at this kind of thing are usually sports journalists.

fn3: and links to fully-referenced versions of his posts, which is genuinely excellent[4]

fn4: and you can get stuffed if you expect that kind of devotion around here!

fn5: remember, these were the thickest people at uni![6]

fn6: or second thickest, depending on where you place statisticians in the heirarchy.

Being still sick today, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and go see a doctor about a hand injury that’s been getting worse over the last few months. It’s a common kick-boxing related problem, no big deal, just a strain in the area at the base of my thumb, but it has been slowly getting worse (usually this goes away with some stretching) and so it’s worth checking if there isn’t some kind of minor fracture or strain that requires medicinal assistance or complete rest from punching. So off to the doctor I went.

The doctor I chose was the Abe Orthopedic Clinic near Kichijoji station, and when I turned up at 3pm (the start of afternoon opening hours) it was already full to over-flowing with old people, all of whom were waiting their turn patiently for a “rehabiliation massage.” Each would go into a room and sit on a chair where, for about 15 minutes, they would receive a massage from a physiotherapist. Then they emerged, got charged ridiculously small amounts (“100 yen!” “150 yen!”) and go home. After an hour I was called in, told it was just a minor strain and given a prescription for some kind of anti-inflammatory stick-on treatment, and out I went again. Total charge: 1050 yen for the consultation, about $10 US. Before my health insurance is taken into account that would be about $30 US, about the same as an equivalent consultation in Australia. My drugs cost a further $7 US.

Now let us compare with the same process in the UK. First I have to visit my general practitioner (GP), which I can only do with an appointment in most cases. The appointment will require a wait of 1-4 days, so I couldn’t have done it on a random day when I was already home sick. The GP won’t offer me any medical opinion, but will prepare a referral to a local hospital outpatient clinic, which I then book. This referral will take between 2 weeks and 3 months, usually somewhere more toward 6 weeks – unless one of the new-fangled “Referral Management Centres” decides my referral was inappropriate, in which case I’ll be redirected either to a specialist or back to the GP (with further waiting in both cases). So after 2-12 weeks (roll 2d6!) I will get to the outpatients’ clinic in the hospital, and assuming I am seen on time (unlikely) and don’t need an X-ray, will be given my prescription and sent home. Total cost: nothing.

Which system would you rather be getting treated in? Bearing in mind that when I say “health insurance” about Japan I don’t mean it in the American sense of “capricious company with a god complex that will decide whether you get reimbursed,” but “government-run single payer that covers everything.”

Which system would you be more likely to not bother attending for non-urgent healthcare in, especially if you’re a healthy young male who thinks he’s invincible? So, your health problem niggles away but you wait until it becomes acute because, well, this whole thing is too much trouble. Sure it’s still your fault when your diabetes gets out of control, you lazy shit; but wouldn’t it have been better if the unnecessary barriers to care weren’t there in the first place? And ultimately, from a health system perspective it doesn’t matter whose fault it is: you’ll still be turning up at the emergency department with acute unmanaged diabetes.

This isn’t necessarily just a problem with financing (everything in the NHS is free so queues can be used as a form of rationing). It’s a fundamental problem of the gatekeeper system that the NHS uses: if the gatekeeper doesn’t provide a good range of medical services onsite and/or the time from gatekeeper to gate is very long, it acts as a huge disincentive to voluntary healthcare-seeking behavior. And in modern health systems, voluntary healthcare-seeking behavior is very important: in testing as a component of controlling infectious diseases like HIV and TB; in managing chronic illness like diabetes; and in identifying preventable health conditions like osteoporosis.

Anyway, nothing’s wrong with my hand, and no nasty comments about the real cause of inflammation in my right wrist, if you please!

This is a cute example of the power of hindsight. Today’s Guardian has a discussion of the christmas tree that appeared in front of Downing St: you can read David Cameron’s twit about it here[1]. The Guardian helpfully points out that Cameron got a rare “tall” tree, once again proving inequality is a potent force in British life. Apparently tall trees are now rare because the EU changed subsidies back in 2005, causing Irish and Danish growers to switch from this type of fir tree to something else – biofuels for santa’s sleigh, maybe. Which just goes to show that the European Union’s Leprechauns and Vikings are in league to destroy British christmases.

But cuter still, the Guardian has a link to the article in which the change to subsidies was announced. This article contains predictions by the responsible grower’s organization:

Supermarkets and wholesalers are turning to British varieties of spruce, pine and fir.

After initial worries that British growers would struggle to cope with added demand, their representatives are predicting a £10m increase in profits

Compare with the statement from the same organization today:

While he insisted that the shortage did not equal disaster, Hay said it was inevitable that “the numbers are not going to meet the demand”. Some suppliers have been panic-buying and importing up to 100,000 more European trees than in previous years, Hay said.

I wonder if they ever got their original 10m pound profits? It certainly seems that the “initial worries” were correct. Maybe this is why people just don’t buy British anymore? Finally, we see some evidence that private ownership of environmentally sensitive goods is not necessarily the panacaea for responsible management (at least in Britain):

The other problem was that, as the British public fell back in love with real trees, growers have been selling them at a shorter height, he added. “Over recent years, growers in the UK were inclined to cut their trees as soon as people wanted them and therefore did not allow them to grow larger.”

Maybe the Christmas Tree Growers Association was originally responsible for forestry management on Easter Island?

Privatization of the resources of the commons (fish stocks, white rhinos, etc.) is sometimes suggested as an effective method of conservation, since people will be less inclined to kill off their last white rhino if they have a financial interest in its future[2]. Obviously the Christmas Tree Grower’s Association didn’t get the memo on that one … One argument against this form of stewardship is that as the size of the available stocks decline, the price will go up and the owner may be able to retire permanently on the sales of their last few white rhino horns/christmas trees, giving an incentive to exhaust their stocks as quickly as possible. I think this is why some resource economists would prefer a license system, since an environmentally-minded technocrat can vary the allowable permit as stocks change. I’m guessing that the christmas tree market in the UK is not a perfect analogy for the market in white rhino horns[3], but maybe some of the principles are transferrable. Left to their own devices, owners of a private but exhaustible good may not respond to price signals in a way that is inherently pro-conservation. I guess the perfect market theorist would argue this means that the British preference for christmas trees now outweighs their interest in preserving the stock, and the price reflects this, but I’m not sure if when people pay 10 pounds extra for a bigger tree they are really saying to themselves, “this 10 quid represents the entire extent of the value I place on having a tree at all my future christmases.” But then, the entire concept of perfect information and rational consumers[4] is pretty suspicious if the information marketplace includes the Daily Mail, which will no doubt blame the entire shortage on unelected gypsies in the European parliament.

fn1: would you be comfortable living in a country run by a man who can’t properly orientate photos before he uploads them?

fn2: A method of resource stewardship that reached rock bottom in one of the cannibalism scenes in The Road.

fn3: You have to get up pretty early in the afternoon to outsmart me!

fn4: I’m only pretending to know what these concepts even are.

Britain’s rioters have been returning Games Workshop products, it has emerged.

While I’m trying to find the time this week to write a game report… a brief comparison of London and Tokyo subways, that I thought of while I was riding on the Marunouchi Line (Tokyo) this morning, reading a sign that said the train had air-conditioning and an air-cleaning system installed. Reading it reminded me of being crammed into the London subway (“the Tube”) and the inevitable comparisons.

The London tube is a filthy, grim affair, with narrow, claustrophobic trains travelling through tunnels barely wider than the carriages themselves, like bullets in a chamber. The interior of the tube is so low that tall men have to bow their heads unless they can push to the middle; the seats are so filthy that they are literally ringed with grime at their edges – the centre of the seat is blue cloth but the edge is brown or black with grime. The trains have no airconditioning, and the city famously refuses to find a solution to the problem of the intense heat in the carriages and passageways – in summer in the UK the outside temperature may not go above 23, but down below in the multiple tubular layers of hell, it is well above 35. And of course, in that special London way, there is the constant stink of unwashed bodies packed together. The stations themselves are tiny, cramped affairs with dark, often unfinished tunnels that are already fraying at the edges. Everyone is in the same 3 brands (Zara, TopShop, H&M) and stands sluggishly on the long escalators, staring at the sluggish people passing the other way. Like British houses, the Tube is dark and grey and stuffy.

All this is in contrast to Tokyo, whose metro stations are wide, large and brightly lit with many exits, shopping centres connected to them, and throngs of bustling, active people who walk briskly up the escalators, and are dressed in the myriad contrasting fashions that only Tokyo can support. The trains are bright and clean, wider and taller than the Tube, even though the people here are smaller and shorter. The trains are air-conditioned and they travel through wider tunnels. In contrast to the intense noise of the Tube as the carriages rattle through the claustrophobic tunnels, passengers and announcers yelling over the din, all is quiet and ordered. Screens over every door broadcast the day’s Korean lesson, or some notes on successful communication. People are packed together, but the train is not stuffy or filled with the reek of unwashed bodies.

And so this contrast struck me. In London, the workers are hurled to their destination like so much unwanted snot. In Tokyo they are swished to their place of work as treasures, like the money through the automated tube systems of a Love Hotel.

Of course there’s no point in comparing to Sydney trains… in that “international city” you’re lucky if they turn up at all!