Summer break

June 26, 2016

As usual I will be taking a break from blogging over the summer months. I should be back at the beginning of October.

Have a great summer!

Some thoughts on the Brexit

June 26, 2016

I don’t normally write about what’s in the news, but this week in view of the vote to leave the EU, I thought I would give my point of view.

  • My initial reaction is that it has been a huge mistake. We are now facing a huge period of instability. The reaction in the markets is a taste of what is to come. There is a real possibility of recession in the UK.
  • I am pretty used to politicians backtracking on promises, but the leave campaigners are breaking all records. The £350m for the NHS seems to have vanished. And the promise to control immigration is an illusion. I am believer in immigration. Here is the economic case for immigration:

  • Anti-immigration has been at the heart of the Brexit vote. One of the key things in politics is that just because you vote for an outcome does not mean this that this will happen; reality is not optional. Chavez and Maduro won elections for years, but they couldn’t suspend the laws of economics. In this case the Brexit campaign was based on misrepresentation of reality. In a piece called, A tragic split, The Economist pointed out the fundamental dilemma. Britain will surely need access to the EU’s single market, a source of prosperity. But the price of this access is that you have to accept free movement of people. If you reject this, you will be excluded from the single market. It is a stark choice between curbing migration and maximising wealth.
  • The collection of supporters of Brexit makes interesting reading Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, David Icke, George Galloway, Arthur Scargill, Katie Hopkins and Julian Assange to name but a few. Of course in the end you have to judge the arguments, and not the people who support it.
  • Then you have to be critical of the Remain campaign. At times it was a bit arrogant. Cameron called the referendum to heal the divisions on Europe in the Tories and undermine the popularity of UKIP. He achieved exactly the opposite. Cynics say that he had only promised the referendum because he thought that he wouldn’t have an overall majority and that the Lib-Dems would veto it. And Jeremy Corbyn was missing in action. Indeed, it is said that he was a supporter of Leave. The intervention of Barack Obama was probably counterproductive.
  • The wave of populism that is sweeping the world was another cause of this result. Globalisation doesn’t benefit everyone. Today in Spain we have an election and Pablo Iglesias, long-time communist and admirer of Venezuela, has a real chance of getting into government. And Hilary Clinton may yet fall victim to this wave of populism. President Trump doesn’t seem so inconceivable now.
  • I do think that the EU needs to learn from this debacle Unease about Europe is surely not confined to the UK. The EU is a flawed institution, which has tried to do too much. Boris Johnson was able to create a comic-version, but there is too much bureaucracy. I think the Euro was a mistake. I am more in favour of a free-trade area and the free movement of workers. Then there should be regional aid. But the Common Agricultural Policy is a terrible policy. Having said the situation has improved. In 1985, around 70% of the EU budget went on agriculture. In 2013, this was under 40%. Curiously, the editor-in-chief of the rabidly Eurosceptic Daily Mail benefited from at least £88,000 in subsidies from the European Union for his country houses in Sussex and the Scottish highlands in 2014.
  •  But Britain should be there fighting its corner. But now that is not possible, do we’ll have to make the best of it. There are interesting times ahead.

I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.

June 19, 2016

My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone’s pain.” Jencey Paz, a Yale student

A university is not a ‘safe space. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.” Richard Dawkins


In recent years a new madness has been afflicting many campuses in the U.K. Here are a few examples. Oxford University’s Christ Church College cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men. Both Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer have had problems speaking at universities because of their views on transgender issues. A flying spaghetti monster poster was taken down because it might offend religious sensibilities. Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their Freshers’ Fair. Another poster, this time at University College London, was banned. It was from the Nietzsche Club and it stated this:


But it is worse in the U.S.A. Students at Harvard have been asking for rape law to be dropped from lectures in case any students have been victims of sexual assault. Jeremiah True, a 19 year-old Reed College student, claims he was recently banned from lecture-seminar class for his dissenting views on the oft-cited statistic that one in five college women experience sexual assault, and his disagreement over the concept of rape culture. Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students asking them to ensure their Halloween costumes did not involve offensive “cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation”. Erika Christakis, a Yale psychology lecturer and wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, objected, saying that the term cultural appropriation was inherently wrong and would stifle free speech and open debate. This was too much for some. An opinion piece in the student paper The Yale Herald by Jencey Paz responded that “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” The Christakises subsequently resigned. A debate over rape culture 2014 at Brown University led students who feared it would be “troubling” or “triggering” to create a “safe space” featuring “colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”  At Oberlin students claimed that listening to speaker Christina Hoff Sommers would give them PTSD. Welcome to the world of the safe space.

Here is one definition of a safe space I found on a website:

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.” It also has an extensive list of what is not acceptable: cultural appropriation, slut-shaming, binarism, heterosexism, trans-misogyny, multiplicity hate, dyadism, cissexism, fat-shaming, monosexism and otherkin hate. This world does indeed have its own language. I have to confess that I had not heard of many of these, so I do not know whether I am guilty of these crimes. There are three other terms that you need be aware of. The first is trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material. The second one is made in England No Platform.  This is a policy of that bulwark of freedom, the National Union of Students (NUS) of the United Kingdom which bans any proscribed person or organisation from being given a platform to speak, or indeed any union officer from sharing a platform with them. Then we have microaggression, defined by as “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype”. It was selected by Global Language Monitor (GLM) as the Top Word of the Year in 2015

The idea of a safe space goes back longer than you might think. One theory is that it has its origins in corporate America with the work of Karl Lewin and the invention of sensitivity groups. The idea was to have a group discussion in which members could give honest feedback to each other in an inclusive environment. The idea was taken up by psychologists such as the humanistic therapist Carl Rogers, who called them encounter groups. They were now part of the counterculture and were intended to promote self-actualisation and social change, fitting in perfectly with the California vibe. And it was here that the idea of safe space was adopted by feminist and gay liberation groups. Sexist or homophobic behaviour was banned by mutual agreement. It is only n the last decade or so that it has been arrived on many university campuses.

As a passionate defender of free speech, I view these campus movements with disdain. Universities should be centres of rigorous debate. We live in a time of manufactured outrage and the offenserati. I don’t object to there being safe spaces, where people feel comfortable and supported. As I pointed out earlier, this is really a therapeutic concept. However, it should have no place in the classroom. It is in the words of one critic Judith Shapiro creating a culture of “self-infantalization.” We need to be able to see the world as other people see it. How can people cope if they learn to put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes every time there is an argument? And how are they going to persuade anyone of what they believe? The policy of safe spaces seems to me to be a strange mix of psychobabble and political correctness. There is this quasi-medical language of trauma. I reject that humans are so fragile and vulnerable. They seem to argue that people are so delicate that if they hear anything upsetting, they will be traumatised.

Proponents of safe spaces use some rather other rather dodgy arguments, many of which are Orwellian:

 “Debate is important. But it’s also overrated.”

“If people feel they can’t attend, then we’re shutting people out of conversations.”

“We are protecting free speech by making sure that everyone can participate.”

The case of Zineb El Rhazoui, Morocco-born French journalist at Charlie Hebdo, is illustrative of everything that is wrong in campus culture. In March 2015 she arrived at a talk at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has travelled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. In the Q+A session after the talk, Aseal Tineha, a Muslim student stood up to object to the French satirical weekly magazine’s disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.” The student, who was apparently constantly interrupting El Rhazoui, argued that she felt threatened, too. I think it is pretty obvious who is facing the more palpable threat. In an odious editorial in the student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, Xin Tian Yong. The subtitle of the piece was Zineb El Rhazoui champions her own free speech while discouraging that of others. She had according to Ms. Xin, made it more difficult for “other members who felt marginalized to freely voice their opinion without fear of dismissal.” She pointed out that El Rhazoui’s “relative position of power” allowed her a “free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.” I like the response of the  vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had invited El Rhazoui to speak:

El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.”

It is Ms. El Rhazoui who is in need of a safer space.

As I have stated many times before, I do not believe there is a right not to be offended. Free speech should be protected, it is not overrated. Of course it will be abused, but this is a price we have to pay. It is easy to agree if the speech is reasonable. It is when the ideas are outrageous, that they require defending.

Obama speaks about colleges and safe spaces

June 19, 2016

Spot on.

The wisdom of Nicolas Maduro

June 12, 2016

I always think a woman looks better when she just runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally. It’s just an idea I have.” When I heard this quote from Venezuelan leader, Nicolas Maduro I had to laugh. But the situation in Venezuela is anything but a joke.  The economy is in a sorry state today. The collapse in oil prices, which account for over 95% of its exports, is part of the reason, but the malaise goes much deeper than that. There is nothing in the shops, and the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation has informed that only 20% of the drugs that doctors require are available. Meanwhile the country’s currency is pegged officially at 6.35 bolivars to the dollar, but on the street, a dollar will buy over 900 bolivars, according to the website Dolartoday. The International Monetary Fund expects inflation to reach nearly 160%.

Of course if you believe if you believe the former Economy Czar Luis Salas, a sociologist. In a 2015 pamphlet called 22 Keys to Understanding the Economic War he wrote:

Inflation does not exist in real life. When a person goes to a shop and finds that prices have gone up, they are not in the presence of ‘inflation.”

Salas does not believe that excessive printing of money causes inflation – an almost universally accepted tenet of economics. He insists prices rise primarily because corporations seek excessive profit margins. I have been critical of the dismal science, but maybe sociology is not the answer. Salas, though, has mastered left-wing rhetoric such as speculative-parasite-vulture capital or global war of the planetary plutocracy. He was sacked five weeks after taking on the job. That is quite an achievement; Salas is too ignorant of economics even for Venezuela’s President Maduro! As Socialism for the Twentieth Century comes to grinding halt, I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the quotes by the Nicolas Maduro:

1) “Do you want to have a fatherland or toilet paper?”

What is about communism and toilet paper? This is what happens when you put price controls. You get a double whammy. On the one hand, if a good is cheaper then people will demand more. At the same time, producers will not be willing to supply a good if it is priced below cost. The rest is commentary.

2)Cilia and I keep 50 chickens at our home. It’s time to start building a new culture of production.” and “I call Venezuelan Youth to move to the country to build the revolution by harvesting potatoes.”

I’m really glad to hat Nick and Cilia, the first lady are into self-sufficiency, but he seems to be channelling Chairman Mao.

3) “They inoculated Commander Chavez with that illness to get him out of the way, and create a situation of destruction for Venezuela and its independent revolution.” “We have the intuition that our Commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way,”

So, Maduro claims that Chavez was given cancer. I’ve heard some wacky conspiracy theories before, and this one is right out there. Chavez died of prostate cancer, which is as far as I know is medically impossible to give to someone.

4) “We know that our commander ascended to the heights and is face-to-face with Christ. Something influenced the choice of a South American pope, someone new arrived at Christ’s side and said to him: ‘Well, it seems to us South America’s time has come.”

Maduro claimed that after Chavez died that he must have been the one that influenced the decision to make Francis the pope.  Nicolas Maduro was raised as a Roman Catholic, although he is said to be a follower of the late Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. This must have helped him find Chavez’s spirit.

5) Suddenly a teeny little bird entered and flew around me three times. It landed on a wooden beam and began to whistle, a beautiful whistle. I stayed there looking at it and also whistled. ‘Well, if you whistle, I whistle.’ So, I whistled. The little bird looked at me strangely. It whistled for a short while. Flew around me once and left, and I felt his [Chavez’s] spirit.”

6) “Sometimes I come at night, sometimes I sleep here [at Chavez’s grave], often. You don’t even realize it. The neighbours sometimes realize.”

Now, that’s just creepy

7)  “Similar questions were posed to Allende as to me. Allende was told that he blamed everything on a conspiracy, on the economic crisis, that he blamed the high inflation that sabotaged him on the United States, and that he was frequently accusing the little lambs of Nixon and Kissinger of a coup. But everything became known later.

I have no doubt that the Americans are capable of engaging in dirty tricks. This is a massive Waste of time and money. The role of the United States was disgraceful, but Allende’s policies would have led Chile to the ruin anyway, as I pointed out in Roast pigeons in the mouths of comrades‏.

So there we have it. It would be wrong to single out Maduro without mentioning the man who came before him. In my previous post about Chaveznomics, I made a point of not attacking the democratic credentials of Chavez. I don’t think that Chavez was a dictator. What he was was an opportunist. He was an incredibly charismatic figure. A lot of the problems that came from Venezuela came from the fact that he was trying to win elections, and he did that by giving stuff away – televisions, microwaves, refrigerators and homes. He did make improvements but this was completely unsustainable. Government policies which prioritise consumption over investment will show good economic signs at the beginning. But they will be followed by an inevitable decline and generally disaster. It led to corruption and ultimately left the country without any money after having made so much during these years when the oil prices were high. Chavez’s highly interventionist impoverished Venezuela’s masses while the oil revenue was there he managed to continue with the policy.  The anti-capitalist policies in Venezuela have worked so well that the number of companies in Venezuela has now shrunk to a fraction of what it once was. That will reduce capitalist exploitation, won’t it? However, according to Salas, Venezuela is still too capitalist.

But I leave the rest of my vitriol for what Nick Cohen described as the radical tourists who have been deluded pimps for Venezuela. Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Seumus Milne, Ken Livingstone, Sean Penn. In Spain we have Pablo Iglesias, who might even be Spain’s President in two weeks. Here is the blurb for Venezuela: The Movie:

Venezuela has “redistributed wealth and power, rejected western neoliberal orthodoxy, and challenged imperial domination”.  Seumus Milne

“Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live for ever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.” Oliver Stone on the day of the leader’s death

“Hugo Chavez’s economic miracle” David Sirotta, writing in 2013

Will these people learn? I very much doubt it. It would be nice to see a little bit of intellectual humbleness from these people. No, they will move on to their next fantasy project. There is no accountability here.


Why Not Print More Money?

June 12, 2016

This video might help Luis Salas hold on to a job in economics longer than five weeks next time.

The rise of food allergies

June 5, 2016

One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Patrick Holford, advocate of alternative nutrition and diet methods

I was travelling on Ryanair – I think it was three or four years ago – and we were told that nobody was allowed to eat peanuts aboard because one of the passengers suffered from peanut allergy. And indeed it may well be the case that studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction. However, one of my students, whose son was also allergic to peanuts, explained that if I had been eating peanuts and I had then touched his face, he would have had a severe reaction. John O’Farrell wrote a satirical novel a few ago, called May Contain Nuts in which he satirised modern parental paranoia, but for anyone with this problem, it is all too real.

Our interest in allergies does seem like a modern phenomenon, but the remains of a woman who died 2,000 years ago in Cosa, on the Tuscan coast in Italy tell a fascinating story. This area, which was not especially prosperous, was important for wheat-growing. The 20-year-old woman, who would have stood at 1m 40cm centimetres, appeared to be quite wealthy – archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery buried with her. DNA analysis demonstrated that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease. Her skeleton showed signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease. By analysing her bones the researcher were able to conclude the woman had tried to change her diet to cope with her condition

What is going on today? I’m sure you will have had this discussion. When I was growing up I don’t remember so many food allergies. Now they are said to affect between 5% and 10% of the populations of developing countries. A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. This might be mild skin reactions and respiratory distress, through to life-threatening reactions. Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance, a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system. Severe food allergies do exist, but it is also true that many more people, 30% of the population believe they have one, than actually do.

What are the causes of this trend? One school of thought is that we are just too clean. According to Wikipedia, the hygiene hypothesis states that “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.” And because of fear we are delaying the introduction of allergenic foods such as egg, peanut or tree nuts. Moreover we now eat more processed foods than ever and this may be affecting our immune system. Finally skin exposure to unrefined nut oil based moisturisers has been blamed. But these theories have not yet been demonstrated

Whenever there is a problem there are solutions. The food industry has given us gluten & wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free nut-free and very soon I’m sure nutrient-free. Next week Rotterdam will be hosting Free-From Food Expo 2016. I am a bit sceptical about these products. You always need to see what they are replacing the harmful substance with. Sugar-free sweets, for example, contain a chemical called lycasin which has a laxative effect. Consumers may believe that free-from means total absence, which is not the case. There was a wonderful example on QI earlier this year. The principal ingredient of sugar-free Tic Tacs is … sugar. This is because, according to the FDA, if there is only half a gram of sugar in a serving it is sugar-free.

Then alternative medicine has got into the act. This is just the type of terrain in which it thrives. We don’t know exactly what is going on and what the solutions are. Alternative medicine becomes the medicine of the gaps. Unfortunately naturopaths and their ilk do not diagnose allergies in evidence-based ways. Their methods are either not proven to work or proven not to work. Blood tests cannot identify food sensitivities. Then there is applied kinesiology which involves holding a suspected allergen and then pressing down on that limb. Muscle weakness is said to signify an allergy. Dr. Jimmie Scott of Health Kinesiology has pioneered the Allergy Tap™ method. The practitioner “places the offending substance over a specific acupuncture point on the belly and taps eight pairs of specific acupuncture points.” You can even do the Allergy Tap™ for yourself after buying the materials and doing a course. Scott claims that it can “eliminate allergies, release physical toxicity, emotional traumas, overcome learning blocks, & perform at your best, among other things. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with gluten intolerance using this kind of technique. Another line is Vega Testing. Vega machines are a type of electroacupuncture device, which they say can diagnose allergies and other illnesses. Here is a video showing the device in action:

Once again there is no evidence that it can identify allergies at all. There are others such as cytotoxic testing, hair analysis and a pulse test (this involves measuring the pulse before and after eating a suspected allergen). They all have little basis. It would be great if a simple blood test could offer a reliable shortcut. In The Guardian Alex Renton describes a visit to London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre near Harley Street:

“It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance. I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.”

And of course you have celebrities and no-one does it better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She has her own line of gluten-free ready meals and three years ago she published a cookbook, It’s All Good. What inspired her was being on death’s door after eating too many chips. Paltrow thought she was suffering a stroke, but was actually diagnosed with a migraine and a panic attack. After a battery of tests, her doctor certified that she was allergic to just about everything. This is Hollywood neuroticism and pseudoscience in its purest form. It was pointed out that to eat as Paltrow suggests would cost $300 a day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. If you are allergic to a food at the moment the only solution is to abstain. Hopefully, science will get a better understanding of what is going on. We need to be looking for food diversity in our diets from an early age to keep our gut microbes as healthy as possible. Fermented plant-based foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and soy sauce are good. Beans should play a big role in our diet too. And without going to his extremes Novak Djokovic’s diet sounds pretty good. The world No 1’s diet is based on vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils.


A couple more food videos

June 5, 2016

Here a couple of videos from Michael Pollan:

This is his most recent series: