While We Were Social Distancing

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 30/05/2020 - 5:23am in

For most of Donald Trump’s presidency, it seems that the news has come at us like a firehose, spraying information, disinformation and quotable tweets. And that was before the pandemic. Now with more than 100,000 dead, presidential spectacles and unemployment … Continue reading

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Covid strategies for Australia: herd immunity or quarantine land?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/05/2020 - 9:20pm in

Let’s talk about some of the covid policy options facing Australia in the coming months and years. It seems to me we can either grasp the nettle and accept we will get a wave of highly visible covid-19 deaths before life returns to normal, or we can try and defend ourselves against any further wave and infections by quarantine rules, State border controls, immunity passports, tracer apps, and the like. The main cost of the latter is in the total collapse of several industries, as well as longer-term but less visible loss of life. The main political cost of the former is admitting we f*cked up first time round and needlessly damaged the economy and society for no benefit.

Let’s talk about the quarantine path first.

Stuck In Quarantine – Zombie Guide Magazine

If one only wanted to prevent a up flare of covid cases in Australia one should continue the current restrictions.

One would have strong quarantine rules regarding visitors from any country with a high number of active cases. Even with countries with few identified active cases, one would want a strict quarantine policy: there is a 2-week delay between the unseen spread of the virus via asymptomatic cases and visible deaths, so you don’t know whether a country is experiencing an unseen flare up of the virus. Hence even visitors from “clean” countries pose a risk. This means one should not expect too much of the idea of some large group of countries that declare themselves a covid-free zone and have free travel between them. One little wave of infections in one of them and such a system would already break down.

The economic costs of quarantine rules is that it kills off some of the tourism, a lot of the international student business, quite a bit of temporary migration, and most business travel. This is exactly why in the UK over 70 big travel operators and hotel businesses have called on the UK government to ditch its plans for quarantine rules. Those businesses are very afraid that the summer holiday season (mid June to August), in which they make a lot of their yearly revenue, is lost, so they are making a huge noise right now. It would mean the end of their business and hence the jobs they provide if the quarantine rules are kept in place. They claim to be close to 10% of the UK economy.

If you count all the ancillary business associated with tourism and business travel, like catering, this industry is somewhat similar in size in Australia. So quarantine rules come with a big economic impact, which is why right now the Gold Coast operators are strongly lobbying the Queensland government against border controls and quarantine rules. They claim 40,000 jobs are in danger. And the Gold Coast is just one small part of the Australian tourism and business travel industry.

And don’t forget, jobs and the economy are about lives. That’s why a job is called someone’s “livelihood”. Jobs support individuals and their families. As I have calculated before, a million jobs lost for just one year equates to over 100,000 life-years lost in terms of direct misery to the unemployed, and another couple of hundred thousand life-years via reduced public services and (health) consumption for the whole community.

Now, of course, things are not quite as bleak as saying quarantining arrivals from outside of Australia kills all tourism and hospitality: quarantine rules not only discourage foreign tourists from coming in, but they also discourage domestics from going out, meaning less foreign tourism but more domestic tourism. Australians do like to travel, with a million or so abroad at any moment in time and they’d do less of that if forced into quarantine every time they return from abroad. With the glut of Asian tourism in the last 10 years, Australia is probably a net winner in terms of the international tourism trade, but it clearly wont be true that its tourism industry will have no clients if the Asians and others are discouraged from coming via quarantine rules. Destinations popular with Australians might even see a net increase. It’s the internationally oriented tourism, travel, and hotel chains that will lose out most. So yes, jobs are on the line, but not quite as many as the whole of the industry.

That is unless one has lots of border controls within Australia that basically kill off most internal tourism as well! Lots of internal controls on movement are essentially equivalent to preventing lots of people from doing their jobs (ie, looking after interstate tourists and travelers), which is a straightforward reduction of total production in Australia. Its like a mandatory closure.

So there is an economic price tag on quarantines rules for foreign visitors and a separate but also big price tag on internal border controls.

Nevertheless, let us press on with describing what the continued suppression path could look like. Importantly, you wont keep this out completely with a quarantine regime, if only because of all those government and military people still flying around on official business. Also, you’ll get cases that fall through the cracks of any quarantine system, whether that is an infected visitor escaping from the quarantine hotel or some infected piece of clothing getting passed on from a docking freight ship. It’s just too contagious and hard to notice to keep out completely when you have a lot of activity in airports and freights (which you have even right this moment). So you cant only have a quarantine regime if you want to keep the virus repressed.

Another element in the suppression strategy is the notion of forced local lock downs connected to a track-and-trace system. They now announced such a system in the UK: anyone tested positive for covid will be asked to say whom they have been in contact with recently, and those others can be forced into an involuntary two week lock down to prevent further spread. The UK government is essentially copying the Chinese system of neighbourhood snitches for this, ie 25,000 busy-bodies whose job it will be to go and pester everyone about their health and their movements. Those 25,000 ‘contact tracers’ will be on the phone to all the friends of an identified case, as well as looking at the movements of a victim’s mobile phone, charged with looking at where an infected person might have gotten the virus from and whom he or she might have given it to.

To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China - The ...One might call this a “low-tech” track-and-trace system, something that other countries try to do with apps but that China and Japan have done with an army of local busy-bodies checking on all others. Key in this system is that one can be forced to undergo a covid test if one the new busy-bodies think that is appropriate. One might thus call it the covid-police.

The Australian government first tried something like this with a mobile phone track-and-trace app, but that one now seems to be abandoned. Yet, it can try again with an updated app or copy China, Japan, and the UK, in setting up a covid-police to track and trace more manually.

Now, of course, the dangers for abuse in this system are horrendous. These contact tracers can threaten businesses with oblivion by calling for a local lock down of all the high-contact businesses in an area, and they can make life hell for any particular individual by calling all their friends and families, or forcing them into continuous tests. As a result, people will be very reluctant to have tests done!

Perhaps even more important is that “track-and-trace” creates its own demand when it is “successful”: by preventing local flare ups, such a system means the community never gets high infection levels and so perennially remains vulnerable to them. So one has to track and trace until there is a vaccine. And with a new virus or a new version of the covid-19 virus, one would have to have the track-and-trace system running again. The local Chinese busy-bodies also find some new threat to guarantee them an ongoing job, and the Australian covid-police would do so too. So its an ongoing cost and form of interference. Just like the Chinese system of social busy-bodies. It would turn the UK or Australia into a mini-China.

Successful continued repression in Australia comes with the irrelevance of immunity passports: those only make sense if you have had enough cases of people recovering from infections. That’s relevant for the UK, but not Australia.

Crowds - The opera house was deserted. The doors were closed. The ...Note also how difficult a track-and-trace system is to operate with lots of visitors and foreign tourists in a neighbourhood. A place like Buckingham Palace or the Sydney Opera House, with a continuous flow of buses full of foreign tourists feeding into cramped spaces, does not allow one to track and trace all the interactions between them and the locals.

So track-and-trace almost inevitably comes with further restrictions: no crowds in massed spaces and no mass tourism. The Opera House deserted.

What does a ban on mass gatherings kill off apart from certain forms of tourism? Well, it kills of all major sports, cultural, or even political events. No stadiums full of football fans or music lovers. No festivals. No Opera House performances with meaningful numbers of attendants. No sizeable political demonstrations. No election rallies. No park runs. No London or Sydney marathon. Probably no large full open office spaces.

So track-and-trace combined with bans on mass gatherings kills off a lot of joy and work. Again, this holds until there is a vaccine, and then applies again with the next version of the virus or some new threat.

Another policy meant to suppress the virus is social distancing and staying indoors. In Europe, we have basically woken up to its futility in preventing cases. Both the 1.5 metre ban and the pressure to stay indoors have now proven to be either largely useless (social distancing) or strongly counter-productive (staying inside). The Germans are thus leading the way in lifting the 1.5 metre ban, and governments are starting to realise they should encourage people to go outdoors.

The Australian government will be getting the same advice right about now.

However, one should note that whilst being in close proximity to others outdoors is now known to carry very little risk of infection, it is of course not the case that there are no infections from close proximity outdoors. Also, close proximity outdoors makes track-and-trace virtually impossible to do. If each individual is in close proximity to a thousand others every day, such as via public transport or lots of close passes on the streets, then the covid-police is going to have to call millions of people every day to inform them they have been ‘in contact’ with someone who has the virus. That is quickly going to become laughable. So there is a tension between letting go of the “stay inside and keep distance” policy and track-and-trace, which is basically why much of continental Europe has abandoned the idea of track-and-trace.

Note also that, once again, preventing mass gatherings might create its own demand if it is successful: one prevents lots of people from catching the virus so one maintains total vulnerability in the population.

Then, the business of face-masks. These have now been found to have a particular use in crowded indoor places with low humidity and poor ventilation. They are thus made compulsory in many European countries for use in public transport (which is crowded, poorly ventilated and sometimes with low humidity). They seem quite important in reducing infection rates.

For those not yet in the loop on the medical reason for this: the issue is tiny “respiratory” droplets of water and saliva (snot!) in the air which contain the virus and which people breathe in. Infected people breathe out rather a lot of such droplets and those droplets can hang in the air for hours depending on circumstances. Those circumstances are humidity and ventilation: if a place is well ventilated, the droplets move away or fall to the ground, and if there is high humidity the droplets also fall down much quicker. On the ground, those droplets are not much of an infection hazard. And where is ventilation good? Outdoors. Where is it bad? Indoors.

So this has become the new wisdom on covid-19 infections: the main place lots of people get strongly infected is in crowded indoor places with poor ventilation, like the Sydney Opera House on a dry day. Sit in there with a few infected people for a few hours and the infection will have reached all areas of the lungs, a much worse form of infection than having only the nose infected by a chance meeting outside. The face masks stop most of the droplets.

So compulsory face-masks in public transport come with another strongly suggested policy, which is continued bans of large gatherings in poorly ventilated indoor places, or at least compulsory face masks in those. That includes lots of school sports. It includes parliament, though they’ll be fixing the ventilation there as soon as they can. It includes bus rides full of tourists. It includes ocean cruises and large boats generally. It includes lots of factory floors. It includes academic conferences, business retreats, and all those other mass-indoor events. For some, you can imagine everyone wearing face-masks for an hour so, but for many, like factory floors or indoor sports, wearing continuous face-masks seems pretty infeasible.

So it kills off an awful lot of industries and activities, at least in the face-masks-off form we used to know, until there is a vaccine, which might well be never. Considering how every year there are new versions of the flu, that it normally takes many years to develop and test a vaccine, and that there is still no vaccine for the previous covid-virus (SARS), one shouldn’t believe in a quick vaccine miracle too easily.

Realistically speaking, the package of quarantine, State border controls, track-and-trace, face-masks, and banned mass gatherings should be expected to have to stay in place for several years in a suppression strategy. Precisely if they work, they have to be kept up till a vaccine because the population never develops immunity. So one kills off large economic sectors indefinitely.

Now, particular aspects of the potential package are more socially and economically costly than others. It is hard to know with the data at present, but I think that compulsory face-masks are probably the least costly of the package, unless they are mandated for all offices and factory floors. They main cost is more indirect in keeping up the fear. Social distancing is probably the most economically and socially expensive item in the potential package as it kills off most of office life and regular work. If mass gatherings include office floors, then keeping them outlawed costs close to that of social distancing. Quarantine is quite expensive, particularly economically, whilst track-and-trace on its own is probably more socially expensive than economically expensive.


Let’s then talk about two different options for grasping the nettle, ie accepting some form of herd immunity is the way to go, which comes with accepting a second wave of infections and deaths with a full opening up of the economy.


Measles, journalism and herd immunity / Data news / News / Home ...The technically easiest thing to do is to simply lift all government-mandated restrictions (state and federal), have some measures in place for the most vulnerable (unhealthy old people in nursing and retirement homes), and otherwise just watch and see what happens as international tourists, business people, migrants, and students come flooding back in. Like in Sweden, one would let individuals and businesses make their own calculations and decisions on how afraid they would be of what, but the official line would have to be that the risks in hindsight were much smaller than initially feared and people should hence just get on with their life and not be so scared.

There would clearly be a wave of infections and deaths lasting a few months. That wave would be quite a bit larger than the first wave Australia had. How large is not known, but I would personally expect it to be inbetween Sweden, which looks like ending up with a death rate equivalent to 15,000 Australians, and Japan, which would mean a few thousand Australians. Hand on heart, I’d expect about 10,000 covid deaths in Australia if we fully open up and stop worrying about the virus.

The advantage is that the economy starts to recover and social life resumes. There would still be one hell of a recession and a leftover government debt, but at least one would be on the path upwards again rather than killing off more industries permanently.

What happens after that first wave? The experience in Sweden is still the most instructive: the virus keeps “burning its way through the population” to the degree that that is natural with the economic and social reality in that country. Large parts of the healthy population eventually get the virus. After 2 months, the Swedish virologists now think only about 20 to 25% of the population in the capital have had the virus (up from 7% in early April), and they thus still have a few more months of relatively high infections to go before so many (50%?) are immune that the number of new cases become negligible. Part of the reason the immunity is happening slower than expected is because of the high degree of voluntary isolation by a population afraid to gather in large numbers.

Australia would be on a similar trajectory, with probably lower eventual levels of the population having been infected because Australia is more spread out, more humid, and might be lucky in importing less virulent versions of the disease than Sweden.

So it would take maybe 4-6 months for the number of cases to drop to almost nothing, after which you’d get the occasional local flare-up but no major further waves as a large part of the population has become immune. If it turns out that people lose immunity, you’d get smaller waves in subsequent years, much like the flu comes around every season. Eventually the population shrugs it off as just another health risk among many other, more worrying ones, like smoking or obesity.

Now, for me this represents the politically easiest option as one does not have to do anything radical but simply talk down the risks of the virus and give in to the demands of business to lift restrictions.

The narrative writes itself: “we have to make a living”, “we cant hide away from the world”, “Australia must be open for business”, “The virus is not even 1/10th of the risk of smoking”, “Our children must have a future”, “our elderly must be allowed to mingle with their family and friends”, “we cannot police the whole population”, etc.

This is the politically easier option and thus the more likely one. Yet, if one is of a more pro-forward and maverick nature, like myself, one is interested in the question of the smartest option around. What would that look like?

I think the smartest option around is to have a designated period in which one tells the old and frail to stay away from the active part of the population, whilst one deliberately created herd immunity by letting the healthy who come most into contact with others get a mild infection in the nose. You’d literally give them nose-sprays with the virus, a technology we already have and could mass-produce quickly.

One would thus have an infection program to catch up with Sweden, but then with fewer deaths and less economic disruption. You’d want something like 30-40% of the population to get infected, and that of course should be the most active group that runs almost no risk of dying from the infection. That’s 18-60 year olds who travel around a lot, which includes public transport commutes.

So you have a second wave, but one that is created and managed rather than one that occurs naturally. One can repeat the exercise in future years if it turns out that people lose immunity. There would of course still be a sizeable number of deaths from this approach. Not so much among those deliberately infected, but among those infected by the deliberately infected. One would try to minimise this damage, but one cant prevent such a large group of people entirely from working or mingling during their infectious period and one should thus expect to fail to some degree in completely protecting the vulnerable population during this deliberately created second wave.

Is this the lowest risk option? I think on balance yes, but it is not without risk. One such risk is that one didn’t need to do it because of some as yet unknown advantage that Australia might have that would make the natural “herd immunity level” particularly low. In that case the “second wave one needs to have to get back to normal” could be much smaller than it seems at present. Just as the fatality of the virus was totally over-estimated, so might the level of the population needed to be immune to get herd immunity also be over-estimated.

One indication that this might be possible is that much of Asia and Africa simply has incredibly low infection and death rates of this virus, suggesting that “doing pretty much nothing” would not lead to much death or infection in those places anyway. Just like malaria does not exist in Europe because it is too cold, maybe covid-19 has a tougher time in Australia than you’d think from merely looking at the usual indicators (urban density, climate, health characteristics of the population, age structure, work habits, social habits, etc.). So the deliberate infection options comes with the risk of creating a larger second wave than you’d actually need.

Politically, the fast-track policy to herd immunity also seems a tough sell. It is super easy to criticise and you’d have a conga line of supposed experts warning of the dangers of doing this. Whilst there are the odd medics whispering in the corridors about such an option, there is not an open consensus on it, so one cant hide behind some recognised solidly large group of scientists. You’d get doctors grand-standing how deliberate infections violate their oaths, and lots of other forms of protest. That alone would seem to make it a political impossibility, even though it seems to me the smartest option on the table with the least net economic and social disruption. Its probably too toxic for politicians to even mention it.


Between A Rock And A Hard Place. Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty ...These are then the more politically realistic options: continue with suppression indefinitely at high social and economic cost until the miracle vaccine appears, or open up fully and take your chances. Whilst Australia is currently right on track with the suppression option, it seems inevitable to me it will end up with laisser-faire after a few months of pussy-footing and continued economic harm. It would be nice to visit Australia again without needing to spend 2 weeks in a hotel room alone.

80s Space Comedy From Two of the Goodies

Astronauts, written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, 13 episodes of 25 minutes in length. First Broadcast ITV 1981 and 1983.

I hope everyone had a great Bank Holiday Monday yesterday, and Dominic Cummings’ hypocritical refusal to resign after repeatedly and flagrantly breaking the lockdown rules aren’t getting everyone too down. And now, for the SF fans, is something completely different as Monty Python used to say.

Astronauts was a low budget ITV sitcom from the very early ’80s. It was written by the two Goodies responsible for writing the scripts for their show, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, and based on the personal conflicts and squabbling of the American astronauts on the Skylab programme six years earlier. It was about three British astronauts, RAF officer, mission commander and pilot Malcolm Mattocks, chippy, left-wing working-class engineer David Ackroyd, coolly intellectual biologist Gentian Fraser,and their dog, Bimbo,  who are launched into space as the crew of the first all-British space station. Overseeing the mission is their American ground controller Lloyd Beadle. Although now largely forgotten, the show lasted two seasons, and there must have been some continuing demand for it, because it’s been released nearly forty years later as a DVD. Though not in such demand that I didn’t find it in DVD/CD bargain catalogue.

Low Budget

The show’s very low budget. Lower than the Beeb’s Blake’s 7, which often cited as an example of low budget British science fiction. There’s only one model used, that of their space station, which is very much like the factual Skylab. The shots of their spacecraft taking off are stock footage of a Saturn V launch, the giant rockets used in the Moon landings and for Skylab. There also seems to be only one special effects sequence in the show’s entire run, apart from outside shots. That’s when an accident causes the station to move disastrously out of its orbit, losing gravity as it does so. Cheap matte/ Chromakey effects are used to show Mattocks rising horizontally from his bunk, where he’s been lying, while Bimbo floats through the bedroom door.

Class in Astronauts and Red Dwarf

It’s hard not to compare it with the later, rather more spectacular Red Dwarf, which appeared in 1986, three years after Astronaut’s last season. Both shows centre around a restricted regular cast. In Red Dwarf this was initially just Lister, Holly and the Cat before the appearance of Kryten. Much of the comedy in Red Dwarf is also driven by their similar situation to their counterparts in Astronauts – personality clashes in the cramped, isolated environment of a spacecraft. The two shows are also similar in that part of this conflict from class and a Conservative military type versus working class cynic/ liberal. In Red Dwarf it’s Rimmer as the Conservative militarist, while Lister is the working class rebel. In Astronauts the military man is Mattocks, a patriotic RAF pilot, while Ackroyd, the engineer, is left-wing, Green, and affects to be working class. The three Astronauts also debate the class issue, accusing each other of being posh before establishing each other’s place in the class hierarchy. Mattocks is posh, but not as posh as Foster. Foster’s working class credentials are, however, destroyed during an on-air phone call with his mother, who is very definitely middle or upper class, and talks about going to the Conservative club. In this conflict, it’s hard not to see a similarity with the Goodies and the conflict there between the Conservative screen persona of Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie’s left-wing, working class character.

Class, however, plays a much smaller role in Red Dwarf. Lister is more underclass than working class, and the show, set further in the future, has less overt references to contemporary class divisions and politics. The humour in Red Dwarf is also somewhat bleaker. The crew are alone three million years in the future, with the human race vanished or extinct with the exception of Lister. Rimmer is an ambitious failure. For all he dreams of being an officer, he has failed the exam multiple times and the B.Sc he claims is Batchelor of Science is really BSC – Bronze Swimming Certificate. Both he and Lister are at the lowest peg of the ship’s hierarchy in Red Dwarf. They’re maintenance engineers, whose chief duties is unblocking the nozzles of vending machines. Lister’s background is rough. Very rough. While others went scrumping for apples, he and his friends went scrumping for cars. The only famous person in his class was a man who ate his wife. The three heroes of Astronauts, however, are all competent, intelligent professionals despite their bickering. Another difference is that while both series have characters riddled with self-loathing, in Red Dwarf it’s the would-be officer Rimmer, while in Astronauts is working class engineer Ackroyd.

Britain Lagging Behind in Space

Other issues in Astronauts include Britain’s low status as a space power. In a speech in the first episode, the crew express their pride at being the first British mission, while paying tribute to their American predecessors in the Apollo missions. The Ealing comedy The Mouse on the Moon did something similar. And yet Britain at the time had been the third space power. Only a few years before, the British rocket Black Arrow had been successfully launched from Woomera in Australia, successfully taking a British satellite into orbit.

Personal Conflicts

There are also conflicts over the cleaning and ship maintenance duties, personal taste in music – Mattocks irritates Ackroyd by playing Tubular Bells, publicity or lack of it – in one episode, the crew are annoyed because it seems the media back on Earth have forgotten them – and disgust at the limited menu. Mattocks is also shocked to find that Foster has been killing and dissecting the mice he’s been playing with, and is afraid that she’ll do it to the dog. Sexism and sexual tension also rear their heads. Mattocks fancies Foster, but Ackroyd doesn’t, leading to further conflict between them and her. Foster, who naturally wants to be seen as an equal and ‘one of the boys’ tries to stop this by embarrassing them. She cuts her crew uniform into a bikini and then dances erotically in front of the two men, before jumping on them both crying ‘I’ll have both of you!’ This does the job, and shames them, but Beadle, watching them gets a bit too taken with the display, shouting ‘Work it! Work it! Boy! I wish I was up there with you boys!’ Foster also objects to Mattocks because he doesn’t help his wife, Valerie, out with the domestic chores at home. Mattocks also suspects that his wife is having an affair, which she is, in a sort-of relationship with Beadle. There’s also a dig at the attitudes of some magazines. In the press conference before the three go on their mission, Foster is asked by Woman’s Own if she’s going to do any cooking and cleaning in space. Beadle and his team reply that she’s a highly trained specialist no different from the men. The joke’s interesting because in this case the butt of the humour is the sexism in a certain type of women’s magazine, rather than chauvinist male attitudes.

Cold War Espionage

Other subjects include the tense geopolitical situation of the time. Mattocks is revealed to have been running a secret espionage programme, photographing Russian bases as the station flies over them in its orbit. The others object, and Ackroyd is finally able to persuade Beadle to allow them to use the technology to photograph illegal Russian whaling in the Pacific. This is used to embarrass the Russians at an international summit, but the questions about the origin of the photos leads to the espionage programme being abandoned. The crew also catch sight of a mysterious spacecraft in the same orbit, and start receiving communications in a strange language. After initially considering that it just might be UFOs, it’s revealed that they do, in fact, come from a lonely Russian cosmonaut. Foster speaks Russian, and starts up a friendship. When Mattocks finds out, he is first very suspicious, but then after speaking to the Russian in English, he too becomes friends. He’s the most affected when the Russian is killed after his craft’s orbit decays and burns up re-entering the atmosphere.

Soft Drink Sponsorship

There are also digs at commercial sponsorship. The mission is sponsored by Ribozade, whose name is a portmanteau of the British drinks Ribeena and Lucozade. Ribozade tastes foul, but the crew nevertheless have it on board and must keep drinking it. This is not Science Fiction. One of the American missions was sponsored by Coca Cola, I believe, and so one of the space stations had a Coke machine on board. And when Helen Sharman went into space later in the decade aboard a Russian rocket to the space station Mir, she was originally to be sponsored by Mars and other British companies.

God, Philosophy and Nicholas Parsons

The show also includes arguments over the existence or not of the Almighty. Mattocks believes He exists, and has shown His special favour to them by guiding his hand in an earlier crisis. Mattocks was able to save them, despite having no idea what he was doing. Ackroyd, the sceptic, replies that he can’t say the Lord doesn’t exist, but can’t see how God could possibly create Nicholas Parsons and Sale of the Century, one of the popular game shows on ITV at the time, if He did. As Mattocks is supposed to be guiding them down from orbit, his admission that he really didn’t know what he was doing to rescue the station naturally alarms Foster and Ackroyd so that they don’t trust his ability to get them down intact.

Red Dwarf also has its jokes about contemporary issues and politics. Two of the most memorable are about the hole in the Earth’s ozone layer being covered with a gigantic toupee, and the despair squid, whose ink causes its prey to become suicidal and which has thus destroyed all other life on its world in the episode ‘Back to Reality’. Other jokes include everyone knowing where they were when Cliff Richard got shot. Red Dwarf, however, is much more fantastic and goes further in dealing with philosophical issues, such as when Rimmer is incarcerated in a space prison where justice is definitely retributive. If you do something illegal, it comes back to happen to you. This is demonstrated when Lister follows Rimmer’s instruction and tries to set his sheets alight. He shortly finds that his own black leather jacket has caught fire.


Red Dwarf is able to go much further in exploring these and other bizarre scenarios as it’s definitely Science Fiction. Astronauts is, I would argue, space fiction without the SF. It’s fictional, but based solidly on fact, including generating gravity through centrifugal force. But critically for any comedy is the question whether its funny. Everyone’s taste is different, but in my opinion, yes, Astronauts is. It’s dated and very much of its time, but the humour still stands up four decades later. It had me laughing at any rate.



























Three New Reads – May

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 24/05/2020 - 10:05pm in

As I had last month, I’d wanted in my three reads this month to start addressing the alarming bellicosity of Washington in respect of several nations, but most frighteningly with China. For all those with some inkling of the material factors placing the West and Eurasia on a collision course, such beating of war dreams – aided as ever by the ‘liberal’ Guardian – is wholly to be expected, but its predictability makes the warmongering no less worrying.

The Unexamined Life: AQA, Edexcel, OCR and the Covid Furlough Scam

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 24/05/2020 - 12:00pm in

Emmett Street Simon Jenkins recent piece in Thursday’s Guardian is worth reading. Jenkins, a right-wing commentator, also happens to be one of the few genuine journalists left on that particular paper. In this rather bizarre piece, he opines that the cancellation of this year’s GCSE`s and A level exams provides a template for future educational …

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/05/2020 - 7:04am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 21, 2020 Vincent Bevins, author of The Jakarta Method, on the US-sponsored strategy of mass murder during the Cold War • Kyle Beckham, lecturer in education at the University of San Francisco, on schooling during the pandemic

Parents as Struggling Teachers Can Have Long-Term Benefits

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/05/2020 - 6:15am in

Parents who are struggling as impromptu homeschool teachers are actually teaching important life-long learning skills by showing the challenges that accompany learning.

Shaw’s Classic Defence of Socialism for Women Part Three

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, foreword by Polly Toynbee (London: Alma Classics 2012).

Socialism and Marriage, Children, Liberty and Religion

Shaw also discusses what socialism would mean for marriage, liberty, children and the churches, and these are the most problematic sections of the book. He looks forward to marriage being a purely voluntary commitment, where people people can marry for love instead of financial advancement. This will produce biologically better children, because people will be able to choose the best partners, rather than be limited to only those from their class. At the same time incompatible partners will be able to divorce each other free of stigma.

He defines liberty in terms of personal freedom. Under socialism, people will be freer because the amount of time they will have for their personal amusement and recreation will be greater. Legislation might go down, because the laws currently needed to protect people will become unnecessary as socialism is established and society advances. Shaw also believes that greater free time would be enough to attract the top brains to management positions in the absence of the usual inducement of greater pay. Shaw realised that not everyone could run industries, and that it was necessary to hire the very best people, who would be a small minority. Giving them greater leisure time was the best way to do this, and he later criticises the Soviet government for not equalising incomes.

But this is sheer utopianism. The Bolsheviks had tried to equalise incomes, and it didn’t work, which is why they went back to higher rates of pay for managers and so on. And as we’ve seen, socialism doesn’t necessarily lead to greater free time and certainly not less legislation. The better argument is that socialism leads to greater liberty because under socialism people have better opportunities available to them for careers, sport, entertainment and personal improvement than they would if they were mere capitalist wage slaves.

Religious people will also object to his views on religion and the churches. While earlier in the book Shaw addressed the reader as a fellow Christian, his attitude in this section is one of a religious sceptic. The reader will have already been warned of this through the foreword by Toynbee. The Groaniad columnist is a high-ranking member of the both the Secular and Humanist Societies, and her columns and articles in just about every magazine or newspaper she wrote for contained sneers at religion. Shaw considers the various Christian denominations irreconcilable in their theologies, and pour scorn on orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins. Religion should not be taught in school, because of the incompatibility of the account of the Creation in Genesis with modern science. Children should not be taught about religion at all under they are of the age of consent. If their parents do teach them, the children are to be removed from their care. This is the attitude of very aggressive secularists and atheists. Richard Dawkins had the same attitude, but eventually reversed it. It’s far too authoritarian for most people. Mike and I went to a church school, and received a very good education from teachers that did believe in evolution. Religion deals with ultimate questions of existence and morality that go far beyond science. I therefore strongly believe that parents have the right to bring their children up in their religion, as long as they are aware of the existence of other views and that those who hold them are not wicked simply for doing so. He also believed that instead of children having information pumped into them, the business should be to educate children to the basic level they need to be able to live and work in modern society, and then allow the child to choose for itself what it wants to study.

Communism and Fascism

This last section of the book includes Shaw’s observations on Russian Communism and Fascism. Shaw had visited the USSR in the early ’30s, and like the other Fabians had been duped by Stalin. He praised it as the new socialist society that was eradicating poverty and class differences. He also thought that its early history vindicated the Fabian approach of cautious nationalisation. Lenin had first nationalised everything, and then had to go back on it and restore capitalism and the capitalist managers under the New Economic Policy. But Russia was to be admired because it had done this reversal quite openly, while such changes were kept very quiet in capitalism. If there were problems in the country’s industrialisation, it was due to mass sabotage by the kulaks – the wealthy peasants – and the industrialists. He also recognised that the previous capitalist elite were disenfranchised, forced into manual labour, and their children denied education until the working class children had been served. At the same time, the Soviet leaders had been members of the upper classes themselves, and in order to present themselves as working class leaders had claimed working class parentage. These issues were, however, gradually working themselves out. The Soviet leaders no longer had need of such personal propaganda, and the former capitalists could reconcile themselves to the regime as members of the intellectual proletariat. And some of the industrialisation was being performed by criminals, but this was less arduous than the labour in our prisons.

Shaw is right about the NEP showing that nationalisation needs to be preceded by careful preparation. But he was obviously kept ignorant of the famine that was raging in the USSR through forced collectivisation and the mass murder of the kulaks. And rather than a few criminals in the gulags, the real figures were millions of forced labourers. They were innocent of any crime except Stalin’s paranoia and the need of his managers for cheap slave labour. It’s believed that about 30 millions died in Stalin’s purges, while 7 million died in the famine in the Ukraine.

Shaw’s treatment of Fascism seems to be based mostly on the career of Mussolini. He considers Fascism just a revival of the craze for absolute monarchy and military leadership, of the kind that had produced Henry VIII in England, Napoleon, and now Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. These new absolute rulers had started out as working class radicals, before find out that the changes they wanted would not come from the working class. They had therefore appealed to the respectable middle class, swept away democracy and the old municipal councils, which were really talking shops for elderly tradesmen which accomplished little. They had then embarked on a campaign against liberalism and the left, smashing those organisations and imprisoning their members. Some form of parliament had been retained in order to reassure the people. At the same time, wars were started to divert the population and stop them criticising the new generalissimo. Industry was approaching socialism by combining into trusts. However, the government would not introduce socialism or truly effective government because of middle class opposition. Fascist regimes wouldn’t last, because their leaders were, like the rest of us, only mortal. In fact Mussolini was overthrown by the other Fascists, who then surrendered to the Allies, partly because of his failing health. That, and his utter military incompetence which meant that Italy was very definitely losing the War and the Allies were steadily advancing up the peninsula. While this potted biography of the typical Fascist is true of Mussolini, it doesn’t really fit some of the others. The Shah, for example, was an Indian prince.

Anarchism and Syndicalism

Shaw is much less informed about anarchism. He really only discusses it in terms of ‘Communist Anarchism’, which he dismisses as a silly contradiction in terms. Communism meant more legislation, while anarchism clearly meant less. He should have the articles and books on Anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that goods and services should be taken over by the whole community. However, rather than a complete absence of government and legislation, society would be managed instead by individual communities and federations.

He also dismisses syndicalism, in which industry would be taken over and run by the trade unions. He considers this just another form of capitalism, with the place of the managers being taken by the workers. These would still fleece the consumer, while at the same time leave the problem of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth untouched, as some industries would obviously be poorer than others. But the Guild Socialists did believe that there should be a kind of central authority to represent the interests of the consumer. And one of the reasons why nationalisation, in the view of some socialists, failed to gain the popular support needed to defend it against the privatisations of the Tories is because the workers in the nationalised industries after the War were disappointed in their hopes for a great role in their management. The Labour party merely wanted nationalisation to be a simple exchange of public for private management, with no profound changes to the management structure. In some cases the same personnel were left in place. Unions were to be given a role in management through the various planning bodies. But this was far less than many workers and trade unionists hoped. If nationalisation is to have any meaning, it must allow for a proper, expanded role of the workers themselves in the business of managing their companies and industries.

The book ends with a peroration and a discussion of the works that have influenced and interest Shaw. In the peroration Shaw exhorts the readers not to be upset by the mass poverty and misery of the time, but to deplore the waste of opportunities for health, prosperity and happiness of the time, and to look forward and work for a better, socialist future.

His ‘Instead of a Bibliography’ is a kind of potted history of books critical of capitalism and advocating socialism from David Ricardo’s formulation of capitalism in the 19th century. These also include literary figures like Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens. He states that he has replaced Marx’s theory of surplus value with Jevons‘ treatment of rent, in order to show how capitalism deprives workers of their rightful share of the profits.



Three Reasons to Worry about the House Democrats’ New Student Debt Proposal

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 16/05/2020 - 5:34am in

Citing cost concerns, House Democrats amended their latest coronavirus response package yesterday to exclude a proposal that would have cancelled up to $10,000 in student debt for more than 45 million Americans. The new proposal offers cancellation only to a narrow group of “economically distressed” borrowers. This change is worrisome, not only because it leaves millions of student loan borrowers in the lurch but also because it signals a broader miscalculation of the kind of interventions that our economy desperately needs right now. 

1. “Cost Concerns” Signal Broader Hesitance to Fully Meet the Scale of Our Country’s Crisis

As the Roosevelt Institute and many other economic experts have argued, doing too little now is far more dangerous for our economy than doing “too much.” Substantial and bold action will ensure that our government meets both the public health and economic crises ravaging our country right now—and crucially, bold action now will mitigate the severity of the crisis and pay off over the long run. The congressional response to COVID-19 has been mixed—bold in some places and paltry in others. It was promising to see that House Democrats included vital investments in state and local governments in this package, but their about-face on student debt suggests that their commitment to making investments that meet the scale of the country’s crisis may be flagging already. 

2. Congress Still Has Not Adequately Addressed Consumer Debt

Consumer debt is a serious area of vulnerability for the economy, and it’s one that has largely been ignored by the federal response. Even before the pandemic hit, individuals and businesses were carrying record levels of debt. Consumer debt, not counting mortgages, has climbed past $4 trillion—higher than it has ever been, even after adjusting for inflation. Auto debt is at $1.3 trillion, up nearly 40 percent after adjusting for inflation. And most striking, student debt totaled about $1.5 trillion last year, exceeding all other forms of consumer debt except mortgages. Not only is student debt a significant portion of outstanding consumer debt, it is also a piece that is strikingly precarious: Student loans have higher percentages of balances that are 90+ days delinquent or severely derogatory than other types of consumer debt. 

Experts like Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph E. Stiglitz have warned that the failure to address debt can create long-term spirals and bankruptcy cascades that deepen Americans’ suffering and lengthen the path to recovery. The original HEROES Act suggested that the House was responding to this urgent need to address consumer debt by using its most direct federal lever: the student loan program. Although addressing individuals’ ability to meet other debt obligations is equally critical, the federal government can mitigate student loan debt far more easily than other types of debt simply because the government owns nearly all of it. It’s critical that policymakers understand the magnitude of our country’s debt problem and the challenges it poses both now and in long-term recovery—and take whatever steps are at their disposal to address it. 

3. Narrow Criteria for Relief Suggest that Congress Is Out of Touch with Who’s Affected by the Economic Crisis

The amended House bill creates a very narrow category of “economically distressed” borrowers who will see their student loan balances go down, including those who, as of March 12:

  • qualified for a zero dollar monthly payment under an income-driven repayment program; 
  • were in default; 
  • were 90 days delinquent; or 
  • were in forbearance based on certain types of hardships. 

The framing of “economically distressed” and the narrow criteria used to establish distress suggest a cramped view of which Americans need assistance in the current moment and why they need it. According to estimates, the House’s new approach would leave out some 25 million borrowers. As we have previously argued, the burdens created by student loan debt, shouldered both by individuals and the economy as a whole, are far broader than what most experts have realized, and they are not confined to borrowers who are significantly behind on their payments. 

Without relief, outstanding debt liabilities for millions of borrowers could have reverberating effects on the economy. Scarce stimulus payments will go toward paying down debts instead of back into the economy as intended. As the crisis wears on and short-term forbearances end, borrowers who are already in financial free fall will slip deeper into debt. Missed payments and rising balances could drag down credit scores, putting affordable credit out of reach. In this and other areas of response to our economic crisis, Congress must take a broader, evidence-based view of the harm this crisis is causing and craft policies that are tailored to their scale rather than arbitrary cost limitations.

The debate we will have over the next few weeks may determine the shape of our economy for years, or longer. The decision to narrow student debt relief is a worrying sign for the debate to come.

The post Three Reasons to Worry about the House Democrats’ New Student Debt Proposal appeared first on Roosevelt Institute.

What is democratic government for?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 15/05/2020 - 5:00pm in

I thought that the Tax Research idea of a National Wealth Service was inspired. I commented and said exactly that. A ‘National Wealth Service’ sums up both how we pay for it and where it comes from. (I was inspired enough to suggest that the ‘National Wealth Service’ might even be the slogan for the... Read more