Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)


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Tuesday, November 18, 2003
 
Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. How unbelievably ghastly. The latest government plan for saving the education system is for every child to go to summer camp courtesy of the taxpayer. A pilot scheme was successful and so they are all convinced that a burst of wholesome exercise and outdoor living will send the young lads and lasses home flushed and happy for some reason other than the usual Ecstasy tablet / successful shoplifting expedition / fornication.

So we're back to ten mile runs and outdoor living, eh? What's the betting that next year's miracle cure is the long-neglected educational virtue of cold showers.

These poor deluded innoncents never seem to figure out that experimental pilot schemes frequently succeed because they are pilot schemes; i.e. new and not offered to everybody. Remember Home-School Contracts? When some head teacher first thought up that wheeze it probably did work well. Gosh, thought the kids and the parents, a contract, we better take this seriously. But once every child in the country gets one in his school bag at at the end of the first day back it becomes just another bit of paper to sign.

(Incidentally, aren't the lyrics to Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah dire? You really need to do the voice for it to work.)



 
"France vows to fight hate crime" - after the firebombing of a Jewish school. Can I resist saying, "About time too"? No.


 
I must apologise to my readers for a disgraceful lapse in the post below. To my embarrassment I neglected to include the ritual mention of female superiority. Not once in the entire post did I mention something I can do better than my husband. I really don't know how I came to make such a dreadful mistake. Please do be assured, male readers, that using only the merest smidgeon of my mighty physical and mental powers I could boil your puny male carcasses into their component atoms. Thank you.


Saturday, November 15, 2003
 
I can't. Sorry, Brian, but I just can't oblige.

There are two reasons for this: (a) I've blanked it out. I can't even remember if the problem to do with the header tank and the problem to do with the ballcock stop valve were connected, physically or metaphorically. The header tank is either full or empty, whichever it should be, but nonetheless the central heating heateth not and we still can't use the lavatory.¹

Never mind - literally in my case. My mind never can seem to hold onto details about plumbing or building or electricity.² The only reason I know that the ballcock stop valve isn't called the ballstop cock valve is that even plumbers of the sort who leave us to freeze while callously earning thousands retro-fitting some rich git's bathroom to resemble a boarding school shower room circa 1950 wouldn't stoop that low. My highly evolved brain steers all thoughts of stallpock bop valves to the back door almost as soon as they come in through the front. Our household would not pass the sexism check in a modern textbook: although my husband can cook with the best³ and I can wield a rifle or a cordless drill with the, er, respectable third or fourth best, basically it still comes down to Man Stuff and Wifely Duties. Speaking Unto Plumbers is not a Wifely Duty. If I were to give segments of my brain independent commands the sad, passed-over one-star General in charge of plumbing, new garage roofs and the like would have the title NoToDoWiNat.

Where was I? Oh, (b). I gave you an (a) earlier and for every (a) there has to be a (b), which would be a good Cole Porter line. In fact (b) is that the collapse of the garage roof was lot less dramatic than I have made out. Know the awful truth: this blog lies for laughs. Long neglected-multiple leaks causing chunks of sodden chipboard to fall from ceiling just didn't hack it dramatically. And I traduced the plumber; he didn't actually forbid us with menaces to call another plumber, only inertia and a masochistic British pleasure in wood fires and hot water bottles stop us doing so. The bit about the 1950s school shower room is also pure invention. Although people really do do that; I've seen it in house magazines. Futile, really, since Matron must be 90 by now.

However the good news, if you can believe it given my record of mendacity, is that now we have a pitched garage roof. Let us consider for a moment the entire sweep of European and world architectural history over the last twenty thousand years. Buildings have been raised in stone, wood, reeds, wattle and daub, concrete and brick. The purposes of these edifices were equally varied: home, barn, church or temple, workplace or fort. What principles can they possibly have had in common?4; I'll tell you one: if it's rainy where you live, mate, make the bleedin' roof slope. So of course our house just had to be built in the thirty years when architects had decided that Essex was Yucatan and flat was the new slopy. Anyway, three excellent chaps came, jointly we drank tea and sneered at the EU and safety harnesses, and severally I sewed and they built roof. Then I signed cheque. Wifely Duties stretch that far.

Oh, poot. The whole point of this post was "I can't describe my domestic miseries" and now I just have.

¹Do not think sad thoughts. We have other lavatories, any number of 'em as Toad said of his children while pretending to be a washerwoman. But all the working lavatories have cold lino floors and, as I may have mentioned, the central heating is centrally kaput.

² Or, come to think of it, anything else. I felt an instant sympathy with the historian who confessed in a magazine article that once her books were safely with the publisher she invariably forgot half the dates and details in which she had been a world expert while still writing. I'd like to link to her article but I have, of course, forgotten who she was.

³ He went into a sort of male-bonding ecstasy when he read Jonathan Gewirtz's comment to Instapundit that "Dude, I've got two favorite tools: my Glock and my Cuisinart." I'm with you on the Glock, Jonathan.

4Besides the fact that unexpected complications have caused them to run over budget.



Thursday, November 13, 2003
 
Whew. I'm sorry that a combination of circumstances has kept me away from the computer for several days. Would you like to hear about the pump on our boiler, our header tank and the partial collapse of our garage roof? No, thought not.


Wednesday, November 05, 2003
 
Laban Tall covered the same Scottish terror kid story I did and then went and found some seriously weird links. The one I linked to doesn't have sapphists in it. Or bagpipes.

UPDATE: Russians have a sense of humour, sense of humour, sense of humour. I don't know if there's some Russian-language pun I'm missing, but Pravda's treatment of the story seems tickled to death (sorry) by the aromatherapy angle.

In any case, if it was the Scottish national liberation army, it was a success in the awful action. Now it is going to be popular all over the world. Scotland Yard has faced a complex task of neutralizing the terrorists, otherwise the British prime minister will be cured to death with aroma therapy.



 
What made them boo, the adultery or the colour of the co-respondent? (Do we still have "co-respondents"? There used to be such things as co-respondent shoes, which presumably were particularly flash.) I'm not citing Kwame Kwei-Armah's column in the Guardian yesterday to disagree with it, exactly, although he does seem to miss the point somewhat. He, like me, thinks this is a sad story:
A smiling and proud Bernie [Grant] walked on to the stage. But instead of being greeted with the love and affection one would have expected, particularly from this crowd of "conscious black folk", (conscious being the term used to describe one who has awaken from the slumber of political apathy) he was met by a barrage of boos and hisses. It didn't stop until he got to the end of his two-minute speech. Even from the back where I was seated one could see the pain in his eyes. Here was a man who had dedicated his life to this community, thus consigning his political career to the margins of the then Labour party. The reason for the booing? Bernie had just left his wife of 20 years or so and was now living with his secretary. He was booed for that? Of course what I omitted to mention was that Bernie's wife was black and the woman he had moved in with was white, a highly treasonable offence to the assembled crowd.
That seems to make it clear that Grant's offence in the crowd's eyes was not his abandonment of his wife - I would have some sympathy for their boos if it were - but that he shacked up with a white woman. Racism, in other words. Imagine if Robin Cook's sometime mistress and now second wife had been black, and those who upbraided him had done so on grounds of miscegenation rather than adultery! Kwei-Armah says that the reaction of the crowd made his heart retreat to a place of great sadness. I sypmathise. Then he loses the plot. In the next paragraph he goes on to say:
This was not really an issue of black and white but one of perceived notions of right and wrong. To them, he had betrayed a fundamental principle, and on the surface, yes I can see that. But to me some things are too important, too fundamental to the essence of our being to be denied. Love is one, your children's education is the other. It would have been all too easy for Bernie to have cancelled his appearance that night, but he didn't. He didn't because in my opinion he saw the bigger picture. The fact that Bernie remained married to "his secretary" until he died is testament to that.
The talk of "perceived notions of right and wrong" and "he had betrayed a fundamental principle" now seems seems to be saying that it's the adultery that was the problem. Kwame Kwei-Armah can't be saying that yes, he can see that not shagging white women is a fundamental principle, can he? The rest of the article then expounds his view that love, like your children's education, should override all other principles. For myself I think that, unlike Grant or Cook, Diane Abbott could make all well by announcing that in the light of personal experience she has changed her principles and is sorry for unfair remarks she made in her previous state of error.


Sunday, November 02, 2003
 
And let's not forget it's also happy blogiversary to them.


 
So it's happy blogiversary to me... As Iain Murray has pointed out, I am two today, blogivistically speaking. And as Kris Murray has pointed out in the post above, Iain is twenty-one-and-a-bit today as well. I think it may be time for a re-enactment of the sign-off line from The Two Ronnies... and Happy Birthday to him.


Saturday, November 01, 2003
 
Scottish terror kid gets three years. Hope this isn't a harbinger of things to come.
Smith also admitted sending packages containing a substance which claimed to be a eucalyptus aromatherapy oil, along with instructions to rub the substance onto the face and hands.

It was actually caustic soda, which can burn the skin and damage the throat and stomach lining if inhaled.

Packages were sent to the prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, and to Margaret Ashcroft, an aide to Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles. No-one was injured.

Edgar Prais QC, defending, said his client had been ordered to send the packages by the head of an anti-English Scottish terrorist organisation, which cannot be named for legal reasons.

He argued that Smith had been "naive, gullible and immature" but not "callous".

I know it's a defence barrister's job to, well, defend his client but the caustic soda bit sounds fairly callous to me.



 
I probably haven't read your email. I probaby will read your email eventually. I've been busy carving pumpkins, cooking Evil Chocolate Spider Biscuits and Blood Rice and making a costume for a wraith of the underworld.


 
Do you get angry when your country is insulted? I do. I suspect that it is an under-reported but very real motive for supporting the war in Iraq and related causes. This post by Paul Marks is ostensibly about reasons not to admire Halifax's conduct prior to WWII, but then veers off into interesting and honest self-examination.
I do not like socialist dictators (such as the ex-dictator of Iraq) - I dislike their torturing and killing of the local population and (if I am to be honest) I, at gut level, dislike their insulting Britain and the United States at least as much as I dislike their 'human rights abuses'. People I do not know torturing and killing other people I do not know is something I condemn (even if I suspect that the people who are being tortured and killed would also be torturers and killers, if they had the chance) - but people insulting Britain or the United States or the West generally is what really makes me angry.

Surely, anger at insults should not be one's primary motive - but is it defensible? I can't decide. Creditable or not, it is the way people are.


Thursday, October 30, 2003
 
In law and in politics the adversarial system is a well-tailored garment that decently covers raw human nature while not disguising its essential form.

It is not nakedness. The most beautiful bodies can go unclothed as they did in Eden but when ordinary people go naked they often look ugly and even more often look undignified. At the same time, uncontrollable passions are aroused. The most beautiful natures are above the need for an adversarial system but when ordinary people attempt to do without its formalities they often act basely and even more often act chaotically- and, again, uncontrollable passions are aroused.

It is not an exquisitely embroidered yet bulky robe, such as an emperor might wear. The form of the man or a woman under the robe might be sublime or hideous - you'd never know under all that brocade. Systems of law and government that affect to be beyond self-interest are like that: beautiful but stiff and impersonal.

Oliver Kamm's defence of the adversarial system got me thinking these thoughts. You will gather I agreed with him. And even if you don't agree, dear reader, you will surely give thanks that here finally, finally is a man who says 'highest common factor' when he means 'highest common factor' and not 'lowest common denominator' like all the other innumerate crudbrains.



Wednesday, October 29, 2003
 
I D best
Said I D S
But all D rest
Said that's B S.


Tuesday, October 28, 2003
 
Stay cool. I'm still in the land of the living. In fact, according to my loving family, in whose company I have been spending this half term, I am taking a brief vacation in the land of having a life. Whatever can they mean?

The upshot is that I am even worse at answering emails than usual.



Friday, October 24, 2003
 
IRA apologises for grief caused to the families of the "disappeared." DNA tests have confirmed that the body found on a beach in Ireland August was indeed Jean McConville, a Catholic woman abducted and murdered after she tried to help a fatally wounded British soldier in 1972. Apparently the IRA has issued a statement apologising to the families of Jean McConville and the other "disappeared". It's not clear from the BBC whether the IRA are apologising for repeatedly giving the wrong locations for the secret graves, which resulted in a trail of holes all over Northern Ireland and the Republic as the authorities tried and failed to exhume the victims, or for, you know, actually killing them in the first place. I suppose I ought to go and search for the exact words of the IRA statement but the idea does not appeal.


 
Pleasing people vs improving them. Ms* Robin Burk writes on the subject of Secure By Design vs New Urbanism:
"...Your blog comments reminded me of a discussion I once had with the late Herman Kahn, founder of the Hudson Institute. He described a session in which he presented senior urban planners with detailed statistics about housing preferences in the US. Overwhelmingly, US residents prefered single-family homes or at most, townhouses if they lived in large cities. The planners, who had invested years of academic and competition energy in other models (especially very tall apartment buildings with green space and mass transit nearby), had only one question: 'How can we get them to change what they want?'

"A telling vignette!"

Indeed. As well as the point about social engineering, it is well worth noting the point about how the planners frequently can't afford personally to backtrack on a stance they have held for years. In housing debates we hear a lot about the greed of developers - and there is no doubt they are greedy, particularly when they sniff a chance to get by force what someone doesn't want to sell them - but the fact that other lobbies also have their own self-interest to pursue is seldom mentioned.

*I include the title to signal to British readers that like most Americans by the name of Robin, Ms Burk is female.



Thursday, October 23, 2003
 
The disingenuous Ms Ridley. Damian Penny calls Yvonne Ridley, once captured by the Taliban, now working for Al-Jazeera and soon to convert to Islam a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe, but I think there's something more going on than that.

The article about her forthcoming conversion appeared in a journal called "Muslim Uzbekistan" but is credited to IslamOnline. It says:

Regarding any previous knowledge about Islam, Ridley said she knew “[n]othing more factual than would fill the back of a postage stamp. Of course I’d subscribed to all the myths about women being subjugated and how it was an evil and violent religion full of fanatics.”


It it surprising to hear from IslamOnline that she knew very little of Islam before her encounter with the Taliban. Don't they look in their own files? According to this earlier IslamOnline article she was married until five years ago to a Palestinian, Daud Zaarur a.k.a. Abul Hakam (also sometimes transcribed as Dawood Zaarora and Abu Al Hakam ), who is "a former military commander of the Palestinian Fatah movement in Lebanon."

Of course he may for all I know have been secular in his personal beliefs, but didn't he ever even talk about Islam? Surely during her marriage she would have met his family and his friends, or in some other way have learnt more than a postage stamp-worth's about the religion of most Palestinians.

Now, don't mistake me. There is nothing wrong in itself in the fact that Ms Ridley's first husband was a Palestinian, any more than in the fact that her second husband was an Israeli. There is something wrong about being a Fatah commander but that isn't really relevant here.

Nonetheless Yvonne Ridley's pose as a simple Sunday School teacher who first met Islam as a naive journalist-adventurer surprised by the humanity of her captors is frankly incredible.

(Incidentally the Ridley-Fatah link is fairly well known as gossip but under-reported. The British press protecting one of its own number?

CORRECTION: I had wrongly put down that Ms Ridley was married for five years to the Fatah guy. On re-reading I see that it is five years since her divorce. The duration of the marriage is not mentioned.



 
Why are you Brits so uptight about it all? asks Michael Blowhard in a comment to the Crooked Timber branch (ha-ha) of the New Urbanism/ Secure By Design debate. Those weren't his exact words, but I think he correctly senses that we are all much tenser than seems justified by a debate about bollards and built-in garages.
"I confess that I’m a little baffled — I don’t really know what’s being discussed here. Is it something along the lines of “SBD good, NU bad?”

[Snip]

"First, please excuse a brief moment of exasperation: I mean, have any of you people actually visited a New Urbanist development? FWIW, I‘ve spent a little time in about six of them — they’re modest, tiny little things. There is no Big Brother who’s trying to impose New Urbanism on the nation at large."


Actually, I think he's not quite right about the absence of Big Brother. Still, I can sympathise with his exasperation. So what are we all so uptight about?

Class, my dear boy, class. New Urbanism favours street life. Street life is working class. Dead quiet past 6pm is middle class. Not having cars is, or was, working class. Cars are middle class. Shops among the houses is working class. Residential streets are middle class. "The world and his wife comes through my street" is working class. The ability - or even the suggestion - of the power or desire to exclude non residents that a cul-de-sac gives is middle class.

I doubt whether the creators of either NU or SBD intended this. Probably they never gave it a moment's thought - but still, there it is. In a British context NU feels working class (and slightly continental). SBD feels middle class.

Now I am tempted to gently call for us all to rise above these petty, outdated concerns - only I won't succumb. Class, like other markers of identity, has a way of confounding those who declare it outdated, and the consequences of the wrong choice of offical guidance on how to design new housing are far from petty.

I wish there were no official guidance so that the two philosophies we are talking about - and many more - could all flourish or fall depending how people liked them in various different situations. (As I said, I am sure that a substantial minority would choose to live in the New Urbanism style; the more so after reading the sensible quote from a leading practitioner of NU that Mr Blowhard includes in his comments.) That won't happen. In the current situation the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or some similar body will exert pressure to impose one philosophy or another. The only practical question is, which one.

I think that because of its measures to reduce permeability, Secure By Design would be better for the majority here in Britain, and particularly for the most crime-ridden areas. I think they won't get it because the current government instinctively recoils from the middle-class flavour of SBD. Quite a few more working-class people will be victims of crime thereby, and that's a shame.



 
This article had an interestingly boring headline. As if there had been a small but definite chance that he would say, "Oh hang it all. You be president, Dick. I'm going walkabout."


Wednesday, October 22, 2003
 
She be a witch! Angie Schultz, I mean. My thumbs are pricking like hedgehogs as I write. How do I know? Well, it wasn't that she wrote:
Are these the sort of pueblos you were looking for?

I also found a few pictures, not as good, by searching on "canyon de chelly" and puye pueblo.

That was interesting - they were the sort of pueblos I was looking for - but not decisive enough evidence of witchery to get me reaching for my trusty copy of Malleus Maleficarum. Nope. But this did:
As for the How and Why Wonder Books---we couldn't afford very many of them back then, which is why I've taken to collecting them voraciously as an adult.

This Australian fellow:

link

does likewise, and he's put scans of his covers on that web page. He has both the US and UK versions of "Caves to Skyscrapers" (which probably the book you remember, [It was. - NS] unless it was "Building") on his site. Those seem to be identical. The pueblo picture you remember was probably inside.

I love these books for their beautiful illustrations. I particularly remember the drawings in "The Human Body", and the day I realized that the fibers in my pot roast dinner were muscle fibers, as illustrated in that book. Mmmm, muscle.

I commend to you especially the cover of "Chemistry", in which what seems to be a retort is actually a
spherical gas tank in the background. Also, "Atomic Energy" is an interesting perspective of a swimming pool type atomic reactor.

It's very interesting that there was a book on "Ballet", when almost all the others were sciences of
one sort or another. I presume this was a sop to supposed female interests (there was also a "Florence Nightingale", likewise).

In the late '70s and early '80s, these books were put out with different, inferior covers, as seen on the
Australian page. Compare the photos of cheap plastic dinosaurs to the beautiful illustration on the earlier
cover.

Don't miss the UK edition exclusive---"The Spoilt Earth".

Uncanny powers! No doubt about it. There were 76 of 'em. She named all my favourites, only leaving out "Stars" probably because it was so obvious. ("Ballet" was my sister's but I always kind of liked it as a glimpse into a totally alien world.)

Angie, could you get your familiar to tell you where there was the bit about how if a nucleus was as big as a strawberry it would be so heavy that it would fall to the centre of the earth? I used to lie in the bath worrying that my atoms might start unaccountably growing in size and mass so that I would become enormous and fall to a fiery end in the earth's core. It was tough being me.



 
Squander Two writes:
I've just finished Night Watch, too.

I'm writing to express my surprise at your surprise at Terry Pratchett. You thought he was a left-leaning Guardian reader? You're surprised that he might be against gun control? I'm shocked, honestly. Pratchett is one of the most libertarian writers ever, up there with Robert Anton Wilson. How could you have read his books and missed this?

You mentioned Men At Arms, and the gonne. But think of the end of the book: Carrot, who is the epitomy of heroic goodness, kills the head of the assassins mid-sentence. He doesn't give the man a chance to explain himself, he doesn't try to arrest him, he just cuts him in half, first chance he gets, unhesitatingly -- and this is offered as explicit proof of the fact that Carrot is a good man. This is hardly an anti-weapon book. Look at the two killers in the book who use the gonne. They're monarchists. Both of them believe that society's ills can be fixed by putting the right man at the top to make laws and crack down on the wrong people. And it is this attitude that makes them bad guys.

Look at Ankh-Morport itself, and Vetinari. The only really successful patrician the city's ever had is the one who doesn't try to rule the city. He ensures the city runs smoothly by interfering as little as possible. It's not just weapons that he doesn't ban: crime itself is legal.

In Lancre, the King's job is to be the King and pass laws and every citizen's job is to get on with their life and ignore the King, and particularly to ignore any laws that he passes.

At the end of Small Gods, the Great God Om suggests to the Prophet Brutha that "Thou shalt not kill" might make a good commandment. Brutha explains that, just because killing is a bad thing, that doesn't make an anti-killing commandment a good thing. And Brutha pointedly becomes the first prophet in the church's history to pass no commandments at all. This is clearly offered as proof of Brutha's great wisdom. And, in later books, we see that Omnianism has become more successful and more prolific than ever before since it abandoned authoritarianism and started schisming all the time. Less authority leads to more success.

In fact, throughout the books, anyone who tries to rule other people is a bad guy. Every time. And the good guys are always the people who fight authoritarianism. Think of the fairies in Lords And Ladies, or the vampires in Carpe Jugulum: what made them so evil? Their authoritarianism. And who's the greatest of the History Monks? Lu Tze, the one who always disobeys the rules and always disobeys his abbott. The only good guy who obeys authority is Carrot, but even he knows he is the King of Ankh-Morpork and has decided not to take back his throne.

I have observed that the type of Guardian readers who like to read politics into every little part of their lives (you know, the really irritating ones) hate Terry Pratchett with a vengeance. Trust me: Britain's greatest novelist doesn't just see where we libertarians are coming from; he's at the vanguard. And kids love his books. There's hope yet.

If you really hadn't seen this before, I beseech you to reread the books.





Tuesday, October 21, 2003
 
Chris Bertram has joined the "Secure By Design" debate in this post. More comments by your faithful servant are to be found by scrolling down.

UPDATE: Oops! To get the comments and the post that prompted them try this link instead.



 
The urban dream and the suburban one. (Subtitle: Another Bleeding Example of Government Messing Things Up.) Iain Murray has a fascinating account of a study sponsored by the police in Bedfordshire on how housing and street design can affect crime rates - and although Iain does not stress this aspect, how the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is industriously seeking to undo the limited improvements in street design we have seen over the last few years. Scroll down Iain's post to find the link to the study, "Operation Scorpion".

I added a comment to Iain's piece plugging Dr Alice Coleman's book on the subject, "Utopia on Trial". As I say there, I saw her speak about ten years ago. She wasn't that great as a speaker, actually. Too quiet, too diffident. Nonetheless I became an instant convert; sometimes speakers who are not particularly fluent can actually be more convincing because they come across as people who aren't there for fun; they are there because they have an important message to convey.

Her message was what you might call, if it's not too much of a paradox, intuitive at second glance. Read Iain Murray's list of the key points of "Secure by Design" and you will see it set out. (I am pretty sure her work was one of the source materials there.) A key point is that space should be owned and supervised, literally and metaphorically. It's curtain-twitcher heaven in other words and that's the idea. Curtain-twitching old grannies call the cops when they see someone nicking your car. And they know it's your car because they know you and they know you because your street is a cul-de-sac and strangers have little reason to walk through it.

Despite the fact that the two competing philosophies described in the report are associated with urban versus suburban environments, there is no particular reason why the "Secure by Design" ideas cannot be followed in a city centre. I believe Dr Coleman once advised a local council to make an estate of flats safer by blocking off most of the connecting walkways: the loss in convenience for the residents would be more than made up for by the gain in safety.

Yet the association of "New Urbanism" with urbanism is more than just a name, and the association of "Secure by Design" with the suburbs is more than just a coincidence. There are two - no four - dreams here.

The first is the dream of the city. The second is the dream of "moving up" to the suburb. And the last two are our old friends, public versus private.

The suburbs, as it happens, were built by speculators. That's why suburban houses look like the houses kids draw: kids grow up and then they buy houses like they always wanted, with a fence and flowers and a path leading up through the front garden to the newly-painted front door. Successful speculators know this and design houses that people actually want. By some process of instinct these desirable houses also seem to discourage crime - the more so when instinct is supplemented by intelligent design.

In contrast, most British residential blocks of flats were built by local authorities in the 1950s - 70s. They might, when new, have looked better than the slums they replaced, but no one chose them for themselves.

Which is not to say that flats are bad per se. Although I, like so many people with kids, deserted London for the suburban/rural option I am not deaf to the call of the city. I am not even deaf to the appeal of living in a skyscraper and seeing for miles; there is room in my utopia for different tastes. Our present association of suburban with private and urban with public is an accident of history. Perhaps even our association of the city with crime is an accident of history - a very big and very grave accident that will take a long time to clear up.

As a child my parents kept me well supplied with those "How And Why" books, including one on architecture. I was very attracted to one particular picture, showing centuries-old "skyscrapers" hollowed out of the cliffside in a South American pueblo. A quick internet search while writing this post didn't yield me any pictures of such dwellings from South America, but by a process of convergent evolution these buildings from the Yemen look very similar. And similarly appealing, like really interesting sandcastles. I gather that these types of ancient buildings had a lot of influence on architects from the 30s on.

Be that as it may, it's generally agreed that the best thing about most blocks of council flats built in Britain is the merry sound of high explosive ripping them to bits, as is invariably found to be necessary thirty years after the architect got the award. (One hopes the architects then have the decency to remove the award from the mantelpiece.) Maybe you need the sunshine of Yemen or Arizona to make the skyscraper thing work. Or the tribal society of the builders. Or perhaps they, too, were full of adolescent wanabee warriors hanging around the intersections and were horrible to live in.

I'm running out of time, and I haven't yet got to the bit about the harm done by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. OK, slum clearances on balance bad, all agree. Blow up all estates named after living local councillors, all agree. Build boxy, twee but still lovable houses as your cheap housing option instead, all agree. Design new estates and/or modify old estates according to Alice-Coleman-like ideas and stem rising crime, all agree? Er, sorry, no, not any more. For a few years the Official State Advice on how to build estates was actually quite good advice. But, as I've observed in the context of education, good emperors are followed by bad ones. That's why it's better not to have emperors or modern equivalents thereof. Just when you are getting used to Wise Imperial Decree Number So And So, some new faction gets influence at court and all the good is undone.

It seems that some academics agreed with me that government-built blocks of flats ended up destroying the community spirit that redeemed the squalor of the slums they replaced. Only these guys took the moral as being that you can get the community spirit back by making nice versions of the slums, with loos and bathrooms and everything, but keeping the same sort of street plan. They sought to replicate the community spirit of an 1850 mill town, mixed in with an arty Paris arrondissement. Café society. Bicycle routes. Bustling street life. Make it difficult to own cars by building lots of bollards but no garages. It's called "New Urbanism", only I call it "old social engineering back again."

Excuse my prejudices showing, but I bet most of the guys who thought up New Urbanism are men, a scandalous number of whom have beards and corduroy jackets. The ghosts of the women of the 1850s mill town could tell them that your arms hurt fit to fall off when you walk home with the shopping. The mothers of those Paris arrondissements could tell them that vibrant street life means dragging your kid past condoms on the street come morning. I like cafés. I like bicycles. I even quite like Paris. I am sure a substantial minority of people would freely choose to live in something like the New Urbanism environment. But, given the chance, most people in Britain prefer to replicate Surbiton rather than Paris in their personal domain, particularly when it comes to having a nice garage built in with the house so their car stays clean and unvandalised, and that choice should be respected.

UPDATE: Here is the Deputy Prime Minister's statement regarding the infamous "Planning Policy Guidance 3 (Housing)". I vaguely agree with it over some issues such as brownfield vs greenfield sites, but nonetheless most of the parts that aren't apple-pie sentiment are misleading. I'm no defender of the Conservative record in housing policy, seeing as that until they had the stroke of genius about selling of council houses they were frequently statist, blundering Tweedledees to rival Labour's statist, blundering Tweedledums - but the attempt to label the quintessentially socialist philosophy of "predict and provide" as a specifically Tory approach was a nice bit of cheek, probably invented by the same minds that describe hard-line communists as "conservatives".

And I can think of no motive for his saying that the housing of the last 20 years has been wasteful and poorly designed except political point scoring. Compared to what and judged by whom? If it were compared to the housing of the last time Labour were in power and judged by most ordinary people of this country even Mr Prescott might shudder at the verdict.



 
Water batteries. Dr Daniel Kwok and Dr Larry Kostiuk of Alberta have come up with a new means of generating electricity from water that could change the world. It's to do with separating out the positive from the negative charges by forcing the water down tiny channels.
"The inventors are particularly excited by the fact the electricity is produced cleanly and involves no moving parts.

"The discovery could in a matter of years lead to batteries for everyday items such as cellphones and calculators being powered by pressurized water."

A more detailed explanation can be found here.

UPDATE: Brian Micklethwait linked to this post in Samizdata, and if you go over there you can see many erudite comments. In a shameless piece of self-promotion could I just mention to any Samizdata readers that have dropped by that if you generally like Mr Micklethwait's stuff you may also like the post above this one, which has a sort of Micklethwaitian flavour? It's about architecture.



Monday, October 20, 2003
 
Ken Livingstone says he will seek to suspend private tube contracts if privatisation is shown to be the cause of this weekend's derailments.

Mr Livingstone added that, in the interests of consistency, if metal fatigue is shown to be the cause he will seek to suspend the periodic table and if lustful daydreams on the part of the driver are shown to be the cause he will suspend sex.

OK, I made that last bit up. Mr Livingstone is not interested in consistency at all. We know that because later in the article we learn that if problems dating back to state ownership are shown to be the cause, our beloved Mayor will not be seeking to rush through an emergency programme of privatisation. No siree! As he says, dimly aware that it might be prudent to cover his nether regions in the event that the accident report doesn't support his political prejudices:

"It could be that we have just had 19 years of under-investment in the underground - and in many areas, since we have had it transferred to us in July, it looks like it has just been held together by tape and a bit of string.

You see, the actual way state-ownership operated for nineteen years is not evidence against state ownership per se because Mr Livingstone can imagine ways that he would have done it better, i.e. giving the tube more money. However the actual way partial privatisation of maintenance operates for however-many months is decisive evidence against privatisation. You do see that, don't you? It doesn't count that I or Patrick Crozier can imagine ways of doing privatisation better because I am not Mayor of London and neither is Patrick, alas.

Oh, and I was tickled pink by this:

"...it could be the first indication that the privatisation of underground management is not working out as we would have hoped it would. "
Yeah, sure. Mr Livingstone so hoped privatisation would work well. On his knees every night, he was, humbly petitioning the good Lord to bring the task Mrs Thatcher so nobly began to a glorious conclusion. And Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT union was kneeling right there next to Brother Ken, speaking the responses with particular fervour.


 
The Jewish flowering. Chris Bertram has a post at Crooked Timber asking why the Jewish renaisssance from Napoleonic times on? As ever with Crooked Timber, the comments are fascinating.