Friday 13 March 2015


I've been reading Pratchett now for a quarter of a century, since I was in primary school.  I'm a Biologist today with responsibility for live animals (some of which we refer to as "students").  I've always said the difference between a scientist and a monster is ethics.  This is a line that a lot of people don't like for a lot of reasons.  Some haven't looked closely enough at it and think I'm being wantonly insulting, but that's not it.  For others it hits bone when they reflect on the past abuses: Pavlov, Mengele, and other, less notorious names and deeds.  It needn't hit bone, for you are not them and they are not you.  What separates a good and decent scientist from those I've mentioned is that we wouldn't do that.  Our ethics don't allow for it.  We have the same skill, the same power, but we don't use that skill and power in that way.  

What does this have to do with Terry Pratchett?  The words we read help form us.  Sorry Jacques, but there is an author and there is a reader.  Pratchett was a profoundly moral and humane author who railed against a world which oftentimes was anything but.  And I, a black-and-white reader in a grey world, latched on to his ethics.  In fact the only ethical standard that I have been so ready to assume is that of Bill and Ted:  be excellent to each other.  It is deceptively simple, in that simple isn't necessarily easy.  The hard way is hard, as Granny Weatherwax said, but not so hard as the easy way.  So I'm going to share some of the lines from Pterry's books which inspired my own ethics.  

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable. 


“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—” 


“So we can believe the big ones?” 


“They’re not the same at all!” 


“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—” 


 This is perhaps the first step.  Ethics aren't real, they aren't tangible things, and there is no "ethics stick" with which to slap bastards, more's the pity.  It is an idea, a construct in your own mind.  It is a guide to right action, a way of achieving outcomes which at best do the most good, or at least do the least harm.  It isn't a thing unto itself, I'm sure there's an ontological word for that, but it is important nonetheless.  

Another huge influence from the Disc is Granny Weatherwax speaking on the nature of sin: 
"There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ” 
(Carpe Jugulum)
That's as fundamental as it gets.  Weatherwax here is talking with a priest, so she refers to "sin".  We could refer to unethical practice in place of sin and it would mean the exact same thing: the world and its inhabitants are not yours to take apart and play with like a Lego model.  Living beings have their own ideas, personalities, intentions, relationships, and these must be left alone wherever possible.  Where we must encroach, we must tread as lightly as possible and do as little harm as possible.  Even when we must inflict harm or take a life, we must do so no more than necessary and we must do so with the utmost respect.  

Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, has this to say on the nature of crime.  Again, we can read "crime" as unethical practice: 
"Thief-taker, Rust had called him. The man had meant it as an insult, but it'd do. Theft was the only crime, whether the loot was gold, innocence, land or life. And for the thief-taker, there was the chase..."   
We can add to that list safety, dignity, and health.  To deprive a sentient being of any of those is a form of theft.  We rob the creature.  Doubly so of a sapient being.  Stealing to eat is not a crime, stealing to survive is not a crime, but theft committed to any purpose bar those is downright criminal.  Note I'm making the distinction between a "crime" and a "breach of criminal law".  If I steal a loaf of bread to feed my family I am not a criminal, but if I steal a gold watch because it compliments my outfit then I am a criminal, irrespective of the law, and that actually is to do with things.  What of non-things?  The sentient and the sapient?  If I am to rob a creature it must only be to save life or prevent greater harm, otherwise I am a dirty thief.  

This is the difference between testing medicine and testing cosmetics.  Testing medicine is stealing to live, but that is still stealing.  It is an indignity that we must seek to remove ourselves from at the earliest opportunity, and in the meantime our victims must be as few as possible.  Testing cosmetics is more like stealing the gold watch and must never be done.  

There are many other lines I could quote, all on this sort of theme.  Fantastic discussions of the ethics of human nature, war, bigotry, violence and civics can be found in the above titles plus The Fifth Elephant, Guards Guards, Men At Arms, Monstrous Regiment, Small Gods, and of course I Shall Wear Midnight, a book which features a young girl having to give a decent burial to a forcibly-miscarried foetus and care for the injured mother because all the "grown-ups" are too busy wanting to hang the man who'd caused it that they can't see the real work that needs doing first.  Amidst the action is a wonderfully subtle lesson on the need to give what care needs giving first before contemplating harm, and to not let our feelings blind us to this necessity.  

I leave you with a wonderfully succinct line by Death, from Reaper Man.  It captures, beautifully and completely, the reasons why we must care for those we must harm.  I have this line written in the hem of my labcoat, though long before that it was carved into my soul.  
What can the harvest hope for, if not the care of the reaper man?
That's all you need to know.   If you would be as a god then it is as much your duty to give as to take away.  If you don't care for the lives you take then you've no business taking them.  End of.  

Gaun yersel Terry.  Go satirise the angels for not angeling right!  

Sunday 1 March 2015

Nuss, Sids, Fa-Ball and Urms

I've nearly finished principal planting on the middle island out front.  There's a revision to make (some roses need moving) and I'll be doing that in the next few days.  I've also got to get in some currants.  Mostly though it's done.  The side bit I'll do in the next few weeks.

It's turning into a very busy Spring this year, but that work and expense will sort me out for years.

Ellie, my niece, loves birds.  Planes too, but mostly birds.  If it flies it becomes an instant object of fascination, though a bird on the ground is just as interesting to her.  So yesterday I put a bird feeding pole into the middle bit and in so doing gave Ellie the first serious responsibility she's had in her fourteen months of life: filling up the tubes.  She's also picked up a few new words.  We sat on the floor and did it together, grabbing handfuls of nuts (or nuss) from a bag and dropping them into a wire tube.  I screwed the lid back on and we went outside together to hang it from the hook.  We filled two plastic tubes with sids (seeds), hung fa-ball (fat balls) from hooks and put sute (a suet feast) into a cage and together we hung all of these on hooks.  She needed help getting the rings over the hooks, but her hand was on it so now she's got the gist of how it goes.  I also poured out a goodly number of urms (mealworms) onto a wire tray halfway up the pole.

She laughed and had a right old time.  We got as many sids on the carpet as we did in a tube!  Anything that involves using her hands, getting messy and getting outside will always meet with her approval.  So now she has a job: refilling the tubes whenever they empty.  She'll learn about duty in a way that's fun, which is a great start.  Meanwhile the pole is outside her window, so when she wakes up before her mum she can go to the window and watch birds instead of getting into cupboards and eating the sudocrem.

Now to see if we can encourage Bill to stay in at dawn and dusk...

Saturday 10 January 2015


I've been drinking so this will get fubar.

A friend (who I shan't name) reposted on facebook a rather charming quote by Richard Dawkins, to wit: "Atheists are a race.  Anyone who mounts an argument against atheists is a racist, atheophobic bigot."  With a comment to the effect that God should smite him.  I replied that Dawkins is a dickhead but that atheophobia is as much of a thing as theophobia.

My friend said that atheism is dominant in society and that theists are sidelined.  I countered that while this is true in the Left, in Queer spaces, and in the cold war USSR, it is not true of Britain as a whole.

  We are in fact a pseudotheocracy wherein the state religion (C of E), whilst not the only lawful religion, nevertheless has exclusive powers within the legislative process.  Literally, the head of the state religion, who is also the head of state, can lawfully veto any law without having to give grounds and is indeed above the law.  Other than the fact that citizens are not mandated to be C of E we're pretty damn close to a textbook theocracy.

  To add to that on a more personal note: as an adult I have been ordered on more than one occasion to attend church and to sing hymns on pain of spending time in the Glasshouse and ending up with a criminal record.  Yes in Britain, yes in the 21st century!  Do I need to go on?

  My experiences were compared first to crying heterophobia and then to toxic masculinity.  My friend then said that I was triggering them and that unless I agreed to disagree and to stick to that (basically to shut my mouth and never again say on facebook that atheophobia is legit a thing) then they would have no choice but to unfriend me for the good of their own mental health.

Go for it mate!

  See the thing about what we might call "the safer-space discourse", terms like trigger warnings and such, is that they started out about sensible things.  Rape, domestic violence, hate crimes.  The kind of shit that fucks people up real bad.  This is not a bad thing.  We need an accessible society where people who've been traumatised by these events can rehabilitate themselves, that's all to the good.  These days though you'll spend ten minutes getting chewed out for not putting a trigger warning on an article about spiders just in case it "triggers" the arachnophobes.  Half of those times it won't even be the arachnophobes saying it, just a daft prick wanting a fight!

  Trigger is a PTSD term by the way.  If you've not been subject to the kind of violence that can cause PTSD then throwing the word trigger around like that is appropriation, but I digress.

  These days also I see people using talk of triggering to play Oppression Olympics, or to shut people up whose views they don't like.  I see people using it when they've said something stupid and can't think of any other way of defending it.  I see people using it to score cheap political points.

I'm sick of it, fucking pack it in!

Safer Space Discourse is legit when there's a real need for it, like when discussing rape, domestic violence, hate crimes and the like.  You need trigger warnings when you might actually trigger someone's actual PTSD and do them some actual mental harm.  For all other purposes you can shove your trigger warnings up your arse, I'm done with 'em.  Grow up and have some fucking integrity, the lot of you!

I'm going to sleep.  Fucking internet liberals.

Friday 2 January 2015

Thoughts on Leelah Alcorn

Trigger warning for suicide, transphobia.

You've likely read the story by now.  If you haven't then go on, I'll wait.

Sorted?  Okay.

She's not the first, she won't be the last.  It sounds awful to say it so starkly, but it's true.  Some years ago I used to talk trans kids her age away from the noose, and I got pretty close when I was her age too.  It's bizarrely normal.  40% attempt it now, but back in the day it used to be one in three.  It's actually gotten worse.  Here's the thing: I have a wonderfully supportive family.  I got to that crucial point because navigating life as trans at the age of seventeen is a weighty thing in our society, though a necessary thing as prohibiting young transition only increases the rate of suicide.  Besides transphobia there's paperwork, dealing with the medical establishment, legal bullshit, managing your own expectations and fears, learning to master yourself.

It could seem like a Darwinian process, but only at the extremes.  For the most part the difference between a cry for help and a corpse is the support given by family and friends.  This is highly anecdotal, I have no research to back this, only my own observations, but in the absence of severe mental illness or uncommon strength I've seen that survival at that age is almost entirely attributable to the prevailing of the weight of support over the weight of abuse, and that death at that age is almost entirely attributable to the inverse.  There are exceptions, of course.

For this reason I struggle to blame Leelah alone for her suicide.  From her writings it is plain that she received more abuse than support, and I cannot help but feel that those who committed the abuse are conspirators in her death.  Her parents and her church, the "Christian therapists" carrying on an archaic practice that ought to have never been legal.  It is no good arguing that her parents should not be subjected to aggro while they're mourning their daughter's death when they bloody well had a hand in it!

Also responsible are the likes of Ken Zucker and his ilk.  By arguing for "corrective therapy" he legitimises the idea that such therapy is possible or ethical.  It is neither, all it does is fuck people up, but it's easy to argue that such a therapy must be right if a doctor believes in it.  A few drops of her blood must be on his hands as well.

There is a proposal for Leelah's Law: a ban on conversion therapies.  I'm backing it 100%.  They've never been proven safe or effective, at best they teach victims "patients" to mask the behaviours which betray their inner feelings to the satisfaction of the man with the clipboard whilst doing irreparable psychological harm.

Sunday 23 November 2014


It sleeted the other day in Teddington, which I'm taking as a sign that the Wintersmith has stepped up for his turn at the dance.  As there's no planting or plant-activity left to do in the garden, I thought it might be an idea to just take stock of where me and my garden are at this year and what's planned for the quiet season.

First, we have a new addition to the family.  Our Sam had a baby.  I've mentioned her before, her name is Ellie, she's turning 1 in December and she's already toddling at a run.  She's got a fair vocabulary up to now:

Miaow = Bill or any cat
Doos = Juice
Doyan = Diane
Durj = George
Door = Door
Edjig = Hedgehog
Mum = Mum
Nana = Nana
Chickenchickenchicken = Chicken.

I buried my Dad this Autumn, which was as hard as you might expect.  I might write more on that in the next few months, but I'm in a weird sixth stage of grief right now.  I've gone through the five as normal, but my mind still isn't at rest so I've been making a lot of jam and I've been poopsocking heavily on the xbox.  On the plus, I can now make lemon curd.  He liked lemon curd did our Cubby, he liked the Beatles too, so when I did a job up Hampstead the other week I swung by Abbey Road on the way home, spent some time sitting by the zebra crossing with my thoughts.

It seems I've been shortlisted for a job as a lab tech.  Won't find out until tomorrow.

The garden then.  The trees out front had a fungal thing but I've treated that organically by dousing the leaves with diluted milk and by adding calcium to the soil.  The new thornless brambles are making it easier to gather the fruit, and Ellie loves doing that.  She sits on my Mum's lap out on the ramp and picks the blackberries that grow along the handrails.  There'll be more planted on the other side too, but not just yet.  I want to get two more cherries in first.

The back garden is having its annual lawn die-off.  The back garden faces North so we can only keep a lawn for a Summer.  The fruit bed is doing well though.  The loganberry plant is halfway along the trellis now, chasing the last of the Sun.  The gooseberries are looking iffy, in that I can't quite tell if they're dead or just hibernating and I shan't know until Spring.

Out front the neighbours' fence is still a bit dodgy.  It was put up by cowboys and so in the first breath of wind it collapsed and damaged their car and my pear tree.  I've made some repairs to it (because it's cheaper than cleaning up after cowboys - the last time they came out to make repairs they dug a hole round the post, filled it with dry cement powder and buried it) but I'm still not happy, so when I get some dough I'll buy a couple 8' tree stakes and drive them 4' deep.  Against that fence I've got an elderberry and three kinds of raspberries.

I'm looking at ways to make my front garden more wildlife friendly.  The bark on the ground is attracting woodlice, I've got a log with holes drilled into it which attracts ladybirds in the warmer seasons.  Plenty of dead wood for beetles.  Once my dwarf orchard grows to size it'll start attracting bats, at which point I'll consider bat boxes in the eaves.

Now birds and hedgehogs...  My front garden has two plantable areas, which I term the Island and the Outside.  Here's a map, not to scale:

The North edge of the Island is already lined with rosemary and lavender.  I think I might continue those around the Western edge and then along the South edge.  I'll site a hedgehog box in the centre and fill out the middle of the Island with gooseberries and bush roses.  There's already jasmine and brambles growing against the railings, and together it should make for a dense enough hedge to support birds and hedgehogs.  

At the Northernmost end of the Outside, up against the wall I've got climbing roses, Etoile de Hollande, but as they grow the bottom will need cover to look nice.  I'm thinking Buxus sempervirens, maybe bush roses, maybe lavender.  This'll come out by a foot or so and again I can work in a hedgehog box.  I'll put blackcurrants in front of that.  Maybe I'll separate the blackcurrants from the rest of the bush with a little hidden chickenwire so that Ellie isn't grabbing rose prickles. 

I'll put a narrow path down the middle of the Western bit of the Outside, from the blackcurrants down to just East of the Westernmost cherry.  At the end of this path I'll put a wee storage thing in the shade of the front fence (where little else grows), while either side of that path I'll sow herbs and strawberries.  I'll also put in bee pots to encourage bees.  

Next year I'll fit windowboxes for basil and sage.  I'm gradually accumulating nice pots, some of which will house a mix of flowers and herbs, others will hold mint by itself because mint is the Britain of plants: it'll colonise the entire pot! 

This year we were sufficient in three things: rosemary, bay leaves, and blackberries.  Next year we ought to be sufficient in those plus sage, raspberries, verbena, loganberries, blueberries, gooseberries and hopefully thyme.  Thyme's tricky though in my garden.  Within the next three years we should become sufficient in those plus strawberries, basil, mint, blackcurrants, elderflower, elderberry, figs, and seasonal stonefruits (apples, pears, cherries).  

And that's been my year!

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Why the Samaritans' Radar is bone stupid.


The Samaritans have launched a Twitter Bot - those annoying things that follow you for no other reason than you once quoted a Beatles lyric or what have you - which will alert people's followers whenever they use a word or phrase on a list identified as having connotations of potential suicide.  I don't deny that this is a well-intentioned thing, but nonetheless it'll do more harm than good so I'm going to deconstruct it here.

1)  The Invasive Argument

  If you contact the Samaritans and they intervene then they are serving their purpose with your consent.  If you do not contact them, if you want nothing to do with them and they intervene anyway then that is an invasion.  Corporations can ask to be "whitelisted", ie the bot will ignore them, but in a shockingly arrogant display of paternalism individuals cannot.  You cannot in any way direct this thing to leave you alone.  If you are on Twitter then it deems you as being on its radar, and it will interfere in your business.

  We have this idea that all people who are contemplating ending their lives are lost souls in need of heroic salvation.  Some are, some aren't, but we cannot force this upon people from afar or we will ultimately achieve nothing.  Those who are genuinely bent on suicide will require something more than tweets to talk them down, if at all.  Those who want help, who want to be talked down, will often as not phone the bloody Samaritans!

2)  The Data Protection Argument

  This bot will end up sitting on a great list of tweets it has sent to people.  Essentially it is gathering links to personal data into a coherent archive without either the consent of those whose data it links to or any lawful authority to do so without that consent.  It is also potentially alerting people to the likelihood that someone has a mental illness, which is arguably a breach of Data Protection, the Equality Act, and accepted counselling ethics, and it'd be a daft judge that would consider the Samaritans to be acting as anything other than a counselling agency.

  Consider also that many people are followed on Twitter by their employers!  Telling an employer - rightly or wrongly - that an employee is suicidal could end up costing that employee their livelihood!
3)  The Equality Act Argument 

  Because disabled people, the mentally ill (as a subset of disabled), and LGBT people all have higher rates of attempted suicide and actual suicide than the rest of society, the negative effects of this bot will be disproportionately felt by these communities (and any others I've missed out), potentially leading to a civil breach of the Equality Act.

  If it inadvertently outs a person as transgender then that could arguably constitute a criminal breach of the Equality Act, which is highly likely given as one in three transgender people attempt suicide.  Furthermore:  a small subsect of feminists who notably use feminism as a front for transphobic bigotry has a proven track record of hounding transgender people to suicide.  The Sandyford leak happening at the same time as the release of Radar essentially hands these people an automated hit list.  All they have to do is follow the email addresses contained in the leak and see who pings the Radar, then lean on that person.  This is not a paranoid fantasy, this is a very real concern with genuine historical underpinnings.

4)  The Desensitisation Argument 

  If every time someone uses the language of bog-standard depression they get flagged to their mates as a suicide risk then their mates will turn the bot off or block it or what have you.  They'll grow sick of it and come to regard its warnings as spam, no different to the "Nigeria Letters".  When eventually the person is at genuine risk of suicide there will be a boy-who-cried-wolf effect in play and the warnings will likely go unheeded.

5)  The Own-Goal Argument

  Consider the arguments under 3 and 4, above, with suicidal people being encouraged or ignored.  Consider the argument under 2 with people's jobs being jeopardised (by the Samaritans, no less, who they might otherwise speak to after being laid off).  Consider the argument under 1, with vulnerable people feeling violated by the bot's interventions.  You have a person who is already at risk of suicide, who has had additional stressors, who has been dissuaded from reaching out to others, whose friends have been desensitised to their plight.  You've turned a person who might waver into someone more determined.  This has the potential to increase the rate of suicide in Britain.

For all these reasons I see Radar as nothing but a menace.

Saturday 4 October 2014


I've been putting bulbs in for the new year.  

Behind the pear tree I've put in crocus bulbs.  They'll come up in Spring and hopefully they'll set seed.  I'd love for some pretty flowers to become naturalised in the garden.  I'll be planting bluebell bulbs in the January to the same purpose.  In both cases, crocus and bluebell, they'll grow in the wee nooks between other plants without bothering anything.  

They go up as far as the end of the fence, the full width.  Against the wall there in back I intend to grow climbing roses up and along the wall.  I'm considering growing Elder against the fence, so it's likely that not all of my crocuses will grow to flower, but with 75 bulbs in the ground you can be sure that a few will.  

In the island I've sown French garlic cloves.  Garlic is a magic thing: break a bulb down into cloves, sow the cloves 4" apart, and each clove becomes a whole bulb!  With anything from eight to sixteen cloves in a bulb, varying by cultivar, you have a greater than exponential increase if you replant every clove.  I shan't though.  I'm going to select for my five or six biggest bulbs each year and the rest will go to the kitchen, either for braiding and drying or for pickling.  They need a nice sharp frost in the Winter in order to divide out into bulbs, otherwise you just get a slightly larger clove than the one you buried, so with that in mind I'll be hoping for a good chill in the Winter.  Apples are a bit like that too, they need a cold Winter to produce a good yield.  

The garlic's in under the bark, to the left of the rosemary and this side of the sage.  The bark's a little thick just now, but that'll rot down over the Winter and put some carbon in the soil, mitigating the worst of any frost.  I'm quite tempted to close off this end of the island with a fan-trained damson, as the extra fruit will be very welcome.  

Still waiting on my qualification and transcript.  I've earned a distinction at HNC, which is all very wonderful, but it's doing me no good if I don't have the paperwork to show to universities or potential employers.  I'm feeling rather stuck right now and I don't like it, but with luck I'll have it all sorted ready to apply for the January intake.