Monthly Archives: January 2019

My beef with experts

rib_of_beef

People tell us that we’re wrong to disbelieve the experts. After all they’re the ones who know stuff so we should listen to them. The problem comes when you get older. Experts are best if they’re like historians who look back and pontificate on the past. That works. Yes you can argue with other historians, but you’re only arguing over the interpretation of the information. You’re not making the dangerous mistake of using your expert interpretation of the data to predict the future.

Once you predict the future you run into problems. Reality is perfectly happy to run your predictions and in ten or twenty years you can see how right or wrong you were.

So looking back, let’s look at BSE which came close to destroying the UK beef industry and compared to which, Brexit is a trivial irrelevance. Eventually they found that a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy could move from one species to another. Now remember that when all this kicked off TSE’s were a field of medicine/biology where careers went to die. I’m not knocking the people working on these things in the 1980s, but frankly however good the work they did, they were never going to capture the limelight.

Then suddenly the world changed. With the arrival of BSE money flooded into the field and all eyes were on it. To be fair to the researchers they just kept researching, and generally did what researchers do, which is kick ideas about, try and check things, and do their damnedest to get funding for the next couple of years.

And of course the experts really went to town on things. Prof Liam Donaldson, who was the Chief Medical Officer told BBC radio, “Hundreds of thousands of British meat-eaters might eventually die from the human form of mad cow disease, but the scale of the epidemic will not be known for years. Even as late as 2000, the Guardian was producing articles saying that, “Latest estimates range from a few hundred to just over 130,000.”

Twenty years on, I’d like to refer you to https://www.cjd.ed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/figs.pdf

 

It’s a pdf which has the figures for deaths from CJD. There are four types, Sporadic, Iatrogenic, Genetic and vCJD. The first three are natural in that humanity has always had them. vCJD is probably the one that comes from Cattle. In spite of the experts, in the last five years there has been 1 case.

To put things in proportion, since they bothered keeping figures (which was 1990) there have been 2068 cases of sporadic CJD. There have been 82 cases of Iatrogenic CJD, 209 cases of Genetic CJD, and 178 cases of vCJD.
So in spite of the experts we haven’t even had a ‘few hundred’ never mind the hundreds of thousands.

To further put this in proportion, the suicide rate among farmers runs at about one a week. In any year, fifty or so kill themselves. In the same period as we have for the CJD cases, 1450 farmers or thereabouts will have committed suicide. I personally know of three who killed themselves during the hysteria of the BSE outbreak because they just couldn’t cope to what it was doing to their homes and their families.
But even during the BSE outbreak, it was soon evident that people were beginning to get sick of the experts and were ignoring them. The final nail in the coffin of expert infallibility came with the ‘beef on the bone ban.’
The government banned the sale of beef on the bone in December 1997. Two years later in 1999 they lifted the ban, probably because people just had no faith in it. One butcher I know told me that before the ban he’d rarely sell beef on the bone. He’d do a couple of joints a year for people who were intending to do roast beef for ten or a dozen guests. When the government introduced the ban, everybody was asking for it! The ban, whilst it inadvertently did a lot to increase the sales of beef, was effectively swept away by popular ridicule of a silly overreaction.

So experts? The passing of time is the graveyard of expert opinions.

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Me, if I want to speak to an expert I used to ask this lady

 

 

As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

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You need to know the truth about the elephant in the room.

I don’t often reblog stuff, but this is something a lot of people need to see and to think about. Few people are as honest as Mary and she deserves to be heard.

M T McGuire Authorholic

This is a dementia related post I’m afraid, but it’s also, kind of, a warning. As I’ve probably said before, but I’ll say it again, the reason I write the posts about my dad are because most of us have no idea what happens when a person gets Alzheimer’s. Usually, we hear that someone has been diagnosed, they tell people, you meet them around the place and they have memory problems but seem more-or-less OK otherwise, and then they disappear. The next thing that happens is that five years later, you learn they have died. I’ve never known what happened between that point when they stop going out into society and the point at which their death is announced.

Now, I am learning, so I am sharing, as I have done all along, because I hope it might help someone.

Dad tipped suddenly and completely into full on swearing, spitting…

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It was a bit cold

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Freezing fog to wake up to. It wasn’t ‘that’ cold but still it was time to go into cold weather mode. The first trick you learn is to put a bucket of really hot water through the milking parlour before you start milking. This is because, if there’s any ice in the system, you might be lucky and thaw it. Also it’ll raise the temperature enough to ensure that it doesn’t freeze when it starts running but before the milk gets into the system and warms everything. Even so, a pulsator froze while it was working.

The other thing is the fact everything had been damp. The day before we had had rain, so this morning there was ice everywhere. Car doors had been wet, so they froze shut. Not only that but eventually there was enough power in the sun to start thawing stuff. This meant that water would run down and settle in the frost pockets where the cold coming out of the ground would freeze it again. So even through it’s thawing, you can still have ice where there wasn’t ice half an hour before.

Sal seemed to find it a little disconcerting to skid sideways as she was running forward.
I suspect people with more severe winters might wonder at our problems but they perhaps forget the difficulties caused by a temperature that fluctuates just either side of freezing. So the council can decide they’ll need to put salt/grit on the roads to make sure they don’t freeze. But if you spread the grit at 4pm, the rain will wash it away. So you’ve got to wait until the rain has stopped and allow the water time to drain away. But ideally you want to get the grit on before everything freezes, so there might be a two hour window.

When we get snow, we rarely get so much that the fresh snow is a problem. It’s the compacted snow from yesterday that thawed a bit this afternoon before freezing again tonight. That’s what causes the problem. If this keeps up for a few days you just end up with sheets of ice.

A friend of mine worked out in Finland and he was amazed to see people just fit their snow tyres and drive off at the same sort of speeds that they’d driven when there was no snow.

There again he was working in one town and he, and the other people who worked at a factory, would park on a big open carpark. He remembered it as vaguely circular and it had big gates at the far end. One day in the office people were talking about the chronic lack of parking in the town. He just commented that there was a brilliant big carpark, what was the problem.

Apparently the carpark was actually the harbour, the gates opened onto the open sea. But in winter, yes it was a carpark.

But back to home, at 9:30am the sun was a silver disk you could look at with the naked eye, by noon the freezing fog had burned off, and by evening the last of the frost seems to have come out of the ground. Everything was fine, except of course that the temperature then dropped a little, and the melt water that had trickled into puddles after the thaw froze again.

In normal circumstances, the amount of snow we get round here doesn’t bother livestock. I’ve seen cows sniff it and treat it as a curiosity, licking it and even eating a mouthful. But normally they’ll be inside with silage to eat. Sheep outside can scuff light snow off what grass, but run towards you enthusiastically if you turn up with hay or any other feed.

The temperature doesn’t bother them. If cattle or sheep are outside when there’s a frost you can see where they have slept. There’s these frost free patches the appropriate size for a cow lying down chewing her cut. Actually what they dislike more is when you get a brisk wind. The ‘Beast from the east’ last year was something they didn’t enjoy, but sheep were happy enough outside with a hedge to break the wind.
What both species really dislike is cold driving rain. Late one autumn we’d fetch some dairy heifers in. They’d eaten up the grass on their field and it was time they were housed for the winter. At the same time I had a batch of half a dozen dry cows in a field next to the farm gate. It was a rotten wet miserable day with a brisk westerly driving the rain. The heifers didn’t want to leave the shelter of the hedge but once they were obviously coming home, they were far easier to move, and trotted into the yard very happily.
The dry cows saw them being moved and all rushed to their gate so as to be handy for when we wanted to bring them in. When I left them there to finish their grass they stood at the gate looking daggers at me for the next couple of hours. Until the rain had passed and they quietly drifted back to graze.

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Obviously you might want to keep warm with a good book. There’s always

 

to quote from the reviewer “This book continues from where ‘Swords for a Dead Lady’ ended and makes for a rollicking good – three adventures – tale.
Benor recounts how he met his wife.
Benor and Kirisch travel 4000 miles to find said wife, then take a side trip to deal with a troublesome Tyrant.
We meet some familiar characters, some new ones, and even a few monsters.
We learn how an Urlan Knight and a Cartographer get involved in the fashion trade, how beauty and love can be found even in the wilderness, and how one particular paddle boat is powered.”

Review of ‘Fancy Meeting You Here’, by Jim Webster

Stevie Turner

I always enjoy Jim’s farming stories, as he has a way of telling a tale that is entertaining but informative at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about sheep, cattle and working dogs while reading this book, and always wondered how on earth a sheepdog learns to do what it does – but I know now that a new dog will learn from an old one as well as from his master.

There were a few chuckles too, particularly at how Jim dealt with unwanted salespeople. There were a couple of shocks regarding how the price of cattle has decreased over the years, and also sadly how the number of UK dairy farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 now.

Jim has spent his whole life farming and has acquired a wealth of knowledge, some of which he shares in this delightful book.  I have given…

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Pontifications on a road less travelled. Looking back on the present?

charles_james_fox_by_karl_anton_hickel

 

This week we’ve had politics and I’ve been devoutly glad this house doesn’t possess either a TV or a TV licence. Thus we’ve been spared great screeds of analysis that was out of date within an hour or two of being broadcast.

But during the week it has occurred to me that when I read history, there I read about the arguments of the past, set in their context. When I read modern current affairs, the context, obvious in history, is lost.

I am beginning to suspect that historians, two thousand years hence, will discuss this decade. Admittedly it’ll be in much foot-noted articles in obscure magazines, but they’ll discuss it. Now it’s been said that most democracies are actually oligarchies where the demos does occasionally get a say. Occasionally you get a period where the demos get more of a say, Athens was one example where, for brief periods, the demos seems to have been in control. The problem is that the periods where the demos were in control are the periods when Athens was at its most volatile. Perhaps democracy fades into oligarchy as a sort of stabilising mechanism? Think of the oligarchs as the training wheels on a bicycle.
So perhaps our future historians will look back at the whole Brexit and Trump era and ask whether the period saw a bitter battle between two competing oligarchies. The old oligarchs fighting savagely to retain power, whilst the new, aspiring oligarchs, fought equally savagely to achieve power, with the demos being reduced to cheering or booing from the sidelines.
Doubtless some, of our future historians (perhaps the less cynical) will see it instead as the demos, sickened by the obvious corruption and greed of a current generation of oligarchs, rising against them. Who knows, and when they pen their articles, will anybody read them anyway.

Then there’s a comment a friend of mine made. “I’ve never been sold on libertarianism. Sure it’s possible to over-regulate. But every time we go the other way it leads to massive corruption and stupidity once people realise no one is watching. It really makes me wonder if common sense ever plays a part in these things.

He’s right, leaving me to wonder if common sense is something you learn in adversity and when stuff is a bit tough, so the privileged never learn it? It also struck me that it’s interesting that both libertarianism and totalitarianism lead to corruption and stupidity. This leads me to wonder if what we really need is freedom and openness. This way people can shine the light into the dark corners and drag the corrupt kicking and screaming out into the light where they face the derision of the mob. All a bit like the MPs expenses scandal that we had here in the UK. This fits in nicely with his comment about ‘when people realise no one is watching.’ Too often the political class act to draw the curtains to ensure that the mob don’t get to see what’s really going on.
It also strikes me that we need those politicians who act as ‘Tribunes of the People.’ The picture is of Charles James Fox who spent the vast majority of his political career in opposition. He stood for many things but was a leading parliamentary advocate of religious tolerance and individual liberty. Neither of these are particularly popular options.

There are other politicians who have filled the role. Tony Benn, although I disagreed with much of what he said, served the people far better when he was in opposition than he ever did when in power. Power and authority trammel a great thinker and force them to conform to the petty dictates of current expediency: whereas their real purpose is to see over the hill and prepare the ground for the future.

Another thing our future historians might ponder is whether the fall of the oligarchy was due to a shift within the political tribes. Fifty years ago you could largely spot the difference between MPs of various parties by their background, their life experience, and their education. That has passed, now we have a comparatively homogeneous political class who largely enter politics from university, working their way up from being MP’s assistants and similar until finally they’re well enough thought of for the Apparatchiks who run the party to ensure they get offered a winnable seat. Far too high a proportion of them have never really had a proper job. Even those who were not within the golden circle tend to have jobs with political organisations and politically appropriate lobby groups and corporations. They rarely mix with hoi polloi. Indeed given their wealth it’s unlikely they ever will. To be in the top 5% in the UK at the moment you need an income of £70,000 a year (waving at you, MPs) and earning over £130k puts you in the 1% (and a big hello to all those people in the civil service and NHS earning more than the Prime Minister.) With snouts so deeply in the trough they’re unable to see over the side of the trough to discover how the rest of us are really faring.
Over the last few years I’ve talked to more and more people of the ‘Labour’ tribe who feel they can no longer vote for a party that appears to have nothing in common with them. Similarly I have talked to many people of the ‘Conservative’ tribe who also feel that their views, beliefs and life experience are not shared by the party that they used to support. Perhaps Brexit is just going to be the catalyst for a major realignment of the tribes as they find somebody new to vote for?

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Alternatively you could just seek wisdom in the pages of a good book

 

To quote the reviewer “Someone has tried to cheat Benor and his young ‘apprentice’ Mutt. They set out, with a little help, to redress the balance. Another in this series of Port Naain novellas that had me smiling. They are not belly-laugh stories but full of wry, clever and thoughtful humour. Often, it’s the way he tells them. I’m always up for more of these stories.”

Funny what makes you think

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Cumbria is an interesting county. The photo I took on Wednesday, looking north. The small white blob is Orton church tower. It’s not necessarily what people normally associate with Cumbria, but it’s a very diverse county.

One thing we do have is lots of tourists and lots of sheep. To be fair there are large parts were you rarely see a tourist and even parts where the ratio of sheep to inhabitants drops down low enough to give humanity some hope of achieving parity.

But sheep aren’t far from our minds. I was feeding a small group of fat lambs (the last of the sheep, because sheep and dairy cows don’t mix well on a small farm) and I was genuinely surprised how well the grass was looking. The field had been eaten off by ewes earlier in the autumn and had been given a shot of slurry and left. Now there’s no sign at all of the muck but the grass has come on nicely. OK it’s not enough for cattle, but it’ll do a handful of fattening lambs really nicely.

Up until now Brexit has done Cumbria quite a few favours, the big drop in the value of the pound brought the tourists flooding in; and because we export so much lamb, the fact the pound fell meant those we exported and sold in euros brought in more money.

But I’ve always been nervous about sheep, after Brexit. The EU runs a tariff wall and the main thing is does is keep up the price of food. So if we drop out of the tariff wall, whilst the food we buy in the shops in the UK could actually become cheaper. On the other hand we could find the stuff we sell priced out of the EU market because of the tariffs.

Now for milk and beef that isn’t really a problem. We are net importers. We can go a long way on import substitution. So if our price drops, even a little, it’ll help UK product displace EU product. It’s the EU who has to worry on that one because they then have to find a home for more expensive dairy and beef products. Hence the reason why the Irish are worried.
Grain isn’t too much of an issue, it’s largely a commodity traded at world market price anyway.

But lamb does present a difficulty. We are one of the world’s major exporters of mutton and lamb. Actually there aren’t many major exporters. It’s a niche activity.

But the EU tariff wall could hit lamb production and I confess I was worried. A lot of the pundits seem to be worried and experts were pontificating unfavourably on the subject.

Then today I read the papers and on the front page it commented that Prince Charles was taking over the management of the Sandringham estate. He’s getting rid of the arable and moving the entire estate over to organic sheep production. The flock is increasing from 3,000 ewes to 15,000 ewes.

Now whatever you think about the Prince of Wales, when it comes to running farms and estates he has a good track record. Under his management he’s got a lot of them turned round and they’re making money. It’s not all expensive biscuits or novelty teas either. He’s got a good grasp of the basics.

Now it could well be that he’s got a damned good management team behind him. I hope he has, because every other farmer depends on the often unmentioned management team that supports him. But in this case, the management team, with the Prince as head or figurehead depending on your politics and outlook, have got a very good track record.

When asked why they were doing this, the answer was the Chinese market and Brexit.
Now the Chinese market makes sense. Australia and New Zealand are selling into it. Indeed we’re getting fewer exports from those two countries because China is such a good market. So obviously we want to be in there. But Brexit?
Now this goes right against the perceived wisdom. But the perceived wisdom is that of academics, pundits, politicians and commentators. The decision was taken by a proven management team putting their money behind the decision.

So who do we believe? Given the last few years why should you believe anybody?

boy who cried wolf

 

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Me, I’d suggest we just let the dog sort them all out

 

As a reviewer commented, “Brilliantly written, honest, funny and if you’re from this little bit of land you’ll have been intrigued by the title – sold by the end of the very first line “There’s a lamb climbing out the oven””

And the truth will set you free

heresy trial

It’s all the fault of my mate Kier who posted a link to a video by the Historian Niall Ferguson. Being a historian Ferguson tends to take a somewhat longer view than most modern pundits for whom a whole decade appears to be an unimaginably long period of time. But Niall Ferguson commented that our current age with the explosion of the internet, most resembled the 1500s with the equally violent explosion in the number of books created by the invention of the printing press. It’s worth a watch

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLiPPtxKRAA&feature=share

 

You can see the drift of his argument. The problem is that discussions are happening so much faster now than they did in the 1500s. I can remember in the 1980s being a member of a society with a journal that was published every other month. If you disagreed with the author of an article, you had a couple of weeks to read around the subject, marshal your arguments and prepare your response which you posted off to the editor. This would then appear in the next issue of the magazine. Those who disagreed with you would also get the same amount of time to contemplate and check their facts before responding. Discussions lasting a year or more, with people doing genuine research into the original texts, were not uncommon.

Now with the membership of the same society, the whole discussion can take place in an internet forum in a couple of days. But the quality of research that goes into the answers isn’t what it was. In reality people walk away from the discussion and in six months or so it flares up again as people return with new ideas and evidence. So we’ve seen a change in the nature of our debates. But frankly it doesn’t matter; nobody is ever going to campaign for election or try to change legislation on the strength of the evidence we put forward.

The problem you see in agriculture is that we’re a complicated industry. But just as “We all went to school so we all understand education,” so, “We all eat food so we all understand agriculture.”

In forty years of freelance journalism I’ve seen agriculture change, but more than that I’ve seen the reporting change. One brief phenomenon was when various learned scientific journals started publishing scientific abstracts on CDs. A newspaper could buy a CD, some bright spark could do a quick search using terms that could be linked to a food scare, and before the week was out they’d have got a handful of suitably frightening articles out of it. Obviously they’d never gone to the trouble of reading the full paper! But if you read the full paper you run the risk of ruining the story!

That was another thing I discovered early on as a freelance journalist. People would contact me with ‘stories.’ I’d check them out and looking back I’d estimate that two out of three weren’t actually stories. When you investigated them properly and found out what was happening, there was nothing to see.

So obviously I’d walk away from them, and occasionally an editor would ask me about the story her or his competitors were running. When I explained that it wasn’t a story and didn’t withstand investigation their responses were indicative of the quality of the paper. Some couldn’t see lack of validity as in anyway disqualifying the story. Some understood me completely. Others asked me to write up the non-story in all its gory detail, because it made their competitors look like the charlatans they were.

The problem is that with the web, all those non-stories are being published on websites and online newspapers. Then once published they get shared and reshared and passed on through social media. Facebook is a nightmare for that sort of stuff. Indeed is can actively revive ‘dead’ stories by showing people the stuff they had in their memories, thus the story can come back from the dead to haunt us, two years later and every bit as wrong as it was the first time.

In my time I’ve seen any number of them. The one that could have done serious damage was the 9p FMD vaccine. During 2001 and our FMD outbreak, somebody started a story that there was a vaccine out there which would protect livestock and it only cost 9p a shot. (I think it was 9p but it might have been even cheaper.)

This caused chaos; Tony Blair’s office contacted the Vets running the fight against FMD in Cumbria and asked them if farmers would be willing to use this vaccine. One of the vets phoned me to talk over the consequences. Finally, sick of seeing farmers attacked on internet forums as being unfit to care for animals because they were too mean to use the obvious vaccine, I spent half an hour with friend Google looking for the damned stuff.

Yes, there was a vaccine out there for the price. It was produced in India, it was a live vaccine (which means it would be illegal to use within the EU) and what is more it didn’t offer protection from the strain of FMD we had, it was for a different strain. So it would have been utterly useless.)
Obviously I mentioned it, but did anybody take any notice?
This brings us back to the whole 1500 issue that Niall Ferguson has let us to. People aren’t holding beliefs because they’ve done the research and spend months or even years in discussion. Many are just holding them with religious devotion because ‘they believe’ and that’s the beginning and end of it all.

Back in 2001, of course nobody was interested in the fact that the 9p vaccine was a non-story. Government spin doctors wanted the 9p vaccine because its existence showed that the failure to defeat FMD wasn’t the government’s fault, it was the fault of the ignorant farmers refusing to get with the 21st century. The animal rights activists weren’t interested in the truth, because they were happily using the existence of a cheap vaccine to prove that farmers weren’t fit to have livestock anyway. The worrying thing is that when a single issue lobby group and the office of the Prime Minister accept the same spurious evidence as true, policy can be made on the back of it. Fortunately in this case it seems Ministry Vets put their foot down and stopped something stupid happening.

We have indeed slipped back into the 1500s, because we’ve left the age of reason behind us. We have people who no longer care about the facts, if they’re inconvenient then they are to be ignored. They merely argue from a position of belief and if you don’t believe you’re no longer a proper person, you’re merely a heretic, an animal abuser, tory scum, thicko racist brexiteer.

Apparently now heresy trials are conducted over on Twitter if you can be bothered?
But when you ask yourself whether you can or cannot say something, always remember the words of Voltaire

voltaire

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Actually it strikes me that you might want to just wash your hands of the whole damned lot of them. After all, if it’s not your circus, they’re not your monkeys.

So how about escaping with a good book

 

As the reviewer said
“Tallis Steelyard makes a living as a poet, which is sufficiently remarkable in itself, but in reality he is a ducker and diver at the more genteel end of society in the imaginary town of Port Naiin in Jim Webster’s richly comic and intriguing fictional world. This is my first encounter with Mr. Steelyard in book form but I doubt that it will be my last. His tales are warmly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but are none the worse for that. Give Tallis a try, you’ll be glad you did.”