An Englishman’s Home is his Castle – but Why?

The English are obsessed with housing. The newspapers are full of articles about it, politicians argue about it, and young people struggle and worry about ever being able to afford it. John Lanchester points out that while 70% of Brits live in their own homes, only 40% of Germans do.

Why is this? There are many reasons why buying is a terrible idea: expensive repairs, a fall in prices will leave you in negative equity, you are less flexible …

Going into the credit crunch, the typical household in the UK owed 160% of his or her average income. In France a bank will only lend you a third of what you’re owning, and if you get into trouble paying it back, the bank can be sued for reckless lending. One of the reasons we can’t join the Euro is because there’s so many property owners, interest rates are too politically important to hand over to Brussels.

So why the Anglo-Saxon obsession with housing?

John Lanchester has a theory:

“Our longing [for property] is connected to the sense of dislocation which spread throughout British society during the industrial revolution. …

Countries with the go-go attitude to the free market, countries which pride themselves on their openness to competition, willingness to take a chance, lack of feather-bedding and protection from the laws of the jungle, might be expected to have a property market in which people were easy-going about rening and reluctant to tie up all their money in a single illiquid asset. On the other hand countries with more traditional, less capitalistic attitudes, less open to the cold winds of the markets and more willing to protect their citizens from market realities, might well have a conservative appetite for bricks-and-mortar. Instead it’s the other way around. Why? Well perhaps that’s exactly why. It’s precisely the most free-market, go-go countries which show this overpowering appetite for people to own their own homes. The less security there is in the workplace, the more exposed the rest of life is to the pressures of competition and uncertainty, the more people want to feel secure within their own four walls, at the beginning and end of the harsh working day.

The huge expansion in British home-ownership began during the 1840s, when the effects of the industrial revolution had spread sufficiently to create a new middle class with the economic means to buy their own homes. Because we were alienated and insecure at work, we felt an increased need to own the walls we live in, to feel safe and in possession of our own property. It was the psychic trade-off for the other losses of industrialization.”

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Is Anything Truly Random?

I hated science lessons at school.  Looking back, it was miraculous that the science curriculum and those that taught it managed to make a subject so fascinating – a subject with such universal appeal to the inquisitive minds of children – so dull.  I imagine my science teachers put this skill to use in their downtime by going to parties and turning all the wine into water.

Bill Bryson expresses a similar concern in his Introduction to A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In writing this book, Bryson produced the grand daddy of popular science books but beyond him there is a wealth of non-fiction science books aimed not just at Physics MSCs, but rather anyone that has a healthy mind and enjoys asking the question “why?”.

Marcus Chown - We Need To Talk About Kelvin Front CoverThe more science I read, the more I appreciate it’s place in the arts alongside philosophy and psychology.  Marcus Chown, in We Need To Talk About Kelvin – What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe, attempts to help us rekindle our child-like enthusiasm for intellectual discovery by describing how normal things can prove mind-blowing concepts.  And so on to the question at hand; a question which is seemingly philosophical in nature.

It could easily be argued that nothing is random. Much of human behaviour has been shown to be predetermined by our genes and our behaviour.  A coin toss is caused by gravity, resistance, the velocity and angle of the throw and the detail of the surface it lands on.  One could argue that if these causes could be perfectly simulated then the result could be predicted.  Due to technological limitations we are not able to produce such a perfect simulation but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.

What does Chown say to the question ‘is anything truly random’?  His answer is: “yes, God plays dice”.  What everyday thing proves this according to Chown?  Your reflection in a window.

Imagine looking through a window when the light outside is low.  You can see your reflection in the glass, but you can also see beyond it to the other side of the window.  Let’s say that the glass appears 60% opaque.  So what?  Well, some light is reflecting back and some is continuing through.  This makes sense if light is a wave, like a ripple in a lake spreading out and continuing despite hitting a small floating obstacle.  However, light is also a stream of photon particles, each particle identical.  Commons sense and observation tell us that the overall effect is stable; so how is it that some photons pass through and some reflect?

It took the genius of Einstein to realise that this dilemma was a bomb-shell dropped into the laws of physics.  The only logical answer is that 40% of the particles are being reflected back.  Giving that each photon is identical, each photon has a 40% chance of being reflected and a 60% chance of continuing straight through.  This means it is impossible to predict what a single photon will do when it reaches the glass; it effectively has to ‘decide’ itself.  Unlike the lack of computing power required to simulate a coin toss, predicting the behaviour of a photon when it reaches the glass is not a practical issue.  It is impossible to predict because the photon’s beahviour is completely and utterly random; effect without cause.  It’s not just light either; at the microscopic level, the entire world is governed by chance.

But this is just the beginning of the madness.  Chown goes on to draw further conclusions from this everyday observation.  It can also be demonstrated that light is both a wave and a particle, that a single photon can be in two places doing two things at once, and that particles can break the speed of light by instantaneously influencing another particle at any distance.

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McMafia – Misha Glenny

We live in the era of globalization. The shift from national to international in business, politics and ideas, over the last twenty years has defined this period of history, and we have got used to living in a global economy in which businesses, captial flows, and jobs flow across national borders.

But did you know about the  global shadow economy?

This is what Misha Glenny’s book is about. The international shadow economy is big – according to figures from the IMF, World Bank and other research organisations, it accounts 15-20 per cent of global turnover – and yet we know little about it.

Obsession with Al-Qaeda and terrorism has blinded us to a bigger story. As Glenny points out, “in terms of the death and misery caused, terrorism is primitive and relatively insignificant”.

International crime is now global and spreads across national border much like Shell, Nike or McDonalds. Hence the title: McMafia.

From this starting point, Misha Glenny takes us on global tour of crime. We go from country to country, from internet crime in Brazil to smuggling in East Europe. The chapter I’m in the middle of at the moment is about the Japanese yakuza.

I am familiar with the popular image of the Yakuza from when I lived in Japan. Every now and again, in parts of Tokyo, or around the red light district of Fukuoka, they’d be pointed out to me. I kept my distance but I had heard of their enormous and intricate tattoos and the missing pinkies, taken to pay for an error or misdemeanor.

Misha Glenny explains the yakuza’s involvement in the bubble that built up in the 1990s, their ties to big business and so on, but the part that is most fascinating is his exposition of the their semi-legitimate relationship with Japanese society.

Until changes in the 1990s, the various yakuza groups would have publicly registered head offices, complete with signs and receptionists. Although that has since been clamped down on, they still exist in a bizarre semi-legal relationship with the state. Whilst technically illegal, every year the groups submit their membership details to the police. (Can you imagine burglars and muggers registering every year with Scotland Yard?) When Glenny meets his guide though guide to the Japan underworld, the guide explains he is the sixth-generation oyabun of the Yamaguchi-gumi. “This is like having a lawyer in the US who introduces himself breezily as Lawyer to Don Antonio Soprano of the New Jersey Mafia Corporation.”

This lawyer explains how the yakuza‘s rise to power all started with a misguided government policy after the war.

The key date was 1949. In that year, in an effort to discourage litigation which conflicted with the Japanese idea of wa (harmony), the government ruled that only 5000 students could graduate from the Legal Research and Training Institute in Tokyo every year. This has had a dramatic effect on the number of lawyers in Japan. By the late 1990s, whereas Britain had one lawyer for every 656, and the United States one for every 285 citizens, in Japan there was one lawyer for every 5,995 people.

Because the more lucrative option for these lawyers was to go work for big companies, few were left to represent ordinary members of the public. Into this vacuum stepped the yakuza.

The lawyer to the Yamaguchi-gumi explains: “If anybody went to court in order to get a debt paid, it would take an eternity and, if judgement was finally passed down in a case, it often resulted in nothing. The yakuza are able to offer a much quicker solution to the problem”.

The yakuza became a privatised police force. They expanded into any number of areas: business disputes, security, insurance, and property development.

A brilliant example of the law of unintended consequences.

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Jilted Generation

Probably the book which has angered, inspired and politicised me most in the last six months is Jilted Generation by Ed Howker & Shiv Malik.

Howker and Malik argue that the baby-boomer generation – those born between 1945 and 1965 – have enjoyed an uniquely privileged set of circumstances growing up – a set of circumstances which contrasts with the shoddy inheritance left to the generation after.

  • Housing. As well as the sell off of council housing – a massive windfall for the baby-boomers – baby-boomers only had to borrow (on average) three times their salary to buy their two-up, two-down with a garden. Their debt was also diminished by high inflation rates. Since then the decline in house building, strict planning laws, and population growth have caused house prices to rocket – making baby-boomers rich, and pricing the young out of the market.
  • Higher education. Boomers not only got their higher education for free, but once  gained, their degrees were highly valued in the job market. Starting wages were comparably high. Today young people face £9000 a year tuition fees, a jobs regime that requires many young people to work for free on  ‘internships‘, a lack of apprenticeships, and an economy that leaves one in five young people unemployed.
  • Pensions. Boomers joined companies with final-salary schemes. Now most companies don’t have ANY pension provision. The ones left are risky ‘defined contribution’ schemes, paid later and requiring bigger contributions.
  • Dismal government finances. We have a national debt of £867 billion, and that’s not including the PFI schemes and public sector pension liabilities that sit off the balance sheet. All the fuss at the moment about reducing the deficit (basically the nation’s overdraft) doesn’t touch the underlying debt.
  • And there’s probably half a dozen other things I’ve forgotten

These arguments have been set out elsewhere. David Willetts (now the higher education minister) in Pinch, calculates that with baby-boomers entering the job market later than the generation before (after going to University), whilst retiring in their 60s (earlier than those who will follow), combined with their long life expectancy, means they will take out 118% of what they put in to the welfare state.

What Howker and Malik do which is different

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How do you discover new non-fiction books? No prizes for guessing…

‘Non-fiction’ includes books on virtually any subject, any skill, idea or person in history. With your credit crunched bank balance, your limited precious time and the finite number of bookcases in your abode, you want to make sure you are only purchasing and reading quality. Unless you are already well read in a particular field, how on earth do you go about discovering new non-fiction books to read?

The way I purchase books tends to be quite haphazard and often comes down to what I am feeling or thinking at the time. Here are the ways in which I discover new non-fiction books to read:

  • Book prizes. There are several book prizes out there which seem to always have top quality reads. The BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. The Royal Society Winton prize for science books. The newly launched Guardian Book Award (which includes a sub-category of non-fiction). Annual book prizes tend to include only the best books in the category and I don’t think I’ve ever been let down by purchasing from book prize shortlists.
  • Author publicity. Authors often promote themselves by doing opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines or television. I’ve discovered many books this way, having enjoyed reading an article and then seen at the bottom that Joe Bloggs is the author of Some Non-fiction Book. “Go on then” I think to myself. “If I enjoyed the article, surely I’ll enjoy the book too”.
  • Amazon recommendations. I buy quite a lot of my books from Amazon
    (which is another discussion for another time). Amazon is creepily excellent at using its customer purchasing trends data to push products onto you. Every single product page has a ‘customers who bought this item also bought’ section and I can honestly spend hours clicking on these links, trawling my way through different genres, reading customer reviews and wikipediaing the authors.
  • Word of mouth. Obvious but couldn’t leave it out of the list. When someone enthuses about a book it can be incredibly infectious. Thanks to the joy of smartphones and internet shopping it’s possible to order a book 30 seconds after hearing a recommendation.

Conspicuous in its absense from this list is book reviews. Personally I rarely read book reviews in printed or online media. I also don’t buy from the book charts, or from promotional plinths at bookshops, which many people must do. Feel free to recommend some book review sites or other methods in the below comments.  And of course, if you’re looking for a new book you could always have a read through this blog.

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Losing our way

To anyone who’s been enjoying BBC’s Human Planet, a couple of recommendations:

First, check out this incredible series of photographs, published by Wired magazine, of uncontacted people (or indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation, to use the correct term), some taken at the very moment they first make contact with the outside world. The variety of responses is fascinating – from curiosity and bewilderment, to utter delight, to terror. There are apparently around 100 groups, most living in the Amazon.

Second, track down a copy of Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, a fantastic book about what we can learn from indigenous cultures that, when compared to 21st century living, seem disconcertingly primitive.

It’s generally agreed that we, Homo Sapiens, sprung up around 200,000 years ago, and that we co-existed with other hominids (including Neanderthals, who – like us – were descended from Homo Erectus). The earliest ‘human’ (in a fairly loose sense of the word) dates much earlier, to 3.3m years ago, and was discovered only recently, in 2006: the skeletal remains of a three-year-old Ethiopian girl. Anyway, until about 60,000 years ago all of humanity lived in Africa. But for one reason or another – most likely changing climate and ecological conditions that led to desertification – a small group of men, women and children, possibly as few as 150 (!), left. They walked out of the cradle of humanity, and set about colonizing the world. First, travellling via the shoreline of Asia, they reached Australasia in about 50,000 BC; then north through the Middle East and then further east to India, Southeast Asia and China by around 40,000BC; finally to Europe (30,000 BC), Siberia (20,000 BC) and, some 12,000 years ago, the Americas.

I read this and couldn’t help but wonder how those first 150 pioneers lived. Imagine if you could go back and see them, the Founding Fathers of humanity! Fortunately, you don’t need a time machine, as using genetic tracing anthropologists have been able to find a people living in Africa who are genetically identical to the ones who lived there 60,000 years ago: the ones who never left. They live in the searing sands of the Kalahari desert, straddling Botswana, Namibia and Angola, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, having rejected the ways of successive agriculturists and pastoral herders. There is no standing water for ten months of the year, meaning it has to be found in the hollows of trees, sucked from beneath the mud with reeds, or squeezed from the guts of animals. The sun is not a source of life, but a symbol of death  – in the worst months of the dry season, they scrape hollows in the ground, moisten the earth with urine, ‘then lie beneath a sprinkling of sand, tormented by flies, as the wait out the heat of the day’. Their language is dazzling – in everyday English we use 31 sounds; the language of the San uses 141, ‘a cacophony’, Davis writes, ‘of cadence and clicks that many linguists believe echoes the very birth of language’. He goes on to evoke the breathtaking precision of their hunting techniques: ‘Nothing escapes their notice: a bend in a blade of grass, the direction of the tug that snapped a twig, the depth, shape and condition of a track. Everything is written in the sand’. And it works – plus these people can literally run down an antelope.

I realise I’m reeling here, and I should end by making Davis’s wider argument clear: half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear within our lifetimes, but these are ‘merely the canaries, in the coal mine’: think of the songs, the stories, the knowledge, the cultures that will also be lost.

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The Economist

One of the things I love about John Lanchester’s Whoops, is despite a strict determination to keep it to 200 pages, he’s still finds space for wonderful little asides.

“You get a glimpse into the world view [of myopic economics] when you look at the Economist. It is an excellent newspaper (a term they prefer to ‘magazine’) in particular full of good first-hand fact-finding. The first 80 per cent of almost every article is full of fresh things. But every single piece, on every single subject, reaches the same conclusion. Whatever you’re reading about, it turns out that the solution is the same: more liberalization, more competition, more free markets. However nuanced and original the detail in the bulk of the piece the answer is always the same; it makes The Economist seem full of algebraic formulas in which the answer is always x.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately) their consistency seems to be working. James Harkin in Niche, uses the magazine as an example of a media organization that has successfully shunned the mainstream. While Time‘s worldwide circulation has fallen from 4.07 million to 3.3million, and Newsweek’s circulation fell from 3.14million to 1.97 million in the last decade, the Economist‘s circulation almost doubled, from 720,000 to 1.4 million. Time and Newsweek now operate with less than half the staff they had in the 1980s.”

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