Irish lessons on peace and reconciliation: relevant for America, too?

Irish lessons on peace

Tilework, St Columb's Cathedral, Londonderry-Derry

Tilework, St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry-Derry

I grew up with my mom’s stories and reflections on her Irish grandmom from County Down (actually near Purdys Burn just outside of Belfast). And, last year, my wife, youngest daughter and I made our first visit to Northern Ireland to check out the situation. We wound up at one point standing next to an old cannon looking out from the parapet above the formerly divided city of Derry-Londonderry. It somehow seemed symbolic. The city has worked hard to build peace after the decades of the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants. 

The Economist speaks

What is remarkable about an article this week in The Economist (In Ireland’s Jerusalem, 4 August 2017)? It focuses on hate and forgiveness in Londonderry-Derry. The Economist drops its charts and graphs to have us take a step back and figure out how to get along. Perhaps we should really stop and listen? Maybe there are some Irish lessons on peace that might work for Americans too? Perhaps we could also have a go at reconciliation across our increasingly fractured society?

Check out this great quote from the Economist. It says something about how we Americans might find a way to bridge the gap between us. Characterising the case made in the new book, Forgiveness Remembers (2017, published by Instant Apostle), the Economist says:

“[…] people whose lives have been blighted by injury or violence (whether politically inspired or not) should be alive to the gravity of what has happened, but nonetheless find ways to rise above feelings of vindictiveness. Sometimes, hatred needs to come to the surface before it can be overcome […]. Once you acknowledge that you hate somebody, you might over time be able to move on to a feeling of pity for whatever prompted that person to behave in such a terrible way, and eventually to compassion. But the process should not be rushed; forgiveness can take a long time.”

Food for thought

This is food for thought in the context of Brexit, which could possibly destabilise the Northern Irish peace. But, it may also be applicable for America as well, where the polarisation has become quite intense. There is a lot of anger just under the surface in the USA. And, I am thinking that it is worth a try to address the situation.

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Reflections on lavender, white-tailed bumblebees and Brexit

Of lavender and British bees …

Thank goodness for lavender and white-tailed bumblebees. As the UK drifts toward Brexit with a strange sort of national complacency, and the social divisions and lack of strategic approach become increasingly evident and glaring, the lavender and white-tailed bumblebees in my backyard provide me with solace.

White-tailed bumblebee

Lavender and a white-tailed bumblebee in my garden

Each summer we have a lavender patch in our garden. And, from time to time I take a few minutes to stop and meditate nearby, enjoying the herbaceous atmosphere and watching the bees at work. I admire their industry and collaboration. Bees do seem to proceed joyfully in this labour. They simply love lavender. Here in the UK, I have grown to eagerly await the annual return of the white-tailed bumble bees. They are giant and awkward and focused in their efforts.

… and Brexit

This year, my lavender and white-tailed bumblebee meditations have helped me keep centred in the face of the national political craziness. As the tone of the Brexit discussions becomes darker, leading pundits are speaking of national humiliation (e.g., Gideon Rachman in the FT, 10 July 2017) and “calamity” (e.g, Martin Wolf in the FT, 13 July 2017).

While I do think that remaining in the EU is the best option economically and socially, the fact that Brexit is advancing should not yet lead to despair. It is too soon to give up on efforts to limit the damage. But, time is pressing. With just 20 months to go before Brexit (March 2019), avoiding the worst will require a strategic approach and urgent action. Where do the Brits want the UK to be in 2 years?

There are marginally costly Brexit scenarios like staying in the European Economic Area (single market) and there are costly cliff-edge, car-crash scenarios of a hard Brexit with no deal with the EU. Let us not wring our hands and watch the car crash unfold before us. Advocacy and action are required now.

But, meanwhile, the lavender and bees are here to keep things Zen for me. After another crazy week, I am hanging out in the garden and staying centred. And, thank goodness, if we do go over the cliff edge, then I know they will be here to help take out the sting.

Fine British white-tailed bumblebees at work in my garden

My big fat Greek hospital adventure

A Greek hospital adventure was not on my original agenda

I am writing this on a flight back from Athens and a visit where I saw the roof of the interiour of a Greek ambulance. This is something that most people never see. And, other things being equal, it is probably not a priority sight that most folks would want to see or should see.

As I lay in the ambulance looking up, I noticed that two of the four a/c vents on the ceiling were taped shut with bandages. I considered my situation. How did I come to be strapped on a stretcher, stuck in Athens traffic on a beautiful spring day, headed to the hospital?

The bloody incident

I had stepped out of the shower that morning looking forward to a new day of work on international trade. Getting dressed, I pondered my remarks for a conference to be held that afternoon. And then I discovered that a varicose vein in my ankle had ruptured. I noticed it because the Hawaiian flip flop upon which I was standing had filled with a pool of blood. Since the blood was about the same temperature as the water from the shower, I did not notice it pooling until quite a volume had accumulated. This is not a problem that I am accustomed to dealing with.

It reminded me vaguely of an adventure from my time in Burkina Faso. On a visit to the capital, Ouagadougou, I once got caught in a coup d’etat. Troops were firing machine guns below my window. My morning in Athens felt similar in that I was in an unfamiliar setting facing an action-forcing event and poorly defined options.

Next steps? (literally)

Standing there in my Greek hotel room, I thought that I had better take stock of my situation. As a social scientist, I tried to work empirically and stopped to review the key elements of my situation. I thought:

  • I am in a hotel south of Athens
  • I don’t speak the language
  • I am bleeding out and must maintain compression on the wound
  • I cannot solve this without professional medical help
  • There is not really time for a Google search and research on options
  • And, this is the important, essential bit: don’t pass out until you “solve for x”, whereby x = survival strategy.
  • Conclusion: Get an ambulance via the front desk, and do it quickly

Although compression of the wound was helping, I found that it was not easily accomplished. It required maintaining a position somewhat akin to a pretzel. There was no way to fashion a tourniquet with one hand occupied. And, even then, how to get to the phone to call for help? I eased the pressure enough to hobble to the phone, but this led to Vesuvius-type action. The floor looked like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film.

And so I called and asked the front desk to kindly order an ambulance for me. “Are you sure you can’t just take a taxi?” “No, I think it is pretty serious and urgent.” It was then that I decided to open my hotel room door, in case I passed out. I don’t do well with the sight of blood. And, I wanted the staff to have easy access to the room so they could save me. That accomplished, I headed for the bathroom, all the while trying to walk and hold my ankle simultaneously.

When the fellow from the front desk arrived, the room was looking like Pulp Fiction. He only stayed a moment, turned and fled saying to maintain pressure and he would pursue the ambulance with a follow up call. Later, I learned that he had gone back to the desk and nearly passed out. His colleagues raised his legs and gave him orange juice to revive him.

Seconds later a bellhop arrived in my room. I am pretty sure this was not in his job description, but he tried various proposals to improve the situation. “Lay down. Raise your leg. Maybe get up on the bed? Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter about the sheets.” But, I opted for the floor, as I felt I was doing enough damage already to the room. The floor was waterproof parquet and, fortunately, not carpet. The bellhop got me water. I needed to rehydrate.

He had a million questions. Eventually, he admitted that he was striving to keep me conscious. Bless him! As for me, I felt embarrassed to be caught at the centre of this fiasco. I know I looked sheepish when the first fellow had arrived and saw the mess.

Perhaps half an hour later, the ambulance crew arrived. And here is what they did. They pulled my hand away from the wound, looked briefly at it and took a thick pile of dense gauze and applied it on the wound. They then grabbed a long elastic bandage strip and wrapped it tightly around the ankle. This would surely keep me from leaking for the moment.

Trans-Athens express

I could hobble! And so we headed out to the other side of the city. As we rolled across town, I realised that this would be a long trip. Athens traffic is intense. I was parched and there was no water.

After reflecting on my plight, I opted to phone to cancel my noon meeting, notify my employer, inform the insurance, and call my wife. It took quite a while. I was reporting lots of information outbound, but not getting much information inbound. When I reported the name of the hospital to where I was headed, my insurer’s emergency service could not find it. The emergency service advised, “You are doing the right steps health-wise. But, you may need to pay with your credit card and then file a claim.” Fortunately, I had my situation under control. What would have happened if I passed out and had not made all of these calls?

Traffic was terrible. We made a stop unrelated to my case in order to pick up some medical materials for the hospital. With Athens traffic, I suppose you need to make use of each outing to optimise your accomplishments and minimise the number of trips.

My big Greek hospital visit

Finally, we arrived at the hospital. Located in a leafy suburb, it was a public facility, a complex with multiple buildings apparently including an orthodox chapel. I considered a stop in the chapel as I hobbled to the ER with the help of the ambulance crew. They got me a wheelchair. The halls were lined with dozens and dozens of waiting patients. Occasionally a door would open, but not much visible action in the line. The crew notified the doctors and wished me well, and fled. There was no reception, no one spoke English, and the system was not obvious to me. Uh oh.

I was discouraged. The facility looked terrible, outdated. I was in gym shorts and a bloody t-shirt. And, I was feeling faint. I went to use the rest room: a single room, with no paper, no lock, no seat. I washed off some of the blood in the sink. Then I went and found a drink stand to get an ice coffee with sugar and milk to help rebuild my blood stock. By the time I hobbled back, the doctors were waiting for me, less than 30 minutes after my arrival. This was a good sign.

Uncertain activity

The ER office had two small rooms and perhaps 8 staff. Some were drinking coffee and some hanging out with cellphones. People were nice to me. “What is this? You are using coffee to rehydrate?” said a doctor. He seemed bemused.

The staff were all young, or maybe I was just feeling old. Two spoke English. They chatted amongst themselves as I lay down on the table. They confirmed my name and town of residence. London = good. It is (for the moment) still in the European network.

Nothing happened for a while and I got comfortable. The folks sitting around seemed engaged in chit chat. Nothing much seemed to be happening.

Then, I noticed a doctor opening a sealed pack of sterile instruments. He and a male nurse unwrapped my ankle, washed it with a sterile solution, and announced I would “feel a pinch”. It was a sudden and surprising wave of activity. I decided to relax and let them do their work, rather than challenging them with questions across the language barrier.

Their actions felt like a slice or two, then stitching in big, bold strokes. I couldn’t see much, but closed my eyes anyway. Blood flowed, then stopped. Now, it was my turn to try not to faint. This was intense, much more than “a pinch”. I felt dizzy. After a few moments, they told me they had stitched it up. Then they saw my pale face and said not to move until I felt confident I could make it out to a taxi.

Amazingly, as I am a resident of London, they took everything in charge. Having taken my name, they made a record of the visit. But, there was no paperwork for me to fill in. This was a public hospital. And apparently, as I am European resident, they provided all their service to me on a gratis basis.

As requested by my insurer, the doctors even gave me a “fit-to-fly” certificate. It was conditional on wearing pressure socks. And, they said to have the stitches removed in five days. Then they sent me on my way to the taxi stand outside.

Mad Doug, a Londoner, in the noonday sun

I wandered out into the mid-day sun feeling well patched up, but also a bit dazed. What just happened and how did I get in this situation? I found a taxi. As we cruised past the Parthenon, I tried to take stock.

Absolutely everyone throughout the morning was kind and empathetic. From the hotel to the hospital and back. I am indeed very grateful for their service and kindness, especially at the hospital facility which appeared under-resourced and overtaxed by patient demands.

Upon arriving at the hotel, the staff appeared visibly relieved to see me back from the dead. They noticed that I was still a bit disoriented as I headed off into the wrong room. But, they made sure I was looked after and sent me off in the right direction. A bar man brought me an extra-large orange juice, which he commended for its properties in compensating for blood loss. It worked.

Over a nice bottle of Assyrtiko wine and dinner that night on the Aegean Sea with a friend, I pondered my fate. Feeling gratitude to my host country, I raised a glass and thanked them for the successful outcome of my big fat Greek hospital adventure.

Sunset in Vouliagmeni, Greece

Sunset in Vouliagmeni, Greece

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A gorgeous day for a flight from Tel Aviv to London

Flight from Tel Aviv to London

Last Friday proved to be a gorgeous day for a flight from Tel Aviv to London. Blue skies and sunshine blanketed the route for much of the way.

The gallery below presents a few pictures looking down from on high. So much to see, including some wonderful wine country and wilderness and history.

The Alps were in their full glory, with abundant snow and ice. From above, the challenges posed by the landscape become evident. Transit from one valley to the next is not a straightforward matter.

Looking out to Switzerland from Stelvio Park, Italy

Flight from Tel Aviv to London: Looking out to Switzerland from Stelvio Park, Italy

Nonetheless, the flight left me hankering for a free season to head out with my backpack and an open agenda. Back in my university days, I enjoyed a couple of seasons of such travel in Europe. And, I am thinking that the need for such a trip and time of renewal is approaching once again.


To view the gallery, click on the up or down arrows under it to scroll through the thumbnails and picture titles. Or, click on a thumbnail to open a picture and then scroll through the pictures individually without the titles.

Flying from Tel Aviv to London - May 2017

[img src=]180Leaving Israel
[img src=]180Citrus groves outside of Tel Aviv
[img src=]180Looking south to Ashdod
[img src=]170Venice from the air
[img src=]170Sudtirol, Neumarkt, Italy
[img src=]160Weinstrasse, Sudtirol, Italy
[img src=]160Graubünden, Switzerland
[img src=]160St. Gallen, Switzerland
[img src=]160Glarus, Switzerland & a corner of Leichtenstein
[img src=]150Zürich, Switzerland
[img src=]160Montange de Reims, Champagne, France
[img src=]160Baie de la Somme, France
[img src=]150English coast by Eastbourne
[img src=]150Crazyquilt of the Sussex countryside
[img src=]150Dorney Lake Rowing Club
[img src=]160Windsor Castle

Map of the flight plan

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Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square

Facing political & economic turbulence, it can be useful to stop and smell the tulips

Fuelled by various political developments, the past few months have been a turbulent time in the global economy. Q4TK suffered a bit of neglect and indeed a bit of uncertainty as your correspondent sought to make sense of the situation. Reason, facts, and the normal analytical tools employed by the economics profession are being challenged. We economists are struggling to face up to the new populism evident in various parts of the globe. At the same time, most of us do recognise that some folks have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

Wanderings around London

And, so, today, I’m bringing you a few photos from my Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square. On Saturday, I decided to set aside my charts and tables. I simply walked out into the unfamiliar London spring warmth and sunshine. London was radiant as my spouse and I headed into the great metropolis. The parks and gardens bloomed in full glory. The area around Embankment was filled with folks spilling out to take a look around and soak it all in.

There were drum circles protesting tow path closures. Folks from a brewery gave out free beer samples. Small clumps of people sat on blankets enjoying picnics and glasses of wine. Tourists visited the key sights. Locals stopped to admire the flowers. Your correspondent used the occasion to stop and ponder whatever caught his fancy, except work. The tulips were in full bloom. But, I resisted the impulse to ponder the Dutch tulip mania, a time of price inflation and collapse in the 1600s. Rather, I stopped and enjoyed their fragrance.

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens, seen on our wanderings around London

Still, economics can be hard to escape. For example, in the gardens at Embankment there is a fountain dedicated to Henry Fawcett. Henry was a blind economist who campaigned in the mid-19th century on behalf of women’s right to vote. The fountain says it was erected by his fellow countrywomen in his memory. During the struggle, he was moved to propose to a woman who he had met in the campaigns. But, after her polite negative response (she was pursuing her medical studies), he eventually married her sister.

Renewal accomplished

After a great lunch at Barrafina in Adelaide Street (very much a place in pursuit of no-frills excellence and highly recommended), the wandering led us to the National Gallery. This museum is architecturally gorgeous and the collection is world class.

As the day drifted into evening, it was time to head home. Every once in a while, a day like this is required. It has a spiritual value, refreshes the mind, and helps to restore the inner strength needed in the quest for truth and knowledge.

Note: The gallery below is annotated. Click on the up or down arrows under the thumbnail display in order to see the notes and see additional pictures.

London 8 April 2017 - from National Gallery to Embankment

A few photos from our Saturday wanderings around central London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and back

[img src=]70National Gallery, Peekachu people and a pigeon
[img src=]70National Gallery entrance
[img src=]70Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, 1762
[img src=]60National Gallery marble floor
[img src=]70National Gallery - Wonderful floor grates
[img src=]90Cellphone art?
[img src=]60Trafalgar Square looking towards Westminster
[img src=]70A crowd of buses heads down Whitehall to Big Ben
[img src=]60Cleary Gardens London - Loire Valley Grape Vines
[img src=]60A half pint of Badger Bitter at the Ship and Shovell
[img src=]60A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens
[img src=]60Embankment gardens wildlife?
[img src=]60Robert Raikes - Founder of Sunday Schools
[img src=]60Henry Fawcett - A blind economist campaigned for women's suffrage in 1800s
[img src=]60A cow in the garden of Two Temple Place
[img src=]60Amb Benjamin Franklin lived here
[img src=]70A really big crane
[img src=]60Looking out from the roof of my bathroom - Greenwich


Tony Judt’s commentary on economic and social stresses

In cleaning out old papers in my home office, I just rediscovered a great book review from Tony Judt, his critique of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism. Penned for publication in December 2007, Tony diagnosed developing economic and social stresses. He foresaw that the conditions then present could not endure indefinitely. Sadly, he was right. The financial crisis of 2007 morphed into the Great Recession. There followed a period of slow growth and increasing political tension in the advanced economies. Social cohesion weakened as inequalities deepened. Perhaps not suprisingly, many voters became more receptive to suggestions for radical solutions challenging the established order. And, then 2016 happened: Brexit, Trump, and nationalist political turbulence in the EU, among other developments.

Economic and social stresses, plus elements of a solution

Already in 2007, Judt suggested that we act to head off the emerging stresses. He noted that there were important lessons from an earlier time of economic uncertainty in the 20th century. Referring to those living a few generations ago, Judt says,

“We may discover, as they did, that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity — and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name. […] We may find that a healthy democracy far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution that we can devise.”

Judt contrasted such a model with the alternative presumably being rolled out in the US as of 2007. The alternative included untrammelled economic freedom, accompanied by fear and insecurity, reduced social provision and economic regulation. It also included “ever-extending governmental oversight of communication, movement, and opinion.” While history had shown the advantages of balanced, market-oriented economic policies, the alternative approach failed to recognise the importance of social objectives in the successful operation of those policies. Even free markets need an appropriate rule book to ensure optimal outcomes for society as a whole.

Peering into 2017

As the year 2016 grinds to a close, I look out from the top of Greenwich Park hill with some trepidation. Economic and social stresses remain clearly evident. Unfortunately, Judt passed away in 2010 and is not here to update his assessment. I would love to hear his lessons from 2016.

Reflecting on the prospects for 2017, it seems clear that part of the solution should include Judt’s steps to improve social cohesion. Support for those dislocated by globalisation and technological change is needed. This might improve the chances to pursue successfully a more balanced and coherent approach to economic policy. As demonstrated by some Scandinavian countries in recent years, availability of such support can help to reduce the resistance to a positive, market-oriented reform agenda.

It may be that some positive, piecemeal actions are taken due to the current populist political movements in the US or EU. But, these are unlikely to prove adequate. We need more a more coherent, systemic approach. A first step might be to shift the objective from simply protecting what we already have. Why not set a more ambitious target of broad-based, increasing economic prosperity? A more inclusive and open economic strategy, including adequate social protection and improved educational opportunities, might take us further. By better mobilising the full economic potential of society, we improve our chances for improved future well-being.

Reference: Tony Judt, 6 December 2007, “The Wrecking Ball of Innovation”, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 54, No. 19, a review of “Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life”, by Robert B. Reich; .

The view from Greenwich Park, London

The view from Greenwich Park, London

America: Don’t give up on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Look before you leap away from TPP

My fellow Americans, this is for you. Before the American people get all happy about the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), I think you should look at it. I have studied it pretty carefully and read several hundred pages, skimming other bits and examined the economic literature on it. I have a couple of my own peer-reviewed studies on it. And here is what I see…

A high standards agreement

TPP is a high standards agreement that levels the playing field for American workers and businesses in a number of ways. It has a chapter to ensure enforceable (!) worker rights based on high international standards. TPP’s chapter on protection of the environment includes action-oriented provisions and also requires protection against trade in endangered species. TPP protects the free flow of data and openness of the internet with respect to trade including e-commerce. It makes clear the rights to fair use of copyright protected materials to keep information free for education or research purposes. The agreement improves protection for business confidential information. It keeps digital trade free from duties. And, a side agreement addresses concerns about currency manipulation.

A diverse group of reform-minded trade partners

The TPP agreement covers the US and 11 partners around the Pacific Basin, based on such high standards. It creates an alternative model for trade that prevents beggar-thy-neighbour policies and averages standards upwards. It covers developing countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, or Peru, and offers them a chance to play by US and free and fair market rules rather than taking a race-to-the-bottom approach. Even among the developed countries like Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, as well as countries like Brunei, Chile and Mexico, it better aligns standards and regulations with those of the US. These countries have reached out and committed to an open, high standards relationship with America.

TPP is a win-win scenario

If we throw the TPP out the window, we will jettison at least a few percent of US economic growth (probably more than that over time). But, worse, we will leave the Pacific partners with few options but to look for another approach. And that means a less favourable world for all 12 countries, with a less level playing field for America. And, one thing we have learned from our history is that isolationist policies and pure nationalism do not protect us. Rather they leave us worse off and with fewer resources to look after ourselves. Why should we turn down this win-win TPP trade agreement, settling for a less prosperous future and a world turned away from the United States? That is not in our own interest, folks. (Nor that of our trade partners).

Take a look and get the facts before rejecting the TPP!

Hanoi traffic

Hanoi traffic: Will it be with us or will we veer  off the TPP road?

In politics, lies matter. That’s a fact. And we all may pay the price.

Are lies a political reality?

In a sign of the times, on 10 September 2016, the Economist published a lead article entitled the “Art of the lie“. Taking stock of the level of political discourse in the United States’ presidential election season and the United Kingdom’s Brexit debates, the Economist sums up the situation as a time of “post-truth politics”. In this era, the emphasis is on feelings and reinforcement of prejudices rather than facts. Assertions of what one feels should be true replace reality. Lies have become a more important feature of the political scene.

This distortion of reality is not a trivial matter, especially when it is manifest in leaders of nations. Incorrect information is a threat to the quest for truth and knowledge. But, the damage does not stop with impairment to one’s understanding of reality.

Promises, promises

A review of the academic literature on campaign promises posted on the web site FiveThirtyEight found that in fact politicians do behave in a consequent manner. In a majority of instances, once elected they do strive to attain their promised objectives. Politicians in the United States act to deliver on about two-thirds of their promises. In the United Kingdom, governments control both the legislative and executive branches (ie, a parliamentary system). There, the rate of follow through is more than 80%. Similar patterns were found in countries as diverse as Canada, Greece or the Netherlands.

False perceptions of reality can have tangible impacts in the direction of government. This poses risks to the economy, education, health, security and the other domains covered in  public policy. Whether in democracies or authoritarian governments, it is not in the public interest for governments to set off in a wrong-headed direction. Real damage is done.

Bad choices

A recent essay by the Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, Through the Venezuelan Looking Glass, assesses why it is that nations engage in such self-defeating behaviour. In a nutshell, he points to dysfunctional belief systems.

Justice, at the entrance to the World Trade Organization in Geneva

Justice, by Luc Jaggi, 1925


Significant portions of a society may align on sets of beliefs that are not in line with reality. They do not reflect the facts. Damaging political decisions may follow. Hausmann cites the example of the Salem witch trials (1692-1693). He notes that if one believes in the Devil and thinks that Satan can take over women’s souls, then it may be reasonable public policy to hang those accused of witchcraft. On the other hand, in reality, such policy is incomprehensible to most folks.

Just the facts

As Hausmann puts it, “Politics is about the representation and evolution of alternative belief systems.” In setting the priorities for a society, there are a range of reasonable competing possibilities. There is ample room for debate on different options and approaches to improving our welfare. While science has a clear role to play, there is also a subjective element and preferences may vary among people. But, if the starting point is not even based in reality, then it becomes more difficult to make a viable choice and achieve tangible progress. Indeed, it can all end quite badly. One need look no further than the witches of Salem.

Restoring the soul with a wander up to Severndroog Castle

On a beautiful summer day, we headed out on a 12K urban hike across southern London from Greenwich to Severndroog Castle and back through Blackheath. Part of the route followed busy and ugly roadways, but a few long stretches followed the Green Chain trail through some of London’s parkland. The Green Chain provides urban hikers with some welcome shelter from the traffic and noise. While hiking it is not as much fun as a true wilderness wandering, it is nonetheless a great resource that helps urban denizens to restore their souls and hook up with some fine destinations!

Shooters Hill

View from Severndroog Castle

View from Severndroog Castle

Our destination was Shooters Hill, a rise of about 175 meters (500ft) that is south-east of London’s centre. It is covered with an old woodland that is dark and dense in some areas, but opens to afford great views of the surrounding countryside. The woods are filled with birds including some interesting warblers, woodpeckers and a few birds of prey.

Severndroog Castle

On top of Shooters Hill is a tower called Severndroog Castle (not really a castle), which was built in 1784 to honour an old sea captain, William James. He rose to be a director of the East India company and his wife built the tower as a memorial when he passed away. Good that she did, because the tower served as an early warning system manned by lookouts in WWI (watching for incoming German Zeppelins) and WWII (watching for incoming German planes and cruise missiles). It’s 85 steps up to the top of the tower and another dozen or so to get to the observation platform.

The old tower and ancient woodlands were saved by local community fund-raising efforts and reopened two years ago. Well done, folks!

PS, the little cafe in the tower makes a great frosted Guinness cake and a nice cup of coffee.

Severndroog Castle

Severndroog Castle










Map (if you have trouble seeing this map, please go to

Rediscovering the vine in Kent – English wine

London is far north, north of Calgary or Quebec City, north of Seattle, north of Bismark, North Dakota. And, being so far north, one might not expect to find viable vineyards within an hour’s drive. But, they are here, and they are producing some interesting English wine.

In search of the vine

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Since moving to London from Paris, I’ve felt a sense of loss about my foregone Saturday jaunts down to the Loire River wineries and dairies. And, today, I decided to correct this gap in my current lifestyle. So, off I went to Kent County, which lies south-east of London.

The countryside of Kent is quite lush and the agricultural history is long. The climate is relatively mild and with global warming is expected to heat up, especially in summer (a matter the Kent Council has reported on).

Biddenden Vineyards

A number of wineries have sprung up and among the first was Biddenden Vineyards. Established in 1969, Biddenden has grown to cover 23 acres (9 hectares). Most of the varieties – well adapted to the northern clime – were new to me, including Bacchus, Ortega, Dornfelder, Huxelrebe, Scheurebe and Reichensteiner. Though, there were also some more familiar plantings of Pinot noir, Gewuertztraminer and Gamay to be seen.

Newly leafed out vinesThis far north, the wines are relatively low in alcohol (most were 10% to 12%) and deliver a refreshing taste of fruit.  My favourites included the Gribble Bridge Sparkling White, which has fresh fruit and a bit of complexity, and the Gribble Bridge Dornfelder, which is a light red and well-suited to a summer evening out on a patio. Without oak, the flavour of the grape really seems to come through clearly in the tasting.

The vineyard shop also has a selection of local cheeses, including goat, cow, and sheep. I loaded up on several nice organic cheeses, including a couple that are unpasteurised.

Reconnecting to the vine

Meadow on Gribble Bridge LaneBiddenden has a nice trail through the vineyards and along the Gribble Bridge Lane. Walking along on this mid-spring day, I could feel radiant heat from the sun. The new vine leaves were soaking it in. Birds were singing in the hedgerows and meadows. Wildflowers were blooming along the lane. I could hear a local donkey braying, but no traffic. The lovely, green, rolling Kent countryside extended out as far as I could see. It was glorious. I felt as if I had rediscovered something that I had lost, a connection to the vine.


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