Friday, May 15, 2015

The worldview of the shy Tory

Another thought-provoking article in The Guardian comes courtesy of American novelist and now English resident and Guardian columnist, Lionel Shriver.
Her starting point is the lamentable inaccuracy of British political opinion polls in the run-up to the recent general election. But the main thrust of her argument concerns the concept, which I had not come across before, of the "shy Tory".
Shriver sees this phenomenon as responsible for a systematic under-counting of Conservative voting intentions in pre-election polls. This may well be true, at least to some extent, although Ms. Shriver then goes on to use the idea to score a few cheap political points.
The stereotype of the shy Tory refers to differences in the extent to which the left and the right admit to, and are proud of, their political convictions. Generally speaking, left-wingers tend to be "political extroverts", more than happy to share and broadcast their views, secure in their implicit assumption that these views are common-sense, fundamentally right, and almost certainly shared.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend, again speaking very generally, to be more socially cautious, tend to feel out their audience before sharing their political views out loud, and typically start from the assumption that other people will not agree with them, and that their views are at best unhip and at worst downright offensive.
While both the right and the left believe they are right (as in correct), Conservatives tend to be much less confident than the Labour movement that they are right (as in just). Shriver, rightly or wrongly, suggests that this is because voting in accordance with self-interest is only acceptable nowadays for people of less than a certain income. She further points out that this situation is a relatively recent development, and a contemporary inversion of the old order in which Tory privilege and sense of entitlement was contrasted with the radical and outsider status of the left.
I don't agree with all of Shriver's analysis, and some of her reasoning I found a little trite and self-serving. But I found the base idea of a shy Tory a very interesting one. Unlike Ms. Shriver, though, I see it as a rather damning condemnation of the Conservative worldview.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Guardian explains water

Sojourning unexpectedly in England while my mother goes through a bad patch, I have been reading The Guardian in between hospital visits, and I am reminded why it used to be my favourite English newspaper (even if it is a rather stiff £1.80, or over $3, a pop nowadays).
In amongst the interminable postmortems of the recent British general election was a particularly interesting article about water, and why this colourless, odourless liquid is such an important and unusual substance. It seems that water breaks many of the physical and chemical rules that most other substances obey, and it is this very rule-breaking that gives water the properties it needs to make it so flexible and useful.
For example, solid (or frozen) water floats on liquid water, unlike most other solid/liquid combinations, a phenomenon that occurs because water expands when it freezes. In this way, water seeping into rock cracks freezes and breaks up the rocks, forming soil. Floating sea and lake ice also insulates the water below it, allowing fish, plants and other organisms to survive even the harshest of winters, and ultimately allowing the development of complex life over geological periods of time, in spite of severe ice ages (which might well have done for life on Earth before we even arrived).
If water "followed the rules", all the Earth's water would exist only as water vapour, just one element of a thick, muggy atmosphere above a desiccated, inhospitable surface. Other light molecules like hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen chloride, ammonia, etc, exist as gases in the Earth's ambient conditions; water, however, is present in its liquid, gas AND solid states.
Water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. In its liquid state, the hydrogen atoms of one water molecule are strongly attracted to the oxygen atoms of other water molecules, and each water molecule can form up to four of these hydrogen bonds. This gives water molecules a cohesiveness and "stickiness" unique among liquids, and more energy than normal is needed to separate them (e.g. to boil the liquid into gas), allowing for, among other things, liquid water on the surface of the Earth. It is also this stickiness that enables such things as the movement of water through the tiniest of blood vessels, or up a plant's roots and stems. It also means that water's surface tension is much greater than that of many other liquids, which has many repercussions in the natural world.
The structure of water means that it sticks to almost anything else it comes across, making it the nearest thing we have to a universal solvent, and allowing it to easily dissolve or tear apart other compounds. Indeed, water is one of the most reactive and corrosive chemicals we know, a property that is crucial for life as we know it. It dissolves a wide variety of nutrients and other chemicals around the body, and the functioning of DNA itself relies on water's hydrogen bonds. Protein folding uses interactions with water molecules to achieve the required three-dimensional shapes.
Water has other strange and interesting properties. For example, water is at it most dense at 4ยบC; due to the so-called Mpemba effect, hot water freezes faster than cold water; water is less compressible than most other liquids (even at a mile deep ocean water ia only compressed by about 1%); etc.
It really is the most fascinating and strange stuff, and I thank The Guardian for explaining some of its unique properties.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Changing times in Wildrose Country

It's difficult to ignore the electoral seismic shift that appears to be occurring in Alberta in the run-up to next week's provincial elections. Even Ontarians like me are stopping to gape.
The Progressive Conservatives have been in power there for 44 years, practically forever in political terms, and even quite recently Conservative incumbent Jim Prentice appeared comfortably set for another majority.
Recent polls, though, if you believe such things, show the centre-left NDP in majority territory, with the Conservatives languishing back in a distant third place, with only the Wildrose Party for company. Of course, polls being polls, nothing about this is certain. In the last Alberta election in 2012, all the polls were predicting a win for the Wildroae Party, until election day, when they were't.
It's difficult to put a finger on exactly what is souring the mood in conservative Alberta. It could just be as simple, and as wrong-headed, as blaming the incumbents for the worldwide fall in oil prices, which has decimated the province's finances. Or a more considered slap in the face for the Conservatives' lack of foresight in developing an economy so tied to oil, and in not putting aside contingency reserves while times were good (and they were VERY good). Even taking into account the changing demographics of the province, and particularly of its larger cities, I don't think the populace has suddenly had a communal change of heart and seen the innate wisdom of the NDP platform. This is at best a protest vote, designed to deliver a sharp wake-up call.
My own feeling is that, when push comes to shove next week, the redneck population of Alberta - which is substantial - will balk, and the NDP will squeak in with a minority. But even that will be a big deal in Alberta, which in many more ways than one is the Texas of Canada. The times certainly are a-changin'...