Modern palm reading

I am frustrated by my other-worldliness in not using Facebook very much. That aside, I’ve been using Gephi to analyse my Facebook social network (which I downloaded using this GetNet tool – hat tip Lada Adamic). I ran a simple analysis to display who of my friends are connected to whom. The three big clusters are left wing politics, my former workplace and my older friends. The nodes between these are interesting – these people can carry news and culture between strongly-connected networks. Matt (my other half) has the most connections – and given that this is my social network we’re looking at, this indicates that our social lives have a lot in common. I knew that.

What does yours look like?


On striking and loyalty

Tweets about the strike

People get confused about industrial action.

A few non-union members in a support department in an academic institution have remarked to me that as a workforce we should feel lucky to have jobs, and thankful for our relatively generous pay and conditions – and then almost in the same breath that they themselves would be better off in the private sector and if pay and conditions were to fall too far for their comfort they would simply leave the sector and get a job somewhere better.

This brain drain phenomenon is actively exploited by trade unions in making the case for better pay and conditions. So, being a disorganised labour movement –  not being a trade union member, not participating in industrial action, but voting with one’s feet – ultimately strengthens the organised, trade unionised labour movement?

Unfortunately not. Non-union members commenting on the ingratitude and disloyalty of their striking colleagues while they themselves are poised to leave and work somewhere more lucrative on the jobs market are the uncommitted, conditional ones, the ones who don’t view the sector as something they should be involved in shaping, the ones who don’t view market forces as a threat to academic work.

So, trade unionists are the committed, loyal ones after all. They don’t dumbly and passively claim their salary and then suddenly leave. They care about retention and the conditions in which a workforce can reach its potential. They articulate a position, they negotiate and bargain, they feed back to employers. They sacrifice pay, opportunities and short-term goodwill for the health of their workplace.

Trade unions, flawed as the are, are the better partners.

World Vegan Month #11 (poor form)

Another installment of my self-imposed blogging regime – consumption, animals in the news, and animal encounters. I noticed I had two #7s so I’m skipping #10.


Oh dear, looking back it’s a strange day again. Please rest assured that not all vegans browse like me. Many keep regular mealtimes and have an unremarkable amount of carbohydrates.

  • Breakfast: it’s the weekend so I have a little holiday from Sainsbury’s Fruit & Fibre which in any case is at work in its humungous box. Instead I made bread in the bread maker overnight and ate one slice with Meridian Peanut Butter and another slice with Matt’s posh aged Marmite. And Suma spread. And Co-op filter coffee. We have stopped bothering with the filter because it sinks to the bottom of the cup fine.
  • Midday – a cup of Pukka Love tea, out in Gants Hill.
  • Lunch – 2 Co-op custard doughnuts (yes, vegan). They aren’t very big.
  • Second lunch – by 3.30pm I had sorted out the front garden, helped somebody rehearse something, got groceries, and washed up. I made a clear soup of finely chopped leek, potato and carrot with Kallo stock and herbs I grew (bay, oregano, sage), with a splash of cider vinegar and a splash of Sainsbury’s Vermouth, also vegan.
  • Strange non-meal – undisclosed number Cypressa breadsticks with houmous.
  • More food – a pear, a satsuma, a plum.

Animals in the news

  • Over on Meatinfo I learn that the first UK Halal abattoir has been certified. I couldn’t help noticing that the commenters were overwrought about this, considering that non-Halal abattoirs are known for terror and cruelty. It’s not actually about the animals, is it chaps.
  • Meatinfo seem to be saying that we can expect horsemeat until 2016.
  • The Wildlife Trusts have a badger vaccination programme you could consider supporting. Contrast this with the government-funded slaughter of badgers so that people can continue to leech off the lactating mother of another species.


  • Black fly on the potted black mint I have in the kitchen. I killed these with soapy water. Does anybody have anything to say about this?
  • Different flies in the compost heap, where the apple waste from cider making is, along with a woollen jumper of Matt’s – and latterly the clothes moths – and even more latterly, the worms..
  • Woodlice under the ox-eye daisies I pulled from the cracks in the concrete of our front path.
  • A beautiful yellow and dark brown snail, of a kind I haven’t seen round here.
  • More cat shit in the garden – thank you neighbours.
  • The usual post-bin-day meat-related rubbish round the garden. Whiskas tin this time. Usually it’s pedigree chum. Once again, thanks neighbours.



Why I’m going on strike

In the national consciousness is a great big maxed out credit card. Here I try to relate that to the industrial action I’m about to take.

Some background – in March 2013 several HE trade unions submit two joint claims – one about pay and one about equality and pay-related matters. The pay claim restricts itself to redressing the real-term pay cut – that is, a decline in spending power as cumulative inflation outstrips pay rises – and does not ask for a real-term pay rise. It also addresses low pay by demanding at least the London Living Wage of £8.55, and seeks an increase in London Weighting to £4000 to offset capital price hikes. The second claim among other things is for  transparency about the pay of 25% of staff who have higher earnings than the top of the pay spine, national guidelines on workload allocation to address higher-than-average stress and overwork, better provision for disabled employees, assimilating all hourly paid staff onto the pay spine, agreements on job security, and addressing the staggering gender pay gap of over 17% across all roles.

In May 2013 at the the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) the trade unions managed to extract a 0.2% improvement on a Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) pay offer of 0.8%. There was no settlement on any aspect of the second claim – in some cases UCEA responded that they were unwilling to negotiate on a national level, and in others they deferred pending further investigation.

I voted neither for nor against the October 31st higher education strike called by Unite, Unison, UCU and others, nor for or against the action short of a strike which follows it. I felt that the justification for the pay claim was glossed, although the second claim was well made.

Turnout for the ballot on industrial action, though proportionally low, was relatively high at 35% – more than double the 13 or 14% that union elections usually get. The scrutineers’ report (PDF) for my union sets out the results:

Are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of strike action?

  • Number of ballot papers returned: 20,741
  • Number voting YES: 12,754 (61.5%)
  • Number voting NO: 7,985 (38.5%)
  • Number of papers found to be invalid: 2

Are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of action short of a strike?

  • Number of ballot papers returned: 20,741
  • Number voting YES: 15,967 (77.0%)
  • Number voting NO: 4,772 (23.0%)
  • Number of papers found to be invalid:: 2

Yesterday I had a conversation with somebody. This person asked me if I was striking I replied “I don’t have to tell you that” followed by “Yes”. Then I told them what my departmental rep told us last meeting, which was that most people who aren’t members have never been asked to join. I asked them to join. They responded “No thanks – if they get rid of my job I’ll just go and work in the private sector for loads more money”. This person is not callous – far from it – but trade unionism isn’t really on the radar in my department.

I thought that it might be a good idea to get my thoughts in order.

The first thing to draw attention to is conditions. Many of us work longer hours, basically, to fill the gap left by colleagues who were made redundant or who left and were not replaced, or because of endemic under-resource. In my own case (support staff) I often work 10 hour days including skipping lunch break. I sometimes work at weekends. I don’t feel I get to think through or properly plan what I do, and I’m too reactive. My health and outlook will definitely benefit from working to contract.

Next is pay. In line with the public sector real-term pay cuts (cost of living rising faster than the pay rise cap in George Osborne’s 2013 budget) university employers have offered 1%. According to UCU HE staff have experienced a real-term pay cut of 13% since 2009 (cumulative pay rise substracted from cumulative inflation over the same period). Given the financial situation since 2008, the main question to ask about the pay cut is the one the Daily Mail tends to ask.

We’re going down. We know we’re going down. But we’re all in this together – the private sector has frozen pay too. Why should HE staff be better paid than other people?

Or to paraphrase, “Why do you want more than everyone else?” Two things about that. One is that this appeal to solidarity in decline is a particularly galling distraction from university managers’ pay – approaching a quarter of a million for half UK Vice Chancellors. Simply put, there can be no expectation of solidarity in decreasing living standards.

The other thing is that trades unionists rarely want more than everybody else – this is collective action by a number of unions. They don’t think of themselves as wanting more than their fair share of the pie. They challenge the size of the pie because they understand that unless there is an organised, collective, fairly impolite demand for at least the same level of pay for everybody, in real terms i.e. in line with inflation, then the pie will swiftly shrink as employers and the Conservative-led coalition exploit an opportunity to manage a decline in pay and welfare at work. One one level this doesn’t overly worry me – I am not sure that this is a bad thing unless you already have a low standard of living – that is, unless you are low paid. So I might support pay rises for low paid staff and tolerate pay freezes for the higher paid ones – or something a bit more sophisticated along those lines. But on the other hand, not only does this outlook risk a race to the bottom, but the sector is currently being prodded to compete nationally and globally. If you are competitively inclined (I’m not, I think everybody should want to be paid the same as everybody else) then depressing pay this is obviously a bad thing for the sector. Trades unionists recognise that privatising forces in successive governments are trying to chip away at the collective bargaining that is really all they have. So all they can do is try to counter the downwards pressure by aiming at the opposite situation – setting a higher standard of pay and conditions at work to which other workforces can then appeal in their own pay claims.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this upward pressure could no less potentially lead to a race to the top. What’s wrong with that? We just through billions of pounds at the banks, after all. Well. The danger there is that, since public sector pay comes from taxes, this leads to a steep growth in inflation which in turn destabilises the economy as well as effectively cancelling out the pay rise. As somebody worried about the environment, I should also point out that more pay leads to more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, and more waste – so of course there’s a balance to be struck. My own view is that material security and a bit extra for living a good life is all we should ever ask of pay – and yet this modest aspiration is something few people have if you take into consideration the state’s secession from providing adequately for us in poor health and old age. The more the welfare state shrinks, the stronger the individualising pressures to squirrel and set by. This, as the great reb pointed out, is a tension – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”.

So for those of us who are not revolutionaries (and I find I am not) the next question is, what public-sector pay rise can be achieved without leading to dangerous levels of inflation?

The pay claim points to a report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England which indicates a financial surplus in the sector and a fall in the spend on staff as a proportion of total expenditure. The unions have not worked out the cost to the sector of a higher pay rise or made any suggestions about funding sources. This may be tactical, but it is a little bit irritating and entirely unconvincing to be simply told “The money’s there”.  Many commentators are convinced that because of the 2008 financial crash we can expect far reaching decline in material wealth. Is this fair? Well, are high levels on the prosperous part of the pay spine fair? What are the principles at work here? I note a post at the TUC’s Touchstone blog which indicates that the public broadly supports cuts. And I don’t accept the automatic link between spending power and standards of living – that’s way too materialistic for me.

So in short I’m confused, short on trust, and struggling to find out what I need to know without trying to interpret some very difficult financial reports. Can anybody help? Sarah?  Pursuing a different tack, I read a report by Carys Afoko and Daniel Vockins of the New Economics Foundation titled Framing the Economy – The Austerity Story. In proposing some alternative stories to the austerity story, they echo the TUC in observing that the tax-don’t-cut stance “ignores where public opinion currently is and doesn’t provide a bridge between its arguments and people’s perceptions of the economy”.

So I support the second claim but am ambivalent about the blanket pay claim. As things stand I will strike but won’t picket unless or until I can comfortably get behind the one thing that will make it into the news, which is the pay claim.

World Vegan Month #9 (reversion to type)

In the run up to, and during, World Vegan Month, I’m blogging consumption, animals in the news, and animal encounters. This is a rather sparse Friday post.


  • Breakfast – see earlier. Still good. And what a good deal for a penny pincher.
  • Lunch – leftovers from yesterday, namely aubergine in a walnut sauce (Greek dish I made from a Greek Vegetarian cookery book given to me by a former  Greek colleague), roast potatoes and salad. A current colleague brought me in some home-made tabouleh. Aren’t I lucky? As we all know, food is love.
  • Dinner – met friends from former workplace at Jamie’s Italian in Greenwich. As threatened I had to eat gluten-free pasta with Norma sauce. Was OK, but ultimately like going to a restaurant that only serves plov. I also shared an unbelievably small number of olives arranged on crushed ice in a terracotta olive bowl. Pffff. I skipped dessert but forgot not to split the bill equally. That means I as good as consumed the profiteroles and the ice cream. Fuck.

Animals in the news

  • From the Metro, an eagle was pecked by another bird and a lion in Toronto nearly caught a pigeon.
  • And over at Global Meat News is a story from the IMS Symposium on Future Meat Production which warns against well-funded animal welfare groups. The implication is that meat producers now need to vie with animal welfare activists to tell consumers what quality means. Apparently “the days of ‘anything goes’ will not work any more”. I find this interesting given that food prices have risen while incomes have fallen. There’s a genuine yuck factor around meat production. Unfortunately little of that seems to be about the abuse and ultimate murder of animals. Hat tip Academic Abolitionist Vegan.


  • Predictably, almost nobody is bothering to read these World Vegan Month posts. But ultimately web search engines will bring them eyeballs.

World Vegan Month #8 (a departure)

It’s not yet World Vegan Month, but here I am with this self-imposed blogging regime. Tonight I depart from my usual format with an email and some illuminating links about anthropomorphism.


I will be accompanying friends to Jamie’s Italian in Greenwich.

Though other restaurants have started to indicate vegan foods, Jamie’s does not. The nutritional information, which seemed so considerate at first glance, turned out to only help me identify all the things I wouldn’t be able to eat.

I called. The person who answered the phone had not been briefed to answer this kind of question. She was receptive, did her best though, and I believe she asked the kitchen – but the answer was Alla Norma sauce over gluten free pasta.

The first thought that occurred to me was that this is roughly the kind of thing I make at home when I’ve run out of ideas. Not a creative, inspired dish by any stretch. Not a real alternative. Quite a contrast with the rest of the menu. There’s no pride in the offer. And dessert – it seems that it would be sorbet or nothing again – and somehow that sorbet, which stores so well, is the same price as the other desserts. Subsidising the egg, butter and cream that I refuse to eat.

That’s why I said on Twitter I don’t feel welcome – I will be paying you for a like-it-or-lump-it meal tomorrow, though, because I want to see my friends.

I do note the effort you’ve made to accommodate other dietary needs, and that gives me some hope. I want to say, though, that academic research findings on the environment, conservation, animal sentience, and human health are converging: we need to eat less animal and more plant foods.

For example, here are two senior academics pointing in the same direction for different reasons.

I think your menu should better reflect this.

There’s a vegan Italian place in London called Amico Bio – have a look.



While I was looking for suitable links I came across a HuffPo exchange between Marian Dawkins (Professor at Oxford) and Marc Berkoff (Emeritus Professor, University of Colorado) which encapsulates the debate about anthropomorphising animals. In a nutshell, Berkoff’s charge against Dawkins is that she clings to agnosticism in the face of contradictory evidence, and that skepticism is a smokescreen for bias.


“Dawkins worries that bad science will drive people away from being concerned with animal welfare but I maintain that if we remain so skeptical of what we already know it undermines our efforts to learn about who other animals are and to protect them. Dawkins’ sweeping claim that ” … what has become the new orthodoxy about animal welfare – that anthropomorphism is all we need …” truly misrepresents the views of numerous people around the world, researchers and non-researchers alike, who are keenly interested in making the lives of other animals far better than they are.”

Bonus links:

World Vegan Month #7

I continue my series of posts for World Vegan Month. I’m not happy with how these are going – they need a better eye on the news. However, no time.


  • Breakfast – still on the Sainsbury’s Fruit & Fibre – still nearly 1Kg left, still tasty.
  • Lunch – 2 Sainsbury’s bakery pretzels. But then it occurred to me (after watching the Great British Bake Off final) that these might not be the dead cert vegan I assumed they were, in all their dry, bitter, saltiness. But I can’t tell from the Web. Best avoid. Continuous stricterliness is my game.
  • Co-op custard doughnuts are somehow vegan, so I ate an undisclosed number of those.
  • Dinner was home-made vegetarian lasagne from a recipe by The Gourmet Vegan – could have gone better but good flavour.
  • Grapes.

Animals in the news

  • Based on bad science, the government is prolonging the slaughter of badgers in the name of the continued exploitation of lactating cows. They are making out that the 28,000 cattle killed in 2012 due to bovine TB is a needless death. Too fucking right it is – dairy farmers had them killed because they were economically worthless. Stop the Cull expose weird adding-up on the part of the civil servants, consultants etc setting the targets. It’s almost as if they want it to fail.
  • Not news, but DEFRA has a page on the diseases of farmed animals. 14 exotic disease outbreaks over the past decade at costs ranging from £2 million to £3 billion. Besides the animals, who’s paying?
  • Big dog sits on tube train seat – that’s news if you’re a Metro reader.


  • Yesterday I told my colleague about the French illicit consumption of ortolans (buntings). Raised in the dark, they eat themselves silly. They are then drowned in brandy, cooked, and eaten under a napkin.
  • After the JellyBelly Jellybeans I thought I’d better check the ingredients again. I thought they used palm wax but they don’t – they use beeswax. I am wondering how I got this wrong for so long. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. Perhaps I got mixed up with their weird ‘beanaturals’ range. Goodbye sweet beans.
  • There is a lot of cheese in my fridge. I think it must be left over from a political meeting. I hope it leaves soon.


World Vegan Month #7

Struggling this week to fulfil my self-imposed commitment. I swype this from my phone.

In the news
Would have had to go out of my way but I didn’t.
Except they’ve experimented on mice again – this time to stimulate hair regrowth where there has been hair loss.

Fell apart this week. Not a great advert for a vegan diet. Please ignore.

Breakfast – nothing, just work.
Lunch – packed leftover sweetcorn, potato, salad.
Then nuts from M&S. Then  jellybeans.
Left over fruit platter at work.
Dinner – half a courgette, 1 carrot, some kale, steamed.  5 Redwood ham sandwich slices, fried. 4 rice cakes, 2 with marmite and 2 with blackberry jam.

I asked if either of the two vegetarian burgers at the Ed’s Diner near work were vegan. The answer is no.

While at work searching the creative commons database Photopin for keyword ‘sticky’ I came across a cat whose entire head had been encased in a hollowed out pineapple with a visor cut into it. What a horrible thing to do.

What death really says is THINK

So says Leon Wieseltier, author of Kaddish. Today another friend died and tomorrow the funeral will take place in Manchester. Kaddish, the Jewish mourners’ prayer will be said, as it was said today at the bat mitzvah I attended in North West London. Among the observant, Jewish funerals are arranged very quickly, which is why I may be the only member of my very small family to attend. Our friend was a good friend of my dad’s. At my own dad’s funeral I was busy and dry-eyed, so I am wondering what grief will feel like at this one.

Kaddish is not a prayer of comfort but an insistent drumbeat to sideline death and daunt you with your own insignificance. Allen Ginsberg, estranged from Jewishness, wrote this poem, Kaddish, between 1957 and 59 after the death of his mother Naomi. From it,

Nameless, One Faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless, endless, Father in death. Tho I am not there for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I’m hymnless, I’m Heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore

Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity—

Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing—to praise Thee—But Death

This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Wonderer, House sought for All, black handkerchief washed clean by weeping—page beyond Psalm—Last change of mine and Naomi—to God’s perfect Darkness—Death, stay thy phantoms!


I wish Norman Geras was still here

At 70 this bright, clear, solid Marxist professor and teacher has died – Engage summarises how he got between the Jews and their foes. Neil D recalls his blogging beginnings. Haroon Siddique plots its rise. Martin in the Margins pays tribute to the man who started him blogging. Norm was a great profiler of less well-known bloggers. He had a whimsical side, attempting emails with Rosie using only one vowel. Nick Cohen calls him uxorious. Harry – the actual Harry – blogs about his methodical patience when dealing with people who could drive saints to mass murder. Ben Cohen, whom Norm taught, remembers him as patient, kind, and sympathetic to his students. I hear that tomorrow there will be a Guardian obituary worth reading.

I liked the way he didn’t allow comments on his blog, pushing people back to their own spaces to respond and let him know by email. This was unusual for the time – the vogue was for free comment. He was prescient about what chaff and distraction that can be on a blog which considers the political left, let alone the Jews.

Having given up 3 hours of my life – short, precious life if you are as ill as Norm was – to Slavoj Zizek’s Rorschach blot of a film this week, I just read this on Zizek by Norm back in 2009 with the warmth and gratitude of the vindicated. And so often vindication was Norm’s gift, which emanated from his blog and which I eagerly received.

I will miss him rubbing his hands over the cricket on Twitter, and I very much regret that he hadn’t heard from me for weeks. If I take nothing else from this it is that work is wicked if it steals your attention from your loved ones and comrades. I’m glad that Norm had such a loving family, and I am heartily sorry for their loss.

Thanks to them for being the keepers of the Normblog.