Saturday, 28 March 2015

Lark spit


I saw one of these at an antiques centre the other day. It's a lark spit for roasting larks. 

Oh dear, do I have to call it a cheep snack?

As for Hyacinthe, he had gone off in pursuit of a flight of larks, with his hands crammed full of pebbles. Whenever one of the birds, distressed by the wind, stopped still a couple of seconds in, mid-air with quiver­ing wings, he felled it to the ground with the skill of a savage. Three fell, and he thrust them bleeding into his pocket.

Émile Zola - La Terre (1887)

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Modern Regime

Hippolyte Taine

During the past three hundred years we have more and more lost sight of the exact and direct meaning of things. Subject to the constraints of a conservative, complex, and extended educational system we study

* the symbols of objects rather than on the objects themselves;
* instead of the ground itself, a map of it;
* instead of animals struggling for existence, nomenclatures and classifications, or, at best, stuffed specimens displayed in a museum;
* instead of persons who feel and act, statistics, codes, histories, literatures, and philosophies; in short, printed words. Even worse, abstract terms, which from century to century have become more abstract and therefore further removed from experience, more difficult to understand, less adaptable and more deceptive, especially in all that relates to human life and society.

Here, due to the growth of government, to the multiplication of services, to the entanglement of interests, the object, indefinitely enlarged and complex, now eludes our grasp. Our vague, incomplete, incorrect idea of it badly corresponds with it, or does not correspond at all. 

Hippolyte Taine - The Modern Regime (1893)

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Bluesnake Letters


David Cameron keeps sending letters to my wife.

On the face of it they are pretty innocent if socially gauche. Even though he is sending letters to ladies to whom he hasn’t been introduced, I’m sure Mrs Cameron doesn’t actually mind and I’m sure that says something about the times we live in.

The trouble is, it’s all me, me, me with Cameron. The letters are all about his “achievements” and plans for the future if we “elect” him to be our Prime Minister again.

Which is all very well, but he never asks about my wife’s new walking boots, the yoga classes or the weather here in Derbyshire. I’m not so sure we “elected” him the last time anyway, not in any meaningful sense.

I know the poor chap has some mitigating circumstances to deal with. Being Prime Minister must be quite time consuming especially with all those letters to write. He has his “advisers”, but trying to write up his “achievements” for the past five years and smear them out over two sides of A4 paper must be a strain. Disheartening too when he sits back to survey the end result of his labours. 

Every time the poor chap wakes up in the middle of the night trying to rack his brains for another line or two it must all seem pretty depressing even after he fortifies the inner man with a nocturnal glass of milk and a sandwich.

Still he’s done it and has seen fit to send the results of his efforts to my wife and no doubt many other innocent people listed on his database of people who might conceivably read unsolicited and uninteresting letters.

Fortunately my wife takes a relaxed view of Cameron’s epistolary politics which must be costing him a fortune in stamps. She never actually replies to the letters which I think is wise because it would only encourage him and I’m not sure that’s a good idea. We might end up on numerous other mailing lists such as Saga and Reader's Digest.

Mr Miliband hasn’t written a word and neither has Mr Clegg, although I don’t think Clegg actually cares how people vote. Perhaps he thinks it makes no difference so he decided to save the stamps. Perhaps he's right.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


Oh for the days of crazy inventions, largely lost now in the swamps of corporate caution. Mind you the Dynasphere's basic problem should have been obvious. From Wikipedia

According to the 2007 book Crazy Cars, one reason the Dynasphere did not succeed was that "while the [vehicle] could move along just fine, it was almost impossible to steer or brake." Another aspect of the vehicle that received criticism was the phenomenon of "gerbiling"—the tendency when accelerating or braking the vehicle for the independent housing holding the driver within the monowheel to spin within the moving structure.


A car

I see Clarkson has been given the heave-ho. I don't watch Top Gear but I did watch a few shows in the distant past. For me, Clarkson can be quite amusing in a blokey kind of way.

Many of his fans seem terribly upset but I think his act may be easier to imitate than they imagine. Assuming the BBC intends to replace like with like of course. Perhaps they don't because it's a golden opportunity to be prissy.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A gathering of imbeciles

The ease of modern communication is often seen as a good thing, socially, politically and economically. But what if there is a dark side to it?

One attraction of reading early writers in any field is often their unassuming nature. They write as they see, before the academic barnacles had a chance to encrust and obscure the original structure. In modern terms that structure may be somewhat lacking of course, but that doesn’t always matter.

One such is Gustave Le Bon. Politically incorrect and not the most profound writer, but some of what he wrote is worth a second thought. For example, he believed that a crowd wipes out the intellectual faculties of its members. Not a new idea even then and many others have expressed similar views, but take this quote as an example.

The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence. The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

This is more than cynical rhetoric. Le Bon is saying that crowds or assemblies have their own psychology which is not the sum of component individuals. It is something else, something sentimental, conservative, easily swayed by images and not intelligent in the sense that an individual is intelligent.

Okay, one could pile on the caveats and exceptions to this, but in the modern world when crowds become assemblies and when assemblies can be virtual assemblies on the web, then what if Le Bon was right? How much intellectual resource is the internet liable to suck out of our collective heads?

An implication of Le Bon’s point, whatever its limitations, is that many kinds of association constitute an intellectual loss for its members. By adopting a group belief, we don’t put our intellect on hold, we lose it wherever the belief system holds sway. Our critical faculties disappear like smoke on a windy day.

To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd; study of the popular mind

The internet as the ultimate virtual assembly may damage or even destroy our collective critical faculties. The web may become a conservative, sentimental and unintelligent virtual crowd.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Burying surprises


If we pursue the path of fewest surprises, and according to Karl Friston we do, then it explains why we put such a vast amount of effort into burying them before they have a chance to surprise us.

Surprises in this sense are confounding evidence or experiences – those which offer a serious challenge to a narrative, doctrine or other preconception. For most of us, such surprises are upsetting experiences. They suggest that the world is not as we supposed. So we bury them before they occur. 

Usually the path of fewest surprises is an all-encompassing narrative, set of doctrines or merely an attitude within which surprises are virtually impossible. That’s the main function of many types of belief – to bury surprises before they upset us.

Take life after death as an extreme example. For those who believe they will somehow live on after death, failing to do so would be an extremely unpleasant surprise. Yet by a stroke of ancient ingenuity, this surprise remains forever buried beyond the grave. Surprise is impossible, worthwhile argument equally impossible. Where would one find a surprising argument against life after death?

It is much the same with a vast array of other beliefs, from organised religion to politics to economics to climate change. Surprises are buried before they occur by narrative flexibility and the endless resources of hindsight.

For the political left, surprises such as the success of free enterprise are buried in advance by a vast and complex burial narrative. The successes of free enterprise may even be admitted, but so loaded with caveats that burial is a foregone conclusion.

For the political right, surprises such as the success of government regulation are buried in advance by a similarly vast and complex burial narrative. Again the successes of government regulation may even be admitted, but so loaded with caveats that burial is a foregone conclusion.

The climate catastrophist may be up to the ears in snow, but sees is as yet more evidence of global warming. Climate change is an interesting example, because potential surprises were initially buried in the future. A tactical error as we are now passing through some of those future scenarios.

"Our projection of 2013 for the removal of [Arctic] ice in summer is not accounting for the last two minima, in 2005 and 2007," the researcher from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, explained to the BBC. "So given that fact, you can argue that may be our projection of 2013 is already too conservative."

Oh dear - stupidity comes in many guises. Nothing that can't be buried though.

Climate surprises have been much more effectively buried by including any and all environmental phenomena in the official narrative. From snow-clogged roads to heat waves, from floods to droughts it’s all grist to the burial game. There Shall Be No Climate Surprise.

In all these cases, the possibility of error and therefore surprise is buried in advance by a narrative’s limitless flexibility. That’s what narratives are for, to bury surprises in advance, or in the worst cases by the revisionist resources of hindsight.

Yet with huge irony, the only effective way to minimise surprises is blanket scepticism. Believe nothing.