Monday, 31 October 2011

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wordplay - design

Samuel Johnson's dictionary 3rd edition published in 1766 defines 'design' as:-

To Design, v.

1. To purpose; to intend anything.
2. To form an order with a particular purpose.
3. To devote intentionally.
4. To plan; to project.
5. To mark out.

Computers have been used as design tools since the early days of discrete transistors. Rolls-Royce used computers to design turbine blades before they actually thought of using them to do payroll calculations.

Computer-based climate models are really imaginary climate designs which have yet to be tested systematically in the real world. This is not so much a scientific issue as a question of language, but climate scientists tend to dive into the science before the terminology has been sorted. Yet the language is important and here, climate scientists are not the experts.

So referring to climate models as models is misleading. Climate designs is a better way to describe imaginary computer-based climates which haven't yet made it into the real world. Climate scientists may well be designing climate models and that's fine, but we shouldn't omit the word design - it's crucially important.

After all, these climate designs haven't even passed even the most rudimentary testing stage and climate scientists certainly cannot skip physical testing by comparing one design with another as if the whole process is akin to Strictly Come Dancing. Yet it's what they are trying to do with their so-called ensembles, another furtive misuse of language.

Yet it's all really obvious. If an imaginary computer-based climate design makes a 30 year prediction, then that is it's main design parameter, the physical test it must pass before it can be taken seriously as a climate model. In 30 years time it may pass the test and become a tested design or it will fail and become a failed design. Until then it is merely a design.

At the moment, computer-based climate designs are rather less real than Shrek, who at least seems to understands his own language.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Planning - e minus

Ashbourne in Derbyshire has a new £20 million hospital with 87 spaces for the car-park. Unfortunately the hospital has 280 staff to accommodate too. Aren't numbers tricky little beggars?

Short term or long term?

This post is also posted at OoL.

Suppose I wish to predict when Prince William is most likely to ascend the throne. I might tackle the problem using lots of graphs and projections based on the longevity and gene pool of the Royal Family with some other stuff about lifestyles, medical care and so on. Let’s imagine that all my graphs and calculations give me a figure of 30 years. For various reasons I claim that King William V will ascend the throne in the year 2041 - so cue the fanfare.

To my mind, the main feature of such a prediction is the obvious one – who cares? Apart from Charles presumably. It’s too far in the future, so I’ll never be bunged in the Tower if my prediction is wrong and probably won’t be in a state to remember it by then anyway. It also skates over the question of whether or not we should have a monarchy in the first place.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Stag stare

During a recent walk we came across a stag. Normally, the most we’ve seen of wild deer is a quick glimpse as it disappears over the next hill but one. This one was close - maybe it was used to people.

Seen up close, you tend to notice how big stags are, how well-equipped in the antler department. They don’t look nervous, they just give you a level stare then wander off quite casually, knowing you can’t possibly get near them in those great big walking boots. Anyway, who has the antlers matey?

At this time of year there are plenty of young ones about too. Tread softly.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Irregular rewards

Caravaggio - The Cardsharps

One of the most interesting discoveries made by B F Skinner and other behaviourists was the powerfully,  addictive effect of irregularly received rewards. 

If a pigeon is conditioned to peck a switch in order to get some food, it will keep pecking the switch even if food is only given at infrequent, random intervals. Not only that, but the randomness itself seems to exert a powerful conditioning influence. Even if the reward is removed altogether, it can be a long time before the pigeon gives up on the switch.

It works on humans too and is the basis of gambling addiction. A few wins and some people become addicted even if wins remain rare and paltry - that's enough to maintain the addiction. Even the wins of other people may act as a rewarding stimulus. Lotteries are a good example, as is stock-market investing and  hunting for antiques.

But it isn't just gambling. Many other human activities are similar to gambling in that they are significantly addictive and the addiction is maintained by irregular rewards.

Compulsive TV viewing is just one example where a few random scraps of worthwhile quality are sufficient to keep people switching on for their entire lives, even though there is no prospect of the time invested ever being repaid.

A third-rate golfer may be so stimulated by the occasional good round or even the rare sweetly-hit stroke that they play the game all their lives, come rain or shine. They don’t need the stimulus of winning because those rare successes keep them hooked on the illusion that they love the game for its own sake. There may be other factors of course, but the irregular reward is vital to maintain the addiction.

Supporters of dull football clubs may endure a lifetime of frustration for the sake of a few good matches, rare but spectacular goals and a smattering of unexpected wins. It feels like loyalty of course, which it is, but it is also the powerful effect of a random reward and is much the same as gambling. In both cases, the punter is happy to spend time and money on a few unpredictable, paltry rewards.

As for loyalty, that too can be induced and maintained by a random pat on the back. Again there may be other factors at work, but the effect of an occasional word of encouragement is much the same as the gambler's occasional win.

We see it in superstition where a few random events may strongly reinforce superstitious beliefs.

And speaking of superstition, we see it in scientists who rewarded by one or two temporary or irrelevant correlations spend the remainder of their careers pursuing illusions. A few high-profile successes, whether real or imaginary and the addiction kicks in. It seems to be particularly important in climate science so we can be quite sure that even one mild winter will set the ball rolling again.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Blog tone (2)

I’ve written a post before on blog tone, so as a true environmentalist I thought I’d recycle it.

One of the issues I have with the recent EU referendum vote, is to avoid ranting. I’m not a natural ranter, although there are some good ones around and I enjoy the distinctive tone of their vituperative skills.

But when it comes to MPs denying us a referendum on our membership of the EU, then I think it’s as well to change the tone, to give a nod to the gentle art of mild vituperation and let a few feeling loose. After all, this is a government colluding with the other main political parties to deny us a vote on an extremely important constitutional issue. Is that disgusting enough to get excited about? I think it is.

I don’t mind these slithering dimwits throwing away their own independence, but I do mind them throwing away mine. These soul-rotted media-whores masquerading as political leaders need to get a grip on their own puerile inadequacies, need to understand that there is a difference between honourable and dishonourable even if they haven’t heard of it yet and wouldn’t dare discuss it round the dinner table or in front of the servants, who in any case know them better than they could ever realise.

A few of their numerous moral superiors need to tell them what lies are and how juvenile it is to keep telling them and how they were supposed to have grown out of it well before Mummy packed them off to school with a disdainful kiss on the cheek. Or should that read Nanny?

Most of all, they need to grow up, to realise that people who have to do a proper job might actually know more than they do when it comes to real life. Real people might even know more than the furtive swamp of advisers infesting the body politic with their lightweight ‘abilities’ which seem to be much the same as those of their masters, somewhat negating the value of any advice they could possibly give.

Above all they need to tell each other the truth, explain to each other what disgusting little posturing shits they really are and how demeaning it is to be one of them. I mean – surely they know? Maybe they don’t.

Ah - that’s it. Mini-rant over.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Wilkie Collins on modern women

Wilkie Collins

This piece from Wilkie Collins' novel Basil (pub. 1852) surprised me when I first came across it. I suppose our view of Victorian women tends to be influenced by the stereotypes we see in TV drama. Those fictional Victorian women certainly don't chime with Collins' description. 

He sympathised with women and wrote about the unfairness of their social position. Even so, he obviously didn't think they should aim to be more like men, because this quote suggests he didn't think much of modern men either. 

We live in an age when too many women appear to be ambitious of morally unsexing themselves before society, by aping the language and the manners of men – especially in reference to that miserable modern dandyism of demeanour, which aims at representing all betrayal of warmth of feeling; which abstains from displaying any enthusiasm on any subject whatever; which, in short, labours to make the fashionable imperturbability of the face the faithful imperturbability of the mind.

Women of this exclusively modern order, like to use slang expressions in their conversation; assume a bastard-masculine abruptness in their manners, a bastard-masculine licence in their opinions; affect to ridicule those outward developments of feeling which pass under the general appellation of “sentiment”. Nothing impresses, agitates, amuses, or delights them in a hearty, natural, womanly way. Sympathy looks ironical, if they ever show it: love seems to be an affair of calculation, or mockery, or contemptuous sufferance, if they ever feel it.
Wilkie Collins - Basil

Monday, 24 October 2011

That vote

As expected our MPs have voted to deny us a vote. Thirty-six years and still waiting. 483 shits outvoted 111 MPs who showed they have some principles to guide them. But now we’ve slipped a little further down the authoritarian slope.

MPs are supposed to be Members of Parliament, but when party membership comes first, then there are no real Members of Parliament, only Members of Party.

Parties are destroying the tattered remnants of our faltering democracy and collusion between them just hastens the process. What we hope to bequeath to our grandchildren I don’t know, but it doesn’t look like much on today’s dismal showing.

Of course, even if we had a referendum on EU membership, the barrage of lies and propaganda may well swing it in favour of staying in. It may even make things worse in that case, may be seen as a green light to involve us in all kinds of nonsense. Who can tell how things will turn out once people lose the ability to think clearly?

Curse of the trypo

The Wicked Bible

A minor niggle in a blogger's life is the typo. It's even worse for those who leave comments, because usually when you post the comment, that's it - typo committed. I have a problem with typos because I tend to focus on the words I'm about to key in rather than the one I'm actually keying in now.

Some blog posts seem to be keyed in directly rather than being pasted from a word processor draft because they often have common typos such as "hte" for "the". Nothing wrong with that - blog posts are ephemeral products. Other blogs (not mine) always read like a carefully edited second edition.

Anyone thinking of buying a Kindle or other electronic reader to read older works such as Jane Austen, needs to be aware that typos are an issue with electronic texts apart from blogs. It is pretty obvious than many classic texts are generated by scanning a paper copy into Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software with rather variable results. For example, I've read a Jane Austen work with dozens of obvious typos, all typical of poor OCR editing. They don't spoil the enjoyment, but they are an issue.

Another issue with OCR-scanned output is where the original text is altered. My Kindle copy of Wilkie Collins' "Basil" has "cheque" changed to the US spelling of "check". Similar changes can be seen in Kindle versions of Sherlock Holmes presumably produced in the US.

However, by far the worst example I've ever come across was an OCR-generated paperback copy of John Horne Tooke's  The Diversions of Purley. This is a rare book and somebody obviously had the bright idea of scanning an original to generate some cheap copies. However, OCR scanning does require a literate editor during the interpretation stage. This book had so many glaringly obvious typos that numerous sentences made no sense at all. I threw it into the bin. I recycled it.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Blue badge

Out walking today. As we parked the car, a man and a woman set off in their walking gear - boots, walking trousers and one rucksack between them. They had parked in one of two disabled bays and had a blue badge displayed on the dashboard. The man didn’t have the rucksack, so maybe he was the disabled one – a heart condition perhaps.

Three and a half hours later we returned from our walk (a short walk) to find the car with the blue badge still there. Not particularly disabled then.

Monthly horoscope - Scorpio

Scorpio (October 23 - November 21)

Magical birthstone  - Lycralite.
Lucky Viking         - Noggin the Nog.
Lucky horoscope   - Pisces.

Scorpios tend to be loud and emphatic in their approach to career advice, but more in the giving than the taking. They make good town criers and leapfrog instructors, although excessive ambition can be a problem here. Think of others should be your motto for this month, so your boss should be treated with much more deference than usual... Well some deference at least.  

Next Tuesday, a close relative is arrested for hurling a rat at the Prime Minister but you are not as ashamed as you might expect, since neither rat could possibly have been harmed by the incident. Laugh it off. Those big men who knock your front door down are basically bureaucrats. Drive them away by talking loudly and impressively of paperwork, schemes of delegation, responsibility and duty of care.

This isn't the time for Scorpios to be tight-fisted, although next week a neighbour offers you unlimited quantities of illicit "whisky" for £1.50 per litre bottle. The stars suggest this is a little too cheap to be entirely consistent with sound vision and no brain-damage. Try cleaning the patio with it, although not on bonfire night of course.

As for that new theory of Shakespeare authorship you've been working on, well now may be the time to read it through with a somewhat more critical eye than usual. The advice of the stars is unusually specific here. Burn it and eat the ashes.

And so to cake, which the flattering attentions of Venus suggest should be chocolate cake. Try it late at night with viciously strong Old Java coffee and your favoured musical accompaniment. Enjoy. Nothing lasts, not even the stars.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Democracy in inaction

I see that the forthcoming EU referendum vote is likely to be manipulated by just three MPs. Apparently the MP for Witney, the MP for Sheffield Hallam and the MP for Doncaster North are allowed to tell most of the other MPs how to vote on this vital constitutional issue.

Odd isn't it – for a supposed democracy? At least we'll find out which MPs are the irredeemable shits. Three we already know.

Friday, 21 October 2011

A practical man

I bought a snow-shovel today. I've always made do with a piece of plywood nailed to a length of wood, a device I knocked together about 20 years ago, maybe more, but it's wearing out. I'd been told that Asda are selling them for £7, but when I paid them a visit today, they'd already sold out. Haven't Asda customers heard about snow being a thing of the past? Don't they know about climate models?

Anyway, I eventually managed to find one at Frank's this afternoon. It was his last one too and only cost £6.50.

"Everybody's prepared now," Frank said with a grin, "so there's no excuse."

I agreed with him, paid up, took my new snow-shovel home and put it in the shed. I didn't start a conversation about climate change and the snowy winters we aren't supposed to be having, because it isn't the kind of conversation you have with Frank. He's a practical man.

Climate dabbling

You may have already tried this, but if you go to Wood for Trees interactive, you can plot your own climate graphs such as the one I generated above. It shows global temperature for the last 100 years (HadCRUT3 variance adjusted) with a number of simple trend lines and normalized Mauna Loa CO2 data. 

I was taking a look back at the temporary correlation between CO2 and temperature - remembering with regret the trouble and silliness it led us into.  

It's worth a dabble if you like dabbling.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Delinquent Teenager

This excellent book  by Donna Laframboise is already well-known to those interested in climate change, but after buying the Kindle version, I’ll add my praise anyway. The book is not particularly concerned with the science of climate change, but with the politics and specifically with the IPCC, its propaganda and its supposedly gold-standard scientific processes. 

With the help of a small group of internet-linked helpers, Donna Laframboise has already exposed as false the IPCC’s claim to use only peer-reviewed science in its assessment reports. The book takes the investigation further, delving more deeply into the astonishingly lax, biased and downright corrupt mess that is the IPCC.

It’s upsetting if you think the scientific community is somehow special with respect to honesty or integrity. It isn’t. 

It's upsetting if you think mainstream journalism is willing to expose corruption in high places. With a few honourable exceptions it isn't. 

It's upsetting if you think our institutions are prepared to uphold their own integrity by challenging rogue institutions such as the IPCC. They aren't.

When I use the word "upsetting", I mean what I say. For someone whose spent nearly 40 years as a professional scientist, this kind of thing is genuinely upsetting even though I've known for years how corrupt climate science must be. The book is a damn good read though.

Waiting on events

Hogarth's Rake's Progress - the debtor's prison
One of the problems with the current political scene is our comparative prosperity and the political depths to which we’ve sunk. The first doesn't help us tackle the second. Leaving aside the current economic problems, serious as they are, most people live comfortable lives when compared to life a few generations ago. By that, I mean lives to which it is relatively easy to adapt. Modern life, whatever its faults, is on the whole easily adapted to. It’s why we have immigration.

Here in the UK our democracy has largely disappeared and we are governed by a dishonest bunch of third-rate charlatans, but people don’t have to care, at least not full-time. Life goes on and it’s comfortable. These longer-term issues don’t have a drastic impact on daily life – at least not yet. The analyses and warnings don’t seem to have much visible impact, because words rarely do.

In general it is events and not words that lead to major social change and however bad things are, however obvious it is that they are bad, we must wait on events to cause change. As Harold Macmillan famously said of the real challenges he faced. Events my dear boy, events.

What those events might be is impossible to predict, but recent economic problems are a warning. Complexity may be a global problem. We may have made our lives, our economies, our legal and regulatory systems too complex. It is a characteristic of complex dynamic systems that they are not predictable. Unforeseen events occur - events we could not possibly have foretold except perhaps in the broadest outline.

The only way to tackle complexity is to simplify. The problem with simplification as a policy guide is that vested interests prefer complexity because it creates business, hides incompetence and erects barriers to entry. For those vested interests, unforeseen events are merely a side-effect of their games, until a really big event changes the rules. If the current economic problems are not big enough to change the rules, then an even bigger problem is probably waiting for us somewhere down the line. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Common to thousands

Hardy on the delusion of being special. Politicians suffer from it rather badly - as we know but they don't.

There is in us an unquenchable expectation, which at the gloomiest time persists in inferring that because we are ourselves, there must be a special future in store for us, though our nature and antecedents to the remotest particular have been common to thousands.
Thomas Hardy – Desperate Remedies 

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Pagan Power

Gaia by Anselm Feuerbach
Environmental activists, particularly promoters and partakers of climate hysteria, have often been referred to as members of a religious cult, although worshipping a deity such as Gaia isn't what they actually do. As far as I can see, behaviour varies greatly and at this stage it may be premature and inaccurate to describe these behaviours as religious. Even so, the movement, loose as it may be, has its gurus, prophets, believers, evangelists, educational materials, funding and political support. I'm not so sure about the gods or the priests.

So it seems to me that an over-enthusiastic adoption of what one might call environmental moral values, does suggest a kind of nascent paganism of the finger-pointing kind. The question non-pagans have to face at some time or another is what to do about it, assuming something can be done which may not be the case.

The notion that human emission of carbon dioxide causes the global temperature to rise catastrophically has not gone away even though it was always scientifically silly. It may have sunk to lower levels of political consciousness, but the important point is that it remains with us, culturally, politically and economically. Many millions of children have already been moulded, changed forever from what they might otherwise have been.

It may well be that climate change hysteria was always seen by hard-nosed policy-makers as a convenient if rather shaky peg on which to hang energy-security policies. It’s hard to tell if this is the case when faced with the habitual evasiveness and apparent stupidity of our political elite. The incurious ignorance of mainstream media doesn't help either.

The test as always is behaviour. For example, if shale gas is developed as the next big thing in energy policy, if new finds are exploited while the inevitable tide of hysterical propaganda is ignored, then we will at least have a partial answer.

Perhaps the new paganism has not yet become an official religion and our elites have no real desire to embrace it. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't want us to embrace it. We’ll see - or at least some of us will. Some won't understand what's going on, whatever happens.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Ruin

The Ruin is, at least to my mind, a highly evocative 8th century Old English poem. It comes from the Exeter Book, describing with wonder and veneration the ruins of a Roman city - probably Bath. The text is damaged with indecipherable portions, but still worth reading. Maybe its appeal lies in the familiar tragedy of a collapsed civilization. I wonder which way ours is going?

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.
Still the masonry endures in winds cut down
persisted on__________________
fiercely sharpened________ _________
______________ she shone_________
_____________g skill ancient work_________
_____________g of crusts of mud turned away
spirit mo________yne put together keen-counselled
a quick design in rings, a most intelligent one bound
the wall with wire brace wondrously together.
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.
The stone buildings stood, a stream threw up heat
in wide surge; the wall enclosed all
in its bright bosom, where the baths were,
hot in the heart. That was convenient.
Then they let pour_______________
hot streams over grey stone.
un___________ _____________
until the ringed sea (circular pool?) hot
_____________where the baths were.
Then is_______________________
__________re, that is a noble thing,
to the house__________ castle_______

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A bendy wick

As the days get shorter and the lights have to be switched on earlier and earlier, I'm reminded of the way our ancestors had to light their homes before gas and electricity. One invention which must have made a difference was the self-trimming candle wick we still use today. We'll probably need to make more use of it if Huhne has his way.

Early candle wicks were made from stranded cotton or hemp and as the candle burned, the length of burned wick, or snuff, became longer and longer. The snuff had to be kept trimmed to the right length or the flame became bigger and bigger, causing the wax to run as well as using up the candle too quickly. Soft tallow candles were particularly prone to this problem if they weren't trimmed regularly, quite apart from the smoke and the smell.

Ancient wicks made from the peeled core of a rush didn't suffer from this problem. As they burned, they bent over into the edge of the flame where there was enough oxygen to burn off excess wick. In 1820, a Frenchman named Cambacérés discovered that a plaited cotton wick behaves in exactly the same way - as in the picture. The plaited wick curves over as it burns so excess wick is automatically burnt away.

So the self-trimming wick was invented, candle snuffers became obsolete and another little convenience made a difference to millions of people.

As an aside, there is a type of fungus xylaria hypoxylon, with the common name candle snuff . You can find it growing on dead wood. Presumably it acquired the name when real candle snuff was a more familiar sight than it is now.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Not only men though George

Shirley Williams

…not a man of refined conscience, or with any deep sense of the infinite issues belonging to everyday duties; not quite competent to his high offices; but incompetent gentlemen must live, and without private fortune it is difficult to see how they could all live genteely if they had nothing to do with education or government.
George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Johnson on assent

Your assent to a man you have never known to falsify is a debt; but after you have known a man to falsify, your assent to him is a favour.

Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

The roll-call of people who Johnson's quote applies to is rather long isn't it? If we begin by listing politicians then it's hardly worth doing. May as well list them all and have done with it.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Bacon on judges

Sir Francis Bacon - from Wikipedia

Judges ought to remember, that their Office is Jus dicere, and not Jus dare: To interpret Law, and not to make Law, or give Law.

Sir Francis Bacon – Essays – Holt edition 1701

Monday, 10 October 2011

Aspect 3

Benedict Spinoza's way of describing reality was to say it has two aspects (or attributes in older translations)  which he called Extension and Thought. Today this dualism seems antiquated and rooted in medieval philosophy, but to my mind there is more to it than that. Let’s take his idea further, which perhaps we may Attempt without too much violence to his overall philosophy.

Extension is easily translated to physical reality – anything with extension in space. Thought is more difficult because Spinoza saw it as the thoughts of God, but his God was extremely remote, a kind of eternal logical definition of what the universe is. Let’s translate Though as universal logic, or simply as logic. Nobody has to agree with this by the way, it’s merely a bit of casual exploration.

Aspect 1 – physical reality.
Aspect 2 – logical reality.

We can describe anything we like in terms of Aspect 1 or Aspect 2, but must never try to mix them. Aspect 1 and Aspect 2 describe exactly the same fundamental reality, but they are incommensurate. So we may describe a person in terms of flesh, blood, biochemistry and neuroscience (Aspect 1), or we may define a person logically in terms of behaviour, belief or personality (Aspect 2). In Spinoza’s terms, humans are what he called “modes” of Aspect 1 or Aspect 2, modes being temporary configurations.

Now Spinoza also said that there are an infinite number of other Aspects to reality, but these are entirely beyond our comprehension. Let’s lump them together and call them Aspect 3. In a sense, Aspects are similar to dimensions, which would make us two-dimensional beings in a universe of infinite dimensions. So understanding a person in terms of Aspect 1 and Aspect 2 as described above is an incomplete understanding. Aspect 3 is missing.

It follows that humans cannot have a complete understanding of anything. Nothing. Everything we try to analyse has Aspect 3 missing from the analysis. Aspect 3 is the incomprehensible shadow behind our reality.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

From Men Who Died Deluded

This is the time to speak to those who will come after,
To those who will climb the mountain-tops although
The continual clouds have crept down upon us
And we cannot tell any more how far there is to go.

This is the time to set our lips on great horns and blow
Far down the years a note to reach them when
They are failing on the crest before the end,
To fall on their ears like a sweet hail from men.

Who did not reach so far but blessed their march,
From men who died deluded, far below the peak,
The self-destroyed, unwilling, blinded, caught,
Yet who believed, yet who desired to speak‑

Dying, to blow a horn for those who come after,
despairing, to send up one clear note from the edge of death
And as the victors falter to salute them proudly
With the hope we cherished with our final breath.

This is the time, this dark time, this bewildered
To give our mortal lives that the great peaceful places
May surely be attained by those who, when they falter,
Must be confronted by the living vision on our dead faces.
May Sarton (1912 - 1995)

Friday, 7 October 2011


Taking a break for a bit more walking. Probably no internet access so I've set up a few automatic posts.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

To fume or not to fume...

Apparently the UK political party conferences have just finished. For the first time ever I managed to live through them without listening to a single word. Not one. Did I miss anything? I think not.

Lots of reasons why I didn't bother. Complete lack of interest is right at the top of the list. It's what they do that really matters. All I need to know is that the fools still think party conferences worthwhile and they still have something to say worth listening to.

Sometimes I think political views hinge on how angry you are prepared to be. The situation is so bad, we could be very angry indeed, but life is there to be lived and we can’t go round fuming all the time.

Su Wu - poem to his wife

Su Wu - painting by Zhou Shunkai

Since our hair was plaited and we became man and wife
The love between us was never broken by doubt.
So let us be merry this night together,
Feasting and playing while the good time lasts.

I suddenly remember the distance that I must travel;
I spring from bed and look out to see the time.
The stars and planets are all grown dim in the sky;
Long, long is the road; I cannot stay.
I am going on service, away to the battle-ground,
And I do not know when I shall come back.
I hold your hand with only a deep sigh;
Afterwards, tears - in the days when we are parted.
With all your might enjoy the spring flowers,
But do not forget the time of our love and pride.
Know that if I live, I will come back again,
And if I die, we will go on thinking of each other.

Su Wu (circa 100 BC)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part XIV

P K Feyerabend - From Wikipedia

Paul Karl Feyerabend started out studying physics but switched to philosophy. He became known for his radical views on the philosophy of science where at least he knew something of what he was talking, especially physics. He was particularly interested in how scientific discoveries really occur, rather than the cleaned up narrative we are presented with later. His book Against Method is a fascinating read.

Feyerabend was a real maverick, an out and out relativist. He even described himself as an anarchist, although he became wary of the term because of its political implications. I first came across him via an essay he published as part of a collection by various philosophers. His essay was titled How to be a good empiricist - easily the best of the compilation in my view.

In his essay, Feyerabend's main point was the importance he attached to having at least two competing theories to explain any phenomenon. It doesn’t sound as radical as it is, but many scientists seem to actively oppose this way of working – they tend to look for consensus around one theory, as we do in daily life. In particular, scientists expect new theories to have a considerable degree of consistency with older theories and for the meaning of technical terms to remain unaltered. Feyerabend called these artificial limitations the consistency condition and meaning invariance.

For example, we expect mass to stay as mass, energy to stay as energy and so on. So older theories tend to frame the debate about new theories, with obvious limiting consequences. Yet as Feyerabend points out, for the theory of relativity, mass had to change from a Newtonian property of bodies to a relativistic property of the frame of reference. This was a change in the meaning of mass which few scientists would have contemplated because they would not have expected a new theory to amend such an apparently fundamental concept as mass. A few did though and relativity became a successful theory.

So Feyerabend’s point was a simple one really. Theories are best challenged by other theories, not just by the gathering of data and experimental tests. For example, data may only be recognized as relevant within the framework of existing theories. There may be useful data out there which is unused or even invisible to us because we are blinkered by our existing theories. So to challenge a current theory effectively, we must have some other way of looking at the same data - which means we always need another theory.

Of course theories do turn out to be inconsistent with new data and they do fail an experiment, but they are often adaptable enough to be modified to fit the new data or the experiment. Computer models are the obvious and most notorious example. So what should we do if we don't have an alternative theory? Is it right to modify existing theories or tweak our computer models? Are we improving our theories and models or are we merely preserving our investment in them?

Consider the Large Hadron Collider as an example. Presumably it was designed, among other things, to examine the Standard Model of particle physics. Was it designed to look for alternatives to the Standard Model? I doubt it. So was it worth building? I can't tell, but I'm sure the question is worth asking. Feyerabend would have asked - he was like that.

Feyerabend’s remedy for doctrinal science was to promote competing theories as a matter of good scientific practice. Yes we need as much data as possible and we need to test theories by experiment, but another essential tool is to have at least one alternative and incompatible theory.

So do mainstream climate scientists read Feyerabend? Obviously not or they would presumably not be so stupid as to reject so many worthwhile climate theories in favour of their policy-driven CO2 theory.

As far I can see, there is no reason to restrict this way of thinking to science. Politics and economics for example: we should be open to alternative explanations if we wish to avoid the sterility of doctrinal thinking and the likely futility of applying stock, party-political solutions to social and economic problems.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Anglo-Saxon charm

This Anglo-Saxon charm was supposed to cure wens. Probably dating from well before the tenth century, I offer it in case the climate alarmists prevail and we have to relearn old skills. Some day you may even be able to trade the charm for something valuable such as a few bones to make soup.

Alternatively we could aim the charm at any of our charmless government ministers. You never know, the Anglo-Saxon spirit may still have some potency. I'll point it at Cameron first - simply for the pleasure of watching him shrink as muck in the wall .

Wen, wen, little wen,
Here thou shalt not build, nor have any abode,
But thou must pass forth to the hill hard by,
Where thou hast a brother in misery.
He shall lay a leaf at thy head.
Under the foot of the wolf, under the wing of the eagle,
Under the claw of the eagle, ever mayest thou fade.
Shrivel as coal on the hearth,
Shrink as muck in the wall,
And waste away like the water in a bucket.
Become as small as a grain of linseed,
And far smaller also than a hand-worm’s hip-bone,
And become even so small that thou become naught.

Translated by R K Gordon.



Conspiracy - it's in the model

The model

This model isn't any kind of theory or intended representation of the real world. Instead it's a very basic and stripped-down view of human behaviour. Something like it has been around since the ancient Greek pleasure/pain principle - we see it in the writings of Spinoza, George Eliot and Proust who knew about these things long before psychologists erected their barriers to entry. Why use a model? To keep an eye on the words - as a reminder of cause and effect.

The model only shows the easy stuff, our repertoire of behaviour, the pressures it has to respond to, the massively dominant power of the real world and the subtle, self-steering effect of thinking out of the box. It doesn't do the infinite varieties of human behaviour, but it can serve as a reminder to avoid complexity when trying to untangle these things.

Firstly we have our basic survival rules, our repertoire of habitual behaviour which for all the subtlety and complexity of real life, does come down to personal welfare and the welfare of our clan.

Good for me - excellent.
Good for us  - not quite so excellent.
Bad for them - often okay.
Bad for me    - avoid.
Bad for us     - avoid.
Good for them - often not okay.

How broadminded we are, how we define "us" and "them" isn't covered by the model. We moderate the rules and our responses via "what if?" - by analysing alternatives. Three things run the model, the real world, our genetic/survival constraints and our "what if?" analysis - assuming we analyse - which isn't compulsory.

The implications

The model shows why conspiracy is a basic fact of human life. Elites must treat we non-elites as "them" because that's who we are from their perspective, just as they are "them" from ours.

In general, everyone acts on what is good for "me" and "us". What is good or bad for "them" is ambiguous at best. So elites do their networking and cement their notions of "us" while we outsiders are forever condemned to be "them" - the voters, the masses, the little people. It is virtually a given that elites will conspire against our interests as far as they dare - it's in the model.

Elites reject our feedback, because from their point of view it comes from "them". In their case, "us" is their party, their cabal, advisers, sexual partner, friends, social milieu, elite culture and all those vested interests so keen to buy them lunch - and much, much more. Their "us" is never us.

The last UK government was particularly notorious for it. It's a human thing - the way we are, but not the way we have to be. We have "what if?" to stretch our notions of "us", to make common cause with "them", but that kind of moral generosity isn't mandated by the model. It rarely impinges on the elites apart from popping up in their rhetoric.

As one would expect from the model, elites find "what if?" difficult because of the enormous, swamping  pressures of vested interests and the elite status they have worked so hard to achieve. It's why they so often make stupid decisions - because "what if?" has already been settled - neatly packaged by their elite culture and those ubiquitous vested interests that sorted things out before they arrived.

Strong and persistent feedback from those in power, from "them" comes across as excessive regulation and government interference. The difficulty we have is getting "them" to take account our interests as well as their own and those of their stakeholders. We need to find ways of dealing with those stakeholders - those who have a vested interest in the stupidity of our elites.

Because they are stupid - they can't help it - it's in the model.

And they do conspire - they can't help it - it's in the model.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Giving the lawn a quick trim

BBC on Indian summers

In this piece from its News Magazine, the BBC seems to be hedging its bets on the significance of unusual weather such as the current heatwave in parts of the UK. No suggestion of climate alarm. Maybe another cold winter is expected? Extracts reproduced below.

Autumn heatwaves are often referred to as "Indian summers", but what does the term actually mean? Meteorologist Philip Eden explains.

Something strange has been happening to the way we perceive our climate over recent years.

Nowadays, when we get a bout of unusual weather, we ask what has gone wrong. There seems to be a growing disconnection between Brits and their very own climate.

But most spells of unusual weather are simply that - unusual. They have happened before and they will happen again.

One or two date records may have been broken during this spell, but date records are relatively easy to break. Taking a rather broader view, highs of 27-29C (80.6-84.2F) have happened before in late September.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Wind power sags

During this record-setting spell of warm weather, it's worth a quick check on our wind-generated power output, in case we might want to turn on the lights later. Luckily we have coal, gas and nuclear - for now.

Solar cell silliness

Detail from a solar-power outfit's site. Note the first line. "High quality cells made from pure silicone". 

Should read "silicon" of course - two very different materials. One is used for solar power and silicon chips, the other for bath sealant. Picky point perhaps, but you'd prefer them to know the difference for what is supposed to be a 30 year investment.