Saturday, 31 October 2015

Science is doomed

Science is a cost. It is also a career, but careers are costs and costs have to be justified. Therein lie the subtle political levers which may yet bring science and even objectivity itself under political control. A welcome development for the establishment which has never taken kindly to the idea that anyone is allowed to discover anything whatever their social status. 

If political policies were evidence-driven, then political behaviour would be essentially scientific. Some scientists may think it is part of their job to point this out, but it isn’t going to happen. Doesn’t leave enough elbow room, enough flexibility for the right sort of people to have their say. Something has to give and the runes suggest it won’t be political behaviour. Science has that oh so fatal weakness – science is a cost.

Powerful people have always used evidence to promote their own interests but not if it isn’t convenient. They never have. If necessary they prefer to invent their evidence or dust off an old standby. Science as the prime exemplar of objective analysis has to be contained.

A powerful clue is provided by the catastrophe climate narrative. Science goes on behind the official narrative, but the catastrophe narrative is what matters not the science. This narrative is mostly what we see, what we are intended to see, the product paid for and delivered. It is no more scientific than a toothpaste ad. Probably less so.

Catastrophe climatology is merely one of the costs of promoting global policies aimed at levelling the energy playing field between rich and poor nations. These policies are obviously considered to be more important than scientific integrity so their promoters do not intend to allow it to dictate the narrative. 

This appear to be the key motive driving it all, a genuine belief that fossil fuels must be left in the ground if the developing world is ever to achieve equality with the developed world. Energy inequality is seen as a globally significant political risk. Global warming probably isn’t. The BBC may think otherwise but the BBC mostly caters for dimwits. We know that but don’t always follow it through.

Yet science is a niggling political problem anyway. It tends to undermine unscientific narratives and for that reason it often gets in the way of political projects or points the finger at political failures. Not only that, but when everyone from monarchs to popes, from presidents to chief executives are seen as merely human and subject to the same natural laws as the entire universe then the mystique of authority is called into question. In which case, perhaps we should expect a response from the emerging global establishment. Action and reaction.

So maybe we should expect to see significant global resources directed at bringing many sciences under global political control. Global policy cannot be evidence-driven as a matter of policy, it would give far too much power to useful but socially inferior groups such as engineers and scientists.

The establishment has struggled with this issue since at least Darwin’s time, but as a global establishment finds its feet and fills its pockets it also seems to be aware of the need to make enduring cultural changes. The cultural role of science may well be over. Icarus has flown too high, the wax is melting.
The key political point about catastrophe climatology is that its sponsors have clearly decided that it cannot be allowed to fail. It doesn’t matter if we end up with global warming or not because more important global policies are at stake. Clean energy technologies and a level playing field for the developed and developing world. The climatologists can be as mad as a box of frogs so long as they stay on-message. Many are.

Stupid perhaps, but only from the old scientific standpoint. In a world where catastrophe climatology counts as a science, it is not so stupid.

It is not a question of money but of power, who gets to determine policy and on what basis. Old style science doesn’t do deals, scratch backs or take bribes. It gets in the way. As for the future, we should expect old style science and even objectivity to be driven out of anything in which governments might take an interest.

Ultimately that’s everything.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Patterns in the fog


Mnemosyne — saddest of deities — waved her wand and the shadows talked.
Fergus Hume - Miss Mephistopheles (1890)

As the world becomes more complex we see more and more people who pretend to cope with the complexities. Those who paint crazy patterns on the fog seeping in and around modern life. A malign miasma oozing from the swamps of unreality those busy loons are so fond of.

They give totem names to the madness, hurling them into the swirling darkness as if to cast spells, ward off the spectre of confusion, the nightmare of collapsed understanding where nothing makes sense unless you huddle together with the totem thrower who claims to know the path.

With too many possibilities and too few answers we have set ourselves adrift on poorly mapped cultural swamps we neither asked for nor needed to explore. We should never have listened to the crazed, soft-handed loons painting their pictures of places they had never visited, never could visit because they merely oozed from the suppurating decay of soft minds.

What we missed but never should have missed is that we had a culture already, didn’t need a new one, didn’t need to drop our guard, didn’t even see ourselves dropping it. We began to think we were prejudiced because the loons on the shore told us so. Because with huge irony we had educated them to tell us so. And we listened but should not have listened.

We should not have listened because our supposed prejudices were our cultural reference points, our way of getting through life without suffering too much damage or causing too much harm to others. We were persuaded that small problems needing small adjustments were really large problems needing wholesale changes. A rooting out where there was no disease to root out.

So we are left with patterns in the fog but more and more loons have gathered to paint and to point at what isn’t real and never could be real. And so we have to argue and justify what once we took for granted, didn’t need to explain because it was so familiar, so useful, so tuned to a certain way of doing things. Familiar it was and familiar is another of those things to which we should have paid more attention, should have kept hold of.

Now? Now we are busy electing loons, liars, thieves and charlatans who would give away what little there is left to anyone prepared to pay the price, intone the mantras, bow to the new gods, make the right noises, ignore the past, the history, the lessons. Patterns in the fog. We should have known.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Sussing out strangers

What do you think of David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn? Do you like or trust them? Have you met them? Do you know them well enough to have any view at all?

For the vast majority of voters, these two guys are virtually strangers, the nuances of their respective characters closed books, their suitability for an evening in the pub unknown. Although Corby is teetotal which isn’t a good start for a convivial evening. Yet even comparatively apolitical people form character views of both men. Are those views worth anything?

No - not much.

We cannot have a worthwhile opinion on the character of a stranger even if we see them regularly on TV or online. Not even if we have met them briefly in some kind of controlled context. All we usually have is reported public behaviour. For politicians that means we put them in their political context and judge their behaviour accordingly but not necessarily accurately.

Unfortunately the public domain is managed, manipulated, edited, falsified by friend and foe alike. Like football it is a game with three points for a win, one for a draw and no points for a loss. Perhaps a narrative emerges, but it is the winner’s narrative and we have to accept that winners are not always worthy winners. They and their minders call in favours, twist arms and create distractions.

This is the problem. There is no point guessing at information which simply isn’t there, guessing that it has been successfully suppressed. It isn’t enough. Instinct, allegiance and suspicion aren’t enough, not if we value our own integrity. Too often the guilty get away with it because that is the nature of the game – winners win and losers lose.

In these cases it isn’t easy to accept the role of loser, to accept that many public people successfully hide their failings and failures from the public domain. Guesswork, instinct and allegiances cannot bridge the gap, cannot expose what has been successfully hidden or spirited away. A game lost is a lost game.

We cannot know public people in a personal sense, their foibles, strengths, weaknesses and tendency to be conventional, adaptable, imaginative or whatever. We cannot know them beyond their public behaviour and we cannot substitute gossip for what we do not observe. Obvious enough, but not so obvious when it comes to stories of sexual deviancy we hear so much about these days. Here we depart from David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn who as far as we know live blameless personal lives.

Our culture expends much time and vast amounts of money creating a false sense of familiarity between celebrities and their public, including major politicians. We are excessively familiar with gossip about people in the public domain. Millions go along with the stories, fantasies and fabrications as if they actually know the people concerned. Many soap opera fans behave as if the characters are real, many football fans seem to think they know football stars personally.

There is only reliably reported or observed behaviour and evidence admitted in court. Apart from that, people in the public domain are virtually strangers and best viewed as such. Strange strangers perhaps, but still strangers.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A view from Andromeda


As you have probably guessed, I am an alien. What you cannot have guessed is that I come from the planet Qargle which circles a fairly typical star in what you refer to as the Andromeda Galaxy. Yet life is a matter of perspective - you humans are the aliens as far as I am concerned but I’ll let that pass. I’ve been here on observer duty for many years so I’m becoming used to you.

“How did you get here?” must be the inevitable question. It is hard to describe in your terms, but imagine a kind of intergalactic wheelbarrow powered by a vat of radioactive lard. That’s not it of course, but the image is close enough. Actually I don't really know how it works, I just identify myself and press the blue button. It seems to be very fast.

So – what are my conclusions after all these years? The details of my reports are secret but I am allowed to pass on some broad conclusions before you become extinct. Oh, I should point out here that I and my species have nothing to do with your impending extinction. That is entirely your doing, so no surprises there. We don’t kidnap people either. That’s the other lot. They even kidnap us from time to time – bastards.

I cannot give any details of your extinction, but what I am able to say is that tedium and idiocy will play their part. Sadly, many of you already know that, but my wheelbarrow only has room for one. Plus a huge supply of bacon which we don’t have on Qargle. Yum yum.

I suppose I ought to say a word about the leaders you elect. You know they are inept and that’s fine, I have no problem with inept leaders, it’s how we do things on Qargle. Inept leaders are good because their ineptness allows the general populace to get on with their lives. There are minor irritants caused by ludicrous and expensive schemes which never work but on Qargle we accept this as inevitable. Unfortunately you humans are making a number of basic errors when appointing your inept leaders. Perhaps you need to choose them more carefully or offer more guidance.

Inept is not the same as stupid or venal, that is the first error. Genially inept is the target here, not rampantly stupid, insanely greedy or sexually incontinent. Your voters need to refine their notions as to what is appropriate in a leader. Genial ineptness is fine, it works. Inept is not the same as mad either. A point worth adding I think.

For example, your reaction to the scandal of fiddled expenses by UK MPs was quite inappropriate. Petty thieving by your MPs was a good sign, it showed up a whole range of desirable limitations and also how inexpensive their little foibles were. Really, the whole issue should have been swept under the carpet.  

I should also say a word or two about your ideas of entertainment. In general it is good for any society to foster entertainment, even yours. Here is a typically apt quote from an earlier Qargle observer.

For laughter and also jocularity are merely pleasure; and therefore, provided they are not in excess, they are good in themselves. Nothing, therefore save gloomy mirthless superstition prohibits laughter. For why is it more becoming to satisfy hunger and thirst than to disperse melancholy?
 Baruch Spinoza – Qargle Observer NI (Not Inept)

You see there is nothing here about falling down drunk, hours spent gaping at a television screen, more hours spent fiddling with mobile phones or weird rituals such as Strictly Come Prancing. These are inept entertainments and ineptness is supposed to be reserved exclusively for your leaders. It is their prerogative, not something you take from them, otherwise there is not enough ineptness to keep the political system clogged up. Your political classes wake up from their constructive stupor and start changing things. Therein lies disaster.

While we are on the subject of entertainment, a word about sport seems appropriate too. Sport is something in which one takes part, not something we merely pay others to perform while we stuff ourselves with inferior pies and cheap lager. The game’s the thing, not the pies and the booze.

Oh well, time to check my “wheelbarrow” and the “lard vat”. I shall not be using them for a while, but the temptation is hard to resist as I you must realise. Don’t forget about the extinction.

On second thoughts you may as well.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The year is 2030 -

Hi there

Today we are taking a look at a cool trend which isn’t new, but my how it has taken the world by storm! Yes we are talking about NoKlik Marketing, or NKM as it is called by those in the know and I know that includes you!

NKM is always moving on, developing into new customer areas and refining itself as you must be aware if you aren’t holed up in a cave somewhere like those old style hermit guys with big beards and skinny legs – only joking.

Yes there were a few teething problems such as my batch of Guatemalan racing snails which arrived only this morning. Charming little fellows they are too, but they have to go back unfortunately. Score another tick for the NoKlik learning curve I say.

As you know if you aren’t that hermit guy I referred to aeons ago, NoKlik Marketing is a great way to anticipate and supply what customers really want. Your personal web assistant or PA as we call them knows what you need anyway, so it was no surprise when a whole bunch of eggheads worked out a way to deliver your goodies without you having to do any of the donkey work such ordering them yourself.

Efficiency, it’s what the modern world is all about as I’m sure you’ll agree. It works just fine too. I listen to some great music and hey – my PA uses NoKlik to add another few tracks to my music store. It already knows I’ll like its choice and I do! My PA already knows all about my credit rating too, so wham-bam and my new music is delivered and paid for behind the scenes. I love it. I love NoKlik.

Who needs retro style choice anyway? We have supercharged choice which is kilometres better than plodding through a ton of stuff you don’t like to find that nugget of pure gold which a PA would have found in about a millionth of a second. Now NoKlik delivers it automatically.

Now here’s something you probably didn’t know. A new NoKlik app called Foney is about to make landfall. Foney knows who your friends are and in a quiet moment it phones one of them for you.

"Hmm suppose I don't have anything to say?" you ask me. Well here’s the really cool bit – Foney uses your PA to suggest topics of conversation, stuff which interests both of you. It even pops in a few comments during your phone conversation, just to keep things going. Your PA will keep you posted on that one.

Now NoKlik is moving into food as you will have heard because your PA makes sure you know everything you should know doesn’t it? What you may not know because it isn’t yet out on general release is that NoKlik food delivery is being refined before general rollout.

Yes the food delivered via NoKlik has proved fantastically healthy and nutritious, but there has been an unusual amount of helpful customer feedback. So much in fact that lessons are being learned big time.

Apparently the food delivered via NoKlik was so insanely healthy that folk were overwhelmed with it and couldn’t get started in the morning without a few cups of coffee and some other stuff delivered outside the NoKlik system. Strictly speaking that isn’t allowed but hey – it’s a free country. So no more lettuce for breakfast and food boffins are working on those bean patties.

More NoKlik news as it rolls out.

This article was brought to you by SlikGab™ the social commentary app everyone isn’t talking about because SlikGab does it for them! SlikGab If you like it you already bought it!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

From Lego to Charlie Hebdo

Ai Weiwei wants to build a free speech artwork from Lego bricks.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has been inundated with Lego brick donation offers after the Danish toy maker refused a request for a bulk order of the plastic toys on political grounds.

Lots to chew over. Are we so ignorant about free speech that we need another artwork to bring home the message? Whatever one thinks of Ai Weiwei, we probably do need his artwork if only to keep the issue alive.

Meanwhile Brendan O’Neill is more direct, he uses free speech to promote free speech. His piece in spiked is worth reading. Doesn’t say anything radical but reaffirms what too few of the chattering classes appear to understand – free speech is essential, without it we are doomed.

Free speech in Europe is under assault from within, by the very people you might expect to defend it: academics and liberals now more concerned with controlling the expression of hate than with guaranteeing freedom of thought. Charlie Hebdo cannot, and shouldn’t be expected to, hold back this tide of illiberalism.

Well said but unfortunately there is another problem. The problem is free speech which is untrue, misleading, biased, emotionally manipulative or whatever. Presumably people should be free to lie because otherwise we wouldn’t have free speech.

So they do.

So we end up in a situation where politically or commercially useful lies are so well funded that facts, evidence, uncertainties and contrary points of view are drowned at birth and their proponents abused or ignored. Lego won't cure that.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

El Niño

Most people probably know what El Niño is, but for those who don't this Met Office video is a good, straightforward presentation. It also covers La Niña. If it is as strong as predicted the it may well be blamed for many natural disasters, sometimes truthfully, sometimes not.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Red meat - the new wonder food

Red meat

The Daily Mail has yet another story on the great killer food debate. This time it's... hang on I've forgotten this week's diet narrative...

Forget red meat - you're more likely to get bowel cancer from eating CHOCOLATE: Leading colorectal surgeon on why he eats meat regularly - and how sugar is the true culprit

Ah yes, it's now red meat that leads to everlasting health and sugar causes a ghastly lingering death where your innards are slowly chewed to pieces by poisonous statistics. Something like that.

We eat a lot of fish and very little meat although I wouldn't turn my nose up at a hot beef cob with lots of fried onions. Will we die from a lack of red meat or would the occasional bacon cob ensure our survival? How about a beef and horseradish sandwich with a pint of real ale?

Why shouldn't the NHS dish out these little life-savers? Hot beef and onion cobs at the local doctor's surgery anyone?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The totalitarian within us

A recent Sunday found us walking the hills above Matlock. For some reason lost in the mists of time, Matlock attracts hordes of motorcyclists, especially on a fine day and especially on a Sunday.

The rumble of exhausts seems continuous. Even high up on the hill it was loud. Low frequency sound carries and motorcyclists seem to love it. At street level it can drown out a conversation. Looking down on yet another stream of big blokes on big machines it momentarily seemed ridiculous, excessive in the something should be done sense...

...but not for long. I was once a motorcyclist myself and even now I fancy a ride on a big beast of a bike. Not through Matlock though. Yet the worm of intolerance was there right enough, poking a scowling head out of its little hole when the rumble became particularly loud.

All of us seem to have these worms of intolerance, the inner totalitarian who would ban even the most innocuous activity. Politics thrives on it, but where does it come from, this totalitarian worm? Why has it become such an integral feature of modern life?

A fundamental aspect of human behaviour is the way we follow whatever path seems to lead to the minimum number of surprises. It’s a survival trait. When confronted with a range of possibilities we seem to be programmed to seek the safest and that is the one with the lowest likelihood of springing surprises. We minimise the number of situations where we may have to adapt in unexpected ways.

It’s why our ancestors formed tribes, worshipped gods, built castles, made laws, formed treaties, developed medicines and generally tried to insure themselves against all manner of eventualities. It’s why we are suckers for an infinite number of promised lands where punters supposedly live in a state of bliss and perfect safety.

The sinister link with totalitarian government is obvious. Totalitarian madness  is what we get when ruling castes rigorously root out potential surprises as a key element of their political schema and their own survival. That’s the problem, when our leaders and their senior functionaries aim to minimise surprises – all surprises - everywhere.

Doesn’t work forever of course. With totalitarian government we lose the ability to adapt and surprises become more dangerous to the rigid structures built to keep them out. Eventually a fatal combination of surprises leads to collapse, we have to adapt all over again and in so doing we pave the way for another bout of totalitarian control.

If so, then the most interesting question is where are we in the eternal totalitarian cycle? Pretty obvious I’d say.

We are on the that part of the cycle where totalitarian plans, schemes and laws are spewing all over us until we don’t know if we can get through a whole day without breaking some law. It may be a long climb to the peak though. That pesky adaptability keeps us going for a long time.

The key point seems to be that we can do nothing about it, nothing whatsoever. The ebb and flow of totalitarian rule is a feature of our mental biochemistry. We may have big brains with amazing capabilities, but the inexorable logic of personal safety always seems to screw us up.

It appears that we are unable to choose a path which is likely to lead us to more surprises than the alternative. Our biochemistry just doesn’t allow it. How could it? This is the totalitarian within us and until we untangle it, understand it and learn how to veto its imperatives, until we learn not to seek safety at any cost then the cycle is bound to continue.

In short, we sample the world to ensure our predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy and surprises are avoided. In this view, perception is enslaved by action to provide veridical predictions (more formally, to make the freeenergy a tight bound on surprise) that guides active sampling of the sensorium.
Karl Friston

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Edwardian Girls

Edwardian styles of 1908. A short section at the end suggests a remarkable change took place over the next twenty years.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Autumn jobs

There is something immensely satisfying about autumn jobs. The day began well with a breakfast of hot pancakes cooked by Mrs H who makes the finest wafer-thin pancakes I've tasted.

Later I fettled the wood burner after its first fire since the chimney was swept last spring. Our chimney sweep uses what looks like a big vacuum cleaner and my bed of ash always disappears into its sooty maw but a new one is well on the way now. Another fire should see it about right.

Afterwards the patio moss had to be dealt with. Block paving covered in bright green rectangles of moss. A tedious job one would have thought, enough to curse the guy who invented block paving but somehow it was a pleasure to get the job done and out of the way for winter. Autumn fettling - can't beat it.

Plenty of apples to be picked too but we're full of stewed apples for now and we've already given away loads of them. People have a limited appetite for apples but the blackbirds will eat any windfalls once they begin to rot.

Apart from the autumn colours and the apple harvest, this is a fine time to be outside working. Preparing for winter feels wholesome, as if a chap is back in tune with seasonal rhythms and things are as they should be. I think I'll treat myself to an evening not looking at the news.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The natural indifference of men

Most men — and certainly I could not always claim to be one of the exceptions — have a natural indifference, if not an absolutely hostile feeling, towards those whom disease, or weakness, or calamity of any kind causes to falter and faint amid the rude jostle of our selfish existence.

Except in love, or the attachments of kindred, or other very long and habitual affection, we really have no tenderness.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Blithedale Romance (1852)

Was Hawthorne right? His was a much harsher world than ours, one where those who couldn’t hack it were faced with the most miserable destitution and even starvation. Somehow we have drifted into another world where a grey official version Hawthorne's tenderness may be offered to strangers on our behalf via social institutions. We may or may not approve - the institutions are indifferent.

It is as if the concept of ‘stranger’ has become much more tenuous in our connected world. As if the horrors and tragedies of the twentieth century have squeezed out much of what Hawthorne calls the natural indifference of men by downplaying our notions of 'stranger'.

Ironically the notion 'stranger' changes into the strange one who lives within but does not conform, does not emit the right signals. The internal stranger who deserves no sympathy, support or friendship, who may be abused with impunity.    

Indifference though – it feels natural to me. An aspect of survival perhaps? A natural suspicion of strangers, indifference to their needs or their fate. It seems to go hand in hand with assessing the outsider without any confounding assumption of emotional ties, no attachment to their claims, their stories or their demands. It seems to remind us that people we don’t know are indeed strangers, that strangers still exist in this joined up world of ours.

Our world may be kinder in this respect, but also more superficial, bound up with social approval and the role of the state in setting personal standards to which we must conform. We have become enmeshed in a network of norms to which we are expected to subscribe. Or we don’t subscribe, emit the wrong signals, attract disapproval.

If we don’t subscribe then perhaps Hawthorne’s natural indifference hides itself behind a common enough type of conformity which is visibly reluctant, which conforms only outwardly and makes it obvious that this is so. None of which can be healthy.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The VW debacle – what next?

The VW debacle will rumble on for a while, but what about longer term – much longer? Senior bureaucrats who devise the regulations which are causing so much pain for VW may have their vision of a distant future, a vision which shapes policy and regulations. Timescales may be long too - say thirty years from now or possibly even further out.

In spite of the current importance of the car industry, do global planners see a world where human equality finally rules and every adult owns a car? I don't think so, but what might their visions for the future be, the ideals which drive their deliberations?

A world where almost everyone lives in a green city and doesn’t need a car?

A world where only public transport is allowed apart from the limousines of high officials?

A world where small towns and villages have been taken over by the manager class and workers are nowhere to be seen?

To bring this about it would be necessary to strangle the private car as we now know it with so many regulations that step by step it ceases to be a viable commercial proposition. Apart from a few expensive models supplied to the manager class perhaps. 

Urban living is already the norm so cities have to become more habitable as well as green. Air quality has to improve, transport has to become more efficient, commuting distances shorter.

Perhaps people will no longer bother learning to drive because green cities only allow automated electric cabs and trams. Manager class limousines would be electric. Inter-city transport is via electrified rail services but workers rarely use them. Even the manager class use them infrequently because in a connected world there is no need to travel. So much for HS2.

One could go on and on. Predicting the future is impossible but certain clues seem to be emerging. The world is increasingly run by a weirdly idealistic manager class mostly employed by or in the pocket of government, international bureaucracies or huge global corporations.

This is not a world where small towns and villages could remain viable except as congenial bolt holes for the manager class. In which case we would see more and more expensive houses in our villages plus fewer and fewer workers...


Friday, 16 October 2015

My heart bleeds

Business Green has an anguished cri de portefeuille stemming from reduced subsidies for the solar industry.

The UK solar industry is in crisis, but can a catastrophe yet be averted?

Job losses are mounting, but there are steps still available to the industry and the government that could avert a full-blown disaster for UK renewables.

One cannot celebrate job losses for ordinary working people, but the solar panel game is too close to a landowners' Ponzi scheme for my taste, quite apart from the climate imbecilities which drive it. With no obvious sense of irony we are also told.

Over the past two weeks I have spent four days at the Birmingham NEC, being denied sunshine while listening to various people talk about the grave state of the UK solar industry.

No, it's too easy to parody.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Respectable old blockheads

No sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Blithedale Romance (1852)

So not a new problem, living among reformers and progressive people who cast themselves adrift from reality. Hawthorne saw it over one hundred and fifty years ago. It wouldn’t matter if more stable folk were left alone to pursue what works and leave the rest alone but now we have mass meddling to contend with.

The second half of this Hawthorne quote bears an uncanny resemblance to blogging.

It was now time for me, therefore, to go and hold a little talk with the conservatives, the writers of “The North American Review,” the merchants, the politicians, the Cambridge men, and all those respectable old blockheads who still, in this intangibility and mistiness of affairs, kept a death-grip on one or two ideas which had not come into vogue since yesterday morning.

I have a feeling that there are many people in the blogosphere with a death-grip on one or two ideas which have not come into vogue since yesterday morning. At least I hope I’m one of them. Not so sure about being a respectable old blockhead even though Hawthorne probably meant it ironically. Maybe it's still better than the alternative.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Spivs to right of them, Dorks to left of them

A few days ago I read a piece in The Engineer about various alternatives for UK nuclear.

The situation over Britain’s proposed fleet of new nuclear reactors can charitably be described as a mess, and it isn’t one that looks likely to be tidied up any time soon. 

An interesting start but painfully familiar. Further on there is a mention of Liquid Fuelled Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) and opportunities for the UK to involve itself in what may turn out to be an important nuclear development.

If it’s true that the UK is incapable of developing a fighter jet on its own (and we gave our opinion on that a few months ago) then it must surely be beyond our capability to sort out all the problems with LFTR development. But there are interested parties in the US and thorium research is underway in China: this sounds like a prime candidate for a multinational research effort, something which would probably be more palatable to many than the current proposed Chinese investment in UK nuclear.

What struck me was not so much the content of the piece, but the political realities illustrated by the above photo. These two guys are supposed to have our hopes for the future on their shoulders. 

We must be mad.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Crimplene trousers


This morning found me in a stall full of vintage clothes. Vintage clothes are much the same as charity shop clothes but more expensive. Often much more expensive.

I’d spotted a waistcoat, almost brand new in appearance, hardly been worn from the look of it. I examined it. Buttons okay, general exterior pristine, lining just as good. Next the label. That looked brand new too... Arrrggg... Crimplene!

Crimplene (polyester) is a thick yarn used to make a fabric of the same name. The resulting cloth is heavy, wrinkle-resistant and retains its shape well. Britain's defunct ICI Fibres Laboratory developed the fibre in the early 1950s and named it after the Crimple Valley in which the company was situated. Crimplene was used in garments that required a permanently pressed look, such as skirts and trousers.

Developed by ICI eh? Remember ICI? The waistcoat had a prominent ICI logo on the label.

A pair of Crimplene trousers were easily the worst trousers I ever bought. This would be the early seventies. Brown they were, a seventies colour. We even painted one of our ceilings brown. I’d been looking for a reasonably smart pair of trousers for work – my first full time job. A pair of Crimps as we later called them seemed just the job.

Problem one was the plucking. If I brushed against anything less smooth than a snooker ball they plucked. Long fluffy brown threads emerged like peculiar growths and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I wasn’t too keen on cutting them off in case the whole trouser just kept on unravelling. I think I burnt off one or two, hoping to cauterise the wound before trouser gangrene set in.

Unfortunately plucking wasn’t the worst problem. Buying them in winter was the worst problem because Crimplene has absolutely no wind resistance. Even a moderate December breeze felt like strolling around the Arctic in underpants. The trousers may as well not have existed apart from the need to keep up appearances.

In those days I couldn’t afford to discard unsatisfactory trousers as I would today, but soon enough they went the way of all fashions. My future wife thought they were a hoot which much must signify something. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

That sweet, bewitching, enervating indolence

We had stepped down from the pulpit; we had flung aside the pen; we had shut up the ledger; we had thrown off that sweet, bewitching, enervating indolence, which is better, after all, than most of the enjoyments within mortal grasp.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Blithedale Romance (1852)

From Wikipedia
The Blithedale Romance is a work of fiction based on Hawthorne's recollections of Brook Farm, a short-lived agricultural and educational commune where Hawthorne lived from April to November 1841. The commune, an attempt at an intellectual utopian society, brought together many famous Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller

In the novel's preface, Hawthorne describes his memories of this temporary home as "essentially a daydream, and yet a fact" which he employs as "an available foothold between fiction and reality." His feelings of affectionate scepticism toward the commune are reflected not only in the novel, but also in his journal entries and in the numerous letters he wrote from Brook Farm to Sophia Peabody, his future wife.

In a somewhat lighthearted way, Hawthorne presents the Blithedale movement as a renunciation of middle class indolence which in his time represented a huge contrast between working people and those who did not work with their hands.

He implies that this is what the middle classes really want and generally achieve - that sweet, bewitching, enervating indolence, which is better, after all, than most of the enjoyments within mortal grasp. It is surely what many of us seem to desire too and here in the twenty-first century a far greater proportion of the population have achieved it.

How securely we don’t yet know, but indolence is attractive. We foster it in numerous ways from social drinking to passive entertainments such as TV and cinema, from dining out to relaxing in the sun. One might even say that fostering indolence has been deliberate and it isn’t difficult to see why that could be so.

A population in love with indolence is laid-back and not likely to upset the established order. It is likely to be generally accepting, easily pleased and manipulated. Not only that but... Blimey I’ve finished my glass of port...

Saturday, 10 October 2015

It has stolen my memory

I have long wished to know you, Mr. Coverdale, and to thank you for your beautiful poetry, some of which I have learned by heart; or rather it has stolen into my memory, without my exercising any choice or volition about the matter.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Blithedale Romance (1852)

When I originally came across these words, I misread the highlighted part as it has stolen my memory. That’s why I remembered it – Hawthornes’s words stole into my memory. Or maybe they stole my memory.

You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent... Ich bin ein Berliner... The lady's not for turning... Clunk click every trip... I counted them all out and I counted them all back... The pound in your pocket... No Child Left Behind... A million housewives every day... 'Is there anybody there?' said the traveller... Shock and awe... Lashings of ginger beer... Chromium, molybdenum and tungsten... Every little helps... What’s for dinner?... April fool... They think it’s all over... It is now.

Viewed as a stretch of personal real estate, our memory is stolen all the time and there is no real defence apart from cultivating non-attachment. Unfortunately that tends to come later in life, once we’ve dropped into the rut and filled our minds with too much garbage.

The modern world steals our memory, systematically and deliberately. Oddly enough we remember it happening too. Over and over again. Jingle bells, jingle bells...

Friday, 9 October 2015

Pauses for a tincture

 “Oh, she is dead, dead!" cried Eugenie, looking down at the still face. "No; she can’t be. Brandy—bring some brandy!"

A servant entered with the brandy, and Eugenie, filling a glass, forced some of the liquid between Kitty’s clenched teeth. Naball also took a glass, as he was worn-out with the struggle, then, hastily putting on his hat, went out, leaving Kitty lying, to all appearances dead, in Eugenie’s arms.
Fergus Hume - Miss Mephistopheles (1890)

In prolific writer Fergus Hume I hoped for a supply of holiday reading but I’ve given up on him. In the above quote, Naball is the detective trying to solve a murder and a jewel theft. This dramatic scene is the final denouement.

Two villains and Naball are all fighting each other. The villains rush off through French windows, one chasing the other into the night. What does Naball do? He’s worn-out with the struggle so he pauses for a reviving tincture. When he finally pops his hat on to give chase, the villains have resumed fighting on nearby railway tracks where a handy train finishes them off.

No - it just doesn’t work. I don’t mind a touch of melodrama, but Naball the dapper and gimlet-eyed detective ought to be at least as fit as two middle-aged villains. Sherlock Holmes, knowing all about the approaching train, would have shouted “after them Watson” and plunged out into the night. 

Some of it isn't bad, but as with many second-rate writers he needed a better editor. No more Fergus Hume for me. Pity.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Evans, it's another black box

Sackers recently sent me a link about David Evan’s climate theory.

Dr Evans has a theory: solar activity. What he calls “albedo modulation”, the waxing and waning of reflected radiation from the Sun, is the likely cause of global warming.

A summary of his initial work can be found here and later work is here - far too much to summarise in a single blog post. The work is certainly interesting, but as with many climate claims the first issue is whether or not it deserves attention. The second is how much?.

The basic problem is that there is no such thing as climate science and no such tribe as climate scientists even though we use the terms in order to take part in the debate. In reality there are many specialist climate areas and many specialist scientists but unlike more established sciences, climatology hasn’t yet reached a state of overall coherence. There is no climate equivalent of the periodic table.

An alternative to absorbing the minutiae of Dr Evan’s approach is to treat the whole thing as a black box. This in no way implies that the Evans theory is not worth studying for anyone so inclined. The black box approach is merely a practical way to tackle the incoherence problem for those of us with no strong allegiances to any particular theory. Each climate theory is treated as a black box.

It doesn’t matter what is in the box.
It doesn’t matter who built it.
It doesn’t matter who endorses it.
Predictive performance is what matters.

So Dr Evan’s black box passes or fails its first test between 2017 and 2021. Even if cooling occurs on cue, this black box has only passed one simple test. A coin toss could do as much. It doesn’t follow that the Evans box will pass any other tests.

This testing process could go on for decades, but so what? Science is merely a complex way of saying “if you do this you see this”, so that’s how we test assertions about the future. We wait. Scientists may prefer us to admire their lovingly crafted box before it passes any test whatever, but that’s another and much older story - human behaviour.

Having said that, Dr Evans is in my view an interesting chap. I've been following his posts from the beginning because we need such people if we are to make progress. We need to find the climate equivalent of the periodic table because as yet we don't have it. 

Perhaps 2017 will give us our first clue but don't bet on it. 

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Car indicators

This morning found me in the car waiting at a traffic island. Another car driven by a chap with a big beard approached from the right with his left-hand indicator going, suggesting he was about to turn down the road where I patiently waited. As far as I know the beard isn’t relevant.

Anyhow, instead of assuming beardy would actually turn left I waited, just in case. For some reason the subtle clues which tell us these things had come into play, suggesting to me that waiting was a good idea. The clues were right. He carried on across the island and if I’d pulled out we’d have hit each other.

Far from unusual, happens all the time, but a chap is bound to ask if indicators are really worthwhile. We can’t just believe them and carry on regardless so we don’t. If an approaching car is far enough away we go, if it isn't we are more cautious but we trust indicators at our peril.

We have moderate our faith in indicators with defensive driving and those subtle clues which generally keep us out of accidents. In which case why bother with indicators?

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Monday, 5 October 2015

Blasé sheep

From yesterday's walk, a view of Carsington Water from the surrounding hills. It appears misty because it was, the mist didn't lift until later. The photo doesn't bring out how beautiful the view was even if the sheep isn't paying much attention. Seen it before I suppose.

Meanwhile we have the 5p tax on supermarket bags unless you happen to be buying goldfish. Perhaps somebody wants us to be sheep too. Mr Wolf probably. 

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Sugar on poverty

Lord Sugar thinks real poverty no longer exists

Lord Sugar says there's no such thing as real poverty in 21st century Britain

Lord Sugar says today's poor have never had it so good, with mobile phones, computers and televisions making a mockery of claims of deprivation

He is certainly right if poverty is to be taken as absolute poverty where starvation knocks at the door. Starvation poverty is a thing of the past but climbing out of it still lies within living memory. Anyone of a certain age can recall what would now be seen as severe and widespread poverty. I don't recall starvation poverty because I’m not that old, but I recall the climbing and I do recall my great uncle telling us how his family cooked sparrows when times were hard.

So Alan Sugar is right in that sense. I grew up in a household with no fridge, freezer, TV, music system, central heating, phone, car or dishwasher. We only had one holiday a year but in our own eyes we weren’t poor. The real poor lived elsewhere and had even less. Not being politically correct we called their offspring “the dirty kids” and avoided them socially.

Unfortunately human behaviour is what it is and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. We copy others, measure ourselves against them and this gives us a second and perfectly legitimate view of poverty. Poverty can be relative. We were not poor when compared with "the dirty kids".

The problem is we use the same word for two different things with two different but overlapping impacts. Too many people try to make political capital from confusing two types of poverty and from the disputes which naturally arise, which is probably what pisses off Lord Sugar.

To my mind he should not be pissed off by it. Inequality is probably necessary to generate a degree of dynamism in societies, but too much of it causes too much social division even when those at the bottom of the pile have mobile phones and humongous TVs. The rich and powerful loose touch and that's another problem we don't know how to tackle.

Friday, 2 October 2015

You didn’t say ‘peanut’

One of the most enduring games in Grandson’s school playground is one I played sixty years ago. In the fifties we called ‘tick n’hit’. Grandson calls it ‘tig’ but there are many other names.

From Wikipedia -
Tag (also known as it, tip you're it or tig [in regions of Britain], and many other names) is a playground game that involves one or more players chasing other players in an attempt to "tag" or touch them, usually with their hands. There are many variations; most forms have no teams, scores, or equipment. Usually when a person is tagged, they tagger says, "Tag, you're it".

In the playground this morning one boy managed to tag another but almost before he could run off, the tagged boy shrieked triumphantly ‘you didn’t say peanut’. So that was that, he escaped because he hadn’t been legitimately tagged at all.

The rule was new to me and I've watched them play for a few years now. It still looks like fun, but it also struck me how good the game is for learning about life, for avoiding petty failures via new rules others might not be aware of, for turning an apparent fait accompli on its head at the last minute.

Learn the lesson well chaps - learn it well.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Motherhood and apple pie

...without the apple pie.

Gazing from the foot of the bed, Harcourt divined in the still, recumbent figure the girl his mother had once been. He felt an impulse to cry, but did not cry. He saw as in a dream the whole of his mother’s life, from girlhood to grey hairs. And his sadness increased. He was acutely sorry for her, as we are always sorry for the poor dead. He realized that he had never been entirely just, and never generous enough, towards his mother.
Arnold Bennett - Under The Hammer (1931)

At what age does a chap see the girl his mother had once been? Not an early age perhaps? Motherhood seems to be an aspect of modern life we don’t handle as well as we could and once did, as if our capacity for this most deserved esteem has been siphoned off by the manipulative canker of modernity.

Or perhaps motherhood is a comparatively recent middle class invention never adopted by aristocrats or peasants. Yet it seems to be one of the reasons why we are where we are, the nurturing, the crucial years of early education and that unquenchable desire to pass on to the child more than the parents ever had.

Yet learning how to handle motherhood more sensitively - and it may as well be said, more productively - does not seem to be on the politically correct agenda. Pushing mothers into tedious careers with false promises of liberation and fulfilment, fiddling around with tax and benefits, holding up celebrity mothers as role models while nanny who does all the work stays safely in the background. There is a dark undercurrent of dishonesty in the way we project modern motherhood.

Perhaps Bennett’s words suggest it isn’t a new problem even its nature has changed, but we could at least acknowledge how important motherhood is without those blasted celebrities, without oily political sentiment or strident rhetoric. It’s a supremely delicate matter with sentimental slush at one end and at the other end we have charlatans, airheads and professional poseurs plying their unlovely trade.

Bennett was right but we cannot make too much of it because of what we are, because of our refined ability to destroy the fragile delicacy of a balanced standpoint. It requires not propaganda but a quiet recognition of what motherhood is, what mothers sacrifice, what they give with such wholehearted willingness and why it is so remarkable.

Unfortunately there is too much political kudos sucking too many teats, from those ghastly celebrities to sanctimonious political stooges. They steal from us our most precious human potential and one of them is motherhood.

At times it almost feels deliberate, as if the potential of motherhood has been shackled, as if all that gently ambitious nurturing was just too successful.

Car farting ban comes into force

From the BBC

A law banning farting in vehicles carrying children has come into force in England and Wales.
Drivers and passengers who break the law could face a penalty fine of £50 - but police say they will take a non-confrontational approach initially.

Whenever an under-18 is in the car, persistent bean-eaters will still be liable even if the windows are down or sunroof open.

But the law will not apply to people who are driving in a convertible which has the roof down.

The Scottish Parliament is expected to consider bringing in its own law banning farting in cars carrying children next year.

The science behind the ban is straightforward. Methanethiol is a component of flatulence gases and toxic in high concentrations. From Wikipedia -

A safety data sheet (SDS) lists methanethiol as a colorless, flammable gas with an extremely strong and repulsive smell. At very high concentrations it is highly toxic and affects the central nervous system. Its penetrating odor provides warning at dangerous concentrations.