Thursday, 27 July 2017



We'll soon be setting off on our Suffolk holiday, so limited blogging for a while.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

In the midst, there was a darkness

In Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians, there is an interesting observation about William Gladstone. Interesting because with only slight alterations to the wording, Strachey’s viewpoint could be applied to modern leadership. For example, if we substitute Tony Blair for William Gladstone we end up with a passage which does not fit Blair exactly but is close enough to be interesting.

There is absolutely no intention to imply that Blair is another Gladstone. It is a question of leadership and different types of leader. Here is the passage with the alterations.

In spite of the involutions of his intellect and the contortions of his spirit, it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in Mr. Gladstone Mr Blair. He adhered to some of his principles that of the value of representative institutions, for instance with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion government were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour. Compared with Disraeli's Thatcher’s, his attitude towards life strikes one as that of an ingenuous child.

His very egoism was simple-minded; through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst, there was a darkness.

Lytton Strachey - Eminent Victorians (1918)

If we choose to expand this, then we might say it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in the very concept of modern democratic leadership, impossible not to perceive how necessary it is for modern leaders to adopt and project an uncritically crude view of government capabilities.

There is no need to stick with Tony Blair to see this played out in modern leadership. Political ideas must have wide appeal to chime with the millions who do little or no research, being satisfied with crude maxims and naive allegiances.

We evolved, to navigate our way through life by evading surprises. A crude standpoint enables us to do that, especially when it comes to the infinite complexities of political life. If nothing is irretrievably anchored to reality then everything is explainable, especially after the event. This is the political world in which all would-be leaders must cast their nets.

A further point is Strachey’s claim that Gladstone really had a strain of naiveté in his character and his religious views really were uncritical to the point of crudeness. It was no facade and perhaps that was advantageous too.

We have certainly seen this kind of thing in modern leaders and maybe we see now in Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps this is the source of his appeal just as a lack of a sufficiently crude outlook is the source of Theresa May’s credibility problems. In which case she is unlikely to resolve those problems because other people do it better. Boris Johnson for example, although he made the mistake of adopting a clown persona. An oddly naive thing to do – it displays the facade.

Yet facades work too. Leaders do not have to be like Gladstone. They do not have to be naive themselves to see the value of naiveté, neither need they have a crude notion of government in order to promote crude political maxims. On the other hand, leaders who are genuinely naive with a genuinely crude notion of government may be very effective political leaders, especially in a world of Twitter storms.

Of course this is politics. It is the other lot who always adopt the crudest notions of government and promote the most naive policies don’t they?

Monday, 24 July 2017

Three Mercedes ads

Via Mercatornet we are treated to three Mercedes ads where the cars are barely seen. All is emotion, soul-searching and glutinous modernity. The three ads are called.

Grow up: “Be a good parent”
Grow up: “Settle down”:
Grow up: “Start a family”:

The second and third ads are here and here. Meanwhile the Telegraph treats us to another, more familiar angle which may help us to explain what must be a substantial advertising spend.

Germany’s biggest car manufacturers shares plunged in early trading as investors digested allegations about decades of collusion between Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler.

Investors dumped the shares after reports, which first appeared in the German press late on Friday afternoon, claiming the companies may have secretly worked together on technology, forming a cartel that could have led to the “dieselgate” emission scandal.

The allegations come just days after Daimler recalled more than 3m of its Mercedes Benz cars for work to lower their emissions. The week before, Audi - which is owned by Volkswagen - recalled 850,000 vehicles.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Ercol revival

Over the past few years a mild air of dissatisfaction has begun to taint the musty atmosphere of antiques centres. At least it has for us and the culprit is Ercol furniture. Nothing wrong with Ercol if that is how your tastes evolved. The quality seems pretty good and the company is still around making more of it, but we have two problems with it infesting the antiques trade.

Firstly there is the disconcerting fact that a style we grew up with is now labelled as 'antique'. Oh dear - are we that old? Labelling it as 'retro' helps a little but 'vintage' is no great improvement. Not that we ever bought any Ercol but it helped define the seventies interior and now gives an unwelcome nudge about those aspirations we nurtured only a few decades ago.

Secondly it is too obvious where much of this Ercol is coming from. Oldies who bought it to furnish their houses are downsizing, moving into retirement homes or dying. As it is now worth money, their lovingly polished furniture passes into the antiques trade.

I suppose one might call it recycling. Even that sounds better than 'antique'... or maybe it doesn't.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Vinegar, salt and sardines

Via we discover the delights of shopping in Venezuela.

Rosalba Diaz pushes her shopping cart through what, at first glance, seems like a well-stocked supermarket in Caracas. But looking closer, she can see that many of the shelves are jammed with bottles of vinegar, boxes of salt and cans of sardines.

Diaz, 66, is an economist at a Caracas consulting firm, but she says her salary cannot keep up with Venezuela’s near 800 percent inflation. Last year, she stopped traveling and eating out. She has shopped at this market for more than 20 years but now, she says, many basic items are missing from the shelves — things like bread, rice, coffee and corn flour. And what is on the shelves is unaffordable.

“Food is so expensive,” Diaz says, as she pushes her cart. “I can’t buy heavy cream. I can’t even buy cereal or fruit.”

She checks out the onions, which cost 4,000 bolivars a kilo (about 50 cents at the black market exchange rate). That’s twice as much as last week, so Diaz says she’s only buying two.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Best job in the world


John Reith (1889-1971) was the founder of the BBC. He was its first general manager when it was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922; and he was its first director general when it became a public corporation in 1927. He created both the templates for public service broadcasting in Britain; and for the arms-length public corporations that were to follow, especially after World War Two. Reith fought off the politicians' attempts to influence the BBC, while offering the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain.

The recent BBC pay issue has been interesting on a number of counts, but surprise is not one of them. We have always known about celebrities attracting huge salaries, yet even though the information provided by the BBC is far from complete we are not talking about vast sums when compared to corporation's overall income.

Two aspects do stand out though. Firstly the distribution of the lucre seems oddly haphazard. One might expect to see talent rewarded in a fairly systematic manner, but that does not seem to be how it is actually done.

For example, it is not at all obvious why Gary Lineker earns between £1,750,000 and 1,799,999. Personable football pundits are not rarities. Somebody deep in the bowels of the BBC will have a justification, but it probably seems haphazard because it is. Similarly we learn that talking heads may earn £500,000 or more doing a job any competent actor could do and would probably enjoy doing at least as well for far less. 

Secondly we note how the BBC makes no attempt to apply its aggressively egalitarian public ethos to its own internal affairs. That is no surprise either. The BBC has adopted the ethos of the entertainment industry even though it need do no such thing. As a dominant UK player with much to offer in terms of security and satisfaction it could have been a very different organisation with a less hypocritical ethos. For example.

BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast's Rachel Burden, who co-presents with Nicky Campbell (who's in the £400,000 - 449,999 bracket), was under no obligation to reveal her salary as it falls below the £150,000 threshold.

But she tweeted: "Whilst we're in the transparency game, and for those asking, I fall in the middle of the 100-150k category.

"This is a huge amount of money for a job I love doing five days a week, and I know what a privilege it is to be able to say that.

"Also worth saying we have a brilliant team of journalists on far, far less than that who we totally rely on and I'm so grateful to them."

Political correspondent Chris Mason added: "Good on Rachel for volunteering this. I'll do same: I earn £60,000 as a Political Correspondent. Best job in world."

BBC Radio 4 Money Box host Paul Lewis also disclosed his earnings, saying: "Many of us are now doing this. Excellent. As I said some hours ago in 2016/17 I got £67,413 total BBC fees."

"Best job in the world," says Political Correspondent Chris Mason. It probably is for those on the inside.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Turbine tech

The Engineer has an interesting article on the remarkable technology behind Rolls Royce turbine blades.

The components the ABCF is producing are not ones that most people ever see: they are the turbine blades that are hidden away in the hottest part of jet engines. For from the decorative brilliance of Greek bronzes, they combine a utilitarian appearance with complexity of form and function and a jewel-like internal perfection: weighing only about 300g and small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, they are in fact perfect single crystals of a metal alloy whose composition has been fine-tuned over many years to operate in the hellish conditions of the fastest-moving part of a jet engine.

During a summer job in the late sixties I worked in a Rolls Royce lab where we tested this type of blade. In those days they were simpler but not so very different in appearance. The lab I worked in was trying to coat them with tungsten using a kind of plasma spray gun. Tungsten wire was fed into the plasma and sprayed by hand onto test blades. One problem was sunburn from all the uv generated by the plasma.

Surprisingly enough it all seemed rather casual to me, with little sense of urgency. We drank tea from laboratory beakers and some people brought in foreigners, which were DIY projects smuggled in to take advantage of Rolls Royce technical and engineering facilities in various parts of the site. 

One chap repaired his rusty torch this way. First he had the metal case sandblasted to remove the old paint and the rust, then he repaired rust holes with resin. Next he had the thing spray painted in a Rolls Royce painting booth and finally a metal ring which held the glass was nickel-plated in a Rolls Royce plating bath. A few years later Rolls-Royce was declared bankrupt. That torch was a symptom of malaise, even I could tell that.

Things are obviously very different now and it's a pity that this kind of story in the Engineer rarely makes it into the mainstream media. No doubt it is basically a press release, but it is an interesting one, isn't all that technical and deserves a wider circulation. Instead we have reams of drivel about the latest incarnation of Dr Who, a kids' TV programme.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Leftist Buzzword Salad

An interesting clip, especially the assertion that accusations of racism are losing their potency. Perhaps people are tired of political correctness, tired of hearing the same old mantras over and over again. Perhaps people are well aware that far too much of it is wildly exaggerated or simply untrue.

I'm not so sure though. We should not mistake the extremes for symptoms of a potentially fatal malaise. Finger-pointing is infinitely flexible, infinitely resourceful, hugely appealing to human vanity. That's one which isn't losing its potency - vanity. Just the opposite as far as I can see.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Thomas Sowell on slavery

None of this will be news to anyone with even a passing interest is such matters, but is the wider story of slavery worth knowing, at least in outline?

Of course it is, the question is rhetorical, but with black slavery coupled to white guilt as virtually the only aspect we see in the mainstream arena, what do we gain personally if we try to set the issue in a wider historical context?

I’m not sure. When a particular narrative dominates the public arena, then even accuracy seems somewhat futile and that cannot be good.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Four sparrows and a thrush

He softly let himself out, and was gone some time. When he reappeared, he produced, not a rabbit, but four sparrows and a thrush. ‘I could do nothing in the way of a rabbit without setting a wire,’ he said. ‘But I have managed to get these by knowing where they roost.’ He showed her how to prepare the birds, and, having set her to roast them by the fire, departed with the pitcher, to replenish it at the brook which flowed near the homestead in the neighbouring Bottom.

Thomas Hardy - Two on a Tower (1882)

Times change. I would have no idea how to find a meal like that, nor how to cook it. Yet as a youngster I remember a great-uncle telling us about his childhood and how his family used to catch and eat sparrows. The times he was speaking of would only be a few years after Hardy published his novel.

We have lots of sparrows in the garden this year but I’m not tempted.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Tainted Source

Politics should be based on the recognition that the state is a public entity based on law, not an enterprise run by managerial decisions made in private.
John Laughland - The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea

John Laughland’s book was first published twenty years ago but is still relevant today, especially amid the turmoil of competing Brexit narratives. Among other aspects, it provides an interesting examination of the roots of the EU, particularly Europe as envisaged by fascist and Nazi strategists, academics and business leaders before and during WWII. Of particular interest is how extremely close the EU is now to the structures worked out by totalitarian thinkers over seventy years ago. The EU is not a modern construct and fascist political thinking did not simply disappear from Europe in 1945.

Apart from this totalitarian and even antiquated aspect of the EU, one of Laughland’s most interesting ideas is his concept of an unpolitical EU. By that he means that the EU has a managerial rather than a political ethos and this runs throughout its structure. It is not political but unpolitical. All issues must have a single official response and supporting that response must be an overall plan, strategy or process with no room for deviation. This is not politics but administration - the EU is not political.

The EU is all about planning and implementing the plan, not about discussing plans in the political arena, tearing them to pieces, patching them back together again. None of that. The knockabout and messy war of ideas has no place in an EU which values its totalitarian roots without ever admitting that this is where it all came from. This is not to accuse the EU of being fascist as Laughland is careful to point out, because that would be ridiculous - times have changed. As his book’s title suggests, it is more a case of pointing out the EU’s tainted roots and continuing failure to repudiate those roots by facing up to the ingrained deficiencies they have caused.

The point being made here is that political life should be messy and uncertain because that is the very nature of politics and human interaction generally. This fractured, suck it and see form of social and economic progress is how mistakes are corrected, how resilience is welded into the political fabric, how dissident voices can be heard in case they harbour valuable insights.

In which case, first past the post voting is likely to be more political than any form of proportional representation because it maximises the political over the unpolitical. Proportional representation leads away from the clamour of political freedom towards the unpolitical path of restricted freedoms, of closed doors and insider dealing where the corridors of power matter far more than the debating chamber.

As ever a key problem comes down to people. As the EU tries and tries again to apply linear thinking to non-linear realities, the issue of competence at the highest level becomes ever more acute. The EU does not have the ability nor the flexibility to build what it claims to be building. It is all very well to poke fun at figures such as Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, but there is a more serious side to this problem.

It is increasingly obvious that the EU does not have the political competence to push itself towards successful completion where it is able to compete with the rest of the world. The EU is gargantuan project lurching through the post-war decades, becoming more and more unwieldy. Like a huge drunken uncle sprawled across the kitchen floor, nobody cares to pick it up and in any event nobody can.

Who with an ounce of humility and self-knowledge would ever take it on? Not even a political genius and we don’t have many of those. A dynamic political culture supplies its own distributed genius, not merely from the brains of talented individuals but from millions upon millions of daily decisions taken by politically free people building their lives within a respected framework of law, justice and democratic government. That is what politics is supposed to do for us.

Politics is therefore part of what it is to be human, if ‘politics’ means the public association of individuals who understand themselves to be ‘a people’. Without ‘a people’, there can be no rule by the people (democracy).
John Laughland

Monday, 10 July 2017

The memory hole

This is the view from our lunch stop during a walk along the river Wye this afternoon. As you can see I’ve included my boots to add a hint of authenticity. Would Patrick Lichfield have imagineered such an artistic touch? I think not.

A little earlier Mrs H and I had been discussing the question of elusive memories and how annoying it is to find you can’t recall the name of a particular celebrity, politician or almost any other name. It can be mildly worrying too, but also cheering if after some intense brain racking you finally manage to make a connection and come up with the right name. Surprising how often it wasn't worth all that effort though.

Yet we could have looked at the problem from another angle. Perhaps we should be pleased when unused names slip away from immediate recall simply because they are no longer encountered regularly. Trying to bring them back is like fishing something out of the bin even though it was discarded for a reason. It might come in useful... No it won’t, it never does. I blame the recycling mania.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be mildly concerned at how easy it is to pack our memories with all this useless information such as the names of celebrities who merely infest the public arena, adding nothing of value to social memories. So forgetting may be good for us as well as... what was it? I’m sure there was something else...

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Clicks among the outrage

From the Telegraph  we are told - 

Two British men have become the first in the country to give birth after putting their gender transitions on hold.

Hayden Cross, 21, and Scott Parker, 23, were both born women, but chose to have children before full surgery made it impossible.

Yes, the two "men" are of course women but no doubt the Telegraph knows it can use such stories to harvest some clicks along with the outrage. It's all very modern in a race to the bottom kind of way.

In April Mr Parker gave birth to his daughter Sara who was conceived following a drunken one-night stand with a friend in August last year.

Last month Mr Cross delivered his daughter Trinity-Leigh via Caesarean section, after he found a sperm donor on Facebook and inseminated himself.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The bus stops here

From the BBC we hear about a conflict between a bus stop and the front door of a newly built house in Langley Mill.

A newly-built house with a bus shelter "smack-bang" in front of its door has been put up for sale.

The two-bedroom home in Langley Mill is "attracting a lot of interest" despite being blocked by the bus stop, estate agent Burchell Edwards said.

Mrs H and I pass this site several times a week on the grandchild school run so the problem has been obvious to us for some time. The houses have been built on a site once occupied by a large second hand car dealer but why anyone would buy one we're not sure. Apart from the bus stop issue which only affects one property, the houses seem to have no garden, merely a yard for storing wheelie-bins.

As far as we can see, these brand-new terraced houses have far less land than nearby miners' terraces built in the nineteenth century. The new houses may be clean, modern and well-insulated, but given the choice I'd probably prefer the nineteenth century version with a garden. 

Friday, 7 July 2017


Because we have grandkids I watch a fair bit of kids’ TV although these days all of it is streamed off the internet. Terrestrial TV seems to be dead as far as the grandkids are concerned. I doubt if they know which channel is which so the BBC's planned spending splurge could be a waste of money.

Commonly heard on kids’ TV is the word ‘awesome’. Along with ‘amazing’ it denotes a kind of gushing approval which can be directed at any mediocre achievement because the great aim seems to consist of avoiding the worst possible thing a child can ever experience – sadness.

Oh well – we are all too familiar with hype, exaggeration, unmerited praise and the pathological avoidance of criticism because we are modern and caring. We must be soft in the head too - but I add that in the nicest possible way.

It is natural to encourage kids in their halting endeavours to learn and progress because we want them to do well. Of course we do so we have to offer up at least some admiration for that weird orange blob which is supposed to be Mummy or that lump of Play-Doh which is supposed to be a dragon. The trouble is these things are neither awesome nor amazing so perhaps we shouldn't say they are. It doesn't prepare them for bureaucratic realities later on.

Suppose a child grows up, takes to politics, climbs the greasy pole all the way to the top and finally makes the UN work as it should. That would be both awesome and amazing. Well not really. That would be impossible, but ‘impossible' is a word you don’t seem to hear much on kids’ TV and that could explain a good deal.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Clutching at straws

From eurekalert we hear about new research into the healthy side-effects of Pokémon GO.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Pokémon GO's worldwide release that sent crowds hiking through parks, meandering into streets and walking for miles in search of Pokémon, those cute little digital characters that appear in real locations on your smartphone...

...Kent State University researchers found that playing a popular physically-interactive, smartphone based game, like Pokémon GO, may actually promote exercise.

Grandson was keen on Pokémon and was quite prepared to trek off outside with his mobile phone to find the strange little creatures. However, as with every other fad, this one faded and now he hardly ever mentions them. Not a health regime to rely on I'd say. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Dumb as a rock

Donald Trump recently managed to seem even less presidential than usual by describing MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski as "dumb as a rock Mika".

“Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika are not bad people, but their low rated show is dominated by their NBC bosses,” Trump wrote. “Too bad!”

Whatever the story behind this, we are not accustomed to a relentless stream of crude jibes from a US president. Even those still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt must wonder why they stick with it. 

And yet...

And yet great swathes of modern media output are as dumb as a rock even if the media folk behind them are not. If influential people keep quiet about it or if they try to be even-handed – what then? That’s the problem with Trump’s approach. We may dislike seeing it from a president but it is common enough in blogging and social media. If Trump is waging a war against what he sees as fake news, then how is he supposed to wage it? In such a way that nothing is done and voters barely notice?

For example, BBC coverage of green issues is as dumb as a rock and has been for years. So why not say so? Imagine an impossible situation.

Theresa May – “As for last night’s BBC programme on sustainable energy, they are not bad people but their low rated show was dominated by a green agenda. Too bad!”

Jeremy Corbyn – "I agree with the Prime Minister. The show was dumb as a rock activism – not what we want from the BBC at all."

A ludicrous scenario of course, but Trump’s crudeness has raised an interesting question. It may be that our expectation of public politeness from senior political figures has steered us into a situation we never would have entered if we had the choice - a situation where the miserable standard of mainstream reporting is never tackled. 

Our political class would rather manipulate it than tackle it but is that what we want? We do not need even more laws and regulations about what can be said either, but that is what we're getting. What we need is more robustness in public discourse, more freedom to say what is becoming ever more difficult to say.

I still don’t like how Donald Trump operates, but behind the dislike is a certain wistful sense that we have drifted too far the other way and Trump is merely pointing it out.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Tyranny of Pop Music

Last year we were in Debenhams whiling away a few hours while the car was being serviced. Round about lunch time I phoned the garage on my mobile to see how things were going but had not realised how loud the store's ambient music was. 

After vainly looking around for a quiet spot I ended up couching by a rack of coats with a finger in one ear. That way I could just make out what the garage had to say. No doubt the receptionist at the other end wondered why I was shouting, yet so many appear not to notice the incessant assault on our ears. Until that phone call I hadn't noticed just how loud it was. In the end, familiarity tends to breed not contempt, but acceptance.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Chocolate - the intelligent choice

Frontiers in Nutrition has some excellent information for chocolate lovers.

Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids

The specific mechanisms of action of flavonoids responsible for cognitive protection and modulation are not entirely elucidated. Nevertheless, increasing evidence supports the notion that cocoa and chocolate consumption provides several health benefits, including neurocognitive enhancement and neuroprotective effects.

Good news indeed, but it is probably worth reminding ourselves that milk chocolate sold in the UK may contain as little as 20% cocoa solids. Good quality dark chocolate seems to be the intelligent choice, but if we already make intelligent choices we don't need it do we?

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Movie guys

It is cold, dark and foggy outside my favourite bar and not so radically different inside. ‘Favourite’ probably deserves a qualification even though it is unlikely get one. No matter.

Whatever the physical deficiencies it is a deliciously atmospheric night if one prefers the real thing. I’m not so sure about that either - so often the movies do it better and if that isn't the ultimate sadness I don't know what is. A guy I used to know pushes his way into the bar, admitting ghostly tendrils of fog and mystery.

Hey what brings you here? I ask with tepid interest.

Oh – a few things. Mind if I join you?

Of course not and forgive my surprise but round here – well it just isn’t what I see as your kind of - tippling establishment.

You were going to say dive – not my kind of dive.

Yes I was - because it is and it isn’t.

No it isn’t.


So maybe I was brought up round here and that’s all there is to it. Sentimental attachment. Scratching a very old sore even though I know I shouldn’t.

Okay – I see. Sentimental attachment. We all play that game which for you is just as well.

I don’t play it though – not usually.

No perhaps not. In fact you never really did - you just faked it. Speaking of which - how is that sexpot wife of yours? Number four is it – or is it five? You see I do keep up with your career – in my own way.

It’s number three and she is fine thank you.

Well that’s nice. And are you still making movies?

Yeah, I’m still making movies.

I only ask because –

Because you don’t go to see them. Since we parted company you never did as I recall.

I saw one –

But you don’t remember what it was called, what it was about.

Well – you know.

Yes I do know. You think movies are beneath you and that includes mine.

No I don’t and please allow me buy a round of something strong and cheap - my usual tipple.

Thanks and yes you do think movies are beneath you and you’re right, they are. All of them. Including mine.

Ah so that’s why you’re here. It’s the angst again. It’s such a swine isn’t it – the angst?


It’s what keeps you going though – lots of lovely angst. It’s where your inspiration comes from.

You’re lying to me again.

I’m not-

Yes you are. You always lied to me in spite of everything. I don’t do inspiration. You always knew that but you always lied to me about it.

You needed me to.

Needed you to what?

You needed me to lie to you – about inspiration and all that shit. You knew I was lying but you needed it so I gave it. That was my job – lying to you. That was why you paid me. Nothing else.

I paid you for your creativity –

I wasn’t creative. You didn’t need it. Movies are like a kid’s jigsaw. A star or two, so much romance, so much pointless violence, so much pathos, so much exchange of sexual fluids, so much prissy politics, so much clunking drama. Put it together in roughly the right proportions and you have yet another movie. The ratings and the audience don’t allow for anything deeper.

So that’s why you think I’m here – the creative angst finally got to me.

I thought it might – eventually.

Well it hasn’t – I don’t care for any of that.

I don’t believe you but do carry on – tell me why you’re really here.


Boredom? Well that’s new – boredom. I never saw you as a victim of something so banal, so juvenile as boredom.


Yeah - juvenile. Good God you must know that – boredom is essentially juvenile. Always.

I’ll say this for you, you still have your old genius for spinning reasons for – for whatever. That’s certainly one you never dropped on me – boredom is juvenile. Christ I could even have used it.

You would have used it.

Yes I would - I shall.

No you won’t.


You won’t use it –ever. You’ve jumped ship.

Have I?

Yes you have.

Maybe I have – although technically not yet. I need to sink or swim and know for sure which it is.

Sink or swim? On what I may as well ask but prefer to guess. The medium of which you speak is the sea of lies - you must sink or swim on that. But how prosaic – even by your standards.

Nevertheless that’s the deal.

My word it’s almost worth a movie – the great man, the spinner of a million fantasies becomes a victim of the most banal and sentimental fantasy. He must save himself from drowning in the sea of lies. He’ll need a heroine of course – a large-breasted heroine if I’m any judge.

You always were a bastard.

You paid me to be a bastard.

Indeed I did.

Old gossip

The other day found us enjoying a quiet coffee but we could not help overhearing a group at the next table. They were passing judgement on recent TV programmes. Nothing unusual about that I suppose, because many people must still watch TV and the BBC licence scam is enforced as rigorously as ever.

Yet oddly enough it did seem unusual. The conversation sounded old-fashioned, a reminder that people do not seem to watch as much TV as they did a few decades ago. It used to be a popular source of casual conversation on a par with the weather, but we certainly don't hear it discussed as much as we used to. Folk play with their mobiles instead.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

It is abduction all the way down

But fortunately not that kind of abduction. 

A few weeks ago Aeon published a fascinating article by Karl Friston, but first of all it may be worthwhile to see what Wikipedia says about the man who wrote it.

Karl Friston pioneered and developed the single most powerful technique for analysing the results of brain imaging studies and unravelling the patterns of cortical activity and the relationship of different cortical areas to one another. Currently over 90% of papers published in brain imaging use his method (SPM or Statistical Parametric Mapping) and this approach is now finding more diverse applications, for example, in the analysis of EEG and MEG data. His method has revolutionized studies of the human brain and given us profound insights into its operations. None has had as major an influence as Friston on the development of human brain studies in the past twenty-five years.

In which case we may take it that Friston is no professional waffler. However, it is not easy to summarise his article because there are a number of interwoven strands, but his starting point is to focus on processes rather than things.

I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists?

To accept consciousness as a process rather than a thing is not at all difficult and many people may do that anyway, but from this simple adjustment to our thinking some remarkable conclusions follow.   

I hope to show you that nature can drum up reasons without actually having them for herself. In what follows, I’m going to argue that things don’t exist for reasons, but certain processes can nonetheless be cast as engaged in reasoning. I use ‘reasoning’ here to mean explanations that arise from inference or abduction – that is, trying to account for observations in terms of latent causes, rules or principles.

This perspective on process leads us to an elegant, if rather deflationary, story about why the mind exists. Inference is actually quite close to a theory of everything – including evolution, consciousness, and life itself. It is abduction all the way down.

Friston then moves on to the oddity of life as repetitive, self-organising behaviour which as he says, seems contrary to how the universe usually behaves.

Complex systems are self-organising because they possess attractors. These are cycles of mutually reinforcing states that allow processes to achieve a point of stability, not by losing energy until they stop, but through what’s known as dynamic equilibrium. An intuitive example is homeostasis. If you’re startled by a predator, your heartbeat and breathing will speed up, but you’ll automatically do something to restore your cardiovascular system to a calmer state (following the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response). Any time there’s a deviation from the attractor, this triggers flows of thoughts, feelings and movements that eventually take you back to your cycle of attracting, familiar states. In humans, all the excitations of our body and brain can be described as moving towards our attractors, that is, towards our most probable states.

A little further on we get to a crucial point in the whole piece.
It’s at this point that we can talk about inference, the process of figuring out the best principle or hypothesis that explains the observed states of that system we call ‘the world’. Technically, inference entails maximising the evidence for a model of the world. Because we are obliged to maximise evidence, we are – effectively – making inferences about the world using ourselves as a model. That’s why every time you have a new experience, you engage in some kind of inference to try to fit what’s happening into a familiar pattern, or to revise your internal states so as to take account of this new fact. This is just the kind of process a statistician goes through in trying to decide whether she needs new rules to account for the spread of a disease, or whether the collapse of a bank ought to affect the way she models the economy.

Now we can see why attractors are so crucial. An attracting state has a low surprise and high evidence. Complex systems therefore fall into familiar, reliable cycles because these processes are necessarily engaged in validating the principle that underpins their own existence. Attractors push systems to fall into predictable states and thereby reinforce the model that the system has generated of its world. A failure of this surprise minimising, self-evidencing, inferential behaviour means the system will decay into surprising, unfamiliar states – until it no longer exists in any meaningful way. Attractors are the product of processes engaging in inference to summon themselves into being. In other words, attractors are the foundation of what it means to be alive.
As suggested above, there is little point in trying to summarise Friston's article, not because it is too difficult but because all the steps are worth following. However, one more quote may give a flavour of the whole piece.
Applying the same thinking to consciousness suggests that consciousness must also be a process of inference. Conscious processing is about inferring the causes of sensory states, and thereby navigating the world to elude surprises. While natural selection performs inference by selecting among different creatures, consciousness performs inference by selecting among different states of the same creature (in particular, its brain). There is a vast amount of anatomical and physiological evidence in support of this notion. If one regards the brain as a self-evidencing organ of inference, almost every one of its anatomical and physiological aspects seems geared to minimise surprise.

So consciousness is a process of navigating the world to elude surprises. That at least is no surprise, as indeed it shouldn't be if Friston is right.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Pernicious Effects of Cuteness


Michael Brandow has a fine piece in Quillette lamenting the rise of cuteness and its pernicious effects on what we are.

Call me a sociopath, but I’ve always had a problem with things conspicuously cute. As a child growing up in the sixties and seventies, unlike most of my peers, I couldn’t help but see something creepy, even sinister in those smiley faces supposed to make us smile. The weird yellow circles with the arched mouths and dead black ovals for eyes, slapped on everything from school binders to rear bumpers and hippie asses, didn’t elicit the warm-and-fuzzy feelings intended, not for me. No more do those favorite emojis on social media today, really just variations on a smiley, make me trust the opinions they’re used to express.

No I don't like emojis either, not because they fail to convey what they are supposed to, but because they are so much more limited than words. Subtleties are lost.

Brandow also describes how Mickey Mouse changed from Walt Disney's original mischievous rodent to something far cuter and less threatening. 

The older Mickey’s ears were gradually ripped back to expose the forehead of a helpless infant. Eyes were swollen as large as any Margaret Keane puppy’s. The snout was crushed to be less wolfish than Wiley Coyote’s, more puggish like a pudgy angel’s button nose. The entire head in relation to the body was infantilized, an enormous bulb bolted to a diminutive body with long, wiry, mobile, unpredictable arms and legs reduced to the fat, dwarfed, lame stumps of a Teletubby or a French bulldog.

The whole piece is a longish but entertaining and interesting read, especially Brandow's references to supposed links between violence on the screen and social violence. He isn't buying it.

Violent crime did skyrocket in the sixties and on through the seventies and eighties, but could scarcely be blamed on Sylvester swallowing Tweety and belching a feather, the sort of gag promptly outlawed by the new cartoon police. Rascally behavior was in fact rising over the very decades when children’s shows were being mollified, apparently with opposite the intended effect.

Towards the end we have this observation about social media.

Behind those smiley faces, I’ll say again, is something grim, and learning later in life that it wasn’t just me, that icons are, indeed, open to interpretation, has been no solace. As an author and journalist, I remember feeling disappointed and demoralized to see intellectuals I respected, fellow writers, and heads of the few remaining serious, independent publishing houses, finally jump ship and hop in the clown car with the kiddies. After mocking the latest video games, they lowered themselves to Facebook, and worse, Twitter, a forum that reduces the most complex ideas to the slick, smug brevity of an advertizing pitch, where knowledge is vast but shallow, truth is based on consensus, and almost no one reads beyond the catchy one-liners, or a tangled mess of links added to reinforce gut feelings.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Glastonbury grotesquerie

From somersetlive we hear that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has already identified who is responsible for the Grenfell horror.

The families who died in the Grenfell Tower fire were “murdered by political decisions", according to the Shadow Chancellor.

Labour MP John McDonnell was speaking at an event at the Left Field area of Glastonbury Festival today (June 25) when he made the remarks.

He was speaking alongside Jonathan Bartley and Faiza Shaheen at the event called Is Democracy Broken?

McDonnell told the crowd the families were “murdered by political decisions" in recent decades.

I suppose it is Glastonbury where nobody is expected to be rational or reasonable, not even the Shadow Chancellor. 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Frantic Times

Round here everything goes eerily quiet in hot weather. During the recent spell we spent a large chunk of our time sitting in the garden, mostly in the shade and often with a beer. Retirement eh? I love it.

Meanwhile the mainstream media seem to be increasingly frantic in what feels more and more like a doomed battle for relevance. Hysteria rules but is anyone listening and more importantly, are their advertisers likely to remain on board? When will their advertisers give up on shouty newspapers nobody under fifty reads anyway?

The impression is partly explained by a series of major news stories from Brexit to Trump to the Grenfell horror, but not entirely. Great changes are abroad which are not encouraging. 

Back in 1952  Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth wrote a science fiction novel called The Space Merchants

In a vastly overpopulated world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge trans-national corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and by far the best-paid profession. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that the quality of life is improved by all the products placed on the market. Some of the products contain addictive substances designed to make consumers dependent on them. However, the most basic elements of life are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel. Personal transport may be pedal powered, with rickshaw rides being considered a luxury. The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; the colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed.

Pohl and Kornbluth's fictional world is dominated by vast advertising agencies where governments are merely clearing houses for business interests. I read it decades ago when to me it seemed like an ingenious but fanciful attack on rampant capitalism, a product of its time. It doesn't seem like that now.

When we remind ourselves that the old mainstream media are struggling to survive in a world dominated by the colossal reach of social media and vast internet advertising businesses. When we add in global elites with no ties to time or place, when we add the growing power of international bureaucracies and their willingness to direct human behaviour - 

Well then - with a few modifications Pohl and Kornbluth's ghastly fictional future seems somewhat less fictional.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Damp spot

A pair of coots building their nest on Carsington Water. Their nest may be tethered to the bottom in some way but the essential feature is that it floats and that helps chicks survive. It's what coots do but unfortunately and with no wish to criticise the experts, this one seems a little flimsy. 

We watched while they busily added a fair amount of material, mainly lengths of weed and and what appeared to be waterlogged oddments dredged up from the bottom. The whole structure never seemed to inspire confidence though - they climbed onto it very gingerly. Reminds me of government projects but no doubt they know what they are doing.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Broken Kindle

My old Kindle has given up - charge it up one day and the battery is virtually flat by the following morning. I could buy a new battery off the internet but that may not be the whole problem so I've decided to treat myself to a new one, a slimmer, lighter touchscreen version which I'll hate at first but eventually I'll get used to it.

The old Kindle lasted about five years which isn't bad considering how intensively I use it and how often I drop it. At the moment I'm enjoying a beautiful sunny morning in the garden while waiting for the Amazon man to deliver the new one. Only ordered it yesterday. Modern life eh? Amazing technology and amazing organisations all mixed together with amazing insanity.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Is Higher Education a Scam?

Some very interesting and uncomfortable points made by Peter Thiel. Higher education as a zero sum tournament for example - not something we are ever likely to see presented by the BBC or hear from mainstream political parties.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Voting for bums

I voted for our sitting Tory candidate in the recent general election. Doing so went against the grain, but our MP seems to be a decent enough chap who does his best for the constituency. During the previous election he came to the door and seemed a little overawed by Sajid Javid who was also with him and did most of the talking.

During the run-up to the recent election I saw him walking the streets on his own and almost felt sorry for him. His is a thankless task from the look of it. I don’t think he’ll ever be a minister or see the inside of his party leader’s clique. 

As we know, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were key people heading Theresa May’s clique, a pair of political advisers nobody actually elected because that’s how things are done in our post-democratic age. It is obvious that these two were almost certainly more powerful than anyone you or I voted for. Most of us voted for one of the bums on seats or some poor soul who didn’t even get that far.

We have known this forever, particularly since Tony Blair’s political machine swept all before it. Now Nick and Fiona have reminded us that voting for a party is much the same as voting for its leader. Or rather it is much the same as voting for the leader’s clique. Conservative and Labour leaders both have their cliques through which things are done. If your MP isn’t in the clique then he or she is merely one of the bums on Parliamentary seats, at least as far as the real power is concerned.

That being the case, not voting at all is an entirely understandable attitude. For most of us it cannot possibly make a difference to political outcomes. The leader’s clique is democratically inaccessible and voting for bums on seats merely perpetuates that reality.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Deep Sentinel

This isn't new, but an interesting piece from principia-scientific briefly outlines Deep Sentinel, a home security startup which proposes to use AI to protect our homes.

Deep Sentinel pairs AI with off-the-shelf cameras. The startup’s software recognizes potential threats in the video footage — distinguishing someone stealing your mail from a neighbor walking their dog, for example — and alerts you to them in real time. That means unlike with a traditional security camera, you don’t have to spend all day watching the video footage for it to do any good.

Deep Sentinel’s technology is about 99 percent accurate, Selinger said. It uses the same type of technology that self-driving cars use to navigate objects in the road, and Facebook uses to identify people in photos.

Ultimately, Deep Sentinel hopes to not only alert you to threats but also to issue some kind of deterrent to scare away bad actors. That could be anything from turning on automatic sprinklers to sending in a remotely piloted drone.

Even incurable optimists must wonder if this kind of development is desirable. Yet there seems to be little doubt that it can be done so it will be done even if Deep Sentinel itself fails to perform as expected.

The message seems to be that permanent, accurate surveillance may become cheap enough to be used everywhere. Sounds like a great improvement on the Telescreen. No doubt there are people who know where we are headed and why. The rest of us may have to acquire a taste for Victory Gin.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Navvies seducing our women


Derby Telegraph has an interesting piece on the history of the Friar Gate railway bridge and local disruption caused when the railway came to Derby 140 years ago.

Imagine the outcry today if anyone suggested the demolition of Friar Gate railway bridge. It would be at least as vociferous as that which erupted when the bridge was built 140 years earlier.

Not only were our Victorian forebears horrified at the prospect of one of Derby's most historic thoroughfares being defaced, they were also so terrified by the imminent arrival of hundreds of what were regarded as uncivilised, uneducated navvies that plans were laid for missionaries to visit the itinerant population.

As ever, vested interests were decisive and the local council easily brought on board.

The railway, which needed the approval of the town council to proceed, had conveniently commissioned a local man, George Thompson, to survey the line. Thompson ran his own practice, but also served as borough surveyor. The GNR also acted wisely in its choice of solicitor – Samuel Leech, Liberal town councillor and Mayor of Derby.

The Mercury also pointed out that the support of the rest of the council – half of whom had industrial businesses that were nearer the proposed GNR route than the existing Midland line, and many of whom owned the land on which the railway would be built – was hardly surprising.

It was, perhaps, little wonder, too, that the Chamber of Commerce, which shared many members with the town council, also put forward its enthusiastic support.

While the middle classes were concerned about a huge influx of navvies, poorer people had more pressing problems - the demolition of their homes.

In total around 265 houses were destroyed, making homeless around 1,500 people. Most of these were poor labourers and the like, almost all of whom had rented low-cost housing, of which there had already been a shortage.

The GNR was under no obligation to replace the lost homes, and it was difficult to persuade property speculators to build homes that could earn only a tiny sum in rent.

Some compensation was offered to the displaced, but this was a matter of shillings and was of little help.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

A symptom

A fascinating aspect of Theresa May’s recent general election debacle was the manifesto screw-up for which Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have now quit. Unfortunately for May the screw-up was obvious before the election. Questions about her competence are now equally obvious, yet that is not the fascinating aspect of it all. To a large degree the recent election was a contest between two dorks, which may be deplorable but may be a symptom of something else too.

On the one hand we had a seventies-style socialist with no political credibility whatever apart from a recent spot of good luck which may or may not be sufficient to carry him over the line at some future date.

On the other hand we had a limited Prime Minister without a distinguished political track record apart from a run of luck which has now apparently expired.

This isn’t how we might expect democracy to work because without an array of credible choices we cannot be said to have a choice in the first place. Opting for one dork over another dork is a major democratic limitation and many voters must have seen themselves in the position of having to choose between the lesser of two evils.

One obvious conclusion is that we are in a parlous state and may be in for some damaging political consequences. A slightly less obvious conclusion is that political posturing has had its day, the sun is setting on democratic political choice and manifestos no longer matter anyway.

When a Prime Minister cannot tell that her manifesto is garbage; when the leader of the opposition cannot tell that his political standpoint has long been discredited then we may be faced with something more radical than any amount of political posturing.

Global wheels grind their way into an unknown future and maybe having to vote locally for dork A over dork B is not so much a disaster as a casting error. Political dorks are merely glitches in central casting because real power has moved on.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Allegro zooms round the bend

To widespread surprise voters turned out in their millions to vote for a North London Austin Allegro as our highest political inspiration - or Prime Minister as the position is officially known. Sadly the Allegro has yet to cross the finishing line but at least we now realise how much life is left in the seventies. Time to dig out those crushed strawberry flares I reckon.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Firing range


The Telegraph reports on a fascinating new device capable of firing Londoners into Scotland. I'm not sure why one would wish to do that, but isn't technology wonderful?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Strangely quiet

No much election fever round here. There are lots of Tory posters but hardly any from Labour and no sign of the party faithful slogging away door to door. All we’ve seen so far is our local MP wandering around on his own.

A few leaflets have popped through the letter box but we’ve no real idea who the Labour candidate is. His leaflet has almost no personal information so we’re assuming he must be some stooge from central casting.   

It’s all very low-key and unexciting for which both main party leaders must take the credit. The only bright spark has been Diane Abbott making an even bigger fool of herself than usual. Now the story is that she is has been sidelined for health reasons which appears to be untrue but nobody seems to care anyway.

Even so I’m tempted to stay up on Thursday night, at least to see how the early results go. Not something I usually do, but in spite of the desultory and inept way the election has been conducted, this one feels too quiet to be uninteresting. As if something is going on beneath the surface.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Just for show

Life stripped of its illusion and its seeming becomes a rather deadly thing to contemplate.
Theodore Dreiser - The Genius (1915)

The other day while checking the weather forecast on whatever Ceefax is called these days I stumbled across a TV programme showing clips of people working in a laboratory. Something nefarious was going on in the world outside and lab folk were dutifully proving evidence to show just how horribly nefarious it was. BBC nefarious that is.

At the sight of a working laboratory I came over all nostalgic for a minute or two. I always enjoyed lab work and recall a number of occasions where promotional cameras invaded our domain for a disruptive hour or two. As one might expect, the folk behind the cameras are only interested in things that move, bubble or just look techie. The person at the bench tends to be a senior scientist finding out if their rarely-used lab coat still fits.

I remember one occasion where our laboratory had been chosen to supply some promotional images. To set the scene we were asked to set up a row of bottles containing coloured water just for the camera. As for the science, the PR people had brought along a blonde model to do that. Her job was to wear a pristine lab coat and pretend to do something scientific for the camera. I’m sure she was pleasant enough, but somehow she managed to convey that sense of vacant prettiness models are so good at.

The final result was just as artificial as it usually is. Anyone with any kind of technical background must see the artificiality. Scientist peering at a tube of liquid, heating it up over a Bunsen burner with the flame set incorrectly to make it visible to the camera. A reflux extractor set up to extract lots of nice clean nothing. A robot injector system selecting the next sample vial - it usually runs overnight but just for the camera we’ll make it do something harmless.

One is left wondering why things are done this way, why the artificiality has to be so obvious. Perhaps it has to be so because it is expected, because promotional artifice is normal and realistic is not. Expectations have to be met and we have wandered too far from reality to turn back now.

Monday, 5 June 2017

First impressions

Impression 1
On Saturday, while driving back from Norfolk, I happened to glance very briefly at a roadside sign which seemed to say ‘Dual Carriageway’ with a broad white arrow pointing in our direction of travel. I’d just been reminding myself about a stretch of dual carriageway within the next few miles, so the sign was no surprise, but on a second glance the actual wording turned out to be ‘Dog Sanctuary’.

Impression 2
This morning as I walked past a corner shop, an old chap came out clutching a tabloid newspaper he’d evidently just purchased. He was about my age and somewhat scruffy, wearing baggy blue jeans and a tired old jacket, all set off by pink and grey plastic shoes. For some reason my immediate reaction was a twinge of sympathy. Living on a tight budget I thought. Scruffy, plastic shoes – it all adds up to having to make do.

Until I saw him stroll onto the drive of his substantial bungalow that is. On the drive were parked his large 4x4 and big caravan. His front garden was immaculate and he had solar panels on the roof. As I walked by he was busy opening the gates as if intending to take the 4x4 on a shopping expedition after reading the paper.

So much for first impressions.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The unstoppable rise of fatuous activity

Where will all the jobs come from as robots and AI take over? Problem or no problem?

Much has happened already because automation is hardly new. It has been with us since well before the days of Richard Arkwright’s cotton mill. New jobs will emerge we are told, jobs we cannot imagine now, but they will emerge as they always have since Arkwright harnessed Cromford Sough and made hand-loom weavers redundant.

Ours is merely one of the many worlds automation builds and discards on its way to wherever. It is not some job-destroying digital tsunami lurking just below the horizon, but is already here, as it has been for centuries. Working life is responding and changing now just as it did in the past, but we don’t necessarily notice as we adapt, as memories fade, as inessential becomes essential, as we take the opportunities it offers.

The trouble is, if we stand back and look at ourselves with a sceptical eye, then much of what we do as a consequence of automation feels somewhat inessential. Even worse, it often feels fatuous. Like some kind of game which confers no deep benefits on anything but the economy, which merely satisfies our need to do something rather than nothing.

Not necessarily a problem then, because we like a growing economy don’t we? We are supposed to, but there is something uncomfortable about fatuous economic activity. Fatuous political activity is even worse. Yet this is where automation has taken us on the journey to wherever. A land of games, trivia and fatuous amusements, often disguised as gainful employment.

Alienation was once the fashionable diagnosis for a disconnect between industrial society and human life and perhaps it still is, but few of us appear to be even slightly alienated. On the contrary, we seem to enjoy the prosperity it brings, as if that is enough to offset the fatuous nature of what we did to earn it. Perhaps that’s okay and perhaps it isn’t.

As we all know, money can be earned from fatuous activity – huge great wads of it. In economic terms we are more prosperous than we have ever been. For most of us life is more comfortable than anything even moneybags Arkwright knew. We are healthier and we live longer, but for what purpose have we acquired all this health and comfort? To be gainfully employed?

Now there’s an old fashioned ideal – the crusty old notion of being gainfully employed. According to Ngram Viewer the phrase has largely fallen out of use from its high point in the late nineteen thirties.

Perhaps the ‘gainful’ bit became too naively optimistic. Perhaps that is what took the whole phrase by the hand and led it towards a decent burial. Or maybe the uncertainties of employment made it redundant in a world where any employment is some kind of gain. It all depends what we mean by ‘gain’.

Today we might take ‘gainful’ to mean financial gain and be satisfied with that as we check out the latest mobile phone offers. Alternatively we could mean social gain or moral gain or personal gain but those are more likely to be used as rhetorical flourishes in politically correct homilies. Oh - and there’s a fatuous activity to set the ball rolling - politically correct homilies. We find those useful don’t we?

Once upon a time ‘gainfully employed’ probably had a certain musty, Sunday school flavour of social and moral worth. Not many could aspire to it, but it was up there as an ideal. Yet our automated world has weakened and subverted our always tenuous grip on the ideal – the notion that employment can be or even should be socially, morally and personally rewarding.

As to what has replaced it, the answer seems obvious enough. In many areas of working life it simply faded away to be replaced by economic and political worth. Much of what we do today, many activities through which we are employed, lack a really convincing element of social or moral worth. Much of that is down to the effects of automation and the desperate political dodges designed to mop up an increasingly vast pool of excess labour. Keep the young ones at school for as long as possible then bung as many as possible off to university to take a degree in the sexist mores of hot-tub design philosophies.

What exactly is all this fatuous activity? The low hanging fruit are obvious enough. Nail and tattoo parlours, mass entertainment, university radicalism, professional sport, advertising, public relations, silly cars, fancy restaurants, fashionable clothes, posh coffee, designer labels, posh anything else, recycling, sustainable energy, oversized houses, political make-work projects and so on and so on. None are unambiguously wrong in a moral sense, but they are neither socially nor morally worthy in any sense. To survive and prosper in the modern world they don’t have to be and any notion that they could be has largely faded away. It had to fade away if automation is to continue. 

Grow, build and make have been automated to the point where most of us don’t involve ourselves in these essential activities. These are not the only essential activities by any means. Teaching, nursing, transporting and a host of other activities are essential too, but they are loaded down by a growing culture of fatuity spun off by automation, by the vast amount of work we no longer need to do. People have to do something and so often that something is nurturing and growing a culture of fatuous activity.

As we automate and as the population grows, something has to give and that something has been the ideal of being gainfully employed. There is no place for it. Employment has morphed into a culture which puts economic value on fatuous activity because it is forced to do so, from complex regulations to political and social fantasies to infantile entertainments. We have no idea how to use automation other than carry on building this culture of ours, this culture of fatuous activity. 

It will continue.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Toyota sells Tesla shares

The Times Of India reports that Toyota has sold all its Tesla shares .

TOKYO, June 3 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp said on Saturday it had sold all shares in Tesla Inc by the end of 2016, having cancelled its tie-up with the U.S. luxury automaker to jointly develop electric vehicles.

Japan's biggest automaker had bought around a 3 percent stake in the Palo Alto-based automaker for $50 million.

The obvious question would be to ask if this was connected with the election of Donald Trump as US President. Political calculations touch everything, so much so that nothing seems really clean.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

How Do We Really Form Opinions?

If Daniel Kahneman is right, then this is how Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn form their opinions too. However, I think we knew that already.

Sunday, 28 May 2017


On holiday in Norfolk at the moment so light blogging. Anyhow it's good to get away from the politics. I'm beginning to think that Team May could be as hopeless as Team Corbyn. Seemed impossible not so long ago.

Friday, 26 May 2017

May be slipping

Elections Etc sees a diminishing likelihood of a Conservative landslide in the forthcoming general election.

Overall, our combined forecast of the Conservative majority has dropped to 100, down from 123 last week and from 132 two weeks ago.

The combined probability of a Conservative majority, at 87% has correspondingly taken a small dip from 91% last week. More strikingly the probability of a Conservative landslide (a 100+ seat majority) has fallen from 64% (and 71% two weeks ago) to just 34% this week.

Presumably the Tories do not welcome such news but it is not yet anything to worry about. There are times when I ask myself if they would welcome a result which encourages Jeremy Corbyn to cling on as leader after the election. Not that he seems to need much encouragement.