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.  

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Manchester - Obama puts it down to complexity

From the Independent we have Barack Obama's take on the Manchester bombing.

Barack Obama said he was “heartbroken” by the Manchester attack that killed 22 people and he hoped he will be able to use his influence to bring young people together in the face of terrorism.

“At a time, when the world is a very complicated place, when we can see the terrible violence that took place just recently in Manchester," the former US President told a crowd of tens of thousands at an event in the German capital Berlin about democracy and global responsibility.

No mention of Islam as far as one can tell. Obama's solution is to "push back" whatever that means. Not much if his past is any guide. We are well rid of him.

"We have to push back against those trends that would violate human rights or suppress democracy or restrict individual freedoms,” he said.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

When old is new and new is old


An interesting post from Aeon by Nick Romeo draws parallels between Plato's ideas and modern behavioural psychology and economics.

In his essay ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ (1950), Bertrand Russell describes a particularly seductive illusion about history and intellectual progress. Because every age tends to exaggerate its uniqueness and imagine itself as a culmination of progress, continuities with previous historical periods are easily overlooked: ‘new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own.’

Behavioural economics is one of the major intellectual developments of the past 50 years. The work of the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in particular is justly celebrated for identifying and analysing many of the core biases in human cognition. Russell’s insight, in fact, bears a strong resemblance to what Kahneman calls the availability bias. Because the catchwords and achievements of contemporary culture are most readily called to mind – most available – they tend to dominate our assessments. The fact that Russell’s articulation of this idea is much less familiar than Kahneman’s is itself a confirmation of Russell’s point.

Changes in language and social emphasis tend to obscure the lessons of history, so much so that even common sense has to be relearned under the endless pressure of events. If it ever is relearned of course. There are reasons to doubt that. Romeo continues -

But the richest precedent for behavioural economics is in the works of ancient Greek philosophers. Almost 2,500 years before the current vogue for behavioural economics, Plato was identifying and seeking to understand the predictable irrationalities of the human mind. He did not verify them with the techniques of modern experimental psychology, but many of his insights are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the cognitive biases found by Kahneman and Tversky. Seminal papers in behavioural economics are highly cited everywhere from business and medical schools to the social sciences and the corporate world. But the earlier explorations of the same phenomenon by Greek philosophy are rarely appreciated. Noticing this continuity is both an interesting point of intellectual history and a potentially useful resource: Plato not only identified various specific weaknesses in human cognition, he also offered powerful proposals for how to overcome these biases and improve our reasoning and behaviour.

The whole essay is well worth reading. For example, the paragraph below impinges on a particularly corrosive modern problem where we seem to be losing sight of the personal element in ethical behaviour, where we pay attention to what our minds are doing or not doing when we go with the flow.

It’s rare that contemporary discussions of cognitive biases flow directly into conversations on ethics, pleasure and pain, and the best way to live one’s life. But ancient philosophy did not compartmentalise what are now cloistered academic fields. Plato understood that susceptibility to distorted reasoning was a matter of ethics as well as psychology. This does not mean anything as simple as ‘bad people are more vulnerable to cognitive biases’. But consider his diagnosis of misanthropy and other sampling errors, which stem from ‘the too great confidence of inexperience’. In the Apology, Socrates claims to be wiser than other men only because he knows that which he does not know. When Kahneman writes that we are ‘blind to our blindness’, he is reviving the Socratic idea that wisdom consists in seeing one’s blindness: knowing what you do not know.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Why Should I Be Nice?

As usual Robert Sapolsky is entertaining, lucid and convincing. It's a pleasure to listen to the guy.

Quite apart from what he has to say here, imagine a connected world where many thousands of students routinely have access to lecturers of this quality over the internet. What would all the other lecturers do?

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Hijacking minds

Last year Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, wrote an interesting post about mass manipulation by social media. 'Hijacking minds' he calls it, comparing what is done to the tricks of misdirection magicians use. Harris is also a magician.

The techniques he describes are unlikely to be news to anyone, but it is worth reminding ourselves that global social media businesses know how to make their products appealing and even addictive. They also know how to narrow user options in their own interests.

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how we’re manipulated upstream by limited menus we didn’t choose.

This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize how deep this insight is...

...For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?

It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.

Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

Harris goes on to list ten ways which he says are used to hijack the minds of social media users. Number seven is a good example. 

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery

Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously (like email or any deferred inbox).

Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.

In other words, interruption is good for business.

It’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it(“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) By contrast, Apple more respectfully lets users toggle “Read Receipts” on or off.

The problem is, while messaging apps maximize interruptions in the name of business, it creates a tragedy of the commons that ruins global attention spans and causes billions of interruptions every day. This is a huge problem we need to fix with shared design standards (potentially, as part of Time Well Spent).

By now we are so familiar with it all that is isn't easy to be concerned about the trend. It has happened and the consequences are easy to see. Perhaps we could learn more about our own psychology and do something about it, but how likely is that? 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Pontius Pilate in Venezuela

Sandro Magister has some harsh words about the Pope's approach to the crisis in Venezuela.

Pontius Pilate Has Reappeared In Venezuela

The number of dead is now around forty, the wounded number a thousand. It is the price of a month of popular demonstrations, even of only women dressed in white, against the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, in a Venezuela on the brink.

A Venezuela in which a new factor has recently taken the field, and this is the growing, systematic aggression against properties and personnel of the Catholic Church...

...Nothing is off-limits. Death threats and blasphemous graffiti on the walls of churches. Masses interrupted by incursions of Chavist “colectivos.” Caracas cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino silenced during the homily and forced to leave the church. The venerated image of the Nazarene in the cathedral of Valencia smeared with human excrement. The chanceries of the dioceses of Guarenas and Maracay plundered. Thefts of consecrated hosts in Maracaibo. The headquarters of the episcopal conference devastated. One priest killed in Guayana and another abducted...

...The fact is that between Pope Francis and the Venezuelan bishops, concerning the crisis that is ravaging the country, there is an abyss. The bishops stand with the population that is protesting against the dictatorship, and are respected and listened to as authoritative guides. While Bergoglio is judged on a par with Pontius Pilate, unforgivably reckless with Maduro and Chavism, in addition to being incomprehensibly reticent on the victims of the repression and on the aggression that is striking the Church itself.

It is a fracture analogous to the one produced in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has his biggest critics in the bishops, and instead a tireless supporter in the pope. Or that which was seen during the pope’s journey to Cuba, where Francis did not conceal his admiration for the Castro brothers, while not dignifying the dissidents with so much as a word or a glance.

As a crusty old atheist this is not my territory, yet even an atheist cannot fail to be aware that all is not well with the current papal regime. Pope Francis' support for the orthodox climate narrative must have raised quite a few eyebrows both inside and outside his church. How these things are dealt with I've no idea. Do we go back to black smoke? 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Money for no rope

Apart from reminding us yet again of his vile crimes, the recent death of Ian Brady raises a wider issue.

Capital punishment for murder was suspended in Great Britain in 1965 and abolished in 1969. The likely motive was to remove it from the political stage, but another effect has been to monetise murder. Governments have done this kind of thing forever, they monetise certain social issues and in so doing they build inertia into the status quo. In doing that they build acceptance.

For example. Recently Mrs H and I were discussing how personal interests might subtly affect the activities of publicly funded bodies such drug enforcement agencies. It has been said before but has not been said often enough – where is the enforcement agent’s personal motive to reduce the scale of the drugs problem?

This is not to claim that the problem is resolvable or that enforcement is lax, but if drug abuse were to vanish with the wave of a magic wand then jobs would vanish too. Jobs which pay the mortgage, buy food, clothes, fuel, holidays, car and a hundred other consumer goodies. For enforcement agencies, perpetuating the status quo is rational behaviour. If the drugs situation worsens, government may be forced to try another approach. If the situation improves, budgets may be cut and fewer enforcement agents required.

In this respect whole swathes of publicly funded activity are much the same. Money is spent on a social issue and that spending benefits the agency tasked with keeping the issue below the political radar. As long as it suits the agency to keep it there of course. On occasions it may not.

The environment is another example. Natural waters in the UK are generally in a better condition than they have been for several centuries. Pollution from the industrial revolution is mostly under control and rivers are not the open sewers they often were in the past.

So what? So new environmental problems have to be found if controlling agencies are to keep their budgets. Climate change, air pollution, endocrine disrupters, dioxins, landfill, fly tipping, recycling. Some of these problems are more legitimate than others and looking after our environment is the right thing to do but those budgets are a key driver to what is done and why. They lead to the exaggerations, the overblown rhetoric, the dubious links to cancer and other health horrors. It’s the way government does these things.

Governments know all this because they are run by senior bureaucrats who need to maintain their budgets and their slice of the status quo. They have their personal incomes and index-linked pensions to protect. There is no great imperative to make things radically better - where would the imperative come from?

And so we return to the Ian Brady abomination. Leaving aside arguments for and against capital punishment, many incomes are linked to keeping people such as Brady incarcerated for decades. Lawyers, bureaucrats, prison officers, doctors, psychiatrists, administrators, publishers and the media. Paltry amounts of money in the overall scheme of government spending, but this is how governments do these things. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Steamy art

Nottingham Post reports how an art installation has caused numerous calls to the emergency services.

Firefighters have received 'numerous' reports of a suspected blaze in Nottingham - which turned out to be part of an art exhibition.

Clouds have been seen rising from the roof of the Nottingham Contemporary gallery, in the Lace Market, over recent weeks, with concerned passers-by ringing the emergency services.

But they are from the Thinking Head piece which will be part of an exhibition starting at the venue on May 20 - and are merely formed of steam.

All art teaches us something I suppose. Not necessarily what the artist intended, but it teaches us something.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Learning from baboons

The destructive nature of certain baboon hierarchies is well illustrated by this video, but how applicable is it to humans? 

It is certainly tempting to make the comparison, but maybe we need our hierarchies more than baboons need theirs - to maintain the complexities we rely on so heavily.

Mystery bird

Not a good photo I'm afraid. Maximum zoom and taken too quickly because the bird was flitting around on a dry stone wall. I'm not a bird chap and don't know what it is. One possibility came up from leafing through a bird book, but it's an unlikely one so I'm posting the photo in case anyone does know.

We saw a pair of them up on a hill opposite Monsal Head on Wednesday. Here's the second photo which unfortunately is no better.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

If Nemesis licks her lips

And it is probable that Nemesis at that precise moment licked her dry lips. "Fun!" thought Nemesis.
E. F. Benson - Lucia In London (1927)

As well as the flattened foot, the leak of the Labour party draft manifesto is another strand of political embarrassment in a tangle of embarrassments. Apart from the revealing nature of the manifesto itself, another factor comes to mind and that is the issue of luck.

So far Theresa May is a lucky Prime Minister. She was an unremarkable Home Secretary but thanks to a series of unforeseen events she finds herself in a situation where her only serious political opponent is hopelessly incompetent and those around him are little better. Obviously not a situation she could ever have engineered herself.

Not only that, but May's difficulties in and around Brexit negotiations must have been eased politically by the boorish behaviour of prominent EU functionaries. Jean-Claude Juncker comes across as a spiteful old soak, which may be unfair but he certainly does May no harm here in the UK. Again, May’s calm and decidedly reticent public temperament seems suited to these turbulent times and that too is not her doing. Much more luck than judgement.

One might widen this issue of luck to include Donald Trump, who in the presidential election could surely have faced a more likeable and trustworthy Democrat candidate than Hillary Clinton. These things matter even when they should not and in Trump’s case Clinton's candidacy was a lucky break. He didn’t arrange it as far as we know.

How many successful CEOs are at least as lucky as they are competent? How many slip into their predecessor’s shoes at just the right time, when markets are turning in their favour? How many economic forecasters are selected by their luck, by a few lucky hits in an ocean of missed predictions?

In which case, and in spite of Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence, we might wonder if Theresa May’s luck will hold until June 8th. Corbyn has loaded the dice heavily in her favour, but that was her lucky break too. It may not last.

Not that I’d bet against her.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

I see Chris Froome was forced off the road and had his bike wrecked by an impatient hit-and-run driver. Shouldn’t happen and there is no excuse when vehicle drivers lose their cool or whatever it is that snaps when they deliberately endanger the life of a cyclist.

We see large numbers of cyclists while driving around Derbyshire, especially the Lycra-clad, hunched over the handlebars variety. Nothing wrong with that, but there is another side to this coin. Here’s an example.

The other day we were driving along a country road behind a few slow-moving cars. The reason for our slow speed was obvious, a large group of club cyclists had decided to ride in such a way that passing them was virtually impossible. It wasn’t a big deal, obstructions happen on country roads all the time. However, this one was obviously deliberate. 

It was easy enough to see that it was deliberate from the way the cyclists occupied slightly more than half the road until a vehicle approached from the other direction. No doubt their justification was that they rode that way for their own safety. If so then that is an understandable reason but obvious risks are passed on to other cyclists. This kind of behaviour adds a negative aspect to the image other road users have of cyclists. If the cyclists concerned don't realise that, then they are being obtuse.

We see many cyclists who ride as if their safety is the responsibility of other road users, especially when riding in groups. They ride as if they occupy some kind of moral high ground, well above those dirty, polluting vehicles trying to pass them safely. The attitude is bound to increase resentment felt by at least some drivers. 

The consequences we see all the time, but this is a politically incorrect aspect of road safety and seems to be officially invisible. 

Monday, 8 May 2017


Science News has an article on the contentious issue of statins and their expanding use. I don't take them but at my age the issue is of interest, particularly the idea that statins have a preventative role for people who have not had a heart attack or stroke.

Once the powerful cholesterol-busting drugs appeared, in the 1980s, scientists were able to show that a drop in cholesterol could keep a person who had suffered one heart attack or stroke from having a second. Later studies pointed to protection for even relatively healthy people. Researchers writing in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2010 declared that the drugs were such cardiovascular heroes they could essentially neutralize the health risks from a Quarter Pounder with cheese plus a milkshake.

I can't imagine taking any drug for the rest of my life without good medical reasons. That means reasons which apply to me and are not merely a product of government policy.

Sussman, of Michigan, refers to one of several online calculators that can help determine what that risk number is for any particular person. These kinds of tools take into account each person’s unique set of circumstances. In one online tool, a sedentary 60-year-old white male with a weight of 250 pounds, a total cholesterol of 225, no high blood pressure and no personal or family history of heart disease might have a 9 percent risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. A 60-year-old African-American woman with diabetes but all other parameters the same would have a 13 percent risk.

The guiding principle Sussman tells his patients is that the lower your risk of disease in the first place, the less you have to gain from statins. Patients also have to factor in their own sense of how much they fear a heart attack or stroke — all the while knowing there are other means of prevention with almost no risk that can get lost in the statin debate, including weight loss, exercise and a better diet. That theoretical 60-year-old man with a 9 percent risk could drop his risk to about 5 percent with 20 minutes of moderate activity each day and better eating habits.

The comments on the article are generally negative which is not surprising. Apart from being intrinsically suspect, any form of mass medication could result in unforeseen long-term consequences. I'll stick with moderate activity and a fairly healthy diet.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A host, of golden dandelions

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden dandelions;

William Wordsworth (near enough)

Photo taken today in the hills above Milldale. Even though dandelions are a constant menace in the garden, I find myself admiring the remarkable toughness of the little blighters. When they flower en masse like this they can look quite spectacular too. 

Knowing what they are takes some of the edge off it, but not entirely. This was just a small section of a large field carpeted with them from dry stone wall to dry stone wall.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Corbyn and the verdict of history

Yesterday Mike Smithson of wrote a post about a question he asked on Twitter –

How is history going to judge Mr. Corbyn?

Mr Smithson received a range of replies to what is a tempting but unanswerable question. The question also gives rise to an equally interesting but much more general issue. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to Labour party leader would not have been predicted only a few years ago. Even if his leadership had been suggested as a future possibility it would have attracted widespread ridicule. As it does now of course.

Ed Miliband’s bungled update to the Labour leadership election rules kicked it all off and Ed obviously didn’t predict this outcome or he probably would not have changed anything. A few years ago, Corbyn would not have predicted it either, yet a series of apparently unlikely events changed the course of Labour party history. At least for a time - we can't predict that either. A lesson for democracy perhaps. 

Let us go much further back in time, to the time of Jeremy's conception. First contact between his mother's egg and his father's sperm could have turned out differently and Jeremy could have been Jemima. Such as small matter yet these things change the tide of history. Apply the same thought to any major actor on the political stage and what do we get? We don’t know. We’ll never know. Things are as they are.

It all goes to show the validity of Harold Macmillan’s disputed but famous quote.

Events, dear boy, events.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

A righteous man

For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon his very soul that nothing could ever shake it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Firm of Girdlestone (1890)

It’s a strange idea, the notion of righteousness. So often we have seen it applied to fictional characters who are emphatically not righteous, as Conan Doyle does here with John Girdlestone and as Dickens did with Seth Pecksniff. Both characters projected their supposed righteousness via religious and traditionally moral facades. 

Righteousness still has religious connotations, but much less so than in Dickens’ and Conan Doyle’s day. Even so, in view of her religious upbringing one might expect Theresa May to have a degree of righteousness in her political persona but she doesn’t. Neither does Jeremy Corbyn, yet Conan Doyle’s quote seem to fit Corbyn better than May. It fits his politics, it fits his supporters.

In modern times, the whole idea of righteousness has become much more political and rather more covert. It is signalled via behaviour and language rather than explicit religious quotations or moral maxims. It has morphed into political virtue-signalling and is not likely to be religious nor traditionally moral.

It was easy enough in Dickens' and Conan Doyle's day, but somehow we have made it even easier to be righteously stupid, righteously incompetent, righteously dishonest, righteously wicked. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Strewth I’m idle

Yesterday Mrs H made some veggie pâté so I decided to make a loaf of bread to go with it. Sadly, after the pâté ingredients had been weighed out, the kitchen scales complained of a low battery and steadfastly refused to weigh even one more item. A feeble little 'Lo' appeared on the display for about a second before the thing went into an electronic coma. 

I make bread using a breadmaker and reasonably accurate quantities are important, but at the time I didn't want to toddle off to the shops merely to buy a new battery, so what to do?

Simple. I logged into Amazon and ordered a pack of two batteries for 24 hr delivery. Yes I suppose I could have nipped out to Sainsbury’s for batteries and made the loaf yesterday, but why bother when it is so easy to click, click, click even if one has to wait a day for delivery?

My little package of batteries was shipped out from Peterborough overnight and popped through the letterbox today while we were out visiting. When we returned I breathed new life into the kitchen scales via one of those brand-new, fresh from Peterborough batteries and my loaf should be ready in a couple of hours.

Where does it all end though? How idle is it possible for a chap to be? In future will I have any real need to leave the house at all?

Monday, 1 May 2017

The growth of garden centre culture

We visited a garden centre today, one we’ve visited occasionally for quite a few years. It is situated out in the Derbyshire countryside and once upon a time it was mostly a place to buy plants, shrubs and trees. Bit by bit the plants seem to have taken second place to the cafe, garden furniture, shabby chic decorations, farm shop and barbecue kit.

Today we discovered that the pace of change has accelerated. The garden centre has received a substantial makeover. Gone is the piece of apparently derelict land which once served as a car park. Now it has organised parking in rows so we couldn’t just leave the car anywhere and mooch off the entrance. 

Not only that but the entrance has moved too. The new one has automatic doors and once inside a brand new layout guides folk through all the indoor goodies before they have a chance of finding the outdoor area. The cafe is much bigger, that was immediately obvious, but it wasn’t at all obvious where the plants might be.

Fortunately we have a general idea of the layout so we were able to use our sense of direction and wend our way from the pervasive aroma of coffee to the outside world where things turned out to be much the same as always. Apart from the car park, no money had been spent outside as far as one could tell. In other words the place has become a copy of all the big garden centres hereabouts, if still a little smaller.

Had I been asked, which was vanishingly unlikely, I would have supposed that copying the big boys in the garden centre business would destroy any advantage to having one in the Derbyshire countryside set in picturesque surroundings. Apparently this isn’t the case as the car park was absolutely packed. People were even waiting for vacated spaces when we left. Never seen that before.

It was a bank holiday of course, but dull, overcast and chilly after early rain. Even taking the bank holiday into account, the makeover seems to have worked a treat, so this is what people must want from a garden centre. Coffee, cake, a bit of shopping and maybe a plant in a pot if there’s still time.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Critical effort

As for me, I will believe in no belief that does not make itself manifest by outward signs. I will think no preaching sincere that is not recommended by the practice of the preacher.
Anthony Trollope - Barchester Towers (1857)

Many ideas seem to attract widespread belief because they demand little mental effort. We are not talking of beliefs such as a conviction that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning, but beliefs which are essentially stories, tales easily told and easily learned. We like stories, especially those which reduce mind-boggling complexities of the real world to easy formulae.

Belief as a story is something we see all the time, especially when believers argue with unbelievers. So often, belief versus unbelief is storyteller versus critic where the critic has most of the problems. Criticism requires mental effort while familiar stories are easily told and retold and retold again. Critics often retire early from the field of battle because belief conserves mental energy. Sustainable thinking anyone?

The principle of least energy applies throughout the natural world, including all those busy little neurons in our big brains. Human brains use a lot of energy so conserving it is inherently useful. Busy neurons might have enough energy to work out how greasy poles may be climbed, but not enough for anything socially constructive afterwards. There must be some definite advantage to being mentally busy, otherwise slouching off down a beaten path is too easy to resist.

Nobody has political convictions in the sense that they emerged from rational analysis. Nobody has ever had political convictions in that sense. Where’s the motive, the source of energy for the neurons? Apart from their entertainment value, political stories are not worth arguing over because they are so obviously intended to control human behaviour. Apolitical critics find themselves battling with low-energy political stories, easily told, easily repeated over and over again.

Political activists are like everyone else, they are intimately concerned with the here and now because that is what matters to all of us. Life is lived now, not tomorrow. Belief in political solutions to human ills are all about now, what is most comforting what is most suited to a personal history, social niche or career.

This is why so much political debate is driven by easy stories, by low-energy thinking. This is why complex issues seem to need far more mental effort than they ever receive. This is how vested interests poison debates.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The mammary maze

We regularly take Granddaughter to a number of soft play centres, but one in particular seems to be a popular venue for breast-feeding mothers. Public breast-feeding is hardly an uncommon sight these days, but when a chap is just sitting there minding his own business and sipping a coffee amid hordes of shrieking kids he has to know where the suckling zones are. This is particularly true when there are a number of them scattered around the venue.

I’m not sure what the etiquette is with public breast-feeding, but that may well be an age issue. Does one act cool and smile at the life-affirming freedom it seems to represent? Possibly not; leers and smiles can be similar. I suppose male staring is bound to be frowned on or worse, but what constitutes staring? Hard to say with any accuracy, but in this case I prefer to be on the safe side. I assume a stare is where the gaze lingers for more than a few milliseconds.

Yes it’s tight, but we live in a socially tight world and one has to be tooled up for it so to speak. The trouble is even a slightly lingering gaze has two fundamental problems. Firstly a chap may come across as somewhat dim if he appears to take an age working out what exactly is going on. Secondly – well that one is really, really obvious.

So what to do? For obvious reasons it is no good sitting there at the table staring into space with an unfocussed gaze. If a sudden bout of suckling were to occur within what another person could deem to be one’s line of sight -

No it is better to remain focussed and aware without actually looking anywhere in particular. As for keeping an eye on Granddaughter as she flits around, that’s okay as long as I take good care to remember that my line of sight must be as nimble as she is and skip lightly over certain areas.

Life was certainly easier when kids just went outside to jump in puddles and climb trees.

Monday, 24 April 2017

"Oui" for the status quo?

Results of the first round by department
     Emmanuel Macron      Marine Le Pen      François Fillon
     Jean-Luc Mélenchon

So the first round of the 2017 French presidential election has resulted in a run-off between Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen of the National Front to be held on May 7th.

I am merely a casual observer of French politics, but establishment stooge Emmanuel Macron seems to have it in the bag. As someone who didn't foresee Brexit or Trump, third time lucky is my technical approach to this one.

Not an inspiring choice of candidates but an interesting geographical divide. No doubt the EU establishment will be all over Macron while a Le Pen victory is portrayed as akin to Hitler entering Paris.

Should be interesting though, because political divides appear to be deepening. That's the interesting aspect in my book, the political divide. Are people beginning to realise that the establishment is not their friend?

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Appeal to authority


From powerline


The “March for Science” is underway today, featuring the usual mountebanks like Michael Mann and Bill Nye. Liberals sure are fond of marching. It is doubtful that this march represents a true cross-section of actual scientists, but you never know. In any case, the whole thing parodies itself, making our job easy.

How anyone could take the trouble to make that placard without grasping its import I've no idea. The inability to doubt must be in there somewhere.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Earth Day Laughs

Principia-Scientific has eighteen examples of predictions made around 1970 when Earth Day started. It is sobering but not surprising to see how absurd people can be when thrust into the public arena. All the predictions are worth reading, but here are my three favourites -

13. Paul Ehrlich warned in the May 1970 issue of Audubon that DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons “may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945.” Ehrlich warned that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and he predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out. (Note: According to the most recent CDC report, life expectancy in the US is 78.8 years).

16. Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look that, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

18. Kenneth Watt warned about a pending Ice Age in a speech. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

We seem to have reached the point where we may as well dismiss as drivel any story about the environment published by mainstream media where there is an element of drama. It is not an unreasonable default position.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Blue sky

A recent photo. 

Can't imagine myself doing that. It's probably wonderful, but how one deals with a lurid imagination and all that empty air beneath the feet I've no idea.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Changing the story

This is interesting if you haven't already seen it.

WUWT has a post about the New York Times regularly editing stories after publication, sometimes substantially. A website called logs the different versions published by a few major mainstream news sources including the BBC, although no edits are currently logged against the BBC.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

May be crafty

So now we know, we are to have a general election on June 8th. All very interesting and almost exciting in a race to the bottom kind of way, but this voter isn’t keen having to vote Tory merely in the hope of keeping Brexit on course and the loons at bay. This is the party which harboured hard-core toads David Cameron and Tim Yeo, so it is more than disappointing to have one’s hand forced, but forced it is.

The trouble is, a chap has to vote against the absurd Corbyn and that hole on the political spectrum Tim Whatsit – you know, the one who tries to keep the Lib Dems afloat. UKIP no longer counts and the Greens are ludicrous so where does that leave us? Perhaps it's the invisible hand, the political one Adam Smith didn't write about. 

Unfortunately democracy has become a matter of voting against the dross rather than voting for something positive such as tackling corruption, pin-striped greed, bureaucratic oppression and general government incompetence. Pushing Brexit along is a positive of course, but we’ve voted for that. Apparently.

May of course is taking advantage of the situation. An opportunity has presented itself and she is making the best move she has available. It’s a good sign and may even indicate political astuteness. Or it may be the obvious move and that’s all there is to it. We'll see.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Food critics - and one or two in particular

An Easter holiday post from Wiggia

A good dining experience is about so much more than the food. There's a reason chefs always have a white cloth over their shoulder and cutlery is always polished before service begins, it's because presentation matters.

I lifted that opening statement from a recent restaurant review. What he says and goes on to embellish is true, to a point. What I really wanted to talk about was the review by Jay Rayner, son of the late Claire ! that has caused a bit of a furor and delight in different circles for different reasons, but I will return to that a bit later.

The role of food critics as with some wine critics has verged on going over the top in many cases for years and several of these reviews have indeed verged on the side of hyperbole, and even fantasy in the writing in an effort to simply make headlines and hopefully increase one’s salary pull.

None of this is new. I can well remember that the Daily Express had a motoring writer, whose name escapes me, who many years ago when given almost a whole page to review a car would confine the review to the last 25% of the article, starting with some anecdote about something else that somehow would become the lead in to the article. This went on for years yet at the time there were no obvious high profile equivalents.

Today is a very different world with often deliberate outrageous claims and statements being the meat and two veg of many articles in many genres. Of course if every critic simply said x is good y is bad it would be a very boring world and article, yet so much today as with everything else is almost another form of fake news. The likes of Rayner and his contemporary Giles Coren make a living out of this style of writing, though in neither case are qualifications of any sort deemed necessary for such a pleasurable route through life.

I'll explain. For years when abroad I used the Michelin guide for restaurants to book in countries like France Italy Spain and Portugal and others if I was holidaying there. A few good meals were part of the deal and the Michelin guide, if I was spending money or even not spending so much, was as reliable a tome as any. For years there was little else, hence its reputation.

Was it always right? The short answer is ‘no’, there is absolutely no way any publication can, with the sheer number of restaurants world wide in it’s guides that they can always be up to the minute accurate any more than personal taste will not always be catered for as described, owners change, chefs leave, standards go up and down in many cases overnight.

But overall, using it over many years, the accuracy was pretty good, though its British edition for reasons unknown has never been so reliable. All described in straightforward prose on the dishes and chefs’ specialities and the pricing and surroundings with a not so straight forward method of symbols and stars, but it worked in those pre-internet days and it carried on working despite increased competition from other publications and the printed word online and in the world of the restaurant critic.

But the world demands more than simple qualified information, so the critic reviewer resorts to ever more over the top techniques to grab the headline and make a name for himself whilst also promoting his subject at the same time.

What do I know about the subject? Well about wine quite a lot, with restaurants only those I have frequented over the years but enough to understand where the critic is coming from or not. Have I eaten in a Michelin 3* establishment? Yes on a few occasions, special occasions, and were they the best meals I have had? No, which brings me back to the opening line from the food critic. The overall experience at the top level is part of the experience, more so for someone not used to such places as against those who can afford to dine like that on a more frequent basis.

My first 3* dinner was at the Crillon in Paris a long time ago when it had three stars, the dining room is a version of Versailles hall of mirrors, quite stunning and to sit and eat at a place like that is an experience and one to be remembered, and a similar experience later at the Taillevent also in Paris when it too had 3*. Yet the best actual meals I have had were firstly in a 1* in the Alsace and others in the south of France and Italy and Spain that also never went above 1*, but none of them could provide that amazing feeling of an “event” that those top establishments gave, though they did give a wonderful glow of satisfaction.

So back to the review that caused all the furor the one by Jay Rayner in the Guardian. I only read it, proving that all publicity is good publicity, out of curiosity but could see where he was coming from. What I could also see was a writing style that was “adapted” in my view for his readership of the Guardian. The comments prove the point, his remarks about the enormous cost of eating in the Le Cinq were buffered by his statement that he nor the Guardian paid for the total sum.

That’s a new one on me as I never seen any reviewer say that before, but by doing that and implying he would never pay that sort of money for a meal, though I’m sure he has at similar places, he strikes a chord with all that readership allowing them to blast away in the comments in true Guardian readers’ fashion about “only capitalists” “who would?” “serves any one right” and on and on, so he certainly knows his readership.

What else he does in the piece is the more contentious, and in no way does this say he is wrong in his overall assessment of the Le Cinq. Firstly in the use of language that is used to justify his visit –

Irritated by reader complaints about the cost of eating out I decided to visit a classic Parisian gastro-palace, as a reality check.

And then by use of language to shock or show how right on he is, again with his captive audience with lines like this –

It is decorated in various shades of taupe, biscuit and fuck you.

Followed later by –

My companion winces. “It’s like eating a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s,” she says.

I find it difficult to believe anyone would trot out a line like that or if they did they have strange sexual preferences. The full review is here….

He also makes a point about the photos of the meal supplied by the restaurant and compares them with those he took on his mobile. Now no table side photos with a mobile in available light are ever going to be the same as those taken by a food photographer in set conditions but he bangs on about this and produces the two sets of images……

But then goes on to say that the Guardian sends its own photographer to take similarly staged photos for the paper later after the critic has left, rather destroying his point.

For many this is all good fun, it’s Sunday paper in bed reading. It’s “did you see that restaurant article” at work on Monday and by Tuesday the article is in the waste bin. It really is not that important, except for one thing, the bending of facts may have been and is the trademark of numerous politicians political parties and various other factions of society these days, but does the same treatment of facts have to be included in all else? As with all there is a limit, perhaps it’s been reached.

The only thing I gleaned from the article was the pointed comment on a dish of lamb costing 95 euros and not being enough to fill a Big Mac, but you don’t have to go to Paris to get that on your plate. It has become almost universal in the “quality” restaurant trade and is one of the major reasons I do not eat out as much as I used to. The blood pressure that goes with receiving a plate of food consisting of more gel decoration than actual combustibles is not something I can cope with anymore.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Conspiratorial Corbynistas

Interesting article in Spiked about Jeremy Corbyn's problems with the media.

I give it six months until the Labour Party starts blaming the Illuminati for its consistently poor showing in the polls. In the meantime, Corbyn and Co will keep blaming the media. They are trying to persuade voters that Labour isn’t the hole-ridden ship we all think it is, but rather is a party that’s being slowly waterboarded to death by ghastly newspaper hacks.

Maybe so, but I don't entirely agree with this -

These crusades against the media spring from an existential crisis within Labour, and are a means of avoiding dealing with that crisis. Labour recognises that it is teetering on the edge of oblivion. With local elections looming, it looks set to lose key council seats. Its support among the working classes is plummeting. Its turmoil over Brexit reveals just how distant it now is from many of its traditional grassroots voters.

To my mind the party is hardly teetering on the edge of oblivion. However, the working class has changed and continues to change, if indeed it still exists. This seems to be a significant part of Labour's problem, the changing aspirations and expectations of voters.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Did they really?

Common black powder such as old women use to blow out the copper flues.
R. Austin Freeman - As a Thief in the Night (1928)

Apparently women sometimes did this when the washday copper was heated by a coal fire and sooty flues were a problem to be resolved without the expense of a sweep.

The intrepid ladies went out and bought little packets of gunpowder, threw a packet into the fire under the copper, slammed the door and – whoomph. The gunpowder blew a thick black cloud of soot out of the flue. Job done.

Different times, different ways.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Read all about it

They all, the young illustrators and the writers who gathered in the rooms in the evenings to talk—well, they all worked in newspaper offices or in advertising offices just as Bruce did. They pretended to despise what they were doing but kept on doing it just the same. “We have to eat,” they said.
Sherwood Anderson - Dark Laughter (1925)

Where does one go for a consistently reliable source of general news? I certainly haven’t found one. No doubt the answer is that there are no such sources, not in the sense that one or two may be relied on to the exclusion of all others. That is a sure route to misinformation.

As a chap who remembers reading a daily newspaper and who usually watched the evening news on TV, coming to terms with the unreliability of news sources is a lasting pleasure, because beneficial discoveries are pleasurable even when they come rather late in life.

The vast global range of modern news sources, our ability to compare different accounts of the same event with a few clicks - the importance of it all is so colossal we barely understand how it will affect our future. All we know is that one way or another it will. 

The endless prevalence of bias, exaggeration, guesswork and outright lies may be deplorable but to those of us who remember the old days these inherent flaws in human nature are also enlightening. News is generated for a purpose and that purpose is not altruism, never was. We know that now, better than we ever did before.

If there are no consistently reliable news sources, does it matter? Having so many of them allows us to compare one with another and assess uncertainties and possibilities instead of taking favoured sources as authoritative - as we used to do. Fringe news sources also give us a handle on wider possibilities and how important or unimportant the main stories of the day might be. So many events to choose from. Those which hit the headlines are not necessarily the most important.

In my case the expectation that one or two news sources should be sufficient is fading slowly. Forged by long habit and the long dominance of the BBC the slowness of it is hardly surprising but the change is certainly welcome.

As it becomes easier to assess the news from a sceptical standpoint, it becomes more likely that it will be assessed sceptically. The uncertainties behind mainstream narratives become more obvious, their bias clearer. The political mania for being seen to do something becomes more transparently self-serving. I like it.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Something Crazy This Way Comes

Stream has a piece by William Briggs on the forthcoming March for Science.

Last thing the March for Science needs, say some agitated folks, is Bill Nye the “Science Guy” co-leading the parade. Why?

Their complaint is not that he’s an error–prone non-scientist, though that’s true. See, Nye is white. And a man. And some organizers are concerned that onlookers will notice Nye is white, and a man, and project his male-whiteness onto science itself. That in turn will cause the gullible to figure science is mostly done by white men.

Which, historically and in many current fields, it was and is. Now this fact may be for good or for bad, but it is a fact. And it’s not likely those who say they are “for” science and reason would be pleased were the contributions from white men removed from science. So long, calculus!

Or maybe they would be. Because it seems organizers believe scientific results are less important than who is producing them. Diversity trumps science.

I'm not overwhelmingly surprised by all this - who is? Politics trumps science and diversity is politics. Towards the end of my career, diversity was being insinuated into the laboratory and there was no question about where it came from, it came from the top. Briggs' article is well worth reading if you can stomach this kind of thing. Try another quote to get a fuller flavour of the madness coming our way.

“I love Bill Nye,” said Stephani Page, a biophysicist at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who created the Twitter hashtag #BlackAndSTEM. Page was asked to join the march’s board in February after she tweeted criticism of its approach to diversity. “But I do feel comfortable saying to you what I said to the steering committee: He is a white male, and in that way he does represent the status quo of science, of what it is to be a scientist.”

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Boys and fire


Yesterday I introduced Grandson to the manly satisfactions of building a fire in the garden. It was only a small affair with kindling and a few sticks contained by bricks, but we were able to make toast and he soon learned how a waft of smoke leads to watering eyes.

He loved it and later in the day had a go at barbecuing sausages over charcoal. I enjoyed it too, so what is it with boys and fire?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Academia’s Intellectual Orthodoxy

Quillette has a piece on the invasion of the humanities by an intolerant political orthodoxy.

Over the last three or four decades, the humanities have witnessed a shift so massive that it is barely noticed anymore. What was once an upstart movement has achieved the status of a truly successful usurper—normality. The leather arm patched ancien régime has been exiled to the land of past things. Horn-rimmed glasses, tattoos, and dyed hair no longer occupy the periphery, but the center. It is a revolution so thorough that it has completely painted over the canvas of our mental imagery.

If you consider the stereotypical picture of a literature professor at a major university today, a myriad of images might come to mind—so many, in fact, that it might be impossible to conjure a single, coherent figure. However, what almost certainly won’t come to mind is a Byron-quoting septuagenarian in tweed.

This revolution has been political. Entire disciplines—Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, and the various interdisciplinary programs that end in the word “Studies” – have all become more strongly associated with a particular species of left-wing interpretation that now influences the broader discourse in journalism and on social media. In some departments, the social categories of analysis—race, class, and gender—have attained complete hegemony.

Equally interesting is the first comment on the article which suggests an apolitical cause.

This outcome was foreordained when research surpassed teaching as an academic’s primary duty and function. A teacher needs to love an intellectual field and desire to convey its beauty to a new generation; a researcher needs to generate papers and get them reviewed and approved by peers. The latter is an inherently political activity, and it attracts people whose talent and passion are for assessing the zeitgeist–political, social, intellectual–of a particular community, catering to it, and winning a position of social status in it. It should surprise no one that such people share many traits, and are inclined to disdain–and use their political skills to exclude–those whose intellectual approach is very different from theirs. Nor should it surprise anyone that the research output of such people is of little use to anyone but themselves, and contributes only to their own career advancement.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Beyond their Ken

There is still much media kerfuffle over Ken Livingstone's claim that Hitler "did a deal with the Zionists". The BBC reports

Ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone faces a new investigation into his comments about Hitler, Jeremy Corbyn says.

The Labour leader said that since being suspended on Tuesday night, Mr Livingstone had "continued to make offensive remarks which could open him to further disciplinary action".

These will now be considered by the party's ruling executive committee.

Mr Livingstone has continued to defend his comments about Hitler and Zionism and vowed to fight his suspension.

Inevitably one is reminded of the video below which apparently once adorned Jeremy Corbyn's YouTube page. An astounding party in so many ways.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The price of the wearer


Personally I detest diamonds. They are hard and showy. They give any young and lovely human creature an air of meretriciousness; and merely serve to disguise and conceal the old and ugly. They price their wearer, and only the evil come alive in their baleful company.

Walter de la Mare - The Lost Track (1926)

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The end of the pier show

From Wiggia

We are fortunate to live not far from the North Norfolk coast so short trips decided on the day and by the weather are a frequent event. Most of the coastal towns and villages from Hunstanton to Happisburg have been visited and many of the more inland destinations such as Holt Burnham and many others have also received our blessing !

The more obvious destinations such as Blakeney, Stiffkey, Cley next the Sea and Wells are all along with inland Walsingham and Castle Acre and the Broads villages to the south, have all been on the itinerary of many a trip. Which brings me to the one obvious place on this coast I have never, until now, visited at all, Cromer.

There are several practical reasons for this among st others, the main tourist area is centered round the pier is quite small and the main road goes through an area just behind that on a one way system and is a nightmare even out of season so is generally avoided. When I have been forced to suffer the one-way what one notices is that a large part of the town is run down and dirty. Shops seem to be of the charity variety or tatty gift shops, not all but enough to remind one of Great Yarmouth and what that has become. So no reason to stop, that is if you can find a place to park anyway.

So for no obvious reason other than a curious mind and a desire to see the one shining jewel that Cromer offers, its pier, I announced to a surprised and rather reticent wife we were going to Cromer as there was some sun promised and we could probably park easily as it is still out of season.

The initial impression started badly at the car park. It was market day and part of the main central car park is cordoned off for the weekly market. Don’t bother as with so many markets they seem to dwindle and slowly disappear and Cromer’s market is at that juncture. The fresh fish van summed it up with the owner so busy he was reading a newspaper and had his feet up. Lively it was not.

I could see the wife's face showing that “what are we doing here look” as we crossed the road making in a general direction towards the pier area. The short lanes leading to the pier area are all full of old Regency and early 19th century buildings. Most are listed and many are wonderful examples of the era when wealthy business people purchased seaside properties in what was then an easily reached by train fashionable seaside resort, but even many of these have not seen a paint tin for many a long year. Many are now flats and holiday lets, few seem to be owner occupied, certainly not in that part of town.

Cromer is unusual in that it has a shoreline with cliffs, not much seen north of here and it provides a view when you arrive at the pier from above. A relatively short pier with a theater at the end and then a rather state of the art lifeboat station with a “proper” lifeboat in situ, not one of those rubber versions. The visitor center built around the lifeboat is well worth a visit, with all the rescues since inception on the walls round the inside of the building and who and what they rescued inscribed there.

The little theater has a bar and cafe that was open so we had a coffee and watched the world go by for a while. It is obvious the pier is the only reason that Cromer staggers on. The end of the pier show brings in the punters and many must come not from Cromer but the enormous caravan parks just up the road at East Runton, a form of holiday that is still very popular but whose attraction bypasses me.

The pier has survived a couple of serious fires and severe storm damage not that long ago but to their credit the town’s main attraction has been restored back to its pristine state each time with care and haste so as to be ready for the season. Whilst having coffee I noticed the posters for forthcoming events, the one-nighters and noticed Marty Wilde for the beginning of April and a month later the Searchers none of whom I believed to be still alive !

The whole raison d’etre of this piece however is to highlight the fact that several of these places that were jewels in the Victorian time for rest and recuperation, first for the upper classes and with the coming of rail the working class are in steep decline. Looking back up to Cromer from the pier there is the Hotel de Paris built in 1820 for Lord Suffield. It was turned into a grand hotel in 1830 and closer inspection now shows a very faded lady with mismatched curtains and cheap furniture in the lounge and dining areas, so what has happened ?

The answer is all around you. Whilst on the pier having coffee people watching revealed maybe not all but a large part of the problem. It was a street photographers dream, the endless passing of strange characters, large ladies with small dogs being towed by same and small ladies dragging old infirm dogs with twenty foot expanding leads that wanted to stay at home. Mobility scooters abound, people in wheelchairs abound, down and out young couples abound, elderly people who look as though they are waiting to die abound, non-working punk couples loiter and so on.

The place is decaying with its population and one of the contributing factors that I know is fact because a friend of mine had a daughter sent there when times went into reverse for her and her husband, is that councils farm out benefit recipients of all colours to places like Cromer because they can get cheap lodgings for them. It has become an industry on its own.

Very little of this shows in the summer as the crowds they get swamp the unfortunates described to a large degree, but what a sad world we live in when people can be all lumped together like that, all knowing that the person they just met on the pier is there for the same reasons, and it takes no time standing on that pier to see exactly that happening.

Will Cromer ever get back some of its former glory? It has the buildings to make the change and it clings on to its one wonderful asset and cossets it, the pier, but it will take a different mindset for those who run the town to achieve that and maybe they are happy with it to trundle on into downmarket obscurity. Maybe it is simply the fact that people’s tastes have changed, but not really as Cromer has exactly the same frontage as many other resorts that are still successful and blooming.

As we left on the long uphill run out of the town, we passed a gentleman of the road trudging up the same hill with all his worldly possessions in various plastic sacks about his person and puffing on a cigarette butt. He had even obtained a zimmer frame for the most difficult areas of the climb but what was significant is that he was leaving. Not a good sign. All quite sad really.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Coping with life’s pricks

The BBC has a story about pricks.

When a new style of seat suddenly appeared on Mexico City's metro system, it was labelled as inappropriate, uncomfortable, humiliating and embarrassing.

It was supposed to be.

The seat, moulded to include a protruding penis and chest, was designed to highlight sexual harassment experienced by female passengers.

The explanation next to the men-only label read: "It is uncomfortable to sit here, but that is nothing compared to the sexual violence that women suffer on their daily journeys."

Taking measures to tackle sexual violence and harassment is obviously necessary in this case, but as so often that is not the whole story. To my mind this stunt is crude and blatant but also typically modern. Its crudity highlights those lesser accusations which have become such a generic aspect of modern life. This one effectively points the finger at all males from teenagers onward, that is the underlying message and one cannot dismiss the possibility that it is deliberate.

We see generic accusation everywhere. Not necessarily as in your face as this, but the finger-pointing has become universal. It isn’t new but it seems far more pervasive than in the past and far more extensive and accusatory than Keep Off The Grass or No Spitting.

We see it in notices about zero tolerance with the implied message This Means You, however meek, mild and tolerant one might be towards those pockets of incompetent insolence hiding behind the notice.

It is particularly virulent in modern minefields such as racism, sexism, xenophobia and environmental worship. Here we also see scattergun accusations coupled to the implied message This Means You, especially if one is not safely ensconced in one of the favoured minorities where This Doesn't Mean You.

Maybe this is an endlessly tiresome aspect of modern life which has fed into political upheavals such as Brexit and Trump. Perhaps many people are weary of all those implied accusations. Perhaps civilised people do not take kindly to preaching fingers constantly pointed in their general direction. Perhaps they are prepared to rock a few political boats as a way of venting their frustration. Beneath the hysteria surrounding Brexit and Trump there is surely an underlying current of quiet satisfaction.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Heard in the changing room

Funny how you get up one morning and look in the mirror and suddenly think – God I’m fat. It just happened overnight. I used to be size fourteen but now I’m size twenty.

Obviously not heard by me. Must add that. 

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Banking on AI

The BBC has a piece about a report into the way banks aim to use artificial intelligence as part of their customer interaction.

Artificial intelligence will be the main way that banks interact with their customers within the next three years, a report from consultancy Accenture has suggested.

Banks such as Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) are increasingly using chatbots to answer customer queries.

The report examined the views of 600 bankers and other experts.

Many, perhaps ironically, felt that AI would help banks create a more human-like customer experience.

A more human-like customer experience? Strewth, what does that say about their staff? Or their management for that matter. In our case the bank is mostly an ATM and online services, our banking interactions are largely conducted through computers anyway.

Where AI could be useful would be visits to our car dealership. We’re taking the car for its annual MOT check tomorrow and I’m sure our interactions with the service dept could be conducted via a computer. For example, an AI system might even remember to tell us that it had moved to new premises several miles away, a feature of the service we only found out recently and accidentally.

Monday, 27 March 2017

All animals are equal...

...but some are more equal than others.

George Orwell’s famous slogan in Animal Farm is still relevant today and perhaps it always will be, but what exactly do we expect from modern slogans about equality?

To begin with, allow me to make a minor discursion into the realms of blogging. The people responsible for the blogs in my blogroll and those who leave comments here and elsewhere are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever encountered. No that’s not flattery, it is an assertion about many educated people who have seen something of life and have drawn worthwhile conclusions.

I don’t necessarily have a personal allegiance to all those worthwhile conclusions, but as they are rooted in lives different to mine that isn’t important. What is important is that a decent education and a few decades of experience seem to produce many people worth listening to, far more than we ever come across in the mainstream media.

In a hierarchical society this feels odd, because the governing classes and their chosen experts are still supposed to hold the aces as far as informed thinking is concerned. The trouble is we know this is not the case. So much so that it has become somewhat embarrassing.

Equality is a political mantra which seems just as likely to prevent genuine equality as promote it. As in Animal Farm, the equality mantra can be subverted and used to promote inequality. One thing we have learned since the digital world shook up mass communication is how limited our governing classes really are. They should be smart but don't seem to have the time or the inclination. Or they leave it to tame experts who gave up on smart in favour of plausible because that is how the political winds blow.

An important driver for all this seems to be time. Many people seem to spend a considerable amount of time mulling over the infinite complexities of real life. Not in a concentrated session of deep thinking, but at odd moments throughout the day. Any pause in the flow of daily life and the musing self seems to wake up, pick up a thread and follow it until daily life resumes its sway. It may only be a few minutes, it may be longer and the threads may not join up, but it seems to be a common habit which over time adds up to a rounded point of view.

The joy of it is not to be found in new certainties, but new possibilities, not in joining a popular narrative but in standing apart to avoid the crap, not in some indecisive waffle but in insights which may be no more than finding a better word or phrase. Even these tiny steps are pleasing, encouraging enough to explore further and even make a slight shift in perspective. Sometimes that does happen, that shift in perspective. Gosh – how radical is that?

A grotesquely overweight man lumbers into the supermarket, a car brakes sharply, a van roars by, popular music blares from a passing car, another terrorist incident takes the media by the throat, the aroma of coffee stirs a memory, a child’s cry stirs another, a politically correct loon has yet another rant about something unimportant, a financial scandal erupts, a bee buzzes past the window and a politician says something silly - again.

All these mundane happening and countless others stimulate the musing mind and it is surprising how often the results are worthwhile. Surprising because we mainly hear from those who have less to say but a public platform from which to say it.

So what has that to do with equality? To my mind this issue has been growing for many decades. The internet has merely given it a good hard nudge. The covert message embedded in the political notion of equality is that even a whole lifetime of experience, knowledge, understanding and analysis is worth nothing if you are not on the official stage where some are more equal than others.

You are intelligent and you have a lifetime of experience to draw on. I know that and so do you, but the political game cannot accept it. The effects of mass education, mass communication and economic growth have outstripped our antiquated political ways. Not completely because a few people still read the Guardian and many more watch TV. In their obsolete world we still have our intellectual superiors and their ideas must outweigh ours because that is the very essence of hierarchy.

And yet many of us look on with ever increasing incredulity while those who are more equal than we will ever be strut their ignorant stuff on a profoundly unequal stage.