Thursday 28 April 2011

Slippery slope

I was talking to Alice over a late breakfast in the Red Lion. Well into our first gin and tonic, I suddenly realised she was reading a newspaper, as if interested in its contents.
“I’m not in favour of making a fuss over this royal wedding business,” she announced abruptly. “It’s against my republican beliefs.”
“Your what?” I coughed into my gin, which couldn’t have been a pretty sight, but a shock is a shock and you have to react somehow.
“It’s against my republican beliefs,” Alice repeated huffily. I think she’d caught my splutter of incredulity.
“You don’t have any beliefs, republican or otherwise. You’re a cynic like me,” I managed to reply, once I’d sucked the gin dribbles back.
“We all have our beliefs. They’re the most precious part of what we are.” Alice intoned. She turned a page of the newspaper, scanning it with pursed, judicious lips.
“You don’t need beliefs, Alice. They don’t do you any good.” I reached across to pat her arm. A touchy-feely thing to do I know, but the situation seemed to require it.
“I need a few beliefs of my own, surely?” Alice looked away from the pages of the newspaper, frowning at my hand on her arm.
“Not even a few. There are no half measures with cynicism.”
“Not even one?”
“Not even a small one.”
“Oh... a slippery slope you think?”
“A very slippery slope indeed Alice. Beliefs suck the juice out of you.”
“Hmm... You may be right - it has been known. Anyway, I know a few people with beliefs...”
“And you wouldn’t want to be like them.”
“Not bloody likely.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.” I removed my hand from her arm. I could see the point was made. Alice would soon be back to normal.
“You’re right I suppose... I’ll put it down to a momentary lapse of concentration. Ready for another?” She folded the newspaper, tossed it onto the next table and lifted her empty glass, the universal sign of another round.
“Okay, but no more talk of beliefs. How about something to eat too?” I pushed my glass across the table.
“Good idea – I’ll ask for a slice of lemon this time.” Alice took our empty glasses to the bar.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Complexity fosters ignorance

One way to create and exploit a domain of expertise, is to make it complicated. Complexity has to be assimilated and that takes time and resources. Special terms have to be understood, special modes of expression learned, even special forms of behaviour. Barriers to entry economists like to call them.

It all serves as one more way to keep out the riff-raff, create business for those inside the domain and foster ignorance outside it. No wonder complexity is so popular.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Amazon Kindle

I recently bought an Amazon Kindle after a friend enthused about it. As a life-long bibliophile, I’ve always been sceptical of electronic book substitutes. Some of my books are three hundred years old and this physical longevity always persuaded me that paper books would never be supplanted by electronic interlopers. I like books, enjoy handling them, take much pleasure in their endless variety, but now I’m not so sure. I have to admit the Kindle changed my mind, or at least skewed it.

Reading the Kindle is very much like reading a book. The screen looks pretty similar to paper; it’s easy to read in a wide range of lighting and best of all, you can access hundreds of thousands of books through this one little device. But what I particularly like is the fact that I can buy huge numbers of classics for peanuts. There are disadvantages of course. Diagrams could be better and some Kindle books are not formatted as well as they could be, but that will change.

As for me, I’ve given away at least half of my books to charity. I use my Kindle for virtually all of my reading and I’ve even taken the DIY publishing plunge by publishing one of my own books ( The Pillbox ) in Kindle format. Where will it all end?

Saturday 16 April 2011

The cherry harvest

 Bishop Hill recently posted an interesting link to a paper on exaggerated cause/effect correlations in social neuroscience. Essentially the paper was about the problem of how scientists select what to study and how to study it. It isn’t a new problem, but the scientific world is very slow to grasp this particular nettle, for obvious reasons.

Putting it crudely, scientists who study complex natural phenomena have to study their subject within boundaries and assumptions which are inevitably selected to bring out the phenomenon of interest. But the phenomenon may only be real within those selected boundaries and assumptions. In the real world, it may not be a phenomenon at all.

Putting it even more crudely, scientists who study natural phenomena have powerful reasons to cherry-pick without necessarily being aware of it.

One could debate whether this is scientifically right or wrong, but the interesting point is that it may well be inevitable. To study complex natural phenomena we have to simplify by setting boundaries and making assumptions. If we don’t, then we have difficulty reaching specific conclusions and a corresponding difficulty getting papers published. Why? Because the cherry-pickers are bound to get there first.

And the lesson is? The science of the natural world is mostly about cherry-picking, because the cherry-pickers get there first. Not necessarily through nefarious intent - but they still get there first.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Adapted to extremes

Until recently I had no intention of voting in the AV/FPTP referendum. I couldn’t see it making much difference and was incensed that we are are merely allowed a measly choice of voting systems rather than a referendum on much more critical issues.

However, I’m now persuaded to vote yes to AV. What swung it for me was the realisation that this is probably the only chance I’ll get to hint (and it is only a mild hint) that the present system is rotten to the core and way past its sell-by-date.

AV will favour extremists, we’re told. So the present incumbents aren’t extreme? Record levels of debt, ceding power to the EU without a vote, thieving, lying, nepotism, cronyism and detailed interference in all aspects of daily life. That isn’t extreme?

Tuesday 12 April 2011


For me, a balls-achingly tiresome feature of modern life is the scare story supposedly based on scientific findings. Almost all are founded on some kind of statistical analysis, rather than the more reliable and verifiable science of theory and experiment. Most seem to be backed by an official policy which tends to stay out of sight.

Evidence-based policies supported by policy-based evidence. You couldn’t make it up, could you? Who can tell which is science and which is policy? Clearly not the journalists who copy and paste the press-releases.

So are scientists really biased in favour of official policies with research funding behind them? Of course they are, especially policies supposedly designed to promote health and well-being. It would be ludicrously naive to think otherwise, wouldn’t it?

Saturday 9 April 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part I

Every now and then, you come across somebody with something important to say, yet their ideas are at odds with mainstream discourse. I’m not sure why it is. Perhaps there are valid, but unwelcome ideas which do not sit well with hierarchical societies.

For me, the experimental psychologist Benjamin Libet is one such person. He spent a substantial part of his life on the experimental investigation of a particular phenomenon with profound implications for our notions of free-will and personal responsibility.

A typical Libet experiment involved a subject raising his or her arm at random and noting the time when they made the decision to raise it. Libet also logged the subject’s readiness potential, a neurological event, recorded via electrodes, a precursor to bodily actions. So we have time at which the subject decided to raise their arm (Td) and the time when the readiness potential indicated the arm was about to be raised (Tr). Libet typically found that Td was a few hundred milliseconds later than Tr. In other words, the arm-raising decision had been made neurologically before the subject became aware of making it.

The implications for free-will and personal responsibility are obvious. Libet wrote a very readable account of his work in his book Mind Time, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in unwelcome ideas.

Friday 8 April 2011

The physics of duvets

It’s all very well particle physicists spending billions on the Large Hadron Collider. They’ve made a few discoveries, no doubt, but what about duvets? It’s no good searching for the Higgs Boson and inappropriately calling it the God particle when my duvet keeps wandering around the bed all night.

I say, sort out duvets first. Come on physicists, show some practical results before you go looking for the Higgs boson. You know you only want to make swivel-eyed TV programmes about the damned thing when (if) you do find it.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Making business

This is my favourite Dickens quote. Of course it doesn’t just apply to lawyers, but to all professions as well as whole swathes of government.

 The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

Charles Dickens. Bleak House

Monday 4 April 2011

Incompetence – is it underrated?

There is something deeply interesting about incompetence. Human beings are fundamentally different from all other life-forms and I don't think it has anything to do with intelligence. We seem to be the only creatures with a facility for creative incompetence. No other non-domesticated species can afford to be incompetent, but we can and we’re good at it. Competently incompetent you might say. We make extensive use of it, socially and culturally.

Think about politicians for a moment – recall the best route to a successful political career. Promise what you can’t deliver, isn’t that the surest way up the greasy pole? Make incompetent promises. Embrace your incompetence while the little people fall by the wayside, vainly trying to make competence work its non-existent magic.

It isn’t only politicians either. By tireless breeding we’ve produced other incompetent creatures beside ourselves. Dogs are an obvious example. Pekingese, dachshunds and Yorkshire terriers are all hopeless at being what dogs evolved to be. Could they survive outside a domestic environment? I don’t think so. We actually show them off too – flaunting our incompetent canine designs.

It’s partly what makes us tick – this human facility for creative incompetence.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Spinoza - a natural philosopher

I once wrote a book about the seventeenth century philosopher Benedict Spinoza. As a non-philosopher, I knew this might be a dodgy thing to do. Anyway, I wrote the book because I had to get it out of my system. I like Spinoza and knew I could write a book about his philosophy from a layman’s perspective.

A little while later, I came across a book of all his existing letters. Till then, I’d relied on an abridged version which was all I’d been able to get hold of. Once I’d read Spinoza’s letters, it dawned on me that I’d misjudged an important aspect of his character.

Spinoza made a living by grinding lenses for use in fast-growing areas of scientific research such as microscopy and astronomy. He also carried out simple experiments as well as his optical studies. He even corresponded with Boyle on the combustion of nitre, where he comes across as keen to establish an empirical basis for some kind of atomic theory. In modern terms, Spinoza was at least as much a scientist as a philosopher. In fact a key section of his book ‘Ethics’ can be seen as an early form of behaviourism where human actions, ideas and emotions are explained by stimulus and response.

Yet today we classify Spinoza as a philosopher and in so doing we miss something important, as we usually do when we classify people. Spinoza wasn’t merely a philosopher, he was a natural philosopher too. One day I’ll rewrite the book.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Writing fiction

It’s a strange business, writing fiction. At least I find it so. I’m very conscious that I can only write on the basis of my own experiences. That’s it, there’s nothing else to go on. I may do lots of research on, for example, China, but if I haven’t actually been to China (and I haven’t), then all I’m writing about is the borrowed experiences of other people. I can probably make it work if my research is sufficiently thorough or I approach my chosen subject with a bit of chutzpah, but for me at any rate, it doesn’t satisfy. I tend to think I’ll be found out.

Many non-writers don’t have these qualms of course. They’ll say anything, even if they don’t understand it. We call them charlatans, or politicians.

Friday 1 April 2011

My new book

My new book, The Pillbox, has just been released on Amazon Kindle. 
The Pillbox is a darkly amusing tale of mystery and professional failure in a shabby seaside town. Doctor Julius Woolf is a successful but limited clinical psychologist near retirement.

Fifty years earlier, he and his elder sister Kassia live with their Aunt Beth, an eccentric, marijuana-smoking artist. They live in Mayfield; Aunt Beth’s grand but neglected home. One day, Woolf’s best friend Robbie kills a cat with his father’s stolen air-rifle. Woolf and Robbie get rid of the cat in a wartime pillbox at the far end of the beach.

This key event in Woolf’s life leads to an obsession with the human mind. He embarks on a career as a clinical psychologist, to which he is successful but hopelessly unsuited. His sporadic appearances as a glib TV psychologist blind him to his tragic, yet almost comical inability to make sense of his own life and the mysteries surrounding his sister’s disappearance as a teenager.

At least that's what the blurb says. If you buy it, I hope you enjoy it.