Monday 30 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part VI

The previous post briefly introduced Epicurus and his philosophy via the modern word 'epicure'. His argument in the above video is of course an old one, but it serves to illustrate just how ancient it is and why his ideas were unwelcome.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Wordplay - epicure

As is well-known, the word epicure comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus  (341 – 270 BC), now fairly synonymous with the word ‘gourmet’, although there is a more pejorative sense of an addiction to sensual enjoyment, particularly in earlier usage. It is perhaps less well-known that both of these usages have their roots in anti-Epicurean propaganda, an ancient determination to discredit, suppress and distort a powerful and remarkably modern philosophy.

Almost all of what Epicurus wrote is now lost, but we have enough fragments and references to form a pretty good idea of his philosophy. Ironically, Epicurus himself was something of an ascetic who ate frugally, drank mainly water and valued friendship above worldly goods and desires. He taught that our ultimate aims in life should be to live without anxiety, to cultivate friendship and ignore the gods, for he argued that the gods cannot conceivably be affected by what we do and therefore cannot possibly have any interest in us. He also taught that atoms are the fundamental, indivisible building blocks of the universe, that what we see around us is made of combinations of atoms and that there must be an infinite number of worlds, not merely the one we humans happen to live on.

The suppression and distortion of Epicurus’ teachings is one of the great philosophical tragedies, probably accounted for by what he said about the practical irrelevance of the gods. Our use of the word 'epicure' is a reminder of our loss.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Masterchef circa 1790

Some things give a real flavour of times gone by:-

Roast pork recipe from 'English Housewifery' by Elizabeth Moxon, thirteenth edition - 1790.

Stick your pig just above the breast bone, run your knife to the heart, when it is dead, put it in cold water for a few minutes, then rub it over with a little rosin beat exceedingly fine, or its own blood, put your pig into a pail of scalding water half a minute, take it out, lay it on a clean table, pull off the hair as quick as possible, if it does not come clean off put it in again, when you have got it all clean off wash it in warm water, then in two or three cold waters, for fear the rosn should taste; take off the four feet at the first joint, make a slit down the belly, take out all the entrails, put the liver, heart and lights to the pettitoes, wash it well out of cold water, dry it exceedingly well with a cloth, hang it up, and when you roast it, put in a little shred sage, a tea spoonful of black pepper, two of salt, and a crust of brown bread, spit your pig, and sew it up; lay it down to a brisk clear fire, with a pig plate hung in the middle of the fire; when your pig is warm, put a lump of butter in a cloth, rub your pig often with it while it is roasting; a large on will take an hour and a half: when your pig is fine brown, take a clean cloth, rub your pig quite dry, then rub it well with a little cold butter, it will help to crisp it; then take a sharp knife, cut off the head, and take off the collar, then take off the ears and jaw-bone, split the jaw in two, when you have cut the pig down the back, which must be done before you draw the spit out, then lay your pig on to back on your dish, and the jaw on each side, the ears on each shoulder, and the collar at the shoulder, and pour in your sauce, and serve it up: garnish with a crust of brown bread grated.

Friday 27 May 2011

A sustainable nitrogen cycle

A key development for a sustainable future would be to resolve the vexed question of nitrogen. We need nitrogen as a fertilizer, producing millions of tonnes per annum via a variety of industrial chemical processes. The irony is that we also waste nitrogen in vast quantities. How? Well basically we excrete the stuff, mostly in the form of urea in urine which goes off to the sewage works to end up mostly as nitrates with traces of ammonia in our rivers and coastal waters.

Okay, sounds simple enough you might say, so what can be done about it? Dr Rob Smith, senior researcher of Nitrogen Solutions (UK) takes the story:-

“We have designed a cost-effective domestic nitrogen collection system based on reusable waste collection modules. The units are bright yellow for easy recognition and they sit on a pair of wheels so that householders can wheel them out on the appropriate collection day, just like their other recycling containers. This one will be different though, the first one specifically designed to an EU standard with EU standard collection trucks.”

“So what happens next?” I asked.

“The collection process is a fully automatic, driver-only operation” Dr Smith explains. “The truck has a hydraulic robotic arm which does all the clever stuff. The domestic container has an embedded RF chip, so the collection truck simply senses it, grabs it, rinses it and puts it back clean and empty. It’s quite impressive actually.”

“And now for the big question, exactly how do householders use the collection module?” I ask.

“That’s up to them,” Dr Smith laughs. “Our only remit from the EU is to take the piss.”

Thursday 26 May 2011

Wordplay - rhetoric

Samuel Johnson's dictionary 3rd edition 1766 defines rhetoric as:


The act of speaking not merely with propriety, but with art and elegance.
The power of persuasion; oratory

The spelling has changed since Johnson’s time and the meaning has shifted somewhat too, acquiring a distinctly pejorative tone. For example – the argument is mere rhetoric, not worth switching my ears on.

Johnson understood perfectly well that argument is about winning and rhetoric is by far the most useful tool you have. He was determined to win any argument, once admitting he’d argue against his own beliefs simply for the intellectual pleasure of winning.

Now that science has a tenuous, but rapidly loosening grip on our notions of truth, we have come to regard rhetoric as a slick, question-begging device, only fit for politicians and other charlatans. Yet rhetoric is easy to slip into isn’t it? It’s easy to take sides in an argument with the hope of winning, or at least coming out on top. Easy to cite untrustworthy organisations, dodgy scientists, partial data and cherry-picked statistics, easy to use them as rhetorical devices. Merely to win, to be on the winning side, the side with the most powerful, the most fashionable, most rewarding rhetoric.

A good word to inform our susceptibilities I’d say.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

String Theory

I recently finished a book on string theory written by Lee Smolin. For those who are a little hazy about it, string theory is a conjecture that the fundamental physical entities are minute string-like units of energy. These strings vibrate, form themselves into loops and generally behave in ways that supposedly account for the physical universe and all its properties. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out like that.

Lee Smolin is an interesting guy, because he is a physicist who gave string theory a try before moving on to other things such as loop quantum gravity. He didn’t make a career out of string theory as many physicists have done and in his book he tells us why.

Smolin thinks string theory has proved to be a dead-end with no predictive capacity and no physical evidence that the theory has any advantage over alternatives. He tells this story of failure in a good-natured and entirely understanding way, which is only remarkable when you consider what a powerful grip string theory has had over physicists during the past thirty odd years.

If you are interested in this kind of thing, give the book a try. It provides a powerful and sobering example of how scientific communities may become so inward-looking, so committed to their theorising, that they fail to connect their conjectures and speculations with observable reality. Fascinating and colourful scientific conjectures are a gift to science journalists, but is this the way we want our science to go?

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Honey I shrunk the car

Please forgive the giveaway title, but it's so obvious what's coming.

Magical You

The previous post revolved around the ancient meaning of the word choose (from Old English cēosan and the way it betrays our links to a magical medieval past, a past we may have thought we’d outgrown by now.

Naturally, in addition to Magical Me, there has to be a Magical You, my view of your magical homunculus who also happily violates the laws of cause and effect. Magical Me automatically assumes a Magical You who chooses to do this or that, just as Magical Me chooses. So Magical Me loads Magical You with all kinds of responsibilities you simply don’t have, because there are always non-magical reasons for your choices, just as there are for mine.

How easy is it to escape a disadvantaged background? If Magical Me and Magical You really could exercise what we call choice, then I think we know we’d soon find out how to choose well, how to choose advantageously. But that isn’t how it works, as we all know. To make a punishment-based legal system work, I have to blame Magical You or you have to blame Magical Me for choosing to commit a crime. We must have chosen to commit that crime, chosen to stand by, to become an accessory, chosen to emulate a violent father, chosen to try narcotics, chosen to plan that fraud, chosen to cherry-pick that data. It all relies on this magical, medieval word choose.

This antiquated finger-pointing lies at the root of more tragedy than we can possibly comprehend. Instead of looking for a reason why Magical You might behave as you do, Magical Me simply points that stupid, antiquated finger. I blame you and you blame me and if either of us gets the upper hand, then one of us is doomed.

Monday 23 May 2011

Magical Me

Following on from the previous post, the words choice and choose (from Old English cēosan ) are by modern standards, magical words. They are left over from the ages of witchcraft, sorcery and magic, tattered remnants of which still obtrude themselves into our language, our culture and even our laws.

There is, deep inside all of us, a very ancient homunculus, a Magical Me who still casts a spell over the whole universe, setting aside the iron laws of cause and effect. Because amongst other magical attributes, Magical Me is supposed to choose - an event without a cause because it began with Magical Me.

I chose this. I choose to believe. I chose to act. I choose.

Although we now know that something else must always cause us to choose this or reject that, the word has not yet lost its old, magical meaning.

Yet that little word choose, with its ancient meaning, gives the game away. It shows how even in the twenty-first century, we still ascribe reality to Magical Me, that delightful, deluded place where we initiate events with no other cause but ourselves. It’s where the buck supposedly stops, where personal responsibility resides. It sits behind our criminal law, our moral absolutes, our political crusades. Even today it still inserts its medieval certainties into supposedly modern minds. Yet the iron laws of cause and effect know nothing of Magical Me. 

Saturday 21 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part V

As the clip explains, the pigeons playing a version of ping-pong have been conditioned to play by a reward mechanism. It rewards ‘winning’ by giving food and punishes ‘losing’ by not giving food, so ‘winning’ behaviour is what the pigeons adopt as best they can. They have no choice - their environment controls their behaviour

Similarly, there is no need to invoke ‘choice’ when we play our human games, whether traditional games like ping-pong, or the numerous, subtle games we play in the great game of life. There too, just like the pigeons, we play the game for reward or to avoid punishment. We play in whatever fashion we have found to be most advantageous or least disadvantageous. There are reasons why we play our games as we do, but that’s all. Choice doesn’t come into it – just reasons.

If we watch the pigeons and absorb what their behaviour can tell us about ourselves, a whole raft of unwelcome ideas are loosed from their moorings.

Low Tide on Grand Pré

The sun goes down, and over all
These barren reaches by the tide
Such unelusive glories fall,
I almost dream they yet will bide
Until the coming of the tide.

And yet I know that not for us,
By any ecstasy of dream,
He lingers to keep luminous
A little while the grievous stream,
Which frets, uncomfortable dream‑

A grievous stream, that to and fro
Athrough the fields of Acadie
Goes wandering, as if to know
Why one beloved face should be
So long from home and Acadie.

Was it a year or lives ago
We took the grasses in our hands,
And caught the summer flying low
Over the waving meadow lands,
And held it there between our hands?

The while the river at our feet‑
A drowsy inland meadow stream‑
A set of sun the after-heat
Made running gold, and in the gleam
We freed our birch upon the stream.

There down along the elms at dusk
We lifted dripping blade to drift,
Through twilight scented fine like musk,
Where night and gloom awhile uplift,
Nor sunder soul and soul adrift.

And that we took into our hands‑
Spirit of life or subtler thing‑
Breathed on us there, and loosed the bands
Of death, and taught us, whispering,
The secret of some wonder-thing.

Then all your face grew light, and seemed
To hold the shadow of the sun;
The evening faltered, and I deemed
That time was ripe, and years had done
Their wheeling underneath the sun.

So all desire and all regret,
And fear and memory, were naught;
One to remember or forget
The keen delight our hands had caught;
Morrow and yesterday were naught.

The night has fallen, and the tide...
Now and again comes drifting home,
Across these aching barrens wide,
A sigh like driven wind or foam;
In grief the flood is bursting home.

Bliss Carman (1861 - 1929)

Note – Grand Pré is in Nova Scotia.

Friday 20 May 2011

It’s how EU do it

An interesting new paper from the EU adds another strand to recent concerns over the health of its citizens. This new paper is not a Directive of course or even an Advisory, but a discussion paper on the vexed question of our health. More specifically, the paper, coyly named 2011/1063/ECH, is concerned with the possible physical risks inherent in making love.

The first issue tackled by 2011/1063/ECH is that of position. What positions, it asks, do EU citizens generally adopt during intercourse, and are they safe? Most citizens apparently adopt the well-known missionary position, which the EU classes as perfectly safe if both partners are physically fit and not unduly mismatched with respect to size. Other positions, such as the “crab-fight” and the “three-toed sloth” are considered dubious, simply from the point of view of avoiding unnecessary accidents. Mushy peas are dismissed as “positively dangerous”.

The paper certainly dismisses some urban myths on the subject, such as the idea that certain special positions can cause the man’s testicles to explode. This possibility the paper dismisses as “highly improbable.”

The paper also tries to discourage the use of extraneous substances while making love, such as cream, chocolate, strawberry jelly and field mice. All in all, a mixed bag I’d say, although that too is frowned on by the EU.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Honey I shrunk the BBC

It's all getting rather silly. An obvious problem for traditional news and entertainment media is the colossal resource that is the Internet. It has caused them to shrink enormously relative to the global information pool. They will have to adapt or die, although ingrained habits may keep them afloat for a while yet. The way we in the UK are forced to keep the BBC afloat is beginning to look very silly indeed.

Car fetish

How can anyone possibly find stuff like this interesting? It's just a car!

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Wordplay - silly

The word silly has changed its meaning over the centuries. It is derived from the old English word seely meaning blessed or happy. By the eighteenth century its meaning had changed significantly. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary 3rd edition published 1766 defines silly as:-

  1. Harmless; innocent; inoffensive; plain; artless.
  2. Weak; helpless.
  3. Foolish; witless

Fifty years later, Jane Austen used the word in its modern sense in her novel Persuasion. She used this one word to convey a good deal of information about a character, Sir Walter Elliot. Through that one word we immediately know something of the man – well before Austen chooses to enlarge his character.

“Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath, an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father.”
Jane Austen – Persuasion’

Still a good word for modern times I'd say. 'Silly' is a quiet, not overly offensive word, perfectly equal to the task of conveying a decent load of gentle contempt for those many inanities we encounter in daily life. So well fitted to the absurdities of  too many social and political trends.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

The popularity formula

The other day I posted a comment on the excellent Orphans of Liberty blog. I was commenting on an interesting post about Iain Dale’s new blog venture and the relationship between blogs and mainstream media:-

I never rated Dale’s blog – didn’t even bookmark it and won’t bother with his new venture. What I enjoy about blogs such as this one is the tone, the sharpness you don’t see in the MSM. Many professional journalists write very well, but many don’t. Those who write well often lapse into a formulaic style you soon get to know too well.

Bloggers seem closer to real life because, I suspect, they are and it shows. The MSM hasn’t come to terms with blogging because it can’t. Bloggers have something they lost a long time ago and don’t know how to rediscover.

It occurred to me afterwards that formulaic writing is actually popular. In fact popular entertainment is almost always formulaic. Witness the enduring appeal of TV soap-opera. One of my formulaic weaknesses is the detective story. I suspect we all have our formulaic likes and dislikes. In fact I suspect we must have, because an aspect of entertainment is predictability, or if you prefer - safety.

Yet it is when we depart from the formulaic that life becomes interesting - and less safe. Many blogs do a good job of avoiding the formulaic, but they could be a minority interest. Maybe if a blog aims to become popular it also has to become formulaic.

Just a thought I decided to share in the unlikely event of this blog becoming popular...

Monday 16 May 2011

An ill wind

There is a great deal of covert scientific and legislative work going on in the EU at the moment. Most people won’t have heard of it because it is – ahem – somewhat embarrassing. It is to do with meeting EU climate emission targets in an extremely novel way. The science is simple, but the politics may be tricky.

Certain sulphur-containing gases are extremely powerful greenhouse gases, many millions of times more potent than CO2. So what? You may ask. Well the problem is that some of the most potent sulphur-containing gases are to be found in the gaseous products of human flatulence.

Once the laughter subsides, there is a serious issue at stake here. Let’s take the most potent human greenhouse emission, which happens to be, not CO2 as you would expect, but the gaseous sulphur compound euphartole, carefully pronounced youffa–tole.

You’ll be pleased to know that EU scientists, climate experts and specialist regulators have shown a touch of imagination in resolving this most delicate issue via the upcoming Euphartole Emissions Directive. Because of the extreme potency of human flatulence in climate change, particularly from euphartole, they have come up with a cunning plan. The idea is to levy enormous taxes on dried fruit, eggs and lager and reduce the permitted opening hours of curry houses. These measures will, so the scientists assure us, allow the EU to legitimately claim it has reduced the human impact on climate simply by moderating the global-warming effect of EU flatulence, saving several trillion euros into the bargain. Brilliant!

Sunday 15 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part IV

In a previous post I wrote briefly about Benedict (or Baruch) Spinoza, a seventeenth century natural philosopher. He was a Dutch Jew excommunicated from his Jewish community because of his heretical views. He spent the rest of his short life as a lens-grinder and natural philosopher. His books were banned and his last book ( Ethics ) had to be smuggled away from his lodgings shortly after his death to be published covertly.

So what was it about Spinoza’s ideas that made them so unwelcome? Many books have been written about him, but few quite do him justice. Spinoza believed among other things, that our environment is more powerful than we are and the greatest joy in life is to understand it. In fact he thought this to be literally true. To be happy is to understand the natural world, including people and institutions. This was far more radical than it sounds, because even today, people and institutions don’t necessarily wish to be understood in a dispassionate way.

Although our environment is more powerful than we are, although it controls us from cradle to grave via our genes and acquired habits, Spinoza identified an aspect of this control which to me is one of the great insights in human thought. It is this:-

If we don’t understand our environment then it controls us. If we do understand, then it still controls us, but we react differently to its pressures simply because we understand them. In a sense, we join the natural world by a special moderating habit of always trying to understand, however imperfectly we achieve it.

I say that we act or are active when something takes place within us or outside of us whose adequate cause we are, that is, when from our nature anything follows in us or outside us which can be clearly and distinctly understood through that alone. On the other hand, I say we suffer or are passive when something takes place in us or follows from our nature of which we are only the partial cause.

Benedict Spinoza – Ethics

Saturday 14 May 2011

Slice off life

There has been some debate recently about a ban on unsliced bread proposed by the EU Working Group on Domestic Safety. It has long been known that EU policy-makers are unhappy with the current levels of domestic risk. Although a zero-tolerance policy is thought to be a step to far at the moment, a number of ameliorative proposals are in the pipeline. One of the first will be to phase out unsliced bread in order to cut down the current high level of domestic slicing accidents.

Action on Bread, an EU-funded charity has no doubts about the wisdom of such a proposal. “Slicing accidents are already far too high and are set to rise uncontrollably if we don’t do something now,” said AoB spokesperson Liz Wonks. “Nine-fingered kids are already with us, entirely due to a fatal combination of hungry children and unsliced bread. Our research shows it won’t stop there and there is only one answer, a total ban on unsliced bread.”

A scientific paper recently published by Professor Bob Goofe of the Creative Risks Unit (CRU) attached to East Ongar University shows quite clearly that slicing bread in the home poses an unacceptable risk to EU citizens. However, Professor Goofe declined to release his data on the current and future levels of bread-slicing accidents used in his computer model. He said the data would be “misinterpreted by the wealthy and influential unsliced bread lobby.”

Friday 13 May 2011

Precautionary sirens

As a professional scientist, it gives me no pleasure to say that much of the science reporting we see in the media is poor quality. Too much is garbage.

Science-based scare stories seem to have become routine tools of policy-makers with the assistance of lazy or scientifically incompetent journalists. Natural systems are dynamic. They also tend to be unquantifiable in their behaviour and even boundary conditions tend to be uncertain. The two go together – dynamism and unquantifiable behaviour. This is chaos theory looming large.

For 40 years too many scientists and science journalists seem to have been in denial about the practical implications of the non-linearity of most natural systems from the climate to bird populations to epidemiology to economic trends. These systems are unpredictable and may quite possibly remain so. Often we can’t tell the difference between:-


Too many scientists and science journalists use uncertainty to promote the drama of the unknown, touting the most dramatic outcome as possible, probable or in extreme cases, certain. Remember the BSE scare? Remember SARS ? Recall the wildly skewed estimates of human fatalities?

The so-called precautionary principle is the lever - and it works because we don’t know how to assess accurately events that lie somewhere between improbable and impossible. As a result and with the malign help of funding pressures, political interference and poor journalism, exaggerated claims have become routine in numerous areas of scientific endeavour. There is always some screwball scientist prepared to spout a bit of shroud-waving nonsense in exchange for some funding and a headline or two. We know it because we are exposed to it. It’s all there in the data of daily life.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Magnolia tree

As I sit writing, I often look out at the magnolia tree tree in our garden. Its lovely canopy of blossom is gone now. A few weeks ago, showers of thick pink and white petals fell like Brobdingnagian snowflakes onto the lawn, only to curl, turn brown and disappear in what seemed like a few days. Its leaves though, still have that fresh green colour of Spring, the colour you see in hedgerows at this time of year. Our magnolia seems old to my inexpert eye, with its divided trunk, winding branches and numerous old pruning scars.

We discovered only quite recently that magnolia trees are an ancient genus over twenty million years old, predating bees. Oddly enough this fact, this honourable badge of extreme longevity, adds to the attraction of our particular tree, common though they may be in local gardens.

I was distracted by the magnolia tree as I sat down to write this blog, initially intending to write something else, wanting to flesh out an idea I’d had while walking. I was soon diverted by the tree though, maybe because in a small way it is part of my life and as my eye falls on it I’m naturally reminded of other things. On sunny days we place table and chairs beneath it, sitting in its shade to chat, drink tea or share a slow bottle of wine.

These things, these habits and impressions, affect us in subtle and quite mysterious ways. We are not free to do or not to do. Not free to write about this or that just as we please. At least I’m not. Not when the sun comes out, scattering green and amber lights through the magnolia leaves, gently turning my mind to other things and other times, to a slow kaleidoscope of impressions, memories and distant thoughts.

We are not free to decide or intend. We never break free from this all-pervasive tangle of sights, sounds and flavours teasing their subtle way into our thoughts. And why should we wish things to be otherwise?

Tuesday 10 May 2011

BBC bias

As I suppose everyone knows, the BBC is often accused of institutional bias, especially by those who are not aligned with its mores. There is even an interesting blog entirely devoted to examples of alleged BBC bias. Are the accusations justified though?

In my view they are justified, but only in the sense that things could hardly be otherwise. The BBC cannot report everything or present every point of view. It must select, it must have a corporate culture guiding its selections plus editorial guidelines derived from the same culture. The BBC is built on real people, not abstract principles. Of course, all this applies to any media outlet, but the BBC is expected to be different. For me, this expectation is the main problem. The expectation is unreasonable, no institution could possibly measure up to it and the dear old Beeb inevitably doesn’t - because it can’t.

There are a few things it does far better than impartiality - example above. Even so, what is the point of a tax-funded, state-owned broadcaster if it so obviously can't do impartiality?

Monday 9 May 2011

Europe Day

On Europe Day I thought I’d like to post something appropriate. I’d like to offer up my thanks to all those self-serving EU quislings and the servile nomenklatura who made it all possible, tirelessly pushing forward their furtive project without the benefit of a single glint of approval from any electoral eye.

This useless swamp of lying, scheming, pig-shaming moral runts are probably still hard at it in their troughs, even as we lesser mortals take to the streets in glorious celebration of the bountiful largesse they continue to shower on themselves. Let us celebrate them today. Let us all salute Europe Day – before they make it compulsory.

The salt demon

Modern governments have an uncanny ability to know what’s best for us don’t they? I’m always profoundly astonished by the ease with which they untangle the most fiendishly complex scientific issues with enough clarity to hand down official and perfectly definitive advice.

Take dietary salt for example. I’ve done some research into this issue and believe me, it’s complex and even somewhat contradictory. Even so, we are advised by the UK government that six grams a day is the maximum any adult should consume. Presumably six grams is correct whether you are 45 kilos in weight or 135 kilos, which I find surprising, because in terms of grams of salt per kilo of weight, the 45 kilo person is taking on board three times as much salt as the 135 kilo person. So will the heavy person consume too little salt or the light person too much? Or is a factor of three not important enough to worry about? And does that mean the advice isn't accurate enough to be worth giving anyway? Who knows? 

It’s all a bit of a puzzle isn’t it? Especially when you consider how easy it is to cast a reasonable pall of doubt over a blanket figure of six grams per day. I did it using a technique known as common sense.

I like a sprinkling of salt on my food, so I think I’ll keep on with it. No doubt it is possible to consume more salt than is good for you, but I don’t know what my salt intake is anyway and neither does HMG. Not that I’m saying you should ignore their advice, after all, I’m not the government. The only advantage I have over HMG is a sprinkling of common sense and that’s not nearly enough to sway anybody, is it?

Sunday 8 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part III

The previous Unwelcome Ideas post introduced  Thorstein Veblen’s basic thesis of conspicuous consumption. The next question is – can we apply his ideas to modern times when elite tastes are perhaps a little more discreet? The glaringly obvious answer is yes.

One example is enough to set this all too familiar ball rolling. Recently while driving along a motorway at my usual sedate 60mph, I was passed by a driver in a Toyota Prius doing at least 85mph. You’d think a Prius driver would tootle along at a fuel and planet-conserving 55mph wouldn’t you? Yet I don’t ever recall coming up behind a Prius tootling along the motorway at 55mph, let alone the optimum speed which would presumably be even lower.

So faux environmental virtues must be added to big houses, expensive cars, refined tastes in music, literature, food, holidays, interior decor and personal adornment. From social mores to upmarket brands to cosmetic dentistry, the list is endless because as Veblen pointed out, social status is closely linked to pointless activity and that's a very wide field indeed.

Modern life would have been grist to Veblen’s mill because in essence, nothing has changed. It’s all so well known and perhaps that’s the only mystery. Veblen was merely pointing out in a systematic way things we already know. And this counts as a minor mystery doesn’t it? Because although we know all this stuff, it makes no real difference to our ideas of social status and the way we behave. Yet these things are in no way hidden from us. 

Saturday 7 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part II

From Wikipedia

Thorstein Veblen was a sociologist and economist who coined the phrase conspicuous consumption in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class published in 1899. His prose is dense and the book fairly heavy going, but well worth reading.

His basic thesis is that status must be conspicuous, emulation restricted and there are canons of socially approved behaviour designed to achieve these aims. Consumption is pointlessly expensive, common household goods more complex than necessary, clothing needlessly elaborate and expensive, modes of living wasteful and without practical value.

The reasoning behind Veblen’s thesis is simple. As we rise above basic survival, our existence is not contingent on all our modes of behaviour. We may be wasteful, we may do pointless things without risking our survival. High social status inevitably becomes linked with the least accessible and most extreme forms of wasteful and pointless behaviour.

The conspicuous employment of servants to perform inessential activities has a particularly high status in Veblen’s world, as has any activity where one may require others to perform wasteful or inessential functions. Even shaving is not exempt. In Veblen’s eyes, it is a pointless activity with higher social status than simply growing a beard.

Friday 6 May 2011

The Asch experiment

If you haven’t seen it before, take a look at this demonstration of Solomon Asch’s famous experiment to show the power of conformity in group dynamics. After such a convincing proof that consensus is not a reliable paradigm of truth, one might have expected the scientific community to reject both institutional consensus and peer-review. But guess what...

The fatal tedium of sweet reason

One of life’s most basic decisions is whether or not to be opinionated. In fact I’m surprised something so important it isn’t taught in schools. The problem is, that sweet reason may be mildly admirable as a life-tactic, but it doesn’t do much for a person's image, does it? It’s all so tedious considering various points of view and balancing one against the other. After all, every point of view can’t be valid can it? So why not take a shortcut and just choose one? 

I mean, what exactly is wrong with being opinionated? You do at least stand a better chance of being right. You stand a better chance of being wrong too, but you’ll never know it, which is surely a huge advantage. If you aren’t opinionated, then you can’t ever be right or wrong, and that’s hardly a satisfactory return on all the endless stress of forever striving to be sweetly reasonable, is it?

Thursday 5 May 2011

AV referendum

Well I’ve voted yes to AV as the only sensible option. Apparently, some people think FPTP has served us well enough to stick with it. Some think we should stick with FPTP because other countries use it. I won’t argue, because arguments don’t usually lead anywhere.

I do think we should consider the quality of our elected representatives though, those currently in place thanks to FPTP. That body of men and women so recently enmeshed in a major expenses scandal where some were even jailed. I think we should consider their preference for evasion over truthfulness, their propensity to cede power to the EU without asking us, their failure to foresee the banking crisis and their general and obvious lack of competence.

FPTP may not be to blame of course, but we only have this one opportunity to flag the system as broken. The likelihood of another opportunity cropping up is rather low I think.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

The Eavesdropper

In a still room at hush of dawn,
My Love and I lay side by side
And heard the roaming forest wind
Stir in the paling autumn-tide.

I watched her earth-brown eyes grow glad
Because the round day was so fair;
While memories of reluctant night
Lurked in the blue dusk of her hair.

Outside, a yellow maple-tree,
Shifting upon the silvery blue
With small innumerable sound,
Rustled to let the sunlight through.

The livelong day the elvish leaves
Danced with their shadows on the floor;
And the lost children of the wind
Went straying homeward by our door.

All the swarthy afternoon
We watched the great deliberate sun
Walk through the crimsoned hazy world,
Counting his hilltops one by one.

Then as the purple twilight came
And touched the vines along our eaves,
Another Shadow stood without
And gloomed the dancing of the leaves.

The silence fell on my Love’s lips;
Her great brown eyes were veiled and sad
With pondering some maze of dream,
Though all the splendid year was glad.

Restless and vague as a gray wind
Her heart had grown, she knew not why.
But hurrying to the open door,
Against the verge of western sky

I saw retreating on the hills,
Looming and sinister and black,
The stealthy figure swift and huge
Of One who strode and looked not back.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Renewable energy woes

A recent article in New Scientist features an interesting take on renewable energy from Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry. Apparently he doubts the thermodynamic wisdom of harnessing wind and wave energy. Extracting all this energy will create excess heat and affect the Earth’s energy balance – whatever that is. Unfortunately, no matter what the Earth’s energy balance may be, we can be quite sure nobody knows how to measure it.

Perhaps the sea will go flat and the winds will stop once we’ve sucked all the energy from them. Surreal thought. Sounds like an old-fashioned science-fiction story, which I'm sure is no coincidence.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Two fingers to Karl

Karl Popper is usually cited as the preeminent advocate of falsifiable science. For him, scientific theories must be falsifiable by experiment, otherwise they are not scientific. In fact he went further. In Popper’s world, a successful experiment doesn’t confirm a theory, but is merely a reason not to reject it.

Yet much modern science is more like an investment strategy than traditional falsifiable, experimental science. Because we do inevitably invest in scientific theories, climate science being one obvious example.

Call me cynical, but I have the definite impression that theory falsification is the last thing many scientists actually want. They have careers to build, status to maintain and mortgages to pay. Too many have no glaringly obvious desire to be incommoded by reality. Understandable of course, but what would Karl have said?