Thursday 30 June 2011

EU Primer - part 1

Non-EU visitors to European blogs may be mystified by some aspects of the EU, so this is the first of an occasional series of primers on the EU and its functions.

The Court of Auditors is an important body within the EU, which each year, in accordance with well-established traditions, solemnly certifies EU accounts as incomprehensible. Once this happens, EU officials are allowed to breathe an official sigh of relief and carry on with business as usual. The importance of incomprehensible accounts to the EU can hardly be overstated.

Sometimes, those outside the EU and even a few critics within the EU family, fail to understand why it is so important that the EU should spend vast amounts of money in ways that are entirely incomprehensible even to its own auditors. Well of course it may indeed seem odd to outsiders, yet as always there are reasons, although it is perhaps a little unfortunate that these too are incomprehensible. Sadly, one can’t have everything even in the EU.

Wordplay - mystique

Mystique is a probing word, a word to lay bare the spurious spirit of things, to highlight that which isn’t really there, the complex, subtle surface of the masquerade. The paint we apply to the outside world, a false gloss that betrays our history, culture and conditioning, betrays too the strength of these things, their freedom to mould our lives.

Mystique is superstition, charisma, culture and charm. It is the image of anything from politics to cars, from the sanctity of holy places to the bouquet of fine wine to the iconic status of celebrities. It is tradition. National, religious, cultural or scientific - even the tradition of football clubs.

Mystique is the authority of doctors, the gravitas of bishops and the pompous airs of dodgy scientists. It is patriotic and partisan and gives a warm cosy glow to a sense of belonging. Mystique is chic. It is funky clothes, a famous friend or modish points of view. It thrives on the fear of exclusion, the raised eyebrow and endless veiled subtleties of the need to belong.

Mystique is shared values where one must never quite say what those values really are, what they imply. It is the culture of profession and trade, religion, science and political party, teenage gang and multinational company. Mystique is the brand and the packaging, the word and the phrase and anything to do with status. Without mystique we confront things as they are. Within mystique we confront nothing. We merely give our consent to a coercive and corrupt call to cast aside our right to disbelief.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Scratch & sniff blogging

Scratch & sniff patch
I've been toying with the technical aspects of scratch & sniff blog posts using the new BlogSniff widget. If you lightly touch the scratch & sniff euro patch above, taking care not to press too hard and damage your screen, then you may release the tangy, rather bold and slightly aggressive aroma of CS gas. According to a recent convention of eminent perfumiers, this is the perfume of the future, at least in the EU

Green blogging

You may or may not have seen it before, but this post is an example of green blogging, intended to demonstrate how a more restrained use of electrons can save surprising amounts of energy. At the moment, it isn't possible to calculate the reduction in CO2 emissions a blog post such as this can lay claim to, as compared to a standard non-green blog post, but my preliminary computer model suggests it may be an alarming amount. 

Why alarming? Well, in spite of this green-spirited example of  climate-aware blogging, I notice that few other bloggers are following the green blogging trend. I suspect that the best way forward on this is to complete my computer model with the aim of showing just how wasteful denier-blogging can be. Of course we are probably not talking of millions of tons of CO2 here, not unless some of my parameters are too conservative and certainly not until I get some funding.

More on green blogging as my energy-saving model develops.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Economic climate

I’m no economist, yet I find economics interesting enough to read a few blogs with leanings towards economics which I read pretty well every day. Two of my favourites (Mark Wadsworth and Tim Worstall) have a light touch with a plenty of humour, lots of miscellaneous material to ease the load and enough clearly explained contrarian economics to be interesting to the general reader. Contrarian with respect to mainstream media that is, which on the whole tends to mislead us about economics, as it does with many other subjects.

For me, an interesting aspect of economics is why it isn’t firmly entrenched as a fully-fledged science, even though it obviously is one. For example, there are plenty of practical experiments performed on the basis of economic theory such as interest rate changes by central banks, quantitative easing and changes in taxation. There is plenty of economic data too, much of it more accurate than some traditional scientific data.

If you compare our ability to perform economic experiments with our ability to perform (say) experiments on the climate, then we come up against the embarrassing fact that we can’t actually perform experiments on the climate. We can’t change a climate variable to see what happens, to find out if our theories stand up or fall to the ground. There have been some rain-inducing experiments of course, but they are local and not really about climate as a whole. So one-nil to economics.

I won’t try to push this too far, but as far as I can see, economics is generally more ‘scientific’ than climate science because of experimental practicalities. So in asking what we should do about climate change, how we should tackle the more extreme claims, then I’d say the views of economically literate observers may be more ‘scientific’ than those of climate scientists. Not that it necessarily gets us anywhere worthwhile, but I think these things are worth airing.

Monday 27 June 2011

You Who Ask Peace

You who as peace, peace is not in your nature,
        You cannot hope to rest,
Born as you were with that implacable creature
        Rooted in your breast.

Adamant is the heart, adamant, lonely, cruel,
        Beating against the bone,
Asking a savage question, the necessary fuel
        By which it lives alone.

Asking a savage question and not resigned,
        The starving heart
Takes its revenge upon the nobler mind
        And tears your peace apart.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part X

The above clip follows on from an earlier posting here. Among other things, Skinner finds it necessary to deal here with a number of widely-circulated lies about his private life, all connected with one of his daughters. It was said that she was psychotic, had committed suicide, was suing her father. Why would anyone invent such vicious lies about a mild-mannered academic psychologist, pacifist and life-long opponent of all forms of punishment?

It was because of the things he said, the problems he resolved, the way his ideas undermine such a huge number of vested interests. For some, that's a good enough reason to invent a few lies, to pass them on in the hope of causing lasting damage. 

Saturday 25 June 2011

Blog tones

Blog tones are nothing to do with music. For me, blog tone is the tone adopted either consciously or unconsciously by a blog writer. For example, some blogs are written in a staid and academic manner on staid and academic subjects with lots of scholarly name-dropping and obscure links. Others adopt a similar academic tone to cover more popular subjects as if viewing them from a great height. Some adopt an academic tone on controversial subjects, presumably to add weight to their point of view and to tone down the controversy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it grates and feels artificial.

Attention to style is obviously a vitally important aspect of any form of writing. Staid and academic comes across well enough to those who value such a style, but how do you lighten it up with a touch of frivolity? Because we do need that touch of frivolity, that stepping back to laugh or smile at the absurdities we have to deal with every day of our lives. Many styles can be learned quite easily, apart from those highly individual styles, the genuinely witty, erudite or penetrating styles unique to particular writers.

So tone is just as important in blogging, as it is for journalism, novels, text-books and academic papers where there is a house style as guidance which bloggers don't have. We have to invent our own style or try to emulate the style of blogs we enjoy or admire ourselves without it being too noticeable and without too many borrowed phrases slipping under the radar. I’m sure blog readers cluster around tone as well as content.

There is also what I think of as a professional journalist’s tone, which I quite admire. It is an easy, flowing style used to make a particular point, often made very forcibly but in an apparently restrained and rational manner. Cracks in the argument are often invisible at first reading unless one is already familiar with the journalist’s style. Having said that, the content we get from professional journalism can be very poor indeed and as far as one can tell, many do little more than copy and paste press releases. You get to know who they are pretty quickly, often after reading only one piece. A few professionals are very good indeed and it is easy to see how they made a career from their writing.

To me, many blog writers don’t seem to be excessively concerned with the tone of their blog, but seem more interested in expressing themselves as they see fit and to my mind this is what makes them so readable. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s something to do with artifice. Maybe we are pretty good at spotting it and enjoy reading stuff which is relatively free from it. Maybe we don't quite trust professional polish. Maybe we already see and hear too much of it in daily life.

Friday 24 June 2011

Week End

The taste of figs and cream, cool slipping down your
the crisp white dresses gleaming against green,
the ping of tennis balls on the clipped grassy coat,
the brilliant voices, sudden silences, the wells
birds fill with liquid flutes and watery sounds,
the summer rustle purring in the leaves.
Lie here and let sun suck the marrow of distress,
change it to a fantastic dream, a nursery rhyme, a game
(You used to play it) ‘Still Pond, no more moving.'
The old kind-hearted dog will come to be caressed,
the cat with barley-sugar eyes run after bees
and then come back to rub against your knees.
Lie here face down and slip off into sleep;
Lie here at last and soak the sun of gentleness
into your veins.
This is the England dreamed of, the island of content,
the changeless statue in a garden,
the still pond, moving not.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Monthly horoscope – Cancer

Cancer - (22 June-22 July)

With Pluto barging into the fifth lunar quadrant and Venus trolling around with Saturn and Jupiter, there isn’t much to look forward to over the coming month as far as Cancerians are concerned. And they should be concerned, but life goes on as they say.

On Tuesday you are accosted by a man wearing yellow gloves and a false hat. He’ll talk to you about Nostradamus or broadband speeds, but either way he’s best ignored. He isn’t your cousin either, although he might claim to be.

We’ll skip the matching pitbulls with rhinestone collars, so apart from the minor explosions, the next thing to look out for is the letter from David Cameron next Thursday where he demands your bank account details. In the letter, which will look quite official, he’ll claim you are personally responsible for the Greek debt and need to own up to your responsibilities. Don’t worry, it’s only a circular. Sit tight and the man will go away, although not for some time obviously, as all Cancerians will find to their cost.

A few surprised indicated for the following weekend, but nothing a large bucket of hot, soapy water can’t sort out. Not too hot though, eh?

Message to self

Dear Self,
As you bumble along, kindly remember the basics.
You don't believe...

Anything to do with the environment.
Anything to do with climate change.
Anything to do with ocean acidification.
Anything to do with species extinction.
Anything to do with green energy.
Anything to do with polar ice.
Anything to do with polar bears.
Anything to do with passive smoking.
Anything to do with health and alcohol.
Anything to do with cholesterol.
Anything to do with ‘front line services’.
Anything to do with education.
Anything to do with the war on drugs.
Anything to do with crime statistics.
Anything to do with statistics.
Anything to do with celebrities.
Anything from university professors.
Anything from the BBC.
Anything from newspapers.
Anything from magazines.
Anything from local government.
Anything from national government.
Anything from the EU.
Anything from the UN.
Anything from the mouth (or arse) of a politician.

Check, compare and draw your own conclusions. If in doubt draw no conclusions at all. Move on and be content to observe, to resist the fatal lure of consensus.



Wednesday 22 June 2011

Dark times at the multiversity

As usual, the dear old Beeb used eye-catching visuals to piss our scientific heritage up the wall when it threw together this junk. Theories of multiple universes beyond our own and mostly beyond our ken have been around for some time. The subject is complex, stretching over various disciplines from abstruse physics and cosmology to science fiction, where of course it begins and ends like the mythical Ouroboros.

But as any fule kno, multiple universe conjectures are not theories in the scientific sense, simply because they are not testable experimentally. Theories you can’t prove derive their impact from professional chic, dinner-table kudos, book sales, silly TV programmes and social chit-chat. Apart from these essentially social and professional uses, they may as well be dismissed as the garbage they really are. How do I know? Partly because there is no such thing as a multiverse detector and partly because my metaphysical crap-detector tells me so. Sometimes there really is no better way to get a grip on these things.

Too many scientists just don’t get it. Science is supposed to be enlightening – the multiple universe is a dose of darkness we don’t need.

Time for a wee drinkie

It's dreary, predictable and oppressive isn't it? Where do they dig up the blockheads who dream up this stuff?  The picture isn't me by the way. Well it's a little bit like me... not at breakfast of course because you can't dunk your morning biscuit in beer. 

Tuesday 21 June 2011

A socialist's arsenic

'Trellis' pattern wallpaper 

William Morris, Victorian designer, writer, artist and socialist produced a wallpaper containing arsenic and was for a time director of an arsenic mine. He dismissed concerns about the safety of his products. Nature article here.

Monday 20 June 2011

Not so dusty

As any fule kno, Brownian motion is a random jiggling of small particles suspended in a fluid. The name derives from botanist Robert Brown who first observed it in pollen grains suspended in water. It appeared to be an example of perpetual motion until Einstein explained the phenomenon using kinetic theory. Basically he ascribed the motion to random fluctuations in the way that fluid molecules impinge physically on the much larger particles. 

Over two thousand years ago, Lucretius observed Brownian motion in dust particles dancing in a shaft of sunlight, using it to prove the existence of atoms.

...look where the sun
Through some dark corner pours his brightest beams,
A thousand little bodies you will see,
Mix in the rays, and there forever fight
Arrayed in mimic troops, no pause they give
But meet and part again, nor ever cease.
From this you may conjecture of the germs [atoms]
What ‘tis for ever in the mighty void
To be tossed up and down. In some degree
Such small events may illustrate great things,
And give a clue to knowledge. So ‘tis well
That you should note these bodies how they rush
In the sun’s rays, because such rushes show
What secret hidden forces lie below.

Lucretius – On the Nature of Things.

Winter Evening

The evenings are spun glass these winter days;
They stretch out clear above the dusty litter,
They quietly surround with a pale crystal haze,-
But just before the dark these evenings glitter.
Then for one moment under that clear glass
The fragile earth, the trees, all seem to shiver,
While hangs there, still, most beautiful and ominous,
The darkening sky reflected in the river,
While people peer out just before they pull
The comfortable shades and shut themselves away
From all that's ominous and beautiful,
From what they guess the night might have to say.
May Sarton (1912 - 1995)

Sunday 19 June 2011


There have been two strangers
Who met within a wood
And looked once at each other
Where they stood.

And there have been two strangers
Who met among the heather
And did not look at all
But lay down together.

And there have been two strangers
Who met an April day
And looked long at each other,‑
And went their way.

Strange change - 1500 to 1700

E A Burtt was an American philosopher who among a number of other books, wrote The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, first published in 1924. I came across Burtt’s book in a second-hand bookshop while on holiday and couldn’t put it down. Although it doesn’t reach any startling conclusions, there is something curiously compelling about it.

Burtt is concerned with fundamental changes to the European world-view during the two centuries from about 1500 to 1700. He begins with Copernicus and Galileo who as we all know, changed our Ptolemaic, Earth-centred cosmology to a heliocentric cosmology.

Burtt begins his story by pointing out that neither Copernicus nor Galileo had much in the way of empirical evidence for such a radical change. Copernicus knew that a few ancient Greeks though a heliocentric cosmology would be simpler, so he set out to prove it. Even so, the resulting Copernican cosmology was merely simpler than Ptolemaic, in that the celestial geometry was simpler with far fewer epicycles. Galileo thought that the simpler cosmology of Copernicus was reason enough to adopt it, even without observational support.

So the Catholic Church may have treated Galileo badly, but it was not denying any powerful observational facts because there weren’t any. Empirical support for Copernicus came along later of course, but for many decades Ptolemaic cosmology still explained all observations within accuracies attainable at that time. Even Galileo’s discovery that Jupiter has moons could probably be explained under the old theory by adding a few more complexities.

However, this is cosmological change just the beginning of a profound change to our whole world-view. Burtt’s main interest is further scientific developments brought about by Sir Isaac Newton and his universe of bodies moving under the action of gravity, interacting through known mathematical laws. A cosmos governed by cause and effect rather than medieval ideas of logic and teleological causes. Oddly enough though, when Burtt examined Newton’s writings, he found nothing to suggest what this famous and extremely influential scientist found so compelling about this new science of bodies moving under the influence of forces governed by mathematical laws of cause and effect.

Burtt’s conclusion is that maybe science could have gone in any one of a number of other directions, initiating possibilities now lost to us largely because of Newton’s success and the way his authority continued long after his death. Even Einstein made no fundamental change to a world-view based on mathematical laws operating through cause and effect.

Possibly the world of external facts is much more fertile and plastic than we have ventured to suppose; it may be that all these cosmologies and many more analyses and classifications are genuine ways of arranging what nature offers to our understanding, and that the main condition determining our selection between them is something in us rather than something in the external world.
Edwin A Burtt – The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science

I sometimes speculate on the possibilities we may have missed if Burtt was right, so what follows are my thoughts, not Burtt’s. He was more circumspect.

Consider a scenario where medieval logic rather than mathematical laws of cause and effect is the basis of empirical science. This would be a logic different to the symbolic logic of modern logicians. Its axioms would often be empirical data, linking logic to the real world in a way we now find more difficult than it ought to be. In this world for example, economics would be just as scientific as physics. I suspect it is anyway, but that's another issue.

So consider the statement, do as you would have others do. This moral law might be derived from the logic of social cohesion. It would be just as ‘scientific’ as e=mc2 and just as ‘true’. Divisions between science and non-science could be less significant than they are in our Newtonian world. Arguments would be more logically-based, more easily resolved by clarifying the axioms, or simply by agreeing that different axioms lead to different conclusions. We can do this now of course, but maybe it isn’t as easy as it could have been.

Obviously we can’t push ideas like this too far, because we are where we are, but perhaps Burtt was right and things could have been different. Suppose, in this imaginary non-Newtonian world, we were considering the issue of climate change. Anyone could argue logically as follows:-

Climate change theory suggests the climate is unstable with respect to CO2.
Atmospheric CO2 has been much higher in the past than it is now.
During those times, the climate was not unstable.
Therefore the climate is not unstable with respect to CO2.

This argument is over-simplified of course, because it is intended to make a point about an entirely imaginary non-Newtonian world, but in this world, the argument would be powerful, probably conclusive and easily understood by non-specialists.

A socialist's house

Kelmscott Manor was the summer retreat of William Morris, Victorian designer, writer, artist and socialist.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Kant on education

From Wikipedia

The faculty of judgment is a special talent which cannot be taught, but must be practised. This is what constitutes our so-called mother-wit, the absence of which cannot be remedied by any schooling. For although the teacher may offer, and as it were graft into a narrow understanding, plenty of rules borrowed of others, the faculty of using them rightly must belong to the pupil himself, and without that talent no precept that may be given is safe from abuse.
Immanuel Kant - Critique of Pure Reason

Friday 17 June 2011

Dickens on education

From Wikipedia

‘I am far from being friendly,’ pursued Mr Dombey, ‘to what is called by persons of levelling sentiments, general education. But it is necessary that the inferior classes should continue to be taught to know their position, and to conduct themselves properly. So far I approve of schools.’
Charles Dickens – Dombey and Son

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part IX

 In 1662, seventeen centuries after Lucretius died, Benedict Spinoza wrote a long letter to Henry Oldenburg, a German natural philosopher and joint secretary of the Royal Society in London. Spinoza was giving his  critique of a book written by Robert Boyle, now best known for Boyle's Law, but also one of the first modern chemists. The first part of Spinoza’s letter in a commentary about Boyle's experiments with nitre, or potassium nitrate, a component of gunpowder.

Although Spinoza’s letter is addressed to Oldenburg, it is clear enough that it was indirectly addressed to Boyle. The two men never corresponded directly, possibly because Boyle, a devout Christian, saw Spinoza as beyond the pale, a Jew and possibly even an atheist.

Both Spinoza and Boyle were interested in the composition of nitre as might be indicated by a variety of experiments such as combustion and sublimation. They were particularly interested in the relationship between nitre and spirit of nitre (nitric acid). Behind this interest, was a deeper interest in establishing the validity of atomic theory, at least in Spinoza’s case. Boyle was no theorist and took little interest in atomic theory. Spinoza had only the haziest notion of what an atom might be, tending to take his conjectures from ancient Greek notions that an atom's propertied depend on its shape. Like Boyle, he was sure that nitre is a composite substance consisting of more than one type of atom, but shape is still felt to be important.

...if particles of nitre are put on the tongue when they are at rest, they will lie upon it on their largest surfaces, and in this way they block its pores, which causes cold...

But if these particles are placed on the tongue when they are in excited motion, they will touch it with their sharp-pointed surfaces and will penetrate its pores, and the more excited their motion, the more sharply will they prick the tongue.

Compare this with Lucretius’ conjecture seventeen centuries earlier - suggesting that colour might depend on variety in the shape of atoms.

Besides, if seeds (atoms) are colourless and yet
Endowed with varied forms, from out of which
Still various colours come and change about
According to the change of seed, and how
They’re placed, what motions they can give, or what

Spinoza's letter and his experiments are barely even an obscure footnote in the long story of atomic theory, but interesting for all that. He and many other natural philosophers of the seventeenth century were impressed by the ancient logic of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, impressed by their argument for the reality of the irreducible atom based on the idea that nothing comes from nothing and nothing is resolved into nothing. Seventeen centuries after Lucretius died, atomic theory was dusted off and subjected to experimental investigation, when it finally began to take a few faltering steps towards the light.

Only another 143 years were to elapse before John Dalton published his first table of relative atomic weights. Atomic theory had been all along, a perfectly reasonable idea - but an unwelcome one.

Monday 13 June 2011

On being wrong

Achieving consensus - Wikipedia

If we are to make intellectual progress, this is if we are to move from untrue ideas towards true ideas, then many of our current ideas must be wrong. In a few hundred years at most, we shall presumably have better ideas than many of those we now hold dear. In other words, the wisdom of crowds is only temporary.

I think that’s why consensus is so untrustworthy, especially scientific consensus. When a new idea comes along, the old one is consigned to the dustbin of history and we should not be so naive as to think it won’t happen to us. It will.

If progress continues, then the majority must eventually be proved wrong in a number of important assumptions. There is no wisdom to be found in crowds, only the temporary and illusory security of consensus. A humbling thought one might say - if it wasn't so bloody frustrating.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Bad flag day

The Queen once visited our home town during my childhood many years ago. I can’t quite remember the year, but I recall the Union flags for sale in local shops, from tiny, sandcastle-type ones to big ones printed on cotton and pinned to wooden poles. The most expensive flags even had a picture of the Royal couple in the centre. Of course those were still patriotic times and we looked forward to the great day with real enthusiasm.

Anyway, my brother and I had decent-sized flags on wooden poles for waving as the Queen drove by. I don’t think we quite knew what to expect, but we certainly knew we hadn’t waved a flag at anyone before. When the day arrived, Mum, Dad, my brother and I all went to a cousin’s house because they lived near the route to be taken by the royal car. It was some distance from the centre of town, but by the time we arrived the road was already lined with people wanting to catch a glimpse of our young Queen.

The actual drive-past though was a disappointment. A black Rolls-Royce swished past, I caught a glimpse of a white gloved hand and that was that. Flags all done with after one or two waves - not likely to be needed again in a hurry. I think even the adults had expected something more, because we youngsters caught their sense of being a little let-down after all the hype.

It was a small thing, but the disappointment stayed with me, not as an abiding sense of dissatisfaction, but as a lesson to be absorbed and digested. It wasn't the Queen's doing of course, but they mould you, these things, teach you that official enthusiasm is not to be trusted.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Good advice?

In the above clip, the behavioural  psychologist B F Skinner describes an important aspect of language - that of giving advice or passing on directions or instructions. This is something animals can't do, this use of language to pass on advice or directions so that everyone doesn't personally have to examine all the alternatives. Advice obviously applies to a vast range of everyday situations, but I want to concentrate on one.

About halfway through the clip, Skinner notes in passing that in his view, governmental and scientific laws are of this nature. They are forms of direction, instruction or advice designed to shape behaviour. In the case of government laws the consequence of not following legal instructions, or laws as we call them, will usually be some form of punishment. But what about scientific laws? Are we to accept that scientific laws are merely forms of advice?

As a scientist I'm quite happy with the idea that science is nothing more than a way of disseminating advice about the material world. If nothing else, it avoids the high-flown fantasies. Scientific laws are advisory statements about the material world and that's all. Why embark on a futile attempt to dig deeper? It doesn't work anyway, because we always reach a point where the spade turns as Wittgenstein said. In science we advise others on what we did, why we did it and what we found so they may do and find the same.

It's why we don't have to be scientists before we accept or reject scientific advice. There are always other criteria to take into consideration. To claim that scientific laws are 'true' is to claim they are good advice about an aspect of the material world, but that's all. 'True' merely means 'worth taking note of'. Even so, we may have perfectly good reasons to ignore what is being claimed on behalf of scientific 'truth', or we may take it with a pinch of forbidden salt, but that's another story.

Friday 10 June 2011

When the masquerade fails

From Wikipedia
I suspect some people will find the following argument difficult or impossible to accept, but sometimes, if you are prepared to go along with certain assumptions, you arrive at interesting conjectures. Here we go:-

An old and well-known philosophical conundrum may be stated in this way: if we assume a universal law of cause and effect, then free-will disappears. Any action of mine is caused by events which must in turn be caused by prior events and so on. So eventually all the causes of my actions lie outside my body, otherwise I’d have to create an uncaused event. I see no harm in accepting this argument. Many of the things I do still feel like the exercise of free-will because I understand them and that’s all that matters to me. Understanding is a kind of involvement.

Anyhow, the next step is to imagine political opinions as lying on a simple scale from extreme left to extreme right. It doesn’t matter how over-simplified this is, because the point being made isn’t political. Most folk with hold political opinions somewhere near the middle. A middle of the road consensus will be the norm.

If matters didn’t sort themselves out in this way, there would be no such thing as a society, because all we are pointing out here is our natural tendency to cluster, in this case around political norms. It’s social cohesion doing its job. It is our tendency to emulate because emulation saves time and cuts down mistakes. But we can’t expect to control these things. As there is no free-will, we are always controlled, we never control. We may understand, but not control.

So those in government never control anything, which is probably why they often seem so absurdly incompetent. They no more exert control than those outside government. We commonly assume that prime ministers and presidents exert control over those who are not prime ministers or presidents, but this is simply a convention. A political leader is merely a clearing house for external pressures to resolve themselves. The largely unidirectional convention of leadership is another example of social cohesion doing its stuff. The myths of leadership are the masquerade that keeps it all going.

Of course, if it becomes too obvious that political leaders are tossed around by events beyond their control, then the leadership masquerade fails. We don't have a spare either - haven't actually invented one yet. Might be a good idea to get on with it perhaps?

Thursday 9 June 2011

Crazies II

The other day we were walking through the main shopping street of our small town. It was Sunday, so there were only a few people around. Behind us we heard the sound of a vehicle. The street is block-paved for pedestrians, but vehicles are allowed through at certain times, so we stepped aside.

A 4x4 zoomed past at about 40mph. A narrow street, lined with small shops. In those surroundings, 40mph is fast - insanely dangerous too. Good job we didn't wander across the street and aren't hard of hearing. No point making an issue of it though. It's only a slice of daily life isn't it - one of those crazy slices?


When I am only fit to go to bed,
Or hobble out to sit within the sun,
Ring down the curtain, say the play is done,
And the last petals of the poppy shed!

I do not want to live when I am old,
I have no use for things I cannot love;
And when the day that I am talking of
(Which God forfend!) is come, it will be cold.

But if there is another place than this,
Where all the men will greet me as ‘Old Man,’
And all the women wrap me in a smile,
Where money is more useless than a kiss,
And good wine is not put beneath the ban,
I will go there and stay a little while.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

A new dawn - the age of incompetence

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - from Wikipedia

One of the crucial defences any society has to erect is a defence against itself - a precaution against its own incompetence. Any society may evolve harmful social trends, but these are identified and tackled if the society is competent. Competence is maintained by the education and moral guidance of children, by just laws and tolerance. Prosperity also plays a part if all the wealth isn’t appropriated by the elite. Prosperity arises from competence too.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Well war - obviously. No sane person wants wars, yet they still happen. Other problems arise as soon as incompetence stalks the land. Incompetence is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse - the sneaky one with the pale face and sanctimonious air. The EU is a good example of how national incompetence can arise from a transnational source. The EU has no effective controls to correct its evolving incompetence, nothing to hold it in check.

It is an external source of incompetence against which we have inadequate national defences. European democracies have not been competent in controlling its growth, have not extracted from it only the trade and mutual security they actually need. Norway and Switzerland excepted of course. Their democracies were competent enough to stay outside the EU while taking from it only those benefits they want. What these two countries have preserved is not so much their independence, but their particular national competencies, preserved them from being compromised by external pressures. The UK has been less competent, but at least has stayed out of the euro, the EU’s incompetent currency experiment.

EU incompetence is a serious and growing problem which won’t go away, except in the unlikely event of a significant improvement in national competence. We could educate our children about EU incompetence and about political incompetence generally, but we won’t. We’ve already passed that milestone. Transparency is usually a good starting point, but we don’t have enough of that either. Failure can help, if it leads to a reappraisal and a fresh start, but failure at this level is too serious, we don't want to go there if at all possible.

The problem is fiendishly difficult because it is logical. You can’t tackle incompetence without first being competent.

The Rosenhan Experiment

More on the experiment here

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Antique science

The Biochemical Oxygen Demand  (BOD) test is widely used by environmental monitoring labs to test inland waters, sewage and sewage works discharges. 

In 1908, the test was selected in the UK as the definitive test for organic pollution of inland waters. It takes five days to complete, has a narrow analytical range, no clear meaning, isn’t accurate, can’t be repeated to check abnormal results and can’t easily be automated. Even so, in spite of all these drawbacks and after 103 years, it is still going strong even though it easily passes the dateline set by many antiques fairs.

The continued use of the BOD test is due entirely to government and quasi-government environmental bodies - the public purse in other words. You thought science was about progress?

The Paltrie Prize

The well-known scientist Professor Baz Kitcaisse of the Creative Risks Unit (CRU) attached to East Ongar University has been awarded the first Paltrie Prize for his work on the new science of creative risk analysis.

The Partrie Prize was endowed by Lord Paltrie whose family fortune is based on the Paltrie Capital investment trust set up by his father in 1957. A little while ago the family firm moved to the Cayman Islands for health and other reasons, but Lord Paltrie still retains a keen interest in UK science. Any suggestion that the Paltrie Prize is intended to compete against the Nobel is firmly scotched by the Paltrie Committee whose members now administer the Prize on what has been described as an “unpaid” basis.

The Paltrie Prize citation describes Professor Kitcaisse as “A pioneer in the new and rapidly expanding science of creative risk analysis, developing supercomputer models of previously unheard-of possibilities.” The modest award ceremony was held at Paltrie Hall where after the presentation, Professor Kitcaisse entertained the assembled dignitaries in a typically witty and erudite fashion.

“We have devised a range of unique analytical tools to inform and advise policy-makers in areas formerly closed to the scientific method.” Professor Kitcaisse began. “Some may say, they were closed to the scientific mind too‑”

“Or even common bloody sense,” came a loud voice from the back of the hall. Amid a ripple of nervous laughter, an unnamed individual was gently hustled away by two large men in dark suits.

Professor Baz shrugged modestly before continuing. “The Paltrie isn’t the Nobel and the Nobel isn’t the Paltrie, but I can can’t say how pleased I am to be the first Paltrie Laureate.” In a moving tribute to his team at the Creative Risks Unit, he simply said, “I couldn’t have done it without them. In fact to be quite frank I had a pretty dodgy time doing it with them too, but that’s all water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. I don’t harbour grudges and anyway, the moaners and pedants have left and it hasn’t done my TV work any harm.”

Monday 6 June 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part VIII

An earlier post introduced one aspect of Lucretius’ poem On The Nature Of Things - the attack on priestly mediation. Another feature of the philosophy espoused by Lucretius is the idea that the universe is made of atoms - solid indivisible units of matter - quanta of matter, we might even say. This is the ancient atomic theory of matter taught, among others, by Democritus, adopted by Epicurus and later by Lucretius.

Why did the ancients attach such importance to atomic theory and how did they arrive at it? In addition to those two questions, why was atomic theory such an unwelcome idea? Well the ancient philosophers who espoused it certainly didn’t do much in the way of formal experiments as we would recognise them. They used observation, but primarily they used ancient logic.

Lucretius’ physics rested on the twin ideas that nothing can be resolved into nothing and nothing can come from nothing. 

Firstly, matter cannot be divided and divided again into infinitely small amounts as Aristotle maintained. This would mean that matter could be destroyed as an infinitely small bit of matter would be a point with no dimensions. It would be nothing.

Secondly, if matter could be created from nothing then there could be no law dictating what can turn into what. This argument rests on the idea that nothing can have no properties, so there is no way of creating A from nothing as opposed to creating B from the same nothing.There can be no law to dictate that A must be created rather than B, because as nothing has no properties, no laws apply to it.

For if from nothing things we see were made,
All things could come from all things, and no seed
Would be required. Man from the sea would rise,
The scaly fishes from the earth come forth,
Birds dart from heaven, horned beasts and herds,
And all wild animals, born here or there,
Would hold alike the forest and field.

And all things cannot be from all things made,
Because in certain things, and them alone,
The power which can create anew resides.

Why was such a philosophy so unwelcome? Why were atoms so important to the ancients? Maybe it was because this is logic and observation rising from the swamp. Atomic theory, however primitive is bound to lead to more theories of the natural world. Theories not owned by the elite, not easily manipulated to support the status quo. In these ancient theories, maybe we see the first green shoots of intellectual independence.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part VII

Titus Lucretius Carus (99 – 55 BC) was a Roman poet only really known to us via his long didactic poem On The Nature Of Things. We know very little about Lucretius himself beyond his poem. He was an avid disciple of Epicurus whose peaceful writings and rational philosophy he saw as a stark contrast to the bloody, uncertain and violent times in which he lived. It is even possible that he committed suicide as some passages in his poem suggest that he saw this as the only rational way to escape intolerable social and political decline. Yet two thousand years later, Lucretius’ poem is by far the most complete and comprehensive exposition of Epicurus’ philosophy available to us. It is still worth reading both as early philosophy and a fine example of ancient scientific thinking vastly superior to Aristotle’s disastrously inept ventures into physics and cosmology.

This post is concerned with only one aspect of Lucretius’ poem, its attack on the mediating role of priests, a stance borrowed directly from Epicurus. To gain some idea of why this attack was so unwelcome to established Roman ideas, we first have to understand how powerful it is.

Lucretius (or Epicurus) is saying that in our terms the gods represent the First Cause and all human life must be lived in and encompassed by secondary causes. In this sense, neither the priesthood nor anyone else is in a position to mediate between us and our gods.

Aye, you yourself some day, perhaps o’ercome
By priest’s alarming words, will fall away.
For even now how many dreams they paint
Such as the settled reasoning of your life
Might well o’erturn, and all your future fate
With terror darken. Not without due cause.
For if men knew there was a certain end
Of all their woes, it would be in their power
Priest’s threats and terrors boldly to defy:
But now there is no power to say them nay
Since after death eternal punishment
Must be the dreaded doom.

Lucretius’ antidote to these priestly terrors is to understand the natural world in terms of logic, atomic theory and observation.

Seeking the words by which, and in what verse
I may at length shed round your mind a light
Which will display to you the hidden things,
This terror then, these shadows on the mind
‘Tis not the radiant sun, nor day’s bright beams
Can them expel, but nature’s face and plan.

In other words, to know our place in the scheme of things, we must study and understand the natural world and thus rise above the spurious claims of priestly mediation. For nobody could conceivably mediate with the First Cause. The natural world is our only world and understanding it is our antidote to philosophical anxiety and our route to a personal philosophy.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Jane Austen

I came to Jane Austen rather late in life because I’ve tried her novels once or twice in the past, but never got beyond the first few pages. Recently though, I downloaded her complete works onto my Kindle and for some reason took to her like a duck to water as you might say.

I find Austen old-fashioned of course and her novels are very narrow as you would expect, considering the restricted confines of her own life. Her main novels are all romances too, no real variety as to plot and the outcome is always the same – the heroine marries her ideal man. She always makes an advantageous match too.

Even so, I now find Austen’s work extraordinarily readable. She has a very good grasp of character, allows it to emerge naturally as the story unfolds, knows how characters should interact. In particular, I find she does social embarrassment well. Almost two hundred years later I'm almost in the room as Austen quietly unfolds yet another, desperately embarrassing situation.

She has a sharp sense of humour too and a gentle satiric touch that works even today where we are used to a much heavier, much cruder touch. In fact one can detect a cynical, rather detached strand to her apparently quiet, equable character. All in all I’m glad I gave her another try, even at this late stage in my reading life.

Note: the Jane Austen link above is worth a browse. It gives a few interesting social and linguistic insights.

Johnson on politics

The race of man may be divided in a political estimate between those who are practising fraud, and those who are repelling it.


This morning as I tootled along the dual carriageway, a Toyota Prius passed me doing at least 80mph. About ten feet from his tail was a Ford S-Max. Which of the two should take the prize for crazy guy of the day? The faux environmentalist or the nutter at the wheel of the Ford?

Friday 3 June 2011

The hat given to the poet by Li-Chien

Long ago to a white-haired gentleman
You made the present of a black gauze hat.
The gauze hat still sits on my head;
But you already are gone to the Nether Springs.
The thing is old, but still fit to wear;
The man is gone and will never be seen again.
Out on the hills the moon is shining tonight
And the trees on your tomb are swayed by the autumn wind.

Po Chü-i (772 - 846). More here.
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley.


The other day I was talking with Alice in the Red Lion. We were discussing the role of the anacoluthon in modern novels. As neither of us knew anything about the subject, we eventually moved on to another topic as even people in pubs occasionally do.
“What about this Large Hadron Collider then?” Alice asked as I collected our second gin and tonic from the bar.
“You mean the LHC?” I replied as I sat down, aiming to impress her with the sheer depth of my acronymical knowledge.”
“Yes – what about it?”
“Well what about it?” I poured a soupcon of tonic into my gin, then added more to make it last longer. It’s a dodge I usually try on myself, but it doesn’t work.
“Exactly,” Alice replied. “What about it?”
“Indeed.” At this point I realised the LHC wasn’t quite making it as a topic of conversation. It was turning out to be almost as sterile as the anacoluthon. I took a huge swig of gin and decided to be bold - once I’d finished coughing and spluttering.
“You’ve gone all red in the face again,” Alice said, "you drink too fast."
“I don’t think the protons can be going round with quite enough zip,” I replied, once I’d coughed as little gin as possible into my hankie.
“What protons? I hope you’re not going to suck that hankie.”
“Those protons that zoom round the LHC within a whisker of the speed of light. I still don’t think they go fast enough.” I shoved the hankie deep into my pocket. Alice can be so personal at times.
“How do you know?” Alice sipped her gin in a faux ladylike way.
“Well they haven’t found the Higgs boson, have they?” I replied, adroitly shifting my mind from gin-flavoured hankies to high energy physics.
“I never thought they would – not at those energy levels. They haven't even managed to create a black hole, not even a teeny-weeny one.”
“It must be disappointing for them though.”
“Who cares?” Alice drained her glass with a deft flourish. “Not me that’s for sure. They knew they might fail to find the Higgs, so I’ve no sympathy for them.”
“Nor me. I mean - what can you do with a Higgs boson if you find one?” I pushed my empty glass across the scarred table. “Your round.”
“You suck up gin like a black hole anyway,” said Alice, collecting our glasses.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Li Fu-jen

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
The empty room is cold and still.
Fallen leaves are piled against doors.
Longing for that lovely lady
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?

Emperor Wu-ti (157-87 BC)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley.

Li Fu-jen was written by Wu-ti, sixth emperor of the Han dynasty, when his mistress, Li Fu-jen died.

It's Magical Me again

The previous two posts on the Milgram experiment and the Bystander Effect may suggest a number of conclusions. Maybe one of them is to wonder why we have apparently made so little moral progress since the parable of the Good Samaritan. Or maybe we don't pay enough attention to moral teaching?

The Milgram subjects were volunteers – so easy enough to back out one might think.

Bystander Effect subjects were passers-by. Maybe not quite so easy to break stride and take a look at those people on the ground apparently in distress. It wasn’t happening in a dark alley though, so no real risk in taking a look was there?

These two experiments tell us things we don't quite want to know, things we are happy to acknowledge as curiosities, but nothing to do with real life. We prefer to see ourselves as Magical Me who makes rational choices, adopts a rational lifestyle, makes decisions, sifts the evidence and acts accordingly. Yet these two clips are evidence against the very existence of Magical Me - evidence widely available on YouTube. So never mind the psychologists who conducted the experiments, what do you think?