Sunday 31 July 2011

Bennett on employment

From Wikipedia

The employed section of society, at any rate the larger part of that section, is suffering, as regards its work, from one specific malady: payment by time instead of payment by results. I admit that payment by time is the logical result of events in the industrial life of the country during the last hundred years. I admit it can be explained, and to a certain extent justified. But it remains the curse of labour. It robs the energetic man of the incentive to use his energy. It reduces the real worker to the level of the shirker. It ministers to and encourages the worst characteristics in human nature. And it lessens the total volume of work done.

Further, because it is unnatural, it dulls the conscience and affects the nerves. A man who spends his days carefully and deliberately doing much less than he can do, must perforce get himself into a strange and dangerous state of mind. His unused energy must find some outlet, and it finds an outlet in searching for trouble. And note that it is the best men who are demoralised, not the worst. Payment by time amounts to a canker, which is another word for cancer. Though the operation may be highly dangerous to the body-politic, the cancer will have to be cut out before there can be any genuine improvement in the general state of society.
Arnold Bennett - The Savour of Life - published in 1928

Saturday 30 July 2011

Bad cow day

Recently received by email. 

Sometimes the day just get worse.

H/T Dave H

Empty bottle

This pottery flask sits on the desk where I write all this blog stuff. I bought it at a minor auction many years ago. As you can possibly see from the photo, it's pretty crude because it doesn't even sit straight on my desk. Either that of the desk is wonky. It dates from around 1400 to 1500 according to Henry Sandon (of Antiques Roadshow fame) although it isn't easy to tell with ancient and rather nondescript pottery like this. That of course would place its likely origins from somewhere near the end of Chaucer's life to the early Tudor period.

It has a pale body with a kind of muddy, greenish, uneven glaze on the top half only. Incised grooves are the only other decoration. It would have been used to carry some kind of liquid of course, possibly oil or maybe perfume or even liquor. Nothing more than an empty bottle in fact.

How much is it worth? Not much - £50 I think Henry said, but even that seems high to me. Although rare, this kind of pottery isn't decorative and lacks collector appeal - apart from eccentrics like me I suppose. There is a very limited supply and a very limited demand.

I like it though and often wonder where it has been during its long life. It has a very faint, musty smell mingled with some kind of flowery odour, but it can't possibly be a fifteenth century fragrance. Maybe it originally contained a sure-fire anti-plague remedy or pox medicine.

You don't really feel as if you own objects like this, you just look after them for a while before they pass on to someone else.

Friday 29 July 2011

Simple explanation

Grandson recently asked me "what's an electric car?"

"It has a battery," I replied, "like a toy."

"Oh," grandson replied, quite satisfied with my explanation.

Watering cans and cunning plans

Bought grandson a little plastic watering-can a few days ago. To my surprise I noticed it was made in Italy rather than China. Must be the latest wheeze to get the Euro back on track. Trust those EU wizards to come up with a cunning plan.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Ruskin lets off steam

Monsal Dale in Derbyshire which I know well, is crossed by the Headstone Viaduct. Built in 1863 by the Midland Railway, many people now see it as an elegant addition to the valley, but it was not always so.  John Ruskin from his Coniston lakeside idyll, decided that he did not approve.

There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time divine as the Vale of Tempe; you might have seen the Gods there morning and evening - Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the light - walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for Gods nor grass, but for cash (which you did not know the way to get): you thought you could get it by what the Times calls 'Railroad Enterprise.' You enterprised a railroad through the valley - you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone and the Gods with it, and now every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half an hour end every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange - you Fools everywhere.

Exotic Lancashire vamp

Balzac - from Wikipedia

No - it isn't the person in the above picture - that's Balzac and he wasn't at all exotic. 

In his novel Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley), Honoré de Balzac creates a character called Lady Arabella Dudley. Lady Arabella is a beautiful, fiery aristocratic seductress with designs on the novel's hero. What more exotic origins could Balzac have given her than a Lancashire birthplace?

"I was born in Lancashire, a country where women die for love. Know you, and give you up? I will yield you to none, not even to Death, for I should die with you."

Le Lys dans la Vallée is part of La Comédie humaine, his vast collection of interlinked novels. 

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Who wants an opinion transplant?

Social network - from Wikipedia

For many years, there has been much research into the dynamics of belief and opinion. Advertising agencies have been doing it for decades. Why do people hold certain beliefs, how do beliefs spread, can they be influenced, how can they be influenced to sell more stuff?

It continues apace and as ever, the military are interested. For example, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US is working its way through $16.75 million funding from the Army Research Laboratory. The work is on social and cognitive networks. Here is a sample of their latest research which suggests that 10% is a kind of tipping point where minority opinions finally gain enough traction to become majority opinions. The US army is presumably interested in the light this might shed on the dynamics of radical opinion.

The ultimate aim of course is to control and influence. We all know that planting stories to mould popular opinion is hugely popular with governments, publicly-funded agencies and NGOs as well as being done for purely commercial reasons. Climate change is a very obvious and successful example. The funding is certainly available and research seems to be pushing ahead with profitable academic enthusiasm.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Spooky words

The Good Samaritan - from Wikipedia

Do as you would have others do.

For me, there is something spooky about this sentence. Sometimes known as the Golden Rule, it seems strangely logical, saying so much in so few words. There are variants, such as do as you would be done by, some with slightly different meanings but with similar moral force. So is the Golden Rule a rule or a law? Is it a simple ethical law for an ambiguous world, or something more? And what is an ethical law? Is it a religious law, a secular law, a cultural norm or merely a social convention? Or is it just a proverb?

Well if only to further the art of speculation, let us suppose the Golden Rule is a natural law expressing the logic of social cohesion, the logic of justice, charity and tolerance - a concise law of socially cohesive behaviour for non-autocratic societies. In that case, the Golden Rule would not be morally optional, but would simply be a law of consequences.

It implies, in the form of a moral dictum:-
a) the socially cohesive consequences of following it
b) the socially divisive consequences of not following it.  

Maybe it is even possible to write it in the form of an pseudo equation.
Ethical is where my behaviour towards you = your behaviour towards me
Unethical is where my behaviour towards you ≠ your behaviour towards me

Is this a strange pair of equations? Do they express the Golden Rule as a kind of logical equivalence? For a number of reasons many people may not be comfortable with such an idea. Ethical and moral language still seems to belong in those fluffy realms of feel-good opinions, sentimental shelters for anyone who cannot rely wholly on the rule of natural law.

But what if the Golden Rule is just as much a universal law as the first law of thermodynamics. What if it is a hint that the universe described by science is not quite on the right track, too materialistic or too reductionist perhaps. Suppose the whole really can be greater than the sum of its parts. How would that work?

As we are speculating, let us suppose there are socially complex alien beings on another planet many light-years from Earth, beings as complex as we are. Let's also suppose these alien beings interact socially for the same reason that we interact socially - because it improves their chances of survival. Won’t the Golden Rule apply to them too, if they have non-autocratic societies? Is there any way it could not apply to them? Is there something strange about this possibility, something we can't reduce to genetics without going too far, losing the whole while pursuing the sum of its parts? Is there something we haven't considered properly?

Has an essentially moral aspect to the physical universe been elbowed out of the way by the materialistic physics of Isaac Newton? I don't know, but it is surely an interesting possibility. If the Golden Rule does express a universal logic of social cohesion, then there are obvious and important implications beyond personal morality. It means there is an iron logic to fairness which cannot ever be violated without undesirable consequences.

Monday 25 July 2011

The Weags Triangle

Years ago, I was taught a simple, but useful management theory called the Weags Triangle devised by management psychologist Edwin Weags. It is used to balance employee attitudes with organisational goals. The simple version of Weags' system is to score employees against three broad behavioural types - Builder, Creator and Survivor. From their score, each person can be located on the Weags Triangle of corporate behaviour. The aim is to give employees and their immediate managers an objective behavioural basis for discussing performance.

As you’d expect, Survivors are mainly concerned with personal survival. They keep their heads down, get to know company bureaucracy and toe the corporate line. Survivors resist change, but adapt quite quickly once changes are made. Survivors keep things as they are and don’t rock the boat, so they add stability and ballast to any business. Any organisation needs its quota of Survivors.

Builders build of course. They improve whatever they think can be improved. Builders get their satisfaction from having a clear role in business development, but tend to build on what they have seen before, they do not create anything new. Builders make good managers, but tend to over-promote Survivors because Survivors seem to be well-integrated into the organisation. But forcing through essential change is Builder and Creator behaviour, not Survivor behaviour. Making the change work is Builder and Survivor behaviour.

Creators have a strong and even pathological need to create. What they create may be small or large, successful, unsuccessful or even crazy, but it has to be new. Creators believe in their personal talents, their creativity, are convinced that only they know what the options are. Creators have the bright ideas for new products, new services new processes and new ways of doing business. This is their value, but also their weakness. Endless change is not always in the best interests of any organisation, however creative the changes may be. Creators need Builders to keep them on track.

Of course, if you got this far, you will already have guessed that the Weags Triangle is a spoof - I made it up. There is no management psychologist called Edwin Weags and no Weags Triangle. A little unconvincing I suppose, but interesting to do.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Monthly horoscope - Leo

Leo - (July 23 to August 22)

With the moon lording it over our weekends and Mars hanging around Venus hoping for something new and exciting to happen, there isn't much chance of  you getting your five a day this month. Not sure what that means actually, but the stars have spoken, even though Pluto is sulking in the outer quadrants as usual.

On Friday, a man with a huge bag of cucumbers will accost you in the street to ask if your mobile phone needs a damn good hacking. Walk away quickly because he doesn't mean what you think he means. He may in fact be an amateur embalmer, but that side of things is a little hazy.

Next Tuesday, your wild hunch about the guy next door turns out to be horribly accurate. Lending him your second-best flame-thrower may not have been advisable, but who can tell with Saturn being so frisky?

Underwear is less of a problem this month, although you shouldn't become complacent about quality. A few cases of militant woodworm in your office desk leave you even more exhausted than usual, but never mind, there is always chocolate. Not on Tuesday of course - that would be a disaster in view of the big lawn-mower race. I still advise against an electric Flymo here, because it's yours to lose you know after all that nightly training which annoyed the neighbours so much.

Towards the end of the month you arrive home to find dog shit on the sole of your sock, but not your shoe. You can't work out how it happened, but don't worry, the answer is beyond human comprehension. As are some dog-owners of course.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Men in Great Place

Sir Francis Bacon - from Wikipedia

Men in Great Place are thrice Servants: Servants of the Sovereign or State; Servants of Fame; and Servants of Business. So as they have no Freedom, either in their Persons, nor in their Actions, nor in their Times. It is a strange desire to seek Power, and to lose Liberty; or to seek Power over others, and to lose Power over a Mans self. The Rising unto Place is laborious; and by Pains men come to greater Pains: and it is sometimes base; and by Indignities men come to Dignities. The Standing is Slippery, and the Regress is either a Downfall or at least an Eclipse, which is a melancholy thing.
Sir Francis Bacon – Essays – Holt edition 1701

Friday 22 July 2011

How shall we report this?

Right at the end of this piece we are told:-

Meanwhile, as half of the country's 310 million residents sizzle, states in the north-western region of the country were experiencing abnormally cool temperatures.
"I didn't know it could be this cold in July. It is absolutely freezing here in Seattle," said one user of the micro-blogging website Twitter.
During the past month, Seattle has only experienced three days with temperatures hitting the 27C (80F) mark, with most days falling in the mid-60s, according to the city's Sea-Tac Airport measuring station.
High temperatures - the number one weather-related killer in the US - claim 162 lives on average in the country each year.
The most severe heatwave in modern North American history took place during the Great Depression in 1936. The heat that summer was blamed for more than 5,000 deaths in the US and Canada.

EU Primer – part 2


Farming in the EU may refer to agricultural practices, but is more likely to refer to the widespread EU tradition of harvesting other people’s money.

Unlike old-style farming, this new method of farming goes on all the year round, requiring little in the way of land, livestock or capital investment. The technical term for it is EU-farming and is one of the main reasons why it is so vital for the EU to maintain incomprehensible accounts (see part 1).

Money-farming, or EU-farming as we shall now call it, has quickly established itself as one of the basic and most widespread EU traditions. Generously supported by EU taxpayers, EU-farming provides funds for all kinds of fun, games and offbeat activities which would otherwise struggle to attract public support. Plush offices, lavish dining, exotic entertainments and globe-trotting official ‘duties’ are just the tip of a jolly, pinstriped iceberg, merely the superficial signs of a most profitable activity. For a few at least.

EU-farming developments are ongoing of course and many more schemes will be in the pipeline, the ingenuity of which we can only guess at.

The future is here, the future is EU-farming.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Wordplay - exponential

Typical BBC cut'n paste item trying to make political capital from what is happening in Somalia. Apart from the sheer ghastliness of those who dream up this kind of opportunistic unpleasantness, it really is worthwhile using an online dictionary sometimes. I suggest the word 'exponential' is one worth looking up here.


Here we are living in complete suspense,
There is a layer of time on earth, a snow;
Beneath the planted foot there is a silence,
The step falls soundlessly without an echo.

This world is negative, without precision,
We wander in it but cannot make a path,
We move across it in perpetual transition,
Perpetual journeying without an aftermath.

The light is half-light. If we fall asleep
It is to dream of an identical white landscape
Where we are never lost and never weep,
But where there is no rest and no escape.

This world is silence, an interminable season,
Suspense, a curious distorted place,
So that the young are ageless but will wizen,
The shape of lost direction in their face.

Interminable as snow time falls in silence,
Covering the little holes our feet have made,
We who are wanderers in complete suspense -
Who were living and still are not the dead.
May Sarton (1912 - 1995)

Prius commercial

Wednesday 20 July 2011

The crazy price of Izal

A few weeks ago, we saw an old roll of Izal toilet paper for sale in an antiques shop, quite a high-class antique shop in fact. They wanted £8 for it - £8!

For those who are too young to have known it, Izal was a smooth, non-absorbent toilet paper we are well rid of. I remember it from the fifties, although I think you could still buy it until quite recently. In the fifties, we had it in the bathroom where guests might use it. In the outside toilet we had a loop of string threaded through squares of newspaper.

I'm not sure which newspaper was relegated to the outside toilet in such a practical, yet undignified way. It was probably a mixture of the local paper and maybe the Guardian, or Manchester Guardian as I think it was in those days. It wasn't any better than Izal, but I suppose it was a cheap method of recycling waste paper.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Stating the bleeding obvious

From the University of Washington:-

Organizations have more power to direct employee ethical behavior of than we previously knew.

That’s the bottom line of new research from the University of Washington Foster School of Business that demonstrates, for the first time, the relationship between moral intuition—a reflexive perception of what is right and wrong—and moral behavior.
"Philosophers have been talking about this for ages,” says co-author Scott Reynolds, an associate professor of business ethics at the Foster School. “But now we have empirical evidence of moral intuition and how it works.”

The link between intuition and action is not always obvious. Context is critical. Reynold’s study demonstrates this in the workplace, where a firm’s cultural cues can “activate” immoral behavior in an employee who is predisposed to believe that “business” is an inherently moral activity.

This guff merely describes basic human behaviour, the power of the tribe, tribal leader, tribal elders. How long have we known it? Centuries? Thousands of years? Yes - I think we can go for thousands of years. Back to Socrates and Confucius at the very least.

Under the rose

Above is an illustration of the seventeenth-century natural philosopher Spinoza's personal seal. The letters BDS around the seal refer to Baruch de Spinoza. The flower in the centre is a rose and the word CAUTE is Latin, meaning 'cautiously' or 'with caution'. 

The purpose of the rose was to suggest that the contents of his letters were to be treated sub rosa, or confidentially. Spinoza lived all his life in seventeenth-century Holland and although there were wars, political upheaval and riots, it was by European standards a fairly tolerant society and by modern standards, Spinoza's books only mildly controversial. 

Yet here he is, obliged to communicate sub rosa for fear of persecution. Why was that? Well for one thing, he was widely labelled as an atheist, an accusation he vigorously, and with every justification, denied. But even in Holland, it was not advisable to be associated with atheism and the mud tended to stick, as slung mud is supposed to of course.

In the seventeenth century, atheists were thought to be evil-minded people intent on undermining both the state and the established church. The general atmosphere was less tolerant than today and being labelled as an atheist was not a good lifestyle image.

I think this was Spinoza's main preoccupation and one of the reasons I enjoy his philosophy - his focus on the logic of tolerance. Because however the universe brought it about, there is logic within tolerance, as Spinoza demonstrated in his book Ethics. His philosophy isn't a direct cry for tolerance though, but more of an attempt to undermine intolerance through reason, to show that reason should result in harmony, not disharmony. In this ambition, it has to be admitted he was not entirely successful.

Monday 18 July 2011

Bird feeder

From the RSPB
We have a bird-feeder hanging in our big old magnolia tree. I thought it was sheltered there, well off the ground and under the magnolia's heavy canopy of leaves. I was wrong.

Eating breakfast this morning (Warburton's crumpets, coffee and fruit juice) something caught my eye as I glanced through the kitchen window. A sparrowhawk flipped over the garden fence, glided across the lawn about two feet from the ground, slipped silently under the canopy of the magnolia and left with a sparrow in its talons. No fuss, no squawking. A quick, clean, silent kill.

We're feeding a wider range of birds than expected.

Wordplay - conspiracy

Johnson’s dictionary 3rd edition published 1766 defines conspiracy as:-

1. A plot; a concerted treason. Dryden
2. An agreement of men to do anything; evil part.
3. Tendency of many causes to one event.

People still conspire as they always have. How we view it and describe it tends to depend on whether we are inside, outside or uninvolved. Governments describe their conspiracies as 'consensus' or 'seeking consensus', as if it might be some noble quest. The promotion of consensus over conspiracy has been so successful, that it is now seen as a little outré or unsophisticated to fall into the social trap of espousing conspiracy theories.

Yet governments conspire all the time, as do institutions. It's what they do, what they have always done, how they evolve new ways of protecting their tribe, new ways to promote their tribal interests. To deny or ridicule the idea of active conspiracies seems to me to be no more than another conspiracy, yet another way for the great to conspire against the small. Which is what they have always done anyway.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Monkey has fun with dog

Tough at the top

Nick DiUlio of Princeton on the stress of being an alpha male baboon.

Living with the machine

The previous Libet post and an earlier post both introduce the idea that we only become conscious of events after they happen. The time delay may only be a few hundred milliseconds, but it seems to be an important aspect of how we function. In a sense, we are response-machines overseen by what we may as well call delayed consciousness.

Imagine a dog running out into the road, just in front of your car while you are driving to work, mulling over office politics or whatever. If all goes well, your response-machine brakes hard and you don't hit the dog. Once the emergency is over, the response-machine takes your foot off the brake, automatically pulling on the handbrake while you check if the dog is still around. If the dog has gone, you allow the response-machine to resume driving while you reflect on your quick reactions then gradually meander back to office politics.

Your conscious mind caught up with the near-miss a few hundred milliseconds after your response-machine had dealt with it, although it will have seemed as if you were aware of everything all the time. This was another of Libet's discoveries, the way we automatically alter the apparent timing of our conscious awareness so that it seems to coincide with the quicker reactions of our response-machine.

So you breath a sigh of relief, cursing all dog-owners while the response-machine drives you to work without further incident.

This dualism is as old as the hills of course, but might it be real? Are we mostly a super-complex response-machine with some kind of conscious overseer who is always behind the curve. If so, then what is the nature of this tardy overseer?

Frankly I don't know and I'm not really convinced it is knowable, but I tend to equate it with whatever it is we do when we understand - whatever understanding might be. Spinoza tended to skate round this issue, but he did say that we are free to affirm or deny, which for me is as good as anything I've come across. We affirm or deny, approve or disapprove of our response-machine's actions, so that next time a similar response may be just the same (affirmation or approval) or different (denial or disapproval).

So we oversee the response-machine by acting as a kind of censor as to what is appropriate or inappropriate, what we agree with or don't agree with, what we should or shouldn't have done. The less we censor, the more broadminded we are, the more interested. The less we censor, the more we tend to explore new ways of looking at things to broaden our understanding, the more likely we are to advise the response-machine competently - even as a back-seat driver.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part XI

I've posted on Benjamin Libet before. I think it takes a considerable degree of tough-minded objectivity to accept the implications of his work - that we do not actually live in the present and are not conscious of it.

Friday 15 July 2011

The eighth deadly sin

Many years ago, a philosopher friend once remarked that the eighth deadly sin is classifying people. He was exaggerating to make a point I suppose, but the comment remained with me for decades.

For example, I could easily write a piece claiming the politics of climate change is merely the latest left-wing attack on the bourgeoisie. It would be an easy post to write largely because it uses familiar memes and common ways of classifying people – left wing attackers and bourgeoisie victims. It would almost write itself and in fact, now I’ve dropped the hint, I suspect there isn’t even a need to write it. The seed is sown and a  point made which has been made thousands of times anyway.

But what point? I just made it up, or rather borrowed the relevant material from familiar sources. In fact, the politics of climate change may do most damage to developing countries, to the poorest people on earth rather than the bourgeoisie of developed countries. So the idea may be easy enough to pursue, but may not actually be worth pursuing. It may be biased and misleading and to knowingly mislead is surely a sin.

There is lots of it about, these casually uninformative, yet appealing ways to classify anyone but ourselves. Thirty-something, baby-boomers, senior citizens, chattering classes, elites, nerds, immigrants, emigrants, northerners, southerners, suits, ladies who lunch and so on and so on. You can even make them up if you’ve a mind to. Are they useful ways to classify people, or easy ways to make conversation, write blogs and newspaper articles, sell books and TV programmes? Do they add or subtract from the sum of human wisdom, or do they merely oil the wheels of over-casual discourse?

I suppose it depends on how we do it, but I think classifying people is usually the wrong thing to do, even though I do it myself all the time. I find myself virtually forced to do it because it is such a fatally familiar way of communicating.

Yet it niggles away at the back of my mind because classifying people frequently introduces bias. We know it does, the problem is positively notorious and it isn’t just racism and all the other isms. So - a habit worth tackling perhaps? Or is it too much fun to give up on it? Is it worth the bias?

Thursday 14 July 2011

Peer review

There is no such thing as intelligence

A major problem in understanding supposedly intelligent politicians is how to explain the apparent stupidity of their actions. How does an intelligent UK energy minister promote windmills as a viable power technology? It isn’t enough to say the minister is stupid or lacks intelligence, because that leaves the explanation with specific individuals. If the problem was down to ministerial stupidity, then a new minister would lead to a sudden burst of rational policy-making. But it rarely does.

In my view, a better way to explain such things is to ditch the idea of intelligence and its antonym – stupidity. I find it is better to understand intelligence as a social notion which evolved to justify roles within a hierarchical society. We all have to play a number of roles in our lives and the notion of intelligence makes it easier to rationalize those roles into numerous hierarchical group structures from families to governments. The further up the hierarchy you are, the more intelligent you are supposed to be. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, it just translates to 'the further up the hierarchy you are, the further up the hierarchy you are'.

For the vast majority of us, it’s the roles we must play and the scripts appropriate to those roles that largely govern our apparent 'intelligence'. Of course we all have a number of roles, employee, family member, best friend, brother, sister, etc etc. This is why we can be a significantly different person at work to the person we are at home. It isn’t that we have two different people inside us, it’s the roles and the scripts we follow that define our personality in two different situations with different pressures.

There are similarities in the way we play our own roles of course, because we bring the same personal history and genetic endowment to them. But we are not intelligent and we are not stupid. We just play our allotted roles and stick to the script, because that's how our complex societies evolved, the way they require us to behave.

So to loop back to the windmill-promoting energy minister. The minister isn’t promoting windmills because he or she stupidly thinks they are a good idea. The minister is playing a role and following a script written by a range of outside pressures, both overt and covert. These pressures, these political influences are the culprits. Or rather, it is the absence of more overt, rational pressures to counteract the covert and irrational. It is the lack of transparency and rational balance we should worry about, because replacing the minister is unlikely to make much difference. Same role same script - intelligence or stupidity don’t come into it. Neither does the minister.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

We've known this for ages

Arnold Bennett - from Wikipedia

Of course the public health has improved. We live longer, and apart from specific diseases, we probably suffer less. But this improvement is due not to the curative art of medicine; it is due to the application of the rules of common sense to laws and bye-laws having reference to hygiene; it is due, also, in some degree, to the increase in comfort among the masses of the people, better feeding, better housing, better education, better care of infants, more nursing, and special methods dealing with what are called 'occupational diseases'.

Arnold Bennett - The Savour of Life - published in 1928

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Nuts and bolts

The Watt steam engine from Wikipedia

Some ideas aren’t to be taken too seriously, but aren’t entirely frivolous either. This is one:-

I’m far from being the only person to be interested in the similarity between science and engineering. I’m thinking of traditional experimental science here, where scientists deal with bits of physical reality they can sample and manipulate. Making new stuff or pulling it apart to see what it’s made of, how it’s put together and whether we can make some more or make it differently.

Chemistry, biology, geology and genetics for example – these sciences seem to be soundly-based and successful. Their theories revolve around practical, testable ideas. How does this turn into that? Does that always happen when I do this to it? Why did my sample turn to brown sludge? Their activities seem to have a practical affinity with testing steel, concrete or combustion processes or any one of a thousand other things engineers do. Even manipulating DNA can be compared to engineering. What is this bit of DNA for? What does that bit do if we re-engineer it by attaching it somewhere else?

Other sciences have weaker links to engineering, being less firmly rooted in testable, material reality. Psychology, sociology, climate science and cosmology for example. Climate science and cosmology are perhaps less obviously members of this non-engineering group until you realise you can’t sample the climate or the cosmos, let alone re-engineer them or make new ones. Experiments are limited because scientists don’t have complete control over their samples or can’t take samples or can’t isolate them from other variables.

In my view this is an interesting enough distinction to group them with psychology and sociology. It isn’t intended to be any kind of pejorative classification – it is intended to highlight well-known practical difficulties and an important link between some sciences and engineering. A link that should perhaps be made stronger, even if it risks puncturing the self-esteem of a few scientists.

Of course these non-engineering sciences use logic, test their theories against events as they occur, make predictions, revise the theories that led to the predictions and so on. But it requires much discipline to avoid speculation, fudged arguments and collusion. Some scientists seem to understand the difficulties inherent in their field, but others obviously don’t: they seem to prefer speculation bolstered by collusion. We should listen to them with caution.

Monday 11 July 2011

Breezy day in London

Metcheck predicting a rather breezy day for London on Friday. 


Example 1

Dual-carriageway, traffic flowing at about 65 mph. A driver on the inside lane suddenly moves into the outside lane, slotting her car between another car and a large truck while rummaging around on the passenger seat, one hand on the steering-wheel.

Tasks achieved simultaneously.
Changing lanes.
In-car housekeeping.
Annoyed lorry-driver.

Example 2

A busy street, lots of pedestrians. A guy in an Audi Q7 drives down the road while staring out of the side window with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cup of coffee.

Tasks achieved simultaneously
Personal refreshment.
Alarmed pedestrians.

Sunday 10 July 2011

The 'Little Albert' experiment

Complexity swamps

In the UK and no doubt in many other countries too, complexity is on the rise and we don’t know what to do about it. We know how make business out of complexity. We know how to create lots of new, fresh complexity, how to build careers on it. Yet we don't really know how to deal with it rationally - so it doesn't get out of hand and do real damage.

The problem with complexity is the way it tends to increase of its own accord, rendering our existing competencies either obsolete or less effective. As we find ourselves unable to deal with new complexities, we make errors. We deal with the errors incompetently, adding ever more complexity to processes already beyond our control. We are prone to do this on all scales, from the personal to the governmental.

To deal with complexity, we have to simplify or become more competent. Which is easier do we think? Any sign of it happening though? 

So where to simplify? Anywhere and everywhere – surely? The tax system is an obvious starting point, but there are many others. For example, we could simplify life for politicians and senior bureaucrats by leaving the EU. It would limit our national obligations, reduce the number of laws and regulations we have to cope with. Serious stuff in fact – powerful and practical reasons for reforming the tax system and leaving the EU. These are simple enough remedies in principle and there are lots of people who know what should be done. 

Another obvious approach would be a smaller and less intrusive national government. How radical these measures need be should be indicated by the state we are in now, but opinions will inevitably differ and vested interests will certainly seek to maintain current levels of complexity and incompetence. Complexity is a honey-pot sustaining huge numbers of people who make their living by making our living worse than it need be.

In spite of the formidable difficulties, we have to tackle complexity, because if we fail, then bad things will happen as we sink into the swamp, finding ourselves less and less competent at running and maintaining hopelessly over-complex systems supposedly designed to support us. The time may come when they don’t.

Wordplay - computer

Samuel Johnson's dictionary 3rd edition published in 1766 defines 'computer' as:-
COMPUTER [from compute]. Reckoner; accountant.

Today of course, we use digital computers to compute - to do what was once done by hand and mind. Similarly, computer models do what we tell them to do - what we could still do by hand and mind if given an impossible amount of time.

Computers and computer models don’t do science - that's what we still do, the hand and mind stuff. We frequently do it very badly of course, but we can't blame computers for that, however powerful they may be. 

Saturday 9 July 2011

Proust on faith

I think the following quote sums up Proust’s philosophy pretty well. As I understand him, he is saying that we use reason to understand our beliefs, not to form them because it isn’t up to the job. Some might call this confirmation bias, but I think Proust was right. I think he is saying that we must have faith in ourselves, in our way of looking at things, faith in the fact that it works, at least for us. This faith is confirmed by experiment, by life itself, as we live it, as we remember and understand what shaped it and what shapes it still.

The fact that our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for grasping the truth, is only a reason the more for beginning with the intellect, and not with a subconscious intuition, a ready-made faith in presentiments. It is life that, little by little, case by case, enables us to observe that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning but by other powers. And then it is the intellect itself which, taking note of their superiority, abdicates its sway to them upon reasoned grounds and consents to become their collaborator and their servant. It is faith confirmed by experiment.
Marcel Proust - À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)

Friday 8 July 2011

Have scientists blown it?

The disaster that is climate science still seems some way from working itself out, the likely consequences still murky and unclear. The key issue lies in the future and it is this: will there ever be a public admission of what has been going on, a public acceptance that climate alarmism is based on fraudulent science?

I don’t know, but I suspect that the damage done will be deep and lasting. Maybe the real goal was always energy security. Well that’s fine, no problems with that as a worthwhile goal, but in that case why invent the CO2 scare in order to promote it? Why lie? Never again will scientists have the same degree of authority in the public mind. It is a disaster, but we deserve no sympathy as the fraudulent nature of climate alarmism was obvious from the beginning.

Scientific institutions such as the Royal Society have been exposed as science clubs, concerned only to further the interests of scientists, not the interests of science as a knowledge culture. The mainstream media, with a few exceptions have been exposed as scientifically illiterate and gullible. The BBC has been exposed as a joke. Prince Charles as been exposed as... but never mind that. What the future holds we may only guess at, but it doesn’t look good.

Over four centuries of scientific progress may well have been flushed down the toilet of political expediency by a bunch of half-witted charlatans. As the phrase goes – you couldn’t make it up. Unfortunately they did.

The Puritan

Once he was seduced by the soft luxurious hill,
The peace-inducing landscape, interminably green,
Where rivers are shallow, full of flowers and still,
Where the rain is gentle, falling without spleen.

Today he thinks of the bare pastures and the cedar trees,
The bitter land where a child is hardy and learns
To be fearful of his heart, to be wary of what he feels
Hiding among juniper bushes and the brown ferns.

He remembers the stone walls marking field from field,
Piled up out of infinite stones by the patient hand,
He thinks of the thin harvest that those pastures yield,
How the men are lean men, how it is a stern land.

He thinks of a country where roots are durable and deep,
Where the speech has a tang in it and is never mild,
Where the kind of peace is the snow coming sometimes like sleep,
So cold it would freeze up the tears of a soft child.
May Sarton (1912 - 1995)

Thursday 7 July 2011

Proust II

Marcel Proust

For those interested in Proust’s character and who haven’t seen it before, the Proust questionnaire is worth a look. However, this second post on Proust is a brief look at the philosophy behind his novel À la recherche du temps perdu, because he certainly saw himself as a kind of literary philosopher.

Proust had no great faith in reason, no inclination to search for the truth by analysis other than a kind of analysis by introspection. He believed in psychological laws, but preferred to rely on intuition to uncover them. He also believed that the people who are most able to reveal deep truths to us are artists, with whom he classed himself. Another main plank of his philosophy was the high value he placed on involuntary memory, those little flashbacks we all experience from time to time, seemingly triggered by almost any mundane experience from the odour of polish to a window flashing in the sunlight.

As already noted in the first post, Proust also paid great attention to habits, to the way they establish themselves, the way they must establish themselves if we are to live without having to pay attention to details such as the usual position of the dining table or the bedroom furniture. Of course we all know about the power of habits when we drive to work only to discover when we arrive that we can’t remember the journey. In the UK, we show our failure to learn this particular lesson every time someone has to take the written part of the driving test. Driving a car is more about establishing good, largely unconscious habits rather than knowing things.

Proust did not seem to be greatly interested in social or political matters, although the Dreyfus affair forms a significant backdrop to a large part of his novel. He was an avid social-climber, deeply interested in the French aristocracy, but as an observer initially seduced by historical romanticism, then later fascinated by a dying social phenomenon.

I’m not sure that one can take Proust’s philosophy of life very far, but I certainly find it interesting and useful. I find myself noticing my own habits, physical habits, habits of thought, that kind of thing. Beliefs too – since reading Proust I’ve taken more interest in where my own beliefs come from, even though I’ve always tended to do that anyway. Because all our beliefs come from somewhere, don’t they?

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Proust I

Marcel Proust

I’ve just finished reading Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) for what seems like decades. For those who don’t know Proust’s enormous novel, it’s about 1.5 million words long where normally 100,000 words is easily enough for a good solid read. It is the equivalent of about fifteen good-sized normal novels and a blog post isn’t really the place to analyse such a literary beast. Even so, I’ve now read it so I may as well summarise the experience.

So what’s it about, this remarkable 20th century novel? Well it rambles a bit in places, that’s for sure and there isn’t a great deal of action. Proust was fascinated by the aristocrats of the Faubourg Saint Germain, setting out their elaborate caste structures and social habits in interminable detail. His is a grand novel of the Belle Époque, a vanished world which now seems almost as improbable as Jurassic Park. Overall I’m pleased to have read it and not just because I can now say I’ve read one of the greatest novels of the last century. It isn’t like any other novel I’ve read, partly because of the sheer length of it. By the time I reached the end, I felt as if I’d been on a long journey, which I’m sure was Proust’s intention. He wanted to write a truly grand piece of literature on a par with Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen or Balzac’s vast output of interlocking novels.

The book is written as a fictional autobiography, although the timescale and locations are similar to the patterns of Proust’s own life. Proust was gay and although the narrator of his novel isn’t at all gay, most of the major characters certainly are. Proust seems to hint at his own sexuality by giving to his main female loves the names Albertine and Gilberte.

The theme of the book isn’t Proust’s sexuality though, it is to do with self-knowledge, specifically the role involuntary memory plays in self-knowledge and in defeating the tyranny of time. He notices small details of his life such as the aroma of hawthorn blossom, the taste of madeleine cakes dipped in herbal tea as his aunt Léonie used to do when he was a child in the fictional village of Combray where he was born. To Proust, these evocative and long-lasting impressions are clues to what we are, to what has moulded us into the person we have become. It is vitally important to spot the clues as they occur, to notice the way simple everyday events trigger old memories and habits of thought. In this way we abolish the tyranny of time, become one with our multiple selves as the years pass by.

Was it worth reading such an enormously long novel? Yes it was, although it isn’t a trivial undertaking. It takes a huge amount of time and whole stretches of it are frankly dross, a sea of words seeming to serve no other purpose than to stretch out the book into a grand literary project. Because that’s an important feature of it – that’s why it feels as if you have been with Proust on a journey through his imaginary, yet not so imaginary life. Events from the beginning of the book, from Proust’s childhood in fictional Combray, do feel distant by the end.

Proust saw himself as a kind of literary philosopher, although his idea of philosophy is an odd mix of mysticism and a kind of early behaviourism. He is at his best on the importance of habit and the way new habits evolve, how important it is to note their evolution if we are to understand ourselves. An example he gives is the way we physically locate ourselves in a hotel room we haven’t visited before, the way we learn where the furnishings are without conscious effort, the way new habits simply establish themselves within us.

It is this habit of noticing tiny but lasting impressions, of noticing our own habits that to me is the best thing in Proust. His writing itself is patchy, lyrical in places, a dull and detailed examination of aristocratic mores in others. Yet unlike almost all other writers of fiction, Proust does leave you with something important, this habit of noting tiny everyday impressions such as the hawthorn blossom and the madelaine cake.

Is it worth reading? 1.5 million words is not something you can recommend to anyone. It’s a significant investment in time. Was it worth it for me? Yes – just.

Sunday 3 July 2011


A Parliamentary enquiry has recently been hearing evidence from Professor Baz Kitcaisse of the Creative Risks Unit (CRU) attached to East Ongar University. The issue under investigation is the vexed question of Rev-Ex, the peer-review exchange system set up by an international group of scientist. Rev-Ex stands for Review Exchange. It is a web-based system by which scientists are able to peer-review each other’s work on a simple exchange basis. If you are a scientist with a Rev-Ex account, and I peer-review one of your papers, you are prompted by the Rev-Ex system to peer-review one of mine.

“It gets the job done efficiently,” is Professor Kitcaisse’s robust defence of Rev-Ex, which a few maverick scientists without Rev-Ex accounts have claimed to be unscientific, particularly as you need Rev-Ex sponsors to open a Rev-Ex account. Chairing the Parliamentary enquiry was none other than Lord Paltrie, well-known UK science philanthropist and solid supporter of the Creative Risks Unit. Lord Paltrie flew in from the Cayman Islands only a few days ago, but already the enquiry has met a couple of times over lunch in order to complete its work satisfactorily. A formal report is expected in a year or so, possibly during the Olympics in 2012.

However, I can reveal that apart from a few reservations from a minority of members on the enquiry panel, Rev-Ex and all its participants have been exonerated from any kind of deviation from strict scientific impartiality. In fact, Lord Paltrie went out of his way to praise the system as “robust, effective and exceedingly useful for policy-makers,” before being obliged to jet off back to the Cayman Islands for undisclosed legal reasons.

Friday 1 July 2011

Three months on

Crikey – three months gone and I’m still blogging. I suppose for me, the most interesting aspect of blogging and reading other, usually better blogs, is the way it widens your horizons. There are a lot of bright people out there and even if I disagree with what they say, I’m reminded that there are reasons why they say it. In their circumstances and with their history, I might very well say the same things myself. I continually have to remember that there is a huge, accidental element to all beliefs, including my own. It's almost as if we find them lying (?) around, although 'finders-keepers' isn't necessarily the best way to deal with them.

We are not special, except to those near to us, but we are all unique and this uniqueness is brought out very well by the world of blogging. Every life is different, complex and full of incident and it isn’t just the posts reflecting this. Comments are frequently at least as lucid and interesting as the original post. Even if just one-liners, they always add something.

We all know that popular and controversial blogs attract a huge number of comments often from folk who seem to be really upset by the notion of free speech. Yet they still manage to add something, even if it’s mostly an unflattering example of human nature.

This blog is very much a casual minority interest effort and I’m fully aware that I’m not addressing large numbers of people here, but after three months blogging, I think it’s about right for me. I’d like to offer my heartfelt thanks to those hardy souls who actually read my blog and particularly those who leave comments. All are most welcome, agree or disagree. Consensus is not a virtue.