Wednesday 31 August 2011

Time to move on

Once we reach a certain age, most of us have enough experience of life to want to put it into some kind of order. We need to summarise, to draw lessons and conclusions. Having plenty of life-data, we now need theories to fit the data. We don't need to wade through more and more data because it merely confirms our established theories, or maybe our biases.

For me, that’s why older people, meaning people over about thirty, don’t need to analyse in detail everything that comes their way. We have enough working material, don’t need too much more, need conclusions more urgently than extra data.

Take climate change for example. It is obvious to anyone with even the most rudimentary analytical capability that the CO2 message has been grossly exaggerated. Scientists who claim their computer models can predict the global temperature thirty years into the future wildly exaggerate both the validity of their theories and the size of their willies their scientific expertise. The claim is silly - obviously silly. Masses and masses of failed forecasts are the data we all have to hand. The theory that fits that data is obvious.

We can't forecast the future.

Apart from extremely regular phenomena, such as the sun rising each morning, the future is uncertain. The climate isn't one of those extremely regular phenomena. Obviously not.

A reasonably experienced, analytically-minded person doesn’t need more graphs, more pictures of melting glaciers, more claims about green energy and green jobs. The ship has sailed. The message is exaggerated, up to its ears in fraud, incompetence, malpractice, dim politicians, failing windmills, electric cars that don't work and to top it all - half-witted celebrities. It's all very sad of course, but surely it's time to move on?

Tuesday 30 August 2011

The smoke-filled room study

This is another experiment into the Bystander Effect by Latane and Darley. A subjects was in a room either alone or with actors. Harmless smoke was then fed into the room and the subject's reactions filmed and timed. The actors, when present, ignored the smoke. 

As with other experiments, the 'smoke-filled room' shows how the presence of inactive others can inhibit our own actions even to the extent of risking our lives. I like this experiment because of the way it brings out how extreme the Bystander Effect can be.

Monday 29 August 2011

Grim view on biofuels

NoTricksZone reports Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe saying that the farming of biofuels dramatically exacerbates global hunger.

Collapsing in stages

New Nostradamus of the North has a post on collapsing music festival stages being blamed on climate change.

Let them eat wood

Cellulose - from Wikipedia

In the early days of my 'career', I was involved with the production of cellulose ethers. These are cellulose derivatives - materials made my chemically modifying the structure of natural cellulose found in wood and plant material.

The cellulose ethers we produced were made from wood and we produced various grades and types for a range of different markets. Mostly we produced it in the form of an off-white powder which if I remember rightly has an odour rather like vanilla.

When you add water to cellulose ethers, they form a thick gel like wallpaper paste. In fact much wallpaper paste is cellulose ether with one or two additives such as an anti-mould agent. Our products were used for all kinds of things from wallpaper paste, detergent thickeners, additives for concrete to make it more workable, drilling mud additives - and cakes.

We sold a food-grade version which could be added to sponge cakes to make the texture light, yet stable. I always found it odd to think of people eating cakes made partly from a material derived from wood. I'm not sure if it cellulose ethers are still used in that way - the time I'm writing of was forty years ago.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Bennett on alcohol

Would I, if an autocrat, prohibit the use of alcohol? To ask is to answer. A million times no! Alcohol is one of the greatest institutions in the civilized world. It is an object of almost universal affection. It has been the accompaniment of nearly all the finest social events in history. For thousands of years it has celebrated every triumph, and softened every defeat. A liquid with this unique record deserves a better fate than to be prohibited.

To prohibit alcohol would be to show an odious lack of historic sense. And think of the innumerable varied forms of it: the varied colours of it shining in the uplifted glass, the varied exquisite physical reactions of it as it slides down the human throat, the varied ecstasies (all too brief!) it produces in the human head!

There is a fundamental wisdom in human nature which laughs very composedly at the misguided prohibitionary activities of all one-eyed earnest persons. Alcohol may be physically "bad for you," though the men of science, after exhaustive inquiries, seem to have come at last to the conclusion that a little of it is physically good for you. But in other and more subtle and (I should say) more important ways, it is extremely good for you; and whatever the physical price paid, it is worth that price because it is indispensable to a complete life.

Arnold Bennett - The Savour of Life - published in 1928

Saturday 27 August 2011

How Einstein Ruined Physics

From Amazon

I've had to do something we all find uncomfortable, I've had to change my mind because I've just finished reading a book by Roger Schlafly called How Einstein Ruined Physics. A small crumb of comfort is that maybe I'm merely downgrading some assumptions, rather as Moody's downgraded Greek debt. 

If you are interested in the history of science, especially physics and are comfortable in going against the consensus, then this is the book for you. I read the Kindle version, so my take on the book is based on that rather than the paperback, although presumably there is no difference.

The main theme of the book is how the progress of physics has given way to a great deal of empty speculation with little or no experimental confirmation. String theory for example. Much of the blame is laid at Einstein's door, with his huge ego, his apparent lack of interest in experimental confirmation and his unwillingness to acknowledge the work of others. A formidable case in built against him, based on meticulous research into how physics actually developed from the time of the ancient Greeks to the present day.

The book also criticizes the 'paradigm changes' of Thomas Khun, claiming that when they are closely examined, the Copernican revolution and Einstein's supposed relativity revolution were nothing of the kind. Copernicus did not devise a significant improvement over Ptolemy and Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity was only a minor summary of physics already well-known to those in the field. He was not even the first person to derive the famous 'Einstein' equation E=mc2. That was Olinto De Pretto who published it in 1903 but, as Schlafly is careful to point out, without a relativistic derivation.

I can't present the book in any detail within a single blog post, but I can say what I personally think of it. I  found it easy going in spite of the fact that I am not a physicist. A non-scientist may find it harder going, I'm not sure, but the book does try to be as non-technical as one can be in covering such a technical subject. I don't have the background to comment on it in detail, but it does chime with what I already knew, the value I place on experimental confirmation and my incremental view of genuine scientific progress.

I enjoyed it and I'm pleased to have read it. Worth every penny. 

Friday 26 August 2011

Hobbes skinny-dips in Buxton

Thomas Hobbes - from Wikipedia

 - well not quite a skinny-dipping. In 1636, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a Latin poem called De Mirabilibus Pecci described as : Being the Wonders of the Peak in Darby-Shire, Commonly Called The Devil's Arse of Peak. Hobbes had strong Derbyshire connections through being tutor to William, son of William Cavendish. Here is Hobbes' account of a visit to Buxton where he took the waters of St Ann's Well, one of those seven wonders. The inn attached to St Ann's Well was what is now the Old Hall Hotel, visited a number of times by Mary Queen of Scots while under the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury.

Buxton we reach renowned for her tepid waves, where is the famous fountain sacred to St. Anne. The ministering earth mingles there her waters, both hot and cold, and pours forth healing virtues from sulphurous veins. These strengthen the weakened limbs of tottering age, and refresh the stiffened joints of those who bathe within the stream. Hither come the lame, guiding with a staff their trembling steps, and depart with staff thrown thanklessly aside. Hither comes the unfruitful dame, whose longing is to be a mother, and leaves fruitful, methinks, even though her husband stays at home.

As it rises, the sparkling wave is caught in its square fountain, and, five feet in depth, supports the swimmer. A wall screens it from the eyes of the curious: as roof protects it from the rain. A joint wall with open doors connects this delightful bath with our inn, and so, while dinner is being cooked at a fire of turf, we are minded to refresh our tired limbs in the tepid waters. Stripped to the skin, we glide along the gleaming waves and veil our naked bodies in the transparent stream. Now face downwards we swim; now on our back we snuff the waters and drink them too - for we cannot all do all things. Then having spent a full hour in disporting ourselves thus, we emerge dripping and wrap dry towels round us; nor is it long before each is clad in his own clothes again and dinner awaits us on a well-laden board.

Meanwhile black night flies out from all her caves at once and enfolds the whole scene in dark, irresistable shadows. Lamps are lit and the meal is brought in. Now there is set before us, according to our order, not whole baths, but just a small portion of mutton broth, with the meat itself withdrawn and set apart. Then comes a loin of the self-same sheep smoking from the spit, a chicken that had but lately burst its shell, and many a good spoonful of buttered peas. After vainly calling for rich cups of wine, we drain black flagons of smiling beer, and then, our meal completed, woo sleep with draughts of tobacco smoke. And, ere yet Aurora, heralding the triumph of Phoebus, has driven from the sky the common herd of stars, we rouse ourselves from slumber, plunge yet again into the waves, and let the healing waters permeate us through and through. Then, twice-dipped, we bear back to our couches our dripping bodies and rise from sleep at nine o'clock.

Translated from the Latin by J B Firth

Thursday 25 August 2011

Wind power today

Power generation today by fuel type from
Wind-generated power is the little orange coloured bits at the top. Impressive or what? It may not be reliable, but it isn't difficult to see why it doesn't matter. Yet.

Map For Despair

It is true that you live on a cold continent,
A mental climate of your own.
More than the shape of a cloud
You cannot expect,
The occasional magic of a storm of snow-
You can ask no more of it.
This is your island, created by yourself,
Set in a space without horizon:
A ship might offer escape,
A waving human arm might tempt with hope,
Might pull the little stone out of your breast
And substitute the magic and disaster of a face.
Now you have won this island,
Protect it with your utmost strength.
Pillow your head on your arm.
And for your loneliness at night,
And for your terrors,
There is a certain morning,
And for that question with no answer,
The careless comfort of the elements.
May Sarton (1912 - 1995)

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part XIII

In his book Dreaming, published in 1959, the philosopher Norman Malcolm put forward an interesting idea on dreaming. At the time, psychologists were investigating dreams by studying sleeping subjects wired up to various recording devices. One of their discoveries was that rapid eye movement (REM) during sleep seemed to be accompanied by dreams. If a sleeping subject was woken during REM sleep, the subject was more likely to report that they had been dreaming than subjects woken when REM was not taking place.

So you might think it was a simple enough step for psychologists to link REM with dreaming, which is what they did and still do to this day. However, Malcolm didn't think this link was valid for reasons connected with  Wittgenstein's concept of language games. He thought psychologists had changed the everyday meaning of dreaming and dreams, in effect playing a new language game with them. He accused psychologists of using REM to give dreams and dreaming a new and illegitimate scientific meaning.

In simple terms, this is Malcolm's main argument :-

Let us first suppose an alternative explanation to the REM theory of dreaming, always remembering that this theory says dreams occur during REM sleep. But suppose dreaming doesn't occur while we are asleep at all, but is simply a jumble of images caused by waking up. Suppose dreams occur during those few seconds where you pass from an unconscious sleeping state to full consciousness. Whether this conjecture is valid or not, how would you disprove it in favour of the REM theory?

The short answer is that you can't because of the nature of sleep. At the time there was lots of argument back and forth and in the end, Malcolm went his way and the psychologists went theirs. But from an experimental design point of view, the theory that REM and dreams occur at the same time cannot be proved. The logic of being asleep means you can't report your dreams until you are awake. You can never report what is going on inside your head during REM sleep.

Malcolm's argument is unanswerable to this day. In practice it is no longer an important argument, because psychologists have opted to ignore it. Norman Malcolm's ingenious and unanswerable argument has become a footnote to the history of unwelcome ideas.

Source - Wittgenstein A Social Theory of Knowledge by David Bloor published in 1983.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Monthly horoscope - Virgo

Virgo (August 23- September 22)

Magical birthstone - shale.
Lucky marsupial    - wombat.
Auspicious month  - Octember

As your magical birthstone is shale, you Virgos never quite manage to have things all your own way, as I'm afraid you are bound to find out this month. With Mercury nipping in and out of the ninth octant, things are a little tricky all the way through, although there are some bright spots to look forward to, especially in connection with recently liberated prestige toasters.

Next Thursday is a date for your calendar too, because this is Chocolate Day, or at least something dark, or brown, or sticky. Can't be sure - sorry about that - tread carefully.

Later in the month you may receive a letter from the council explaining why climate change is entirely your fault and the UN wants to know what on earth (or more likely What On Earth) you propose to do about it. Virgos you see are not terribly green and you know perfectly well all that alcohol you are distilling in the shed has nothing to do with biofuels and saving the planet. Drink it quickly and quietly with a little fresh orange juice is what the stars advise, but that's what they always say in my limited experience.

In a few weeks you may well have the urge to start a new hobby such as holistic leaping, soap sculpture or putting together a nice collection of vintage Formica. It's a sign of something, but the stars seem to have no idea what so don't get too excited.

Monday 22 August 2011

The global nomenklatura

From Wikipedia

One rather obvious global trend is the growth of transnational institutions based on international treaties. Not necessarily a bad thing in principle I suppose, but where does democratic accountability come in?

There is a clear trend towards the establishment of a bureaucratic elite or global nomenklatura as more and more people are required to run, maintain and expand a huge raft of transnational institutions. We may reasonably assume they will be ambitious people not averse to international travel, luxury accommodation, a spot of sightseeing and a few agreeable meetings or conferences with coffee, lunch and an evening meal thrown it. Nice work if you can get it, but how are their activities controlled? No point relying on politicians, because far too many senior politicians intend to join in the fun once the voters find them out.

The institutions involved in this pin-striped growth industry are too numerous to list, but the EU, IMF, UN and all their numerous progeny are those I first think of. There are many, many more, but what do they do and is there anything wrong with it?

Well yes there is something wrong with it – a rather glaring absence of democratic control. There is also something more subtle too – a problem with language and logic. Because these activities are international and in some cases global, there is no common language to describe what is going on. I have used the term global nomenklatura but without commonplace terms, these things are not the subject of extended public debate except on a piecemeal, bungle by bungle, scandal by scandal basis.

So are there conspiracies going on, are there less than transparent activities likely to affect our lives? Well some people such as blogger James Higham who also blogs at 4liberty have published plenty of material to suggest there are. He often tackles difficult issues such as Common Purpose, an educational charity deeply embedded within the UK nomenklatura. Difficult issues? Yes – social trends have made some issues difficult to discuss without risking at least a raised eyebrow or the damaging conspiracy-theory label. But the global nomenklatura are presumably trained somewhere.

There is an entirely obvious conspiratorial logic to the global nomenklatura, the operational logic of transnational bodies without democratic controls. The logic requires powerful people with agendas to push, influence to wield and staff to instill with the right attitude. People who quite naturally seek to expand their remit by the very nature of what they do, because who could possibly demand less international co-operation? So they push for bigger and bigger budgets and more and more staff simply because we can't have too much international co-operation can we?

So conspiracy, or whatever else we wish to call it, lies deep within the logic of the process. We need not use the bogey word conspiracy of course, but we don’t have too many others that quite fit the bill and conspiracy is a genuine feature of human life however much we wish it wasn't. Adam Smith nailed it over two centuries ago.

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
Adam Smith (1723 - 1790)

The trade of the global nomenklatura is no different and the prices they levy can be eye-watering, the antics of the IPCC being a good example. The EEC evolved into the EU largely because of a lack of national political control over EEC officials, over their policies and ambitions. Expansion was an organic process, the nature of the beast. There is no mystery about it, other than the rather formidable mystery of how we are now supposed to rein in the global nomenklatura before they rein us in.

Saturday 20 August 2011

The Peddler of Spells

Dedicated to David Cameron.

An old man selling charms in a cranny of the town wall.
He writes out spells to bless the silkworms and spells to protect the corn.
With the money he gets each day he only buys wine.
But he does not worry when his legs get wobbly,
For he has a boy to lean on.

By Lu Yu (A.D. 1125 - 1209)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley.


Baroggnaritlornn reigned in his steed to gaze over the dark valley of Krgnorrth far below. A flaming arc of sunlight scattered brilliant lancing shafts of orange light over far hills, piercing the purple night like a sword slash through great rolls of velvet.
      "The great day dawns Baroggnaritlornn."
      Baroggnaritlornn wheeled round, hand on fire-sword, his steed snorting pale plumes of vapour into icy air, but it was only Krrkrrklaathann. Baroggnaritlornn relaxed – pleased that his faithful lieutenant had risen at dawn to join his leader on the lonely hillside.
      "So Krrkrrklaathann - could you not sleep?" Baroggnaritlornn asked.
      "I cannot escape my mind-world – my thoughts of what this dawning day may bring. Once all is done that is destined to be done," Krrkrrklaathann replied. His own steed stood calm and quiet on the freezing hillside, awaiting the touch of a spur while chewing the wiry blue tufts of brinthlornborrl grass, the only vegetation able to survive the bleak high hills above the valley of Krgnorrth.
      The two warriors watched for long minutes as the glow of the rising sun cast livid lights across the far horizon. Soon ground-mists would stir far below in the valley of Krgnorrth, pale hills thrusting their shoulders into the dawn sky. Then the carrion eaters, the Brthrallnlann birds and the sharp-toothed Sqestallan bats would gather to feed, their harsh calls echoing in the cold high air as their mystic senses told of the grim slaughter to come.
      Baroggnaritlornn unsheathed his fire-sword, inspected its gleaming strength before formally kissing its bitter cold blade. He was the first to break the musing silence that had threatened to envelop the two warriors high over the valley of Krgnorrth.
      "My own mind-pictures trouble me too - so be easy brave Krrkrrklaathanm." Baroggnaritlornn stroked the glistening mane of his steed with a mailed hand. The beast's claws were sheathed with Malthringoriann steel which drew fat bright sparks from bare volcanic rock as it pawed the ground, restless and unquiet.
      "Krrkrrklaathann," said Krrkrrklaathann quietly.
      "What?" Baroggnaritlornn dragged his troubled, thoughts back to the present.
      "My name is Krrkrrklaathann," Krrkrrklaathann repeated patiently.
      "That is what I said - Krrkrrklaathann." Baroggnaritlornn felt a hot flush of irritation. Great moves were afoot in the valley of Krgnorrth and Krrkrrklaathann was quibbling about names.
      "You said Krrkrrklaathanm - with an 'm' at the end."
      Baroggnaritlornn stroked the pommel of his fire-sword before replying. The sun rose over the far hills as night-mist swirled through the valley. The God of Wakefulness approached with soft tread, shoulder to shoulder with the God of Light.
      "What is there in a name Krrkrrklaathann?" Baroggnaritlornn replied at last. "Today the whole history of our great Oraldrrgnthnnglliann people may be torn asunder for the rest of eternity. Today we are destined to know glorious victory or unthinkable defeat."
      Krrkrrklaathann nodded at the truth of what his leader had said. He blew through his straggling moustache and sighed again as if the Wind of Llathllallann was trapped in his huge barrel chest. "All these cursedly long names," he said at last, as if reaching a momentous decision. "I can hardly remember any of them - even yours my leader."
      Baroggnaritlornn pondered for a long time. He remained still and silent till he saw the first red flickers of stirred camp fires in the grey light of the valley of Krgnorrth and felt the warm rays of the sun on his armour. "Yes," Baroggnaritlornn replied at last, "even on a momentous day such as this, I am at one with the mood of your thoughts Krrkrrklaathann. I confess to you now that in the silent places of my mind, I would rather those close to me could call me Baz."

Friday 19 August 2011

Not so far from the workhouse

Southwell Workhouse - from Wikipedia

A guy I know , let's call him Geoff, does voluntary work on a heritage railway. A little while ago, a number of unemployed young people were given some work experience there. The young man assigned to Geoff seemed interested and quite enthusiastic until one day he said he wouldn't be able to work on the railway any longer. When Geoff asked him why not, the young man said :-

"My dad's never worked in his life and he doesn't like me working either. He doesn't want me to start."

So that was that. Of course you can't extrapolate from this single event to a whole society, but the story is common enough in outline for us to wonder what we think we are doing, where we think we are going. We got rid of the workhouses because they were seen to be harsh and demeaning. Well we've sorted out the harsh side of it I suppose, but that was the easy part wasn't it? That was the part that only needed more money to free us from an over-prescriptive regime.

What about the demeaning side though, the more difficult problem of the two? That young man was being forced into a demeaning and wasted life by his own father. Not really resolved that yet have we?

Thursday 18 August 2011

Cognitive dissonance dissonance

This clip contains original footage of Leon Festinger's work on cognitive dissonance.

However, for me there are a number of obvious problems with Fesinger's experiment. It doesn't tell us what cognitive is as distinct from observed behaviour. Neither does it tell us what dissonance is except to equate it with a rather broad spectrum of negative emotions. It also assumes that boring is a fixed parameter within the experiment and it skates over the possible complexities of introducing such a powerful variable as money.

As you see from the clip, after a boring exercise, subjects were offered either $1 or $20 to enthuse about the test to the next subjects. Finally they were asked about their own views on the test as asked if they would do it again. But maybe this merely tells us something about the social role of money. Maybe it tells us something about commonplace aspects of social interaction such as politeness.

I'm not using a short blog post to dismiss cognitive dissonance here, but I am interested in the history of ideas, scientific theories and experimental design. It seems to me that Festinger's experiment isn't well-designed. It is highly likely that he had already invented cognitive dissonance before designing the experiment. Nothing wrong with that, because it's mostly how science is done. Anyhow, it's a complex issue, but I'm not convinced by cognitive dissonance theory, I think we need to be more parsimonious with our explanations, retaining our focus on observable behaviour before we build non-neurological theories of mental processes .

For me, the most interesting aspect of Festinger's experiment is the enthusiasm with which cognitive dissonance has been widely adopted, used and misused as a viable theory of rationalization. Theories of rationalization are important because irrationality is often what we accuse each other of when we disagree. For example, cognitive dissonance has been used to attack religious belief  using absurd arguments which could just as easily work in the opposite direction.

Scientific theories have to add something observable that we didn't see before. I can't see how Festinger's experiment does that.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

EU Primer – part 3

One of the most exciting projects funded by the EU is to bring the UK physically closer to mainland Europe. This is to be achieved by giant propellers connected to the National Grid. Everyone will have seen them erected in well-know beauty spots all over the UK.

Once the full complement of propellers has been installed, they will be turned on and gradually, inch by inch the UK will be carefully edged towards France. Some alarm has been expressed about the actual docking procedure, or shafting as it is technically known, but there is nothing to be worried about. We are assured by all the experts that when we actually dock with mainland EU, there will only be a barely perceptible tremor.

The Isle of Wight of course will be folded up into a substantial mountain, lucky residents having the added benefit of spectacular views over both France and England. Calais will of course merge with Dover, although a name for the new town has yet to be decided. The UK has suggested the rather attractive possibility of Calover, while the French proposal is Calais.

A few sceptical geologists have said the plan is not feasible for various obscure theoretical reasons and at times the debate has been rather heated, but in spite of this the plan continues with unabated enthusiasm. The government has so far resisted calls to make geology illegal.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Children nagging for food

A paper here from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds that children adopt nagging tactics to get parents to buy food advertised on TV. Parents, the paper finds, have various tactics for coping. The report's conclusion is that TV food advertising may need to be controlled. Astounding.

Nice work if you have the stomach for it I suppose.

Bird feeder 2

It seems as if our local sparrowhawk has been at it again. Judging by the feathers it took a dove this time. The feathers were close to the garden fence, right below the point where the sparrowhawk nipped over last time on its magnolia tree raid. We used to have lots of doves in and around the garden, but everything seems quieter now, bird-wise. 

Monday 15 August 2011

No riots on Exmoor

The recent riots occurred while I was on holiday walking in Exmoor, so with no TV or newspapers I only had the internet to find out what was going on, because there was no rioting visible on Exmoor as far as I could tell. Actually I don't read newspapers, nor do I watch TV news though I saw the lurid headlines on the newsstands.

By now we've had masses of comment of course, from low-key and considered to shouty and demanding. As usual, the flavour you respond to depends on your preferences. The general consensus seems to be that it was an outburst of criminal looting and destruction of property by feckless and suggestible young people. The causes, whatever they may be seem to have been swamped immediately by the solutions which we can be pretty sure will be more drastic in the saying than in the doing.

Even some erudite and lucid commentators have tended to go over the top, saying things they perhaps wouldn't have said if the indignation virus hadn't temporarily poisoned their judgement. Yet riots have been an intermittent feature of life for centuries, so what do we want to do about them? Do we seriously expect to build a society where nothing unpredictable and bad ever happens?

The riots were either a sign of a deeper malaise, in which case things will get worse, or they are not. Yet it may be that we should expect these things every now and then. Maybe these things are the natural outliers of complex societies and human frailty. Maybe they are the hundred-year floods that occur more frequently than they are supposed to in spite of all our efforts at containment. Maybe there are unpredictable events we must live with because we cannot and do not wish to live in fully controlled and entirely predictable ways. After all, we know where that leads.

So perhaps there is no solution to what happened, other than a lesson or two to be learned, a lesson or two about family life perhaps - how important it is to stable societies. But whether we can do much about it while restraining the control-freaks is another matter.

Bishop Hill post

This is good from Bishop Hill. A hugely important comment on a creepy, dishonest aspect of our society.

Realizing The Futility Of Life

Ever since the time when I was a boy
Down till now when I am ill and old,
The things I have cared for have been different at different times,
But my being busy, that has never changed.
Then on the shore, - building sand-pagodas;
Now, at Court, covered with tinkling jade.
This and that, - equally childish games,
Things whose substance passes in a moment of time!
While the hands are busy, the heart cannot understand;
When there are no Scriptures, then Doctrine is sound.
Even should one zealously strive to learn the Way,
That very striving will make one's error more.

Po Chü-i (772 - 846).
Written on the wall of a priest's cell, circa 828.
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Sunday 14 August 2011

Holiday limerick

Popped into my mind while walking in Exmoor. Not very good but worth sharing as ridicule seems to be all we have left.

A political insider named Huhne,
Was appointed Chief Energy Loon.
The climate he said,
Will strike us all dead,
But my windmills will make us immune.

The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test is a well-known test of how kids deal or fail to deal with frustration. I've seen one explanation of the test where it is claimed that it divides kids into those who are affected by the present and those who are affected by the future. The explanation is obvious nonsense because nobody can be affected by the future - it hasn't happened yet. The test is simply a test of how kids deal with frustration.

But hang on - surely it's more than that? Surely the Marshmallow Test and similar games could easily form part of any child's education? They could be a way of introducing them to frustration and how best to deal with it. Those who do learn to deal with it tend to be more well-adjusted in later life, so the test is genuinely useful. So maybe it could be more than useful,  maybe it could be educational too?

The point that jumps out at me in this presentation is the role of the viewer. How are we supposed to react? I don't think we are expected to react at all, but merely watch and be possibly be interested in the results. The clip isn't making the point that obviously could be made, that we might use simple tests like this to teach kids to understand their own psychology.Yet even from a very young age, we could teach them to be more self-aware, to understand why they react as they do.

Curiously enough, I think the clip simply expects the viewer to watch and move on. It expects us to be - yes got it in one - to be a bystander.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Blockitt Sir?

One reason I keep reading and re-reading Dickens is because of the way he handles incompetence. In one way or another, large chunks of our lives are moulded by incompetence and Dickens brings it out very well.

So often I come across a passage or even a single sentence that makes me smile at his sense of humour, his sense or the ridiculous or his satirical dexterity in weaving his characters into webs of incompetence. Or he just causes me to pause a while to dwell on what he is saying, the way he says it, what it says about Victorian society, things that still apply to our society and will apply to future societies.

One very short example comes from Dombey and Son. Mr Dombey is a frigid, wealthy owner of a shipping company. When he encounters a nurse, Mrs Blockitt he is quite unable to put her at her ease, just as she cannot even bring herself to state her name without ambiguity, both of them baffled by the social divide.

'Wait! I - had better ask Doctor Peps if he'll have the goodness to step upstairs again perhaps. I'll go down. I'll go down. I needn't beg you,' he added, pausing for a moment at the settee before the fire, 'to take particular care of this young gentleman, Mrs-'
'Blockitt, Sir?' suggested the nurse, a simpering piece of faded gentility, who did not presume to state her name as a fact, but merely offered it as a mild suggestion.

Another short quote from Martin Chuzzlewit concerns Pecksniff, one of Dickens' most odious characters. Pecksniff is a ghastly, sanctimonious fraud, yet ultimately, as Dickens delights in showing us almost entirely through humour and ridicule, an incompetent fraud.

'And how,' asked Mr Pecksniff, drawing off his gloves and warming his hands by the fire, as benevolently as if they were somebody else's, not his; 'and how is he now.'

Dickens is still worth reading and reading again. Forget the literary analysis - he does you good.

Friday 12 August 2011

Times they aren't a-changin

Many of us have read Tom Brown's Schooldays, but I still think this quote worth reproducing in full. It may be set in the culture of its times, but if we ignore that, then the problemThomas Hughes describes is still with us. We still suffer from a dim and disconnected political class who wish to ride on our backs without first asking what we think of the idea.

Well, well, we must bide our time. Life isn't all beer and skittles; but beer and skittles, or something better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman's education. If I could only drive this into the heads of you rising parliamentary lords, and young swells who "have your ways made for you," as the saying is, you who frequent palaver houses and West-end clubs, waiting always ready to strap yourselves to the back of poor dear old John, as soon as the present used-up lot (your fathers and uncles), who sit there on the great parliamentary-majorities' pack-saddle, and make believe they're guiding him with their red-tape bridle, tumble, or have to be lifted off!

I don't think much of you yet - I wish I could - though you do go on talking and lecturing up and down the country to crowded audiences, and are busy with all sorts of philanthropic intellectualism, and circulating libraries and museums, and Heaven only knows what besides, and try to make us think, through newspaper reports, that you are, even as we, of the working classes. But bless your hearts, we "ain't so green," though lots of us of all sorts toady you enough certainly, and try to make you think so.

I'll tell you what to do now: in stead of all this trumpeting and fuss, which is only the old parliamentary-majority dodge over again, just you go, each of you (you've plenty of time for it, if only you'll give up t'other line), and quietly make three or four friends - real friends - among us. You'll find a little trouble in getting at the right sort, because such birds don't come lightly to your lure; but found they may be. Take, say, two out of the professions, lawyer, parson, doctor - which you will; one out of trade; and three or four out of the working classes - tailors, engineers, carpenters, engravers. There's plenty of choice. Let them be men of your own ages, mind, and ask them to your homes; introduce them to your wives and sisters, and get introduced to theirs; give them good dinners, and talk to them about what is really at the bottom of your hearts; and box, and run, and row with them, when you have a chance. Do all this honestly as man to man, and by the time you  come to ride old John, you'll be able to do something more than sit on his back, and may feel his mouth with some stronger bridle than a red-tape one.

Ah, if you only would! But you have got too far out of the right rut, I fear. Too much over-civilization, and the deceitfulness of riches. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. More's the pity. I never came across but two of you who could value a man wholly and solely for what was in him - who thought themselves verily and indeed of the same flesh and blood as John Jones the attourney's clerk, and Bill Smith the costermonger, and could act as if they thought so. 

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes - published 1857

Thursday 11 August 2011

On the birth of his son

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

Su Tung-p'o (A.D. 1036 - 1101)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Wheels of Fortune

A few years back, I was browsing through some books at a jumble sale. I have no idea where it was, but I saw a book I hadn't seen since reading it as a boy. It is quite difficult to describe the flood of impressions, the sheer weight of nostalgia that this find triggered so unexpectedly as I leafed through it. As a boy, I must have borrowed it from the town library because we weren't in a position to actually buy books in those days. I must have read it once before taking it back to the library, never seeing or thinking of it again until coming across it on the bookstall.

I bought it for (I think) about 50p, took it back home and read it again. It's a simple adventure story first published in 1948, although mine is a 1957 edition. The story is set during the Napoleonic wars and comes complete with all kinds of swashbuckling adventures from smuggling to a French invasion party. The main theme of the book though revolves around Ariel, the newly-invented steam wagon depicted on the cover.

After reading the book a second time, I could easily see how it would have appealed so strongly to me as a boy. The idea of trundling along the open road in a home-made steam wagon with no other traffic, no road signs, no traffic lights. Even in those days I think this sense of freedom, this sense that all journeys should have a certain spirit of adventure made a deep and lasting impression. In fact it must have made a very deep impression indeed considering how absurdly pleased I was to come across it again after all those years.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The Grain-Tribute

There came an officer knocking by night at my door-
In a loud voice demanding grain-tribute.
My house-servants dared not wait till the morning,
But brought candles and set them on the barn-floor.
Passed through the sieve, clean-washed as pearls,
A whole cart-load, thirty bushels of grain.
But still they cry that it is not paid in full:
With whips and curses they goad my servants and boys.
Once, in error, I entered public life;
I am inwardly ashamed that my talents were not sufficient.
In succession I occupied four official posts;
For doing nothing, - ten year's salary!
Often I heard that saying of ancient men
That "good and ill follow in endless chain."
And today it ought to set my heart at rest
To return to others the corn in my great barn.

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

Monday 8 August 2011

Books and Systems

From Wikipedia

A favourite quote from the Spectator - still valid 300 years on :-

There are several Arts which all Men are in some measure Masters of, without having been at the Pains of learning them. Every one that speaks or reasons is a Grammarian and a Logician, tho’ he may be wholly unacquainted with the Rules of Grammar and Logick, as they are delivered in Books and Systems.

The Spectator. June 8th 1711

Sunday 7 August 2011

Walking holiday

On a short walking holiday in and around Exmoor at the moment, so light blogging.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part XII

B. F. Skinner was a proponent of what he called radical behaviourism. Put very simply, this is stimulus and response where reinforcement is said to occur when some responses become conditioned responses - or habits as we might prefer to call them.

Beliefs are habits. Beliefs are how we experience our own conditioning, our range of likely responses to a given stimulus such as a question, a situation or an event. We tend to refer to our beliefs as something we possess, something separate from our personality as if they were things we own, things we could indeed disown if we so chose. They are not.

If I believe in ghosts (which I don't), that means I am likely to read ghost stories or watch supernatural drama on TV. I’ll say ‘yes’ when asked if I believe in ghosts and I’m likely to avoid being alone in creaky old house at night. This kind of thing is what it means to believe in ghosts. My belief in ghosts is not something I have as a kind of mental possession, but a limit to my behaviour, framing my likely range of responses when exposed to a range of ghostly or ghost-suggestive stimuli, events or situations. It is an aspect of my conditioning - as is this blog or anything else I may do.

It would be more accurate to say that beliefs own us and we are certainly not free to disown them. If we were, then we would be free to become a different person, which if you think about it, makes no sense. Think for a moment how difficult it is to change your mind - impossible in some cases where a belief is an important aspect of personality. Some beliefs stay with us for life. Permanent frameworks within which we must live our entire lives - frameworks which may be a prison or a palace but always a mode of containment.

Is it impossible to change our beliefs? How can that be if we own them, if we possess them? Yet it isn’t difficult I think, to see that our beliefs are habits that frame our verbal behaviour as well as the covert verbal behaviour we call 'thinking'. So criticizing another person's beliefs is not the casual affair we tend to assume. We all know it is usually a futile activity, but it is surely impertinent too, a suggestion that the other person's personality is somehow defective.

Perhaps we should see our beliefs in terms of their social usefulness and their limitations, assessing them for their adaptability rather than pursue the troublesome chimera we call ‘truth’. In that case, 'truth' disappears and all we are left with is competent or incompetent behaviour - not that competence isn't a can of worms too.  

Friday 5 August 2011

I came here for an argument

We all know how futile it is to argue - futile in the sense of how exceedingly rare it is for one of the arguing parties to change their mind and concede the argument. You often see the problem in long comment threads and wonder why people bother. Comments are a vital aspect of blogging of course, but make a comment and move on is my policy.

As suggested by the immortal Monty Python sketch, argument is a social game, a contest, a battle for supremacy. To concede is to lose, but as nobody ever needs to concede, nobody loses. Verbal behaviour is so subtle, so flexible that the point at issue will never be brought to the table unless it suits both parties to do so. Of course it hardly ever does.

Often there is no point at issue at all and the contest is merely a battle of words, a skirmish between differing modes of verbal behaviour, differing verbal habits.

Or maybe you disagree?

Thursday 4 August 2011

Wet socks? Works every time.

The Bed by Toulouse Lautrec - from Wikipedia 

Son has a neat trick to help him sleep during the recent hot and humid weather. He goes to bed in wet socks. When he wakes up, the socks are dry and he's slept well. Can't say I've ever tried it though.

Dark times at the multiversity (2)

The Beeb continues its wide-eyed fascination with junk science here:-

As usual, it classifies these multiverse games as science in spite of having to admit:-

This "multiverse" idea is popular in modern physics, but experimental tests have been hard to come by.

Popular? I bet it is. Experimental testing defines what science is - until then it is metaphysical speculation. Nothing wrong with metaphysical speculations because that's where theories come from, but these distinctions are important. However, it gets worse:-

Dr Peiris said that even if these bubble universes were confirmed, we could never learn anything further about them.

So what is the word 'confirmed' supposed to mean here? Not much would probably be a good guess.

Opioid overdose in the US

This statistic surprised me:-

Seattle, WA—Fatal overdoses involving prescribed opioids tripled in the United States between 1999 and 2006, climbing to almost 14,000 deaths annually—more than cocaine and heroin overdoses combined. 

Full article here

Anorexic philosophy

The seventeenth century natural philosopher, Spinoza led a famously frugal lifestyle. Here is an extract from a very early biography.
What I say about his Sobriety and good Husbandry, may be proved by several small Reckonings, which have been found amongst his Papers after his death. It appears by them, that he lived a whole day upon a Milk-soop done with Butter, which amounted to three pence, and upon a Pot of Beer of three half pence. Another day he eat nothing but Gruel done with Raisins and Butter, and that Dish cost him fourpence halfpenny. There are but two half pints of Wine at most for one Month to be found amongst those Reckonings, and tho he was often invited to eat with his Friends, he chose rather to live upon what he had at home, tho it were never so little, than to sit down at a good Table at the expense of another Man.
Johannes Colerus – The Life of Benedict Spinoza

Yet this story seems odd to me, because such a diet would surely not support an adult. Not enough calories. Of course, without any further details such as weights and measures, we cannot judge its accuracy, even though based on Spinoza's own records. However, I suspect we can say with some confidence that here at least, Spinoza's frugality was exaggerated. It was seen as an aspect of his character and amplified accordingly, as we still do with celebrities. Is anything new?

Wednesday 3 August 2011

You'll wonder where the yellow went

This vintage TV commercial for Pepsodent is something of a classic and almost everyone over a certain age still has the jingle embedded in their brain. The toothpaste is still around apparently.

Wikipedia coyly refers to Pepsodent's miracle ingredient Irium as another word for sodium lauryl sulfate an inexpensive ionic surfactant. It is in fact an inexpensive anionic surfactant - cheap detergent in other words.

Supreme symbol of swagger

From Wikipedia

...this was in the days, quite thirteen years ago, when automobilists made their wills and took food supplies...

Now even today, when the very cabman drives his automobile, a man who buys a motor cannot say to a friend: "I've bought a motor. Come for a spin," in the same self-unconscious accents as he would say: "I've bought a boat. Come for a sail," or "I've bought a house. Come and look at it." Even today and in the centre of London there is still something about a motor - well something... 

Everybody who has bought a motor, and everybody who has dreamed of buying a motor, will comprehend me. Useless to feign that a motor is the most banal thing imaginable. It is not. It remains the supreme symbol of swagger.

Arnold Bennett - The Card - published 1910

Tuesday 2 August 2011

How the land lies

Pinocchio - from Wikipedia

In some ways we need lies. Lies make sure good ideas go through a baptism of fire before they are accepted, but it can go too far and now it clearly has. We have institutionalized the lie through PR, advertising, marketing and political spin. We have brought lying into the fold, accepted it, nurtured it. We even have university degrees in public relations - churning out formally qualified liars, consultant liars presumably even distinguished liars.

We have become accustomed to a ruling elite that now lies to us as a matter of political routine. The UK state broadcaster passes on obvious lies from vested interests, misleads us with partial information, or even no information at all. It takes its compulsory licence fee and pays us back with infantile 'entertainment' and bad faith.

Elsewhere we are lied to about everything from the risks of  daily life to climate change, dietary issues, the EU, the housing market to national finance. Somehow, the lies, deception and misdirection have become an intrinsic aspect of how we do things. Lying, in the sense of misinforming or misdirecting, has become normal. It was never uncommon of course, but in modern times I think we are entitled to nourish ourselves and our children on something better, something more adult, more grown-up than a diet of lies.

It is blindingly obviously that lying has gone too far and we need to move on, need to do something about it. We have to give up on exaggerating, misleading and misinforming because this is how the web of lies begins. The threat is serious, real and obvious. Our culture of lying threatens us with social, economic and political problems so severe that we can’t handle them.

Why can't we handle them? Simply because we lie about the problems, lie about their severity, lie about the solutions, lie about the risks, lie about who is responsible, lie about what is responsible and above all, we lie about the alternatives. So what are the symptoms? 

We have an adversarial political system based on parties - lying machines with no other goal than political power. There has to be something better.

UK democracy has disappeared thanks to party collusion and lies about the EU.

Housing is unaffordable for young families thanks to covert distortions of the housing market, the real problem being hidden by lies. (Thanks to Mark Wadsworth for that one).

Our tax system is absurdly complex, unfair and economically irrational. Simple, transparent alternatives are met with lies. (Thanks to Mark Wadsworth for that one too).

Energy policy is a vastly expensive shambles thanks to lies about climate change.

We have a National Health Service no country in the world would copy, kept afloat by tax and lies.

State education excludes parents, children and teachers from policy-making. Improvements are prevented or diluted by lies. 

Our state broadcaster is incapable of dispassionate, adult broadcasting, incapable of radical, critical analysis, entirely beholden to the ruling elite, the status quo, vested interests and its own survival.

Popular public houses are closing in their thousands as we are pestered with lies about passive smoking.

We have grown cynical about a constant drip-feed of health and dietary advice, most of we know is unsound, almost none of which is based on reliable science.

Above all, we have a ruling elite that actively conspires against our interests, lies to us as a matter of policy, covertly supports a vast burden of vested interests and is less honest, ethical and moral, more prone to criminal activity than the citizens it claims to govern.

Apart from that, things are fine. No – I lied – they aren’t.

Monday 1 August 2011

Rat Park

This film could be better, but it covers the basics of Bruce Alexander's Rat Park  addiction experiment.