Friday, 30 September 2011

80mph - now we can buy that Prius

Custom Toyota Prius - from

Old habits

Robert Dougall - from

Old habits die hard they say, and it's true. Over the past few years, my long-established routine of watching the TV news has finally faded away. I now prefer the vastness of the internet and slowly but surely my TV news intake subsided to the point where I now see it as nothing more than an old habit . When six o'clock struck I'd automatically click the TV remote to see what was going on in the world - but not any more.

When I look back on how long I've used TV news as a source of information, it's not surprising it took a while before I finally wriggled free of the habit, before I realised how limited and limiting it is, how paternalistic and dated. Yet TV news still commands prime spots at 6pm and 10pm. Who still watches I can't imagine, but change is bound to take time I suppose, unless the TV stations think of something better, which doesn't seem likely. I mean it's not as if they're imaginative is it?

The sight of middle-class news-readers reading a list of selected items from an autocue now seems a little quaint to me. Not desperately weird, just old-fashioned and out of kilter with the modern world. Efforts to update things by getting the presenter to stand don't come over well either, not to my jaundiced eye.

Yet all TV channels seem to have their traditional news slots. Is it a legal requirement or something? Why do they bother? They may as well use CGI and automate the whole process. Surely it's technically possible. Get Homer Simpson to read the news off an internet feed. Mind you - I might be drawn back into it then.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Service economy

Picture a cafe on the fringes of Exmoor. Beautiful situation, strange proprietor.

Customer : "I see you have ham egg and chips?"

Waiter     : "Yes"

Customer : "I don't eat ham - may I just have egg and chips please?"

Waiter      : "It's ham egg and chips."

Customer : "I know - I don't mind paying the full price - just leave out the ham."

Waiter      : "We don't do that - it's ham egg and chips."

Customer : "I'm willing to pay for the ham - just leave off my plate."

Waiter     : "We can't - it's ham egg and chips - we don't do it without the ham."

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Apparently we have crossed the tipping-point climate scientists have been warning about for so long. Over 100% of climate scientists now agree that human emissions of CO2 will cause catastrophic catastrophes within the next few decades. The actual figure is 102.634 %. More on this story as it develops.

A poxy old game

Isn't politics a poxy old game? I'm not much moved by political arguments, personalities and trends. I tend to find them a tad unrewarding, although quite a few bloggers know how to liven up the debates with some trenchant analysis and deliciously acidic invective. I like my invective on the vinegary side, so I enjoy the more cynical and unaligned political blogs, but I still find myself left with few concrete political views apart from a deep, dark cynicism. As for the mainstream media, there is far too much dross and gossip to wade through.

I have an excessively simple take on politics based on the pervasive nature of complexity, one of my pet themes. From this angle, social and economic trends are usually too complex to predict.

Whatever its proponents claim for policy A doesn't necessarily cause output B, and even if it does, it may not do so next time. Those who are guided by political principles, whether of the left, right or centre, are usually wasting their time. Not always, but usually. That's why ridicule is such a useful and fun political tool - most political ambitions are so ridiculous that a good laugh is the only rational response. So how do I assess the politics game as a mildly interested spectator with a belly-full of cynicism?

1. Simplicity.

Simplification is good. If a new policy simplifies some aspect of social or political life, then it is a good policy. The simplification has to be unambiguous and permanent, such as simplifying the tax system. Forget caveats or complications, simplifying is good.

2. Transparency.

Transparency is good and related to but even more powerful than simplification. Transparency is the big one in my view. If a new policy makes some aspect of social or political life more transparent, then it is a good policy. The power of transparency is the main reason why blogging is politically healthy and the BBC is not.

3. Democracy.

We're told that democracy is supposed to set the balance of power between government and citizens. It isn't perfect, but it sounds like a good idea. We should give it a trial run in the UK.

That's it for me, everything else is left to social trends, to people pursuing their own interests under the law. I haven't mentioned equality, welfare, pensions, crime, immigration or any of that dull, complex stuff because it is - well it's complex. It has to sort itself out. Interfere and you risk another dollop of complexity or lots of dense fog instead of pristine transparency, the two cardinal sins in my book.

Example? With the best available economic advice (ha ha!), we have apparently wandered into a foreseeable economic mess. Is the economy too complex for politicians, economists or both? Modern Monetary Theory seems to have at least some of the answers to my inexpert view, so why is basic economic competence so elusive?

Example? One in my own field - science. Science generally has become far more political, less transparent and more complex over the past few decades, much of it due to statistics, computer models and policy-based funding. A loss of transparency and increase in complexity has corrupted the scientific project - my guess is corrupted it beyond repair. Where's the evidence? Climate science.

Example? Tax - people in the UK do not know how much tax they pay or why they pay it. Maybe they should.

Example? State-controlled education - parents in the UK don't know how well their kids are being educated. Maybe they should.

Example? The EU adds complexity and drastically reduces the transparency of UK policy-making. Merely on that basis it is an intrinsically bad idea. Nobody seems to know what the EU does or what it is for - not even King Herman I.

Example? Health advice from the state adds complexity to our lives to no clear purpose. We do not know how we will eventually die, whether it will be quick, slow, dignified or pathetic. A healthier life now does not necessarily lead to an outcome we would have opted for given the choice. It may well be that an individual smoker should continue to smoke and an individual drinker should continue to drink. On the whole the state doesn't know how to give worthwhile blanket advice apart from moderate exercise and calorie intake.

Example? Covert political lobbying - no need to say more. It goes on and on.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Greek burden

Sent by email. H/T Dave H

Russian coal

During a recent talk about the West Somerset Railway, we were told that the railway has to buy its coal from Russia, because the quality required isn't available from UK sources. Maybe there are technical reasons such as sulphur content, but is it me, or is there something a tad depressing about this little snippet of information?  

Monday, 26 September 2011

Chilling quote

George Eliot

A chilling George Eliot quote from her superb novel - Middlemarch.

Chilling? Yes - because for most of us, not just men, this is our destiny.

For the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor  of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came from the vibrations of a woman's glance.
George Eliot - Middlemarch

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Planet Dinosaur

Earlier today I switched on the TV set to check teletext weather forecasts. Earlier on, the Met Office had forecast a decent day but I'd arrived home all wet.

Anyway, I happened to encounter a BBC show called Planet Dinosaur which as you may know, uses CGI to bring the dinosaur age to life. The bit I stumbled on featured a creature called Sinornithosaurus - a kind of birdlike lizard.

There was some interesting stuff to do with its feathers, suggesting that scientists have worked out what colour they may have been by the shape of microscopic fossilized structures which closely match those of birds today. It was also claimed that Sinornithosaurusto may have been venomous because grooves in its teeth are similar to grooves in the teeth of venomous lizards.

For a few minutes I thought the programme quite well done until I remembered why I'd switched on the TV in the first place - duff information from the Met Office. From that I was reminded of climate change and the general unreliability of the BBC, especially where science and drama entwine. For all I knew, Planet Dinosaur was a mess of improbable theories and exaggerations. Reliable or unreliable - how is one supposed to tell?

The initial waft of interest soon disappeared - I switched off.

PS - the Met Office just got it wrong - quelle surprise.  

How to unravel the universe

From Wikipedia

One idea wandering around the cobwebby nooks and crannies of my mind concerns our incomplete knowledge of the material world. It's only an idle weekend thought, you can't draw useful conclusions from it, but it goes like this.

Firstly, the physical universe has no internal boundaries. No physical part of it is as far as we know, wholly isolated from everything else with the possible exception of black holes. So if we try to understand absolutely everything about some part of the universe, say a leaf for example, how would that be possible? In other words, how would we set boundaries to the leaf so we may know everything there is to know about our special chosen leaf?

For example, we'd have to know all about the biochemical and genetic structure of our leaf, how its cells function, how photosynthesis happens, where its genetic code came from, how it evolved and what it does in relation to its parent plant.

Then we might move on from those mind-boggling complexities to the leaf's component atoms, including where those atoms came from to make molecules of leaf and how they are exchanged with the environment as nutrients.

Next we'd have to know all about the subatomic particles within those leaf atoms, the forces holding them together, the radiation they absorb and emit, their role in photosynthesis. We'd even have to know how our leaf was affected by gravity, so we'd have to know for sure what gravity is.

But of course all this endless, mind-numbing detail takes us beyond the leaf into the big wide universe because there is no place to stop, no boundary where the leaf ends and the rest of the universe begins. I won't take this too far because it's merely an armchair notion, but it surely suggests our knowledge is necessarily incomplete.

In other words, there is only incomplete knowledge or omniscience, but the incompleteness applies to everything. Our knowledge of every single thing we can think of must be incomplete, however small it is, however simple. Otherwise, we'd have picked the knot and the universe would unravel like a ball of string so we'd know everything.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Wind power

Mr Craig Huhne was not above talking politics occasionally, though he piqued himself rather on a wise insight than on specific information. He saw so far beyond the mere facts of a case, that really it was superfluous to know them.
George Eliot – Adam Bede (Haart edition)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Monthly horoscope - Libra

Libra (September 23 - October 22)

Magical birthstone - Sequinite.
Lucky fish             - mullet.
Unlucky haircut     - mullet.

People born under the sign of Libra often have problems with soft-furnishings and out of date Tesco vouchers, but with Mars sidling towards a cosy conjunction with Krypton, there could be more serious issues to cope with. I'm getting glue and contact-lenses from the stars, so if it means anything to you, take care.

Later in the month you are asked by the Minsister of Taste to design a new Olympics art gallery for 2012. It should have been started sooner really, but what with one thing and another it slipped through the net. Anyway, the stars advise you to give it a go. Something inflatable is indicated here because of the time restrictions. Mind how you hang the pictures though, some of them can be quite expensive and not just the old-looking ones. It might be best all round if you just duct tape them to the walls for now. The Minister won't mind as she isn't at all artistic and the PM will have other things on his "mind".

At some point you need to get a grip on finances - either that or fiancés or fiancées, or possibly even furnaces. Visibility isn't too good around the fifth quartile, so I'm not sure about the advice I should be passing on. Could be a bit of fogging on my crystal balls, so let's keep it open shall we - cover all the bases? May as well include fencing in that case I suppose. 

Rail travel is best avoided all month unless you actually got round to buying those new running shoes on Tuesday. However, this is a good time for new hobbies and cookery prospects look really good, especially for all you Libran accountants out there. I'm also getting a few hints about the therapeutic benefits of extreme Scrabble and trading in antique condoms, so I'll leave them with you as possibilities.

The one thing Saturn insists on warning you about this month is taking snuff while swimming. It's actually quite dangerous and very unpleasant to watch. All in all, the stars suggest it may be best to leave the snuffbox at home instead of slipping it into your swimming trunks as usual.  

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Moving House

My old desire to live in the Southern Village
Was not because I had taken a fancy to the house.
But I heard it was a place of simple-minded men
With whom it were a joy to spend the mornings and evenings
Many years I had longed to settle here:
Now at last I have managed to move house.
I do not mind if my cottage is rather small
So long as there's room enough for bed and mat.
Often and often the neighbours come to see me
And with brave words discuss things of old.
Rare writings we read together and praise:
Doubtful meanings we examine together and settle.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Dreaming of a dead lady

"I heard at night your long sighs
And knew that you were thinking of me."
As she spoke, the doors of Heaven opened
And our souls conversed and I saw her face.
She set me a pillow to rest on
And she brought me meat and drink.

I stood beside here where she lay,
But suddenly woke and she was not there:
And none knew how my soul was torn,
How the tears fell surging over my breast.

Pao Chao (died A.D. 466)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Karl Moritz

Frederick II of Prussia

Karl Moritz was a young Prussian clergyman who in 1782, during the reign of Frederick II, spent seven weeks travelling in England, much of the time on foot because of limited finances. He wrote an account of his travels in letters which were translated into English and first published in 1795. An online version can be found here and a free Kindle version here.

The account is a short but fascinating insight into eighteenth century life as it appeared to his admittedly anglophile viewpoint. Here are a few extracts.

It gives me real pleasure when I walk from Charing Cross up the Strand, past St Paul's to the Royal Exchange, to meet in the thickest crowd persons from the highest to the lowest ranks, almost all well-looking people, and cleanly and neatly dressed. I rarely see even a fellow with a wheel-barrow who has not a shirt on, and that, too, such a one as shows it has been washed; nor even a beggar without both shirt and shoes and stockings. The English are certainly distinguished for cleanliness.

The next morning I put on clean linen, which I had along with me, and dressed myself as well as I could. And now, when I made my appearance, they did not, as they had the evening before, show me into the kitchen, but into the parlour, a room that seemed to be allotted for strangers on the ground-floor. I was also now addressed by the most respectful term, "sir;" whereas the evening before I had been called only "master": by this latter appellation, I believe, it is usual to address only farmers and quite common people.

Bread and butter.
The slices of bread and butter, which they give you with your tea, are as thin as poppy leaves. But there is another kind of bread and butter usually eaten with tea, which is toasted by the fire, and is incomparably good. You take one slice after the other and hold it to the fire on a fork till the butter is melted, so that it penetrates a number of slices at once: this is called toast.

It is something uncommon here to meet a young man, and more especially a boy, with a pale or sallow face, with deformed features, or disproportioned limbs. With us, alas! it is very much otherwise; if it were not, handsome people would hardly strike us so very much as they do in this country.

It strikes a foreigner as something particular and unusual when, on passing through these fine English towns, he observed one of those circumstances by which towns in Germany are distinguished from the villages - no walls, no gates, no sentries, nor garrisons. No stern examiner comes here to search and inspect us or our baggage; no imperious guard here demands a sight of our passports; perfectly free and unmolested, we walk through villages and towns as unconcerned as we should through a house of our own.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Stay out of the ocean

Explanations are strange beasts aren't they? Why? It’s obvious really - we all know the answer.

To explain something, we have to say it again or say it differently - from another angle. To explain this new angle, we have to say it again or say it differently - from yet another angle. To explain this second new angle, we have to say it again or say it differently - from yet another angle. Or we just go back to the beginning, to the first explanation. It's easier to go round in circles, close off the explanation so it doesn't get out of hand. Otherwise we'd have to admit other possibilities, maybe many possibilities.

An ocean of possibilities.

So there's only one way we can avoid the ocean of possibilities, find dry land, settle and build. We have to stick with what we said first time round. If asked to explain we say the same thing again. Maybe with tiny differences, but basically we repeat ourselves again and again and again. We opt for the safe, circular, dogmatic way rather than risk drowning in an ocean of possibilities.

This inbuilt advantage of dogmatism makes it so tricky, so difficult to settle on good answers while being open to better ones. It’s easier not to want better, to settle for the answer we have, to stay out of the ocean where all those dangerous possibilities lurk. Dogmatic is easier, gets things done, even if it’s the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place, based on the wrong ideas and the wrong skills. Dogmatic still gets things done. It even seems like progress for a sweet, deluded while.

If we join some institution, any institution, then we adopt certain verbal behaviour in order to be understood, to speak the language, be accepted, be one of the crowd, get on, make the best of our abilities, avoid the raised eyebrow. So do institutions expect and require us to be dogmatic, to hone our dogmatic abilities? Of course they do. You know it, I know it, they know it.

As we adapt we either notice ourselves adapting or we don’t. We don’t have to see ourselves adapt, watch ourselves become dogmatic. We don’t have to be so aware, so introspective, so divided within ourselves. Dogmatic is easier – always so fatally easy, so seductive, so rewarding. A path of least resistance strewn with roses.

Too soon it’s too late. We didn’t keep anything back so we have nothing left, nothing to tell us what’s wrong, no way to describe our own dogmatic behaviour without simply saying again what we always say anyway. Dogmatic behaviour, addictive behaviour with no way to describe our thoughts from the outside, from the time before, before we adapted, became addicted so completely, so disastrously well.

It’s why people become stupid, why intelligence isn’t real, giving no protection against the fatal lure to adapt to conform, to agree, to reach a reliable, comforting, wrong, pointless but suitably circular consensus. Stay out of the ocean we are told - it bites.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Spinoza on fiction

I like the way this quote meshes with modern political ideas of controlling the narrative. Spinoza is saying that the more we understand the natural world, the less liable we are to be deceived by fictions or myths. Fact or fiction, the eternal human dichotomy, go with the narrative or strike out on your own.

Spinoza's analysis of fiction may be obvious enough now, yet fiction is still subtly important to our societies, to political narratives, the way we do business, the control we seek to exert over others and even over ourselves. Fiction in lieu of analysis - easier, more compelling and politically indispensable. It won't go away any time soon.  

Let us now pass on to fictions which concern essences alone, or with some reality or existence at the same time. Concerning these the principal point to be considered is that the less the mind understands and nevertheless perceives more, the greater will be its power of feigning, and the more it understands, the lesser will be its power. E.g., in the same manner in which we saw above that we cannot feign while we think that we think or do not think, thus also, as soon as we know the nature of body we cannot feign an infinite fly, or as soon as we know the nature of the mind we cannot feign that it is square, although anything may be expressed in words. But as we said, the less men know of nature, the more easily they can feign things; just as that trees speak, that men are turned in a moment into stones, that ghosts appear in mirrors, that of nothing something is made, that the Gods themselves are changed into men and beasts, and infinite other things of this kind.

Benedict Spinoza - On the correction of the understanding – Boyle translation

Sunday, 18 September 2011

A forgotten Bormann rumour

Martin Bormann

Another of my father’s wartime tales is a little uncertain as to details. He didn’t tell this story for many decades and by the time he did feel able to tell it, he’d forgotten some of the details.

In 1946 (probably) Dad, was in Portsmouth. He was still in the Royal Navy even though the war in Europe was over. He was aboard an aircraft-carrier but couldn’t remember the name. He served on quite a few ships during his service days and by the time he related this incident, he’d forgotten most of their names.

One day the aircraft-carrier was ordered to sail to Gibralter, although the destination was kept secret from the crew until they actually arrived. The ship sailed without any escort ships, which was unusual according to Dad, even though hostilities had ceased.

Shortly after arrival at Gibralter, a group of men appeared on the quay, surrounding another man in the centre of the group. Dad classed them as ‘secret service types’, although how he knew that I’m not sure. The man in the centre of the group wore a long coat and was obviously being escorted to the ship.

Once the party had boarded the ship, it sailed straight back to Portsmouth where the mysterious group disembarked in the direction of waiting cars on the quay. The rumour going round the ship was that the man being escorted was Martin Bormann, but obviously this was never confirmed. Whoever he was, he was high-ranking enough to be ferried by aircraft-carrier from Gibralter. Another detail Dad added was that neither the sailing nor the return of the aircraft-carrier was reported in the local Portsmouth papers. That was unusual too.

Friday, 16 September 2011

On Going To A Tavern

These days, continually fuddled with drink,
I fail to satisfy the appetites of the soul.
But seeing men all behaving like drunkards,
How can I alone remain sober? *

Wang Chi (circa A.D. 700)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley.

* Written during the war which preceded the T'ang dynasty.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Another story my father told me about his wartime experiences in Kenya concerned the camp dog. The naval camp where he was based for a while was a few miles from the Kenyan coast. It was lion country, so the camp was surrounded by a simple trip-wire to discourage animals from wandering in.

One morning my Dad was walking near the camp perimeter and the camp dog came up to him. Dad was fond of  dogs all his life, so he knew the dog quite well. Suddenly the dog went up to the trip-wire, sniffed it then immediately ran at full speed back into the centre of the camp howling its head off.

Dad took a look at the wire and noticed a tuft of tawny fur caught on it - lion fur presumably. Yet the dog had never seen a lion. Apart from the tuft of fur, lions hadn't been known to approach the camp. So how did the dog know a little tuft of lion fur could be such bad news?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Johnson on self-importance

He that overvalues himself will undervalue others, and he that undervalues others will oppress them.

Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

This is one of my favourite Johnson quotes. It encapsulates the problems of leadership, political systems and the inevitable human weakness of all hierarchies. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bangs, flames and doubtful claims

In my chemistry-set days my main interests were discovering the most exciting explosive mixtures and finding out what gave the most violent and lurid flames when ignited. I made gunpowder of course, who hasn’t? But I also made mixtures of my own, usually with a good pinch of iron filings to get plenty of crackling red-hot sparks, plus magnesium for combustion ferocity. Most of my mixtures produced choking clouds of sulphur dioxide which meant I often had to vacate my laboratory (shed) until the atmosphere had cleared. 

Another thing I made was nitrogen triiodide from ammonia and iodine, which as you may know is easily made and highly explosive, being very sensitive to shock. As soon as it dries out it is liable to go off with a satisfying bang and a purplish puff of iodine vapour.

I also remember comparing notes on these home experiments with a lad at school. He also conducted a range of fiery experiments at home, but one day he went a step further than I’d ever contemplated – he claimed to have made nitroglycerine.

Now nitroglycerine is easy enough to make in principle if you have the chemicals, but to make it at home without serious mishap is not quite so easy without special reaction vessels and a reliable cooling system. Very dangerous otherwise. 

To an enthusiast, the dangers and difficulties were all pretty obvious so I immediately had my doubts about his claim. He was a bit of a nutter, but surely he didn't have the resources to go that far? Somehow it put a damper on our mutual enthusiasm and I still don’t know if he actually did make nitroglycerine. As a youngster I doubted it - as an adult I'm pretty sure he didn't.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Reduced to their quintessence

From Wikipedia

Another favourite quote from the Spectator, this time complaining of essays padded out into books. One more issue we haven't resolved during the intervening 300 years.

Were all Books reduced thus to their Quintessence, many a bulky Author would make his Appearance in a Penny Paper: There would be scarce such a thing in Nature as a Folio: The Works of an Age would be contained on a few Shelves; not to mention Millions of Volumes that would be utterly annihilated.

The Spectator. July 23rd 1711

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Bennett on youth

Sometimes I wonder about progress. This was written over 80 years ago...

Today youth is discontented. So it ought to be. The business and privilege of youth is to be discontented. If youth were not discontented, today or any other day, the outlook for Britain would be worse than it in fact is. Only the old have a certain limited right to be content. Content means going back, for nobody can stand still; whereas discontent is the mother of progress. Therefore, let youth be discontented. But it is said that today youth has special reasons for discontent. It has. And the first and chief of them is that to some extent it is compelled to be idle.

There are many young people today who, from no fault of theirs, have never worked and who have been trained to no trade or vocation.

Arnold Bennett - The Savour of Life - published in 1928

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Walking again

Off walking in the Quantocks and Brendon hills soon. Light blogging for a while.

Open prison

A story my father told about his wartime experiences was a small incident during the time he spent in Kenya. He served in the Royal Navy during the second world war and for some reason the War Office had decided they needed Naval personnel in Kenya. Dad was never quite sure why.

Anyway, the base where he was stationed was a few miles inland from the Kenyan coast and for a short time they had a prisoner in the camp. Dad never knew why the guy was detained. He can’t have been viewed as dangerous because he was allowed to roam around the camp with almost complete freedom.

One day, the prisoner went up to the camp commander and asked him the obvious question.

‘What’s to stop me walking off down that road?’ he said, pointing to the dirt road linking the camp with the Kenyan coast.

‘Nothing,’ said the commander. He paused for a while and glanced down the road before adding, ‘apart from the lions.’

Friday, 9 September 2011

Electing a new stooge

When we elect new stooges to Parliament, the basic problem is working out who on earth you are choosing. None of them seem trustworthy and experience suggests they are likely to be dim too. It isn't an easy situation standing there in that flimsy booth, pencil in hand. Okay they give themselves brand names such as Conservative, Labour or Lib-Thing, but what’s that supposed to mean? A stooge is a stooge so the best we can hope for is one with a modicum of analytical ability and independent thinking...

Wait for hollow laughter to die down before carrying on.

Actually, before I do carry on, it's quite baffling this politics game isn’t it? I've no wish to be excessively unkind, but we all know how hopeless they are and what lies they tell such as the weather is going to boil our heads unless we pay mountains of subsidies to people who operate windmills and so forth. It’s not as if one can really say anything constructive about insane stuff like that is it? Then we have the Euro nonsense falling apart just as everyone said it would apart from the EU stooges who said it wouldn't.

Anyway, back to the business of stooge-selection, or voting as it’s often called for some reason that entirely escapes me. Now I can’t possibly tell you who is the best person to stick your cross against or which brand of stoogedom is the right brand for a rosy future free from worry or fatigue. It’s like trying to tell the difference between dog shit and cat shit isn’t it? Unrewarding and frankly – a little demeaning.

When it comes down to it, my only angle on this game is to try and work out who really pulls the strings. Mostly it seems to be the top dogs at Conservative, Labour or Lib-Thing. Find out who pulls their strings and maybe we’re onto something. Of course the answer is anyone but you and me, but there you go, can’t have everything.

Thursday, 8 September 2011


We own a very small caravan which we mainly use to tow round busy roads annoying viewers of Top Gear. A secondary use is a base for walking holidays. It’s light and easy to tow with low wind-resistance - economical on the mpg in other words.

A thing I often ponder on when we're away in the van is the amount of living-space we actually need compared to what we've been conditioned to expect for a bricks and mortar house. As I say, our caravan is small, about twelve feet by just under seven feet internally – say 80 square feet. Okay we have an awning for muddy walking-boots and wet clothes if we’ve been caught out in the rain, but in the van we have seating which converts to a double bed, a dining table, cooking facilities, fridge and toilet. We rely on campsite showers for sluicing off.

So we can live quite comfortably in a space less than a tenth of the floor-area at home – probably quite a bit less. Okay we don’t have a washing machine, freezer and shower in the van, but even if we allow for these extras, our house must have way over five times the floor-area of the total caravan living-space of van, awning, car and campsite shower facilities.

Another advantage of the van is how easy it is to heat and how quickly it warms up. A few hundred watts will keep it warm even with snow on the ground.

I’m not suggesting we should all go and live in caravans, but I find it interesting and illuminating to poke around such ideas, uncovering my habits and assumptions. We are able to live for weeks in the van in complete comfort. Desirable living-space is powerfully linked to social status of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think out of the box if you’ll excuse the pun. Things could surely be different - maybe even better given a bit of imagination.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Complexity and cliques

From Wikipedia

Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use. No faith in anything of that cheap kind!
William James – Pragmatism

I've posted before, here and here on complexity, mostly because of the profound effect it has on our lives. Complexity is closely linked to conspiracy in the way it allows cliques to evolve and prosper, gives them barriers to entry behind which they hide and dig little burrows wherein to nurture their claims and their aims.

Take computer models for example. Many people must have little or no knowledge of computer models, so scientific cliques use them as a handy way to promote their interests and those of their paymasters. In many ways, computer models are the modern equivalent of the chained library, a way of controlling who knows what. It was the same with municipal libraries of course - or they wouldn't have been funded.

As a well-known example, we could take the Met Office and it's gargantuan appetite for ever more computing power to run the hugely complex models which generate its widely ridiculed predictions. This is what was claimed back in 2008.

John Hirst, Met Office Chief Executive: "In a world where the effect of extreme weather events is becoming more severe and the potential impact of global warming is becoming ever more apparent, the Met Office plays an increasingly vital role in researching and forecasting these events. The new supercomputer is an important step in delivering our strategic targets."

This absurd claim and many others made by senior employees is a useful reminder of what the Met Office was doing to us back in 2008 before Climategate, and how little it has changed since. Their new supercomputer promotes the interests of the clique by taking its computing resources well beyond the reach of anyone else interested in the subject but not funded by government.

Firstly they maintain an important barrier to entry for a key promotional aspect of climate science. As computing power becomes cheaper, the models have to become equivalently more complex in order to keep them above and beyond the vulgar gaze.

Secondly models increase the complexity of climate science simply because that is their function - to make sure that any challenge is a technically complex task, well beyond the capabilities of decision-makers or their advisers, including scientific advisers. The models are our chained books where accessibility is the key.

It's also worth noticing that clique members do not have to be aware that they are part of  a self-promoting clique. It is not a condition of membership that they should be analytically-minded. In fact the clique works better if most members have only limited self-awareness.

How do I know? Observation - it's how cliques operate. It's data - the freely available kind not owned or promoted by cliques.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Rain and climate

From The Chiefio - a fascinating analysis of how precipitation must be a major uncertainty in the assumptions behind climate change models.

Rarity isn't everything

One of my old hobbies was collecting antique china, or porcelain as it's usually called in collecting circles. I don't know why I took it up, it just happened for some reason.

Anyway, I came to know quite a bit about the subject and together with my better half spent a lot of time hunting around antique fairs, junk shops or whatever. One day I came across the saucer dish pictured above. These shallow, straight-sided, flat-bottomed dishes were fashionable during the 1830s, possibly running into the 1840s. Nobody seems quite sure what they were used for even though they must have been very popular because loads have survived. Maybe they were soup dishes.

The dish I discovered isn't at all unusual apart from the mark on the back - the letters TE in a fancy border. Even when I first took a look at the thing, I knew I hadn't seen the mark before and was pretty sure it was a rarity. Often these dishes aren't marked at all or they have fake Chinese marks. Yes that's right - fake Chinese marks because China is the home of porcelain.

Anyway, I bought the thing for (I think) £4 and when I got it home I found that TE wasn't in the standard book of marks. Maybe it still isn't - I haven't looked recently. A bit of investigation and an opinion from an acknowledged national expert strongly indicated that this dish is a piece of Thomas Ellis porcelain. Thomas Ellis is recorded as a china-manufacturer in Longton, Staffordshire from about 1830 to 1835, so the mark fits well with this attribution.

The interesting thing for me was that there were no other recorded examples of Thomas Ellis porcelain. It was a unique piece - and possibly still is. All very satisfactory for a collector apart from one thing - as a piece of antique porcelain the quality is  crap. Too good for Oliver Twist's workhouse gruel, but that's the biggest lift you can give it.

The pattern is known as the Brosely pattern, a forerunner of Willow Pattern. This is a printed pattern and it is obvious that Thomas used second-hand printing plates because the pattern is decidedly blurred. It is very pale too, so Thomas was on a tight budget and had to be stingy with the cobalt. The stilt-marks where the dish rested on fire-clay supports during firing are also clearly visible - on the 'decorative' side at that.

So what's it worth?

Well obviously there are no collectors of Thomas Ellis porcelain apart from me and there are no collectors of crappy-quality antique porcelain either. No supply and no demand in other words. Poor old Thomas - it's a curio, worth very little. I still like it though, partly because there must be a story behind Thomas Ellis and his doomed enterprise and partly because it may be crappy but it is super-rare and I found it.    

Monday, 5 September 2011

John Stuart Mill

One hesitates to quote from John Stuart Mill's magnificent essay On Liberty because it is so well-known, but sometimes these things bear repeating. From dietary salt to climate change to the supposed effects of passive smoking, modern authoritarians frequently seek to sidestep Mill's unanswerable words by inventing harm done to third parties. Oppressive legislation is enacted not just for our own good, but more significantly for the good of others. The number of possible examples is vast, but a few reminders are:-

CO2. A whole range of oppressive measures are justified by the supposed effect of CO2 on others via imaginary changes to the global climate. UK Vehicle Excise Duty on cars is just one where spurious effects on third parties are used to justify oppressing huge numbers of blameless individuals.

Salt. Manufacturers are coerced into reducing salt in food because of the supposed harm it does to an unspecified group of people who consume the products but cannot tell how salty they are.

Smoking. A vicious series of oppressive measures taken against smokers are justified by wildly exaggerating the effect of passive smoking on third parties. The term passive smoking was itself invented to embed the exaggeration into our language.

Alcohol. A number of authoritarian bodies are working towards much more oppressive regulation of our drinking habits by exaggeration and by highlighting the harm inflicted on others, in this case  a minority of problem drinkers.

It is worth reminding ourselves why authoritarians do this - how they widen the net by concocting scenarios where third parties are supposedly harmed by otherwise private actions, scenarios almost always backed by fraudulent science. It is to sidestep the wisdom of Mill's famous essay.

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Arrested development

Some things are so obvious we don't often raise them publicly in case the mere act of raising something so obvious suggests we are not aware of the facts of life. I'm thinking of those things we have to put up with even though they clearly shouldn't be happening, but are so ingrained we don't often make much of a fuss about them. Embarrassing stuff.

Here in the UK, a really embarrassing issue is the infantile nature of political language. In a democracy, we should know the government's view on a range of important political issues. When a minister speaks we should understand what is being said. The minister should speak unambiguously, adult to adults. When we elect a new government, there should be no surprises unless unforeseen events supervene. We should have clarity and transparent dealing from our ministers whether we agree with their policies or not.

It isn't like that is it? Ministerial speeches and interviews are analysed, criticized and subjected to all kinds of interpretation by largely useless professional pundits, but the profoundly infantile nature of ministerial language is rarely acknowledged. Yet evasion, equivocation and obvious lies are what we were supposed to grow out of as children. Adults who reach the dizzy heights of a ministerial position should not, as a matter of routine, resort to kindergarten evasions and dissimulation.

Yet they do it all the time - kindergarten language is exactly what they employ. Maybe with a sprinkling of a few grown-up words, but grown-up content - we almost never get that. The advantage to politicians is obvious. You can't make a child use adult language and as long as it remains the norm, we can't make our government ministers use adult language either. Try it, and as with children you get more evasion.

We don't have grown-up political dialogue with our political leaders do we? Pundits may pretend to pick over the content as much as they like, but the public utterances of our political masters are childishly evasive and immature. Like Peter Pan, they seem unable or unwilling to speak to us adult to adults.

What's wrong with these people?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Wordplay - move

From Wikipedia

Samuel Johnson's dictionary 3rd edition published in 1766 defines 'move' as:-

To MOVE, v, n.
1. To go from one place to another.
2. To walk ; to bear the body.
3. To go forward.
4. To change the posture of the body in ceremony.

Movement is what the universe is all about - from Newton's laws of motion to the theory of relativity to quantum theory. Instead of cogito ergo sum, Descartes could well have opined moveor ergo sum - I move therefore I am. Maybe that wasn't philosophical enough for him, yet movement is more fundamental than thinking as Descartes really should have known. It's all about change - to change is to move, to move anything is to change something.

There is more to moving than simple physical movement of course, there is a complex social aspect too where movement and change fuse into one. We all have our own moves to make in the great game of life, taking this path or that, making this change or that. Movement is a compulsory fact of life. To die is to have no moves left in the locker, not even the faintest expression of regret.

So looking back on our lives to date, how many of us think we made the right moves? Would we play them differently if allowed to play the game again, especially now we've had a better look at the book of rules? Because that's what life is all about isn't it? Winners and losers, good moves and bad moves, moves made from habit, moves we've learned too well, moves that no longer work as well as they once seemed to.

Is there time to work out some better moves, or does the whole game slowly slip from our grasp? Like a Victorian automaton, do we keep playing the same moves over and over because we have nothing better?

Are most of the real moves made by others? Is the state looking over our shoulder, moving for us, fiddling with the rules - the compulsive kibitzing of the micro-manager?  Or is it time to stop thinking and just get on with the game before it's too late? Before the Last Move - the final checkmate.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Poisonous pullover

Many years ago I read a short story, only one aspect of which stuck in my mind - everything else I've forgotten.

It was a murder story where the victim was poisoned with cyanide. Nothing unusual about that of course, but the poisoner made the cyanide from raw sheep's wool and caustic soda. I'm sometimes reminded of it when out walking and see bits of sheep's wool caught on barbed wire or a hawthorn bush.

As I recall it, the poisoner heated the wool with the caustic soda in a cast-iron crucible, but I don't remember if there were any further details. Maybe that was as much chemistry as the writer had imbibed or cared to pass on. You probably could make cyanide this way. Sheep's wool, like human hair, is a form of protein with lots of nitrogen and carbon, the two elements comprising cyanide (CN) ions. But extracting sodium cyanide from the horrible mess left behind after heating raw wool with caustic soda - well I can't see that being a simple problem outside a laboratory.

I always thought the writer would have been better off inventing a poisoner who, if he really had to make his own cyanide, would at least make it from clean wool. An old pullover for example, or a cardigan. Real wool of course. He could even have had his poisoner nick the victim's pullover, turn it into cyanide and poison him with it. Poisoned with your own pullover - now that's what I call a short story plot.
The Fair Isle Poisoner.  

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Land of the rising scum

Most members of the UK political elite are best described as lying scum. Maybe that's not very kind and I suppose we must expect one or two inveterate liars among our political class anyway - as statistical anomalies. But when truth-tellers are the statistical anomalies then surely we have a problem.

And if the lying isn’t bad enough, their furtive attitude to personal expenses showed them to be on average, more dishonest and untrustworthy, more wedded to their own ghastly comforts than the electorate they supposedly represent. So they trash our democracy, lie through their teeth and don't like their expenses to be monitored too closely. Well fallible is okay I suppose - but there's fallible and fallible isn't there?

So the political elite have a rather obvious behaviour problem. It isn't our behaviour that needs modifying - it's theirs - and it's embarrassing. 

Wannabe members of the political elite seem to arrive on the scene with nothing more than an ego the size of a bus - as it that's all the baggage they need. All they seem to know is that their party is eternally right and the other lot are fair game whether their policies have any value or not. They never seem to think of listening to ordinary folk who after all, have nothing to offer but their sanity anyway.

But at least normal people know the right answer is worth infinitely more than vicious, logic-chopping cant -  always hitting low, always untruthful, always badmouthing the other lot. It really is tiresome.

It is our colossal misfortune that politics doesn’t attract the analytically-minded, the doubters, those to whom the right answers are the only answers. It attracts the ambitious egotistical loons, the self-promoters, those to whom the party consensus is gospel and fidelity is something to do with music systems. These lightweight windbags rise to the top because we have an unsolved problem with the behaviour of our political elite. We have yet to deal with it, to drag it back towards common decency, mould it into some kind of democratic accountability. The loons and the liars have to go.

The behaviour of the political classes is the real and only problem we have, all the rest is trivia. Their silly political games with their absurd, compulsive need to suppress dissent however constructive. They crawl on their bellies to the EU in the most undignified manner. They lend their ears to the most grasping and venal vested-interests and seem to like nothing better than to spout sanctimonious nonsense whenever they think we might possibly be listening. As if we ever would.

Like feeble-minded children they lust after awful third-rate celebrities in their infantile willingness to claim credit for things they haven’t done and never will do because they haven’t the talent of an amoeba.

What we can do is very little as far as I can see, apart from telling it as it is at every opportunity. Maybe we can try voting for the person rather than the party while still laughing out loud at their juvenile games. Most of us already  avoid   their dreadful lying antics on the state telly channel which still has the witless gall to call itself the British Broadcasting Corporation, in its way the most sordid tale of all.