Wednesday 30 November 2011

Monboddo v consensus

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714 – 1799) was an eighteenth century oddity in a century of oddities. A Scottish judge and linguistic scholar, he also propounded ideas of human development which were very much like an early form of evolutionary theory. He was widely ridiculed for this departure from consensus by among many others, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.

Decades later, even Charles Dickens poked a stick at the memory of Monboddo in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Fifteen years after Chuzzlewit, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published and the consensus Johnson, Boswell and Dickens supported was left behind.

Yet Johnson and Dickens are still well-known, and in the case of Dickens, still famous, while Monboddo is much less widely known.

He [Samuel Johnson] attacked Lord Monboddo’s strange speculation on the primitive state of human nature, observing : “Sir, it is all conjecture about a thing useless, even were it known to be true. Knowledge of all kinds is good. Conjecture as to things useful is good; but conjecture as to what it would be useless to know, such as whether men went upon all four, is very idle.”
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson – published 1791 may be safely asserted, and yet without implying any direct participation in the Monboddo doctrine touching the probability of the human race having once been monkeys, that men do play very strange and extraordinary tricks.
Charles Dickens – Martin Chuzzlewit serialized 1843 -1844

Tuesday 29 November 2011


House sparrow - from Wikipedia

He had a tender heart, too; for, when he had a good commission to provide three or four score sparrows for a shooting-match, he would observe, in a compassionate tone, how singular it was that sparrows should have been made expressly for such purposes. The question whether men were made to shoot them, never entered into Poll’s philosophy.
Charles Dickens – Martin Chuzzlewit.

This Dickens quote from Martin Chuzzlewit seems to be a casual reference to a Victorian sport of shooting sparrows. The speaker is Poll Sweedlepipe, a dealer in cage birds. It’s not something I’ve come across before, yet the tone of the quote suggests Dickens’ readers would all be familiar with shooting sparrows for sport, even if they did not do it themselves.

About fifty years ago, a great uncle of mine spoke of eating sparrows as a child because his family were so poor. The time would be round about 1900 I suppose - decades after Dickens of course, but I sometimes wonder if there is a connection. Sparrow-shooting doesn’t sound like a rich person’s sport does it?

Wordplay - pedantry

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

Awkward ostentation of needless learning.

I like the neatness of Johnson's definition, but pedantry is also one of life’s many tactics, a way of attacking change, of closing down other possibilities beyond the status quo. It is a way of being right without really trying, a way of analysing without contributing, a way to harass without having to engage.

But perhaps it is also a way of avoiding errors, going back to what we know rather than wandering off into a desert of colourful but sterile possibilities. As with many of life’s tactics, pedantry has two edges – constructive and destructive. Which is the most common though?

Monday 28 November 2011

Bribery culture

Sir Robert Walpole - from Wikipedia

Often we have to use certain words and phrases simply because they are in common use and we must make the best of them if we wish to be understood.

When we speak of modern government and the way it uses the power of our money to get its way, we are often speaking of a form of bribery, even though bribery isn’t the word we commonly see in the media. Funding is a far more common word. Even investment is pressed into service.

Of course those in power have always used bribery in one way or another. Sir Robert Walpole was widely suspected of using bribery to retain power, which is scarcely surprising as the electoral system was effectively based on bribery anyway.

However, we have to move on to modern times to see the full flowering of government by bribery. The whole state has become a gargantuan machine for the distribution of largesse as its primary tool for wielding influence. Laws and regulations have their place too of course, but bribery is the big one. Yet today we tend not to use the word bribery in this context, unlike Sir Robert Walpole’s day when language was often more direct than our peculiarly genteel age.

Now we have massive, super-complex networks of back-scratching, favour-trading and the indirect sale of sinecures conducted away from the common view. So involved and extensive is this kind of subtle bidirectional bribery that most of it goes unnoticed. After all, life has to be lived.

Okay, let’s take a concrete example to set the scene. NHS doctors are paid huge salaries not to rock the healthcare boat and point out its deficiencies. In return they get a medical practice where their medical skills and rapport with their patients are of no real significance. That could be usefully described as bribery. Why usefully? Because the word bribery brings out an aspect of the situation which should not be left to lie fallow.

How about passive smoking and other health issues? Of course that’s an easy one. The state creates fake charities bribed by their very nature to churn out policy-based evidence where an evidence-based policy isn’t on the table.

Academia is another, more subtle and diffuse example of widespread bribery. Key official interests such as diversity and equality pervade academia such that academics who embrace official political norms are more likely to thrive than those who don’t. However, this is a murky and complex area because there are exceptions, but there is still good reason to think that numerous academics have effectively been bribed with their own careers. Climate science is the obvious example.

Parents and children. This is another obvious one. Increase exam pass-rates, increase the number of university degrees and you bribe millions with their own education and the education of their children. What’s the return? A contribution to passive stability which is what modern government is all about.

How about a more complex one to lob into the mix? Consumer culture is little more than Juvenal’s bread and circuses – bribe the citizens to get on with their own little lives. The modern twist is to promote everything as an aspect of consumption from lifestyles to careers to relationships. 

From consumer culture we get a politically isolated life with its ersatz excitements, so the state maintains its grip on entertained and largely uncaring citizens. Uncaring but not unaware because that’s the real essence of bribery – both parties commit to it Bribery has become endemic because too many of us look the other way. Make bribery pervasive enough and it becomes a culture.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Accumulating small gains

The big problem with trying to promote any kind of social change is that you have to carry the day against vested interests. In other words you have to be bigger than they are in some significant sense. If you aren’t bigger than they are, it isn’t going to happen via a trial of strength.

Sometimes worth pointing out I think.

So where does that leave us? Well obviously we don't give up because there is another approach - trends. Vested interests can't fully understand or control trends because they are too complex - outputs are not unambiguously related to inputs. It's one of life’s unacknowledged blessings.

The hugely desirable principles of transparency and free-speech are precious precisely because they expose and highlight the activities of vested interests. They tend to shift social trends ever so slightly in our favour – "our" being the citizens. Simply telling it as it is may be of microscopic significance in the grand scheme of things, but is never wholly insignificant.

Tell the liar he is lying and he may well continue to lie, but something has changed, something is out in the open and the liar has to adapt. Climate scientists are a good example. Once the liar knows you think he/she is lying, then his/her lies have to change. So global warming becomes climate change.

Remember the Butterfly Effect? It's this that vested interests cannot account for - the tiny causes with a big effect. That's why every push may be a worthwhile push, whether we see the evidence for it or not. 

Not much to go on I know, but the accumulation of tiny, almost invisible gains is the best we can hope for. In the longer term it can be a powerful strategy as any chess-player knows.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Unvisited tombs

Another quote from the pen of George Eliot which always reminds me of the debts we owe to forgotten people. Moral debts that is - not those financial debts incurred by incompetent governments.

Eliot's quote is about those who simply spent their lives getting on with things, doing what they could, what they saw as the best thing to do. There are still many people like that, in spite of decades of malign and spiteful meddling in every aspect of our lives.

Her words seem particularly apt during a time of unease about mounting political tensions in Europe, especially as we have recently remembered those who gave everything to secure our freedom.

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

George Eliot – Middlemarch

Friday 25 November 2011

Those Climategate 2 emails

This is just part of the README.TXT file from the Climategate 2 email tranche. A searchable database is

<3111> Watson/UEA:
I'd agree probably 10 years away to go from weather forecasting to ~ annual scale. But the "big climate picture" includes ocean feedbacks on all time scales, carbon and other elemental cycles, etc. and it has to be several decades before that is sorted out I would think. So I would guess that it will not be models or theory, but observation that will provide the answer to the question of how the climate will change in many decades time.

<5131> Shukla/IGES:
["Future of the IPCC", 2008] It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make million-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.

0850> Barnett:
[IPCC AR5 models] clearly, some tuning or very good luck involved. I doubt the modelling world will be able to get away with this much longer.

<4443> Jones:
Basic problem is that all models are wrong - not got enough middle and low level clouds.

<2440> Jones:
I've been told that IPCC is above national FOI Acts. One way to cover yourself and all those working in AR5 would be to delete all emails at the end of the process.

 My reaction the Climategate2 has varied from fascinated interest to a kind of weary acceptance that we are stuck with the tenth-rate scientists who do these things and the only option we have is to keep telling it as it is. 

Yet the question arises – why was climate science so easy to subvert? Because that’s what has happened – climate science has been subverted by senior UN bureaucrats. In a sense I know these people because I was a professional environmental scientist. I have seen people like this at first hand, well-meaning, well-qualified middle-class scientists without an ounce of talent.

I’ve sat with them in meetings, tried to persuade them to introduce efficiencies, to do what is worthwhile rather than what we’ve been doing for decades. After years of wasted effort, I know to the marrow of my bones that it’s a complete waste of time. You cannot get such people to venture a single millimetre beyond their comfort zone if they don’t have to. And they don’t have to, not with institutions like the BBC protecting them. And why wouldn’t the BBC protect climate scientists? Same species – same motives.

Intelligence doesn’t come into it. What matters is the consensus to which they cling like limpets. Consensus means their private consensus – it always did. They aren’t evil people, but their status and comfortable situation has made them profoundly stupid, almost childlike, unable to distinguish right from wrong, rational from irrational, science from politics.

The Climategate 2 emails show that some climate scientists are well aware that what they are doing is wrong, that climate models don’t work and the public is being lied to over and over again about the degree of certainty behind the official UN narrative. Yet they clearly lack the courage to say so beyond the odd furtive comment. They should be resigning in droves, but won’t.

They are easily manipulated by modest status, by an office, a title, receptive students, by the ease with which poor quality research is published and cited. They are entirely satisfied, not with good science, but with well-attended lectures, idealistic students, interviews, foreign travel and meetings with ministers and senior bureaucrats. They are easily manipulated by their peers into an incestuous circle of back-slapping approval.

They aren’t evil people – just stupid and childlike in their vicious reactions to those who dare point out their self-serving lies.

The Character Of A Happy Life

Sir Henry Wotton

How happy is he born or taught,
That serveth not another's will;
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And simple truth his highest skill;

Whose passions not his masters are;
Whose soul is still prepar'd for death
Untied unto the world with care
Of princes' grace or vulgar breath;

Who envies none whom chance doth raise,
Or vice; who never understood
The deepest wounds are given by praise,
By rule of state, but not of good;

Who hath his life from rumours freed;
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
Nor ruins make accusers great;

Who God doth late and early pray,
More of his grace than goods to send,
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend.

This man is free from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands;
And having nothing, yet hath all.

Sir Henry Wotton (1568 - 1639)

Who also said "Tell the truth and so puzzle and confound your adversaries."

Thursday 24 November 2011


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A trillion years from now

Imagine how things might be a trillion years from now. That’s about seventy times the current age of the universe (about 13.75 billion years), so I'd guess there will have been a few changes. No EU, no politics, no celebrities, no climate science, no Christmas shopping and no dog shit on the pavements. But I digress.

Of course our sun will be long gone and so will the Solar System. The sun may become a red giant and engulf the Earth with some genuine global warming - or it may not, we don’t know.  

Our entire galaxy may collide with the Andromeda galaxy in three to five billion years time, so there is more than one possible fate lying in wait for our little Solar System.

What about us? Will we be remembered in a trillion years time? Well I don’t know about your ego, but mine says we won’t. So what will be left of us?

The obvious answer is nothing – but do we mean nothing at all? I’d say yes to that question. In a trillion years time there will not be the slightest trace of our existence. Not a single proton, neutron or electron, not a single quantum of radiation will tell the smallest hint of our story. Every last quantum of it will be gone.

The universe will change to such an extent that our onetime existence here on dear old Earth is no longer even a fragment of data. Data and laws - we are the data, not the laws. In the end, all data is deleted, so the time will come when we never existed.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Overheard conversation

Overheard conversation among staff at an antiques centre: apparently somebody had been urinating in the stock. Urine had been found in some antique cups, vases and anything else suitable for a bit of bladder-emptying.

Actually a fair bit of the stock was of piss-poor quality, surely there are other ways to say so? I mean it's such an oblique comment isn't it? Not to mention risky.

The fading mystique of leadership

There is a whiff of decay oozing from our leaders these days. Not too long ago, human belief was entirely dominated by the ruling elite, and in a diluted form this grey old game still goes on. Still we mould our lives around the crumbling mystique of leadership – abnormally competitive men and women driven by a compulsive faith in their own destiny. 

They seem desperate to achieve something grand don't they? Needing to satisfy the demands of some personal demon, they relish and esteem the flaking pomp and props of office, unwisely basking in the dusty mystique of leadership. But we lesser mortals seem to be losing interest in this hoary old game. We are growing away from it just at the point where the current lot are trying to go global. 

As the mystique crumbles, the vitality of the game seeps away. Even the idea of leadership has a flavour of something quaintly self-serving and no longer quite the decent thing. Something to do with grand ideas and mighty deeds - something not quite in tune with modern life. 

So how do we finally get them to piss off so we can move on?

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Climategate 2

Anyone interested in climate change will be aware of this already, but a second tranche of damaging emails seems to have been released anonymously as with the original Climategate two years ago. The proximity of upcoming COP17 jamboree in Durban is hardly likely to be a coincidence.

I've been checking all day and early signs suggest the emails are genuine, but this is very much a tentative conclusion.

I first saw the story here this morning.

WUWT is onto it here
and will be an excellent place to go as the story unfolds.

I don't need to say this, but forget the BBC as a source of information - it isn't likely to be reliable and certainly won't be comprehensive.

If it's real , then enjoy the fun !!

Newspeak v Oldspeak

This post is over at OoL.

Monthly horoscope - Sagittarius

Sagittarius (November 22 - December 21)

Magical birthstone  - Rocksalt.
Lucky road            - M25.
Lucky dog             - Baskerville.

Sagittarians are a cheerful lot, good at designing sheds and boomerangs, but I'm afraid there is a less than usual to be cheerful about this month. There are a few highlights for the astronauts among you and fitness receives a boost too, but otherwise not much to cheer you up as the horrors of Christmas loom.

I suppose the first thing to mention is the sewage fountain next Saturday afternoon, the DIY job you won't forget for quite a while. How you intend to deal with it I don't know, but super-absorbent kitchen towels won't hack it. I suppose there's no chance of moving house before then?

Anyway moving on to the antics of Neptune and Krypton, because I do have some interesting news about your plan to start up in opposition to the Royal Mint. Apparently it isn't actually legal to print your own money on an inkjet printer - the ink runs and there are various other difficulties which suggest to me that you might like to reconsider. Bit of a bummer though, isn't it?

Next Tuesday Princess Anne calls round to ask if you've seen anything of Charles lately. She may be mistaking you for someone else of course, but the stars suggest you shouldn't let on. You'll find her a little scary, so a few stiff drinks wouldn't come amiss. She doesn't drink whisky and cola though, so don't offer if you'd rather steer clear of that icy stare.

Christmas presents next. The stars advise you to shop early and stick to anything that comes in a bottle except British Sherry. Petrol is always welcome at the moment. Unfortunately the stars don't see anything interesting for you present-wise, so why not buy your own this year? Get something you really want, but keep it legal eh? We don't want a repeat of last year do we?

Monday 21 November 2011

A unique problem

It seems to me that beyond the technical chic of the twenty-first century lie corrosive doubts about the things we do and why we do them. We should be entering a unique period of human history where freedom and fulfilment ought to be realistic goals for ordinary citizens. But something still saps our human potential – a subtle something not widely recognised in simple words. Doubts crop up in a huge number of questions that we find easy to ask but cannot easily answer. Questions such as…

  • Am I living ethically? 
  • Did I actually choose my lifestyle? 
  • Why do I believe the things I believe? 
  • Can human beings make sense of everything?

In spite of our ever increasing wealth, many of us have a peculiar sense of dissatisfaction. It is not only the violence, political stupidities and human tragedies and the plight of those less fortunate than we are. Appalling things go on in the world but there is also something else, something more elusive that has gone wrong.

There is a powerful sense that life is not as good as we could make it – as if something dark lies within us. We have the freedom to build a lifestyle but don't quite know how to choose one. How many of us have a horrible sneaky suspicion that we never made the best lifestyle decisions? Lifestyle should be linked with belief – yet belief seems to be fragmenting into matters of opinion and points of view. Many seem to get by with a loose point of view not even robust enough to convince their children. 

The obvious cliché is that we all have our own point of view, but your point of view is not a cliché and neither is mine. Everyone has their own point of view because it is the curse and joy of human life that we cannot quite share the same point of view. The same universe touches your mind and mine, but not in precisely the same way. Otherwise we would not be individuals because nothing would set us apart. Minds, it seems, must be unique and therein lies a problem.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Predicting the future

Foretelling the future is a real mug’s game, so here are a dozen of my predictions. It’s not a list to be taken at all seriously because we really can’t predict the future and even trends are elusive – or am I just watering things down for polite society?

For me the main interest lies in how far down the road we are with certain obvious trends and what events are likely to intervene - or not. You decide.

1. Democracy will disappear completely from the EU and most parts of the world except possibly the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Japan.

2. The global aristocracy will become more overt in its activities, its members more recognizable, its privileges enshrined in law. Global aristocrats will have a recognized legal status with immunity from local laws.

3. The UK will cease to exist – it will be relegated to a number of EU regions.

4. The EU will take over all public service broadcasting.

5. Censoring the internet by the EU will be achieved via a steady burden of legal obligations imposed on every ISP who wishes to operate in EU territory. There will be technical ways round it, but nothing legal and nothing available to the ordinary user.

6. Science will become entirely policy-driven. The EU will be forced to steal scientific information from other parts of the world as its own science is relegated to concocting evidence for propaganda purposes.

7. Education will become a function of the EU and it will be illegal for parents to educate their own children. It will also be illegal for an unlicensed teacher to teach anything to anybody.

8. Smoking will become illegal everywhere in the EU.

9. Alcohol will become a more and more serious social problem as people seek some kind of escape from comfortable but wholly unrewarding lives. The state will issue regular health warnings but will turn a blind eye to alcohol problems.

10. Motorcycles will not be allowed on public roads.

11. The use of private cars will gradually be restricted to the wealthy and government employees.

12. Creativity will disappear.

Saturday 19 November 2011

IPCC code

The latest climate nonsense reported by UK state television carefully points to the IPCC as the source of its latest claim that severe weather is set to increase due to warming. As it isn't warming and weather isn't getting more severe, even state television may be wising up. Well you never know he says  - taking a quick look out of the window for porcine aviators.

For many of those who still take note of these fantasies, IPCC is a code meaning exaggerated or untrue.

Interesting to see state television make such prominent use it.


Grandson loves Scooby Doo cartoons. Fast-moving and atmospheric, they have lots of scary but not really scary monsters which always turn out to be a nefarious human wearing some kind of suit or mask.

I remember Scooby Doo from years ago, but it was only when I checked the credits that I realised the original versions go back to the late sixties. Crikey – more than forty years old!

I may be prejudiced of course, in fact I am prejudiced, but to me Scooby Doo is harmless fun for kids and rather better than much of the pap they are expected to watch today. 

A lost ideal

George Eliot

A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly aquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.

George Eliot - Daniel Deronda

Friday 18 November 2011

Compare and contrast

Early dunking

We recently taught grandson one of life's basic lessons - dunking biscuits. The biscuit we selected for training purposes was the ginger nut, possibly the most dunkable of biscuits, but not necessarily the easiest for a beginner. Anyway, as all dunkers know, dunking technique comes down to the three Ds - Dip, Draw and Droppage.

  • Dip - into the tea or other hot beverage.          
  • Draw - from the beverage.
  • Droppage - to be avoided at all costs. 

Even though grandson doesn't drink tea, being only four, he soon learned to dunk very creditably in his grandparent's tea. Initially we were prepared for some droppage from such an early learner, but were pleasantly surprised at how quickly he developed a deft technique.

All in all, very pleasing. A basic but vital life-skill successfully passed on.

Thursday 17 November 2011

New limo for EU officials

This short clips shows the development of a new EU limo based on a Rolls Royce. EU officials will have it available via their normal travel allowance if things go seriously wrong.

Out of strange materials

Nick Clegg
I like this quote from Wilkie Collins - for the way it describes a certain self-centred, casualness. A kind of loose and fashionable attitude to serious matters, made from a position so secure and privileged that nothing is ever likely to topple it or even cause it any undue disturbance.

It was a common predicament with him not to know his own motives, generally from not inquiring into them. There are men who run breathlessly - men who walk cautiously - and men who saunter easily through the journey of life. Valentine belonged to the latter class; and, like the rest of his order, often strayed down a new turning, without being able to realize at the time what purpose it was which first took him that way. Our destinies shape the future for us out of strange materials.

Wilkie Collins - Hide and Seek

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Time travel

Let's try a thought experiment on time travel.

It is a grey and cloudy day. From an upstairs window of her house Alice sees a large, grassy field. Yesterday she saw a woman in a red dress walk through the grass towards the centre of the field. There were no animals or other people in the field - only the woman in the red dress. She carried a brown cotton bag. She stopped in the middle of the field, took a baguette from her bag and dropped it on the grass. Then she walked away without looking back.

Today Alice notices that the baguette had gone. Presumably the birds ate it.

But what really happened to it? Can we go back in time to see if it was eaten by birds? The fate of the bread was not recorded, but there are a few clues and we could make some obvious assumptions. Maybe the baguette was eaten by birds, but for all we know a man in blue shorts cycled across the field on a penny-farthing and picked it up. Or perhaps a fox ran off with it.

Where is the information we need to reconstruct this missing piece of history? Does the information exist somewhere in the present configuration of the universe? It was a cloudy day, so there are no hypothetical images of the field whizzing up into space at the speed of light like the frames of a movie film. 

Does the information exist in that paradoxical place we call the past? Is that a meaningful place it could be? The most likely scenario is that birds pecked away at the baguette until it was all eaten - then they flew away and digested it. But this tiny slice of history has been misplaced because nobody saw it so nobody has first-hand knowledge of the fate of the vanished baguette. 

My personal philosophy leads me to say that the fate of the baguette is lost information which even in principle cannot be reconstituted. The baguette may have met a number of possible fates but possibilities are all they are. If birds ate it, then the baguette will have ended up in an avian digestive tract to be broken down into simpler molecules. Eventually it would emerge as new bird tissue, carbon dioxide and splodges of something else on the ground. 

There is no way to reconstruct the baguette via the tissues and digestive products of unidentified birds which may or may not have eaten it. Even in principle there is no way of distinguishing one excreted carbon dioxide molecule from another. It is not possible that those carbon dioxide molecules could carry with them for all time, their previous baguette-related identity. For me, the universe made an unrecorded change and the history of the grassy field has a baguette-shaped hole in it.

We can't travel back in time. The past has gone forever and information about it will become more and more incomplete. There is nothing to travel back to - the past has holes in it.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

A definite outline for our ignorance

David Cameron

The beginning of an acquaintance whether with persons or things is to get a definite outline for our ignorance...

But a great deal of life goes on without strong passion: myriads of cravats are carefully tied, dinners attended, even speeches made proposing the health of august personages without the zest arising from a strong desire. And a man may make a good appearance in high social position - may be supposed to know the classics, to have his reserves on science, a strong though repressed opinion on politics, and all the sentiments of the English gentleman, at small expense of vital energy. 

Also, he may be obstinate or persistent at the same low rate, and may even show sudden impulses which have a false air of daemonic strength because they seem inexplicable, though perhaps their secret lies merely in the want of regulated channels for the soul to move in - good and sufficient ducts of habit without which our nature easily turns to mere ooze and mud, and at any pressure yields nothing but a spurt or a puddle.

George Eliot - Daniel Deronda

Monday 14 November 2011

But we are not their friends

I've used this model before, the point being to bring out the machine-like nature of societies with our clans and hierarchies. Why for example, do political elites conspire against our interests? It’s because they respond to pressures from vested interests which for them are stronger than counter-pressures available to ordinary citizens. That's all it is - strong v weak. Vested-interests with deep pockets exert pressure on key people and sustain it whoever they may be and whatever their previous background. 

Those pressures arise from the logic of the model, from people pursuing their own interests and the interests of their clan, a clan being anything from an environmental charity to a group of bankers. In other words, a clan is a vested-interest with resources. It is a mistake to expect political elites to have the moral fibre to resist such pressures which are frequently personal, social and cultural.

But we are not their friends.

The model shows why our elites cannot resist well-funded pressure except via exposure to a sufficiently powerful counter-pressure. This is what democracy is supposed to supply via the voting system but doesn’t. In the absence of a written constitution and with only a weakly democratic society, our political elites quite naturally and frequently do two things.

  • They conspire against our interests. 
  • They act in a stupid, but understandable manner. 

All societies, particularly complex societies like ours, have at their core, this powerful, machine-like stimulus/response logic of human behaviour. The only defence we have against the machine is our highly-evolved ability to do “what if” analysis. Vested interests do the same kind of analysis, but only with regard to themselves, to their perspective of “us”.

What’s the answer? There isn’t one.

Almost everyone who aims to improve things by joining the elite will simply succumb to elite pressures, leaving behind those idealistic pressures which caused them to join in the first place. Idealistic pressures relax, other pressures, stronger and more direct, come into play. What one can say, at least for the UK, is that voting for one of the three main parties is foolish because the pressures on them are too strong and far too well-established.

Our failure to understand the machine has consequences.

Sunday 13 November 2011

The world in a wine cup

Han Dynasty jade wine cup
Business Men

Business men boast of their skill and cunning
But in philosophy they are like little children.
Bragging to each other of successful depredations
They neglect to consider the ultimate fate of the body.
What should they know of the Master of Dark Truth
Who saw the wide world in a jade cup,
By illuminated conception got clear of Heaven and Earth;
On the chariot of Mutation entered the Gate of Immutability?

Ch'en Tzu-ang (A.D. 656 - 698)
Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley

Tell Me Now

"Tell me now, what should a man want
But to sit alone, sipping his cup of wine?"
I should like to have visitors come and discuss philosophy
And not to have the tax-collector coming to collect taxes:
My three sons married into good families
And my five daughters wedded to steady husbands.
Then I could jog through a happy five-score years
And, at the end, need no Paradise.

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

Saturday 12 November 2011

Where do buses come from?

Let's try something offbeat for the weekend :-

Sometimes it can be useful to take a frivolous idea and push it far enough to bring out something that isn’t quite so frivolous. Let’s take the evolution of the Routemaster, the archetypal red London bus.

Now it seems to me that a few billion years ago when the earth was a ball of molten rock, the possible development of the Routemaster could not possibly have been foreseen. In other words, there is no conceivable chain of cause and effect leading from that ball of molten rock to the Routemaster. Or do Earth-like planets always evolve Routemasters?

No - too weird. We’d have to stick like a limpet to the principle of cause and effect and claim that somewhere in that ball of molten rock, the Routemaster was encoded in a way we don’t understand.

Well one could still look at it like that - insist that explicable evolution goes that far back, but it obviously doesn’t. It might be more sensible to say that the Routemaster was not encoded in the ball of rock and there is no chain of cause and effect linking them. Cause and effect is a valuable principle, but it doesn’t explain everything.

Okay, so do we then say that between then and now at some diffuse and indefinable point in our history, the conditions leading to the Routemaster arose? Or do we talk vaguely of emergent properties, which seems to be much the same angle? Or do we suggest that buses are universal phenomena?

Or do we admit that the universe seems to be creative?

Do we admit that within the bounds of universal laws, the universe can generate a new state of affairs which could not possibly have been predicted from any older state of affairs via cause and effect and universal law? The universe created the Routemaster in a way we do not understand scientifically or philosophically.

We have our theory of evolution and a few ideas on how life might have evolved from non-life, but it doesn't stretch back to a ball of molten rock and certainly doesn't include Routemasters. If we start with the molten rock, we don't understand where the human genome came from either.

Friday 11 November 2011

Putting out the trash

One thing you soon learn when browsing the web is how much of the professionally published material is simply churned out to suit a narrative - any old trash for an uncritical readership. It's always been so of course, but before the web we actually had to buy or borrow the publication to see it in action. Now we don't.

onearth is a magazine modestly describing itself as a survival guide for the planet. Why not the whole universe? I don't know - perhaps they thought they'd look silly.

They have a piece here titled Climate Change Health Costs Add Up to One Big Bill. Actually the bill isn't that high in terms of overall US health costs, but you only get to learn that later. Basically someone from the the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US environmental charity, has added up the costs of various losses in the US due to extreme weather, floods, wildfires and various diseases over the past few years. Then they dumped those costs at the door of climate change.

It's been done before and been easily refuted simply on the basis that these natural disasters don't seem to be any worse now than in the past and aren't caused by anthropogenic climate change. Anyway they seem to have decided that the only answer to that little problem is to make the same claim  again. However it doesn't stop there because the piece begins with the death of a porpoise from the fungus Cryptococcus gattii which has also been seen in humans. What's the explanation? Well guess what, there's an alarming one we can promote:-

The answer could be as simple as the disease hitching a ride on a tropical vacationer, but a more alarming possibility has emerged over the past decade: that changes in climate are allowing disease-causing organisms to expand their range well out of the tropics.

I won't bore you with any more of this drivel. What interests me is how easy it is to suggest these things to those who have no intention of looking into other possibilities. Without its gullible audience, this kind of material would never see the light of day, yet the web offers anyone the chance to be far better informed. Is stupid really so appealing?

Thursday 10 November 2011

What would you do?

Imagine you've been invited to a dinner-party by a close friend. At the last minute you find out that one of the other guests is, let's say, Karen, a prominent member of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Suppose you are highly sceptical of climate change, viewing the CCC as an immoral propaganda machine and by implication its employees including Karen are politically immoral. What would you do? Would you:-

Call your host and explain why you can’t go.

Go to the dinner-party and try to involve Karen in some kind of dialogue.

Go to the dinner party and tell Karen what you think of the CCC.

Go to the dinner party and ignore Karen as far as possible.

It’s a problem isn’t it? What do we do when political immorality is so widespread?

There was a time when immorality was contained by ostracizing those who flouted the moral conventions of their class. One would not invite certain people into the family home, speak to them or even acknowledge them except possibly in the coldest, most distant way. Everyone knew what was going on too – and why the ostracism had happened.

What about today though? What if you are introduced to Sean – a person widely known to loaf away his time at the local council offices taking endless sickies from a well-paid job? Do you hold out the hand of casual friendship or do you accept the reality of political immorality? Do you draw lines in the moral sand and have nothing to do with him? If so, then do you tell him and why?

I freely admit that I’d have difficulty with these scenarios, but why? Because there is such a thing as political immorality and surely we should say so outside the blogosphere as well as inside?

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Three illusions

You may well have seen this before, but squares A and B are the same shade of grey. Go to Edward H Adelson's website for an explanation. Photo editing software is good for showing how it's done.

The Lilac Chaser is another popular optical illusion. 

This less popular illusion is a tricky one. Apparently if you stare hard enough at the image you may catch sight of a Prime Minister. I can't see it myself - all I see is a PR hack for vested interests. Maybe rose-tinted specs would help.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Leaflet hunt

It occurred to me today that I’m getting older but haven’t yet found out who to blame. Presumably there is a government department somewhere with leaflets telling you what to do in different languages often including English, but I don’t seem to have any. I could write a letter I suppose, but it might get lost between all the different offices or land on the desk of somebody who doesn't try very hard. I’d better see if the library has any leaflets...

Well that wasn’t much use. They were most patronising, asking me to sit down and claiming to have no leaflets about my problem, which I find a little surprising to say the least. For some reason they thought I wanted to sit near a radiator and read the Daily Mail. I'm afraid I left in a huff so I’d better try the interweb next...

Well that wasn’t much use either. There’s lots of advice out there on the interweb, but nothing that quite fits my problem of getting older all the time. Surely the authorities are aware of the problem?

I suppose I could blame someone for this apparent lack of official interest, but who? Something ought to be on the interweb as it’s supposed to be so wonderful, but who do I blame about that? Google? I’m not sure Google would accept responsibility and they don’t seem to have any leaflets at all – not one. Makes you wonder doesn’t it – a big outfit like Google doing without leaflets?

Hmm - maybe there are tablets to sort out this getting older problem. I’ll try Sainsbury’s...

Well that wasn’t much use either, lots of vitamins and headache pills but no tablets to stop you getting older. I did buy a nice bottle of wine though. I’ll drink it in lieu of the leaflets and the tablets. I suppose it’ll help until tomorrow. It usually does.

Monday 7 November 2011

You know the same of me

William James

I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. 
William James (1842 - 1910)

This is one of my favourite William James quotes - simple enough yet so neatly expressed. Although he made the comment during one of his public talks I particularly like the way it applies to blogging, but doesn't really apply to print media or television.

Public talks and lectures were popular during the nineteenth century - Dickens gave many. To some extent they were replaced in the twentieth century by radio and TV as a popular source of commentary on a whole range of subjects.

It seems to me that the internet has begun to put this right - allowing us to relearn the desire to understand, contribute and explore possibilities.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Fake tree

While walking in Somerset I saw one of those phone masts disguised as a tree. I won't point it out though, you'll just have to guess.


Sometimes it pays to take a simple look at complex problems, so let’s take a brief look at the problem of scale – meaning scale as in magnitude. We all know what scale is, but don’t always apply what we know – possibly because simple answers are too accurate for modern tastes, too stark, too lacking in those furtive nuances which make such good hiding-places.

It seems to me that here in the UK we have drifted into a major problem with scale. We humans are fixed-size beings with certain capacities, intellectual and physical and a certain number of allotted years to make the best of what we have. We can’t change that and it affects what we may do, what we should expect to do, how quickly we evolve serviceable solutions to social and economic problems.

Climate is a good example of a very simple problem of scale. Although this post isn’t about climate change, it will do as a familiar example. A serious and obvious problem with climate science is it not being scaled to our scientific ambitions. We can’t do unambiguous experiments because it’s too big and too complex. We also have only one example to play with, can’t take representative samples and can’t do much in the way of controlled changes. We can’t change one climate parameter, see what happens to all the others then wind it back to where it was.

Okay, so that’s a brief physical illustration of how scale can be a serious problem even though we don’t usually catch sight of it through all the climate cant. Obvious enough but it seems to need saying, because scale is a type of problem we so often ignore. What else?

Well we need our clans to be scaled correctly because a healthy society needs bidirectional feedback between clan leaders and clan members. I’m going to take that as given because I want to keep the focus on scale.

Assume a nation state is about as big as a healthy clan can be – a mega-clan. It’s at the top of the clan scale. It follows that increasing complexity, cultural diversity and erosion of national functions will all cause problems with scale. States can become too complex, too diverse and too highly integrated into transnational processes.

Mega-clan members still need bidirectional feedback if they are to be an active part of a healthy mega-clan. Size isn’t just physical size; it is complexity, boundaries and rules. Increase complexity, blur boundaries, multiply rules and the clan becomes more difficult to understand, more difficult to relate to, more difficult to be a member of. It goes off-scale with respect to our capabilities.

Mega-clan UK suffers from this problem - it went off-scale as the EEC scaled up to the EU without knowing how. The EU is too big, complex and diverse to be a properly functioning clan. The scale is hopelessly wrong – obviously well outside any clan scale we learned to cope with as a nation state. There are far bigger states than ours, but they evolved their own solutions to the problem of scale over long periods of time. EU states have never done that. Germany tried of course, but that’s another story.

The answer is simple. We need to pay attention to scale and scale back to a nation state where we are generally handling known risks – those risks we learned to cope with over the centuries. The UK needs to be reasonably homogenous and independent if it hopes to get back to some kind of healthy democracy of which citizens generally approve. 

Saturday 5 November 2011

Wordplay - necrophilia

Neither wing nor prayer

A few weeks ago, Demetrius posted one of his erudite demolitions of folly, using the dire Morris Marina as his starting point. As I read the post, I was reminded of a story once told to me by a colleague who originally hailed from the Birmingham area. The story came from his father who worked at the British Leyland car plant at Longbridge and it concerned a guy on the assembly line.

This chap had decided to buy one of the Austin 1100 models he was involved in making. It would be his first ever new car. He chose his car as it travelled down the production line, paid over his money and took delivery of his brand-new Austin 1100. He was genuinely proud of the fact that he owned a British car he’d had a hand in making and personally chosen it off the production line.

Five years later he was actually reduced to tears when he found he was able to poke his finger through the rusted wing of his pride and joy. Of course he was upset about the fact that he’d paid good money for rubbish, but he was also upset that British Leyland, the company he worked for and once believed in, was making crap cars and selling them to ordinary working people. He was ashamed.

Friday 4 November 2011

City car

Well at least it gets a point or two for being a diesel.

Light-green trousers

Another side of Wilkie Collins is exemplified by this lighthearted attitude to our longstanding national inability to change the status quo. Collins was not opposed to reform, because his novel Hide and Seek from which the quote is taken was an early and sympathetic fictional portrayal of disability. Even so, he obviously found it appropriate to tiptoe around our our excessively genteel tendency to avoid rocking the boat.

From a great proposal for reform, to a small eccentricity in costume, the English are the most intolerant people in the world, in their reception of anything which presents itself to them under the form of a perfect novelty. Let any man display a new project before the Parliament of England *, or a new pair of light-green trousers before the inhabitants of London, let the project proclaim itself to be useful to all listening ears, and the trousers eloquently assert themselves as beautiful to all beholding eyes, the nation will shrink suspiciously, nevertheless, both from the one and the other; will order the first to "lie on the table", and will hoot, laugh, and stare at the second; will, in short, resent either novelty as an unwarrantable intrusion, for no other discernible reason that people in general are not used to it.
Wilkie Collins - Hide and Seek - 1854

* Collins seems to have forgotten that there is no English Parliament.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Breaking a habit

Better half and I were recently looking for ideas on keeping grandson amused, scouring the range of toys in Sainsbury’s looking for something to develop his imagination. We both realised at the same time that almost all modern toys are crap, only intended to amuse for a few minutes.

Instead we remembered the kitchen science experiments we’d done at his age, vinegar and bicarbonate, floating matches and a drop of detergent, making pinhole cameras. There are lots of ideas on the web too, so stuff the brightly-coloured plastic and mountains of misleading packaging. Time to break a modern habit I think.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Spot the difference

As I look around my study, I wonder which bits have not attracted various forms of taxation over and over again in minute, fanatical detail.  

The carpet – lots of taxes there. Carpet fibres, backing material, dyes, other raw materials, design processes, transport, retailing and fitting – and even then the carpet isn’t fully accounted for.

The walls – lots of taxes there too. Plasterboard, paint, pigments and chemicals, transport and retailing. Still more to go on walls, but let’s finish with what we have.

My laptop – no - don’t even go there.

My chair – lot more taxes. The metal frame, surface coatings, plastic mouldings, fabrics, foam cushioning, fire retardants, assembly, transport and retailing.

My little eighteenth century table. Hmm...

Tuesday 1 November 2011


Old arguments don’t go away merely because they are unfashionable. I could argue either way on capital punishment and the prospect of executing innocent people weighs very heavily indeed with me, but I find this argument difficult to answer too:-

A enters a corner shop, pulls out a gun and shoots shopkeeper B. A then runs off, but the whole thing was recorded on CCTV. A is caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

C enters a corner shop, pulls out a gun on shopkeeper D and shouts "you're a dead man". He acts as if about to fire on D, but D grabs hold of C and in the ensuing struggle C is shot dead. The whole thing was recorded on CCTV. Later in court, D is judged to have shot C in self-defence.

One person dies in each scenario, but in the first scenario it was an innocent victim B and in the second it was assailant C. In other words, the wrong person died in the first scenario and the right person died in the second.

Why shouldn’t the law assume that in similar circumstances, B might have killed A in self defence? Why doesn’t the law rectify the situation whereby B’s right to self-defence was unavailable, overpowered by the assailant or otherwise not exercised? In other words why not execute assailant A as retrospective self-defence on B’s behalf?