Saturday 31 December 2011

A quote for the New Year

Those who trust us educate us.
George Eliot - Daniel Deronda

Only six words, but I think this is an extraordinarily profound quote. I had to think for a moment when I first came across it, because Eliot's words obviously don't apply to everyone do they? Think politician.

No? Only if you've the stomach for it then - I quite understand why not everyone cares to dwell on the greasy-pole climbers here at the tail end of the festive season.  

But for me, gems like this delicious little quote elevate George Eliot to one of the greats. Her writing may perhaps be a little uneven in places, but her insights more than make up for it. A great writer to take us into the New Year.

Friday 30 December 2011

Gathering winter fuel


One of the things I relish in winter is the log-burner. We have a little Stovax in the back room - a room small enough to heat easily on cold winter evenings. A glass of wine, some music, my Kindle and the glow of the log-burner. What more is there to life?

I even enjoy cleaning the thing each morning, chucking out the ashes, refilling the log box with more wood. At the moment I’m using a load of logs I bought locally last year. They were already seasoned according to the delivery guy, but I stacked them by the garage and gave them another year.

Now they’re perfect. Well-seasoned hardwood chunks which split easily into the size our stove likes best. Some chunks are oak, judging by the colour, the grain and bits of deep bark here and there. I tend to split everything into smallish logs so I can feed the burner little and often. Big logs in our small Stovax tend to burn too strongly or subside into big black ashy lumps which have to be prodded and turned over to finish them off.

Apart from wood I buy, I have loads from the garden because we've only been here two years and a fair bit of hacking-back was required. We inherited a 50 foot blue cedar, but the tree-feller took away most of that as part of the deal for felling the thing.

I also have lots of logs given by friends and neighbours who know we have the log burner. Even an old pine bed is useful kindling. I’ve tried some artificial logs made from compressed bark too. Very good they are, but they burn in rather an odd way and last nowhere near as long as claimed by the manufacturer.

I’ve developed an eye for good stove-weather as well, for judging the breeze in the frond-like tops of silver birches against a darkening sky. Are we in for a good, steady burn or will a fretful wind moan its way down the chimney, drawing the fire in fits and starts so I’m forever getting out of my chair to fiddle with the air vents?

I’ve only had one failure so far – a foggy evening, the air heavy with damp and as still as a crypt. The stove smoked from the start and outside I could see it drifting across the lawn as if it had simply fallen off the roof, completely knackered after struggling up the chimney.

I soon gave it up as a bad job. After all, we have a gas fire in the other room. It isn't the same though - now why is that?

Note - Old Fool has a nice poetic take on firewood.

The stupidity dilemma


Stupidity is something we observe – social data we collect while doing the rounds. In the climate change debate, both sides can’t be right. One side is stupidly getting the evidence wrong, but the question is - which side is stupid? Worth remembering and emphasising I think – one side is stupid because the issue isn't difficult. So how do we tell which side is stupid?

The stupid side is the one claiming to have the answers. 

This is an example of what I like to think of as the stupidity dilemma – too often we end up choosing sides when it might be better not to choose any side. If we toss a coin where there are only two sides to the question, we’ll be right 50% of the time. If there are more than two sides, then our chances of being right by making purely random choices goes down. So choosing our beliefs randomly might not be the optimal policy in spite of the obvious attractions. What to do?

Well surely the only sensible option is to go against the consensus except for logical and moral issues. Logical truths never change and moral values, at least the basic, socially cohesive ones, don’t change much either. Apart from these two, the remainder usually turns out to be rubbish.

So outside of logic and morals, the lesson is to disagree with the consensus. You don't have come up with something more credible, because the world would be a much better place if we simply chucked out the rubbish. We don't have to think up substitute rubbish.

It worked with climate scientists who have turned out to be a bunch of obvious frauds - hopeless dimwits who can barely be trusted to tie their own shoelaces without faking it. It also worked for the EU which has turned out to be the clumsy disaster it so transparently always was.

Pinpoint the official consensus and just slag it off – a tip for the New Year.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Once upon a time...

Louis Bromfield - from Wikipedia
...for the first time it occurred to her that science was honesty, and that honesty was a great liberator. It cut away romance and sentiment and a great deal of nonsense, but it left clean wounds which would heal quickly without scars, leaving life whole and sane and cured. It could make people less miserable because it dealt with hard realities, instead of the unwholesome putrescence of dead moralities, and the high sentimental purities which had ruined so many lives.

Louis Bromfield – Twenty-Four Hours 

Bromfield published Twenty-Four Hours in 1930 when the general perception of science and scientists was somewhat more idealistic than it is now. Arrowsmith (1925) by Sinclair Lewis and The Citadel (1937) by A J Cronin portrayed science in a similar, idealistic light.

In my view this is the starry-eyed ideal, however naive it may have been, that climate scientists, politicians, journalists and activists have largely destroyed. There is no going back to Bromfield's ideal.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Lord's Prayer in Old English

Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,
Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.
Tō becume ðīn rice.
Gewurde ðīn willa
On eorþan swā swā on heofonum.
Urne gedægwhamlīcan hlāf syle ūs tōdæg.
And forgyf ūs ūre gyltas,
Swā swā wē forgyfaþ ūrum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd ðū ūs on costnunge, ac alȳs ūs of yfele.

What does it say to you, this recreated voice from our ancient past?

To me it says heritage is rather more than we'll ever find in a museum.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Playing games with air pollution

The EEA (European Environment Agency) says air pollution cost up to €169 billion in 2009.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contribute the most to the overall damage costs, approximately €63 billion in 2009. Air pollutants, which contribute to acid rain and can cause respiratory problems - sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3), particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) - were found to cause €38-105 billion of damage a year. 

Okay, these are made up costs so we don't need to treat them seriously. What we need to take more seriously is the extent to which air pollution may be used as yet another publicly-funded scam. Below are Defra's National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI) charts for sulphur dioxide, ammonia, particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) plotted annually. In the UK, all but ammonia are declining significantly and even ammonia is sloping downwards as we raise fewer cows. I'll ignore CO2 as it isn't a pollutant. As the basic biosphere nutrient, higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are more likely to be beneficial than harmful.

As for the more genuine pollutants, well the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report for 2009/10 had this to say about UK air pollution:-

Poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of seven to eight months and up to 50,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it. Air pollution also causes significant damage to ecosystems. Despite these facts being known air quality is not seen as a priority across government and the UK is failing to meet a range of domestic and European targets.

So that's seven to eight month knocked off your stint in a care home is it? Not quite disaster territory I'd say and presumably the health effects are going in the right direction.

Air quality is obviously important, but what's the real game being played here, the one behind the idiot headline? It seems pretty obvious that these fantasy costs and exaggerated health issues are connected with  propping up the green energy game by conflating it with air pollution control measures. Yet even the official figures show that air quality improvements already achieved can hardly be due to wind turbines or electric vehicles. But the EU has invested a lot of money and kudos in climate politics, as has the UN. One worth watching I think.

Sulphur dioxide


Particulates (PM10)

Nitrogen oxides

Monday 26 December 2011

Comedy on cue

Thalia, muse of comedy - from Wikipedia

Good comedians train their audience to laugh. It’s a very common example of behavioural conditioning and we’re all familiar with it. Initially it can be hard work for the comic, unless already blessed with the right facial features, verbal dexterity and body-language.

For example, bearing in mind that not everyone finds him funny, a natural comic such as Billy Connolly seems from a young age, to have been blessed with a comic’s facial expressions, the right body-language and good timing. In his early days he was able to draw his audience into a joke and get them laughing before he’d actually delivered it, sometimes long before the punch-line. I found him quite funny, but for me there was a least as much to be gained in watching how he did it, the cues and invitations he gave out to his audience.

Stand-up comics all do this to a more or less successful extent. Once a comic is established, it’s easier because a live audience has paid for their seat and are willing, almost anxious to be drawn in and entertained. A few familiar lines, various devices such as feeding common prejudice, trendy verbal cues such as snowclones, humorous attacks on okay targets and the show is up and running.

It’s surprising how long this can go on, how long the basic comedy themes can be recycled before even the most loyal fans grow tired and their willingness to laugh at old material begins to wane. Watching these things work themselves out on TV can be more interesting than the act itself – enlightening too.

As you watch a TV comedian at work, switching your attention from act to audience as the camera pans around to catch the laughter, you easily see how the audience responds to the comedian and the comedian reacts to the laughter, to the slightest nuance, the faintest shades and grades of approval. Watching a show in this way can be slightly strange too, as if someone has turned the sound down. The observer observes and things are not as they were.

You see things you aren't supposed to see - how unoriginal the show really is, the threadbare jokes and the crudity of it all. You see the comedian's eyes flit restlessly over a sea of faces beyond the white lights, gauging reactions with a professional grin. You feel the staleness of it, old gags painted in new colours, ever more garish to compete with a clamorous world.

It isn't in the end what we're supposed to be - observers. You can't really observe and join in at the same time. To a degree it has to be one or the other - you have to laugh at the joke or watch a professional comedian doing a job. You have to join or keep your distance - join or be alone.

This in my view is the ultimate human dilemma - the observer's dilemma. It's more visible at Christmas than any other time.    

Sunday 25 December 2011

By the way

Benedict Spinoza - from Wikipedia

Again, it follows from the previous proposition that there is a considerable difference between the joy of a drunkard and that which possesses a philosopher: which I wished to mention here by the way.
Benedict Spinoza – Ethics – Boyle edition

Bah - humbug - oops!

From Wikipedia

Saturday 24 December 2011

Green foodies

I know it's Christmas and thoughts of food may be a little too much already, but it's well worth popping over to New Nostradamus to check out the treats Greenpeace eco-warriors are giving themselves on their Rainbow Warrior III cruise.

Scream Team

Friday 23 December 2011

Tosses not tossers

Along with quite a few others over the years, I’ve often wondered why we don’t elect our MPs randomly. The process could be more sophisticated than tossing a coin, but not necessarily much more. Ironically we might get fewer tossers via random selection. 

A party-free electoral system could be rather like jury service where MPs are selected randomly from a large pool of citizens. Those selected would do a tour of duty as MP with various job guarantees and compensatory arrangements, serve their term and go back to whatever they were doing before.

John Burnheim has proposed something similar, using Hayek’s word Demarchy for his ideas. As we all know, traditional MP selection by party has been corrupted by professional policy-makers from banks to charities to foreign governments such as the EU. This is what Wikipedia says about the basics of demarchy.

Demarchy (or lottocracy) is a form of government in which the state is governed by randomly selected decision makers who have been selected by sortition (lot) from a broadly inclusive pool of eligible citizens. These groups, sometimes termed "policy juries", "citizens' juries", or "consensus conferences", deliberately make decisions about public policies in much the same way that juries decide criminal cases.

Demarchy, in theory, could overcome some of the functional problems of conventional representative democracy, which is widely subject to manipulation by special interests and a division between professional policymakers (politicians and lobbyists) vs. a largely passive, uninvolved and often uninformed electorate. According to Australian philosopher John Burnheim, random selection of policymakers would make it easier for everyday citizens to meaningfully participate, and harder for special interests to corrupt the process.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Monthly horoscope - Capricorn

Capricorn (December 22 - January 19)

Magical birthstone - Gravel.
Lucky sandwich    - Jam n'pilchard.
Lucky tool            - Lump hammer.

During the Christmas period and way into the New Year, capricorns are just lucky, lucky, lucky, happy, happy, happy, frisky, frisky, frisky - unless your name isn't Ken.

The stars are being a little mysterious at the moment, particularly Pluto and Mickey. I see lots of good cheer over Christmas even for non-Kens, with mountains of food, buckets of booze and the most fanciful New Year resolutions ever dreamed up either side of sanity. Steer clear of the one about naked chocolate-fighting though, it really isn't you is it?

And what about the New Year? I suppose you want to know how the economy will fare and how the Eurozone will climb triumphantly out of its self-inflicted mess. And when will all that global warming finally turn up and give us all a treat? Well here's what the stars say:-

January - the Euro is replaced by the Deutsche-Euro, Franc-Euro, Lira-Euro etc, thus saving the Euro.
February - Nick Clegg says the UK must eventually adopt the Pound-Euro or risk isolation.
March - the Met Office say winter 2011/12 was normal for the time of year and asks for a new computer because the old one rattles.
April - the Lira-Euro trades at 0.3 Deutsche-Euros and Angela Merkel accuses the Italians of not playing fair.
May - David Cameron triumphant as he negotiates a new deal for UK banana growers.
June - a row erupts as Nick Clegg claims the UK is now isolated on the banana issue.
July - a wind turbine crashes on Chris Huhne's ministerial car. The Duke of Edinburgh suggests a national holiday.
August - record A level results - nobody gets less than A or A* in any subject. A** to be introduced next year.
September - the Met Office publishes a new study showing how the Olympics were rained off because of climate change and asks for a new computer because the old one squeaks as well as rattling.
October - the huge mix-up in university places is not the fault of the government says the government. A huge new Univerity of Hinckley to open next year.
November - the Higgs boson turns out to be made of cheese.
December - the end of the year widely predicted except by the Met Office which says it needs a new computer because the noise made by the old one has become an urgent health and safety issue.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Christmas blogging

Blogging will be lighter over Christmas and the New Year. I may post once or twice, but my jottings could be even more erratic than usual thanks to the Christmas spirit which I intend to imbibe quite copiously. Whether you'll be able to tell the difference I'm not so sure.

Many thanks to all who visit this little corner of the blogging world - the past year has been great fun. To those who leave your most welcome comments, I feel as if I know you even though we will probably never meet.

Yet I know I'd enjoy a drink and a chuckle with you all, so let's raise a glass to the New Year because in spite everything, it's optimism that makes the world go round. Cheers!

UNESCO making stuff up

Drivel fans can read the story of the Sami people (Lapps) and how they are suffering from ten years of hard winters caused by climate change here. This is a taster : -

'The mild period arrived suddenly, and in one week the temperature was +10°C. Most of the snow melted and then froze again, and the ground was covered in ice. Only two weeks before we thought the guohtun (lichen) would be good, and now it was completely inaccessible, locked away under the ice' observed a Sami herder.

Sami reindeer herders have lived with severe winters due to climate change for over a decade.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

All bets are off

According to this interesting post by Ira Glickstein at WUWT, climate sensitivity is multi-modal. My take on Glickstein's excellent post is is that the sensitivity is either multi-modal, in which case there is no global sensitivity to CO2, or the sensitivity is so uncertain that we don't know what's going on anyway. In other words, the idea of climate sensitivity is blown out of the water and so are computer models using it - ie all of them.

The post is very clearly written, very easy to understand and well worth a read even if you aren't too comfortable with the technical stuff. As one guy (mpaul) says in the comments:-
"The average human has one testicle and one ovary."

No wind - no worries

From Fast Company

While we in the UK build our subsidised, inefficient windmills, others of a more practical bent are developing some very interesting technologies. One is Toshiba of Japan.

The Super-Safe, Small & Simple (4S) 'nuclear battery' system is being developed by Toshiba and the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI) in Japan in collaboration with SSTAR work and Westinghouse (owned by Toshiba) in the USA.

Essentially it is a factory-built small, modular nuclear power installation designed for minimal maintenance and with a working life of 30 years. When its working life is over, the nuclear power module cools for a year and is then shipped off for storage and disposal.

More info here. It is worth contrasting that link with this rather unenthusiastic take on the same device from Wikipedia, yet Bill Gates seems keen on the 4S and also the travelling wave reactor.

Wind worries

There is a welter of misinformation about wind power. For the millions who subsidise it in the UK, there seem to be quite a few features of wind energy which cause problems for large-scale adoption and questions without obvious answers for all of us who end up paying for it. I've no problems with sustainable energy if lies about the climate aren't part of any technical, economic, ecological or political assessment. Here are just three well-known practical issues.

1. The unreliability of wind and consequent need for conventional back-up are well known.

2. The best sites tend to be used first, so new sites must use less favourable locations. This isn't quite true where more units are added to existing wind-farms, but the problem is real.

3. Technical developments will be made, but not dramatic ones. The basic technology seems to be mature, with no big cost-saving developments claimed even by proponents.

Because of problems 1 and 2, wind power is unusual in that other things being equal, it becomes more expensive as you scale up, not less. Other factors may mitigate this effect of course, such as shorter transmission distances, but these mitigating factors have to be found to avoid an increase in subsidies per megawatt or a reduced rate of return for the "investor".

Problem 1 also has another wrinkle in that the more wind power you have in the generation mix, the more expensive backup becomes. For the current levels of UK wind power generation, backup generation specifically built to offset the variability of wind is not required. With greater reliance on wind,  this will not be the case.

Monday 19 December 2011

Fame across the pond

I see the ludicrous antics of our home-grown number-jugglers are clearly visible from the other side of the Atlantic.

Can I say that?

From Wikipedia

Suppose I call someone a beige bastard – does that make me some kind of skin-colour racist? And which is the most objectionable word, beige or bastard – or is it the phrase? I know which ought to be the most objectionable word, but is it?

How about pale bastard, or buff bastard? How about sable bastard – is that racist intent with uncommon wording? Or would too many have to look up the word sable?

Actually it’s not the word bastard, but the context isn’t it? The context – ie the target of the insult can be officially offensive or not - it depends. The word bastard hardly matters out of context, because who cares about bastards these days?

I suppose if I call someone a Nick Clegg, it’s an acceptable insult whatever the racial situation. Vicious but acceptable.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Wulf and Eadwacer - Mike Burch translation

Mike Burch left a comment on my recent Wulf and Eadwacer post and kindly allowed me to post his translation here, which I like very much. I've added Mike's comments too :-

There is quite a bit of doubt about the exact meaning of the poem, but I think my version makes sense. The female speaker longs for her lover, Wulf, but she has been captured by his enemy Eadwacer, who keeps her captive on a fortified island. She speaks of the pain of being separated from the man she loves, and being raped (or something akin to rape) by her captor. She became pregnant with Eadwacer's child and someone (perhaps Eadwacer's wife, or perhaps even the speaker) took the baby to the woods and killed him. It's a powerful, moving story that has been repeated far too many times throughout human history.

Wulf and Eadwacer (Anonymous Ballad, circa 960-990 AD)
― loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him as if he were game.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like a panting hound.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, that was pleasant, but it also was painful.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, but why should I eat?
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what was never one:
our song together.


I've written about Karl Moritz in an earlier post. He 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.

I find the quote below interesting, because it describes a very early copying machine. These machines were basically presses which relied on the original document being written in a special slow-drying ink. An image of the document could be pressed onto damp tissue-paper which would of course give a mirror-image of the original. The tissue-paper copy had to be read through the back.

I've never seen one of these devices though and can't even find a proper image of one (although the picture I've used may give the general idea) so I'm not sure if any survived.

I saw, for the first time, at Mr. Wendeborn's, a very useful machine, which is little known in Germany, or at least not much used. This is a press in which, by means of very strong iron springs, a written paper may be printed on another blank paper, and you thus save yourself the trouble of copying; and at the same time multiply your own handwriting. Mr. Wendeborn makes use of this machine every time he sends manuscripts abroad, of which he wishes to keep a copy. This machine was of mahogany, and cost pretty high.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Back-up power

Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station

From Industrial Fuels and Power we learn that the UK has invited bidding for a UK-wide power back-up system - the system we need if we are to make a significant increase in wind and solar power.

The UK proposed to create a market-wide power capacity back-up system, operated by National Grid. The system would secure power supply at times of high demand and when generation levels fall from intermittent sources such as solar and wind.

The proposals intend to encourage plant developers to build new stations by offering a market system that seeks to generate stable revenue for operators through capacity auctions worth GBP2.88bn (US$4.44bn) until 2030, reports Reuters.

“The capacity market is designed to ensure sufficient reliable capacity is available to ensure security of electricity supply in times of system stress, for example during a cold, windless period,” the energy ministry said.

Power plant operators can bid to provide capacity through an auction in a given year, which will then commit them to deliver power at times of tight supply margins. If they fail to comply they will face penalties.

The cost of the auction system will be passed on to consumers’ energy bills, but the government expects increases to be 4% lower than a business-as-usual scenario.

Quirks of insanity

We run into difficulties when people say things of such mind-boggling stupidity that we almost wonder at their sanity. Why does he/she say such things? It's nonsense.  

I’m not speaking of specific slogans here, but conceptual frameworks which may just about make sense internally, but which are obviously in wild conflict with other, more rational frameworks. Examples are not difficult to find, so let’s start with electric cars.

If we drive electric cars it will alter the weather. This isn’t how the climate change message is spelled out of course, but climate alarm requires this absurd assertion to be valid. Expressed this way it seems like the most ridiculous hyperbole, but this really is a climate claim. Arguments derived from a dubious conceptual framework have to phrased in such a way as to minimise their absurdity and thereby protect the framework. Yet real life may well be quite normal outside the framework – after all, people aren't actually buying electric cars.

Using energy-saving light bulbs will slow down sea-level rises. Again, the howling absurdity of trying to stop sea-level rises by changing your light bulbs isn’t how the climate case is presented even though the conceptual framework of climate alarm requires it to happen.

If we leave the EU we’ll be isolated. This one is so ludicrous it doesn’t actually make sense and is presumably said purely for effect. There is after all, a whole world out there beyond Europe. However, within the conceptual framework of the EU project, the rest of the world doesn’t count so a crazy argument emerges from a crazy conceptual framework.

So why do we stick with conceptual frameworks which lead us into such absurd statements? Is it possible to have little quirks of insanity in an otherwise normal mind?

Unfortunately the answer seems to be yes.

Friday 16 December 2011

Global cooling?

It is still unwise to predict how our climate will change in the medium term, let alone long term, but evidence of cooling continues to grow. This post from NoTricksZone is worth a read.

Of course cooling would be far more dangerous than warming - we'd need more than windmills to keep warm. Shale gas would help, as would ministerial sanity. Which one is more easily developed though?

Wulf and Eadwacer

Wulf and Eadwacer is a very obscure, but strangely appealing Old English poem. The speaker seems to be a woman involved in some way with two men named Wulf and Eadwacer which are male Anglo-Saxon names, but beyond that we have little but conjecture. To some extent, this puts the interested reader on a par with the scholar, because anyone may read the poem and allow it to speak its message on its own terms. It is what you make of it, an intimate yet mysterious glimpse through the shifting mists of ancient times. 

It is to my people as if someone gave them my gift.
They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
It is different for us.
Wulf is on one island I on another.
That island, surrounded by fens, is secure.
There on the island are bloodthirsty men.
They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
It is different for us.
I thought of my Wulf with far-wandering hopes,
Whenever it was rainy weather, and I sat tearfully,
Whenever the warrior bold in battle encompassed me with his arms.
To me it was pleasure in that, it was also painful.
Wulf, my Wulf, my hopes for you have caused
My sickness, your infrequent visits,
A mourning spirit, not at all a lack of food.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf is carrying
our wretched whelp to the forest,
that one easily sunders which was never united:
our song together.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Number games

From Wikipedia

My "career" was chock full of numbers, producing them, reporting them, making sense of them. Modern life seems to be about numbers too, but for me these numbers are very different to those I dealt with all my working life.

You see I knew where my numbers came from. I knew in great detail how, for example, a nickel concentration was generated from a sample of river water. I knew how the sample was collected, who collected it and when, how it was digested in acid and analysed. I knew how the analytical instrument worked, what its strengths and weaknesses were, how the quality control was done, how the analyst was trained, how reagents were checked for purity and so on and so on.

It’s different when I look at economic statistics, global temperatures or statistics on social trends. These numbers can be of uncertain provenance with unknown quality standards and sometimes I can’t even be sure if I’m looking at raw data or the output of some calculation. This problem of uncertain provenance has been one of the major issues as well as a huge scandal in climate science.

So what to do? Well the point I’m trying to make is that we very rarely come across numbers with a provenance as solid as I was familiar with. Secondly, my numbers were still uncertain. All scientific measurements have a degree of uncertainty and in my experience the uncertainty is usually underestimated – often grossly underestimated. In the real world, the level of uncertainty is usually uncertain.

In the lab, we calculated uncertainties for laboratory analyses, error bars which we were reasonably happy with. What about the provenance of the sample though? Sampling adds a considerable degree of uncertainty to the overall measurement and it isn’t easy to estimate for environmental samples. Was it raining at the time of sampling, was the river high or low, was the sampling point appropriate?

It’s this long experience that makes me wary of numbers. Even if you trace the numbers back to an original published paper, there are still many things you don’t know. On the whole, if you want to understand something, then if at all possible it’s best done without numbers. Not always possible of course, but it pays to be very wary indeed when numbers are the basis of an argument. It also pays to be wary if computers have been used for  anything but storing the raw data.

So what to do? For me, the best attitude to numbers is to look at what level of uncertainty the argument will stand. Do round figures and crude approximations still make the case? If not, then I'm always very wary of the argument. Of course this approach does exclude vast swathes of epidemiology, but that's just another advantage as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

It happened again

The BBC reports : -

A photographer has expressed his shock at being threatened with arrest after taking photos in the street.

Tom Maddick, 25, was taking pictures of his home town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, when he was stopped by two police community support officers.

He said he was told taking the photos was illegal and to delete the images.

A Nottinghamshire Police spokesperson said there had been a "training issue" and that the "officers concerned had been spoken to".

Mr Maddick said he had been taking photos of Stockwell Gate, in Mansfield, as part of a project documenting life in the town.

No blow zone

Red phosphorus - from Wikipedia

You can’t have a career in chemistry without a few accidents. One of mine was an incident with a jar of red phosphorus. Somehow, and I don’t remember how, I managed to set it on fire.

Now as you know, if you ignite a solid, carbon-based fuel such as a piece of wood, you can generally put it out by blowing it out like a match. It doesn’t work with red phosphorus.

If you blow on burning red phosphorus it flares up like a sodding great blowlamp. I know - I've tried it. Never again.

For a jar of red phosphorus like the one I’d managed to set on fire, the best way to put it out is simply to put the lid back on. It works a treat.

In the end though, all it cost me to learn this little lesson was one eyebrow. Could have been worse too – I could have dropped the jar. 

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Malaria Mortality Down

Malaria Global Mortality Down 25% In Ten Years

So says this report  from Medical News Today. But hang on - wasn't malaria supposed to rise with increasing global temperatures due to climate change?
The Guardian said as much only two years ago.

It also said in the same article -

The international development secretary, Douglas Alexander, said: "The spread of malaria in the Mount Kenya region is a worrying sign of things to come.

"Without strong and urgent action to tackle climate change, malaria could infect areas without any experience of the disease.

"That's why we need to make sure vulnerable, developing nations such as Kenya have the support they need to tackle the potentially devastating impacts of climate change."

Nowhere else to go

From Wikipedia

Most of us build our lives under a variety of influences and carry on until...
Until when?

Surely we carry on until we reach a point where there is nowhere else to go. It’s a little like the Peter Principle where people rise through an organisation until they reach their level of incompetence. I see something similar occurring where we reach our comfort zone - arriving at a personal plateau where all realistic paths now lead downhill because the uphill ones are beyond us for one reason or another. It applies to almost all of us and not just to our careers.

We attain a situation of comparative stability, comfort or maybe you could also call it stagnation if you are the glass is half-empty type. It's achievement if you are the glass half-full type.  

The idea also applies to people we conventionally see as successful, such as David Cameron, who may already have nowhere else to go unless he raises his EU game. It’s either upwards or downwards for him and we’ve seen enough of his instincts to make a guess at which is the more likely. Cameron may have reached his plateau early and if so, then that’s it for him, but opportunity beckons too. If he and his party understand these things they will tread the right path, but we'll see.  

Ed Miliband is not quite in the same boat. Whether he becomes Prime Minister or not is scarcely relevant because we’ve already seen enough of him to know what’s in store either way. Ed seems to have reached his plateau already. The pathway to Prime Minister may be there in a technical sense, but for Ed, even PM is beginning to look like a downward path because he seems to have little to offer apart from ideas that don't work. Unless he gets lucky of course – luck sometimes offers the fortunate few a free ride for a while.

Nick Clegg and his dodgy band of corduroy fascists must have been taken by surprise by their coalition success, but now they seem to have some very steep downward-sloping paths to contemplate. Good luck on that one Nick. 

In the UK, hereditary peers have been evicted from the House of Lords to create a congenial retirement club for those who know where the skeletons are hidden and don’t fancy downsizing their ambitions until the undertaker calls. Added to undemanding directorships on offer for ex-ministers and plush opportunities offered by the EU (until recently) and we can see quite how assiduously the political elite have been furnishing their personal comfort-zones for long-term occupation. Democracy and transparency don't come into it.

The plateau applies to institutions such as the BBC too, which as we all know, came of age in the fifties and sixties. The talking heads, the way it is compulsorily funded and its whole paternalistic ethos belong to another age.

We know what to expect from the Beeb, how it will report any issue and what bits it won’t report because there are many things in the real world it can’t get to grips with. It’s as dead as a Dodo with no possible way of passing itself off as suited to the digital age. Valves and wooden cabinets are where the Beeb lies entombed. It reached its plateau fifty years ago and may as well be sold off while it’s still worth something. It has nowhere else to go.

Monday 12 December 2011

Alcohol and unsafe sex

Alcohol can lead to unsafe sex: It’s official

In this case, official simply refers to this study on the link between alcohol consumption and the likelihood of a drink or two causing folk to fumble their way into an unsafe sexual encounter. The link is to an abstract, so the fascinating question of methodology isn't pursued. For example:-

In these experiments study participants were randomly allocated to one of two groups in which they either consumed alcohol or did not. Then their intention to engage in unsafe sex was measured.

Crikey - the mind boggles - how exactly was it measured or are we better off not knowing? And all in the name of science - maybe.

Liquid breakfast

From Wikipedia

We recently bought an antique rocking chair from a junk shop. It needs new upholstery so it wasn’t expensive. The existing upholstery seems to be Dralon in a kind of hearing-aid beige colour. We’d seen the chair before on a previous visit, but then we went back for a second look the place was closed, even though it was 11.30 on a busy Saturday morning.

Anyway, we finally decided on a third visit to look at this chair, but the shop was still closed. We had a few other things to do and eventually, when just about to set off home, we saw the reluctant junk shop had finally opened its doors. By now it was 12 o’clock.

After a bit of mooching around the place, trying out the rocker without seeming too interested and without rocking the thing into a pile of stuff stacked up behind it, we asked the owner why he hadn’t been open on Saturday. 

“It’s not worth it really," he explained laconically. "Well I get up late and take the dog for a walk... then I have a coffee and a brandy.”

“How much will you take for the chair?” we asked after hearing this unusual take on business hours.

“Well as long as I get a drink out of it...” he mused.

So we haggled a bit and eventually bought the chair and took it home. Talk about a laid-back approach – and coffee and brandy for breakfast? I wonder what the dog has? Cornflakes? I’m sure there’s a story in there somewhere.

Sunday 11 December 2011

COP17 is over

Well the delusional freakfest COP17 is finally over. We can be relieved that it seems to have achieved very little other than confirming how much of a decline there has been in the antics of the carbon shroud-wavers.

Yet it happened and is still trickling on and on, so we should remain concerned at how easy it was to recruit the scientists, journalists and politicians prepared to go along with such an obvious and really rather silly pseudo-scientific fraud.

The complexity of the debate

From Wikipedia

It seems to me that many people browse the blogosphere in search of amusement, information or a debate they can relate to. As far as debates go, the bidirectional facility for comments and replies is also important to some, but so is relevance.

By relevance, I don’t mean relevance to the issue under discussion, but personal relevance for those who want to explore debates in their own way. Ideas and views are multifaceted things and the mainstream media does a poor job of reflecting the vast complexity of how people see things and the direction they’d like to go. Blogs work because there are a lot of them. Their sheer number allows blogs to go some way towards reflecting the complexity of human discourse. It's something the mainstream media, particularly in the UK, never got near. Letters to the editor don’t come close.

I feel the blog phenomenon is a reflection of the frustrated desire of vast numbers of people to join the debate and the hugely underestimated complexity of the debates they wish to join.

How could any thinking person wish to take part in debates as presented by the BBC for example? Before the days of blogging, the BBC only did a kind of genteel one-way paternalistic debate where conclusions are already embedded in the questions and if you don’t understand that, then tough luck old chap. That kind of debate – the one it’s still doing.

Many people want more. Many don’t of course, so we can leave them to the BBC. Maybe they deserve each other. 

Saturday 10 December 2011

Peter Cook monologue

Peter Cook was one of my comedy greats. This monologue still makes me laugh.

George Eliot's ideal?

George Eliot - from Wikipedia

This quote from George Eliot's Middlemarch describes Mary Garth, a young woman not physically attractive in a traditional sense, but with a strong and quietly appealing character. She is usually seen as a deliberate contrast to two of the main, but flawed characters, Dorothea Brooke and Rosamond Vincy. But Mary surely gives us some pretty strong hints of George Eliot's view of herself.

Mary was fond of her own thoughts, and could amuse herself well sitting in twilight with her hands in her lap; for, having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact. And she had already come to take life very much as a comedy in which she had a proud, nay, a generous resolution not to act the mean or treacherous part. 

Mary might have become cynical if she had not parents whom she honoured, and a well of affectionate gratitude within her, which was all the fuller because she had learned to make no unreasonable claims.

She sat tonight resolving, as she was wont, the scenes of the day, her lips often curling with amusement at the oddities to which her fancy added fresh drollery: people were so ridiculous with their illusions, carrying their fool's caps unawares, thinking their own lies opaque while everybody else's were transparent, making themselves exceptions to everything, as if when all the world looked yellow under a lamp they alone were rosy.

Friday 9 December 2011

November AMO index goes negative

While the posturing fools at COP17 in Durban  excrete their fantasies, this post from WUWT is a sobering read. The clown Huhne should take note, assuming he understands this kind of thing.


From Wikipedia

Imagine how things might go if the UN were to make a global issue of the recent discovery of a potentially Earth-like planet Kepler-22b. The issue raised by the UN could be our lack of preparedness for any kind of extraterrestrial contact - our lack of an evidence-based ET policy in other words. So a new UN-led policy is required which goes something like this -

  1. A UN body is formed called UNFCEL – the UN Framework Convention on Extraterrestrial Life. 
  2. Under this enabling body UNKep is created to deal with the technical side of the project as it relates to Kepler-22b.
  3. UNKep invites experts from the fields of astronomy, anthropology, climate science, physics, biochemistry, geology, economics, sociology and computer-modelling to investigate Kepler-22b.
  4. UnKep has four scenarios for the experts to consider. No life on Kepler-22b, no intelligent life, intelligent life, highly intelligent life.
  5. Biennial conferences are instigated under the auspices of UNFCEL to report on the latest UNKep technical research with a summary aimed at national policy-makers.
  6. Journalists and stakeholders are encouraged to support UNKep and contribute to the debate.
  7. Universities are encouraged to offer degrees and post-graduate research based around UNKep findings.
  8. A steady stream of press releases is used to generate and maintain interest in UNKep.
  9. The dire consequences of failing to fund UNKep adequately raise global concerns about the potential impact of Kepler-22b, especially as the latest computer models show how intelligent its inhabitants are likely to be and how angry they may be about the gross inequality they see among human beings. 
  10. UNKep teaching material is produced for schools, showing what the latest computer models indicate about the inhabitants of Kepler-22b - their social democratic politics, non-racial social structures, vegetarian diet and the sustainable technologies they are certain to have developed.

All purely imaginary of course, but I think The UN would successfully recruit their experts, journalists and stakeholders to UNKep. The UNKep biennial conferences would be well-attended. The BBC would be enthusiastic and uncritical.

Maybe we could call it the fly-paper principle.


The previous post states that Prime Minister David Cameron has said the EU is in safe hands. I have been asked to correct this because the EU is not in safe hands and Mr Cameron has never claimed otherwise.

Naturally I'm happy to put the record straight. David Cameron is a very dear man - in so many ways.

Thursday 8 December 2011

EU in safe hands Cameron insists

Liberty and free speech

Most of us if pressed would be able to give our own definition of liberty. It might take a while because it’s a complex idea fraught with dilemma, but most of us could make a good go of it even if we take a peek at John Stuart Mill first. The definition of liberty I use is a little different to Mill’s, but I like it even though to some it may be over-simplified –

Liberty is free speech.

We say and write things almost exclusively for the purpose of influencing people – sometimes other people sometimes ourselves – influencing ourselves via that covert form of speech we call thinking. Apart from trivial cases of speaking to animals or inanimate objects, the purpose of language is to influence people. Even your humble blogger writes to influence – if only in my dreams!

This extremely intimate behavioural link between saying and doing is why suppression of free speech in a universal feature of repressive regimes. It isn’t an accident. Free speech is liberty because without it we can’t disagree and explain why.

From the creeping authoritarian trends we see in the UK to the extreme example of North Korea, free speech is necessary for political freedom. In the UK, suppression of free speech has tended to come under the label political correctness, although we really ought to describe it more bluntly and accurately as repression. But of course that’s a universal feature of repression – the use of political euphemisms.

  • Laws on verbal behaviour relating to race.
  • Laws on verbal behaviour relating to religion.
  • Laws on verbal behaviour relating to sexual orientation. 

These are all examples of repressive legislation. Laws defining what we can’t say are attacks on liberty whatever the justification. They are intended to suppress certain forms of verbal behaviour beyond the laws of libel.

Free speech, whether written or verbal, also has complex, shifting dimensions – you can have more of it or you can have less, you can have it in one area of your life and not in another. You can say things to one friend but not to another, you can say things at home but not at work.

At work you can say things to one manager but not to another, to one colleague but not to another and possibly nothing but platitudes to a CEO. You can say things in the pub that you can’t repeat to NHS hospital staff and you can say things to your children that you can’t say to their teacher. The point being that if you can’t speak openly then there is always some degree of forced assent.

We can’t easily pursue protests or criticisms without recourse to verbal behaviour, although the political cartoon has its place. We might thump somebody or stamp off in a rage, but with good reason we call that body language and body language can be punished just as severely as spoken language because it amounts to the same thing - as we see all the time in football matches.

A notorious symbol of dictatorships is that loud knock on the door at 2am. Yet these things arise and are perpetuated because free speech and therefore dissent have been suppressed in the past. If free speech gains ground, then support for even the most vicious dictator becomes less certain. Networks of dissent grow and spread. Powerful regime supporters listen to the groundswell of dissent, looking to their own future while casting a furtive, sideways glance at other members of the regime. They may try a bit of free speech themselves, oblique at first but more open and specific as confidence grows. At this point, any dictator is doomed.

What are the requirements of free speech? Well most they are pretty well-known aren’t they?
  • Free speech in public places.
  • Free speech with public officials.
  • Access to public debates.
  • Free speech in the media.
  • Transparency.
  • Overt propaganda.
How about free speech at work? Not necessarily – not if we’re talking of private property, commercially sensitive information, workplace morale and so forth. After all, you don’t have to work there. The public sector is mostly different though, apart from not broadcasting such things as personal information of course. That’s another characteristic of repressive regimes, a casual disregard of personal information – something we see more and more of in the UK.

What about overt propaganda? How can that be right if we want more free speech? Why tolerate propaganda at all? Maybe because propaganda is inevitable if we are to retain advocacy, because advocacy is essential to free speech. So propaganda needs to become overt advocacy rather than covert manipulation.

Public relations and all other forms of covert propaganda distort the debate by perverting the free circulation of ideas. PR is our absurdly genteel label for covert propaganda. The term public relations is itself a product of public relations.

One way to tackle the covert PR issue is via transparency with the aim of turning covert propaganda to overt advocacy. The media could be required to publish sources for every story or clearly state why the source is withheld. Material passed to them by vested interests should be clearly identified as such. Why? Because transparent advocacy is a key aspect of free speech – one of the practical issues we have to pay attention to. It’s far more important than health warnings on cigarette packs and should be pursued with far greater rigor.

Maybe the BBC could take a lead here? Don't bet your liberty on it though.

Dreamy delicious state

Everybody, I suppose, knows the dreamy, delicious state in which one lies, half asleep, half awake, while consciousness begins to return after a sound nights's rest in a new place which we are glad to be in, following upon a day of unwonted excitement and exertion. There are few pleasanter pieces of life. The worst of it is that they last such a short time; for nurse them as you will, by lying perfectly passive in mind and body, you can't make more than five minutes or so of them. After which time the stupid, obtrusive, wakeful entity which we call "I", as impatient as he is stiff-necked, spite of our teeth will force himself back again, and take possession of us down to our very toes. 

Thomas Hughes - Tom Brown's Schooldays

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Time to scrap standards

From Wikipedia

Many years ago a lecturer tried to make a point about common standards after I’d claimed they are inherently restrictive of our freedoms. She used traffic lights as an analogy of how restrictions may allow us to get on with our lives more conveniently.

Today I’d have taken her up on the traffic light analogy, but at the time I let it pass. However it is a useful lead-in for standards – are they useful or restrictive?

Of course standards are both useful and restrictive, but I think it’s too easy to be complacent about them. In some areas they are hugely advantageous, such as technical standards. But even practical, nuts and bolts standards can stifle innovation and lead us into second-best solutions as with the demise of Betamax video. Not that it necessarily matters – a second-best technical standard may well be far better than no standard at all.

It’s the non-techie standards I have a problem with and that includes my lecturer’s traffic lights, which are not of course a technical standard. Around the blogosphere we’ve had a number of good posts about David Cameron and his witless support for global governance. He means global standards of course. Sounds sort of okay too if you aren’t paying attention and haven’t been following the agenda.

But non-technical standards aren’t necessarily beneficial. These standards may destroy what limited freedoms we still have left – global standards merely destroying them globally.

Standards always attract their eager maintenance crews to tamper, tinker, tighten and extend, building a career on more and more restrictive practices. Non-technical standards are always suspect – complex and inflexible bureaucratic processes applied to problems which could be resolved in more relaxed, less freedom-harming ways. Here are just a few possibilities, not all equally serious, but all aimed to question and highlight our mania for standards – you will have lots of others.

  • Insolvent banks? Let them go to the wall.
  • Traffic lights? Switch them off – save power.
  • Education? Make it more contractual.
  • Hospital waiting times? Make healthcare more contractual.
  • Advertising? All ads to include the words “Probably Nonsense.”
  • Food standards? Keep it technical – no five a day slogans.
  • Smoking? The risks are known – nothing to do with the state.
  • Alcohol? The risks are known – nothing to do with the state.
  • Drugs? Legalise them and ensure the risks are known.
  • Building regs? Keep it technical.
  • Planning? Keep it technical – geology, flood risk and services.
  • Policing standards? Keep it technical – catch criminals.
  • Environmental standards? Keep it technical – focus on human health.
  • The EU? Keep it technical – back to a common market.
  • Energy – let the market decide.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Digital graveyard

Project Genie is a crudely full-frontal anthropogenic climate change website aimed at schools, parents and particularly children.

However, although the website is still hosted, it seems to be defunct with no obvious evidence of recent activity. Maybe it has been left as some kind of digital snare for the unwary, but the last press release was July 7th 2010 and the last update I can find related to the site is a Facebook entry for September 17th 2010.

I have no idea why the site seems to have been abandoned like a digital Mary Celeste, but it started me thinking about the demise of climate change generally. The latest activity associated with Project Genie seems to have occurred a couple of weeks before the appalling 10:10 video which had to be withdrawn in such a hurry when the dimwits behind it were prodded into a kind of secondhand moral survival mode. Whether the two events are connected I have no idea, but it set me wondering if some kind of turning point is occurring, albeit slowly.

The alarmist "science" of CO2 induced climate change has pretty much run its course. It's washed up and reputable scientists with their eyes on the ball don't bother to defend it. How it will pan out I've no idea, but the propaganda has been so pervasive that some people will believe it for the rest of their lives.

This is one of the pitiful consequences of intensive propaganda. People become conditioned into unquestioning belief and some may become very strongly and even permanently conditioned - particularly children.