Tuesday 31 January 2012

Fuel-efficient aircraft

There's an interesting 2010 post in the delightful Low-Tech magazine claiming that piston-powered aircraft were as fuel-efficient as modern aircraft on a per passenger mile basis.


James Elroy Flecker - from Wikipedia

When the words rustle no more,
   And the last work's done,
When the bolt lies deep in the door,
   And Fire, our Sun,
Falls on the dark-laned meadows of the floor;

When from the clock's last chime to the next
  Silence beats his drum,
And Space with gaunt grey eyes and her brother
  Wheeling and whispering come,
She with the mould of form and he with the loom
    of rhyme :

Then twittering out in the night my thought-
    birds flee,
  I am emptied of all my dreams :
I only hear Earth turning, only see
    Ether's long bankless streams,
And only know I should drown if you laid not
    your hand on me.

James Elroy Flecker (1884 - 1915)

Monday 30 January 2012

Mist in the hills

Out walking in Derbyshire yesterday. It was a frosty, misty start, but once up in the hills we could see the valleys below still full of mist, great lakes of it bordered by grey-blue hills. A beautiful sight. I didn't have my camera, so the picture above will have to do.

It was one of those sights where you just stand for a while and gaze, drinking it in because it can't last and only rarely will it be repeated.

Elections and frauds

In Science News there is a report on statistical research into correlations between voting patterns and election fraud.

Scientists analyzing data from several recent international contests, including the questionable 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia, have proposed a new mathematical measure to discern fraudulent elections from fair ones.

Fair enough.

The researchers examined voter turnout and votes received by the winning party for recent parliamentary elections in Russia, Austria, Finland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and for presidential elections in Uganda and the United States. Graphing the relationship between turnout and votes for the winner revealed unusual peaks in the data for the elections in Russia and Uganda — a signature of funny business, the scientists contend.

Excellent work chaps. But then we are told :-

Thousands of precincts in Russia and districts in Uganda reported 100 percent voter turnout with 100 percent of those votes for the winning party, the researchers found. Graph these data various ways and the fraud signature pops out.

Graph these data various ways? I'm not sure I'd need to go that far - and I'm not even a statistician. In fact the words Russia and Uganda would be enough for me.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Economic outlook lookout

Henry Hazlitt - from Wikipedia
I don’t do economics in this blog, partly because I’m not an economist and partly because I’m not really sure if anyone else is either. This is what Henry Hazlitt says in his classic Economics in One Lesson, first published in 1946 and still in print. I don't entirely agree with him about medicine.

ECONOMICS is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine—the special pleading of selfish interests. 

While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for them plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

Of course there are other areas which this criticism fits equally well, climate science being just one. To my mind, this well-known, long-term problem with economics doesn't feel resolvable. Who would resolve it and how? Whom are we to believe when listening to all the money-talk?

Maybe blogs are a start, because as far as I can see, many bloggers on economic matters seem to want much more clarity and honesty in economic debates. Official sources of economic lore are presumably no so good in Hazlitt's terms because they are paid-for sources. But that applies to many other subjects too. Most of them in fact.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Wind power fail - again



There is real wisdom to be found in proverbs, yet to some extent they seem to have gone out of fashion.

A lot of what you fancy does you good.
Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow.
A penny saved is a penny.
A problem shared is a problem sorted.
A word to the wise is rarely enough.
Few good things come to he who waits.
Barking dogs bite too.
Indiscretion is the better part of valor.
Cheats always prosper.
Do as I do, not as I say.
A place for everything and nothing in its place.
Don’t mount your chickens before they are hatched.
The left hand has a pretty good idea what the right hand is doing.
Many a true word spoken in a vest.
He who laughs last laughs alone.
The buck stops somewhere over there.

Ugly idols

A sour view of social life from George Eliot. For me this is one of Eliot's most uncomfortable quotes, almost impossible to read through without thinking of real people one knows or once knew. 

The beings closest to us, whether in love or hate, are often virtually our interpreters of the world, and some feather-headed gentleman or lady whom in passing we regret to take as legal tender for a human being, may be acting as a melancholy theory of life in the minds of those who live with them – like a piece of yellow and wavy glass that distorts form and makes colour an affliction. Their trivial sentences, their petty standards, their low suspicions, their loveless ennui, may be making somebody else’s life no better than a promenade through a pantheon of ugly idols.
George Eliot – Daniel Deronda.

Friday 27 January 2012


By email from DaveH

Crime in your genes?

Research by Dr J C Barnes et al, from the University of Texas, Dallas, claims to have found a strong genetic link between genes and criminality. However, Dr Barnes also believes there is no single criminality gene:-

The overarching conclusions were that genetic influences in life-course persistent offending were larger than environmental influences. For abstainers, it was roughly an equal split: genetic factors played a large role and so too did the environment. For adolescent-limited offenders, the environment appeared to be most important.

If we’re showing that genes have an overwhelming influence on who gets put onto the life-course persistent pathway, then that would suggest we need to know which genes are involved and at the same time, how they’re interacting with the environment so we can tailor interventions.

But there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, of genes that will incrementally increase your likelihood of being involved in a crime even if it only ratchets that probability by 1 percent. It still is a genetic effect. And it’s still important.

Honestly, I hope people when they read this, take issue and start to debate it and raise criticisms because that means people are considering it and people are thinking about it.

As ever, this kind of nature/nurture research comes across, at least to me, as inconclusive, simply because there is no demonstration of a gene causing a criminal act. Maybe that is too stringent a requirement, but until it is met, there is no demonstration of cause and effect. Even so, the attitude expressed in the last paragraph is refreshing.

What about the comment so we can tailor interventions though? Where does that lead us I wonder?

Thursday 26 January 2012

Being ignored hurts

A new study from the Association For Psychological Science begins:-

Being Ignored Hurts, Even by a Stranger

Feeling like you’re part of the gang is crucial to the human experience. All people get stressed out when we’re left out. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that a feeling of inclusion can come from something as simple as eye contact from a stranger.

As with many such studies, the first obvious question is how come they didn't know that? Actually I suspect they did, but I suppose all professions need their pot-boilers. 

Anyhow, it set me wondering if our political elite are in the same boat as these behind the curve psychologists. Maybe they have theoretical difficulties with the importance of human contact too?

Because surely the point of democracy is human contact writ large. Democracy is supposed to involve us with the ruling elite and involve the ruling elite with us. Instead of riding by in their carriages, eyes averted from the common throng, the elite are supposed to have learned the mutual benefits of social cohesion. We get a few more crusts and they don't get so many riots and rude words scrawled on their carriage paintwork. Democracy is supposed to promote exactly that kind of give and take across the divide.

It's a social thing we are supposed to have learned and tucked away forever in the treasure-chest of important  lessons we must never forget.

Except we've forgotten it.

The elite have reverted to being strangers - and as of old seem sublimely unaware of their own behaviour. They always tended that way of course, but democracy was supposed to maintain some kind of balance - at least as far as the ballot box and electoral law might contrive.

So that's another lesson we have to relearn, step by bloody painful step. 

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Death in the shrubbery

Science News reports on a global shrubbery threat from Boxwood blight, caused by a Cylindrocladium fungus which was...

...unknown to science before 2000 but has now spread through Europe and New Zealand. In October, U.S. authorities confirmed that the blight had jumped continents, with infections confirmed in North Carolina and Connecticut. By mid-January, with growers and pathologists on alert, the fungus had turned up in at least five more states — Virginia, Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Oregon — and British Columbia.

The blight starts with spots on leaves and black streaks on twigs. Within a few weeks, a plump shrub can turn into a clump of bare sticks.

I saw a cloud pruned box hedge like the one pictured quite recently. Personally I wouldn't have the patience and I'd probably treat a bit of blight as an opportunity to grow something easier. Like a fence.

Lines in the sand

One of the dilemmas we are frequently faced with, is how to draw boundaries to acceptable behaviour without falling foul of ambiguous cases where the boundary rules lead to situations we didn’t foresee or want to happen.

As I grow older, I tend to grow more tolerant (don’t laugh) but I also tend to think we need our boundaries warts and all. Why? Because it seems to me that in trying to accommodate all those tricky cases where our boundary rules don’t quite work, we just end up losing the boundary.

What triggered my musing on this was a post by that wise old blogger David Duff who wrote a post about abortion clinics being allowed to advertise on TV. David drew a very clear line in the sand, and although I’ve never been what you might call a pro-lifer, I found myself agreeing with him.

Lines in the sand may indeed lead to a harsh inflexibility which we didn’t intend, but if they aren’t there, then the outcome may well turn out worse. Lines in the sand do at least allow us a fighting chance to avoid malign social trends we never would have planned. 

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Huxley on ancient wisdom

Aldous Huxley - from Wikipedia

The peoples of the West no longer share a literature and a system of ancient wisdom. All that they now have in common is science and information.
Aldous Huxley. The Olive Tree

There are so many quotes which hit the nail on the head, it's a wonder we manage to go wrong with such impressive ease.

Alien Dreamers

Imagine an Earth-like planet one thousand light years from Earth. Because I have a touch of mawkish poetry in my soul, I'll give it the name Dream. Intelligent beings have evolved on Dream and to nobody’s surprise they are called Dreamers.

Now it just so happens that Dreamers understand Euclidian geometry so the angles of a Dream triangle add up to two right angles. However Dreamers choose to measure angles, the three angles of their triangles must add up to two right angles. 

What's the alternative? It seems to me that the alternative is one where Dreamers do not understand the properties of triangles because geometry is a human invention unique to Earth. Let us be daring and dismiss this as anthropocentric simply because it is anthropocentric.

Imagine a Dreamer named Veracity. One day Veracity travels to her favourite spot to be alone for a while. This favourite spot is a lake near to her home - a body of water much like ours with Dream fish in it and Dream insects flitting across the surface. The sun sets slowly in the East as Veracity sits by her lake and for some reason begins to reflect on the properties of triangles - and yes I know how unlikely that is. 

Language aside, Veracity’s thoughts should have something in common with ours when she considers the three interior angles of her triangle. Veracity should know the angles add up to two right angles and may be able to prove it. As she sits by the lake, the logic in her thoughts must have the same logical form as our thoughts because the logic of triangles is the same for Veracity as it is for us. It is not possible for the properties of a triangle differ between Earth and Dream because if they did, then the universe would be unintelligible.

In my view, this thought experiment suggests that human minds and Dreamer minds cannot form theories which are all unique to Earth and Dream. The natural ability to theorise about reality cannot arise in complete isolation on Earth and Dream. Our theories cannot be entirely shaped by unique locally-based evolutionary pressures. 

In other words, John Prescott notwithstanding, understanding must to some extent be moulded by what is understood. 

It is tempting to assume that intelligent aliens will be entirely different to human beings because this seems to presuppose nothing and feels much less anthropocentric. But although intelligent aliens may be physically different to human beings with entirely different senses, at least some of their true theories must reflect the logical form of natural law as ours do. 

Our ability to theorise is a natural ability – as natural as the way gravity makes water flow downhill and caused the mythical apple to fall on Newton’s head. Our theories must reflect the reality of what is possible and not possible, what makes sense and does not make sense, what is necessary and what is not.

So tell me - how did Nick Clegg evolve?

Monday 23 January 2012

Rubbish that sells

My Bed by Tracey Emin. From Wikipedia

It was rubbish, but – annoying! the sort of rubbish that wouldn’t sell. As every Forsyte knows, rubbish that sells is not rubbish at all – far from it.
John Galsworthy - The Forsyte Saga

The Chaldon wall painting

If you are ever in the Caterham area, it's worth visiting the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Church Lane, Chaldon which has one of the earliest known English wall paintings dating from about 1200 and said to be without equal in any other part of Europe.

My photo above doesn't do justice to this extraordinary work - it is 17ft x 11ft and I'd have needed a stepladder to take a better view. It is thought to have been painted by a travelling artist-monk and depicts the Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul together with Purgatory and Hell. As I gazed at it, I couldn't help feeling I'd like to have known that travelling monk. A robust character I suspect.  

The whole picture is in the form of a cross, formed by the Ladder and the horizontal division between Heaven and Hell. Starting at the lower right, we have the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, loaded with fruit, with Satan as a serpent in the branches.

Two devils hold up a bridge of spikes which dishonest tradesmen have to cross. First, the blacksmith making a horseshoe without his anvil, then a mason without a chisel, the spinners without a distaff, and a potter without a wheel. Below the bridge, the usurer is sitting in flames. He is blind, money pours from his mouth, and he has to count it all (avarice). On his right two figures represent envy, while on the left, two figures embrace - lust. The remaining deadly sins are scattered around in small scenes to the left of the ladder.

The church itself is very attractive too - here it is in the snow:-

If you are interested, then the mural is a rare and remarkable sight and well worth a bit of a detour.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Poly Ticks

This is good fun if you haven't come across it before.

Johnson on trades

No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar if grammarians discuss them.
Samuel Johnson

Or economists, scientists, engineers, accountants, statisticians, lawyers, politicians, bishops...

Worm boozers live longer

From UCLA we learn:-

 Minuscule amounts of ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, can more than double the life span of a tiny worm known as Caenorhabditiselegans, which is used frequently as a model in aging studies, UCLA biochemists report. The scientists said they find their discovery difficult to explain.

However, the researchers are shocked by the results of their research:-

"This finding floored us — it's shocking," said Steven Clarke, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the senior author of the study, published Jan. 18 in the online journal PLoS ONE, a publication of the Public Library of Science.

Unfortunately, the level of alcohol involved does not amount to a great night out: -

"The concentrations correspond to a tablespoon of ethanol in a bathtub full of water or the alcohol in one beer diluted into a hundred gallons of water," Clarke said.

But for me it's a reason enough for another round. Cheers! 

Saturday 21 January 2012

Research note

This evening I'm busy working to save the planet by devising a low-carbon, low energy version of toast. I'll probably call it bread.

Lived-in history

I’ve reached that age we all reach sooner or later where a scary chunk of history happened during my lifetime and I’m wondering what to make of it in an optimistic kind of way. Because I don’t want to sink into that cast of mind where you remember everything as better than it is now - the good old days that were no such thing.

Even so, after giving this question quite a bit of thought, I do think some things are getting worse. On the whole I think important areas of my bit of the universe have gone into decline.

It isn’t necessarily a catastrophe, because we adapt and we’ll no doubt adapt to whatever it is lurking just below our horizon. No use trying to predict what that may be though. It’ll just happen and we’ll react, but if the lot in charge don’t change more than somewhat, we’ll won’t react in time and we’ll not make the best of things. As usual.

I certainly don't see a uniform decline - some things are better than they were. We have more money, better access to information and life is generally more comfortable for most, even those living in so-called poverty. But in getting to where we are now, we didn’t improve many of the things we should have improved and others we made worse.

For me, a major aspect of the decline is being lied to by political leaders, big business, the BBC and major institutions as a matter of routine. I don’t like all the lying – apart from anything else it isn’t dignified for a supposedly civilised country. Lying should not be a profession, a business-tool or a career move, but it has become all of these things. We don't confront it properly either - because all that lying gets in our way.

We are evasive too. Of course all periods of history had their taboo subjects, those things which should have been brought out into the open but never were. But during my life we've disposed of some taboo subjects and replaced them with others, or we've made some subjects difficult to discuss, such as attitudes to racial and cultural differences and the decline of the nuclear family. The lying we barely discuss at all, yet truthfulness was once seen as important.

We in the UK can't pretend to be a nation any longer either - not in the sense I grew up with. The loss of our British nation and with it our democracy looms large for me, because I can’t see any possibility of resuscitating what my father helped fight a war to preserve. In a way I feel responsible, that my generation has taken most of life's goodies and allowed the important things to slide, democracy and respect for truth being the big ones for me.

Education too. It's a complex issue I know, but I feel that at the very least it hasn’t been improved during my lifetime. For example, who now trusts exam results?

How about science? Well science was my career, but it has declined enormously even during my lifetime. Now much of it is silly, exaggerated or even downright fraudulent and polluted by ghastly would-be science celebrities who say things for effect and play down uncertainties. As for climate science - well utterly shameful is all I can bring myself to say about that at the moment.

Materially things are better and the freedom to write this blog and say these things is a great plus. I’m sitting here in a warm room with my laptop and with a few clicks I can explore a world far bigger than anything I ever imagined a few decades ago. In that respect life is good.

But it should have been better, more honest, more civilized and less silly. To make it so, I’d have willingly done without some of the material progress - maybe even all of it. Now I suspect it's too late. 

Friday 20 January 2012

Monthly horoscope - Aquarius

Aquarius (January 20 - February 18)

Magical birthstone - Blingite.
Lucky virtue          - Sobriety.
Lucky breakfast    - Tinned prunes.

All you aquarians out there are in luck, because an unusually vivid flash of inspiration will blow your mind the next time you buy socks from the Post Office. Quite what this flash of inspiration may be, the stars aren't prepared to say, but it could be either a completely new shade of bathroom paint or a cunning plan to avoid global Armageddon. Exciting times.

Next Tuesday is another unusual day as you are invited to contribute to British Knitwear Week. Quite how you became a knitwear expert is impossible for even Saturn to discern, but get in some training is what the stars advise because this may be your big break. But a new set of knitting needles is step one and I hope I don't have to explain why. No more hints, but this isn't Fairisle territory so think dramatic!

The next big thing in your life is a cruise or screws - I can't quite make out which, but surely it could be good news either way don't you think?

As usual we have to consider work and your prospects of promotion. Things are a little murky at the moment, but you may as well speak your mind at work because your colleagues will respect you for it. Well Librans won't, of course, but what do you expect from them and their silly scales and so-called rational arguments? Stick to your guns and don't volunteer crucial information without a real flourish may be the best tactic.

If you are a decision-maker, then try to make your decisions more mysterious than perhaps they may have been in the past. Just a hint, but clarity isn't always a good career tactic - as the stars seem to know well, blast them.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Lewis on chains

Theatrical release poster.

He was chained by every friend who had made life agreeable – bound not to shock or lose them. He was chained by every dollar he had made, every automobile he had manufactured – they meant a duty to his caste. He was chained by every hour he had worked – they left him stiff, spiritually rheumatic.
Sinclair Lewis – Dodsworth

Sinclair Lewis' 1929 novel was turned into a play in 1934 and a 1936. My quote is from the novel and it sums up the theme of the book quite succinctly. Sam Dodsworth is an automobile manufacturer going through a late mid-life crisis as he realises how much his material success has simply loaded him with obligations, the main one being his shallow wife.

Eventually Dodsworth finds fulfillment by leaving behind both wife and business obligations. No real surprises I suppose, but I like Sinclair Lewis and this is a novel I'll probably read again some day.

In 1930 Lewis won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in Rome on January 10, 1951, aged 65, from advanced alcoholism.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Climate Relief

As most of us know, as soon as you poke around the murky world of major charities, you soon run into a mysterious tangle of issues and links which could soon lead even the most generous of us to wonder why we give to big charities at all.

For example, Comic Relief seems to be linked indirectly with the European Climate Foundation (ECF), one of many climate propaganda outfits. The link is through the Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIF) to which Comic Relief has contributed, along with the Elton John AIDS Foundation and The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

For some reason CIF has taken an interest in climate matters and is listed as one of ECF's funding partners - as the ECF rather coyly refers to its donor organistations.

I'm sure there is nothing improper going on here.

It never happened

Imagine a bowl of rainwater. The bowl sits on a small table in my back garden. A few raindrops fall and I see one single drop fall into the centre of the bowl, causing a tiny splash and a brief cycle of concentric ripples which soon die away. Then the sun comes out and the flurry of rain disappears.

Once the ripples in the bowl have died away, how do I know they ever happened? What evidence is there?

There is no evidence - so it didn’t happen.

Or at least it didn’t happen if we take evidence as our criterion of truth, because I have no evidence of those ripples even though I saw them only minutes ago. No evidence means they didn’t happen as far as the outside world is concerned, because I can't prove it and surely we must be consistent in these matters?

Most of the universe makes an unimaginably vast cascade of such tiny changes, those changes that leave no evidence, changes we can never reconstruct because the universe doesn’t do audit trails. An atom absorbs a stray photon, changes its energy level by a single quantum then emits another photon and drops back to its original state. An unrecorded change leaving behind no evidence.

So it didn’t happen.

Except it did happen, but the universe doesn’t need to prove it, doesn’t need to prove anything. We humans sometimes need proof because we have to convince someone else, but the universe doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone - ever. So we have problems, paradoxes, conflicting evidence and things we can sometimes explain, but never completely. We, the social we, aren’t a single entity and have to gather evidence and and present it to each other which only works if the same thing happens again to other people.  

So what about those personal things we experience and the personal way we experience them? Because your experiences are yours, not mine. What about the purely personal events that leave no public audit trail? Like that drop of water, but more important than that, more personally significant?

Public evidence has to be our criterion of public truth, but where does that leave our private experiences? We have to express them in a public language even to ourselves, but in so doing, do we  miss something real, something important? 

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Feral technocrats

Also posted at OoL.

A characteristic of the modern world seems to be the feral technocrat. These are people who often, but not necessarily have some kind of technical qualification, who sell themselves to the cause of modifying our behaviour from a platform of biased, misleading or otherwise untrue technical information – always lifestyle-related.

Bent statistics and fake charities seem to be the tools of choice. Manipulated percentages, dishonest conclusions from partial data or even simple lies in a statistical garb, it’s all grist to the mill.

Feral technocrats are key players in forcing us to subsidise inefficient wind turbines and solar panels. They are behind the demonising of alcohol, red meat, sausages, bacon, salt, sugar, food colouring, animal fats, snack foods, fast food, carbon dioxide, ozone, warm weather, cold weather, wet weather, dry weather, cars and second-hand cigarette smoke. Unfortunately, all this lifestyle misinformation is crowding out an informed debate on more serious medical conditions still blighting too many lives.

For example, check out something important and seriously scary - brain tumours. There is no clear lifestyle issue with brain tumours, so it hasn’t become a one-sided political game played by the feral technocrats and their backers. Yet consider the current UK brain tumour situation as laid out in this e-petition.

  1. 65% more women die from a brain tumour than from cervical cancer. 
  2. Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of UK children. 
  3. 16,000 people each year in the UK are diagnosed with a brain tumour. 
  4. More people under 40 die of a brain tumour than from any other cancer. 
  5. Only 14% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond 5 years. 
  6. 25% of all cancers spread to the brain. 
  7. Every year there is a 4% increase in incidence. 
I’m not advocating any particular policy change with respect to brain tumour research here. I’m merely using a very serious health issue to highlight how the games played by feral technocrats may result in large numbers of people being misinformed about more genuine health risks where maybe we could and should direct some more research funding.

Let’s note the first five points of the e-petition and ask ourselves why on earth our government finds it necessary to employ feral technocrats to demonize second-hand cigarette smoke when this is going on? People, including children, are dying in the real world out there – real lingering deaths not fake statistical artefacts. Courageous kids with big smiles and no hair because of the radiotherapy which isn’t likely to work anyway.

But the feral technocrats have been paid to demonize our lifestyle choices that do not meet with official approval so that is what they do. Sadly they even seem to believe in it. Forget unknown non-lifestyle issues like brain tumours. Forget facts, rational priorities and simple human fellow-feeling. There are political games to play and always there are feral technocrats willing to play. It’s one of the many prices we pay for voting in the Big Three.

Monday 16 January 2012

Film studies

This from The Telegraph:-

Film studies should be taught in every school to elevate cinema to the status of literature, according to a government review.

Film is something you buy - like pants. 

Species of madness

Death and the Miser
Hieronymus Bosch
from Wikipedia
But when a miser thinks nothing save money or coins, or an ambitious man of nothing save honour, these are not thought to be insane, for they are harmful and are thought worthy of hatred. But in truth, avarice, ambition, lust, etc., are nothing but species of madness, although they are not enumerated among diseases.
Benedict Spinoza – Ethics – Boyle translation.

Spinoza had a thing about ambition. In his strangely austere writings, there are very few hints of the man behind the words because he wanted his philosophy to be judged purely on its own merits. Nobody now writes like Spinoza and I suppose few ever did. The need to persuade is too strong.    

Massive Ordnance Penetrator

Whenever you see this kind of report, you are left wondering if anyone plans to use it. At least I am. Or is it just another stage in development programmes which are inevitable and have been going on since the invention of gunpowder?

Sunday 15 January 2012

My five a day

To reach the dietary holy grail of five portions of fruit and veg per day, I tend to count anything of vegetable origin because it makes the accounting simpler. So my five a day for today comprises :-
  1. Coffee
  2. With a tot of rum
  3. Dark chocolate
  4. Dried figs
  5. White wine
Not bad eh? Notice the clever way you can count coffee twice by adding a tot of rum. Two tots don't bump up your five a day any further though. One has to play fair when doing one's bit for the government and dear old Blighty.

Underestimating yourself

For whatever a man imagines that he cannot do, he imagines it necessarily, and by that very imagination he is so disposed that in truth he cannot do what he imagines he cannot do. For so long as he imagines that he cannot do this or that, so long is he determined not to do it: and consequently, so long it is impossible to him that he should do it. However, if we pay attention to these things, which depend solely on opinion, we shall be able to conceive that a man should under-estimate himself.
Benedict Spinoza - Ethics – Boyle translation

James on truth

William James - from Wikipedia

Truth lives, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.
William James – Pragmatism

Saturday 14 January 2012

Chinese burn

Industrial fuels and power has a piece on the future of Chinese shale gas : -

Games are-a-changing almost constantly nowadays, and estimates from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that the Peoples Republic of China has some 1275tnft3 of technically-recoverable shale gas, enough to last around 300 years, can certainly be regarded as a significant one.

That's 1275 trillion cubic feet, an authoritative estimate derived from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). I've already posted about major Chinese investment in US shale gas and this is presumably the background to that investment.

Currently China is a major importer of natural gas, so exploiting its own vast shale gas reserves has obvious attractions for them. How does all this affect Chinese commitments to international CO2 reduction targets? Will they shift to wind power and leave the gas in the ground? Certainly the Chinese have made a considerable investment in wind-power, but the decision has already been made :-

Therefore, it would appear that the shift to shale gas in China is already well underway and while the geology for shale gas drilling has been reported as being more difficult in China than in the US, it is unlikely, given the way in which the Chinese nation goes about achieving a goal, that geology will get in the way for long.

China probably intends to become energy independent. Quite why the UK government thinks wind power should be assessed on anything but a basis of pragmatic national interest is a mystery. 


Busy till Wednesday so blogging may be light.

Friday 13 January 2012

Mad Thinker

Mad Thinker - from
On reading grandson's Iron Man comic I find Mad Thinker is still around. Crikey!


Arnold Lakhovsky - The Conversation (Wikipedia)
Scientist – “The universe is a mechanism...”
Philosopher – So you are a mechanism.
Scientist – “and is essentially mathematical...”
Philosopher – So you are essentially mathematical.
Scientist – “as well as being rigidly deterministic...”
Philosopher – So you are rigidly deterministic.
Scientist – “and all events can be explained by causes...”
Philosopher – So you can be explained by causes.
Scientist – “operating via natural laws...”
Philosopher – So you operate via natural laws.
Scientist – “and even our opinions are the result of natural laws...”
Philosopher – As is that opinion.
Scientist – “and even moral law is merely a matter of genetics.”
Philosopher – Not necessarily.
Scientist – “What?”
Philosopher – Moral law could just as easily have shaped genetics.
Scientist – “That’s absurd.”
Philosopher – What caused our genetic disposition to moral behaviour?
Scientist – “That’s easy - evolution.”
Philosopher – Genetic evolution or moral evolution?
Scientist – “Well...”
Philosopher – What if evolution itself is subject, among other things, to moral law. What if moral law, the logic of looking after your own kind, shaped genetic evolution? What if the gene is merely a causal tool in the overriding logic of moral law such that even the double helix was shaped by it?
Scientist - "But moral law isn't scientific law."
Philosopher - No but genes may have evolved to reflect the moral law of looking after your own kind. Moral law may have come first - genes second.
Scientist – “Time for another pint?”

Thursday 12 January 2012

Teaching the consensus

This is just a bit of musing about consensus. It isn’t really about teaching, although that’s the vehicle I’ve used.

Suppose there is an important issue where almost everyone adopts one of two standpoints, but one standpoint is far more widely publicised than the other.
  • C is the consensus - widely publicised.
  • A is the alternative - much less widely publicised.
 If the issue is appropriate for children, would schools teach C, A or both?

I think only C would be taught because our nationalised education has become part of what we mean by consensus. For certain issues, the consensus is a consensus because that’s what we teach children. It’s a necessary but not a sufficient criterion of certain types of consensus.

Suppose C is easily shown to be invalid in that it cannot be used to make reliable predictions about the real world. Clearly C will still be taught in schools because if it wasn’t it would no longer be the consensus - it would have failed a necessary criterion.

I see this as a logical argument about consensus rather than teaching. Neither do I see it as an argument about data such as the content of a real syllabus. Once the premises are accepted, the conclusion follows, but are there any other conclusions?

Obviously, unless we say that the consensus is always valid, then at least some of what we teach children must be invalid and known to be invalid by some people, almost certainly including some teachers.

But the people who know this don’t count unless they change the consensus from C to A. Otherwise C will be perpetuated in schools, possibly until there is nobody left who understands A.

Two conclusions and a question:-
  • Some teachers some of the time know they are teaching rubbish. 
  • The consensus doesn’t have to be valid, it just has to be the consensus. 
  • Truth will out? Why? How?

Wednesday 11 January 2012

A curse on your generation

A curse on your generation, child. They will open the mountain and drag forth the golden wings and coin them into money, and the solemn faces they will break up into ear-rings for wanton women! And they shall get themselves a new name, but the angel of ignominy, with the fiery brand, shall know them, and their heart shall be the tomb of dead desires that turn their life to rottenness.
George Eliot – Daniel Deronda

It's a bit Gothic, but I like this quote.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Fate my friend

Fate my friend, has made you the hinder wheel –
rota posterior curras, et in axe secundo
run behind because you can’t help it.
George Eliot – Daniel Deronda

Why classics?

From Wikipedia
Most of my fiction reading is based on the so-called classics, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Proust, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair etc etc. I’ve often wondered why my taste meandered in this direction though - because it wandered all over the place before I settled on the classics. The only genre I missed out was romance, but most novels are romances anyway. It wasn’t a conscious decision or anything like that. I just ended up preferring the classics, but why?

I may as well say from the start that I’m not entirely sure about the answer, but I think it probably comes in two parts.

Firstly it’s to do with the way the classics take you back to the origins of the novel as fictional writing to be enjoyed. Novels, at least in the UK, originated during a time where craftsmanship (and craftwomanship) still sat alongside early mass-production as epitomised by the dark satanic mills. Novels were carefully crafted for a well-educated readership and I think it shows.

Secondly and far more importantly I think, there is a parallel-world aspect, almost like science fiction but more real. Classic novels depict worlds which once existed but have now gone, worlds similar to our own, but still far enough removed to fascinate by their multitude of differences.

There really was a Dickensian London with its debtor’s prisons and workhouses, a Russia where the elite spoke French, admired Paris fashions and English guns and bought serfs to run their estates. There really was a freewheeling America where people like George F. Babbitt plied their trade and climbed the social ladder.

My absorption with classic fiction isn’t historical though, but more cultural. Things can be different because they have been different - and will be different again. So as evening falls, it's time to draw the curtains, light a candle, stoke the fire and with a glass of wine at my elbow, revisit Victorian England with Wilkie Collins as my guide.

Monday 9 January 2012

Drink five days a week say MPs

The BBC reports on an MP's committee recommending that we should set aside five days a week for drinking :-

That is one of the recommendations in a report by the Commons science and technology committee, which is calling for a review of all government guidelines on alcohol in the UK.

It says there are "sufficient concerns" about the recommendations on how much people should drink.

Aristotle on climate models

Aristotle - from Wikipedia

Science, then, may be defined as a habit or formed faculty of demonstration, with all the further qualifications which are enumerated in the Analytics. It is necessary to add this, because it is only when the principles of our knowledge are accepted and known to us in a particular way, that we can properly be said to have scientific knowledge; for unless these principles are better known to us than the conclusions based upon them, our knowledge will be merely accidental.
Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Okay, Aristotle didn’t quite get round to climate models, but it’s worth going back to basics when we take a look at the claims made about them. Why? Because they have wasted colossal sums of money and still threaten to blight the lives of our children and grandchildren. As Aristotle seems to have grasped two and a half millennia ago, science is all about demonstration, but climate models have yet to demonstrate anything of value.

So let us take Aristotle’s principle of demonstration a little further and apply it to climate models. It’s a good principle even though now call our demonstrations experiments. In that case, there are three key elements to consider if computer models are to be used for predicting important climate parameters such as temperature.
  1. The output of the computer model  – the prediction.
  2. The state of the climate                   – the standard.
  3. The correlation between them         – the demonstration.
In other words, a climate model that purports to predict global temperatures over the next thirty years must demonstrate significant correlation with the actual climate for thirty years. Or at the very least, it must demonstrate a significant degree of correlation with the real climate over significant period of time.

There is no other test – no other demonstration.

The only area for latitude is the degree of correlation we might count as a successful demonstration. Successfully predicting a number of climate cycles would be good. We may be talking centuries rather than decades for that, but a high degree of correlation could possibly shorten it to a few decades.

Unfortunately, the models have so far failed to predict global temperatures and the current warming hiatus of the past decade. In fact nobody is making a systematic and serious effort to demonstrate their long-term predictive skill. We are supposed to take them on trust, but that just won’t do will it? The basic scientific principle of demonstration is being violated.

When basic principles are involved, such as the principle of demonstration, then I think it pays to be blunt about what these climate modelling guys are doing – the value of their activities for the rest of us who play the game with a somewhat straighter bat. These are my conclusions.
  1. Climate models are useless and every penny spent on them has been wasted.
  2. It is for the modellers to prove otherwise – by demonstration.
  3. But not with our money.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Solar woes

Interesting post on US solar energy costs from the free market energy blog at

The truth is even if China could sell panels to installers for 1¢/watt, the systems would still be too expensive. Even with free PV, the cost of installation, mounting structure, inverters, wiring, etc. make the systems financially unsustainable.

In other words, solar is not competitive with the US national grid even if the Chinese could be persuaded to give away the panels for nothing.

Wordplay - logic

Aristotle - from Wikipedia
What is logic?

Well I for one find it a rather odd business, this mish-mash of ideas we call logic. Aristotle made a start with his syllogisms, but over two thousand years later logicians tried to turn it into a game of symbols and rules so they could run off with it and build careers. Electronics engineers build computers with it, while politicians and climate scientists never use it at all.

The online Oxford dictionary defines logic as:-

[mass noun]
1 reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity:experience is a better guide to this than deductive logicthe logic of the argument is faulty
  • a particular system or codification of the principles of proof and inference:Aristotelian logic
  • the systematic use of symbolic and mathematical techniques to determine the forms of valid deductive argument.
  • the quality of being justifiable by reason:there seemed to be a lack of logic in his remarks
  • (the logic of) the course of action suggested by or following as a necessary consequence of:the logic of private competition was to replace small firms by larger firms
2 a system or set of principles underlying the arrangements of elements in a computer or electronic device so as to perform a specified task.
  • logical operations collectively.
So logic is, within certain boundaries, a move in the argument game, a rather feeble prop we use in whatever way seems most convincing.

Yet it seems to me that logic has more to offer if only we explore  its possibilities, loosen it up and reconnect it with the real world. This is what Spinoza tried to do, but Newton came along and distracted us with his mathematics and mechanistic science of cause and effect. I can't help thinking we could have made more of logic and less of Newton's science, so in future posts I'll make a tentative attempt to expand a little on what might have been.

Saturday 7 January 2012

New PM delivered

Civil servants take official delivery of a new fully-automatic PM module complete with instruction manuals direct from the Chinese assembly plant. The new module will be installed in Downing Street later this month once all the latest apps have been downloaded. 

The old model will be recycled, probably as an EU commissioner as that would require very few app changes and no upgrades. 

Had any insane dreams lately?

The other night I had a strange dream. I was in a house of some kind, which was ordinary enough, but it had a flat roof. I only discovered the flat roof when I found myself on it for some reason, checking out all the water purification gear parked there.

I’m familiar with water purification, so I knew what it was, although my dreaming self did think it a little odd to find loads and loads of it on my roof. In fact the water purification gear turned out to be a complex, rambling plant stretching from my house over to nearby buildings. It had walkways, tanks, control panels and became more and more intricate the more I explored it. Then I woke up.

So it was a pretty mundane kind of dream, if a little mixed-up and ridiculous. But what’s going on when we dream? Why are dreams so often weirdly mixed-up? Lots of people have had their say on dreams, so here’s my offering.

I think dreams are more than weird, I think they are a hint of what keeps us sane.

In a dreaming state we barely respond at all to external stimuli, but they are where our sanity comes from. Reality moulds us. When we are asleep it can't do its job properly and we tend to respond to mysterious internal states not directly controlled by current reality.

Reality imposes itself on us every waking second and the competence of our responses are what our sanity really is. Sanity is a competent response to reality, leaving aside the rather big questions of what competent and reality may be.

So while we sleep, the real world is not imposing itself on our repertoire of behaviours and they are free to  mingle and interact in ways which do not need to make sense and may even be physically impossible such as dreams of flying.

When we wake up after a dream we catch a brief glimpse of our absolute dependence on reality, because that’s what keeps us sane. We are all, every one of us, much closer to insanity than we care to admit.

Of course this idea adds a much darker hue to claims such as those made by climate fanatics who say millions will die because of CO2 emissions. Theirs is an incompetent, mixed-up response to reality and much closer to dreaming than they probably realise. Or is it closer to insanity?

Maybe it amounts to the same thing.

Friday 6 January 2012

TV - a work in progress

We got our first TV in the fifties. I remember it being installed with a big aerial shaped like an X on the chimney. As I recall, we were one of the first on our street - something to do with an uncle being in the trade, the boozer who once dropped the Christmas cake in the chip pan, but that’s another story.

If Mum had known what was coming, I’m sure she’d have put her foot down.

Polish shale gas

The voice-over is Polish, but the subtitles are fine. A good, clear presentation of the basics of shale gas technology by LNG of Canada, even though a few issues are glossed over, such as the chemicals used.  The clip below is a community relations film by the same company. The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates Poland's shale-gas reserves at  5.3 trillion cubic metres.

Thursday 5 January 2012

The green-eyed monster

In the fifties, our next-door neighbours always went to Mabelthorpe for their annual holiday. Our family went to a number of different places, but one year we went to Bournemouth by train. Exotic eh?

Well if must have been a little exotic for those days because our neighbours were a little envious. We found out how envious the following summer when we received a Bournemouth postcard from them.

It was postmarked Mabelthorpe.

Don't let him put you off

Marcus Aurelius - from Wikipedia

So for coitus, it is but the attrition of an ordinary base entrail, and the excretion of a vile snivel, with a certain kind of convulsion.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus - The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius 

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Chinese invest in US shale gas

Industrial fuels and power reports major investments in the US shale gas boom by China's Sinopec and Total SA from France :-

China’s Sinopec and Total SA from France made major acquisitions in the US energy sector as they invested US$4.5bn into deals to buy into the country’s shale rock formations.

Sinopec’s Sinopec International Petroleum Exploration & Production Corp made its first foray into US shale with a US$2.2bn investment to create a joint venture with Devon Energy Corp. The purchase gives Sinopec a one-third stake in five fields.

Total concluded a US$2.3bn with Chesapeake Energy in its second joint shale venture with the US firm.

Many US oil and gas producers have been busy buying up rights that allow them to tap into the lucrative shale deposits under development in various states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio. However, to help pay for the expensive hydraulic fracturing technology necessary to extract the gas from the rocks, many require additional investment partners. “It looks like the preferred transaction structure for a lot of these players, whether they are European or Asian, who are behind the curve on this technology. The more exposure they get, the better,” said Mark Hanson, oil and gas analyst at Morningstar Inc.

Nor any knowledge whatever.

Now that we know what knowledge is necessary to us, we must describe the way and method in which we must know with this knowledge the things that are to be known. To do this, the first thing to be considered is that this inquiry must not be one stretching back to infinity: I mean to say that in order to find the best method of investigating what is true, we must not stand in need of another method to investigate this method of investigating, nor in need of a third one to investigate the second, and so on to infinity. For by such a method we can never arrive at a knowledge of what is true, nor any knowledge whatever.
Benedict Spinoza - On the Correction of the Understanding – Boyle edition

For me, this Spinoza quote is about conceptual frameworks. If we have a conceptual framework to make sense of some aspect of our lives, then we can't expect to justify it via another conceptual framework, because that in turn would require yet another. We have to settle on a personal philosophy and make the best of it.

We differ of course, in our personal philosophies, but as far as I can see, the best way to deal with that is to find common ground, which often as not is common moral ground. There is no point arguing from within different conceptual frameworks.  

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Nothing to Envy

My first new read for 2012 is the Kindle edition of Nothing to Envy, an account of life in North Korea written by American journalist Barbara Demick who won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for it in 2010. 

So far it's proving difficult to put down - a truly grim story well told and a real bargain at £0.99, although the dead tree version is rather more.