Saturday 31 March 2012


1879 poster for an American
theatre production of 
Augustin Daly
from Wikipedia

I've just finished Emile Zola's L'Assommoir published in 1877.  The novel is a relentlessly grim tale of poverty and alcoholism in nineteenth century Paris. Cheery it isn't - believe me.

It opens with Gervaise Macquart being abandoned in Paris by her lover Lantier. Left with two children to bring up, she marries Coupeau, a sober roofing worker. Eventually, through thrift and borrowing from friends, she manages to open her own own laundry and clearstarching business.

Throughout the novel lurks L'Assommoir, a kind of bar with its own brandy still, not really translatable into English. Zola uses the huge copper brandy still as a kind of malign spirit (forgive the pun) lurking in the background yet dominating the wretched lives of those poverty-stricken unfortunates drawn into its fatal embrace.

Gervaise's laundry is the high point of her life, but Coupeau falls from a roof, is badly injured and although he eventually recovers he takes to drink. Why he falls into alcoholism isn't clear, but the novel tends to be plot-driven rather than character-driven. It may be out of character for Coupeau to become an alcoholic even after his accident - but the plot demands it.

Zola tells a good story and the book is well worth reading, but don't expect too much insight into the psychology of his characters. L'Assommoir is considered to be a masterpiece, but for me it is somewhat didactic. A good read but not a great novel in my view. Nevertheless, I've only read this book and Thérèse Raquin and both have whetted my appetite for more of  Zola's work.

Friday 30 March 2012

Petrol plonker-fest

Sometimes I'm stumped by our leaders. This petrol business feels as if it was planned by children playing some kind of guessing game.

As always, anyone over-endowed with political enthusiasm may search around for subtle schemes, but they aren't likely to find one. Almost certainly it's the bungled mess it seems to be.

We really ought to be getting rid of all the mainstream parties next time around.

It's embarrassing.

Telling the kids

The three Rs are all very well, but how does one teach kids about liars? Surely lies are an important and endemic fact of life, so kids should know about them from an early age and know how to spot them.

How about Father Christmas, or Santa? Or fairy stories with witches, goblins and talking animals? Do we take all this colour from their lives in the name of veracity? Are we blurring the boundaries from an early age? Yet even if we don’t know the truth of something we can surely tell them so can’t we?

This is after all partly how climate science slipped in under the radar. Too many of us clearly didn’t know enough about uncertainty and how intrinsic it is to scientific investigations. Scientists are not supposed to be certain of anything, so the liars and the fools made hay at our expense and continue to do so even now, well after their spurious claims to certainty have been thoroughly punctured.

Whose fault is that?

There are two main types of liar we all need to know about because we’ll meet them and have to deal with them, decide whether or not to vote for them.

Compulsive liars lie out of habit, usually learned at an early age. Compulsive liars don’t necessarily gain from their lies, they just lie automatically and find it difficult not to lie.

Sociopaths use lies to get their own way with no real concern for the effect of their lies on other people. These are the tricky ones.

It isn’t particularly difficult to spot liars. For example, it’s a worthwhile tactic to class all politicians as liars – it save time and effort. So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we tell kids how prevalent lying is, how bad it is for society and who the main culprits are?

Thursday 29 March 2012

Global gulag

Okay, optimism has its uses, but I think a good solid dose of rampant pessimism is what we really need for spotting elephant traps. Here's one elephant trap many of us spotted years ago, but the sodding thing just keeps getting bigger:-

The trap. For global elites and their supporters, the main attraction of global governance and indeed global government, is the obvious fact that they leave we proles with nowhere else to go.

It is surely a monstrous irony that there should be such profound dangers in global political harmony, but there are. Because with absolute inevitability global government will lead to corruption and authoritarian oppression on a scale never seen before. A vast trough at which the elite will gorge themselves stupid.

We are quite obviously some way down the road and the only two questions left are:-
  1. How long it will it take?
  2. Can it be prevented?
My gut answers (and what others are there?) to these two questions are
  1. Thirty to sixty years.
  2. No.
We see the process already in the antics of the UN and EU. Two corrupt and authoritarian political machines that will not stop and cannot be stopped because the machine has no brakes. Maybe the revival of a grimly determined nationalism would do the trick, but where do we get a decent supply of nationalism when we need it most? Even so we may only be staving off the inevitable for another generation.

The old freedoms, such as they were, are on the way out. Nobody now living will ever see their like again.

Wednesday 28 March 2012


B F Skinner was a lifelong opponent of what he called mentalism, where unobservable mental events are used to explain or describe human behaviour. In other words, mental states cause action. Basically, Skinner’s take on these unobservable mental events was that they are merely words or metaphors which explain nothing, simply because they are unobservable.

Take the word concept as an example.

We might say that someone worries about apocalyptic climate change because they misunderstand the uncertainty of certain key concepts. Somehow they have the concept wrongly configured inside their heads and that causes climate silliness.

Yet a concept, although useful as a term, is a metaphor for some rather vague assumptions about unobserved and unobservable mental events. How, as Skinner might have asked, do we observe this wrongly configured concept except via silly behaviour - mostly verbal behaviour. What else is there to analyse but the silly behaviour?

So it may be better to root out concepts and simply describe behaviour. What do people do when they worry about apocalyptic climate change? Well in the vast majority of cases, the answer seems to be not much.

They may respond in a broadly predictable way to certain verbal cues and make some minor lifestyle adjustments which are quite likely to be both fashionable and mildly ostentatious. But that’s it – minor behavioural changes. Observable behaviours though.

The real problem arises when multi-billion projects such as wind power arise because of these behaviours. Note that wind turbines don’t get built because of concepts. The minister giving approval for them has no concepts inside his or her head - whatever concepts might be. He or she doesn’t even understand why the wind turbines are being built in any technical sense. The minister merely grinds out some imitative political behaviour.

It is not necessary to assume that anything at all is going on inside the minister's head. There will be some fiendishly complex neurological processes of course, but we don't know much about those and neither does the minister.

The minister is showing symptoms of a contagious imitative behaviour, because behaviour is often contagious. That’s why we get epidemics of it. We don’t get epidemics of concepts. Most people worry about apocalyptic climate change with no discernible mental activity at all - let alone concepts.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Second book of short stories

My second book of short stories has just been published on Amazon's Kindle.

Invasive automation

We all know about automatic gadgets where the designers have tried to take just that little bit too much out of the user’s hands. They can be useful and labour-saving, but sometimes you need less and get more.

Automatic cameras are a good example. No need to focus, or even know what focus might be. It allows millions to take better photos with no effort and the enthusiasts can still buy more involving cameras anyway. So no problems with camera automation.

Yet we become familiar with these changes in subtle, barely-noticed ways. They change our behaviour and expectations. From that point of view, automation is worthy of our attention. There is some obvious stuff such as Direct Debit, but although its dangers may be obvious, we are used to it, accept it and allow it to change our behaviour.

How far could automation go – in a technical sense? Where are the limits? How invasive could it become?

Ah – but that isn’t the issue is it? The issue is not the invasive automation of gadgets such as cameras but the automation of processes. Direct Debit is both. The two are blending – technology and process become one. We see it all the time in climate change and health propaganda. Don't eat red meat. Why not? Health or policy?

What are going through in these early years of the twenty-first century is the automation of policy-delivery. That's why the propaganda is so repetitive and so obviously stupid. We are witnessing the end of debate because even mainstream political debate has been automated towards policy-delivery. Debate is now framed around efficient delivery of policy, not policy itself. Policy is a given.

Debate on policy just gets in the way, reduces efficiency. It's been that way throughout human history of course, apart from a temporary hiatus we nostalgically refer to as democracy. Now democracy has pretty well disappeared and policy-delivery is back with a vengeance - with the added power of computer technology to automate the process.

If you don’t want a bunch of wind turbines looming over your district – tough. There is no point showing how climate science is a crock because debate isn’t on the table. There’s no point protesting either – the process is automatic.

We are not witnessing the banning of real contrarian debate, not yet at least, but a process of shunting it into the sidings - mostly onto the internet. Contrarian debate is now in the hands of bloggers and blog commenters. The mainstream process doesn’t want it, because mainstream debates have been automated, the language and justifications churned out automatically as a script.

Even technical evidence is now generated automatically by policy-delivery processes. Climate models are policy-delivery models - they have nothing to do with the real climate. If they had, they wouldn't be funded.

The answer of course, if there is an answer, is to keep chipping away at the machine with real debates. This seems to be where the power of the internet lies. This is the beneficial side of automation - the debating tool we never had before.

How it will pan out, I have no idea, but one of the major global policies, climate change, is running into difficulties, most of it caused by genuine political and scientific debate over the internet. A lack of real global warming wasn’t enough. That's why the climate debate is still important - automated policy-delivery hasn't yet been halted. We need to show that it can be.

Monday 26 March 2012


From Paul R by email

A pint of Hovis please

From Wikipedia

During the seventies I had to take regular samples of effluent from the two major breweries in Burton-on-Trent. I often noticed big Hovis flour tankers making deliveries to what was then the Bass or Allied Breweries plant – I can’t remember which. 

Those of course were the days of ersatz beer made cheaply from fermented starches such as flour with caramel added as brown colouring to make up for the lack of malt and saponins (natural soaps) to put a creamy head on the final product. 

I’m not sure how different it is these days, but I suspect there are still some pretty grim brews sold under the misleading name “beer”. If you fancy a drop of real ale, then stick to the smaller brewers may be the best advice. Otherwise you really cannot be sure what you are drinking.

Better still, take a trip round the brewery and keep a lookout for Hovis tankers.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Honda walking device

It's supposed to help.

Old ladies

From David H by email.

Private matters


As both Lugwig Wittgenstein and B F Skinner have observed in their different ways, language is necessarily public. There is no such thing as a private language and we can’t speak or think outside of socially constructed modes of expression. Even so that does not rule out private events. It just means they may be difficult or even impossible to express in a public language..

So it is quite reasonable to suppose that a person might become convinced of some matter for private and socially inaccessible reasons. As long as they don’t mutilate the established uses of language in describing their private certainties, then who can possibly gainsay their point of view?

So one person may have their god and another person may have no god or a different god, but these matters may be driven at least in part by private events. We cannot automatically decry such experiences, merely because we ourselves do not seem to touch reality in quite the same way.

These private differences seem to be important and authoritarian attempts to iron them flat are doomed to fail. Equally mistaken is the idea that science covers everything and, at least in principle, will tell us all we are equipped to know. These days that particular myth is not even worth demolishing, but there are still important principles at stake. We should not lose sight of them.

Reality touches us in different ways - it always has, so these differences must be important. We should study and try to understand them, but to deny or dismiss them is foolish, leading us into disaster after disaster.

We may not mutilate the competent and moral use of language, but that does not necessarily restrict what we know or suspect to be true. Private matters. 

Saturday 24 March 2012

I'm not smelling those

From Dave H by email.

Industrial alcohol price shock

The Telegraph reports that a government plan to force up the price of industrial alcohol made from fermented maize and sold to consumers as "lager" may run into legal difficulties. 

Wordplay - clie

One day when all the climate change nonsense has blown over and we can get on with demolishing the next batch of global lies, a few tattered remnants of battle may well creep into our lexicon and nestle there for a while.

So maybe we’ll add a new word or two. How about clie? Etymology - climate lie. It could be future slang for a manipulative lie. Children, instead of being accused of telling fibs, will be chided with telling a little clie.

Now don’t tell clies, Mum or Dad will say – you know you’ll be found out.

Well you never know – stranger things have happened to our venerable language. The term settled science for example. That was a real humdinger of a clie.

Friday 23 March 2012

The Twilight People

It is a whisper among hazel bushes;
   It is a long low whispering voice that fills
With a sad music the bending and swaying
   It is a heart beat deep in the quiet hills.

Twilight people, why will you still be crying,
   Crying and calling to me out of the trees?
For under the quiet grass the wise are lying,
   And all the strong ones are gone over the seas.

And I am old, and in my heart at your calling
   Only the old dead dreams a-fluttering go;
As the wind, the forest wind, in its falling
   Sets the withered leaves fluttering to and fro.
Seumas O'Sullivan (1879 - 1958)

O'Sullivan was fond of a drink. As Wikipedia puts it:-

He was a friend of most of the leading literary figures in Dublin, including William Butler Yeats, James Stephens and George William Russell, but was inlined to be quarrelsome, largely due to his heavy drinking. Even the tolerant Russell admitted " Seumas drinks too much "; Yeats' verdict was;" the trouble with Seumas is that when he's not drunk, he's sober ".

Verbal behaviour

B F Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior probably isn’t on the mainstream reading list, yet I think it is the most important non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

It’s an odd book too, because although Skinner was a major psychological researcher and theorist, his book is not highly technical - reading more like philosophy than science. Skinner deliberately wrote the book in this way. His aim was to describe common modes of verbal behaviour in terms of his behavioural psychology, but framed within everyday observations.

He classifies verbal behaviour into six basic forms, using some made-up names to avoid being lumbered with cultural baggage from the beginning.

Tact – responding verbally to the physical environment (see that tree).
Echoic – imitating the verbal behaviour of another person.
Textual – reading and writing.
Intraverbal – responding to the verbal behaviour of another person, often via association.
Mand – motivating another person (as in a command such as come here.).
Autoclitic - verbal behaviour which modifies other forms of verbal behaviour

The autoclitic is complex, but one interesting aspect of it is where we influence ourselves by being our own audience. It’s how we analyse and adjust our own ideas, acting as our own critic, revising our own blog posts or comments, talking or thinking ourselves through them before that final mouse click.

To my mind, the autoclitic is where we respond to our own thoughts, acting as our own audience is a kind of free-will within a deterministic psychology. A piecing together of a personal philosophy using material from the outside world yet shaped and moulded to our own uniqueness. Yet nobody has to use the autoclitic in private. Nobody has to examine their own ideas away from the noise of the outside world, free from external stimulus, let alone modify them. It’s optional.

Skinner’s book was immediately attacked by Chomsky, probably because it blows Chomsky's notion of innate grammar out of the water. For me, that’s reason enough to value the book anyway, because I see Chomsky’s linguistic theories as untenable, or if I’m being more honest – absurd.

The other thing worth mentioning about the book is that it’s quite difficult. The concepts Skinner introduces and makes use of are not the problem, so much as the unfamiliar way one has to look at verbal behaviour. We are immersed in our own social and personal constructs to such a degree, that even though we may be able to see them for what they are, it isn’t a habit.

So I’m not recommending the book without reservation. It requires a solid grounding in behaviourism and isn’t an easy book to wade through even with such a grounding. It won’t chime with many personal philosophies either, but for those it does speak to, then I think it may be something of a revelation.

Skinner himself saw this book as the most important he'd ever written. I value the book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the way it provides a viable scientific view of how we manage to exert free-will in a deterministic universe, how we may come to conclusions which are in a sense our own conclusions.

However, this isn't by any means Skinner's main theme. His theme is that language is learned behaviour. Stimulus, response and reinforcement. 

Thursday 22 March 2012

Straws in a cold wind

Nobody knows where global temperatures will go over the next thirty years. Frankly I prefer warming. Yes we’d get a new deluge of lies about CO2, but I’d go for it given a choice. I'm used to the lies.

However, my guess is that many of those interested in climate change are more worried about cooling than warming. The focus of anxiety has shifted even among many former believers because the world is not warming and little hints of cooling just keep mounting up, particularly from the sun. There have been numerous reports of imminent cooling over the past few years.

For example here, here, here, here, here and here. Straws in the wind maybe, but easy to find and they just keep coming.
  • The sun is much less active with respect to sunspots. 
  • Global temperatures have been static so far this century. 
  • The Arctic is not melting as predicted. 
  • Sea level rises seem to have slowed. 

So what is the best response?
  • Do northerners move south? 
  • Or is it better to emigrate to somewhere warmer? 
  • Or downsize to a house with small, easily heated rooms? 
  • Buy a 4x4? 
  • Buy a multi-fuel burner? 
  • With plenty of solid fuel storage space? 
  • Think about winter food supplies in case of disruption? 
  • Don’t live on a steep hill? 
  • Rent rather than buy to stay mobile? 

Okay, but at what point does global cooling become a good bet? At what point do we actually do something? Because that’s what it amounts to. If we enter a phase of significant global cooling, then those who placed their cooling bets early and successfully will be better off than those who left it too late. If it happens, cooling may not be severe enough to warrant doing much about anyway – but that’s a bet too.

The great unknown of course is the climate itself – what clues we should watch for, how they change the odds, when to lay your bet or just sit tight and hope for the best. Those who claim to know the answer are all liars. Currently it's just a bet with unknown odds.

So the bet is  down to you – it always was.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Arm

A short story, behind which is a true childhood experience from the fifties. Hardly a short story really, but it feels like the best way to tell it. 

‘Are we there yet?’ I asked, even though we obviously were.
‘Yes, here we are,’ Mum said brightly.
Dad parked our pre-war Ford by the side of the road, near the bridge. I remember our first car to this day. Black and boxy with wire wheels, it had a little roller blind on the back window. Dad bought it off Uncle Jack in London. It wouldn’t do more than forty, not safely.
‘River’s very high,’ Dad said as soon as he’d switched off the engine. He climbed out of the car raising both arms for a good stretch now we’d arrived, even though we couldn’t be more than ten miles from home.
‘Where, how high?’ Jim and I tumbled out of the car, staring up at the blue sky wondering how high a river could be.
‘It’s right up near the top of the bank.’ Dad pointed to where the swollen river churned its way under the bridge’s low stone arches. Jim and I stared. It might not be as exciting as a sky-river, but a high river was still impressive, nothing like the sluggish shallows we’d paddled in before.
‘It’s a lovely day though,’ said Mum, unloading a picnic packed into the old brown canvas bag which was once mine then Jim’s carry-cot.
‘We’re going for a paddle,’ I shouted as Jim and I threw ourselves on the grass, tugging off shoes and socks almost before we hit the ground.
‘Let’s find a nice spot first,’ Mum called. Dad helped her with the bag, didn’t bother locking the car. You didn’t in those days.
‘We want a paddle.’ That was me. Two years older than Jim, it was my job to ensure paddling rights from the outset. Paddle then picnic was the official order as far as we were concerned.
‘We’ll just sit here first and have our picnic,’ Mum said firmly, conjuring an old tablecloth from somewhere, spreading it on the ground in a single deft shake. ‘Is it quite safe Harry?’ She glanced at the swollen river, swirling violently, brown as mud.
‘I’m afraid not,’ Dad stood staring at the river, lighting his favourite pipe. ‘The shallows are all flooded – too dangerous by half.’ He sat on the cloth and sucked at his pipe to get it going. Fragrant wafts of tobacco smoke swirled round our picnic spot. Dad had spoken.
‘Awww... Why not?’ Jim and I stood on the grass in bare feet, sulking hard at the river. No point sulking at Mum or Dad.
‘Look at that, boys. Dad pointed at the river with the stem of his pipe. ‘See the way your paddling place is flooded? Look how fast the river’s flowing and all those whirlpools. If one of those got you, you’d be finished.’
‘What... pulled under, like quicksand?’ Jim and I looked at the turbulent river with new respect.
‘Pull you down a sight quicker than quicksand. Drag you under and keep you there; nothing you could do. Couldn’t fight it because there’s a lot of power in water.’ Dad was an ex-Navy man who knew what he was talking about.
‘Don’t frighten them too much Harry.’ Mum’s voice low as she unpacked the picnic. Egg sandwiches in greaseproof paper, apples, tomatoes and a slice of home-made fruitcake for after. Finally the big beige Thermos full of tea to wash it down.
‘I’m not frightening them,’ Dad said. ‘I’m just telling them why they can’t paddle; so they understand... What’s that chap doing?’ He pointed to a man on the other bank near the bridge. There was a boy with him in yellow swimming trunks, a few years older than me by the look of him.
‘I hope he isn’t thinking of going in. Sit down boys. Who wants an egg sandwich? It really is a lovely day.’ Mum began to nibble one of the egg sandwiches, determined that out picnic mustn’t be spoiled just because the river was in flood and we couldn’t paddle.
‘Don’t like egg.’ That was Jim.
‘Yes you do.’ Mum handed him an egg sandwich.
‘Don’t.’ Jim took the sandwich between finger and thumb, a thick wedge made from Mum’s homemade bread. He sulked at it suspiciously.
‘Daft bugger’s gone in...’ Dad again, sitting up straight.
‘Harry... language.’ With a glare, Mum handed Dad an egg sandwich, the one with the biggest crust. Dad would eat anything, which was just as well.
‘He’s gone in the water, that lad.’ Dad laid his pipe on the grass, took a bite of his sandwich, pointed across the river.
‘How foolish. The boys aren’t going in. I’ll pour the tea I think. It’ll help wash these lovely sandwiches down.’
‘The daft bugger can’t swim.’
‘Well he can’t. That bloke on the bank must be his dad. Fancy teaching his boy to swim when the river’s like this. Must be flipping mad.’
By then Jim and I knew something interesting was going off on the opposite bank - serious even. There were quite a few other people around, all looking, but saying little. Nothing to worry about surely?’
‘He’s in trouble.’ Dad stood up. ‘He can’t swim – I told you he couldn’t swim.’
‘Don’t go in Harry. You’re not to go in... Think of the boys.’
Dad was a strong, stocky man with big hands, a powerful swimmer. Mum was suddenly alert to serious family danger. Young as we were, Jim and I caught it straight away. We too stared across the river. We could see the boy in the water struggling, his dad on the bank waving his arms. He ran around asking for help, even dashed over to our side of the bridge. Mum shook her head as his fleeting glance of enquiry. Somebody gave him a rope so he sprinted back to the far bank.
‘I ought to do something,’ Dad muttered, knowing Mum wouldn’t let him.
‘No you won’t Harry. It’s far too dangerous.’ Mum began to pack up the picnic before we’d anything like finished.
The boy in the water kept going under as one of the whirlpools took hold, spun him round in circles. He managed to keep one arm out of the water, raised high desperate for his dad to grab his hand, but he was too far from the bank. The arm disappeared quite suddenly, as if yanked down hard. It didn’t appear again.

The local newspaper said he’d been found dead a mile downstream in some reeds. His dad couldn’t swim, so daren’t go in after him. Beyond stupid, but still a tragedy. Could Dad have saved him? Possibly - Dad was a strong swimmer. But possibly was nowhere near good enough for Mum.
Of course it wasn’t.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Dogs 1 Cats 0

From Paul R by email

It's madness

From Wikipedia
Sometimes it’s worth saying things purely in order to explore possibilities. So with the clear proviso that this is what I’m doing here, let’s give it a go...

The real problem we have in the world is irrational behaviour. Not irrational beliefs necessarily, but irrational behaviour. This is caused by distancing ourselves from the imperatives of the physical world which is the main stimulus we have for selecting rational responses.

So we have to stay in touch with physical reality – the earth, the seasons, wind and rain, good harvests and bad harvests. For me this means we have to stay in touch with a range of activities based on the natural world and on manipulating materials, everything from house-building to genetics.

Stray beyond those and we’re in trouble.

In modern times it is possible to stray beyond these imperatives. Leaders have always been able to do it, even in far more primitive societies than ours. This is one of our most fundamental political problems – keeping leaders in touch with real life.

The banquets, conferences, limousines – the whole fantasy world of leadership mitigates against reminders delivered by the real world. The knocks and setbacks from which we learn to be rational. Where there is no natural, real-world stimulus, there can be no natural, real-world response.

In a sense this drives our leaders mad. Not mad in any organic sense, but in the disconnected sense, the failure of empathy sense, the inability to structure concepts sense. The answer of course is to select leaders from the real world and send them back there after their stint of leadership.

There is no sense in taking young men and women who joined the party early with a belly full of ambition. Those smooth-faced blanks from the world of twisted communication who become interns and political advisers before ever achieving the ability to advise. They are no good at all. 

We are selecting our leaders from the massed ranks of obvious tossers. 
It’s madness.

Monday 19 March 2012

Layer speak

One of the features of our language is the layering imposed by social groupings. What we say to the boss isn’t what we’d say to our partner, kids or friends down the pub.

One feature of this layering can be its unsatisfactory nature. Sometimes it isn’t possible to say things we’d like to say in just the way we'd prefer to say them. We don’t have the social opportunity or can't take the social risk. This I think is where blogging stepped in.

Because we can refer to David Cameron as the Prime Minister, as a tosser, a duplicitous power-mad freak, as a toad mired in political imperatives he has no desire to change or we may decide not to refer to him at all. It depends on the social groupings we have available to us.

And that’s the thing about blogging. It’s a virtual social grouping where things are said which often cannot be said in physical social groups. After all, you can’t have a beer with your friends and just say how awful things are all the time. You can say it, but you may well be branded as a right misery.

So blogging may fulfil an important social function, a healthy function where social constraints on what is said about what are more relaxed. If we don’t like what is being said we can move on without losing any friends in the process.

It works remarkably well and seems to add something new to our society, something we have yet to see with the full benefit of hindsight, something with which we are not yet completely au fait.

And yes – Cameron is a tosser.

Sunday 18 March 2012


From Paul R by email.

Cattle Market Kate

Mechanics Institute from

For a while in my teens I used to visit the Mechanics Institute in Derby to play table tennis and sometimes a frame or two of snooker. The Mechanics was housed in a tall Victorian building with a kind of entrance vestibule on the ground floor. A wide staircase led to the upper floors.

Upstairs there were meeting rooms, a bar, library snooker room and table tennis rooms. There was nothing in the vestibule apart from a wooden bench upholstered in brown leather.

One cold evening there was a woman sitting on the bench who didn’t seem to belong somehow. You came across all kinds of people in the Mechanics, but she didn’t seem to fit.

Later that evening a friend said she was Cattle Market Kate, a well-know local prostitute. She usually plied her trade around the Cattle Market area when the local farmers came to market.

As you can see from the link, she was at one time quite a character, but I think my encounter would have been quite a few years later. All I really remember was how forlorn she looked. Sheltering from the cold I suppose. A quick fag and back to work. Yet even Kate was somebody’s little daughter once upon a time.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Arctic loons

Helpful information: 
Arctic sea ice extent hasn't changed significantly for five years. 


As I grow older, I seem to get more like my father, which I suppose is no surprise as I inherited a wodge of his genes.

For example I tend to catch my sleeve on door handles, which is an annoying habit he also had. Is there a gene for catching your sleeve on door handles? Maybe there’s a doctorate lurking in such a possibility. These days there may well be.

I break lots of crockery too, just as he did. That may be a much more common gene though, because anecdotal evidence suggests lots of people have the crockery-drop gene.

It’s a useful aspect of modern life - blaming genes. We don’t usually do it when it’s a matter of taking credit though do we? That’s the credit-taking gene for you. Politicians are stuffed with those. Plus the bollock-drop gene – they have that in abundance too.

Friday 16 March 2012

Think !

From Wikipedia

Natural selection is an important evolutionary process where environments select the behaviour of organisms within that environment and in the longer term their genetic endowment.

Suppose for a moment that we humans are sufficiently complex in our behaviour that for some purposes we are best be viewed as a micro environment. In other words we select some of our own behaviour. We do it by responding to our own feedback.

Usually an organism responds to stimuli from the environment and other organisms, which we may lump together as responding to the outside environment, physical and social.

But we humans also respond to ourselves. In Skinner’s terms, we act as our own audience. We are still responding to a stimulus, but we provided that stimulus. This as Skinner has suggested, is the unique feature of human language. We are not different because of our intelligence, whatever that may be, but because we have language.

But that isn’t quite it either.

We are unique because we listen to ourselves and respond to what we say, whether speaking out loud or performing that covert form of speech we call thinking. So we teach ourselves to modify our response to a future stimulus. We do it by thinking things through – sometimes with no further input than a reworking of our own thoughts.

To my mind, this is what is spooky about being human. To a certain degree we select our own behaviour. Just like an environment – we select the behaviour that works - or seems to work.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Embarrassed by the BBC?

Are you embarrassed by the BBC? Try STFTO, the brand new lifestyle regime for active minds.

I hardly ever watch the BBC, so I suppose the answer for me is no – I’m not really embarrassed. But at the same time it occurs to me that perhaps I ought to be.

The BBC is merely our UK state broadcaster so rational expectations are lower than a snake’s arse, but really – is it a dignified situation?

Imagine if you will, a BBC with austere, dry-as-dust standards. A BBC where serious discussion is always factual and as neutral as ten layers of magnolia paint. A BBC with such rigorous standards that it is cited as an authority all over the world. Even the most keen-eyed critic can find little wrong with the steely rigor of its corporate approach to all matters of public concern.

I won’t labour the point, but I when I compare the BBC as it is with what the BBC ought to be - then I’m at least momentarily embarrassed. I don’t pursue the issue with any real enthusiasm, but satisfy myself with the occasional sniping post. Unfortunately the BBC is really too embarrassing to take seriously.

It may even become a subject we don’t discuss in polite society. The dirty little secret we don’t mention, like where poo goes after flushing.

Blog review

I’ve been blogging for nearly a year now, so I suppose it’s time to sit back and see if a little housekeeping is called for. There are a few things to think about.
  • A new look to the blog - not very important.
  • Different blogging frequency – maybe fewer posts.
  • Different subjects.
  • Guest posts.
Guest posts seem a bit redundant because anyone interested in blogging may easily set up a blog of their own. Even so, I get good comments, so if any commenters with no wish to run their own blog are interested in risking the occasional post here, then drop me an email and we’ll take it from there. But this is a small blog, so you won’t get fan mail !

Otherwise I’ll probably just carry on for now, but at some point soon I may cut down on the time I spend blogging and put more into writing. Writing isn’t as immediately rewarding as blogging, but I have a novel and a book of short stories to finish and I really ought to get on with both. The trouble is, while I'm writing, the blog is only a mouse click away.

Ah well - if I miss out on posting every now and then, it just means I’m busy.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Analytical morality

Whom do we generally trust? Scientists, artists, religious people or atheists, or are these irrelevant to the matter of personal trust?

I tend to trust people with an analytical moral code. By that I mean those who clearly have a moral code, but are also analytical in its application. Those who use moral rules to analyse particular cases instead of passing a priori judgements on all cases before they have even occurred.

To my mind, the problem we have with our political elite is a lack of analytically moral people among their number. It is not moral to deprive citizens of the means to be moral agents. It is not moral to prevent folk from exercising their own analytical morality – to hinder them from applying moral rules to particular cases – those cases affecting their own lives.

In my experience, those people strongly aligned to political parties tend not to be analytically moral, but tend more to an a priori morality which doesn't work well and never will.  Yet it cannot be moral to force an a priori morality down the citizen's throat.

To me, this moral weakness is a major reason why the big three UK political parties are so hopelessly out of tune with life as it is actually lived with its never-ending cascade of particular cases. It's also a reason why the EU will never work as currently constituted.

Maybe those who are analytically moral are not attracted to modern politics. It isn’t just the people we have but the people we don’t have and can't attract. We never will attract them either, only a priori careerists who probably know perfectly well that analytical morality is not what modern government is all about. 

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Guardian gall

The Guardian has a piece by Jonathon Porritt suggesting that the UK is handing energy policy over to France via its nuclear policy.

Sounds like rampant xenophobia to me - and I certainly prefer France to the Guardian or you, Jonathon.

Emotional feeds

An emotional feed - from Wikipedia

Following up the previous post about targets, one subject I see as a deserving target is what has been called emotional feeding - and I don't mean chocolate. I mean emotional input that entertains and sustains in a vicarious way - without direct involvement.

Most of us probably know what it is to feed off an emotional stimulus. At the very least we've all applauded a rousing performance of one kind or another. But the subject isn't a clearly-defined critical target with popular cues and metaphors. Emotional feeding is itself a metaphor, but a little clumsy, vague and ambiguous - not really fit for critical use.

An analogy of emotional feeding is an internet feed such as RSS, where we subscribe to a website and receive new material automatically. TV soap operas are similar where you can set a series record on the TV recorder so as not to miss a single episode of emotional sustenance. 

In many ways, emotional feeding runs counter to intellectual feeding where we subscribe to sources of new knowledge or new angles to old problems. Yet the two are not linked by some kind of popular metaphorical corollary. We don’t have good metaphors to help us classify social feeds as emotional, intellectual or mixed. Neither do we have good metaphors for their value or lack of value.

TV, cinema and newspapers have always been skewed towards emotional feeds, particularly children's TV. These now traditional media supplied the primary feeds of the 20th century and for all we know could have left us more skewed intellectually than we might imagine. Books tended to offset the imbalance, but only partially as many were emotional feeds in the shape of formulaic romances.

What about education? How much is an emotional rather than intellectual feed? How much is a mixed feed, confusing all those kids forced to subscribe? Do they understand what they have subscribed to, or are we unable to tell them because of our lack of useful metaphors? Does children's TV make the problem worse? 

So emotional feeding may well be an important critical target sitting slightly below the social radar, unlikely to be picked up by TV or newspapers. Familiar enough when described, and not a difficult subject for blogging. But giving it traction as a significant critical target – that’s nigh on impossible because we can’t just invent the cues and metaphors.

Monday 12 March 2012

Technical game

This anagram site is good for a bit of wordplay. You probably know these already, but here are some examples.

climate change   - technical game
David Cameron  - Advice Random
Ed Miliband       - Bailed Mind
European law    - our anal weep
wind turbine      - win debt ruin

Critical targets

Sometimes the target of a critical blog post is more difficult to write than usual because socially it isn’t well-defined. The metaphors are weak or even missing and social cues are not strong enough to pinpoint the target with any degree of precision. The language is too diffuse.

Popular pundits tend to select easy critical targets rather than more diffuse, socially obscure targets that do not lie within mainstream social discourse. Yet any society is in part defined by these lesser targets where critical attacks are disallowed, circumscribed or the target simply sits below the cultural radar.

Issues that ought to be critical targets may escape mainstream analysis for a number of reasons, however deserving they are of full-blown targethood. Politics is all about creating false targets and shifting more deserving targets into the background so that critical social cues and metaphors fail to gain traction. This still goes on even though the internet has facilitated much more widespread target freedoms.

Take the BBC for example. It seems intent on making itself into a big fat target by its manifest failure to take advantage of target availability. Dodgy plumbers don’t really make the grade. Climate science would have been a glorious target with every shot guaranteed to hit the bull’s-eye - but no.

The BBC relies on mainstream targets with ready-made cues and metaphors. It does not seek new targets let alone give them traction - however worthy that might be socially or politically. This is what we mean by mainstream of course, but even an organisation as dismally mainstream as Auntie surely ought to take a peep beneath her skirts every now and then.

Sunday 11 March 2012

A grand day out

Blue sky
Had a grand day out walking today - blue sky and sunshine all the way. I almost hope we are in for some real global warming. Okay we'd have another barrage of lies to put up with, but it might be worth it.

Police state


Sometimes you have to take a subject and push it a little to make a point. The UK is not a police state in the global meaning of the term, but we have initiated certain trends which should be watched with an acutely critical eye.

Because the modern world seems to have learned a few lessons from the last century, not least on the question of tight social control. The crude Stalinist police state has given way to more subtle and superficially relaxed control measures which arouse far less opposition than a man with a submachine gun on every street corner.

North Korea is in many respects a misleading totem of George Orwell’s nightmare vision, a reminder of the past and a distraction from other, more covert ways of micro-managing whole societies.

If you want a police state these days, the way to go about it is firstly to downplay the size of your police force. It’s best if most aren’t even referred to as police officers and don’t wear uniforms. We in the UK are in not remotely in the same situation as North Korea, yet vast numbers of people in the public sector have some kind of policing role.

It’s a trend and as usual we aren’t really acknowledging it as such. But we could so easily drift into situations we never would have planned. If we simply list a few institutions with policing powers, then maybe the potential for drift becomes clearer.

  • Defra
  • The Environment Agency.
  • HMRC.
  • HSE.
  • Local Authority planners.
  • Local Authority public health officials.
  • Local Authority trading standards.
  • LEA.
  • Fire brigades.
  • Doctors.
  • Teachers.
  • Social workers.
  • Traffic wardens.
And so on and so on. These trends aren’t necessarily dangerous, but to my mind they should be seen for what they are and discussed as such. What we have today in the UK is mass-policing where a large percentage of the population has some kind of official role in the enforcement of minutely structured social control.

But our addiction to polite euphemism has its penalties and an obvious one is how we fail to describe mass-policing as policing at all. Yet a vast number of people may in their official capacity, fine, direct or entangle their fellow citizens in legal proceedings - it’s part of their job.

They may also be expected to act as informers, even though that side of things will not be explicitly laid down in the job description. We don’t do explicit.

We have wandered along the path towards a full-scale police state without the wit to tell ourselves in plain language what we are doing. I see it ending in tears.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Science for hobbyists

From Wikipedia

Post-normal science, in spite of its academic nuances, is policy-driven science where the ends justify the means. Essentially a political activity in the guise of science-backed policy-making, it has infiltrated the scientific method over the past few decades and really, we should not be surprised.

Radical students of the seventies committed to left-wing ideology or even avowedly communist sympathies, now occupy positions of power and influence within the scientific establishment. A few may even be fine scientists within their field, but beyond their specialism, many quite obviously cannot tell fact from fiction and seem to have no wish at this late stage to learn how.

If we stir into this mix the widespread funding of science by government and big business, then ends overhang means to such an extent that scientific principles are now left to philosophers and science enthusiasts. Even the most prominent and distinguished scientists may be remarkably naive about what can and cannot be said within the scientific method.

Andrew Montford who runs the Bishop Hill blog has written a GWPF paper on the decline of the Royal Society, how it is being turned into just another policy-driven quango. It is well worth reading, but the analysis will surprise few.

The scientific method is alive but not well. It lives on in individuals who have acquired for themselves a grasp of scientific history, almost as if it has changed from being a key aspect of the profession to a separate hobby, essentially unrelated to the parent body. In a sense it always was a hobby, one generally pursued by enthusiasts, but the enthusiasts were once influential. Today they are not.

About a couple of decades ago, I noticed a term had slipped into the lexicon of the scientific world and that term was hobbyist. A hobbyist was a scientist who wanted to find things out in their own way, someone who didn’t follow the rules of their institution. It was a decidedly pejorative label - one to be avoided by the career-minded.

In the modern world, many scientific professionals seem to treat the scientific method as an optional extra, as a philosophical hobby lying beyond the professional world. It isn’t seen as essential to a scientific career and may even be detrimental. Again, I’m not convinced it was ever otherwise, but while there were discoveries to be made, it was an extra that many scientists found helpful.

Now things have moved even further. Discoveries require funding and funding requires a compliant attitude towards the source of those funds and the scientific method doesn’t necessarily deliver either.

It survives of course and for all I know may prosper again some fine day. But I have my doubts.

Friday 9 March 2012


Sophia began to be teased by a little fear that Gerald was not his usual self. She did not think of him as tipsy. The idea of his being tipsy would have shocked her. She did not think clearly at all. She was lost and dazed in the labyrinth of new and vivid impressions into which Gerald had led her. But her prudence was awake.
Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931) - The Old Wive's Tale

For those who haven't read the book, Sophia is a beautiful young Victorian woman, born and bred in the Five Towns (now Stoke on Trent). Her world is her mother's draper's shop, but she rejects the narrow confines of this middle class life to elope with Gerald Scales, a wealthy but foolish and unreliable commercial traveller. This is her first taste of a glitzy Parisian restaurant.

If we return to B F Skinner's observation on writers who seem to show a grasp of human behavior which is beyond the methods of science, I think we see what he meant, what we all know to be true, from just one of Bennett's sentences.

But her prudence was awake.

In spite of Sophia's rebellious nature, her background is important too and this reaction to Parisian glitz is entirely within character. For me, this one sentence sums up the lasting effect of Sophia's provincial upbringing, a moral history which cannot be described as accurately or as neatly in scientific language.

Stimulus, response and reinforcement are all there as Bennett unveils Sophia's character, but he does it more fully and more to the point, more credibly than any technical narrative. Not only that, but I suspect this will always be the case as long as we value and seek to encourage the art of good writing.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Checkouts and trumpets

From Wikipedia

Today, I discovered that the lady on our Sainsbury’s checkout plays the trumpet in a brass band. Everybody does something interesting don’t they? So why doesn’t Sainsbury’s use her talents and have a brass band occasionally?

I don’t just mean the Salvation Army at Christmas, but a proper brass band somewhere near the fruit and veg where there’s a bit of room.

I’m sure it would help sales because I for one would surely pop an extra black pud and a bottle or two of brown ale into my trolley. The timing of brass band days could be themed to coincide with promotions on Hovis, faggots and special offers on frozen chips.

But they lack imagination these supermarkets, don’t they? We know all about their games where the big packet is more expensive than two smaller packets. We aren’t convinced or conned by any of it. But a bit of brass band music of a Wednesday say – that would surely add a touch of emotional zest to our shopping habits.

Because they aren’t really convincing are they – supermarkets? For example - why not try a whiff of blue haze in the coffee shop atmosphere – while the early morning fry-ups are being prepared. That would be more convincing than a kind of sterile tang of coffee and blueberry muffins.

A brass band though – that would be even better.

Venture To Be Wise

Abraham Cowley - from Wikipedia

Begin, be bold and venture to be wise.
He who defers this work from day to day,
Does on a river’s bank expecting stay,
Till the whole stream that stopped him shall be gone,
Which runs, and as it runs, for ever shall run on.
Abraham Cowley (1618 – 1667)

Cowley took the first line from Horace which most of his readers at the time would have known. It's a bit of versification I  use as a kind of mantra for getting on with life, a reminder that there are always more possibilities to explore. It encourages me to write, to read more widely and in my quiet way to make the most of now.

Samuel Johnson saw Cowley as one of the metaphysical poets of whom he did not have a high opinion. He says as much in his inimitable style in Lives of the Poets:-

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to shew their learning was their whole endeavour: but, unluckily resolving to shew it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

UFO Hotline

Ripley and Heanor News reports on the world's first hotline for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens. Langley Mill woman is convinced of the existence of UFOs.

Joanne Somerscales, who has founded the world’s first hotline for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens, is attracting attention from callers all round the world.

I know Langley Mill and being abducted by aliens isn't necessarily the worst thing that could happen to you.


While tootling down the M180 earlier today, we saw a bunch of wind turbines, most of which were not rotating.

My better half counted 14 static and 2 rotating - so 87.5% not working.

This is called sustainable power generation. Coal, gas and nuclear which work 24/7 – they are not sustainable.

Got that? Good. We were well impressed.

Free will

A while back I wrote two posts called Magical Me and MagicalYou. These were deliberately provocative in denying any non-causal aspect to that inner homunculus we think of as “me”. As a development of my general principle of trying to hold at least two incompatible theories, I’d like to revisit this idea from the basis that there is indeed a Magical Me and a Magical You.

To my mind this is where complexity steps in.

If we say all our actions, thoughts and sayings are determined by our history and outside contingencies, then that is a philosophical and not a scientific position. Obviously – because we can’t possibly prove it experimentally. But suppose we accept this and still insist that we are rigidly determined because we live in a rigidly deterministic universe, what then? Isn’t this philosophical viewpoint rather compelling?

Not necessarily.

We know from chaos theory that even simple non-linear equations may generate results of enormous complexity where tiny differences in the starting parameters have a huge impact on the result. It’s sometimes called the butterfly effect. A non-linear process in this sense is one where state B depends on state A and state C depends on state B and so on.

Tiny uncertainties in State A can be magnified enormously by the time state Z comes along. Uncertainty can be such that even in principle state Z can never be predicted from state A. For example, a prediction of state Z may require a nonsensically accurate understanding of state A.  

Imagine applying this to human actions. If the deterministic linkage between stimulus and response is non-linear, which one might assume is very likely, and the stimulus is also non-linear, then we may have a situation which is rigidly deterministic but predictable only within certain boundaries, which themselves may be unpredictable.

In other words, it is rarely possible to say that a particular stimulus will definitely produce a particular response. So the cause of the response isn’t nature, nurture, the outside world and nothing else. There is something more – a unique, complex, unpredictable, causally inexplicable something else.

Why? Because we can't say the causally inexplicable bit is causally explicable in principle, or some other fudge. It's causally inexplicable - live with it. 

So the cause of the response is nature, nurture, outside world and X, where X is something within us, yet forever beyond the reach of scientific prediction.

X is Magical Me and Magical You, the soul or whatever else you wish to call it. Looping back to yesterday's post on Skinner’s quote about literature, maybe there is something within us which in Skinner's words is beyond the methods of science.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Skinner on literature

B F Skinner the behavioural psychologist, gained a BA in English literature and spent a year at his parents' home attempting to become a writer of fiction before moving into psychology. He always placed a high value on literature, sometimes seeming to believe that great writers have more to tell us about human behaviour than great scientists. For example, this quote from his book Verbal Behavior.

Human behavior is an extremely difficult subject matter. The methods of science have come to be applied to it very late in the history of science, and the account is far from complete. But it is a field in which literature is most competent, secure and effective.

A Dostoyevsky, a Jane Austen, a Stendhal, a Melville, a Tolstoy, a Proust, or a Joyce seem to show a grasp of human behavior which is beyond the methods of science. Insofar as literature simply describes human behavior in narrative form, it cannot be said to show understanding at all; but the writer often seems to "say something" about human behavior, to interpret and analyze it. A person is not only described as taking part in various episodes, he is "characterized".This is a significant expression, for it suggests where metaphor, as a pre-scientific vocabulary, finds its place.