Monday 30 April 2012

Record drought

Bad news - looks like more record drought headed for the south west. 


My copy of Aldous Huxley's Do What You Will, from which I've quoted and will quote again, is a little tatty as you can see. It has the fattest worm holes I've ever seen in a book - see above.

I bought it recently for £1.50 from a charity shop. I had another copy, but where that went to I don't know. Ironically I may even have dropped it in a charity bag by mistake. 

In spite of its battered appearance and the worm holes, the book is in readable condition. It's a first edition in fact, printed in 1929, a period when even mass-produced books tended to be of good quality and remarkably durable. With cloth covers and stitched pages, it should outlast many millions of paperbacks from later decades. These will fall apart eventually, their brown pages turning brittle, covers coming apart, pages dropping out as the glue hardens and cracks.

Linear thinking

Most of us are aware of the various distinctions made between step by step reasoning and the creative generation of new ideas. There have been lots of names for creative thinking over the years, a famous one being lateral thinking associated with Edward de Bono.

However, I tend to divide reasoning on complex issues into linear and non-linear, which at least has the merit of acknowledging the complexity of the real world.

Linear thinking assumes there are answers to questions about complex aspects of the real world. The solution may be expressed with or without reservations, depending on how pigheaded a person is or how gullible the likely audience.

If we do A, then that will cause B.
Or - if we do A then trend B will be encouraged.

Both solutions are linear – effect B will follow cause A or cause A will at least make effect B more probable. Yet real life is often unpredictable and however much you know about a situation, unexpected events commonly arise while expected events don’t. 

Non-linear thinking on the same complex issue would go something like this.

If we do A then we may or may not see trend B.
We may also see a quite unexpected trend X.
We must be prepared to undo A if it doesn’t work out.

This of course is merely what we do as individuals – or at least it’s what we know we ought to do. Trial and error we call it. So why is linear thinking so prevalent in politics? Why is there so little non-linear thinking?

Political thinking goes more like this.

If we do A, our friends/voters will be happy.
Stuff B.
What's X?

Sunday 29 April 2012

Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf - runs on coal, gas, nuclear and dead birds. 

Blogger issue

There is a known issue with Blogger for scheduled posts - they don't publish at the set date and time so I have to do it manually. This post is just testing a workaround.
...which seems to have worked!


When I was young, one of the hot topics for speculation was the possibility of much more leisure. Automation was the key – the more we had the less we’d have to do. Sounds okay in principle, even now, but has it happened?

Well as with most of these time series questions, it depends on your starting point. Some of us have achieved the goal of more leisure by retiring between the ages of 55 and 60, the so called baby-boomers. But now we are told it was always unaffordable and future generations will have to work much longer than we did.

Leaving aside the unfairness of it, and it is unfair, why hasn’t the leisure materialized for all? As usual I’d say there are lots of reasons, from investment returns to unexpected longevity to antibiotics, but the one I’m posting about here is the waste incurred by servicing an over-complex society.

When I grew up in the fifties, very little was wasted. Waste not want not was a necessary guide to daily life. Food was eaten, vegetable scraps went on the compost heap and the only thing not consumed was animal and fish bones. We had no central heating, no fridge, freezer, phone or TV set. Milk and beer bottles were all recycled and old newspaper went into lighting the fire or was threaded on a loop of string in the outside toilet.

As for work, well my impression is that jobs in the fifties reflected a post-war culture of frugality. What was done was worth doing – on the whole.

As time went on and we became far more prosperous, we also became far more wasteful. I don’t mean the kind of material waste that recycling nuts go on about, but more a case of wasted effort. It seems to me that the productivity gains which made us more prosperous are to a large extent being wasted in doing what isn’t worth doing.

Instead of more leisure, we have more people involved in useless activities. Rather than try to list them out though, I prefer to set the problem of wasted effort in the context of complexity.

Complexity is one of our great social constructs – possibly our most important modern social construct. As a society becomes more complex, the new complexity has to be serviced. Not only that, but those people who service the new complexity acquire a vested interest in even more complexity, because that creates more business. We have a vicious feedback loop here and don’t know what to do about it.

If the industrial revolution had made us into a nation of engineers, then all would be well, because we’d simplify our way out of our difficulties as a matter of social policy. We’d look at our own society via powerful engineering metaphors. But we aren’t a nation of engineers, and don’t have those metaphors.

Social metaphors are important because they frame our concepts, but our ruling elite don’t have them, or at least they don't have any that are worthwhile. The Big Society for example. The guy next door fitting out his kitchen can do better than that, but Dave, Nick and Ed can’t. They have the wrong background and mix with the wrong people.

Our political elite barely understand engineering, let alone the possibility of engineering complexity out of our society. Or at least, engineering it to manageable level.

I don’t mean trained engineers here of course, just rational people who see merit in simplicity. But practical folk never think of climbing the greasy pole do they? Ironically enough, it’s too greasy for them.

Saturday 28 April 2012


Grandson has these Hexbugs - simple little battery-operated toys that move on rubbery legs via a kind of vibration in the body. They bounce off obstacles and scurry around just like large insects - quite spooky to watch.

Just like Dad

My better half and I had a slightly odd experience in Sainsbury’s recently. If you haven’t seen something like the episode I’m about to relate, you may not quite understand it, but here goes.

We were waiting at the checkout behind an elderly chap who put his trolley of shopping on the conveyor okay, but he was obviously a little slow, so the lady on the checkout packed his stuff for him.

Nothing odd about that, but as his bits and bobs were bleeped through the scanner and bagged up, he made token efforts to assist. For example he picked up a package from the deli counter, gave it a pat and tossed it into the bag with a tiny flourish. So what? You might ask. Well I’d seen my father make exactly that flourish before – and I mean exactly.

Well as we left the store, we both agreed that this elderly guy had behaved just like my father towards the end of his independence. We’d said nothing to each other in the store, hadn't even traded a glance of recognition and the chap looked nothing like my father. But it was quite spooky how we were both vividly reminded of him purely through this chance encounter.

They were tiny little mannerisms, nothing in themselves, but an indicator of more serious problems on the near horizon. It was if he still needed to play his part in the checkout process, but it was all far too quick for him. Long-established routines and habits had taken him so far, taken him shopping, but habits and routines were no longer enough. They were letting him down at the final hurdle, the one where he couldn’t take his time.

If I’d not seen exactly the same little mannerisms in my father, I’d have thought nothing of it. As it is, I hope he has someone to give him a hand when the time comes, because it can’t be long now.

Friday 27 April 2012

In Memoriam – the Arctic melt

When propagandist no longer go on and on about an issue, or the issue morphs seamlessly into something else then there’s always a reason. 

The issue has gone sour in some way.

But rather than allow these discarded issues drop, we need to keep them alive because of what they continue to tell us about the propagandists who dumped them.

Arctic sea ice is one such issue. About five or six years ago, Arctic sea ice was in retreat and we were all going to die once this vital resource disappeared from our lives. The climate crew have nailed it very firmly to catastrophic warming caused by CO2, but now the Arctic ice retreat seems to have either paused or stopped altogether. 

But instead of rejoicing that we aren’t going to die horrible heat deaths, the propaganda just morphs into something else. It’s almost comical, but not quite, because it’s really too serious to be seriously comical.

One response to the Arctic game is to ignore it as just another thread of dumped propaganda, another case where natural processes didn’t play ball. But issues such as the Arctic are worth niggling away at because firm predictions were made about the Arctic and CO2.

I don’t know what the Arctic will do next, but those who are paying attention will have noticed that an ice-free Arctic is now due some time this century. The catastrophe has been kicked into touch. If the melt continues it will be taken up again – if it doesn’t, it will stay on the back burner as a future threat.

Science isn’t supposed to be like this though, is it?

Thursday 26 April 2012

Green to be cheap says Cameron

I've avoided political news while we've been on holiday, but now I'm back I took a quick look around to see if Cameron has said anything silly recently and blow me - he has! Mr Reliable or what?

The BBC reports on Cameron's claim that green energy is to be cheap "within years".

Renewables can be one of the cheapest forms of energy within years, Prime Minister David Cameron has said.

So the subsidies will be ended "within years" will they? I wonder what he means? Does he know what he means? Does anyone care what he means? How many years are we talking of here - centuries or just decades?

Or is the useless tosser just babbling again?

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Rain moan

I don't know - we drive down here in a 4x4 hoping to kick of some of that global warming the BBC keeps promising and what do we get after belching out CO2  all the way down the M5?

Wall to wall rain.

When we arrived the local rag was bleating about droughts and hosepipe bans, but since then it has poured buckets. In the awning this morning, our shoes were practically floating.

Anyway we nipped out to Minehead for a walk in between the showers and down it came again. We were walking back to the caravan with a large antique metal ashtray, as you do on holiday, and the heavens opened. At least the ashtray didn't get wet.

I took a photo of the Clouds of Doom rolling in off the Bristol Channel, but the upload speed of this caravan site broadband is so slow I gave up. Not that the photo did the Clouds justice - you had to be here.  

Anyway that's it - we're giving up and going home tomorrow if we haven't floated away by then. So blogging may be light to absent tomorrow, but blame the failure of global warming, not me. Better still, blame the BBC, because we all believed them, didn't we?


Opium poppy - from Wikipedia

“Let me have some Laudanum.”
“Certainly, miss. Excuse my asking the question – it is only a matter of form. You are staying at Aldborough, I think?”
“Yes. I am Miss Bygrave of North Shingles.”
The chemist bowed; and, turning to his shelves, filled an ordinary half-ounce bottle with laudanum immediately. In ascertaining his customer’s name and address beforehand, the owner of the shop had taken a precaution which was natural to a careful man, but which was by no means universal, under similar circumstances, in the state of the law at the time.
“Shall I put you up a little cotton wool with the laudanum?” he asked, after he had placed a label on the bottle, and had written a word on it in large letters.
“If you please. What have you just written on the bottle?” She put the question sharply, with something of distrust as well as curiosity in her manner. The chemist answered the question by turning the label toward her. She saw written on it in large letters – POISON.
“I like to be on the safe side, miss,” said the old man, smiling. “Very worthy people in other respects are often sadly careless where poisons are concerned.”
Wilkie Collins - No Name

Wilkie Collins mentions laudanum about 80 times in his writings while Dickens referred to it only 20 times. Not surprising as Collins took laudanum to ease the pain of rheumatic gout and would have been well aware of real life transactions like this. On the whole I think Victorians had a good understanding of drugs such as laudanum and other forms of opium - just as they were familiar with many dangers we are now less aware of.

Tuesday morning, ten o’clock.
Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart whoever he was. If all the miserable wretches in pain of body and mind, whose comforter he has been, could meet together to sing his praises, what a chorus it would be!
I have had six delicious hours of oblivion; I have woke up with my mind composed; I have written a perfect little letter to Midwinter; I have drunk my nice cup of tea, with a real relish of it; I have dawdled over my morning toilet with an exquisite sense of relief – and all through the modest little bottle of “Drops”, you are a darling! If I love nothing else, I love you.
Wilkie Collins – Armadale

The quote is from Lydia Gwilt – the anti-heroine of the story and a fallen woman in the eyes of society. Again, the dangers of laudanum are presented in a way that his Victorian audience would understand very well.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

China and geothermal

A piece from ClickGreen says that China has signed an agreement with Iceland on geothermal energy development.

The Chinese have signed a deal with Iceland to increase co-operation over the development of geothermal energy.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao concluded the agreement last weekend during the first stage of a four-nation European tour.

As a trained geologist, Wen toured the Thingvellir national park, home to popular tourist attractions the Gullfoss falls and the Geysir geyser.

Geothermal energy surely has potential as a sustainable energy source. Maybe the EU should have got there first, but Iceland is so far away isn't it?


Solitude by Frederic Leighton
From Wikipedia

I once read that Victorians could be far more isolated and consequently much more eccentric than we are today. I suppose it isn't a surprising observation, simply because of huge relative differences in ease of communication and travel. No doubt these modern developments have in some respects, a social smoothing effect.

So Dickens’ characters may not be quite so overdrawn and improbable as we suppose. Take this quote from Wilkie Collin's Armadale.

Of the few resident gentlemen in the neighbourhood, none were ever admitted by Mrs Armadale to more than the merest acquaintance with her. Contentedly self-buried in her country retreat, she was proof against every social attraction that would have tempted other women in her position and at her age. Mr. Brock and his newspaper, appearing with monotonous regularity at her tea-table three times a week, told her all she knew or cared to know of the great outer world which circled round the narrow and changeless limits of her daily life.
Wilkie Collins – Armadale.

An obvious question is – are you attracted or repelled by such a degree of solitude? For my part, I don’t know. It isn’t such an easy option today though, is it?

Monday 23 April 2012

Huxley on cogs

Aldous Huxley - from Wikipedia

We are members of a very highly organized society, in which it pays best to be either a man who understands and unremittingly wills, or else a kind of obedient automaton. Inevitably; for the more complicated a social machine, the more inhumanly and mechanically simple becomes the task of the subordinate individual, the more inhumanly difficult that of the commanding organizer.

Those who wish to live a quiet life in our modern world must be like Babbitt – unquestioningly a cog. Those who are ambitious to lead a (by current standards) successful life must be like Ford, determined and very consciously intelligent.

Those who would lead a thoroughly disastrous life have only to model themselves on the pattern, shall we say, of Burns or William Blake. In a society like ours the successful are those who live intensely with the intellectual and voluntary side of their being, and as little as possible with the rest of themselves.

The quietly Good Citizens are those who live as little as possible on any plane of existence. While those who live fully and harmoniously with their whole being are doomed to almost certain social disaster.

Aldous Huxley – Do What You Will – pub 1929.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Award-winning ice-cream

While on holiday here in Minehead, my better half and I have both noticed how difficult it is to find ice-cream that isn't described as Award Winning. I like the synthetic stuff, full of alginates and emulsifiers, but even that tends to be Award Winning. Who awards these awards?

A matter of taste

Garish bird

I tend to avoid analysis where matters of taste are concerned. Art, music, food, wine, literature – I prefer to accept my tastes for what they are. When analyzing tastes, I find I'm too likely to run up against fashions and social mores – tastes that are not mine, that did not evolve with me on my journey through life.

What I mean by this is that whenever we seek to analyse our own tastes, we inevitably compare them with some kind of standard. It is this comparison that I find untrustworthy.

I like robust red wines, plain food, jazz from the 1920s and 30s, the hills and valleys of Derbyshire and character-driven literature. I like strong coffee, the aroma of a good cigar (although I've never smoked) and a neatly turned phrase.

I like real ale, fresh bread, cheese, Persian rugs, log fires, virgin snow, early morning sun and the fusty smell of an old house. Clean sheets, old clothes, blue skies, shadowy abstractions and freshly boiled mussels sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper.

Female laughter, uneven teeth, steam engines, old wood, antique paper, three piece wine glasses, digital technology, haggis, slapstick comedy and sometimes a touch of kitsch.

I like buildings built to human dimension and maybe with a touch of modest grandeur, a dash of pretentious aspiration even. I like them to be largely traditional or elegantly bizarre. There is no middle ground for me.

I like art which does not seek to disconnect me from what I am, from all that subtle and sometimes mysterious mix of everyday influences that made me and formed my tastes from a seamless intermingling I could never untangle. Most art I find dull and uninteresting. If I don't find it dull or uninteresting then I prefer not to analyze why

Pickled sharks and Tracey Emin's bed really don’t fit the bill. I don’t even need to consider them - they are not of my world. It’s a matter of taste. My taste.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Told off

We use rechargeable electric toothbrushes and the other day mine began to beep at me most insistently. It also flashed an angry little bright red light. It turned out that the charger had become unplugged and the thing was reminding me that its battery was a little short of tooth-brushing vim and vigour.

Now I rather like modern technology, but a chap does tend to pause and think sour thoughts when he's just been told off by his toothbrush.

Friday 20 April 2012


This story from NoTricksZone is an interesting one for the dwindling band of people who may still harbour a few tattered hopes that our EU leaders are actually sane.

Are governments anti-social?

For some time I’ve been toying with the idea that politics doesn’t work because there is a crucial test we don't apply. There are missing tests in political theory just as there are in psychology, but in politics we don't seem to acknowledge it.

I’ll use the word social for now, as it’s a familiar word without an alarming amount of baggage. Oddly enough, the term anti-social is more familiar, so let's just say for current purposes that social is the opposite of anti-social. Any political activity may be social or anti-social.

To my mind, the crucial aspect of any political theory or activity is whether or not it is self-correcting once launched on an unsuspecting public. Maybe this gives us two equivalences.

Anti-social = not self-correcting.
Social = self-correcting.

There is an obvious connection here with wasteful and less wasteful activity. We correct wasteful activity unless we happen to be government-funded, when we wait for it to be corrected.

We all know how governments fund wasteful, anti-social activities, that is to say activities where there is no correction mechanism, something that kicks in automatically when things go wrong. Obviously we can soon lose ourselves in a sea of words here, but that’s surely the point isn’t it? We do lose ourselves in a sea of political words – frequently.

In other words, we need a political metric or test of some kind, some way of understanding why so much political activity is essentially anti-social. We need to understand that self-correcting mechanisms such as the free market are essentially social, not so much because of what they deliver, but because they are self-correcting. 

 Government activity tends not to be self-correcting and so is essentially and inevitably anti-social.

Wind turbines are a good example of an anti-social government activity. They don’t generate power efficiently and there is no automatic mechanism to correct the problem. In a free market they would never have been used at all, or if they had, their disutility would soon finish them off.

In general, environmental politics tends to be anti-social. Policies are invented and enacted where there is  quite obviously no element of self-correction. Pesticides are banned, they disappear from the market and the environment and new pesticides come on the market to replace them. But until new regulations come in, we test for the old pesticides in the environment and ignore the new ones - often for years. Why? Government, or more often EU regulations. Anti-social regulations.

I’m not that this way of viewing politics is particularly insightful, but as with many aspects of complex issues, we tend to forget the basics. It's really no more than a reminder - productive activity is self-correcting activity. So that rules out the UK government, the EU and the UN, doesn't it?

Thursday 19 April 2012

Cakes and pastries

Well it's rained every day so far. We're off to the Masonic Hall in Minehead tomorrow. Every Friday, ladies from the WI sell delicious home-made cakes and pastries there, so if it's bad for you and goes with coffee, we're buying.

Slightly Foxed

Decades ago wits, poets and dukes
Circled like planets round Gloria Jukes,
Bluestocking, tuft-hunter, grande amoureuse
Was ever a salon brilliant as hers?

Her name still turns up though she’s turned up her
You meet her in memoirs, they still quote her mots,
And old crones remember her faults and her furs –
Such foibles, my dear, such sables were hers!

A wrecker of homes and a breaker of hearts,
She talked like a book and encouraged the arts,
Political hostesses envied her poise
And said they preferred conversation to noise.

Her cook was a dream, her pearls were in ropes,
She furthered ambitions, she realized hopes,
Lent Dowson a fiver, put rouge on her eyebrows,
Enchanted grandees and reconciled highbrows.

Acclimatized novel Bohemian behaviour
In the stuffiest house in Victorian Belgravia,
And when St. John’s Wood was abandoned to orgies
Behaved like a dignified bride at St. George’s.

A Personage paid to her regal poitrine
A compliment royal, and she looked like a queen –
But of some Ruritanian kingdom, maybe –
All plastered with gifts like a Christmas tree.

When her guests were awash with champagne and
      With gin
She was recklessly sober, as sharp as a pin:
An abstemious man would reel at her look
As she rolled a bright eye and praised his last book.

She twitted George Moore, she flirted with Tree,
Gave dear Rider Haggard material for She,
Talked scansion with Bridges and scandal with Wilde,
To Drinkwater drank and at Crackanthorpe smiled.

Brzeska and Brooke were among those she knew
And she lived long enough to meet Lawrence too,
D.H. and T.E. – she, who’d known R.L.S.,
Talked to Hardy of Kim, and to Kipling of Tess!

Now she’s been dead for more than ten years
We look round in vain to discover her peers;
The Gloria (it has often been said) is departed
And a new and inferior period has started...

But tucked right away in a Bayswater attic,
Arthritic, ignoble, stone-deaf and rheumatic,
There still lingers on, by the strangest of flukes,
Yes, Gloria’s husband – Plantagenet Jukes!

Ignored in her lifetime, he paid for her fun
And enjoyed all the fuss. When she died he was done.
He sold up the house and retired from the scene
Where nobody noticed that he’d ever been.

His memoirs unwritten (though once he began ‘em)
He lives on a hundred and fifty per annum
And once in the day totters out for a stroll
To purchase the Times, two eggs and a roll.

Up to now he has paid for his pleasures and needs
With books he had saved and that everyone reads,
Signed copies presented by authors to Gloria
In the reign of King Edward and good Queen Victoria.

They brought in fair prices but came to an end,
Then Jukes was reduced to one book-loving friend,
A girl of the streets with a smatter of culture
And the genial ways of an African vulture.

To this bird he offered the last of the lot,
A volume of Flecker beginning to rot.
She opened it, stormed: ‘Cor blimey, you’re potty!
D’you think I can’t see that the pages are spotty?

Your Flecker is foxed, you old fool, and I’m through!'
Then out of the door in a tantrum she flew,
Leaving poor Jukes, in the black-out, in bed
With his past, and the book, and a bruise on his head.

William Plomer (1903–1973)

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Robot jellyfish

From UTD we have this robot jellyfish powered by traces of hydrogen and oxygen in the water.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech have created an undersea vehicle inspired by the common jellyfish that runs on renewable energy and could be used in ocean rescue and surveillance missions.

In a study published this week in Smart Materials and Structures, scientists created a robotic jellyfish, dubbed Robojelly, that feeds off hydrogen and oxygen gases found in water.

How beastly the bourgeois is

A Specimen

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species –

Presentable, eminently presentable –
shall I make you a present of him?

Isn’t he handsome? Isn’t he healthy? Isn’t he a fine
doesn’t he look the fresh clean englishman, outside?
Isn’t it god’s own image? Tramping his thirty miles a
after partridges, or a little rubber ball?
wouldn’t you like to be like that, well off, and quite
      the thing?

Oh, but wait!
Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with
      another man’s need,
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life
      face him with a new demand on his understanding
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue.
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully.
Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new
      demand on his intelligence,
a new life-demand.

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species –

Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable –
and like a fungus, living on the remains of bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life
      than his own.

And even so, he’s stale, he’s been there too long.
Touch him, and you’ll find he’s all gone inside
just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow
under a smooth skin and an upright appearance.

Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelings
rather nasty –
How beastly the bourgeois is!

Standing in their thousands, these appearances, in damp
what a pity they can’t all be kicked over
like sickening toadstools, and left to melt back, swiftly
into the soil of England.

D H Lawrence (1885 - 1930)

Tuesday 17 April 2012


Well here we are at Minehead and it's been raining on and off all day. We are in the caravan and the guy in the motor-home next door spent about three hours yesterday trying to sort out his TV satellite dish. Must be keen. Eventually he tied it to a small set of stepladders.

It blew over during the night.

Dear Tigger...

Watching the Tigger movie with grandson recently. There is a pivotal scene where Owl writes a letter to Tigger on behalf of Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo and Eeyore.

‘What’s Owl doing?’ grandson asked.
‘Writing a letter to Tigger.’
‘What’s a letter?’

Well, I suppose he may never need to write one, just as I never needed quill and pounce pot.


On his arms he wears
Diagrams he chose,
A snake inside a skull,
A dagger in a rose,

And the muscle playing
Under the skin
Makes the rose writhe
And the skull grin.

He is one who acts his dreams
And these emblems are a clue
To the wishes in his blood
And what they make him do,

These signs are truer
Than the wearer knows:
The blade vibrates
In the vulnerable rose,

Anthers bend, and carmine curly
Petals kiss the plunging steel,
Dusty with essential gold
Close in upon the thing they feel.

Moistly once in bony sockets
Eyeballs hinted at a soul,
In the death’s head now a live head
Fills a different role;

Venomous resilience sliding
In the empty cave of thought,
Call it instinct ousting reason,
Or a reptile’s indoor sport.

The flower’s pangs, the snake exploring,
The skull, the violating knife,
Are the active and the passive
Aspects of his life,

Who is at home with death
More than he guesses;
The rose will die, and a skull
Gives back no caresses.

William Plomer (1903–1973)

Monday 16 April 2012

Robot balls

Not sure what this is for. I rather like these oddball (pun intended) inventions, but these days it's soured somewhat by grant-seeking suspicions. 

A pity really, because this kind of thing can be both fun and genuinely exploratory.


Something cheery for Monday morning...

I am your master and your master’s master,
I am the dragon’s teeth which you have sown
In the field of dead men’s and live men’s bones.

I am the moving belt you cannot turn from :
The threat behind the smiling of the clock :
The paper on which your days are signed and witnessed
Which only the mouse and the moth and the flame
          Dare devour.

I an the rustle of bank-notes in your graves,
The crackle of lawyer’s seals beneath your tombstones,
Borne to the leaning ears of legatees.

I am the cunning one whose final cunning
Was to buy grace, to corner loveliness,
To make a bid for beauty and to win it
And lock it away.

A S J Tessimond (1902 - 1962)

Sunday 15 April 2012

Must dash

I'm in Minehead at the moment, aiming to do some walking on Exmoor. Blogging via a rather expensive broadband link, so brevity may creep in.

Collins on nature v nurture

Does there exist in every human being, beneath the outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change? 

Is the philosophy which denies this and asserts that we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper a philosophy which has failed to remark that we are not born with blank faces - a philosophy which has never compared together two infants of a few days old, and has never observed that those infants are not born with blank tempers for mothers and nurses to fill up at will?

Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression - hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation?

Within these earthly limits, is earthly Circumstance ever the key; and can no human vigilance warn us beforehand of the forces imprisoned in ourselves which that key may unlock?

Wilkie Collins - No Name.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Theodor Landscheidt

Theodor Landscheidt
Theodor Landscheidt (1927 - 2004) was an author, astrologer and amateur climatologist. Wikipedia says this about him:-

In 1989, Landscheidt forecast a period of sunspot minima after 1990, accompanied by increased cold, with a stronger minimum and more intense cold which should peak in 2030 which he described as the "Landscheidt Minimum" His work on solar cycles is cited by global warming skeptics to argue that observed warming is not anthropogenic and will soon be reversed, based on an assumption that fluctuations in climate are controlled by solar activity.

The Wikipedia entry is accurate but very misleading. I don't think many climate sceptics cite Landscheidt or make much use of his work - after all, the guy was an astrologer.

I don't hold that against him though, in spite of making fun of astrology on this blog. If he made a claim about sunspots and climate then the fact that he was an astrologer doesn't invalidate those claims. Only the sun and the climate can do that.

Oddly enough, we are now well into a sunspot minimum and the earth hasn't warmed for about ten to fifteen years. The loss of Arctic sea ice has stabilized and severe winters with heavy snowfalls have been common for the last few years.  

Maybe Landscheidt's work is worth keeping an eye on, astrologer or not. Maybe he was right for the wrong reasons, but he doesn't have the right credentials and that matters even though it should not. I'm no solar expert, but I am interested in behaviour and the way we assign, over-assign and under-assign credence to people.

So even if Landscheidt's predictions are fully vindicated by 2030, I don't think the period will end up being called the "Landscheidt Minimum". You can check out his work here and here.

Friday 13 April 2012

A rare talent

My old school

A reference to orphans and orphanages by Roger in his comment on one of my posts managed to stir the murky sediment of my own memories of orphanage kids.

When I was at primary school, there was an orphanage next door and quite naturally the inmates attended our school. It wasn't a posh school - many of us non-oprphans came from the local council estate, so I don't remember any snobbishness. Even so, those orphanage kids had a huge disadvantage to overcome.

One lad I remember, named David, was rather weedy looking with NHS spectacles, so you would expect him to have had and even harder time of it, but he was the proud possessor of a rare talent.

The Victorian school toilets were outside and had no roof. Between the toilets and what I seem to recall were the grounds of he orphanage was a high brick wall. I can't remember how high it was, but the top of it was way above our heads.

Anyway, David could piss right over this wall - clear it completely with an arc of urine from a standing position. Nobody else could get anywhere near. Okay he did misfire from time to time and end up showering himself (we watched his amazing feats from a distance) but it was by general consensus a fine and worthy talent. One to be envied.

As you would expect, because this talent was rated so highly among his peers, nobody bullied him or made fun of him. Well you wouldn't, would you?

Thursday 12 April 2012


From Wikipedia

When I’m composing a blog post or comment, I often find myself in a situation where I write something then decide it isn’t what I want to say. I don’t quite agree with what I've written – almost but not quite.

It could be put down to diffidence, uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, conceptual cowardice or whatever, but I think it’s mostly a fear of self-deception. I use the word fear deliberately here, because people seem to vary in this respect.

Some people seem to be unafraid of deceiving themselves, apparently quite willing to let it all hang out and parry the doubts or criticisms if and when they arrive. The rest of us seem more likely to be wary of self-deception, not wishing to find ourselves adrift on a sea of dubious words to which we never gave enough thought.

This self-censorship seems to be affected by alcohol. No surprises there. So you see more self-confidence down the pub from about nine o’clock onwards.

If like me, you are affected by this kind of self-censorship, you may have noticed how quickly it can operate and how it seems to be to some degree sub-vocal. I don’t say to myself I can’t write that – it’s more like ummm, no.

Hardly even that really – more like a flicker of recognition that the censor has stepped in – no words needed – change the post - edit it or delete it. Maybe the words come afterwards, as a kind of rationale of what happened.

Theories of language must have a hard time here, because who is to say quite what is going on with something so ephemeral and dynamic? Not me that’s for sure – even if I had a theory I’d end up censoring it before it saw the light of day.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Met Office starts a new shift?


A paradigm shift that is.

The Met Office has a new study out purporting to link industrial pollution with natural disasters such as drought, flooding and hurricane activity. Climate activists still claim these are linked to CO2-induced climate change, but this piece from ClickGreen says:-

Met Office research suggests industrial air pollution is largely responsible for changes in the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean which are linked to drought, flooding and hurricane activity.

The study is the first to clearly link aerosol 'dirty pollution' and, to a lesser extent, volcanic eruptions to observed 20th century temperature variations in the Atlantic Ocean.

The study seems to be based on a computer model :-

A state-of-the-art Met Office climate model, which simulates the physical processes of the Earth's atmosphere, has reproduced the variations for the first time. It shows a clear link between Atlantic variations and the peaks and troughs in industrial pollution from countries around the Atlantic. Volcanoes also play a smaller role.

The Met Office has form in this area, so such a study is of not necessarily of any scientific interest, but it does suggest a covert policy shift may be occurring within its walls.  

Not that the claim is improbable or anything - volcanoes and atmospheric particulates should have some effect on the climate. It's just that we shouldn't trust the Met Office to work out what. 

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Recent reads

It's about time I listed some of the posts I've read recently. It's far from being an exclusive list because I read many posts and have a crap memory, but here are some of those I've enjoyed in no particular order.

newnostradamusofthenorth french-philosopher-global-warming

witteringsfromwitney we-all-know-our-mail-is-late-nowadays

chiefio sea-ice-normal

notrickszone chris-horner-presentation

nourishingobscurity rome-reborn

markwadsworth more-savings-myths-debunked

duffandnonsense here-speaks-your-typical-british-tom

singularvalues whats-wrong-with-obamacare

Class matters

These two extracts are from my aunt's memoirs. I posted earlier on her account of the Zeppelin raid on Derby. The first piece is about family reading habits - they were a large family. The date would be about 1913.

After Sunday school, in winter or when it was wet, my mother and two older sisters took it in turns to read aloud. We’d sit around the fire in the living room, Mam would read older books for the older ones and younger books for the youngsters. 

At the age of six or seven we were listening to Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and always near to Christmas, A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield was my favourite, Scrooge came a close second. In later years I wept over A Tale of Two Cities.

Later, round about 1917 or 1918 my aunt won a scholarship to a good secondary school with an intake of mostly fee-paying pupils.

There were, we gradually found out, scholarship girls from other schools, about six of us altogether and we stuck together. I had never come across snobbery before, but the first morning at ‘break’ we were in the yard and a girl came up to me and asked loftily,

‘Are you another scholarship girl?’

‘Yes I am,’ I said as I was proud of myself. She went back to her friends and it was obvious they were making fun of us and so it continued. There were few of us, but most of them, their parents paid fees and they thought they were superior. It was not a good start for us.

Impossible to know how much damage this kind of thoughtless snobbery may have done, the sparks of resentment it may so easily have kindled in a person who would one day use it to ply their political trade. 

Monday 9 April 2012

The atheist’s dilemma

I have been an atheist for almost fifty years, however I’m far from being one of Richard Dawkins’ admirers. Politics is the problem for me.

It would be foolish in the extreme to deny that atheist regimes have been a raging disaster of epic proportions. Tens of millions of deaths and rising – try to brush that aside without leaving a vast moral hole in your personal philosophy. It’s like trying to lick the Augean stables clean – leaves a bad taste and gets you nowhere.

So where does that leave an atheist who feels inclined to enter the God debate? With an extremely serious dilemma I’d say, especially now the scientific method is such a crock. We can’t worship at that alter any longer, not without a cauterized sense of smell and some very large and ungainly blinkers.

Science a crock? Well maybe such a sweeping statement deserves a modicum of elaboration, but no more. I’ll drop climate change, passive smoking and peer review into that modicum - just to spice up the flavour of the debate you understand. Because I certainly don’t see how we can separate science from the antics of scientists.

Most of where we are today was achieved by a process we could just as easily call engineering as science - we must not be misled by names. Practical trial and error if you like. The kind of thing Josiah Wedgwood was so brilliant at – and was he not a scientist by any practical criterion? After all, his meticulous trials of pottery bodies and glazes were in effect chemical experiments - or early experiments in material science if you prefer.

The idea that science has been some pristine mode of human thought guiding our progress since the days of Galileo is just far too naive and idealistic – at least for me.

I spent all of my working life as a professional scientist and it there isn’t anything noble about it. Science is merely a job - it pays the mortgage. It can be interesting, frustrating and rewarding just like any other job, but rarely moral in any important sense. Science certainly isn’t a viable personal philosophy.

So back to the question of God. My philosophy is that if that’s how people view the cosmos then who am I to argue? I don’t see the cosmos through God, but seeking to impose my personal philosophy on others isn’t part of my personal philosophy.

Why? Partly personal inclination and partly because atheism has no moral dimension. It’s a negative, something you don’t have rather than something you do. So my own atheism has never been a big deal for me. There are more tractable problems which need moral alignment between rational people.

How to define rational people though? In my view, not via their religious beliefs or their lack of belief because that’s too divisive. More likely through their grasp of moral imperatives, their unwillingness to seek control over others, their adherence the most fundamental moral law.

Do as you would be done by.

We waste an enormous amount of time pursuing unwinnable arguments. And yes - these pursuits can be compulsive in a kind of competitive, must have the last word kind of way, but argument is almost entirely futile. It doesn’t help nurture worthwhile moral alignments. Because if you believe in liberty, in do as you would be done by, then moral alignment is the goal to be pursued and in no sense whatever is it an atheist goal.

Other differences in personal philosophy, though important, are not necessarily those to be pursued in tackling more immediate threats to our wellbeing. And of course I mean our moral wellbeing which in the end is what liberty is all about – the freedom to be a moral agent.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Saving the planet

You may remember seeing a few of these on the roads, it's a Mazda MX6. I bought a used one in 1998 when global warming propaganda was ramping up. A pleasant drive, with its 2.5 litre v6 doing about 28mpg. It was my way of saving the planet. 

Smooth and reliable, I commuted to work in it every day for about eight years. You still see one or two on the roads today.

The null hypothesis

From Wikipedia

Science is supposed to be about formulating and testing hypotheses, but there is one hypothesis we must always consider first – the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis simply says our new hypothesis is wrong.

Whole swathes of modern science fail as science because they don’t test their hypotheses against the null hypothesis. If they did they would be out of work, climate science being the first through the door and good riddance I say.

The null hypothesis is basic to all science – or rather it should be. So what do we want? Do we want full employment for scientists or good science? Well surely scientists who don’t understand the null hypothesis shouldn’t be scientists – mainly because they aren’t doing science.

So here’s a hypothesis - climate scientists are crap.

The null hypothesis says climate scientists are not crap. Hmm – but it’s not getting warmer and CO2 is increasing.

Good job it’s so easy!

So the null hypothesis fails.
And my hypothesis that climate scientists are crap is not false.
Therefore we need to kick climate scientists into touch.

So that’s cleared that up. Next problem please.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Hot tip

From Dave R.

Wordplay - empathy

A recent paper published by the Association for Psychological Science tells us that empathy doesn't cross the political divide. In other words, we have more empathy with people who share our views than those who don't.


I don't know about you, but when I read stuff like this I wonder if I chose the right career. Do they have to study anything before being set loose - such as a dictionary? Because surely their conclusion has been common knowledge throughout recorded history. I bet the Neanderthals knew all about it.

I have absolutely no empathy with people like this.

Friday 6 April 2012

Google - Project Glass

You will probably have seen this clip on Google's Project Glass. It doesn't float my boat at all, but I suppose it's coming to a nerd near you sometime soon. I hope the music is optional.

Will it tell me where I've left things though? Well with a tiny video camera recording my daily life I suppose it might.

Political piety

It sometimes seems to me that one of the great changes of the past century or so has been the way piety has been appropriated by politics. Because most political narrative as espoused by the party faithful, apologists and enthusiasts is a kind of piety. It has been called political correctness, but for me, political piety is a better fit.

So in many ways the only real political divide is between political agnostics and the politically pious. Not surprisingly this is regarded with a certain amount of dismay by political agnostics who find the debate has taken on a wholly inappropriate holier than thou aspect.

Political piety has largely taken over what used to be the political left, but has crossed the traditional political divide as well as expanding into environmental, gender and race politics plus the more nuanced politics of victimhood.

Rational argument is of no value against political piety which in any event seems to be a global trend. It is becoming more difficult to be a political agnostic in a world where one is either politically pious or excommunicated – disenfranchised from the debate.

The three main UK political parties have all opted for political piety and will have no dealings with political agnostics except maybe a token maverick or two. Similarly with the BBC, most entertainers and most mainstream media, although a few prominent journalists are political agnostics. 

There are alternative techniques for the political agnostic of course, such as ridicule and satire, to which political piety is rather vulnerable. Even so, the hugely ironic lack of diversity in political life will inevitably cause severe problems as the analytical deficiencies of political piety continue to rot away the fabric of our society and our institutions.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Vintage ad

From Paul R by email

Glass walls

From Wikipedia

I recently noticed an old brick wall crudely topped with cement in which there were embedded shards of broken glass. The glass had all been levelled off and made comparatively safe, but it reminded me that this was once a cheap line of defence against intruders.

I sauntered on the road back to Barkingham for about five minutes, then struck off sharp for the plantation, lighted my lantern with the help of my cigar and a brimstone match of that barbarous period, shut down the slide again, and made for the garden wall.

It was formidably high, and garnished horribly with broken bottles; but it was also old, and when I came to pick at the mortar with my screw-driver, I found it reasonably rotten with age and damp.
Wilkie Collins - A Rogue's Life

Of course a determined intruder could just smash the bottle shards level with the mortar or just break up the mortar as in Wilkie Collins’ novel, but why don’t we see such things any more? Is it too dangerous to the intruder or just ineffective?

My guess is that the owner could be sued and that’s enough to get rid of it. Plus the possibility of horrendous injury to a thoughtless child. As a child I knew what the score was with brick walls, but I still wouldn't have one on my boundary. Horrible idea.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Freedom and creativity

I tend to equate human freedom with free-speech, but in a wider sense, can we link it to creativity? I don’t mean to say that freedom nurtures creativity, but for the sake of exploration, why not turn it round a little and say that freedom = creativity?

Not that it's a new idea of course, but it's one of those with a tendency to sink into a swamp of verbiage. So let's steer clear of the verbiage and simply say that the more creativity there is, the more freedom we have. I’ve wandered down this track because it seems to me that personal creativity is increasing at a time when political freedom is waning, particularly in the EU.

What niggles me about this is how the political decline doesn’t seem to matter as much as it should. Most of me is convinced it does matter, but part of me wonders if perhaps it doesn’t because it is merely a symptom of something else, something important.

By creativity I mean the freedom to create in its widest sense from DIY to music to blogging, cookery, photography, sport, gardening, dancing or even a personal philosophy. Are these things distractions or are they symptoms of something much more profound?

In statistics, according to Wikipedia, the number of degrees of freedom is the number of values in the final calculation of a statistic that are free to vary. Okay it’s only an analogy, but our degrees of creative freedom seem to have increased dramatically over recent generations. So social complexity must have increased dramatically too. Sticking with the statistical analogy, there are far more creative variables.

So where does political power come in? Because there seems to be little doubt that our democracy has faded away in that there is less and less scope for major political change. I find it hard to believe this doesn’t matter, but that’s no reason for not trying to believe it - if only to see what happens.

Suppose, as I posted on recently, political life is becoming more automated but human creativity is also generating a social trend we haven’t yet named properly. After all, it surely doesn't stretch the bounds of credulity that human creativity may be working on something powerfully social as well as personal.

In fifty years or so, we’ll maybe know what it is, but I won’t be part of that we, so I’d like an inkling now. To winkle out that inkling is no easy task, so I’ll begin by sticking with the name creativity as a descriptor. After all, the renaissance was an early budding of human creativity and it has been nurturing itself ever since.

Nurturing itself?

Of course – that’s surely a feature of creativity – it nurtures itself. I feel there is a link with complexity and emergent properties here, but this is not the place to explore it. So maybe the political elites have no chance in that they are on the wrong track. Laws and regulations are no match for sheer complexity and self-nurturing adaptability of human creativity.

If we wish to be cosmic about it, then the cosmos is creative and we have a spark of that creativity within us. We always did, but it's been some time in the nurturing. This you might say is obvious to a religious person but is a scientific blind-spot. Well for the purposes of this post at least, I'm not inclined to disagree.

Not that these ideas are strong enough to bear much weight. I still think our political elites are appalling shits and it matters that they are appalling shits, yet I don’t want to cut myself off from other possibilities.

Creativity may be a far more complex and powerful social beast than we generally suppose.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Breath burial

From Click Green we are told:-

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council(EPSRC) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change(DECC) today announced a £13 million investment to establish a UK Carbon Capture and Storage(CCS) Research Centre.

I suppose £13 million is a merely a drop in the ocean of waste, yet it is comparable in scale to spending by the Children's Brain Tumour Research Centre. Worth dwelling on that one I think.

But burying CO2 is beyond parody, beyond stupid, beyond mere funding greed and the infinitely tedious grinding monster of a stupidity machine tended with fanatical devotion by the mad and the bad.

This is a symptom of insanity. The insane are defined by their behaviour, by the way they deviate from rational norms clearly visible to all but the afflicted . One is inevitably reminded of Swift's The Grand Academy of Lagado. Although burying CO2, which after all is much the same as burying our own breath - well that has to be a little more outré than trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.