Saturday 30 June 2012

The fiercest reformers

The fiercest reformers grow calm, and are faire [*] to put us with things as they are: the loudest Radical orators become dumb, quiescent placemen: the most fervent Liberals when out of power, become humdrum Conservatives or downright tyrants or despots in office.
William Thackeray – Pendennis

* Unusual word to use, but it’s what Thackeray wrote.

Odd how many things don't change isn't it? Well not odd exactly - maybe unexpected in the light of our progress since Thackeray's day, because on the whole I wouldn't go back to his world. Not without a good quality bidirectional time-machine anyway.

And yet... when I gaze at Nick's untrustworthy mug...

Because Thackeray's observation is as true today as it was then. Newcomers to the political elite are mostly content with the quenching of a burning ambition. The limos, the TV interviews, the trappings of power and Mum and Dad so awfully proud - that's quite enough. They never really aimed to upset the establishment which after all, opened its doors to them. On the whole we join clubs without any intention of changing the rules.

Of course for silver spoon types like Nick, the doors were never closed in the first place, so what did we expect from the guy? Pretty much what we got is my guess. 

Three more years to go isn't it? It'll seem like ten.

Friday 29 June 2012

Life on the pole

The Greasy Pole by  Michael Killen  

Older people live in the past in that we have long memories and in many cases our best years are behind us.Yet we have one important social advantage – we know where the bodies are buried.

I mean in a social and political sense of course.

We remember the political blunders of the past, the silly government promises which failed to deliver. The mistakes we are doomed to repeat because those in charge weren’t around to see why their brilliant new wheeze isn’t brilliant or new, is wheezing from the off and didn’t work the last time it was tried.

We know why we are where we are.

I think that’s why many of us look on with contempt at senior politicians in their early forties or younger who haven’t seen enough of life to be moulded by it. So often they haven’t troubled themselves about experience, but took hold of the greasy pole as callow youths and never let go.

Now they have squirmed their way to the top and life is a breeze as long as they don’t look down and always have an answer drawn from the spin-doctor’s doctrines rather than something more durable. Such as personal experience. There isn’t much of that the be had on the pole.

Yet as older people see the cycles and realise that these things must wend their weary way through their inevitable phases, I think we also grow less concerned about the chimera of collective self-determination.

Because in the long run there is no collective self-determination, only self-determination which has to pick up the pieces each time the collective illusions fall apart as we slide down to the inevitable trough, wondering how bad it will be this time around.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Eating cats

I'm working on a short story at the moment, about a guy who eats his neighbour's cat. He decides to eat it because it keeps shitting in his garden which I suppose is reason enough for the kind of people you encounter in short stories.

The problem I have is finishing the thing with a twist. You need that for a short story, but in this case I'm not sure what it should be. The cat could eat him instead - that's one possibility, but it's too much like a standard horror story.

The trouble is, by introducing a would-be cat eater from the off, any other development is likely to be less outré than the main story. Feeble in other words.

Sometimes I find this is what happens. I write something, it doesn't work out so I put it to one side hoping inspiration will strike. Often it never does. Pity - I had a few recipe ideas too.

It's Wimbledon again

Is it me, or is there something a little distasteful about Wimbledon these days?

Pock pock, pock pock - pock bloody pock.

It's not just the repetitive nature of the modern game, but something institutionally priggish we'd be better off burying at the bottom of a stonking great hole in the middle of Centre Court.

From the alpaca sweater and sunglasses carefully perched in the hair.

From servile ball boys and ball girls not quite old enough to feel demeaned. I mean why can't the players pick up their own balls? Why can't they even pick up their own sodding towels?

From obsequious interviews of today's forgettable stars just a millisecond faster and a millimeter more accurate than their nearest rivals.

From strawberries and unctuous cream and the faux tradition with its steely commercial core.

To the dashing of silly expectations as yet another Brit bites the dust.

Pock pock.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Lottery scam

This is part of an email I just received.
Does anyone actually fall for this kind of thing?

Morphing the climate game

Many climate sceptics and political commentators see climate change as a dead or dying issue. The science is embarrassing in its strident naivete. The apocalyptic predictions haven’t materialised, Climategate exposed the scientific culture as biased and corrupt, abject failure is the fate of every model prediction.

But the major players have too much to lose, so we still have climate laws and treaties in force with no scientific basis. The game is not about to be called off merely because the science turned out to be garbage.

Minor players have much to lose as well.
  • In the UK we have two influential news outlets, the BBC and the Guardian newspaper, both with a great deal of their threadbare credibility invested in climate scare stories. They are never likely to admit how grotesque their journalistic failures have been.
  • Institutions such as the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry have been embarrassingly naive in their approach to climate change. They will accept with quiet gratitude any face-saving diversion that comes their way. 
  • The intensity of climate propaganda has left us with an unknown number of people who still believe the climate scare stories, many seeming baffled by what has happened to scientific integrity. Middle class enthusiasts for Green Lite - lost souls still clinging to the wreckage. 

This is just the tip of a UN sponsored iceberg, a gigantic political investment, far too big to fail. So the UK government dutifully behaves as if the science is still sound and the climate threat real, because the shape-changing mega-fraud is morphing again, just as global warming morphed into climate change.

Climate science is being shoved to one side as settled, and as it festers away on the shelf, the game morphs into sustainable development, a much more flexible bogey to wave in front of the children. This move seems to have been planned for some time, so for once somebody in the UN made an accurate climate prediction.

Sustainable development will be more problematic for sceptics – because who supports unsustainable development? The Hydra grows more heads. The same people who now support climate change will grab the lifebelt with both claws. They will be just as strident, just as unprincipled about indoctrinating children, just as vicious towards dissent.

So that’s something to look forward to isn’t it?

Tuesday 26 June 2012

The rise of the useful idiot

One of the characteristics of our age seems to be the rise of the useful idiot. It has become a career choice for those with plenty of ambition but little talent, or plenty of talent but little sense. Elites have always been aware of the value of useful idiots, marking them out for senior or influential positions, but not too senior and not too influential.

Doris Lessing

From the BBC World Service

In 1952 Doris Lessing, a British writer who has since won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was part of a delegation visiting the Soviet Union. Her memories of the trip are clear and unforgiving:

“I was taken around and shown things as a ‘useful idiot’... that’s what my role was. I can’t understand why I was so gullible.”

She was not the only one.

The term was originally used to describe Soviet sympathizers in Western countries. The implication was that although the people in question naïvely thought of themselves as an ally of the Soviet Union, they were actually held in contempt and were being cynically used. The use of the term in political discourse has since been extended to other propagandists, especially those who are seen to unwittingly support a malignant cause which they naively believe to be a force for good.

In my view, it isn’t necessary to assume that useful idiots do not know they have been manipulated in the role. Most quite obviously chose it. Being a useful idiot and knowing you are a useful idiot has lots of advantages for those who don’t aspire to the top table. The real dupes seem to be intellectuals.

Modern states are largely built on useful idiots and couldn’t possibly function without them. PR smoothies, brown-tongued journalists, flexible scientists, bankers, business leaders, charity executives, celebrities, senior police officers, senior clerics, compliant intellectuals - there are whole armies of useful idiots more or less aware that this is their chosen role in life.

It’s a secure and lucrative role too, an upper middle class role which seems to be one of its main attractions.

So although anyone can easily point out what is wrong with political life, in general the key people aren’t listening. The elite listen to their useful idiots, the useful idiots chatter among themselves and nobody listens to us. Why would they?

In fact they would prefer us not to speak out at all – and that’s being dealt with.

Monday 25 June 2012

Money bush

Can anyone call me mercenary after that? Though Miss Crutty had twelve thousand pounds, and Mary only ten (five in hand and five in the bush), I stuck faithfully to Mary.
William Thackeray – The Fatal Boots

Well it made me smile.

Tax and punish

There’s a lot to be said for sticking to a simple duality when it comes to human interaction.

Or Punish.

That’s it. Apart from the merit of simplicity, it allows us to do some partial untangling of social and political life. One such is tax, which I see as essentially a question of power, the elites punishing the non-elites just hard enough so the non-elites don’t take to the streets. Or at least not too often with not too many broken windows.

The idea that tax is used by governments to pay for stuff we need, such as education, seems a little fanciful to me. There's a touch of post hoc ergo propter hoc in the idea. Partly true and partly false, like most of these questions. For example, let’s be radical and ask do we need education, or are schools mostly crèches so that both parents can go out to work to pay more taxes?

It’s a question without a clear answer of course. An angle, an aspect of an issue where we know we aren’t quite getting it right but can’t agree what it is we should be doing better. We do need to educate kids of course, as well as keeping them off the streets, but how many of us picked up more from books and the real world than we ever picked up from the classroom?

Pen grew weary of hearing the dull students and tutor blunder through a few lines of a play, which he could read in a tenth part of the time which they gave to it. After all, private reading, as he began to perceive, was the only study which was really profitable to a man.
William Thackeray – Pendennis.

That’s how it was in my case, but not quite, because was fortunate enough to have a few very influential teachers who instilled in me some valuable insights I’ve never forgotten. Many didn’t though.

Anyway, back to taxes from which I seem to have drifted. Are taxes all about punishment and reward? Certainly if we had a simpler and more transparent tax system, we’d be much better off. We’d see more clearly the rewards of a rational tax system at least

We’d spend our taxes more wisely too, which we certainly don’t do at the moment. So for most of us a rational and transparent tax system would be rewarding. The only downside would be for those who grow fat on the tax system as it is. We'd be punishing them and rewarding ourselves - so we won’t get it.

It’s that duality thing again.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Kindle book downloads

Amazon Kindle

Although my books are all priced at $1.00 because I just want to keep things cheap and simple, they are downloaded far more often when I use Amazon's free downloads system. No surprises there I suppose, but I can guarantee downloads simply by using the freebie system.

What this freebie system does is allow the author to offer Kindle books as free downloads for any five days in a three month period. When the three month period expires, you can do it again during the next three months. So your books can be free for just over 5% of the time. I use it a lot.

But why do folk like free downloads so much more than very cheap downloads?

Simple - the free downloads get the publicity. People can be alerted to free downloads via a number of routes such as this web site, but on the whole chargeable books just sit there with Amazon's other 1.3 million Kindle books. As this number seems to be growing at about 1000 books a day, you can see what writers are up against.

Not that I'm concerned either way. I just like the idea that someone at least read the things after all that work, but you get that by writing blogs anyway. It really hits you how important publicity is. My books are a hobby and nothing special, but imagine how many great books are out there, but they aren't widely read because they don't get the publicity.

That's why the first rule of writing is to be famous or well-connected. A published author once told me that publishing is no exception to that age-old maxim - it's not what you know but who you know.

Saturday 23 June 2012

I've got worms

Grandson climbed into the car and announced "I've got worms."

Mild alarm soon dispelled by the additional information that "Worms" is some kind of computer game for kids.

The Glacier Girl

The restored Glacier Girl - from Wikipedia

The story of the Glacier Girl isn't new, but recently I bumbled across it again, pausing in mid-browse to read it once more because it appeals to me somehow.

Maybe the whole thing from crash landing to recovering the wreck is tinged with a sense of old-fashioned exploits like something out of a boy's adventure book from too long ago. Maybe it's also because I built a plastic Airfix model of one of these aircraft in my youth.

On 15 July 1942, due to poor weather and limited visibility, Glacier Girl's squadron was forced to make an emergency landing in Greenland en route to the British Isles during Operation Bolero. All crew members were subsequently rescued. However, Glacier Girl, along with the unit's five other P-38 fighters and two B-17 bombers, was eventually buried beneath 260 feet of ice due to decades of blowing snow and drifting glaciers. Fifty years later, in 1992, the plane was brought to the surface by members of the Greenland Expedition Society after years of searching and excavation. The aircraft was eventually transported to Middlesboro, Kentucky, where it was restored to flying condition.

That's 260 feet of ice accumulation by 1988 when the location of the aircraft was first discovered. So after only 46 years, an average of over five and a half feet of ice per year had built up. The expedition had expected to find the aircraft near the surface. So much for Greenland's disappearing ice.

Friday 22 June 2012

Google and malware sites

According to this report by PC Pro, Google spots 9,500 new malware sites on the web each day.

Google is discovering 9,500 new malware sites every day via its security tools, the company said. Google's Safe Browsing tool was launched five years ago to protect against malicious content and phishing sites in search results, and now issues 14 million search query warnings every day.

“We protect 600 million users through built-in protection for Chrome, Firefox and Safari, where we show several million security warnings every day to internet users,” Niels Provos of Google’s security team said in a blog post. “When we detect malware or phishing, we trigger a red warning screen that discourages clicking through to the website.”

9.500 new malware sites a day sounds a lot, but Netcraft estimates there are a total of 644 million websites on the internet, so 9,500 is just under 0.0015% of the web.

Father And Son

F R Higgins (1896 - 1941)

Only last week, walking the hushed fields
Of our most lovely Meath, now thinned by November,
I came to where the road from Laracor leads
To the Boyne river - that seemed more lake than river,
Stretched in uneasy light and stript of reeds.

And walking longside an old weir
Of my people's where nothing stirs - only the shadowed
Leaden flight of a heron up the lean air -
I went unmanly with grief, knowing how my father,
Happy though captive in years, walked last with me there.

Yes happy in Meath with me for a day
He walked, taking stock of herds hid in their own breathing ;
And naming colts, gusty as wind, once steered by his hand.
Lightnings winked in the eyes that were half shy in greeting
Old friends - the wild blades, when he gallivanted the land.

For that proud, wayward man now my heart breaks-
Breaks for that man whose mind was a secret eyrie,
Whose kind hand was sole signet of his race,
Who curbed me, scorned my green ways, yet increasingly loved me
Till Death drew its grey blind down his face.

And yet I am pleased that even my reckless ways
Are living shades of his rich calms and passions-
Witnesses for him and for those faint namesakes
With whom now he is one, under yew branches,
Yes, one in a graven silence no bird breaks.

F R Higgins (1896 - 1941)

Thursday 21 June 2012

So let's get drinking

We are told via gizmodo that scientists can now grow a functioning liver from stem cells.

Scientists have promised a lot of regenerative medicine will come from stem cells, but so far progress has been fairly slow: they can stimulate regrowth of heart tissue; make incredibly expensive artifical blood, or—at best—construct a short piece of vein. Now, though, scientists are claiming they can grow functional liver.

The art of cutting paper

You’ve probably seen intricate paper-cut art before, but Hina Aoyama takes it to a whole new level by achieving an incredible level of detailed using only scissors.

Unlike other artists who use fine tools like an X-acto knife to create elaborate pieces of paper-cut art, Japanese-born Hina Aoyama only uses a pair of scissors and lots of patience. The Paris-based artist takes anywhere from a few hours to several months to complete her lace-like fragile masterpieces, as she needs to keep a steady hand and arm herself with patience throughout the whole creative process. Looking at her works, I can’t help but wonder if Hina has some kind of magical powers that help her cut out such delicate marvels, but the videos she made of her carving tiny paper details prove she’s just a very talented artist.

Posts I delete

I tend to write these blog posts in MS Word or directly into Blogger, the choice often being dictated by the amount of editing I think I'll be doing or the number of links I intend to add. Or it's just random. What I write doesn’t always see the light of day though.

I reject a fair amount of my material, almost always after a paragraph or two. There’s something about writing stuff down that clarifies your ideas – at least it does with me. Once I put a new idea into MS Word or directly into Blogger, it soon becomes apparent if it isn’t going to work – if it ever does become apparent of course!

 Maybe it’s because this is the point where you first try to see your ideas through other eyes.

These failures happen often enough for me to know that writing my ideas down is really the only way to check them out. It’s not infallible of course – how could it be? Look at Polly Toynbee’s material.

So how do politicians manage when so much of what they say or write seems to involve their advisers and speech writers? Because those back room staff have to write to a political angle – it’s their job. The politician has to spout what’s been written for them – that’s their job.

The net result of course is known to us all. Garbage and stupidity. Some write their own material of course, especially after they have peaked and are now on the downward slope – more free to say what they think rather than what some flunky has written for them.

But they should always write their own material – they really should.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

New bond issue

Dave phoned and asked me to issue some private sector bonds to help out our EU friends. The idea is you print out the Haart Bond and use it as collateral for other bonds issued by EU bloggers.

What could possibly go wrong?

Technical note - use cheap paper to save costs.

Nature and mathematics

Roger Schlafly over at Dark Buzz (and author of How Einstein Ruined Physics) has written an essay called Nature has no faithful mathematical representation for the FQXi Essay Contest 2012.

It is in my view a fascinating, must-read essay where Roger is saying that Nature cannot be represented faithfully by mathematics. It surely doesn't take much thought to see how important this issue is to modern physics and our understanding of the universe.

Mathematics dominates theoretical physics, and underlies the deepest realities of nature. It is “unreasonably effective” in the words of E. Wigner. It is widely believed that the most fundamental objects of physics will be perfectly describable by mathematical structures. The structures might be variants of quantum field theory, or string theory, or supergravity, or some other unified field theory, but they will be given precisely by mathematical constants, formulas, equations, and other structures. I believe that this is a profound mistake.

Concepts of physics like mass, electricity, gravity, and electrons can be represented by mathematical structures. That is what the formulas in physics books are all about. A representation is faithful if it perfectly characterizes the physics. In particular, it must allow calculations that predict physical outcomes to as many decimal places as desired.A faithful representation of the elementary particles (quarks, leptons, and bosons) is the holy grail of theoretical physics. I believe that there is no such thing, and that it is foolish to look for one.

Tuesday 19 June 2012


Sam Vega left a comment about Doomwatch on the previous post which gave my old memory cells a real good tweak.

If you are old enough to remember, Doomwatch was a BBC drama series running from 1970 to 1972. It was themed on a range of highly improbable environmental or ecological disasters, or at least those I remember were.

I still recall my young-person's annoyance that the BBC could be so cavalier with technical and scientific issues merely for the sake of second-rate, if popular drama.

The clip above is a trailer for The Plastic Eaters, the first in the series and the one I remember best because I thought it so ludicrous. In fact I still remember being horrified that they could come up with something so silly. Naive wasn't I?

The story concerns a genetically modified virus that liquefies all types of plastics. It escapes from some government laboratory, spreads all over the place and among other things causes aeroplanes to fall out of the sky. 

Well viruses have no metabolism, so it should at least have been an improbable bacterium or fungus, but of course this is BBC so nobody really cares about scientific credibility. They didn't then and they don't now. My disenchantment with factual TV dates from this truly awful drama.

Mercury bombs

Now the traditional (and cheap) incandescent light bulb has been forcibly phased out in the name of saving the planet, we seem to be stuck with millions of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL) or mercury bombs as they have been called. These things contain mercury, a Red List substance, so when they break or fail they have to be disposed of in the approved manner.

Not only that, but CFL lighting was always due to be phased out anyway because of the mercury. It’s probably only a matter of time because the Zero Mercury Working Group has this to say about the use of mercury.

The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) is an international coalition of 94 public interest environmental and health non-governmental organizations from 52 countries from around the world formed in 2005 by the European Environmental Bureau and the Mercury Policy Project. ZMWG strives for zero supply, demand, and emissions of mercury from all anthropogenic sources, with the goal of reducing mercury in the global environment to a minimum. Our mission is to advocate and support the adoption and implementation of a legally binding instrument which contains mandatory obligations to eliminate where feasible, and otherwise minimize, the global supply and trade of mercury, the global demand for mercury, anthropogenic releases of mercury to the environment, and human and wildlife exposure to mercury.

A complete global ban is their aim - hence the name Zero Mercury Working Group. All this is going on under the umbrella of UNEP, the same UN body that pushes climate propaganda and thereby the move to CFL lighting. A binding international agreement on mercury may well be signed within weeks and ZMWG is after a strong agreement :-

The fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on Mercury (INC4) will be held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from 27 June to 2 July 2012.

There is in principle nothing wrong with phasing out the release of mercury into the environment. There are problems in identifying anthropogenic mercury, because it occurs naturally, but in principle we should not be adding it to the environment if at all possible.

The problem is, we knew all this when CFL lighting was forced on us, so why not wait for something better than CFL, or at least make them optional with a large health warning on each pack? Why fill millions of homes with millions of mercury-containing CFLs, knowing they will have to be phased out and knowing the official view is, the sooner the better?

The only option to CFL, unless we go back to traditional (and did I say cheap) incandescent light bulbs seems to be LED lighting, which is expensive, still being developed and depends on rare earths from China. This was also foreseeable of course because both the pushing of CFL and the phasing out of the mercury essential for CFL were going on at the same time under the same umbrella organisation - UNEP.

Not that anyone is likely to be surprised - it’s how so many green jobs are created. 

Monday 18 June 2012

Recruiting kooks


Roger over at Singular Values has in the past referred to psychologists as kooks.

James from nourishingobscurity has referred to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as an exemplar of how climate sceptics are liable to be treated by psychologists.

On the same lines, Bishop Hill has another psychology related post (called Potty-mouthed Nature) which links to a truly weird paper (Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers) published by Nature.

Psychologists seem to be investigating a possible cure for climate scepticism. The word denier is used 48 times, so at least we are not in the realms of academic integrity, which is something of a relief.

Kooks indeed.

Which of us is the nutter?

Psychologists have one great problem when they try to classify any type of behaviour as pathological. They must know it to be pathological in the first place or they cannot adopt the role of observer. The problem is that this is never a neutral standpoint, but always an assumed superiority of judgement.

Of course that's what we all assume when we pass judgement on anything, but the point I'm banging on about here is that psychologists cannot sidestep the assumption or even leave it safely in the background.

As far as I can see, this covert assumption works only when the pathological nature of behaviour is beyond question. It falters when the assumption isn’t so obvious. It shouldn’t be a problem for a profession based on good empirical conceptual frameworks, but many psychologists seem quite willing to speculate within their social and political inclinations instead.

Take this recent post at Bishop Hill’s climate blog. It’s about psychologists seeking to explain climate scepticism and maybe even tackle it – presumably as a social problem. Now it should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that climate scepticism will have diverse causes, ranging from the political to the gut reaction to the austerely scientific and this is acknowledged in the debate. 

I have to say at this point is that it's not entirely clear whether the psychologists are concerned with a need to get the climate message across or a need to understand scepticism. No matter, there is still one issue psychologists must rule on if they are to treat sceptical behaviour as pathological or even merely undesirable.

The behavioural cause they must rule out for sceptical behaviour is the validity of climate scepticism. If sceptics are right to be sceptical (and how could they not be?) then the psychologists are looking inside the wrong heads. Actually, the right heads are often their own, but that's another issue.

In other words, psychologist first need to know if the CO2 theory of climate change and all its mass of alarming baggage is sensible or not. Clearly it may not be. Otherwise they cannot ascertain who is mistaken within the debate. Without this standpoint, psychologists are themselves pursuing a deluded view of their professional competence.

Not that this would be a surprise.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Human Action

We all have our little pleasures don’t we? Momentary satisfactions such as that brief sense of release when you wake up on a Saturday morning knowing you don’t have to go to work. The aroma of fresh coffee when you first open a new pack, fresh snow, a job well done or the sight of an old friend. They help keep the world of crappiness at bay.

One of mine is deciding which book to read next after I’ve just finished the last one. I used to be a rather undisciplined reader. Some years back my wife complained about all the part-read books I tended to leave all around the house.

Indignantly I counted them and to my surprise found I was reading seventeen books at once, judging by the number with bookmarks. This rather deflated my indignation as you may imagine.

Since then I’ve been much more sensible and tend to read one book at a time. The Kindle helps, although I’d largely cured myself before I bought the Kindle.

Now I actually enjoy this brief bit of decision-making. What to read next? It's rather like looking forward to a good meal or a glass of wine. Anyhow, after Pendennis I chose Human Action by Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian School economist. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while because some seem to regard it as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. So I downloaded it onto my Kindle and dived in.

Oh dear...

I’m no economist, but I only managed a few pages. Unreadable, bloated, repetitive, jargon-riddled dross in my view. It’s like reading Kant. I'm not opposed to free market economics and no doubt there are some good ideas buried somewhere in that vast heap of words, but I’m not prepared to dig them out. Life really is too short.

First - part of an Amazon reviewer’s comment.

In the first section of this masterwork, Mises gets right down to laying a solid philosophic and epistemological foundation for the study of the social sciences. The ideas in this section could be Mises' most powerful contribution to mankind's body of ideas, and I consider it one of the most fascinating discoveries of my adult life.

Second – three quotes from the book.

1... Choosing determines all human decisions.

2... The system of economic thought must be built up in such a way that it is proof against any criticism on the part of irrationalism, historicism, panphysicalism, behaviourism, and all varieties of polylogism.

3... It is no longer enough to deal with the economic problems within the traditional framework. It is necessary to build the theory of catallactics upon the solid foundation of a general theory of human action, praxeology. This procedure will not only secure it against many fallacious criticisms but clarify many problems hitherto not even adequately seen, still less satisfactorily solved. There is, especially, the fundamental problem of economic calculation.

To me this is strongly Kantian – misguided system-building. For all I know there may be insights in there somewhere, but these quotes taken from the beginning of the book suggest to me that Mises hoped to build a permanent edifice almost as grandiose as the notorious settled science of climate change.

It’s not for me. Zola next I think.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Soul of a prig

Whig prigs - Horace Walpole to Nick Clegg

The most frustrating and damaging people in public life are the prigs. Political life is simply crawling with them and their impervious, stupid, self-approving paternalistic attitude towards ordinary people.

a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others: "she was religious but not a prig"


mid 16th century: of unknown origin. The earliest sense was 'tinker' or 'petty thief', whence 'disliked person', especially 'someone who is affectedly and self-consciously precise' (late 17th century)

Suits the political class rather well doesn't it?

So prigs have been with us for centuries in one way or another, but in the modern world we tend to gloss over just how powerful and pervasive they are in setting the agenda and moulding the narrative. Prigs never go away, they just evolve by teaching their kids to be prigs too.

Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase conspicuous consumption to define a link between waste and social status. For Veblen, status is largely built on conspicuous waste which may range from clothing fashions to big houses to pointless, but rewarding activities.

To me, this is where prigs step in.

It is okay for smart people with a the right type of conscience to live in nice houses, have second homes and jet across the world in order to attend a conference on wittering about a rain-forest. Yes that’s okay, because it’s serious you see. Prigs are serious.

But it certainly isn’t okay for ordinary folk to go jetting off for a holiday even if they can afford it. Oh no – that won’t do at all. Not serious. Wrong motive. Wrong class of people entirely. Those people probably drink Coke, watch football and take their kids to McDonald's. No, no, no, it just won’t do.

There is joined at the hip bond between environmental activism and mainstream politics. The bond is a priggish determination to limit the aspirations of ordinary folk - down to what prigs deem appropriate. That's a word prigs like by the way - appropriate.

Environmental activists and mainstream political activists have the same social and political attitude – the ineradicable attitude of the prig.

We ordinary folk are supposed to know our place, but here’s the giveaway – we are supposed to know our place without being told. It is a characteristic of prigs that they show but dare not tell. This is also why mainstream politics is much the same, whether nominally on the left or right. Both are the politics of the prig – and it isn’t a new phenomenon.

Environmental politics provides a convenient rationale for controlling and subduing aspirations in the name of being conspicuously green. It really doesn’t matter whether climate science is sound or not. What matters is that it chimes with a priggish distaste for the ambitions, tastes and preferences of ordinary folk. It’s essentially a class thing.

This priggishness is real, pervasive and powerfully effective. It always was. Covert, puritanical sneering in a modern guise. A genuinely priggish distaste for ordinary people is what unites modern political parties and activist groups on almost all issues.

It is why democracy has been dumped and will remain dumped, because we haven’t in their eyes, measured up to our responsibilities. Essentially that means our responsibility to know our place.

Friday 15 June 2012

Sustainable bribery

There is an interesting abstract here of a paper on Asian corruption, particularly bribery. The author describes two main types of bribery with important differences. His exemplars of this duality are India and Indonesia. 
  • Pervasiveness, or how rampant bribery is, and how easy it is to tell whether bribery is acceptable.
  • Arbitrariness, or the likelihood of whether the bribe will result in the requested service.
 Indonesia is a very corrupt country, but, at the same time, if you bribe you get preferential treatment as promised.

In India, bribery is very prevalent but uncertain. You may not know who to bribe, how much to bribe, and whether or not you will get the benefits promised. It’s very risky to bribe, and can be very costly.

In other words, bribery can work if, as in Indonesia, everyone knows the rules and abides by them. Sounds obvious enough - if you have a culture of bribery, it's a good idea to do it properly.

My father used to tell a story about bribery in Malta not long after the war. He was stationed there with the Royal Navy and local accommodation was very difficult to find. One day Dad suddenly twigged. He offered a wad of notes to a local solicitor and as if by magic a very nice flat became available, much better than anything the ship's captain had been able to find.

I suspect this predictable type of bribery may be more prevalent in the EU than is ever officially recognized. We are certainly finding just how widespread economic corruption is in terms of dodgy accounting, especially by governments.

So the nature of predictable bribery may be a bigger threat than we commonly imagine, spread inexorably by the need to do business globally. Predictable bribery works simply because the although the bribe itself has to be covert, the rules are reasonably overt and reliable. So the deal gets done.

In which case, bribery may well become more common. The day may come when we all have to offer bribes in certain well-understood situations. Of course in may covert and indirect ways, our government already does and always has.

Thursday 14 June 2012


From DaveH by email

Cherry tarts

We all cherry-pick don't we? 

Telling our best jokes, anecdotes career highlights, problems, successes and disasters, best and worst relationships, best and worst holiday experiences. It's a habit - picking out life's salient features, building a narrative from peaks and troughs, leaving out the mundane and commonplace. 

A BBC programme shown on Monday was called Britain in a Day.  

On Saturday 12 November 2011 an eclectic range of British people turned the camera on themselves, capturing the entertaining and mundane, the exciting and unusual, the poignant and the everyday. The result, Britain in a Day tells the fascinating story of the British public in their own words.

Following on from the feature film Life in a Day, this 90-minute film directed by BAFTA winner Morgan Matthews offers an extraordinarily candid look at 21st century life across the UK, crafted from over 750 hours of footage, including 11,526 clips submitted to YouTube. The documentary offers remarkable insight into the lives, loves, fears and hopes of people living in Britain today. This captivating self-portrait of Britain forms part of the BBC's Cultural Olympiad.

I suppose it was a mildly interesting project, although I didn't watch it. What struck me was how the BBC distilled over 750 hours of video footage into a 90 minute programme.

Suppose we regard the 750 hours as social data? In that case the BBC programme is an extreme case of cherry-picking - discarding 99.8% of the data. We are left with 0.2% - chosen by BBC editors to give what they call a crafted 90 minute programme.

Of course TV people do this all the time - they couldn't make their programmes otherwise. We are familiar with the idea of editing because it's similar to what we do when we narrate the salient features of our lives. From the BBC, we expect the slickness of a polished product and that's what we get.

But surely we should raise at least one eyebrow at how extreme the cherry-picking can be, especially when we are supposedly dealing with factual programming. It isn't disguised either - the cherry-picking is not only acceptable, but seen as the only way to present such an unwieldy mass of video footage.  

Well maybe it is, but when we complain of climate scientists cherry-picking, perhaps we should remember that it's a major aspect of our society and media folk see nothing wrong with it.

Perhaps there is a cultural divide here between science, the media and daily life which many scientists are far too prone to cross as they bull up their narratives for public consumption. Cherry-picking drama tarts.

Journalists won't put them right - cherry-picking is their bread and butter.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Slight Ed wind

Ed Davey
Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 

Wind power was down to 0.2% this morning Ed. 

No... I don't think he's listening.

Same-sex parents

Two new studies of children reared within gay and lesbian relationships contradict earlier findings which claimed to find no significant disadvantages for a same-sex parental upbringing as compared to children brought up within heterosexual relationships.

The first study by Dr Loren Marks casts doubt on previous methodology.

The review by Dr. Loren Marks from Louisiana State University finds that much of the science that forms the basis for the highly regarded 2005 official brief on same-sex parenting by the American Psychological Association (APA) does not stand up to scrutiny. 

Of the 59 studies referenced in the APA brief, more than three-quarters were based on small, non-representative, non-random samples.

The second study by Professor Mark Regnerus found significant disadvantages for children reared within lesbian relationships

In his study, Professor Mark Regnerus used data from the New Family Structures Study (NFSS) , a large nationally representative sample of just under 3,000 young Americans aged 18 to 39, to compare how children raised in eight different family structures fared on 40 social, emotional, and relationship outcomes.

According to his findings, children of mothers who have had same-sex relationships were significantly different as young adults on 25 of the 40 (63%) outcome measures, compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both their married, biological parents. For example, they reported significantly lower levels of income, more receipt of public welfare, lower levels of employment, poorer mental and physical health, poorer relationship quality with current partner, and higher levels of smoking and criminality.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Cameron's horse

This is a the new horse bred specially for David Cameron's equestrian talents
It's called "Spineless" apparently.

From DaveH by email

Political reporting


Every now and then I pinch my nose, take a deep breath and have a quick gander at the world of politics, usually UK politics but sometimes wider. Not a pleasant job, but we all have to stay in touch however distasteful these games may be. There are of course a standard range of tick-boxes in my checking routine. 
  • Are they banning something ludicrous?
  • Has one of them said something ludicrous?
  • Has one of the ludicrous bastards died?
  • Has one of them been caught in an outre´ shagging session?
  • Is there any such thing as outre´ shagging these days?
  • Is there a chink of light at the end of the tunnel?
  • Which end?
Whenever I venture into this strange and disgusting world with my little check list, I wonder how on earth professional journalists manage it.

How for instance do those BBC dullards keep drivelling about the latest official gossip which doesn’t really reflect what is going on but they have a job to do and somebody might just be watching apart from Mum and Dad? I mean how do they report on the latest PR releases from Dave, Nick and Ed without the risk of being overcome by projectile vomiting?

Maybe there are tablets one can take for this kind of thing – like seasickness pills but with a seriously powerful uplift mixed into the formula. Or maybe it comes in a bottle.

Anyway, you may well have guessed that this post was to be all about some aspect of the UK political landscape, but it’s such a horrible prospect I need a dose of whatever those reporters are on first.

Or maybe not.

Monday 11 June 2012

Bitter flavour

The Major told with almost tears in his eyes how his noble friend the Marquis of Steyne, passing through London on the way to the Continent, had ordered any quantity of his precious, his priceless Amontillado, that had been a present from King Ferdinand to the noble Marquis, to be placed at the disposal of Mr Arthur Pendennis. The widow and Laura tasted it with respect (though they didn’t in the least like the bitter flavour) but the invalid was greatly invigorated by it, and Warrington pronounced it superlatively good.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) – Pendennis

Bitter sherry? Was Thackeray referring to what we call dry sherry or was he being satirical about Lord Steyne’s precious Amontillado?

Satirical is my guess, but it's only a guess.

Victorian baby stranglers

He was ashamed of a foolish and imprudent passion, and strangled it as poor women do their illicit children, not on account of the crime, but of the shame, and from dread that the finger of the world should point to them.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) – Pendennis

The comment drops so casually from Thackeray’s pen. Was it relatively common for poor women to strangle their illicit children, or was it largely a Victorian urban myth circulating among Thackeray's middle class readers?

It certainly happened in earlier centuries, we know that, but how common was it by Victorian times? I suspect we never will know with any degree of assurance, yet the almost offhand nature of the comment stopped me in mid-read when I came across it.

Throughout the 19th century many new-born babies were found abandoned, usually strangled or smothered. If the mother was traced she was charged with murder and tried by a male judge and all-male jury. In a large number of cases the woman had been persuaded or tricked into sexual activity. The Courts made no attempt to trace the father, causing occasional angry outbursts by women in courtrooms.

Tip of an iceberg? I don't know, but I'm drawn back to the casual nature of Thackeray's comment. Maybe Oliver Twist was one of the lucky ones.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Refined dining

And while we're on the subject of food, here's a tricky question for those who enjoy a refined dining experience.

Should a burger be tidy enough to eat without cutlery?

Or is a little latitude permissible - especially if chef feels inclined to push the creative boundaries? 

Let us eat cake

The Association For Psychological Science recently published a new theory on the cause of obesity. First off though is the introduction to the piece, which interestingly enough claims that the cause of obesity, at least in the US, is unknown. Makes you wonder why we have government obesity policies in that case, but here's the intro:-

Everyone knows by now that the U.S. is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, but for all the hand-wringing, nobody really knows why. Experts have offered many theories about why Americans eat too much—and especially too much fattening food—but these remain theories. It’s because Americans are ill-informed about diet and nutrition. We simply do not understand that double cheeseburgers are loaded with fat and calories. Or it’s because we’re constantly bombarded with stimulating ads for tempting but unhealthy snacks. Or we simply lack the self-discipline of earlier generations. Or all of the above. 

The explanation offered is that we are being conditioned by modern life to live for the present, to seek calories as a survival tactic aimed at coping with an uncertain future. In other words, calories cause obesity which we knew already, but seeking those calories may be a basic survival response to uncertainty and confusion..

The world can seem like a competitive and unforgiving place these days, with so many people out of work and the economy struggling. All Americans have to do is turn on the TV to get daily reminders of the world’s cruelty and suffering. While it’s not clear just how these findings might translate into strategies to undo this daily priming, it may not be enough to simply inform people about the calories and nutrition in this or that food—and expect them to make disciplined food choices. 

One delightful aspect of this explanation is that government nagging about obesity is partly what causes obesity. Puts a damper on David Cameron's liking for so-called nudge theory doesn't it? 

If this explanation is plausible, then in a wider sense, constant hectoring from government, mainstream media, fake charities and professional health lobbies are all causing obesity. The solution is simple.

Stop nagging - or the cake gets it! 

Saturday 9 June 2012

Are you too nice?

Are you too nice?

Many people are I fear. Too nice in a political sense, not cynical enough sense, easily persuaded as to good intentions. It's a good idea to avoid nice when doing politics, to be cynical, doubting and mistrustful. Members of the political elite don't know you or wish to know you.

They aren't nice.

The bastards understand the advantages of not being nice to nice people.

Anodynes and bargains

What a great deal of grief, care, and other harmful excitement does a healthy dullness and cheerful insensibility avoid! Nor do I mean to say that Virtue is not Virtue because it is never tempted to go astray; only that dullness is a much finer gift than we give it credit for being; and that some people are very lucky whom Nature has endowed with a good store of that great anodyne.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) – Pendennis

There is some truth in this – unfortunately.

I suspect Thackeray isn't read much these days and is only really known for Vanity Fair. Pendennis is just as good, although rather long. Via the life of its flawed upper class hero Arthur Pendennis, it is a satirical look at the aristocracy, their snobbish behaviour and the essential silliness of their lives.

Throughout the novel, Thackeray drops in a range of social comments on everything from the role of women to scepticism, which he equates with atheism.

"O Pen [Pendennis], you scoundrel! I know what you mean," here Warrington broke out. "This is the meaning of your scepticism,of your quietism, of your atheism, my poor fellow. You're going to sell yourself, and Heaven help you! You are going to make a bargain which will degrade you and make you miserable for life, and there's no use talking of it. If you are once bent on it, the devil won't prevent you."

Warrington, the speaker here, is a great friend of Pendenis - his conscience in some ways. Pendennis is generous and well-meaning, but also a cynic and very much inclined to go with the flow, to take things as they are. This is the bargain Warrington refers to. He thinks Pendennis is wasting his burgeoning talent as a writer for the sake of an easy life - the life of a dilettante.

I like this quote a lot, uncomfortable though it may be, because we do make these rather one-sided bargains with society don't we? I also like the word quietism. That chimes with me too. 

Friday 8 June 2012

Golf - be considerate

Insane bike race 2

The Valparaiso Cerro Abajo Race in Chile is a crazy urban bike race - watch out for the stray dog.

The video is from a helmet cam.

Conspiracy theories

One of the tricks played on us over the past few decades has been the denigration of conspiracy theories whenever the establishment is involved. Conspiracy theories directed at the establishment have to be very carefully explained if they are to escape the tinfoil hat label. Wildly improbable conspiracy theories skew the debate.

Yet it would be outstandingly naive to assume that the establishment is not essentially conspiratorial, routinely conspiring against our interests. It has always been this way - it goes with the logic of politics and government bureaucracy.

All professions are conspiracies against the laity
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) - The Doctor's Dilemma, act 1

Of course they are – that’s the point. It isn’t just about professional standards, comforting though that idea may be. Shaw was right and we should not forget that politics and bureaucracy are professions. They conspire against us, the laity as well as their professional competitors - it’s a key aspect of what they do.

noun, plural con·spir·a·cies.
1. The act of conspiring.
2.An evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot.
3.A combination of persons for a secret, unlawful, or evil purpose: He joined the conspiracy to overthrow the government.
4.Law. An agreement by two or more persons to commit a crime, fraud, or other wrongful act.
5.Any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.

Quite clearly definition 1,3 and 5 apply to politics and government. How could it be otherwise? A great deal of covert government discussion, both formal and informal, can be and should be defined quite correctly as conspiracy. So why the gullibility in dismissing conspiracy theories? Why the embarrassment when we are continually presented with the plainest evidence of widespread conspiracy at both national and international level?

  • Climate change alarmism.
  • UK politics and the three major political parties.
  • The EU and its long-term agenda.
  • The UN and its global agenda.

 How obvious does it have to be?

All groups with mutual political interests conspire against those who are not of their group. As the world becomes more interconnected, conspiracies deepen and opportunities for conspiracy widen. Mutual interests expand and become more rewarding for those on the inside. Networking, both overt and covert becomes essential to global players. It becomes lucrative too - professionally and financially.

This is how we work as human beings – a basic aspect of our psychology. Conspiracy is how we align our own interests with those of our adopted group and aim to make the group stronger. It would be astonishing and even perverse if the elite managed to remain aloof from the pressures of their own power base.

Power is nurtured by conspiracy – it always was.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Insane bike race

From PaulR by email.

Nuclear power and human health

Leading experts from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the Chernobyl Tissue Bank discuss the effects of radiation from a nuclear accident.

This our course is the industry point of view, but worth watching because I'm sure we are too cautious about nuclear power.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Motion induced blindness

This test is said to demonstrate how movement can generate blindness in peripheral vision. So car drivers at traffic lights may fail to see an approaching cyclist unless they actually check before moving off. Peripheral vision isn't reliable.

To check that the yellow spots are really permanent, focus on one.

Opium pipe?

This is a china bowl we bought from a junk/antiques shop yesterday. The shop had it labelled as Chinese, but the thing is obviously English dating from the 1820s or 1830s. From the general style, it may be from the Hilditch factory in Longton, now part of Stoke-on-Trent, although it's not possible to be sure because there is no mark except a pattern number. 

It's in perfect condition, but not valuable because by this time china was made in huge quantities and such pieces are still quite common. We paid £8 for it, which is cheap but hardly a cause for wild financial celebrations!

You can still use antique china like this, even though it's approaching 200 years old. As long as you don't bung it in the dishwasher and remember it has a lead glaze. So no using it for acidic stuff like pickles.

On the left of the pic, I've shown a detail of the pattern which depicts a Chinese style scene with a man on the left handing a what looks like a churchwarden pipe to a seated woman. An opium pipe possibly? I suppose it's possible, as opium doesn't appear to have had quite the same social stigma as today. 

Pa was going to China in that handsome threemasted ship, to bring home opium, with which he would for ever cut out Chicksey Veneering and Stobbles, and to bring home silks and shawls without end for the decoration of his charming daughter.
Charles Dickens - Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)

Heroine Bella Wilfer daydreams about her father becoming rich by trading in Chinese goods, including opium. There is no great suggestion as to the impropriety of her fancies, except maybe a hint of moral naiveté as to the making of money.

So it could be an opium pipe, but could just as easily be something much more innocent such as a tobacco pipe. Not that you'd expect to see either painted all over your best bone china in our uptight age. Imagine the outrage. 

Times change don't they?