Tuesday 31 July 2012

Wet T-shirt competition

I think I've seen this before, but it still made me smile.
From PaulR

New bishops, old rituals

It often seems to me that a secular society doesn't so much turn its face from religion, as invent substitutes. In a UK which has supposedly become more secular, we now have secular doctrines, secular clerics, secular gurus and secular rituals. I'm not sure I see the point. For example:-

Businesses and public bodies often invite itinerant preachers to tell the business what it already knows. Consultants we call them. They reaffirm doctrine examine the faithful and after being well fed and well paid are induced to bless the enterprise. We refer to their blessings as reports or action plans, absolving the penitent of past sins and exhorting them to sin no more.

Secular bishops (we often call them MPs) wrap themselves in the sanctity of political correctness while imbibing holy wine and screwing any novitiate they can lay their greasy paws on. Making things up as they go along, they wallow in the good life, having handed most of their duties to secular scribes – the Civil Service and EU Commission.

Local secular priests (they prefer the name councillor) try to keep the show on the road, sucking up to local squires and burghers. Sustained by meagre perks of office but little thanks, they jolly us along with hanging baskets in the summer and dull leaflets trumpeting their good deeds and endless efforts to comply with doctrine.

The secular Holy See (EU) has the last word on all matters temporal and spiritual, ever seeking to extend its influence over the minutiae of our lives, ever anxious to issue more exact and exacting interpretations of Holy Scripture – or Directives as they call them.

The Holy Office, or EU Commission as we misleadingly call it, seeks to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire, old glories and of particular importance - a lavishly appointed top table.

Pardoners, or Green political activists are among us again, issuing indulgences for everything from recycling and low energy lighting to incantations taken from sacred texts such as IPCC AR4. The middle classes in particular, are adept at amassing minor indulgences, encouraging their children to collect them too. They believe you see.

Religious symbols such as wind turbines have become much more conspicuous in recent years, while the truly devout are encouraged to express their devotion via solar panels stuck to the roof of their houses, highly visible symbols of piety within.


On a more serious note, these comparisons are not entirely frivolous. There are some parallels between religious and moral decline and a rise in secularism. We don’t simply become more rational as we lose our religious traditions as rationalists often seem to think. In many ways we become less rational, but hide the fact behind technical successes.

Monday 30 July 2012

Ethan Frome

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. If you know Starkfield Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade and you must have asked who he was.
Edith Wharton - Ethan Frome 1911

The first few lines of Edith Wharton's novella, Ethan Frome. Though short, to my mind it's a little gem. Set against a harshly beautiful rural New England winter at the end of the nineteenth century, Wharton's light touch depicts a doomed ménage à trois centred on Ethan Frome, an unsuccessful farmer and sawmill owner.

Trapped in a soured marriage, Frome falls in love with Mattie, a young cousin of his hypochondriac wife Zeena. Mattie has fallen on hard times so Ethan and Zeena take her in as a kind of unpaid domestic and carer for Zeena and her imaginary ailments.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the plot, but the spare writing with its delicate touches of atmosphere and character, it's pervading atmosphere of people trapped in webs of their own making, all demonstrate what extraordinary subtleties a fine writer may weave into ordinary materials.

Ethan Frome's is a failed life, even his education falling well short of his hopes and expectations. Worse than the failure itself is the fact that he knows it.

Four or five years earlier he had taken a year's course at a technical college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His father's death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

Yes it's dour, but as finely woven as a piece of old lace. It was made into a film in 1993. What the film is like I've no idea - angst in the snow probably. I doubt if it captures the subtleties of Wharton's writing. 

Sunday 29 July 2012

Spot the difference

Originally built as a Victorian police station near Dunster, Somerset.

Alfreton police station Derbyshire

I'd say the lower picture shows a paramilitary fortress, while the upper picture doesn't.

The Great Goldfinch Mystery

A few months ago I bought one of those bird feeders designed to supply goldfinches with nyjer seeds. Janet put me onto it, so I bought the feeder together with a bag of nyjer seed, filled the feeder right to the top and hung it in the magnolia tree in the back garden.

Nothing much happened for weeks, but eventually we saw the occasional goldfinch pecking at the feeder. As they are such pretty birds, we were delighted.


What we didn’t know was the as far as nyjer seeds are concerned, goldfinches are vacuum cleaners with feathers. Forget mental calculations about how much seed a tiny goldfinch can ingest without violating a scientific law of some kind. There is as far as I can tell, no physical limit to their capacity for nyjer seed.

Either that or the little sods are selling it back to the shop.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Choking hazard

A frisbee we bought for Grandson from Sainsbury's. It's a little over nine inches in diameter, so imagine our relief when Sainsbury's used a warning sticker to point out what could go so tragically wrong. We simply hadn't noticed the danger:-

WARNING! Not suitable for children under
3 years of age due to small parts -
choking hazard.

Do they mean the sticker? presumably they do.

The Hot-Hand Fallacy

The Association for Psychological Science has this story about Peter Ayton's work on judgement and decision making, especially in sport.

Peter Ayton, a researcher from City University London, UK, investigates how people make judgments and decisions under conditions of risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity. One way he studies decision making is through sports.

One bias discovered through sports statistics, says Ayton, is the “hot-hand fallacy,” which was first coined by APS Fellow Tom D. Gilovich. The fallacy arose from the belief that a basketball player is more likely to score if he or she just scored, making that player “hot.” By analyzing data from professional basketball games, Gilovich showed that the idea of players being “hot” was false.

Although I tend to use modern psychology as an example of poor science, or even pseudo-science, this kind of relatively straightforward statistical analysis is surely of some interest.

Friday 27 July 2012

Arrogant bosses

The University of Akron has this piece called Identifying the arrogant boss about the work of Professor Stanley Silverman.

Arrogant bosses can drain the bottom line because they are typically poor performers who cover up their insecurities by disparaging subordinates, leading to organizational dysfunction and employee turnover. 

A new measure of arrogance, developed by researchers at The University of Akron and Michigan State University, can help organizations identify arrogant managers before they have a costly and damaging impact.

I suppose there are arrogant people, just as there are confident people prepared to take risks and point the way because they know they are right. It's a fine line, but real enough all the same. How you measure these behaviours though? How do you decide whether or not you should lean on psychologists for advice? That's a different matter - it complicates a familiar situation.

It seems to me that arrogance and confidence are closely related, but we mostly know the difference and are able to tell if a person is harmfully arrogant or usefully confident.

But there is something else going on here isn't there? A whiff of touchy-feely political correctness perhaps? Bawling out an incompetent subordinate could easily be presented as arrogance - especially if an organisation is already attuned to these nuances. Which in the public sector they certainly will be. 

Maybe the views of psychologists are helpful, but maybe not. Somehow I feel a subtle arrogance behind claims like these. Not that it would ever be admitted, but the opinion is there, on the table, backed up by research, scientifically secure...

Maybe common sense is a better guide.    

Thursday 26 July 2012

Elites to take gold, silver and bronze.

As we all know, social and political issues are mostly class-based. The elite carry off all the prizes while the rest of us work, watch and wonder.

It's been the way of things throughout history. The elite run the show in their own interests, sending proles off to war every now and then to kill off the courageous.

Naturally their interests are often in conflict with ours so various measures are adopted to make sure our interests always come last. Once upon a time it was the sword and the noose allied to land ownership, but these days the old bread and circuses game seems to do the trick.

This wouldn’t matter too much if we had a number of key freedoms such as free speech, the freedom to exchange our goods and services as we choose and a transparent tax regime. Unfortunately, these freedoms are easily presented as threats or risks and as usual this is how the elite keep a grip on things. 

They even try to present the climate as a risk, but that one seems to be sagging a little under the weight of its own silliness.

Socialism and egalitarian notions, in spite of their superficial appeal, tend to make things worse by presenting the elite with a powerful weapon of social and political control – the welfare state. Control the welfare state and you control hearts and souls by creating dependencies too powerful to resist. 

Take away our earnings via complex and unfair tax regimes then dribble some of it back to us through dependency channels with all the cream skimmed off. A great wheeze and very effective.

Even more useful in keeping the elite thumb on the scales are bodies such as the EU and UN. It is no accident that the EU gains more and more power over the UK even though a majority of UK citizens seem to think we’d be better off out. Of course we would, but the elite obviously don’t so that’s that.

So why do folk fall for it? 

Why do ordinary folk vote for the elite? After all, it's been obvious for some time that the big three political parties in UK politics simply represent elite interests - a melding of big business and big government. Yet voters must know they personally aren’t members of the elite and must also know the elite don’t give a fig for their aspirations. In fact they put quite a bit of effort into knocking our aspirations on the head.  

So why vote for them?

I suppose it’s simple enough. Bread and circuses works. In fact - don’t we have one of the major circuses coming up quite soon? That absurd Olympics drug-fest?

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Favourite addictions

What are your favourite addictions? I have quite a few. Marmite is one, trousers another.

Are men addicted to trousers? I know MPs are addicted to taking them off, but what’s the difference between being addicted to cocaine or addicted to trousers? Cost obviously and a little matter of the law, which fortunately is extremely lenient towards trouser addicts.

But maybe that’s because the elite are addicted to trousers too?

No that can’t be right. It can't be merely a matter of elite addiction being totally okay, otherwise cocaine would turn out to be a vitamin. Maybe it’s because the elite don’t mind we proles having trousers but do mind us having cocaine. Anyway, the drug squad mostly wear trousers, so I suppose they have to stick with what is enforceable.

But on a slightly more serious note, what is it about addiction that so concerns us? I’m not really addicted to Marmite, I could give it up any time - honestly. I couldn't give up trousers though - and how about wine?

Well I’d not be so keen on giving up the occasional glass of wine.

Tea and coffee? Blogging? TV? Personal hygiene? Shaving? Theories? There are a huge number of things we are addicted to in the sense that they are habits, but we don’t count many habits as addictions, however powerful they may be. Even addictions as powerful as Marmite and trousers.

So are are addictions merely habits or a different type of habit and do they actually matter if they don't harm anyone else? Do they matter as much as we think?

I’m not sure, but I suspect not. I suspect it’s mostly a matter of social conventions and vested interests. If a drug is cheap or easy to grow, the elite and puritans don't want us taking it, even if we know how to handle it or wouldn't take it anyway.

The trouble is, the issue is rather emotive and it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees. I feel we should make more effort to clarify the issue of habit and addiction though. Drugs policies don’t work, although that’s often the reason policies are pursued. Policies that don’t work give the policy enforcers a job for life.

They become addicted to the policy and that's certainly one habit we could stop treating leniently.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

The real sky fairy

This may be a tongue-in-cheek post, but the point is worth probing I think.

Some atheists have a tendency to refer to God as the sky fairy. Why I don’t know, because it hardly makes for a constructive debate. However, there may be a touch of jealousy behind the jibe because many atheists have a sky fairy of their own. They call her climate - or maybe that should be Climate? So what is the Climate sky fairy all about?

  • She has her clerics in the guise of climate scientists.
  • She has her synods such as COP17.
  • She has her theology in the guise of climate science.
  • She has her holy texts such as IPCC reports.
  • She has her apocalyptic predictions.
  • She has her threats against the unbeliever.
  • She has her lay preachers.
  • She has her parables and morality tales.
  • She has her sects such as Greenpeace and WWF.
  • She has her gurus.
  • She has her laws.
  • She has her official totems such as wind turbines and the colour green.
  • She has her lay totems such as the Toyota Prius and solar panels.
  • She has her apostates such as James Lovelock.
  • She has her sacrifices such as the poor and elderly.
  • She has her acts of atonement – the Toyota Prius again.
  • She has her indulgences in carbon offsets.
  • She has her tithes such as carbon taxes and solar subsidies.
  • She has her TV preachers.
  • She has her apologists.
  • She has her celebrity worshippers.
  • She has her political backers.
  • She has her own political parties.
  • She has her fingers in big business.

All in all she is a thoroughly modern sky fairy. Climate worship may lack the theological sophistication and moral dimension of our Judeo-Christian traditions, but Climate is a primitive god, her followers raw and unsophisticated in the ways of thinking – especially thinking more than once.

Rational folk should tread carefully, for she is a vengeful god and the ways of reason are not her ways. Green in tooth and claw, we see her power in the swivel-eyed gaze of true believers.

Monday 23 July 2012

Psychology for dummies

The Association for Psychological Science has an item on the psychology of those who doubt predictions of climate apocalypse caused by CO2. Apparently:-

Or consider global warming. More than 90 percent of climate scientists agree that the global climate is shifting, largely as a result of human activity. Scientifically, this is essentially a closed case. Yet conspiracy theorists continue to spin wild tales of government agents surreptitiously destroying thermometers and burying contradictory evidence. 

It's not easy to understand how anyone gets through peer-review with a statement such as scientifically this is a closed case. I sometimes wonder, in my more cynical moments, if psychologists just make things up because their profession allows them to. Presumably it does. Either that or guys like this are on the fringe.

Roller coaster - which way now?

To my mind social inertia is increasing. As we become more prosperous, our appetite for change seems to diminish so social inertia increases. Prosperity appears to have sated our appetite for change.

We’ve already seen an effect of social inertia in the extraordinary growth of bureaucracy. Levels of regulation and new things to regulate have long passed the point of diminishing social returns. We now find ourselves in a situation we would once have classed as extreme.

Ours is turning year by year into a static society. Yes there are changes still going on, but as far as I can see, there is something deeply peculiar about it all.

Take modern family life. Modern parents are much like their children – they have the same background and much the same tastes. Of course this situation was once normal, but for a few generations it wasn’t.

For much of the twentieth century, while social, political and economic progress were in full swing, children were not like their parents. Their lives, tastes and expectations were different. Now this process of rapid change from generation to generation seems to have slowed, or even stopped altogether.

Although a similarity between generations isn’t new, the situation as a whole certainly is new. Prosperity and bureaucratic stasis make it new and I’m not sure we have any idea how to deal with it.

For a few generations during the twentieth century, people didn’t bring up children to do the things their fathers and mothers did, they brought up children to do more. To be the first members of the family to go to university, the first to take up a profession such as doctor or lawyer, the first to have managerial ambitions.

Now the pace of generational change seems to have slowed and parental aspirations have abated. The future is as ever unpredictable, but I do wonder where we are on the roller coaster of life.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Holding them to account

Presumably economic predictions require economies to be mathematical in their behaviour. But are economies mathematical entities? Surely they are not. For example, even though the Laffer curve is inexact, it is assumed to be some kind of semi-quantitative economic law. Semi-quantitative law? Is that good enough?

Fiscal policy, budget deficits and so on - it seems to me that too many people are too convinced they understand this stuff well enough to make predictions. Yet maybe economies are not even understandable in a quantitative sense at all because cause and effect are too complex and non-linear. Economies are not mathematical structures, but if not, then what are they? Are they chaotic?

In many ways I think we’d be better off if our economic ideas were to be subsumed within accounting. Do the accounts, draw the graphs, eyeball them, stick a finger in the air and draw your conclusions. Often you’ll be wrong if you try to predict the future, but maybe with a bit of good fortune only partly wrong.

So for me, the absolute prerequisite for any economic policy is that it should improve transparency and make the accounting simpler. Say we begin with taxation. For our political health, if for no other reason, taxation could be much simpler- much simpler for everyone.

Over the past year or so I’ve become convinced by MarkWadsworth’s blog and others and in my non-economist’s simplicity that LVT or Land Value Tax is the way to go. Replace the lot with LVT and open your arms to transparency in the national accounts.  

To me, the economic arguments for LVT seem strong, but I tend to see the argument more in behavioural terms. That’s just my take on it, because if I believe in anything, I tend to believe very strongly in the malign influence of complexity. It is absolutely essential that we understand ourselves and what we are doing. Unfortunately we don't and it's largely our fault.

Excessive complexity is bad news. It is used to promote and entrench unearned advantage, an unwholesome, unfair and destructive situation.

People of my age have seen this for real in the inflation of house prices. Personally we tended to miss out on this because of work-related house moves at the wrong time, but many people of my age saw property inflation melt away their mortgage in relation to the value of their house. A capital gain which was never earned or taxed.

Next is government borrowing. It seems to me that MMT guys have something important to say here. I’m not wholly convinced by what they say, but again they seem to be promoting a simpler way of looking at economics by concentrating on national accounts. What actually happens to the money? In their eyes, money is simply an accounting token, a record of who owes what to whom.

So forget economics. We’d be better off with transparent and radically simpler tax and national accounting – better off voting on the accounts rather than empty promises.

Saturday 21 July 2012

George Orwell - A Final Warning

On tour

As I’ve written before, I often surf the net with the specific aim of finding new blogs with something different to say. It’s surprising though, how often I see comments left by people I know – in the web sense of knowing folk. That is to say bloggers or regular commenters I’ve come across elsewhere. It's an odd feeling, like meeting someone you know without being able to give them at least a nod of acknowledgement.

Once or twice I’ve come across really well-written blogs which attract very few comments and I wonder why. Why don’t readers add a comment to well-written and lucid posts? Even without a visible stats counter it can be quite obvious that there must be plenty of readers, but for some reason they rarely leave comments.

Maybe some posts are a little inward-looking. Maybe they are too well written, almost daunting in their lucidity?

Maybe a post may be well-written, even beautifully written, but come across as private musings, almost like a diary entry. A comment would be an intrusion because the post leaves nothing unanswered, no loose threads to be followed. I'm not sure that's it, but it's something I've noticed quite often.

In such cases I look around the blog and wonder if I should leave a comment, like a note of appreciation. Usually I don’t because I don’t expect to make a second visit. I read so many blogs that one more would be too much, however well-written. It would tip the balance a little too far towards blogging and away from other matters. It’s a pity, but that’s life isn’t it?

So I take a look around the new blog and I leave, closing the door quietly behind me. Reluctantly of course, but there is only so much one can take in, however rewarding it may be.

Friday 20 July 2012

Rainy days

Took Grandson to one of those play centres this afternoon. Basically the kids run around playing on climbing frames, slides and suchlike while we oldies drink coffee. He made a new friend so we asked him:-

"What's your new friends name?"

"Noah," replied Grandson.

Noah? I sipped my coffee and gazed out of the window. Hmm... still raining.

Olympics pooper


I am an Olympics pooper. I have no interest in the Olympics, I don’t care who wins what or how they win it. To me it's just a very expensive series of TV shows with live audiences.

I’m not anti-sport – I like sport, but I don’t like the glitz, celebrity worship, drugs, deceit, corruption and shameless manipulation of the global sporting industry.

I don’t like the way politicians with shiny shoes embarrass us by climbing laboriously onto the bandwagon. I don’t like the circus atmosphere, the whipping up of emotions, the childish antics of winners, the pitiful tears of losers, the endless banal interviews with dull sporting fanatics.

Sport is good, but the Olympics isn’t sport, it’s a circus. It’s a degrading circus too, because all is so deliberate and contrived and so very far removed from the simple exhilaration of running, jumping, swimming and the innocent pleasure of training hand and eye to do what once upon a time they could never do.

It’s even worse than that though, because part of me is amused by the bungling over security, the ludicrous cost escalation and everything that doesn’t quite go according to plan. Part of me hopes the whole thing will be a shambles and that’s not good because I shouldn’t see it like that.

I’m not a vindictive person, but they go too far, make too much of their circus, praise the performers too highly, treat the thing too seriously, spend too much of our money, fail to acknowledge how corrupt it all is, how they never get on top of the drugs issue, try to involve absolutely everyone with their infantile games.

Don't like the Olympics? Wow - how weird is that?

Always, always, always children have to be roped in, their innocence shaming the adults who could never imitate what children naturally possess. 

There’s something rotten about the Olympics. Many of us know it and I suspect our number grows year on year. Maybe one day the fat men in suits will have to do something about the monster they have helped created and on which they so gluttonously feed, but I doubt it.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Fighting over admin

In politics, extremes seem to be a matter of distance. An extreme political position is necessarily distant from your own. There also seems to be a consensus aspect – the larger consensus sees the distant, smaller consensus as extreme. It’s relative.

So if it’s relative, what about drifting towards an extreme consensus? With no fixed points, do we tend to drift towards political extremes? Of course we do. What’s to prevent it? Our innate good sense?

It seems to me we’ve already drifted. The current situation in Britain seems extremely distant from what my father fought for in World War II. To me we have drifted into an extreme political consensus we would once have seen as decidedly un-British. I use the rather archaic term un-British here to highlight the obvious fact that Britain isn’t what it was only a few decades ago.

Have we become un-British?

Well our hard-won right to go to the polls is now largely useless because we are unable to vote for political ideals. Remember them?

Bureaucracies don’t recognize ideals. Political ideals, extending the franchise, better working conditions, better living conditions, educational opportunities, the brightest having a chance of going to university whatever their background. All that gave an agenda to fight for. A university degree was worth fighting for - not so long ago.

Within my lifetime, the fight over political ideals seems to have faded away into a matter of administration, and presentation – trivial non-issues masquerading as serious. A battle which ebbed and flowed for centuries has sunk into a strange kind of communal anxiety relieved by bread and circuses.

Maybe we thought democracy was superior to dictatorship and the good guys would win in the end, because that’s what we were always led to believe after World War II. We never for one moment thought democracy would prove such a thin and ephemeral illusion. We even believed in the permanence of being British.

I’m not so concerned here with what it was to be British, but with the fading away of whatever it was. I’m not even claiming it was worth fighting for, merely contrasting it with what we fight for now.

We fight over admin.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

The Einsteins of the deep

Dolphin drivel from Mail online:-

The Einsteins of the deep: Dolphins can perform feats of maths that would baffle human computer systems.

Dolphins can perform complex feats of maths that defy human computer systems. The finding has forced scientists to reevaluate how intelligent the animals are.

When hunting, dolphins blow 'bubble nets' - but are still able to use sonar - 'counting clicks' through the mass of bubbles. The ability seems to prove that the animals can do complex 'nonlinear' maths calculations. (*) 

Human sonar systems would be baffled by the bubbles - but dolphins appear to have a mathematical ability to 'cancel them out. (**)

(*) No it doesn't, it may suggest they still use their sonar through their bubble nets. It doesn't prove they are doing calculations.

(**) No they appear to have the ability to cancel them out. The word mathematical is redundant, added for effect.

One degree

There are numerous ways of expressing the silliness of climate science, but to my mind the simplest is also the most obvious - the puny rise in global temperature - the one miserable degree centigrade we are supposed to run round in circles panicking about. One sodding degree!

Maybe slightly less than one degree, but who cares?

We spend our lives in climates - choose holiday locations because of the climate. We know climate. Everyone on the planet knows climate. Animals know climate. Plants know climate.

Nobody expects a dramatic shift in the weather when the temperature changes by one degree. Nobody goes looking round for shade and an iced drink to stave off a sudden attack of heatstroke. We see far greater changes between night and day, summer and winter, even north and south in the UK. The insignificance of one degree is data - data we gather ourselves. Dependable data too - which makes a change.

When a change of one degree strikes, we don’t run for cover or start buying mountains of tinned food. We don’t rush out and buy up all the factor 50 sunblock, new sunglasses and a range of lightweight clothing. We don’t click onto Rightmove and look for a house up north.

A change of one degree in a hundred years, even if real, merely shows how stable the climate has been.

Going fractionally deeper into the issue, there is the unlikelihood of measuring a temperature change of one degree over a century via numerous weather stations which were not sited with a view to measuring global temperatures anyway.

Then there is the unlikelihood of all those thermometers being accurate to a fraction of a degree and how they were calibrated against a reliable standard, not to mention if they were ever calibrated in the first place. Then we loop back to the puny 1 degree change we are all supposed to worry about.

Are they serious?

Unfortunately they still are – even now the swivel-eyed nutters are still serious. But their own data merely shows how stable the climate has been for a hundred years or more. That’s it – that’s all they discovered.

Climate stability.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Stepping stones

That's me on the left, standing on one of the famous stepping stones across the River Dove in Dovedale, Derbyshire. Not a particularly recent photo as you can see.

You may also have noticed that we are not wearing flotation aids in case we fall into the rive. No protective clothing, unsuitable footwear and our hands appear to be fully occupied with consuming junk food. In case an official person is reading this though - my parents are beyond the reach of the authorities.

However, all is not lost and the horrible dangers posed by these ancient stones are now recognized. In 2010 limestone slabs were cemented to each one to make them all level with each other. Wasn't that a nice idea? 

Unfortunately the recent high river levels caused a couple of stones to become dislodged. Once upon a time the water just flowed over the top - I remember seeing it on a number of occasions. Now each one has a great slab of limestone cemented to it, that's not what happens.

Here they are as they were about a century ago. Sometimes I wish we could relearn the gentle art of leaving things alone. 

Monday 16 July 2012

I'm not smelling those

From PaulR

Poor Miss Finch

Her sight newly restored, Lucilla embraces the wrong twin.

I recently finished reading Wilkie Collins’ novel Poor Miss Finch. It seems to be one of his lesser-known novels - possibly a deserved fate in this case. Reading it is rather like rummaging around the back of an old bookshop – leafing through musty pages. Outside the shop, life goes on. Inside, time stands still for a few moments of peaceful browsing.

It’s a book we could never turn into a film though, because we’d tie ourselves in politically correct knots, trying to impose our own cultural norms on Collins’ much more matter of fact take on blindness and skin colour.

Lucilla Finch is a young blind woman, but comfortably off so her blindness is mitigated somewhat by servants and physical comfort. She falls in love with Oscar Dubourg, one of two twins, the other being Nugent. Oscar is assaulted during a burglary and as a result of a blow on the head, suffers from epilepsy. He controls his epileptic fits by taking silver nitrate which turns his skin dark blue, almost black.

Actually it would be more likely to poison him, but Collins seems not to have known that. The novel is narrated by Madame Pratolungo, a Frenchwoman and companion to Lucilla.

"Silver!" he exclaimed. "Have you?" I asked. "I know the price I pay for being cured," he answered quietly. His composure staggered me. "How long have you been taking this horrible drug?" I inquired. "A little more than a week."

Notice how the silver nitrate is a horrible drug merely because of the skin colour effect. In the world of Collins' novel, it completely controls Oscar's epileptic fits with no other side-effects.

Anyway, Lucilla has a horror of dark colours and although she and Oscar are engaged to be married, he doesn’t tell her about the colour of his skin. At this point, Herr Grosse, a German oculist is consulted on Lucilla’s blindness and he undertakes to cure her. Collins did a considerable amount of research on blindness, particularly on the way blind people adapt and also on what tends to happen if a blind person is fortunate enough to recover their vision.

The disorientation and inability to make sense of what is newly seen are all described well, although the cause of Lucilla’s blindness, childhood cataracts, and the speed of her recovery once Herr Grosse removes them, are medically improbable.

To nobody's surprise, Lucilla mistakes the other twin, Nugent for Oscar when her sight is restored. Eventually the situation is resolved after lots of nefarious double-dealing by Nugent and wimpish evasion by Oscar. Unfortunately the stress of it all sends Lucilla blind again, another medical twist so unlikely that it had me smiling at Collins' literary chutzpah.

Could we handle these subjects today? Collins just used blindness and skin colour as plot mechanisms, but I’m not so sure we’d manage it with all the baggage we have. All in all a worthwhile if rather odd read, as Collins usually is, but I doubt if many would get on with it these days.

An interesting comment on how far we have drifted socially though.

Sunday 15 July 2012


From PaulR

Wordplay - scientism

from Tom Swanson's science cartoons

scientism Pronunciation: /ˈsʌɪəntɪz(ə)m/
Definition of scientism
[mass noun] rare
thought or expression regarded as characteristic of scientists.
excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.

One of the great myths of the modern age is scientism, a belief or assumption that the scientific method is applicable to everything. Yet ironically enough, scientism itself isn’t a scientific belief in that it can’t be proved experimentally.

Okay, that’s obvious enough and overt scientism isn’t all that common, but what about covert scientism? Even more intriguing, what about areas of study which are traditionally regarded as science, but where the scientific method doesn’t work particularly well? Why doesn’t it work particularly well – why is it incomplete?

What’s missing?

There are plenty of examples of subjects which seem to lie on the borderline between science and non-science. Economics, psychology, sociology – are they sciences or not? Or are they businesses? Does it matter anyway? Maybe it doesn’t.

What about climate science? Do we know whether or not the climate will give up its secrets to the scientific method? So far it hasn’t, but what if it never does? How will we ever know? The climate hasn’t responded very well so far, but maybe the science is young. Or maybe science just doesn’t work on something as complex as climate.

What’s missing?

What if a natural phenomenon such as climate is too complex for the scientific method? Well to uncover the answer to that question, first we’d surely have to admit we’d failed. But when and how? Scientists very rarely admit failure because science is supposed to be all about try, try again.

But isn’t try, try again just a little too convenient – for scientists? In fact - don't some scientists build careers on try, try again

 So how then are we supposed to assess scientific failure? How are we supposed to know we’ve failed? Usually it’s when a better theory comes along, but what if one never does? For how long does try, try again go on?

Until the funding runs out may be the honest answer. Until then, never admit defeat, think of another angle, get some more funding for a bigger computer. But climate scientists can’t do experiments on the climate, so they never get to do proper science where they might actually test a theory with an experiment. How convenient is that? Especially for those with a long-term career in mind.

Bad science can be a sound career choice. Feyerabend was right – scientists are opportunists.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Not long now

From PaulR

Invisible Cities

At the End of Five Days' Journey,
You Begin to Discover a Few Towns
Built Upon Rocky Heights

Nora Sturges

Prompted by Sam Vega’s reliable enthusiasm, I recently downloaded a copy of Invisible Cities onto my Kindle, a novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino.

It’s a short, lyrical novel, almost a prose poem really. A strange imaginary tour of fifty five imaginary cities, all with female names. The only characters are explorer Marco Polo and emperor Kublai Khan. Every now and then, interspersed between poetic descriptions of the cities, there are conversations between the two men. At first, because they do not speak the same language, Marco Polo has to describe the cities via an extempore sign language and whatever props come to hand.

There is no language without deceit.

However, the imaginary cities are not from Kublai Khan’s time, but a dreamlike mix of ancient and modern from the aroma of sandalwood fires and camel dung to aluminium towers and a strange city of exposed modern plumbing and one with no exterior from which you may never find your way out.

It’s a hotch potch of images, yet nothing is unknown to the reader. Calvino’s materials are our materials. In his cities he shows to us nothing we could not have built ourselves from our own imagination, our own materials.

Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.

As a novel it’s all very odd, if wonderfully lyrical and poetically persuasive. It is divisive too, because judging by Amazon reviews, many readers don’t get on with the lack of a plot and the fact nothing actually happens.

What’s it about then?

I agree with Sam – it’s about memory. This eerie and quite haunting novel seems to offer the intriguing insight that the future is built from our memories of the past. In a sense, we remember the future as we encounter it and in so doing create new pasts and new futures. So past and future are both mutable. But touch them, cast them into words and we lose them. This is a theme of the novel, because Marco Polo has to cast his city tales into words for Kublai Khan - as does Calvino for us of course.

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

Some possibilities within our memories are realised in the future, most are not and many never could be because they are dreams, mingled impressions, fancies and fantastical stories like those of Marco Polo.

But there is more, such as the impact of words and labels and the way these change memories and possibilities. The best way to bring all this out may well be lyrical prose, a release of the imagination where you can smell the leather bags of tobacco, the embers of a sandalwood fire, camel dung and a hint of exotic promise from high windows in sun-baked walls.

I thought: “You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.”

It’s a book one should probably read more than once, because of course reading it changes things too – the past and the future.

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Friday 13 July 2012

Big boobs

It's been a funny old day. Raining for most of the time - I keep reminding myself it's July. Then I took a look at my blog stats, wondering what they actually mean.

Somebody found my little blog by typing "big boobs" into a Google image search. Somebody else by typing in "best pictures of Switzerland".

I imagine both were disappointed.

Wood for trees


One of the oddities about complex systems is the way we are much better at diagnosis after the event than we were at predicting the event beforehand.

It makes our diagnoses difficult to evaluate because the as ever the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and we are loathe to give it up. After all, the diagnoses feel like expertise and we all fancy a bit of that from time to time.

It seems to me that economics suffers from this problem to such an extent that disinterested outsiders can have real difficulty in seeing the wood for the trees. Almost any point of view seems to have its proponents and challengers. It’s like trying to do chemistry without the benefit of atomic theory or the periodic table.

We are in the middle of an economic crisis, yet the shelves of Sainsbury’s are full and the car park just as packed as ever on Saturdays. Not a good test I admit, but it’s data isn’t it? Data we can trust because we gathered it. This personal stuff is another factor that seems to go missing from the wailing and gnashing of teeth, from all the talk flavoured with the musty tang of sackcloth and ashes.

Take this post from The Center of the Universe. For those that don’t know, this is a blog devoted to economic issues viewed from the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

Now I am only a faint-hearted dabbler in MMT, partly because I distrust economic theory, but the Center of the Universe post seems to say a number of things which flatly contradict all the mainstream alarm we get about our huge UK national debt and the ongoing budget deficit.

The post refers to the US, but as the UK issues its own currency, then the same arguments apply. The MMT crew seem to say that our huge government debt is a consequence of the slowdown in private spending, although about a million caveats would no doubt be attached to my simple version of the narrative. State spending is what keeps production going through a private sector spending lag.

Is they Keynesian theory or MMT or are they similar on this point? How does one tell if the nomenclature isn't consistent? In my view inconsistent nomenclature is a sign of systems being gamed - as we know from climate science.

Now I’m not sure how one would demonstrate the truth or falsity of this MMT take on government debt, but for some reason it resonates with me. Unfortunately, as soon as I delve into MMT, I come up against one assertion after another. Whole swathes of argument hang on these assertions, but they never seem to get beyond assertions.

Now maybe there is lots of high quality research in the background and maybe I should take that research for granted, just as I take atomic theory for granted, but somehow I’m reluctant. However much I learn about economics, I never lose the inclination to keep my distance.

Still - I’ll persevere.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Great Wall of cars

Drove past a franchise for Chinese Great Wall pickup trucks the other day. The one pictured above was priced at £13998. Don't know much about them, but they seem to be seriously cheap. 

The new Steed 2.0 S: true value is a rare find

Just £13,998 CVOTR

The Steed S makes your money go further in lots of different ways. First, you get an exceptionally high level of equipment, including 16" alloy wheels, leather interior, individually heated seats, Alpine Cd/USB/RDS Radio and electric windows throughout. All as standard.
Next, you get advanced protection, with galvanised body panels and comprehensively rust-proofed chassis backed by a 6-year anti-perforation warranty for complete peace of mind. Plus twin airbags, Anti-lock Braking System and Electronic Brake Force Distribution for added safety.
On top of that, running and insurance costs are lower than you might expect, as the Steed leads its class on urban fuel consumption, is one of the most economical off-roaders and has the cheapest insurance group* rating of any UK pick-up.
All for less than the price you might expect to pay for a used pick-up.

Specs & Features

Generously equipped, keenly priced, the Steed S simply gives you more pick-up for your money.
  • Spacious double cab
  • Powerful 2.0 litre turbo diesel engine
  • Air conditioning
  • Thatcham Category 1 alarm and immobiliser with keyless entry
  • 6-speed manual transmission
  • Electric 'shift on the move' selection between 2WD and 4WD
  • Low range 4WD
  • Full electric windows
  • 16" Alloy wheels
  • Steering wheel audio controls
  • ABS and EBD brakes
  • Alpine Radio/CD with USB/RDS and four surround-sound speakers
  • Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone connectivity*
  • Leather upholstery with individually heated front seats
* subject to phone compatibility

A bureaucratic coup

Below are three of the best videos I've ever seen on climate change. Particularly clear and minimally technical, they are all by Dr David Evans.

The first two cover the science and the third covers the politics. If you know the science, skip to this one where he describes climate change as an attempted bureaucratic coup. That's the best description I've come across - it was and is an attempted coup.

First video – how and why we know that CO2 is not a significant cause of climate change. As Dr Evans makes very clear, all predictions based on the theory have failed. So simple.

Second video - Dr Evans points out how CO2 was only implicated in global warming via an artificial amplification parameter invented as a guess in 1980. Yes - it was a guess!

Third video – the politics – the failed bureaucratic coup behind climate change propaganda. I don’t quite agree with him here – the attempted bureaucratic coup will continue as sustainable development. It's a really good description though.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Lords demand Clegg reform

What a strange world it is where a Clegg may demand the reform of the Lords but the Lords may not demand the reform of a Clegg.

Obama or Romney?

As we all know, come this November, Americans will elect either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as their new president. With the EU collapsing into a stagnant, undemocratic bureaucracy, this is an important event - or should be.

So which man will make the better president? Supporters seem to feel they know the answer to this question with quite an extraordinary degree of confidence. Misplaced confidence in my view.

Surely, political convictions aside, knowing which man will be better for America and the world in general is an impossible ask. A vote for either is either a brand preference, a bet on the future or an extremely shaky prediction about what their man is likely to achieve in office.

Because we all know that predicting the future of human affairs is generally a hopeless task. Most folk realise that events will largely dictate what Obama or Romney will do while in office. Unexpected events or expected events with unexpected impacts and ramifications – these will play the tune to which the President  dances.

It seems to me that Obama is a left-leaning Democrat and on the whole and in the long term, those on the left divert too much power into the hands of the state and their cronies, spend too much of the taxpayer’s money and promote too many wasteful projects.

It seems to me that Romney is a machine Republican and on the whole and in the long term, machine politicians divert too much power into the hands of the state and their cronies spend too much of the taxpayer’s money and promote too many wasteful projects.

If I was a US citizen, I’d vote Romney, but mainly on the principle of kicking the butt of whoever happens to be in power. Or maybe I'd toss a coin. I don’t really subscribe to the allure of taking sides or predicting the unpredictable.

I don’t believe either side has political principles either – they don’t count for anything in the modern world. There is no point swallowing the political principles of either left or right - or voting as they seem to dictate.

Moral principles? That’s another world - another planet.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Starvation looms

GreenWise business reports that mad people are to be put in charge of our food supplies. Another ramification of care in the community I suppose. 

The first step in a long-term plan to create a sustainable food supply chain for Britain was launched today with a ground-breaking study looking at how production and consumption could change in the future to meet competing demands of producing more food and improving the environment.

The Green Food Project is the first sustainable food initiative of its kind to bring together Government, farmers, manufacturers, retailers, caterers, environmentalists and scientists. Today it launched its first report to address Britain’s looming food crisis without degrading the natural environment.

Or is this just another consequence of the too many people meme? It's so hard to tell these days, but I think I'll stock up on tins. 

Thorium - peaks and troughs

Out of interest and relating to the previous post on thorium power, this graph uses Google's Ngram Viewer to plot the use of the word thorium.  

At one time it was used for gas mantles, which I assume accounts for the ragged peak from about 1900.

Next there is another peak of interest from just after World War II until about 1960. The unsuitability of thorium for nuclear weapons then led to a sharp decline. 

Maybe it will pick up again.

China and the god of thunder

Thorium (named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder) is a mildly radioactive metal which can be used as a fuel for nuclear reactors. It has some very enthusiastic proponents who think the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (acronym LFTR; spoken as lifter) is the energy source of the future. China seems to agree.

Even though the technology has been known for decades, its potential was never developed because other technologies are more suited to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Yet LFTR is said to have many attractions.

Thorium is far more abundant than uranium – at least three-fold.
Thorium does not need enrichment.
Thorium is only mildly radioactive and easy to handle.
LFTRs are small.
LFTRs are safe.
LFTR does not generate plutonium.
LFTR cannot be used to obtain material for nuclear weapons.
LFTR waste has a much shorter half-life than uranium-powered reactors.
LFTR can be used to destroy current stocks of plutonium.
LFTR is cheaper than traditional nuclear.
LFTR consumes all its thorium fuel.

Thorium consumes its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer, now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering, and closely watched Internet commentator and educator says,

“It’s the Big One, once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilization on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years [*], and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels.”

He’s right; thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product when they dig up rare earth metals. The U.S. and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall in the UK. Some beaches in India are loaded with thorium. Not so much mining is needed: all thorium is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7% from uranium as much of the uranium has already decayed.

* To me this figure seems enthusiastic to put it mildly.

In October this year, the Twelfth Thorium Energy Conference (ThEC12) will be held in Shanghai. It is billed as the event of the year for everyone with an interest in the future of thorium energy and its many related fields.

Last month, smartplanet reported:-

The U.S. Department of Energy is quietly collaborating with China on an alternative nuclear power design known as a molten salt reactor that could run on thorium fuel rather than on more hazardous uranium, SmartPlanet understands.

In fact, while the EU bumbles around with technologies that don’t work, such as solar and wind power, while it goes all sniffy over shale gas, China seems to have latched onto the potential of LFTR.

If adopted on a large scale, LFTRs will probably be factory built for installation on site. A few large factories may well supply all global requirements. Where will those factories be? There is also R&D work to be done too, which means there are likely to be discoveries and developments to be patented.

So, safe, factory-built reactors using a fuel much more abundant that uranium with opportunities for developing patented technology. Is China serious about thorium? 

From Wenhui News (Google Chinese to English translation)

Thorium-based molten salt reactor, this sounds people Ruzhui the cloud professional term, may, after three or four decades, becoming one of the pillars of China's energy supply.

Yesterday, one of the strategic lead science and technology projects as initiated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the first batch of "advanced nuclear fission energy - thorium-based molten salt reactor nuclear system" project was officially launched. Its scientific goal is about 20 years, developed a new generation nuclear energy systems and technologies have reached the level of the pilot and owns all intellectual property rights.

As the world's new generation of nuclear reactors is still in the research and development, China has independently developed the thorium-based molten salt reactor, will be possible to obtain all of the independent intellectual property rights. This makes China the lifeblood of the energy to firmly grasp in their own hands.

From China Daily:-

Experts estimate that China has nearly 300,000 tons of thorium reserves, which is enough for the nation to use for 300 years. Identified uranium will only supply the country for 95 years at the current annual consumption rate, according to the Uranium Red Book 2009.

This places Chinese thorium reserves on a par with Turkish reserves. So is that a compelling reason why Turkey may well be admitted to the EU? Always assuming EU bureaucrats finally catch up with the real world. But by then China may well have the thorium business sewn up.

Still – we have our windmills.