Monday 29 October 2012

Brief break

I've buzzed off for a short break where wifi may or may not be available - I'm not sure. If it isn't, this post may be the last till about Wednesday or even Thursday.

If I'm abducted by aliens, they'll probably have really good wifi.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Kindle typos

Typos from The Works of Stephen Crane - Kindle edition - a small sample from a text so littered with them that reading it was hard work.

However he saw the driver of the first carriage sud- denly pull up boforg a little blackened coffee shop and inn.

" I don't think there is great danger, but if there is great danger, why * * here I am * ready * with you." [Just a sample of a mysterious asterisk plague]

He released her and vphs

The last named young student of archeology was in a position of temporary leadefship

Nora slipped her arm lovingly through Marjbry's arm.

a thiag that did not meet his approval in any way.

she becamean apostle,

She flushed rosily, and her eyes wavered over the cornpartment.

They carried him to it while he strug. gled madly.

There are probably few stations that would have at all af- fectedthem.

He came tome here in Athens.

"Sir, I thank yod from the bottom of my heart!"

" I judge from your tone that I have not made a mis- take-somcthing which I feared."

I think this is an issue with out of copyright works scanned in via OCR, but with hopelessly inadequate editing. All were taken from the short novel Active Service. The next novel which I'm reading now is The Little Regiment and so far that seems fine.

For Kindle users it's something to be wary of - it can be this bad.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Nuuk webcam

Webcam image of Nuuk, capital of Greenland. More here. Surely it's amazing that I can sit here by the fire and via my laptop make a virtual visit to such an exotic location. 

A cause for optimism

As I browse the web, time and time again I come across a largely covert conflict between those who wish to express something in simple, relatively unambiguous language and those who seem to have a vested interest in complexity an obfuscation.

There is no doubt in my mind that complexity, obfuscation and business go together. By business I mean any profitable activity, whether in the public or private sector and whether the profit is monetary or non-monetary, such as professional status. Often complexity is merely intended to be divisive, to divide us from them, to erect barriers to entry.

Yet most bloggers and commenters seem to have a deep and genuine desire to extract a nugget of reality from political, social and economic events. They want to draw conclusions which actually make sense, particularly conclusions which can be communicated to other people with widely different backgrounds and interests.

They seem keen to share the world of ideas for its own sake.

Obviously this is comparatively new. From 1906 we had the Everyman'sLibrary published by J. M. Dent which brought all kinds of literature within the reach of modest pockets. Before that there had been lending libraries, pamphlets, cheap newspapers and magazines - all important developments in the spread of accessible knowledge, theory and comment.

Yet to my mind, radio and particularly television diverted us from that worthy beginning until the internet came along. It is almost as if there has been a self-improvement hiatus which may now be coming to an end as the internet matures.

So sometimes I think we may be too pessimistic about global trends. Not that these trends aren’t malign because many are, but like the cavalry galloping over the hill, the internet could have arrived just in time.

The whole world of information seems to have been reshaped in only a decade or two. It’s as if only now are we beginning to know what we always should have known about our elite classes. A decade ago we didn’t know because too many mainstream news outlets were too corruptible, too wedded to the establishment, too fond of the perks of professional status.

Now we see just how awful our MPs are, it is worth asking ourselves if they have always been awful. The Profumo affair was supposed to be a rare exception to widespread probity, but we probably knew others were dodgy even in those days. Cynicism isn't new, but we didn't know these things  in such painful detail. Neither were the details known by so many people because very few on the inside were prepared to paint a realistic picture for us, including journalists. 

Perhaps the internet is painting that picture and we are just getting used to how ugly it can be. Admittedly the twentieth century taught us about ugliness, but now we know even more. Maybe it’s a picture which always could have been painted, but it’s a case of better late than never. Perhaps the internet will change things for the better in ways we will only really understand after the changes have occurred.

Maybe that’s a cause for optimism. Not so much a chucking our hats in the air and cheering from the rooftops kind of optimism. More a reason for plugging away at the issues because it really is worthwhile.

Not that many bloggers seem to be under any illusion that their efforts will change much, apart from the really big blogs perhaps. For most of us it would be easier to switch on the TV, order a pizza and pour a glass of wine - many do. But many don't, at least not until we feel we've had our say and it is this I think that makes the difference.

Saying your piece is enjoyable. Better than TV, better by far than writing a letter to the papers or even to your MP. The fact that we are doing it and enjoying it - to me that seems to be where we draw our optimism, our feeling that yes, it may well be far more worthwhile than we ever imagined it could be.

Friday 26 October 2012

Chip chap

Probably more easily tripped up than this clip suggests.


Spotted outside a house near Budleigh Salterton. The hand is a finger short too.

Logical worlds

Logic is strange stuff isn’t it? What exactly is logic do you think? I don’t mean the formalism of logicians, but the premises and valid conclusions we search for in our personal philosophies. Because we have a very strong disposition to accept the logical and reject the illogical, even if we don’t always identify which is which. It has fascinated us since Aristotle defined his syllogisms.

How is logic related to the physical world though?

The question could also be asked of mathematics of course. I think the answer in the case of mathematics is that it is like language - descriptive. But as with language, mathematics can describe imaginary and impossible situations, or no situation at all. Logic I suppose is much the same in this respect. For example:-

A dog is not a dog.

This is a contradiction if we exclude special meanings. There is no conceivable situation where a dog is not a dog, but I’ve still made a sentence of it even though it says nothing about dogs and nothing about the real world. So the flexibility of language, mathematics and logic allows us to speculate, but logic seems to leave rather less room for it than the other two. In terms of speculative potential, the order seems to be.

Language > mathematics > logic

So let's speculate.

If the Big Bang theory is sound, then around 13.75 billion years ago there must have been a situation where the Big Bang occurred. Therefore there has been a situation where it had not occurred. I know we may mess around with our ideas of time and even claim that time began at the Big Bang instant, but I’m not talking about time here, I’m talking about the logic of situations. 

This of course is philosophy, not science, and I think we help ourselves by nudging science to one side in deliberations of this kind. Because science doesn’t cover every aspect of everything. Science doesn’t tell us what logic is or what its boundaries are.

Does logic have boundaries though? Was the pre-Bang situation logical? If Spinoza was right and we cannot conceive illogical situations, then I think it is reasonable to conclude that the pre-Bang situation was logical. Yes we can use our formalisms and our words to represent that which is illogical. I could say.

The pre-Bang situation was illogical.

Surely that sentence is in a sense illogical if we accept that only logical situations are real because nothing else makes sense. Otherwise we have no boundaries to reality of any kind.

I think there is more to logic than we have ever rooted out. Something fundamental we haven’t quite grasped or made the best use of. Partly that’s down to logical formalism – casting it into symbols and rules, sucking the blood out of it, making a business of it. At least in my view it is. Barriers to entry again.

I think we may “know” in a philosophical sense that the pre-Bang situation was a situation and it was a logical situation – a situation where logic held sway. In other words, logic is older than the physical universe and predates it.

Now that is strange.

Thursday 25 October 2012

DARPA's Pet-Proto robot

Pet-Proto, a predecessor to DARPA's Atlas robot, is confronted with obstacles similar to those robots might face in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC).

Coprinus lagopus

Found this mushroom on the lawn the other day. I think it's Coprinus lagopus which seems to be uncommon on lawns - I've certainly never seen it before. It's a delicate inkcap which left typical ink stains on the windowsill where I took the photo and had shrunk to almost nothing by the end of the day. I didn't pick it - something seemed to have knocked it over. A cat maybe.

Home-made wine

Writing yesterday's post about Uncle Jim, the keen amateur wine-maker, brought back memories of my father who also made many a gallon of the stuff.

I well remember our airing cupboard being crowded out by demijohns of fermenting wine, the airlocks popping away, releasing a fruity aroma which became quite heady at times. Dad put a lot of effort into it, trying out numerous recipes and ingredients. He once read somewhere that a ripe banana would help the fermentation process along, so then all the demijohns had their decayed bananas floating up and down in the murky depths.

Unlike Uncle Jim, Dad always bottled his wine after fermentation. For some some reason he'd label each bottle before leaving it to mature for a week or two. I think the labels were mainly Mum's idea, because she had a romantic notion that they would eventually build up a cellar of fine vintages to be brought out and dusted off on special occasions. It never happened though.

The problem was marrying production to consumption, because both Mum and Dad were partial to a glass or two in the evening.

The results however, were somewhat variable, although once made, wine was never wasted whatever the quality. One technique Mum used to lessen a dodgy wine's attack on her palate was to add a teaspoon of sugar to each glass before drinking. Even Dad sometimes had to resort to the sugar and he was a chap who consumed raw lemons with gusto.

In extreme cases, Mum would give up and decline her evening glass, but Dad never threw away even the most ghastly brews. In the worst cases, his technique was to hold his nose while drinking, which he said lessened the impact and allowed him to get the stuff down. 

Mind you, these were the worst brews of all and on the whole the stuff was drinkable and sometimes quite pleasant, if not usually up to the standard of commercial wines. Eventually Dad discovered tins of grape concentrate produced specially for home wine-making. Once he used those, the quality of his wines improved, but somehow I think the point of doing it became lost.

Whatever it was, he eventually gave up on home wine-making and just bought it from the supermarket, as most of us do these days. I still see plenty of wine-making kit on sale in the shops though. I used to make it myself with mixed results - just don't mention dandelion wine. 

I haven't made wine for years now - too busy doing other things I suppose - like blogging. This internet thingy does consume a lot of time. 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Reform Section 5

I don't do campaigns apart from sneering at climate change every now and then, but David at duffandnonsense did a post on Rowan Atkinson's speech which has been widely praised. 

Because yes - this law is a threat to free speech. For example, I can get away with referring to Nick Clegg a stain on the body politic, as so many of us do, but only because it's true. If I insult him and the police and courts decide I may be insulting Cleggy (fat chance) and causing him distress, then it may be a fine and a criminal record for me.

Stupid? Of course it is - that's the world we live in.

Oops - I've insulted the whole world now.

My brother Jim

My aunt wrote this short account of one of her brother Jim's boyhood exploits. It took place during the First World War - almost a hundred years ago.

My brother Jim was a clever, inventive boy. He used to speak of things beyond my ken such as splitting the atom. He spent hours in the shed at the top of the garden experimenting with wheels and all sorts of things saying, 

‘If I could find the secret of perpetual motion I’d be a rich man.’

Of course he never did and it hasn’t been discovered by anyone else, I doubt it ever will be. During the First World War, he’d be about eleven or twelve years old, he made a periscope. A long rectangular cylinder of cardboard with a kind of nose at one end, with the living room window open, this nose could be rested on the windowsill. Lying on our stomachs we could peer into the bottom of the cylinder and see what was happening at the bottom of the garden.

To me it was enchantment, a true piece of magic. How he made it always remained to me a mystery. A later invention didn’t have such happy results. He decided he’d make some gunpowder to save buying caps for his pistol. He was busy concocting this stuff in the shed when Aunt Bessie came for tea. Dad’s older spinster sister. With Mam as usual preparing tea in the kitchen, Aunt Bessie sat comfortably in an armchair, her back to the living room window.

Suddenly with a loud explosion an object hurtled through a pane immediately above Aunt Bessie’s head. Unhurt – she was covered in broken glass. Jim had literally been blown out of the shed – sans eyebrows, sans fringe of hair but otherwise untouched. It was the pistol trigger which had come crashing through the window pane.

‘That boy,’ Aunt Bessie moaned, ‘will be the death of me.’

In this tiny slice of bygone life from the back streets of Derby, young Jim reminds me of Richmal Crompton's William Brown who first came into the world not long afterwards (1919).

As an old man, Uncle Jim used to make his own wine, but never bothered bottling it. He used to drink it straight out of the demijohn once it had finished fermenting. He insisted that the yeast was good for you, so he'd swirl the demijohn round to mix it up before pouring into a glass.

Mum and Dad tried it once and described it as unspeakably vile; and believe me - they were not fussy about home made wine.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Lock it or lose it

Seen on a gate leading to a track through woodland near Budleigh Salterton. There are eight locks.


I caught a glimpse of Alex Salmond on TV on Sunday morning while checking the weather forecast on Ceefax. He happened to be talking about something when I switched on. Scottish independence I think - I didn't really listen.

What struck me about him was how, in common with almost all politicians, he is quite prepared to speak with certainty on matters with an uncertain outcome, such as Scottish independence. I have no views on the issue, but as Mr Salmond spoke, the word modest popped into my head, because when propounding his ideas, the man is not modest. I may be wrong doesn’t really come into it.

So many useful English words overlap each other in such a way that I sometimes wonder if we need another word for the area of overlap. One of these is modest.

modest Pronunciation: /ˈmɒdɪst/
unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements:he was a very modest man, refusing to take any credit for the enterprise

So we have modest, unassuming, unpretentious and no doubt one or two other words as well.  To me, modesty has a curious relationship with intelligence in the sense that modest people often have a deep seated desire to be right in what they say or do – or at least not wrong.

It applies to both physical and verbal behaviour – driving a car without a need to dominate other road users, putting forward an idea without a burning desire to convince, defeat or browbeat. Surely both these examples represent aspects of intelligence?

Note the modest question mark by the way. Note too the immodest pointing out of the modest question mark. Note...

Yes we are complex, yet there is I think, a certain compatibility between intelligence and modest social behaviour, especially modest intellectual behaviour. Yet the other side of the modesty coin is not necessarily loutish behaviour – physical or verbal.

We may classify people such as Mr Salmond as intelligent, yet something seems to be missing from their supposed intelligence. They lack a certain intellectual modesty where the need to persuade does not overtop the desire to be right. In this sense it is possible to be both intelligent and unintelligent at the same time. 

So intelligence surely has an important weaknesses as a concept. It seems to me, that this lack of intellectual modesty is why political leaders who by any other standards might be called intelligent, are often too immodest to make intelligent decisions. Too often they are simply wrong – even in their political judgements.

I'm not convinced that we account satisfactorily for these failures of judgement.

We tend to accuse politicians of being supremely cynical in their crafty calculations, then when the shit hits the fan we accuse them of stupidity. We can't have it both ways. To some extent they are cynical and to some extent their crafty cynicism is successful, but not as successful as it could be - and sometimes staggeringly, stupidly unsuccessful.

To my mind, the recent kerfuffle over Andrew Mitchell seems to be an example. An emotional outburst it may have been, but maybe it was also a situation where the intellectual weakness of an immodest man accidentally saw the light of day. Of course, he would never have achieved high office through modesty. People don't and it's a problem.

In my view.


Monday 22 October 2012

Knives out for the BBC?

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the Jimmy Savile affair is whether the knives are out for the BBC, externally and internally. It's difficult to say without being on the inside, but I'm still amazed that all this didn't leak out years ago in one way or another. When one considers how child-centred and sanctimonious we are, that is. Or are we?

Has it come out because Savile is dead and can't sue for libel, or because we live in a more probing (please forgive the word) era?

Or are the knives out for the BBC?

New book

I've published a new book of short stories for the Amazon Kindle called pIXe. One story is called Jones, which I've posted over at my Haart Writes blog. It may also be accessed as usual through the Short Stories tab. 

Jones comes from the cat-eater idea I posted on a while back, when a number of people were kind enough to suggest plot themes. In the end, the story emerged in a somewhat whimsical way, rather than the horror story it could have been.

Sunday 21 October 2012


One of my outstanding ideas is to invent a character around whom I may weave a few fictitious tales every now and then. A character in the Beachcomber mould is what I have in mind. I’m not even sure of the name yet. Captain Strewth springs to mind, but only as one of many. Names are such a fertile area I’m reluctant to settle on one.

Of course as you've already guessed, the name arises because of the common query he elicits from friend and foe alike - "what are you up to now Captain... strewth!" 

What I do know about Captain Strewth (or whatever) is that he’ll spend a fair bit of time in his garden shed. This shed will be pretty much a copy of my best ever shed which we inherited with a house we bought in the seventies. It was a thirties house and my guess is the shed was built round about the same time.

A great solid wooden affair it was with metal-framed side opening windows and curly-handled window latches. Now although we all have our own ideas of a classy shed, curly-handled window latches must surely be high on the list.

Our shed also had an old Victorian dining table as a work bench, left there by the previous occupants. Or the original house buyers for all I know. Solid mahogany on thick, turned legs with a winding handle so you could extend it by inserting an extra leaf. Actually it was well worth restoring as a dining table, but like a young pillock I didn’t see it at the time. I just clamped my vice to that solid mahogany!

I also found a perfect frog skeleton underneath the table. Intact and as clean as a whistle. How many sheds come with that?

Anyway, getting back to Captain Strewth. The only things he’d have extra in his shed would be an old cast iron stove, an armchair and a crate of ale. What more could a chap want? Whether I’ll ever write about him is another matter because I have a feeling he’s out of sympathy with the modern world and could come across as rather tetchy.

Still you never know.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Climate science and pox doctors

One of the great myths embedded in climate propaganda is the notion that some kind of scientific background is required to refute it. 

However, assessing climate scientists from a non-specialist angle is much like assessing the capabilities of an eighteenth century pox doctor. There were a number of obvious questions an eighteenth century gentleman such as James Boswell could usefully ask before submitting his intimate difficulties to the pox doctor.

Do I know of anyone he has cured?
Do I know of anyone he hasn’t cured?
Do I know of anyone he has killed.

If the pox doctor used mercury, as many did, it wasn’t necessary for the gentleman, or lady, to know much about medicinal effects of mercury other than the fact that it is poisonous. It was more important to know the pox doctor's actual record of curing people and whether or not he was likely to poison you in the process.

With climate science, the same mode of enquiry is appropriate, although with climate science, we didn't even know we had a problem requiring such an intrusive cure. Even so, we may ask three similar questions:-

Has climate science cured any specific problems?
Has climate science failed to cure any specific problems?
Has climate science made anything worse?

The answers to these questions are obviously

No - climate science has not cured any climate problems.
Yes - climate science has failed to cure the problem of unpredictable climate.
Yes - climate science has made us poorer.

So we have all the information we need. The only real differences between climate scientists and the old pox doctors are firstly - having to pay whether we consult them or not and secondly - we didn't have a problem in the first place.

Friday 19 October 2012

Philosophy quiz

James over at recently referred to a quote by W C Fields which sums up this post. I like W C Fields' quotes, but I'd not heard this one.

Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against. 

Anyhow, this gave me the idea of a philosophy quiz. Here are a number of quotes from W C Fields and Immanuel Kant. All you have to do is decide which man was responsible for each quote and who was the better philosopher.

  1. The quality of sensation, colour, taste, etc., is always empirical and cannot be conceived a priori.
  2. If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull. 
  3. There are three analogies of experience.
  4. Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch...
  5. Assume that a compound thing, a substance, consists of simple parts.
  6. Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream
  7. The transcendental realist is, therefore, an empirical realist.
  8. There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation. 
  9. There are three kinds of Antinomies of pure Reason.
  10. Some things are better than sex, and some are worse, but there's nothing exactly like it.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Back to the shires

One of my father’s favourite TV programmes was Dad’s Army. As many older people know it was a very popular BBC comedy series about a World War II Home Guard unit and it ran from 1968 to 1977. Essentially character-driven, it was blessed with a good cast and script. At least I found it easy enough to watch during Dad's declining years, to sit with him and watch a few episodes over a couple of bottles of beer and a plate of mussels.

What always struck me about Dad’s Army was the obvious appeal of its portrayal of a very traditional local community. It’s set in a village, much of it in the church hall and the main characters are the bank manager, hid head clerk, the butcher, grocer, undertaker, vicar and even the local spiv.

We seem to enjoy local settings for our fictional entertainment. Local almost seems to be a necessary feature of popular drama and situation comedy. TV soap operas are very local, Coronation Street and Eastenders both being centred on the local pub. We like fictional small communities and TV folk know it so very well.

Why we are so fond of them, I’m not sure, because they aren’t often encountered in real life, especially at the political level. Maybe a taste for the cosmopolitan life is not as widespread or as deep as our political narratives suggest. Although the word community is bandied about ad nauseam, nobody really means it.

Yet local UK politics has had most of the juice sucked out of it. Maybe commonplace observation suggests we could usefully rediscover local politics if we wish to build something with more popular political engagement. Because surely - popular engagement is definitely not a feature of modern political life.

Education, planning, policing, the judiciary, healthcare and even taxation could be much more local, based on shires and metropolitan areas.

Many of our taxes could be raised locally and spent locally. LVT would be ideal for that as we already have council tax and business rates. Yet our local freedoms have mostly been stolen by Westminster which is busily giving them away to the EU and UN.

It's as well not to be naive about the appeal of government at a more local level. We may well end up with just as much indifference, fraud, posturing and silliness as now. But in such cases it would be much easier for people to move away to somewhere better governed such as the next county.

To a very limited extent this is the case now, but rigged house prices probably stifle the tendency to move on. Only a minority are able to afford the move to the catchment area of good schools for example. Local politics many not be the answer to our political decline, but we do show a marked affection for local life.

Even though the affection is for fictitious communities, it surely tells us something of interest about ourselves and our social preferences. Maybe our political preferences too.

Note - two blogs doing a fine job of promoting and explaining the political benefits of strengthening local politics are:- (the Harrogate Agenda)

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Jet powered school bus

Is Gaia a denier?

From our environment correspondent.

I recently held a very interesting interview with Professor Felix Knutta from the European Institute for Climate Protection. Professor Knutta thinks we should give serious consideration to the paranormal to explain the current hiatus in global warming. Paranormal techniques are the latest addition to the armoury of climate scientists, helping them resolve some tricky climate issues.

Professor Knutta and his team at the Institute have just received a substantial EU grant to follow up a number of intriguing lines of paranormal climate research.

“Firstly,” Professor Knutta told me as we sat drinking excellent Java coffee in his Paris office, “there are reasons to believe that millions of climate deniers funded by the Koch brother are deliberately leaving their fridge doors open to prevent global temperatures from rising."

“Clearly climate models cannot be wrong” Professor Knutta added, “so although leaving your fridge door open cannot have a long-term impact on climate change, it could be used by deniers to upset the official balance of nature.”

“Surely Professor, this isn’t so much paranormal activity as climate sabotage,” I suggested.

“Of course it’s bloody sabotage - that much is obvious,” the Professor snapped in that abrupt manner of his, “but how do you think we found out about it in the first place?”

“Surveillance?” I hazarded.

“Well... I can’t say exactly,” muttered Professor Knutta, almost as if he suddenly realised he may be giving away sensitive information. “The technique is very new,” he added eventually, “but suffice it to say that we are detecting a massive amount of fridge door sabotage by mind melding.”

“Mind melding?”

“Yes. At great risk to our researchers, we successfully melded with denier minds and bingo! We uncovered the sabotage.”

“Very impressive Professor. Somewhat like Mr Spock –“

“Secondly, there is the issue of methane gas, a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Human flatulence contains methane and we believe that the global legumes market has been manipulated by the Koch brother to raise prices worldwide and reduce consumption. Beans are a major source of human flatulence and deniers are manipulating the market to reduce methane emissions.”

“So deniers are making a concerted global attack on human flatulence?”

“Indeed they are,” the Professor insisted. “Do you fart less than you did a few years ago? I don’t on principle, but less human methane means less global warming, thus giving us a false picture of the temperature rise mandated by climate models.”

Thirdly, and most controversially, Professor Knutta believes he has evidence that Gaia herself is a climate denier, hiding massive amounts of heat somewhere as yet unknown.

“How was this done?” I asked the Professor.

“Easy, Gaia has been bribed by the Koch brothers to tuck away all the missing heat in some secret location. We aren’t sure where yet, but paranormal techniques have helped us to locate a number of possible hiding places.”

“But how has Gaia been bribed?”

“By promising to plant more trees,” the Professor explained with a gesture of irritation. “A simple idea, but utterly evil because Gaia loves trees.”

“So all the tree-planting is being done –“

“By deniers,” the Professor insisted loudly.

“And the solution?” I asked with a certain amount of trepidation.

“Chop them all down,” shouted the Professor with a strange, high-pitched laugh. “Show that Gaia bitch we mean business.”

Tuesday 16 October 2012


Know your enemy

I’m going to overstate this to make a point which isn't new, but is worth rehashing I think.

The modern electorate votes against its perceived enemies rather than voting for a party it supports. A political enemy is anyone who threatens to disturb a voter’s comfort zone, so Labour voters are on the whole voting against the Tories, not for Labour and vice versa.

Lib Dems are political snobs – they are voting against both Labour and Tory because they see both as beyond the pale - which of course they are. Lib Dem voters aren’t voting for toads like Nick Clegg though, because who would?

This probably applies to the tiny sprinkling of party activists too, as well as a much larger number of voters who are not party members and I think it has always been the case. Voters have little or no interest in the party they habitually vote for, which is one reason party membership is so low.

We slot people into many social groups with many subtle and not so subtle nuances to control the slotting. Friends, family, colleagues, fellow nationals, fellow language or dialect speakers, fellow members of a social class, profession or club and so on and so on. One of these groups is enemy.

We can apply enemy to many people with numerous graded distinctions, but at a political level, we do not really have an opposite of enemy. We do not recognize political friends for example.

The only real alternative to a political enemy is a leader, but people we class as leader at a national level have to possess certain characteristics such as gravitas, political wisdom and a certain degree of mystique. These characteristics are not commonly encountered, particularly in the modern world where mystique has largely been abolished. Mystique helped where gravitas and political wisdom were in short supply.

So, for example, nobody actually expects Ed Miliband to make a successful Prime Minister unless he is very lucky with the ebb and flow of events he cannot control. Yet if nothing else comes into play, he may well win the next election simply because David Cameron and Nick Clegg have attracted the label enemy by not attending to our comforts.

I'm sure they are all aware of it too, which is why modern politics is so dire. They know we only ever vote against them, never for them. So nothing positive or worthwhile ever gets done, just endless dodgy deals with pressure groups while bureaucrats have a field day.

It's the effect of our dimwitted voting patterns of course, our collective failure to see that all three main UK political parties are the political enemy, but I suspect it’s too late now. Change, if it comes, will be imposed from beyond our shores.

Monday 15 October 2012

Dumping the Grauniad

I went on a good ten mile Derbyshire ramble today - or yesterday when this post goes up. Early morning mists, a light frost, blue skies and an early showing of autumn colours. Great stuff. I though I'd nurture the mellow mood with a memory ramble too. 

So - years ago I used to read the Guardian newspaper, but my customer loyalty came to an abrupt end with the Sarah Tisdall case in 1983.

From Wikipedia:-

Sarah Tisdall was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) clerical officer who was jailed for leaking British government documents to a newspaper in 1983. 

Sarah Tisdall anonymously sent The Guardian photocopied documents detailing when American cruise missile nuclear weapons would be arriving in the United Kingdom. The documents set out the political tactics Michael Heseltine, then defence minister, would use to present the matter in the House of Commons.

I remember being shocked that Ms Tisdall ended up serving four months in jail because when it came to protecting their source, the Guardian did not take it to the wire. I never bought a copy of the paper again. That was nearly thirty years ago now. Doesn’t time fly?

Yet looking back, I’m sure there were other reasons for dumping the Guardian, whatever the rights or wrongs of the Tisdall case. I don’t see what else they could have done anyway, although at the time I expected a newspaper so fond of espousing moral principles would at least show a little more anti-establishment balls.

But I had also become more and more aware that much of what I read in the Guardian was pretty dull, that good writers come and go, but most of them simply churn out pap in the house style to editorial guidelines. I didn’t think much of Guardian writers at the time, so no doubt I was looking for a change anyway.

In addition to the writing, the Guardian’s dull pontificating compared badly with an otherwise exciting time of rapid technical change. Microcomputers were all the rage. I had a Sinclair ZX81 and, amusing as it may seem today, all kinds of possibilities were opening up to my fevered imagination as microelectronics began to force its way into our lives.

For example, a demonstration of Wordcraft on the Commodore PET showed me that these new gadgets were capable of serious word-processing. This raised the fascinating possibility of writing novels and short stories without having to resort to endless blobs and smears of Tipp-Ex.

So dumping the Guardian wasn’t exactly a wrench, a life-changing statement or a flash of enlightenment, but more likely an imperceptible shift in the emergence of important social changes.

Eventually I bought a computer suited to word-processing and began to write novels and short stories on it. I’d already written a novel on a mechanical typewriter which stamped out a neat little hole in the paper whenever I typed the letter ‘o’. But my ream of typewritten A4 still needed much editing and I didn’t have the stamina to retype the thing.

Word-processing came as a revelation, even though my first word-processing software ran under DOS and was basically a simple text-editor. It didn’t matter though. I could write a whole novel, back it up onto floppy disk, print it out, edit it - all without a single blob of Tipp-Ex.

Okay that’s all a long way from Sarah Tisdall and dumping the Guardian, but on reflection it occurred during a period of rapid and radical change and I think, looking back, it was for me simply a forerunner of what was to come. It isn’t played out yet either – not by any means.

Today, nearly thirty years on, the Guardian is struggling financially and it’s difficult to see how it can survive. Does it matter? Maybe it does. Give me the Web any day, but we still need newspapers - possibly even the Guardian.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Slime trails

From Science News:-

A dollop of living yellow ooze has aced a test of navigation, showing that you don’t really need a mind to make spatial memories.

The egg-yolk-colored slime mold Physarum polycephalum is a single cell without any nervous system. But this blob of a creature uses its slime trails as a form of external spatial memory, says complex systems biologist Chris R. Reid of the University of Sydney. Smears of goo left behind as a slime mold crawls act as records of past paths. Given a choice, slime molds won’t crawl over their old slime, Reid and his colleagues found.

These simple external “memories” work quite well. When lured into a U-shaped dead-end in front of a sugar treat, slime molds were able to escape. Instead of just throbbing futilely against the closed end of the U or crawling around in circles, 23 out of 24 managed to ooze their way back out of the blind alley and creep to the treat by an outside route, Reid and his colleagues report October 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s the first time any spatial memory system has been found in an organism without a brain,” Reid says.

Two Christian gentlemen

Lower troposphere satellite temperature record
and atmospheric CO2 concentration since 1979
both normalised

Dr. John R. Christy is the Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Centre at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Dr Roy W. Spencer is a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2001.

In 1989 Dr. Roy W. Spencer (then a NASA/Marshall scientist and now a Principle Research Scientist at UAH) and Christy developed a global temperature data set from microwave data observed from satellites beginning in 1979. For this achievement, the Spencer-Christy team was awarded NASA's Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement in 1991.

In 1996, they were selected to receive a Special Award by the American Meteorological Society "for developing a global, precise record of earth's temperature from operational polar-orbiting satellites, fundamentally advancing our ability to monitor climate."

Whatever the significance of global temperatures, the satellite record developed by the Spencer-Christy team has given us an alternative to the flaky “adjusted” land based temperature record which in practical terms is virtually useless.

As anyone can easily see, the satellite record shows no relationship between global temperature and CO2, which in a sane world would be a cause for celebration.

Spencer and Christy are both devout Christians – Spencer is said to have spoken favourably on creationism as a theory. Both have nuanced and interesting views on climate change as one would expect, but neither is in any sense an alarmist. Christy is possibly the more sceptical of the two, but his views are based on science, not politics.

I am an atheist, but I’d be happy to see more climate scientists of the calibre of Christy and Spencer, whatever their religious beliefs. We owe these two Christian Gentlemen far more than we’ll ever admit.

Saturday 13 October 2012

The heart of a father

Theodore Dereiser

The heart of a father! The world wanders into many strange by-paths of affection. The love of a mother for her children is dominant, leonine, selfish, and unselfish. It is concentric. The love of a husband for his wife, or of a lover for his sweetheart, is a sweet bond of agreement and exchange trade in a lovely contest. 

The love of a father for his son or daughter, where it is love at all, is a broad, generous, sad, contemplative giving without thought of return, a hail and farewell to a troubled traveler whom he would do much to guard, a balanced judgment of weakness and strength, with pity for failure and pride in achievement. It is a lovely, generous, philosophic blossom which rarely asks too much, and seeks only to give wisely and plentifully.

"That my boy may succeed! That my daughter may be happy!" Who has not heard and dwelt upon these twin fervors of fatherly wisdom and tenderness?

The Financier isn't as great a read as I hoped, but quite quotable - at least this quote appeals to me. But the book itself is very mixed with long, dull descriptions of the main character's financial dealings. I enjoyed Dreiser's Sister Carrie and The Financier has been on my must-read list for some years, but on the whole I prefer Sister Carrie.

However there are some good points, particularly the character of the financier himself, Frank Cowperwood, included in an earlier post. The flavour of nineteenth century financial machinations are good, but spoiled by excessive and long-winded detail in my view. Sometimes I thought I was reading a textbook. One is certainly left wondering whether things have really changed though.
Frank Cowperwood is unstoppable:-

That thing conscience, which obsesses and rides some people to destruction, did not trouble him at all. He had no consciousness of what is currently known as sin. There were just two faces to the shield of life from the point of view of his peculiar mind - strength and weakness. 

Right and wrong? He did not know about those. They were bound up in metaphysical abstrusities about which he did not care to bother. Good and evil? Those were toys of clerics, by which they made money. And as for social favor or social ostracism which, on occasion, so quickly followed upon the heels of disaster of any kind, well, what was social ostracism? Had either he or his parents been of the best society as yet? And since not, and despite this present mix-up, might not the future hold social restoration and position for him? It might. Morality and immorality? He never considered them. 

But strength and weakness--oh, yes! If you had strength you could protect yourself always and be something. If you were weak--pass quickly to the rear and get out of the range of the guns.

Friday 12 October 2012

Plastic universe

Possibly the world of external facts is much more fertile and plastic than we have ventured to suppose; it may be that all these cosmologies and many more analyses and classifications are genuine ways of arranging what nature offers to our understanding, and that the main condition determining our selection between them is something in us rather than something in the external world.
Edwin A Burtt – The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science

I’ve posted about E A Burtt before, together with this quote. It's one of my favourites so I've hauled it out for another airing – the idea that the universe may be too flexible, too plastic for single theories to cope with. It's close to Paul Feyerabend's view too, so that doubles the points.

After all, the principle that there must be a single, best theory to explain any phenomenon isn’t a principle one could ever prove. It’s an axiom – a basis for going in certain directions rather than others. Of course the single theory axiom is also a barrier to entry - a typical professional tactic. Do it this way or else, mavericks not welcome, trespassers will be sneered at, the big boys know best.

Science is like that in my view – very much a typical profession and based on axioms we can’t prove simply because they are axioms - they have to be accepted as given. Constraints which seem to be largely inherited social and professional constraints rather than anything deeper.

Complexity is a complex subject isn’t it? It would be a funny old world if it wasn’t I suppose, but how do scientists deal with it? On the whole, they seem to deal with complex phenomena by assuming there is always a better theory which will explain it more fully or more accurately.

Sometimes it doesn't work though. The consensus theory has to be stretched too far or the phenomenon has to be chopped up into chunks small enough for single theories to cope with, small enough to be dealt with by different professional cliques. 

But suppose Burtt’s plastic universe is more realistic than the single theory axiom? Suppose the universe really does present us with different and irreconcilable aspects of the same phenomenon?

In that case, we’d need two or more irreconcilable theories to explain it, wouldn’t we? We’d have to accept two or more theories explaining the same complex phenomenon in different and irreconcilable ways.

Does it matter?

To many it does, particularly for the entrenched professional. Yet in my view there is no secure way to demonstrate that it matters scientifically. It just goes against the scientific grain, feels wrong, isn’t how we’ve been taught, baffles the conventional mind, violates the consensus. But really it only violates the single theory axiom, which of course isn’t itself scientific and often covertly assumed to boot.

Maybe the universe is more mysterious, odd and multi-faceted than most scientists are comfortable with. But why do we expect to be comfortable with our theories? Because we do – it’s what we don’t like about loose ends.

What might a more plastic approach look like – this reality of multiple irreconcilable theories? Well we already know don’t we? How about alternative therapies and mainstream medicine? Or electrons being both waves and particles? Or psychology and neuroscience explaining the same behaviour?

Maybe climate will need more than one theory to explain how it functions? Maybe it already does, but politicians got there first. Because politicians are the ultimate single theory woo merchants aren't they.

Human beings? We seem to require lots of irreconcilable theories to explain ourselves, don't we? There is no single secret of life. No one theory to tell us what we are and why we do what we do. In this case, when we look at ourselves, we appear not to expect a single theory. We seem to be an exception to the single theory axiom. Maybe that's a social thing too.

A plastic universe - could it be our flexible friend?

Thursday 11 October 2012

Quick splitty

Every little helps has a story about the UK Tesco supermarket giant moving into what is described as a "paradigm shift into personal/customer data."

According to a recent article in Marketing magazine, Tesco are advertising for a Product Manager ‘My Data’.

The successful candidate, it says, “will define the strategy to develop and support the deployment of Group-wide capability to deliver market-leading products and games which give our Clubcard customers simple, useful, fun access to their own data to help them plan and achieve their goals.”

There we have it: the paradigm shift in personal/customer data grasped and understood by the country’s biggest retailer. Not only can customer data be used to help organisations achieve their goals, it can also be used (as Tesco puts it) to help customers achieve their goals.

So Tesco intends to help Clubcard customers plan and achieve their goals? Apart from buying more stuff from Tesco, what does this mean? Presumably we'll have to wait to find out, but supermarkets and web vendors generally, such as Amazon, have been tuning their customer data for years. Maybe the Tesco move is a response to that rather than something new. However, it's also about legislation on personal data.

There are three things to note about this.

First, the control shift as it relates to personal data is happening – much faster than many anticipated. With Tesco’s move, and with midata requirements to enable the release of data back to customers on the statute book due early next year, customer-facing companies now have about a year to get the house in order … before those who are riding the wave and those who are being left behind begins to show.

Second, as Tesco clearly recognises, providing customers with new information services that use their data to add value in a fun way is opening up a new dimension of competition between brands.

Third, Tesco is not talking about releasing data back to customers, only to give them access to their data. Though Tesco officially denies it, this is nevertheless a preparation for the new environment being created by midata. As Marketing magazine observes, “By investing in Clubcard Play [apparently the umbrella term for this initiative] Tesco is raising its personalization game to ensure consumers won’t see any point in passing their data to another brand’s applications.”

So maybe it's merely a move towards the Amazon model of personalized recommendations and endless emails whenever you buy anything. Somehow it doesn't fill me with enthusiasm. 

I can't see the Co-op going big on it.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Feeding the sparrowhawk

Yesterday morning we saw a sparrowhawk on the lawn eating a small feathery bundle - couldn't identify it. I suppose it's a downside of feeding garden birds - it attracts sparrowhawks. Cats too, but I've yet to see one catch a bird round here - too fat maybe.

A month or two back we saw a sparrowhawk on the fence with a scrap of something grey and furry which may have been a squirrel. To our surprise, a dove was tootling along the top of our privet hedge, paying no attention to the sparrowhawk. Maybe it knew it was safe while the sparrowhawk was feeding.

A few days after that sighting, there was a mess of dove feathers strewn across the top of the privet hedge, plus a bit of the carcass.

I like to think the dove's name was Clegg, although I'm not sure if they give each other names. Probably not.

The Secret of Life

Imagine yourself strolling around a town you don’t know too well, wondering whether to call in somewhere for a cup of coffee. You've almost given up and reluctantly settled for a Costa outlet, when you see a traditional second-hand bookshop on the other side of the road.

‘That’ll do,’ you say to yourself. 'It may even have a coffee shop.' You nip across the road, skipping lightly as a young gazelle over a huge puddle. On pushing open the door, a reassuring bell tinkles and a delicious bookish aroma greets your senses like an old friend.

‘Foul weather,’ grunts an aged, dusty-looking proprietor from behind half-moon spectacles and an ancient desk piled high with books.

‘Isn’t it just?’ you reply automatically, eyeing with anticipatory pleasure the maze of crowded shelves stuffed with books. ‘I'm just browsing,’ you add with characteristic honesty.

‘Aren’t we all,’ grumps the proprietor, returning to his books.

You find yourself eyeing a shelf labelled ‘Esoteric’ which sounds an interesting place to begin. As you peer at an array of tight-packed spines, trying to find an interesting tome to fondle, your eye falls on a slim volume bound in black cloth. It is crammed between a book on modern magic and an excitable account of crop circles, but you manage to extract it with a little care.

The title is stamped on the cover in faded gold lettering – The Secret of Life.

Oddly enough there is no author and very little information – not even the usual publisher’s details. The book seems to have been written in the nineteen thirties – a typical product of the times with good quality paper and bound in black cloth. Maybe it was printed privately?

You begin reading and soon become gripped by what the unknown author has to say, because this book really is about the secret of life. It describes the human condition in such a way that you have to buy it. The price is pencilled on the fly leaf - £2.50 – far too cheap and far too interesting to leave all alone on the shelves.


So what might be written in this amazing, but imaginary book? The secret of life obviously, but what does it actually say? 

Suppose you are so impressed by it that you decide to tell everyone you know all about your remarkable find. How many of your friends and family would be interested? How many would dampen your enthusiasm with a covert verbal shrug?

Suppose you risk copyright laws, putting it on your blog and publishing it as a free e-book? How much interest would there be?

Very little is my guess. I think many of us already understand the human condition fairly well - in our various ways. But there are good reasons to prevaricate. In fact I think the demands of social cohesion compel us to prevaricate.

Hierarchical societies need to maintain important illusions from the top to the bottom of the social scale and throughout academia, professions the media and particularly politics. Yes we may allude to these illusions indirectly, but if anyone should make it their business to tell it as it is, then they will not be heard. At least, not by many.

In general, those who tell the truth do not manage to climb the greasy pole. The only way to get round the problem is to tell the truth privately but dissimulate in public.

As we all know.

Those who insist on telling the truth publicly, will with only a few rare exceptions fail to rise. So dissimulation is built into social cohesion – it is vitally important and without it, social cohesion would fail to cohere.

So what is the secret of life? Many of us already know - or suspect we know - but can’t say. Even if someone does tell the truth about the human condition, they do not get enough positive feedback to make a habit of it. 

We all need positive feedback, but for certain, socially sensitive issues we don’t get it. There are things we cannot say outside small but receptive social contexts - such as blogs or the pub. 

Even though they are true.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Why Do We Burn Our Food?

Interesting piece in Principia-Scientific - the figures are astounding.

Out of curiosity I ran some numbers related to ethanol production, which turns food into fuel. 

To produce one gallon of ethanol about 22 pounds of corn (1) needs to be sacrificed. 22 lbs of corn contains about 10,560 calories, (2) which are enough calories to feed one person for about four days. (3) Therefore the calories sacrificed to make 90 gallons of ethanol could sustain one person for an entire year. Since the US currently produces 10.6 billion gallons (4) of ethanol yearly, enough corn is being sacrificed each year for ethanol production in the United States to feed 117 million people. This is occurring at the same time that the United States Department of Agriculture is reporting that over 50,000,000 people living in the United States are in "food-insecure households" (5) because their families do not have sufficient funds to purchase adequate amounts of food.

New short story

I've posted a new short story on my Haart Writes blog called A New Time Machine. As usual, it can be accessed through the Short Stories tab on this blog.