Friday 30 November 2012

Personal hygiene

Many of us know, or at least suspect that raising children in an over-sterile environment may be harmful. It may reduce important environmental exposures which build immunity by forcing the young immune system to do its job. It’s not a new idea either.

My father used to tell a story about a child in his street who was never allowed to get dirty and would always bring his own knife and fork if invited round to tea or to a birthday party. Of course he was also the least healthy kid in the street. Dad would finish this story with.

You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.

Stories like this don’t establish cause and effect, but research does suggest that our levels of personal hygiene are not necessarily healthy.

Research indicates that some of the products we use to avoid germs, such as antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers, and laundry detergents, may contribute to the development of conditions like asthma and allergies.  According to the FDA, the hygiene hypothesis “suggests that the critical post-natal period of immune response is derailed by the extremely clean household environments often found in the developed world.”

According to a new study by Dr. Erin Rees Clayton and her colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, young people with overexposure to antibacterial soaps containing triclosan may be at greater risk for suffering from allergies

The picture may be even more complex than we have assumed, in that exposure to low doses of toxins may be beneficial too. For example, Professor Edward Calabrese and his work on hormesis

It is conjectured that low doses of toxins or other stressors might activate the repair mechanisms of the body. The repair process fixes not only the damage caused by the toxin, but also other low-level damage that might have accumulated before without triggering the repair mechanism.

In other words, low doses of toxins could be beneficial because they trigger repair processes. This is a controversial field due in part to its inevitable associations with homeopathy, but check out the video below.

Note what Calabrese says from about 01:50. He takes the assumption by Big Medicine that toxins have no safe lower dose and compares it with the rejection of the homeopathy - where it is claimed that super-low doses of certain substance can have a therapeutic step. 

Whatever one's beliefs about homeopathy, this is surely an interesting argument.

Thursday 29 November 2012


From PaulR

Outrageous claim

Climate isn’t weather we are told, but why? Surely climate is merely averaged weather, so what’s the reason for this mantra – climate is not weather. Why is it so important? Why does it crop up so frequently?

Think seasonal weather forecasts.

Climate forecasting grew out of weather forecasting, but everyone knows weather forecasting isn’t particularly accurate even over a few days. So climate forecasters have a problem. They don’t want their extreme long-range guesswork to be compared to weather forecasts, particularly seasonal forecasts.

Seasonal forecasts are too close to climate forecasts.

This high level of public familiarity with weather forecasts was always a serious weakness right at the heart of climate propaganda. Climate is not weather is an extraordinarily feeble mantra dreamed up to tackle it. Even now it crops up whenever this suppurating sore is probed.

Yet climate is obviously no more than averaged weather, so the comparison is worth making, if only to highlight how climate forecasters are merely playing political games. Seasonal forecasts are so dire, it isn’t difficult to work out that climate forecasts are not even guesses, but political aspirations.

Suppose UK weather forecasts are reasonably accurate over a five day period, which is what the Met Office seems happy enough to publish on its website. On the whole they aren’t particularly accurate over five days, but let’s give the dear old Met Office the benefit of the doubt.

Now take the game of darts. For darts matches, the face of a dartboard has to be 236.9cm from the face of oche. At this distance the game may be played with great skill by professional players and strong amateurs.

So suppose we draw an analogy between the game of darts and 30 year climate forecasts. A 30 year climate forecast compared to a 5 day weather forecast could be analogous to playing darts with the dartboard set up a little over 3 miles away from the oche.

An outrageous analogy? Of course it is – it’s an analogy of an outrageous claim.

Met Office to throw first... game on.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

World's smallest caravan

Designed to be towed by a mobility scooter, the battery powered caravan features a full-sized bed, 19 inch television, a drinks cabinet and boasts tea-making facilities.

Why tea-making facilities would be something to boast about I'm not sure, but caravan reviewers are fond of the word boast.

Recycling and downcycling

Apart from aluminium, the stuff we supposedly recycle isn’t recycled at all – it’s mostly downcycled. Even aluminium is only recycled to a limited degree.

Downcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. Wikipedia.

In general, domestic sources of waste plastic cannot be recycled. Most domestic waste plastic comes from food containers and for various technical and regulatory reasons it cannot be recycled into new food containers. Many plastics such as the almost ubiquitous polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used to make drinks bottles have too many additives for it to be feasible to melt the stuff down and recycle the melt into new bottles. It wouldn’t work.

However, PET can be reduced to flake, spun into polyester yarn and the yarn can be made into clothing such as fleece jackets. This isn’t recycling, but downcycling. There is no way back to virgin plastic.

Paper and card.
Paper and card contain fibres usually derived from wood. As these materials are reused, the fibres tend to break up and shorten in length so that the reused material is not as strong as the original. So ‘recycled’ paper and card have virgin material added to the mix to preserve their properties. It’s recycling of a sort, but not dissimilar to downcycling in that the paper fibres cannot survive the process in their original state.

Aluminium, particularly drinks cans, can be recycled, by melting them down to pure aluminium using considerably less energy than making aluminium from the ore. In the UK we only recycle about 50% of our cans, but even so, there is still that energy saving, which is probably the real value in recycling aluminium. Fewer cans in landfill too. This is genuine recycling.

Glass was recycled in the old days when returnable milk and beer bottles were the norm, but not so much now. In general, much recycled glass is actually downcycled into construction materials.

So why do we recycle?
 Recycling as we probably all know, is a complex issue riddled with politics and propaganda. It may well be that the most cost-effective way to deal with domestic waste is to incinerate it, but environmental pressures render objective analysis of costs, benefits and externalities particularly difficult.

I recycle and don't mind doing it, but that's because I have been conditioned to dislike waste and recycling feels right. It may not be the best solution, but it feels right to me, as I suspect it does to many others. 

Yet my impression, is that recycling is mostly a political project. Another way to get behavioural control into the home and the classroom. Pointless drill.

A move in the game.

Tuesday 27 November 2012


We’ve nipped off for a short break in the Cotswolds. A very sudden decision, but Christmas looms and we have a few spare days. As we are both retired, all our days ought to be spare, but that’s another story,

Anyway, here we are in Cirencester which is a very pleasant sandstone-coloured place, if rather wet. We’ve been here a few times before in the caravan, but this time we tried self-catering.

Yesterday we visited Tetbury, a little town chock full of antique shops so we had a good browse. Lots of shabby chic, much of which seems to be rather more shabby than chic, but maybe that’s the fashion. We didn’t buy anything, but rarely do, it’s mostly the browsing we enjoy.

Apparently our Royal Greenie lives near to Tetbury – at Highgrove. There is a Highgrove shop in the town centre too – pricey and not very interesting. Shortbread packed in fancy tins at fancy prices – that kind of thing. We bought a pack of Warburton’s crumpets from the Co-op over the road instead, but that was pricey too. It must be Tetbury.

This remote whiff of royalty set me wondering what life might be like if Charles ever makes it to the throne. My guess is – and it’s a wild shot in the dark – not much different to now. Very much a non-boat-rocker is Charles, in spite of the causes he espouses.

Whether he'll ever discover that climate science is a crock, I don't know. I feel a man in his unique position should have been too worldly-wise to be taken in, but he was. Still is one presumes. A disappointing man in my view.

As king, will he introduce new carbon-neutral modes of communicating with us? Semaphore springs to mind, although I've heard it suggested that he should try STFU. I don't know what the acronym stands for, but it sounds exciting.

We overheard a Tetbury resident complaining about the recent flooding and the local council. Apparently it issued free sandbags, but required payment for the sand. More than fair I'd say. Those bags may be the shabby chic antiques of the future.   

While we were browsing the shelves of a bookshop, a guy came in with an umbrella and a pair of shoes in his hand - enquiring after local cobblers. I was by the philosophy shelf at the time, but didn't make the obvious comment.

I did find a copy of Walter de la Mare’s Poems 1919 to 1934 though. I’ve blown hot and cold over de la Mare over the years. An odd chap by any standards, but I’ll probably enjoy reading his poetry again.  I had a couple of his books some years ago, but gave them away when we moved house. I’m not really in tune with old Walter, but find him difficult to ignore.


The sea laments
The livelong day,
Fringing its waste of sand ;
Cries back the wind from the whispering shore –
No words I understand :

Yet echoes in my heart a voice,
As far, as near, as these –
The wind that weeps,
The solemn surge
Of strange and lonely seas.

Walter de la Mare

Monday 26 November 2012

Bottomless pit

From PaulR


Handy visual emetic - from

Are you a caring person?

I’m not – not in the modern, prissy sense of the word. Claiming to care about ideas, abstractions and features of the natural world seems to be a peculiarly modern take on the ancient game of sanctimonious one-upmanship.

If we're playing that silly, puerile game, I’m happy to admit that I don’t give a fig for the planet, environment, oceans, equality, health, coral reefs, elephants, wildlife, rain-forests, the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Amazon, endangered species, habitat loss and of course climate change.

"Come now, Count. You used to shoot lions in Algeria."
"But why?"
"Why? The sport - the excitement - the danger!"
"And no doubt to free the country from a pest?"
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone

Not quite my take on lions, I'll admit, but times change. I am more concerned about corrupt governments and transparency. I see these as rather more practical problems, perilously close to real people who may indeed be forced to do something tragic - such as wasting their entire lives.

Corruption would be a good place to begin for the would-be carer, but the environment is easier and more suited for impressing children with the faux gravity of these distinctly political matters. The environment is easier to discuss around the dinner table without the need for lots of boring research, technical background or even common sense. Or common humanity for that matter.

Because of course it is quite acceptable for adults to be embarrassingly childlike over all matters  environmental. In fact it appears to be compulsory, especially for would-be celebrity bottom-feeders - if you'll excuse the expression.

I’m not so sure we have the stomach for teaching children about corruption and transparency, valuable though the lessons might be. Particularly when we have some good examples close to home.

The BBC lying to us about climate change for example. That would be a cracking start for a child’s real-world education - or maybe the mendacity of our politicians. I can’t see it happening somehow.

Duffuse, impersonal caring is the modern way. Caring about things that don't matter and not caring about those that do. Apparently it makes one a better person.

Which leaves me out I suppose.

Sunday 25 November 2012


From PaulR

The lost world of Sherlock Holmes

I’m almost through the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve been reading them off and on for a while now, mostly because I took my time, preferring to insert a few stories between my other reading rather than plough through them from start to finish.

After all, the tales are rather similar in many respects. So why do I enjoy them? I think there are three reasons.

I find the atmosphere of the stories hugely appealing. Thick London fogs, clattering cobbles streets full of horse-drawn carriages, narrow alleys, fetid docks, dark and stormy nights, bleak moorland, old houses with a sinister history, proper villains with wooden legs, livid scars or evil leers.

When we returned to Mrs. Warren’s rooms, the gloom of a London winter evening had thickened into one grey curtain, a dead monotone of colour, broken only by the sharp yellow squares of the windows and the blurred haloes of the gas-lamps. As we peered from the darkened sitting-room of the lodginghouse, one more dim light glimmered high up through the obscurity.

On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some oldworld village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.

For me, the relationship between Holmes and Dr Watson adds immensely to the atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s famous tales. There is something profoundly manly about it. Manly in an old-fashioned sense where intellectual sparks mingle with a genuine warm regard. It's the manliness of a sincere handshake and a slap on the back.

When we share our thoughts and ideas, and do so honestly and with due regard for the other person’s intellect, then we create a strong and lasting bond. There is no doubt that Holmes held Watson in high regard, not so much for his analytical strengths, as his feel for the emotional side of human nature, something Holmes knew he lacked.

Maybe the home comforts of 22a Baker Street play their part here too – the blazing fire, pipe-smoking chats and Mrs Hudson always on hand to mother them.

Sherlock Holmes’ world has barely sailed beyond living memory, yet in some respects it is so far from our time that we barely understand it. Yes, we know it as costume drama and we are told how little boys were always being shoved up chimneys and upper middle class white men ruled the world with an iron rod. The naughty bits our narrow, prissy world so abhors – we know about those.

We know all that but we’ve forgotten the freedom. People were more free in the nineteenth century than they are today, more reliant on themselves, their family and friends. Yes they needed money to be free, but those who had it certainly were. A world where one travelled abroad without a passport and dealings with the state were few and far between.

“Bring you revolver, Watson,” couldn’t be said today - couldn’t be done. There is a whole world of lost freedoms in that single sentence, a loss we are barely able to comprehend because most of us would rather not.

It’s not just the guns and self-reliance, but the way prohibitions of vast complexity have descended on us to such a spirit-sapping extent that we hardly realise what we have lost. We have our own fogs - but not half so atmospheric.

We are not even free to tell ourselves what Holmes and Watson had but we don't. We could of course but we don't. It's not part of the narrative - what we threw away in a whole series of careless, wanton imbecilities.

I think that’s the real appeal of the stories – the nostalgia. Not the silly nostalgia of costume drama, but the nostalgia of a genuine loss we'll never repair.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Senior slogan

As it always will be

Suppose you are thinking about something complex. Much of what we care about is complex, so it’s one of those things we ought to do well because we get lots of practice...

Well? We do get lots of practice and practice makes perfect doesn't it?


The trouble with those precious complexities such as social trends, human relationships and so many, many more, is the way we have to choose an aspect first. To think about. To discuss. To ponder. To pretend we've resolved.

Almost always, or maybe always, we have to consider a limited aspect of a complex subject rather than the whole thing. If we consider the whole thing we are deluding ourselves. Either that  or we've taken up politics or climate science.

So let’s stick to aspects.

Now it seems to me that because aspects of a complex subject are just aspects, they are best considered as neither true nor false, but something in between. Contributions perhaps - useful or not useful as the case may be. Actually of course, they can be false contributions, but even false contributions tell us something. At the very least they tell us something about the contributor.

Aspects worth considering are surely those which clarify. Sometimes that can be as simple as a more useful word or phrase. But whatever we do, we can't consider all aspects at the same time, in one discussion or a single piece of writing or even a single book. Or even a library of books for that matter. Something is always left out or not given enough consideration or the wrong emphasis - because that's the nature of complexity.

So all aspects of a complex subject aren’t essential to all discussions. We examine a complex issue piecemeal - because we have to. Because we are not able to study, discuss or examine an infinite array of aspects.

Too often we listen to people or read what they say because the aspects they promote are designed for emotional effect – designed to simplify and persuade, to encompass a subject which to too complex to be encompassed by anyone. Especially if we are willing to make certain assumptions, if we put ourselves into a certain frame of mind, if we pretend the complexity is less formidable than it really is, if we look down on those who don't believe as we do.

Yet in reality these precious complexities are not merely complex but infinitely complex. They will be discussed and wrestled with by thinking people forever.

Not for a long time - forever.

To me that’s one of the key issues with complex subjects – acknowledging just how complex they are, how they would take forever to elucidate completely.

The issue of free will for example.

Intellectual modesty has its drawbacks though. Too often the day is carried by those who seek to persuade over those who are merely concerned to add another useful insight. So we are carried away by the enthusiasts, the persuasive, the charlatans and the outright liars.

Which will go on until the day we gain control of our emotions I suppose. On that day though, we will have ceased to be human. So it's a complex problem.

As it always will be.

Friday 23 November 2012

Beer chiller

From PaulR

The atheist's lot

A significant political effect of atheism and a general decline in religious belief has been to facilitate a major power shift within most democratic, nominally Christian countries.

Because Christian churches have been important social and political power structures, their decline has led to a power vacuum which national and international bureaucracies continue to fill, nook by nook, cranny by cranny.

Taking the UK as our example, we once had significant dependencies on ourselves, family and friends within a largely Christian milieu. Today, the Christian influence has been extensively replaced by law and state-sanctioned social norms, often with the connivance of fake charities set up for that purpose.

This has created powerful, unidirectional political pressures. Unless a political party is committed to the politics of the dependent voter and state-sponsored social norms, it will not have the means to extend or even consolidate its body of voters. This is the reality faced by the Conservative party.

For example, unmarried mothers are semi-dependent voters. It doesn’t mean they always vote in a particular way, but they will have a tendency to vote in their own interests, as we all do. This does not imply anything about the behaviour of specific unmarried mothers, it is merely the logic of a political reality.

So for mainstream political parties in a modern welfare state, it is politically beneficial to undermine the institution of marriage and create as many unmarried mothers as possible. Again, this is merely the logic of a situation facilitated by the decline in Christian social and moral constraints.

Politicians don’t necessarily “believe” in undermining marriage, they are merely responding to political exigencies, step by step, nudge by nudge. It is the logic of a situation.

We see the same logic operating in teaching, policing, drugs policy, anti-smoking policies, the promotion of social norms and even concepts such as motherhood and fatherhood. As religious influence declines in these areas, there are political and bureaucratic opportunities for the extension of official power and influence.

Golden careers have been built on fostering state-sponsored social trends, so for many politicians and senior bureaucrats, atheism has genuine political value. It reduces the power of potential opponents, particularly during the manipulation of social trends.

This is not to say that atheists should go knocking on the doors of the nearest church. We atheists are what we are, but we tend to be naive about malign political trends facilitated by the decline of Christian traditions.

Neither is it a suggestion that we should go back to where we were, say fifty years ago or more - too many straw men lurk there. Yet in losing one set of admittedly imperfect Christian values, we have gained a set of malign political and social trends which promise to be considerably worse, and where opting out is not an option.

As an atheist, it seems to me that traditional Christian values here in the UK cannot be further eroded without a continued leakage of personal freedom, sucked away by an ever more authoritarian state bureaucracy. Of course many authoritarian atheists on the left welcome the consequences. Others seem to live in hope that something will turn up.

Maybe something will turn up. Maybe an existing social power structure will seize the opportunity of opposing the bureaucratic state. Because it is an opportunity – the bungling, dishonesty and moral relativism make it so. Who could make something of it though?

A revitalised Church of England? The Catholic Church? Islam? If it does happen, it certainly won’t be libertarian atheists setting the social agenda will it?

Thursday 22 November 2012

Suck it up

From PaulR

The improtance of spleling

Supposedly only 55 people out of 100 are able to read this passage with ease :-
I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseaethe huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!
I think I've seen it before because it stimulated the same thought - how important are spelling and grammar? To me they are fairly important because I was brought up to value them, but sometimes I mull over the question, especially when Blogger tries to insist on American spellings.

As for grammar, I have my copy of Fowler which I've even consulted from time to time, but language tends to drift quite quickly and it isn't easy to distinguish drift from error or doomed colloquialism. Blogs are a particular problem because of their temporary nature, so a slip or two is hardly a major failing and a touch of the colloquial avoids the sterile horrors of faux academic writing.

Whether or not we should be rigorous over these things I don't know, especially when so many other standards seem to be falling by the wayside (cliché) and blogs are written for whomever (wrong) happens to read them.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Spot the difference

Can you spot an important functional difference between these two structures? 
No prizes no clues.

Local warming

Our house is one of those 1930s bow-fronted houses you see all over the place. It faces East/West so the rising sun is captured by our bow windows at the front and the setting sun illuminates our kitchen and the room at the back where we have our wood-burner.

What still surprises me is how much warmth we get through those bow windows on a sunny day, even at this time of year. The morning sun can warm the front room from an overnight temperature of say 15°C to 19°C in a couple of hours – which is at least as quick as the gas fire.

It’s similar at the back of the house where large windows facing South and West gather warmth from an afternoon sun. A sunny day with an outside air temperature of 10°C warms the house while on a cloudy day at the same temperature we receive no perceptible heat at all. It all makes me very aware of the importance of cloud cover. We all know about that anyway, but the confusions of modern times sometimes pushes these basic experiences into the background.

Our back room is an interesting room in that it is small and very easy to heat. Other things being equal, the size of rooms is important as we get older, because for obvious reasons, smaller rooms are more easily, quickly and economically heated. 

The back room was once a typical 1930s dining room, accounting for its small size. We don’t use it as a dining-room because we always eat in the kitchen.

Anyway, the whilom dining room has a large central heating radiator. When we switch the heating on, it can warm from an unheated temperature of 14°C to 19°C in about an hour. If I light the wood-burner at the same time as turning on the heating, then after an hour the central heating can go off and we have a room warm enough to sit and read.

The front room is only about 25% bigger in floor area than the back room, so maybe other factors are involved, but room size seems to matter when it comes to keeping warm on a winter’s evening. No, we’re not planning to downsize as we only moved a few years ago. We seem to be well situated in that the house works well for us, but for older people the issue is worth thinking about. 

Small rooms are easy to heat.

The really obvious examples of gains made by heating smaller spaces are beds and clothing. In the UK, is easy enough to stay warm in bed overnight in an unheated bedroom, simply via good insulation and body heat. If the volume of trapped air round the body is small enough, body heat will do.

The same goes for clothing. Last winter we set off walking in a temperature of -7°C, which in many countries is nothing special, but the UK counts as pretty chilly. We have the right clothing for these conditions and after about a mile or so were warm and comfortable, even up in the hills. It was still well below freezing when we sat down for lunch, but if you have the kit it isn't a problem.

So why don’t we just wear outdoor clothing all winter, even in the house? Partly because it’s uncomfortable I suppose, and partly because in the house we aren’t generally moving around enough to generate sufficient excess body heat.

So I’m sure we could do more about housing design and the advantages of smaller rooms, especially for older people. It’s not so much about saving energy as making the best use of things we already know perfectly well. It's a pity that house size tends to be correlated with social status.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Noticed notice notice

From PaulR

Mr Palomar

Mr Palomar (recommended to me by Sam Vega) is a short work of fiction by Italian write Italo Calvino. It’s a fascinating book, summarised by Wikipedia thus:-

In 27 short chapters, arranged in a 3 × 3 × 3 pattern, the title character makes philosophical observations about the world around him. Calvino shows us a man on a quest to quantify complex phenomena in a search for fundamental truths on the nature of being.

The first section is concerned chiefly with visual experience; the second with anthropological and cultural themes; the third with speculations about larger questions such as the cosmos, time, and infinity. This thematic triad is mirrored in the three subsections of each section, and the three chapters in each subsection.

This summary doesn’t convey the subtly innocent honesty of Mr Palomar’s neurotically enquiring nature. What am I to think, given my limitations? What am I to do when faced with those inevitable frustrations Mother Nature always springs on me just as I begin to think I may be on the right track?

In fact the naive, detailed  subtlety of Mr Palomar’s enquiring mind is not easy to summarise without quoting most of the book, because Calvino presents us with an extraordinarily human portrait which is at the same time generic. We all have a Mr Palomar within us, but only to the extent that we are aware of ourselves interacting so imperfectly with that delightfully impossible complexity which is the natural world.

The book is almost excessively quotable too. Here are a few, beginning with Mr Palomar’s baffled attempts to cope with the sight of a topless woman on the beach.
He turns and retraces his steps. Now, in allowing his gaze to run over the beach with neutral objectivity, he arranges it so that, once the woman’s bosom enters his field of vision, a break is noticeable, a shift, almost a darting glance. That glance goes on to graze the taut skin, withdraws, as if appreciating with a slight start the different consistency of the view and the special value it acquires, and for a moment the glance hovers in mid-air, making a curve that accompanies the swell of the breast from a certain distance, elusively but also protectively, to then continue its course as if nothing had happened.

I particularly like this one, possibly because of how close it is to Spinoza's view:-
Or what if everything that exists were language, and has been since the beginning of time? Here Mr Palomar is again gripped by anguish.

And these two – the worrisome thought that there are things we ought to know and notice about the natural world in order to become a rounded person.
When it is a beautiful starry night Mr Palomar says: “I must go and look at the stars.” That is exactly what he says: “I must,” because he hates waste and believes it is wrong to waste that great quantity of stars that is put at his disposal. He says “I must” also because he has little practical knowledge of how you look at the stars, and this simple action always costs him a certain effort.

This observation of the stars transmits an unstable and contradictory knowledge – Palomar thinks – the exact opposite of what the ancients were able to derive from it. Is this because his relationship with the sky is intermittent and agitated rather than a serene habit?

This one is a favourite too. 
“It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” he concludes, “that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.”

Finally, an example of Calvino’s intriguing view of time.
A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but rather corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, “How could I have lived without having read it!” and also, “What a pity I did not read it in my youth!” Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.

Monday 19 November 2012

Cold wind

Cold winds here today, which for some reason pushed me into buying another load of wood. We easily had enough for this winter and possibly winter 2013/14 too, but a little voice told me we can't have too much. Anyhow, we have the storage space.

I know we are not able to predict the climate and don't know if it will warm or cool - but I still bought another load of wood. Maybe it's something in the air - not just that cold wind.


Directing the traffic

From DavidH

Torchy The Battery Boy

Torchy, a battery toy, with the help of Mr. Bumble-Drop, a kind old Earthman, was rocketed to Topsy-Turvy Land - "a wonderful twinkling star where toys could walk and animals could talk; where the fields were full of lollipops, and cream buns grew on trees."

Crikey - I don't remember those cut-glass accents back in 1958. I lived on a Derby council estate, so I wonder why I didn't notice? Or alternatively failed to remember how the accents were nothing like mine? 

Probably because at the time I hadn't associated such accents with social class, but did associate them with the BBC. So maybe I didn't notice and therefore didn't remember. To my young ears they were just BBC voices, so not unfamiliar. 

I was also too old for Torchy, so maybe I just don't remember him all that well. He's certainly much weirder than I recall though. 

I was more into the Lone Ranger, an American import which was a little more believable than Torchy. Maybe I could also imitate Lone Ranger accents without sounding silly to my peers.

We seem to have a strange tradition of producing seriously weird TV programmes for children. It still goes on today as far as I can see. Mind you, traditional children's stories are pretty bizarre too.

Do these mass fantasies stimulate the young imagination or render it unreliable? Was the Lone Ranger more dubious in that respect because it is closer to a possible reality?

Sunday 18 November 2012

IPCC not invited?

An extraordinary story from the Quatar Gulf Times says the IPCC has not been invited to COP18. Most of us know what a crock the IPCC is, but this is a real surprise (!). If true, then some kind of power shift is going on. Maybe it’s connected to this story from New Nostradamus.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will not be attending the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP18/CMP8) in Doha, chairman Dr Rajendra K Pachauri has said.

“For the first time in the 18 years of COP, the IPCC will not be attending, because we have not been invited,” he told Gulf Times in Doha.

COP18 is to be held from November 26 to December 7.

The IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, former vice president of the US and environmental activist, is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. Currently 195 countries are members.

Dr Pachauri first hinted about his ‘anticipated absence’ at COP18, while speaking at the opening session of the International Conference on Food Security in Dry Lands (FSDL) on Wednesday at Qatar University.

Later, he told Gulf Times he did not know why the IPCC has not been invited to COP18, something that has happened never before.

No surprises (2)

Following on from yesterday's post about Karl Friston's neurological work on how we act to minimise surprises, it may be worth applying the idea to politics. Do we vote for political parties because we judge them to be less capable of surprising us?

Maybe so. Human beings are programmed to seek out and value predictability. It’s a key survival trait which seeps into every aspect of our lives. The key attraction of big-government politics, is its promise of predictability through endless schemes of social control and the systematic elimination of surprises. 

So libertarian and free market politics are unattractive to most people simply because they embrace the dynamism of unpredictable outcomes. They promote the idea of adapting to and learning from surprises, but don’t seek to eliminate them. To many this is not acceptable - they don't want any surprises at all, especially from their government.

Adapt and survive may well be what we evolved to do, but one the whole we adapt by preferring predictable situations over unpredictable surprises. So it doesn’t actually matter how stupid governments are, what matters is that they should be perceived as predictable and incapable of surprising us.

Ed Miliband will not spring any surprises on us.
David Cameron may have a few surprises up his sleeve.

So unless circumstances change, Ed Miliband is likely to be our next Prime Minister. He will of course be hopeless, but politically that doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that his hopeless performance will be unsurprising.

It's what most of us want.

In which case, there are aspects of human behaviour we can't change, but are only able to mitigate, however rational we may think we are, or could be, or ought to be. One of them is a natural tendency by government and institutions to build unsurprising social, economic and political structures. Many of us perceive these structures as authoritarian or totalitarian - because they are.

It seems to me that the problem we face is that this tendency is innate. It may well be the reason why civilisations fail. It may even be the reason why they will continue to fail - including ours.

It's obvious I know, but Friston's theory, if correct, would also be subject to the goal of minimising surprises. I may like the theory because for me, it minimises surprises. The map is never complete.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Electric griddle

From PaulR


This is an unusual paragraph. I'm curious as to just how quickly you
can find out what is so unusual about it. It looks so ordinary and
plain that you would think nothing was wrong with it. In fact, nothing
is wrong with it! It is highly unusual though. Study it and think about
it, but you still may not find anything odd. But if you work at it a
bit, you might find out. Try to do so without any coaching!

From AlanH

No surprises (1)

In 2010, Professor Karl Friston wrote an interesting, if somewhat technical paper about the Bayesian brain and work being done on unifying theories of brain function. In simple terms, the idea is that the human brain functions in such a way as to minimise surprises, which as Friston says are neural costs in the sense that surprises have to be dealt with by non-routine neural activity.

This non-routine activity may be a change to our mental maps of reality or a change to reality itself  - a change we make to physical environment.

We walk through a room and a chair is in our way - that is a surprise in the sense that alerts us to a mismatch between reality and route we are taking through the room - our mental map of it. So we move the chair or deny its existence - these are two of the remedies open to us.

So a surprise in this sense is a mismatch between our mental maps of the real world and our sensory inputs - which has to be unexpectedly corrected.

Not a remarkable conclusion of course, because it is consistent with survival strategies. When we adapt to an environment or situation, we act to minimise any surprises it may spring on us. When we learn and imitate others, we are acting to minimise surprises by doing what has been done before.

We do a huge amount of surprise-limitation at the interpersonal level - constantly nudging the behaviour of other people towards our own comfort zones, while at the same time being constantly nudged ourselves.

It never stops.

It can be as subtle as failing to smile or as crude as a fist in the face. It's also government policy, because all government institutions want unsurprising citizens with predictable behaviour. The corollary of course is that we ought to see this kind of government behaviour as unsurprising.  

Friston and others in his field are using this commonsense view as a mathematical model for how the brain operates efficiently, how it processes sensory inputs as efficiently as possible by keeping to a minimum those inputs which require more than routine processing – the surprises.

If surprises occur then sometimes we act on the outside world in order to minimise future surprises. We move that chair to avoid falling over it, have the boiler serviced to avoid a breakdown, drink less alcohol to avoid a headache. 

What interests me about this approach is the way Friston uses the simple word surprise to bring out how crucially important it is to minimise mismatches between experience and expectation. If his approach is sound, then this is the goal-seeking aspect of brain function at a cognitive level.

To my mind, this use of the word surprise also fits in very well with common sense – how we differ in our attitude to surprise and our reluctance to change either our ideas, our behaviour or the outside world. Although there is a loose end here, because there is such a thing as incompetence.

We attempt to minimise surprise in numerous ways. Conventions, consensus, institutions, training, teaching, instruction manuals, points of view, prejudices, braking systems, suncream, vaccinations and so on. The list is endless, because this is a very general idea.

At some point, if it hasn’t occurred already, somebody will suggest that we vary in our tendency to avoid surprise. Not that such a possibility would be surprising of course, but what if it turns out that these tendencies differ between the sexes, between races and cultures and across age ranges?

Some people may be –

  • Better at what we might loosely call administration – surprise is minimised now.
  • Better at what we might loosely call exploration – surprise is minimised in the future.

 Exploration in this sense is a search for new situations where surprise is more minimal than the present situation, from building a better mousetrap to proposing a new drugs policy to finding the Higgs boson. It's the search for better where better means more efficient, more predictable and therefore less surprising.

Obviously the potential for controversy is huge if it turns out that men and women differ, if only marginally, in their propensity to avoid surprises. If there are cultural or racial differences too? The outcry will be formidable, but why?

Because for many, the findings would count as a surprise.

Friday 16 November 2012

Clever disguise

From PaulR


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

Thursday 15 November 2012

One million robots

From Daily Tech we learn :-

Foxconn plans to replace 1 million of its human factory workers in China with robots, and the first 10,000 have already been installed.

Last year, Foxconn President Terry Gou said he wanted to replace 1 million factory workers in China with 1 million robots. This was likely due to the number of problems Foxconn has had with human employees over the years.

The company came under fire earlier this year when The New York Times published a massive article on the working conditions of Foxconn factories. Apple was also targeted because the report mentioned Apple's lack of action when receiving reports on these poor working environments and overtime/pay issues.

Book power

Picture the scene...

The wood-burner has settled down to a pleasing flicker of flame filtering through glowing embers. Drawing perfectly tonight, not too much wind in the chimney, not too little.

I switch on the CD player. What type of music? Maybe some early jazz to liven the spirits? Something to  tone down the pleasing but soporific glow of the fire perhaps? Yes - I think so.

Next, a glass of port, poured with care from the Victorian decanter. As always I admire its colour before taking a preliminary sip. I love the colour of port. Hold the glass by its slender stem; gaze at the flames through plummy, raisin-scented shades.

Okay - the glass of port goes on the side table next to the decanter while I choose what to read. The fire won’t need another log for a while so I’ll fetch my Kindle. I've finished Stephen Crane and polished off one of Thackeray's novellas, so it's about time I made a start on Mr Palomar as recommended by Sam...

Right ho, I'm all settled now. A glass of port by my elbow, fire burning well, curtains drawn and now for Mr Palomar on my Kindle...

Shit! Low battery...

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Do Not Read

From PaulR

Those PCC elections

Lots of desultory comment around the Web on tomorrow's Police & Crime Commissioner Elections. Such as:-

who on earth is interested?
why does it have to be such a shambles?
what's the agenda?

I'd love to write a wise and revealing piece on this issue, but lack of credible information is curtailing my muse. It's not just that though - I also suspect there is a pretty obvious agenda. A possibility that the thing may be all about political control of the police is hardly a startling supposition. Anyone with a pulse and a brain cell could work it out. A further possibility that there may well be an EU link is scarcely any more pulse-raising either.

Do you intend to vote?

I don't. I'm a fairly punctilious voter for some strange reason which I admit I don't fully understand. It's not as if it makes any difference is it? But this time I tend to feel I shouldn't have any part in the vote. Not until I'm sure I know what I'm voting for, which I don't.

At least I know pretty well how the Parliamentary elections don't work and how I am able to use my pitifully feeble vote to throw a single grain of sand in the wheels by voting for the candidate most closely resembling a genuine maverick. 

With this PCC game I'm not so sure. It feels fishy, but may not be and that's another problem. It may be an honest attempt to make policing more locally accountable.


What am I thinking of! When was anything ever honest in UK politics? Why are the big three national political parties so prominently involved? So it's not an injection of local power into policing - we can be sure of that.

So I won't vote, because in this case an embarrassingly low turnout may have a little more political impact than that grain of sand. Well I can hope.    

Tuesday 13 November 2012

The BBC climate debacle

Although this story is all over the major climate blogs and many others, I need to post on it in case there is anyone out there who hasn’t seen it.

You can read the story here, here and here, but basically BBC reporting policy on climate issues was the subject of a key BBC seminar in 2006. Sceptics have always wanted to get hold of the attendee list for obvious reasons, but the BBC has steadfastly blocked FOI requests even to the extent of defending this blocking decision in court.

Now blogger Maurizio Morabito has uncovered the list quite legally (apparently via the Wayback Machine) and we see that to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the BBC and the BBC Trust have been economical with the truth on their climate reporting policies. The BBC takes the activist line and seemingly did so knowingly and deliberately.

Dr Finlay's copybook

As you may already know, A J Cronin, the writer of Dr Finlay's Casebook trained as a doctor before a serious illness led to him taking up a career as a writer. 

From Wikipedia:-

Archibald Joseph Cronin, MB, ChB, MD, DPH, MRCP (19 July 1896 – 6 January 1981) was a Scottish physician and novelist. His best-known works are Hatter's Castle, The Stars Look Down, The Citadel, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years, all of which were adapted to film. He also created the Dr. Finlay character, the hero of a series of stories that served as the basis for the popular BBC television and radio series entitled Dr. Finlay's Casebook. 

His first novel, Hatter’s Castle was published in 1931, but although it was an immediate success, his writing career was tested early by accusations of plagiarism.

In 1901, a writer called George Douglas Brown had written a similar novel called The House With the Green Shutters. However, Brown's writing career was short - he contracted pneumonia and died a year later in 1902, at the age of 33.

Both novels are set in Scotland and revolve around the ambitions and pretensions of an unattractive central character, hatter James Brodie in Cronin's novel and carrier John Gourlay in Brown's. In each case, their success and supposed business acumen owes more to a bullying personality and lack of local competition than any genuine business sense.

Brodie and Gourlay eventually come to grief over their own wooden-headed stubbornness and exposure to competition from more astute business rivals.

I’ve read both novels, having sought out Brown’s novel after reading about the plagiarism allegations against Cronin. Certainly Cronin’s novel has some remarkable parallels to Brown's, but on the whole that’s because Cronin and Brown chose similar and unusually unsympathetic central characters.

Cronin's maternal grandfather, Archibald Montgomerie, was a hatter who owned a shop in Dumbarton. So that’s where the idea of a hatter came from, but even so, the similarities are striking and it is easy enough to believe that Cronin was at least influenced by the earlier novel.

So was Hatter’s Castle plagiarised? Nobody knows and it doesn’t seem to have affected Cronin’s career. All I take away from this long-forgotten incident is how easy it may be to use another person’s idea, either too closely or without realising, especially for those of us who read widely.

After all, we avid readers are supposed to seek out and be influenced by good ideas and good writing.

Monday 12 November 2012

Costly curlies

I was shopping in Sainsbury's this morning and a couple of new light bulbs were on the list. What took me by surprise was how expensive they are all of a sudden.

Even since the dirt cheap incandescent bulbs were legislated off the shelves, the previously cheap curly variety seem to have become more expensive.

Isn't that strange?

Read the pack

Severe gingivitis - image from Aquafresh

The biocide triclosan has been around for forty years. It kills bacteria very effectively and according to masses of research is very safe. So safe it has been used in numerous household products for decades. It has also been used in toothpaste as a preventative biocide for gingivitis, but there are concerns about persistence and its effects in the environment, so the pressure is on as far as regulators are concerned.

Now personally, I’m not keen on long term exposure to such chemicals unless the gains outweigh the risks which is so often difficult to establish. The problem for me is that the long-term effects of triclosan can only be tested by long-term use. I’m not sure I want to be a guinea pig.

Partly it’s an irrational response of course, because the benefits of triclosan may well outweigh the risks – certainly the research suggest so.

Anyhow, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to ongoing moves to remove triclosan from consumer products. What I’m not so keen on, for purely personal reasons, is the low profile way this is being done.

Suppose you suddenly find yourself suffering from persistent and troublesome gingivitis. It turns out to be caused by a change in the formulation of your regular toothpaste which you didn’t know about. After all, the toothpaste carton still displays reassuring claims about the effectiveness of the stuff.

This happened to me a few years ago until I noticed the sudden absence of triclosan from my preferred brand of toothpaste. There was no indication of any change on the pack. It was only by reading the list of ingredients (written in tiny, low contrast lettering) that I was able to link their dropping triclosan from the toothpaste formulation to my mild outbreak of bleeding gums.

Since then I’ve only checked this out on a very casual basis, but Colgate Total seems to be the only triclosan containing toothpaste left on UK supermarket shelves. Not a big issue, but read labels is my advice. There is a lot of product information available these days, but I suspect people don’t read it.

There is always the dentist of course. I resorted to a dentist in the end and now I'm using a toothpaste containing chlorhexidine costing about four times as much as my original, triclosan toothpaste. At least the gingivitis has gone though.

Read the pack.