Thursday 31 January 2013

More on reliability

You probably haven't noticed, but I've been slow responding to comments. Our BT broadband has been down for protracted periods over the past few days so I've been offline - reading books! Kindle actually, but it amounts to the same thing.

We are on their fibre optic thingy too - supposedly more reliable than their old ADSL. Ho ho.

Old boiler

from Wikipedia

We are looking for a new central heating boiler. The old one, a Worcester Bosch, hasn’t failed, but after a couple of hours it sounds as if it intends to launch itself into orbit. It hasn’t been amazingly reliable either, even though it is only eight years old.

It’s not a condensing boiler, so if we install a new one we'll presumably save a king's ransom on gas and cause global cooling. Not enough to cover the cost though.

It all depends on reliability doesn’t it? The boiler at our old house was a Potterton which lasted 22 years without being serviced. During all those years it had one minor repair.

However, as soon as I began to research central heating boilers, I discovered that they are all dodgy if internet reviews are any guide – which of course they may not be.

Maybe we have a tendency to write reviews only if we’ve had a bad experience, but I’m also inclined to wonder if domestic gadgets are more complex and less reliable than they were. Or maybe internet reviews just highlight the inevitable difference between glossy brochure and reality.

One chap who came round to give us a quote told us that with all the regulations for gas appliances, there wasn’t really much difference between them.

Maybe the increased complexity of modern designs reflects an inevitable bureaucratic push towards standard, unreliable complexity - SUC.

Those in the trade should know the score, but they seem to have differing views on quality, reliability and so on. Meanwhile we have the Great Boiler Conundrum to settle.

Maybe I’ll toss a coin.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

What is science?

The mainstream media view of science seems to be :-

  • Science is what scientists do.
  • What scientists do is science.

 Doesn’t quite work does it? In too many cases, faith in science appears to be just that – faith. Or maybe another case of credentialism?

It may well be impossible to come up with a definition of science which always fits the real world, but credentialism has given us some dire science and shows every sign of delivering lots more. Yet we still have useful principles available to stop the rot, such as positivism.

I first came across positivism in my late teens, via A J Ayer’s book Language Truth and Logic. Ayer’s uncompromising view on meaningful discourse seems extreme to me, but since then I’ve always been a positivist even though it appears to have drifted into a philosophical backwater.

Which is a pity, because positivism provides us with a good working yardstick of what is and isn’t science. Falsifiability associated with Popper has its advantages too, but in many cases we seem to end up with credentialism – verifying credentials rather than physical reality. It is insidious too, because my references to Ayer and Popper could be seen as credentialism.

From Wikipedia :-

Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that in the social as well as natural sciences, information derived from sensory experience, logical and mathematical treatments and reports of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge.

Suppose we replace authoritative with scientific to avoid at least one minefield of fruitless wrangling. If so, then among other advantages, positivism accounts for the basic similarities between science and engineering. Both are based on what works in a testable way in the real world. Both accept the need for new ideas if physical reality blows away the old ones. The similarity is no coincidence.

So why isn’t science as rigorously positivist as engineering?

I think it is because science has expanded as both a business and as a tool of political advocacy. For an early example of science as a business we need look no further than Sigmund Freud and the so-called science of psychoanalysis leading to psychotherapy.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Freudian psychoanalysis, it most certainly became a business which at best aligns itself only weakly with positivism. The id, ego and super-ego are not concepts amenable to physical verification.

Whether or not psychoanalysis was a model for other areas of science to expand beyond positivism I don’t know, but it may well have provided a paradigm of what is possible.

There are many complexities to what we call science, much of down to our excessive reliance on credentialism plus a lack of rigour when it comes to insisting on physical verification. Wouldn’t it be splendid if science journalists had a bash at verification before publication?

However, many scientific enterprises successfully mix positivist science with business science. In other cases, the business pushes the positivist principles to one side. It varies from field to field and even within disciplines.

Physics for example. Multiverse theories and string theories do not sit well with positivism, although they are not businesses either. Unless of course one is cynical enough to count them as entertainment.

For science as a political advocacy tool we have climate change, passive smoking and drugs policies. In these cases, positivism would introduce much needed rigor into the political exigencies. The unsurprising result is that these fields tend to attract scientists who pay more attention to credentials than physical reality.

So it’s a complex picture, but easy enough to see how the sidelining of physical principles such as positivism has led to problems with certain sciences. Unfortunately many people do not understand the rigor of positivism, nor its powerful methodological advantage. Too many scientists are not rigorous positivists.

Are they still scientists?

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Apollo's CV

Apollo - from Wikipedia

A quote from Santayana's the Life of Reason.

If we consider again, for instance, Apollo’s various attributes and the endless myths connected with his name, we shall find him changing his essence and forgetting to be the material sun in order to become the light of a cultivated spirit. 

At first he is the sky’s child, and has the moon for twin sister. His mother is an impersonation of darkness and mystery. He travels yearly from the hyperborean regions toward the south, and daily he traverses the firmament in a chariot. 

He sleeps in a sea-nymph’s bosom or rises from the dawn’s couch. In all this we see clearly a scarcely figurative description of the material sun and its motions. 

A quasi-scientific fancy spins these fables almost inevitably to fill the vacuum not yet occupied by astronomy. Such myths are indeed compacted out of wonders, not indeed to add wonder to them (for the original and greatest marvel persists always in the sky), but to entertain us with pleasant consideration of them and with their assimilation to our own fine feats. 

This assimilation is unavoidable in a poet ignorant of physics, whom human life must supply with all his vocabulary and similes. 

Santayana was adept at using a literary style to bring out and ram home important philosophical points and in many ways there is nothing more important than this one. Often we are already familiar with what he says, but not in such forceful and elegant language.

The last sentence is the key of course - human life must supply with all his vocabulary and similes. Do we have a complete repertoire of vocabulary and similes? We can't say can we? Literally.

Could we lose part of our verbal and imaginative repertoire through political correctness and the global narrative? Do those who have retained their vocabulary and similes sometimes have difficulty communicating with other people?

Particularly if they live or work in a politically correct environment? 

Monday 28 January 2013

No Minister

Alternative script :-

‘Ah - good morning Humphrey.’

‘Good morning minister – I trust your cabinet meeting went well?’

‘As well as can be expected I suppose, but never mind that Humphrey – I’m wet.’

‘Wet Minister? Do you mean politically - as in Mrs Thatcher’s day?’

‘Very funny Humphrey. No I mean wet as in my trousers are wet. I was caught in a shower even though I distinctly remember the Met Office telling us this morning that it would be dry all day.’

‘Oh dear...’

‘It’s not a matter of oh dear, Humphrey. We are spending billions on climate change and the Met Office can’t even predict today’s weather – today.’

‘Most regrettable Minister...’

‘No Humphrey it isn’t regrettable, it’s incompetent. My trousers are wet.’

‘Minister, the Met Office cannot be expected to be right about every single forecast every single day. Even a minister, even an able minister as you Minister would balk at claiming to be infallible.’

‘I’m not expecting infallibility Humphrey. Who is the head of the Met Office? I think I’ll have a word.’

‘An eminent scientist, Minister. You are surely not looking to be drowned in scientific weather forecasting technicalities are you – especially with wet trousers.’

‘Very droll Humphrey. Who is he – or she?’

‘As I said Minister, a most eminent scientist highly respected in the arcane world of meteorology.’


‘An eminent scientist...’

‘You don’t know do you Humphrey? Well find out for me please. I’m determined to have my say on this one.’

‘Certainly Minister, but surely you do not expect to initiate changes to our climate policies. Ha ha ha...’

‘It isn't funny Humphrey. Suppose all of our climate policies are based on unsound science - just like this morning's blasted weather forecast?’

‘Really Minister...’

‘Well suppose they are Humphrey... just imagine the outcry if it ever got out. Billions wasted... we might as well burn ten pound notes to keep warm... That's rather good isn't it. I may use it in the House the next time the opposition drones on about the way we implement our climate policies.’

‘Those billions are not wasted Minister. Our climate policies provide employment, innovation and British technological leadership in the global race to a green future. We can't afford not to spend... invest in it.’

‘But the science...’

‘Really Minister - what does science have to do with anything - ever? Our climate policies are based on policy – not science. Our science policies are too if it comes to that.’


‘Of course Minister. If the science fails for whatever reason to support our policies which are after all enacted for the ultimate good of the British people and of course the whole of humanity, then if as I say, that is indeed the case then it is incumbent on us here in the Ministry to seek out that science and indeed those scientists who first and foremost show an in-depth understanding of our policies.’

‘So... so you are saying it’s not actually a matter for the scientists?’

‘No Minister.’

Sunday 27 January 2013

Why Saga cruises are expensive

Why indeed. One comment from Cruising Mates [!] suggests :-

The other thing about Saga is they have less room on their ships for cabins as they have larger capacity morgues than is usual. A typical 70,000 - 100,000 tonne has 2-3 places, Saga ships have 5-7.

They tend to keep this relatively quiet, but i found out from my mother ( who has done 3 world cruises with them + other shorter cruises) as that is the sort of question she would ask , especially on the longer sea passages.

Powers of contemplation

The Spirit of Contemplation by Albert Toft.
from Wikipedia

The Association For Psychological Science has a piece on the health benefits of contemplation.

Most dieticians will tell us that the first step in achieving a healthy body weight is buying a good bathroom scale. The second is using it, regularly. Knowing our weight keeps us honest, and this basic bit of information is a key motivator for the nutrition and exercise changes needed to stay fit over the long haul. And it’s simple and effortless.

Except that it’s not. Many people do not have a scale, and what’s more, do not want one. Or if they have one, they never use it.

Researchers claim to have demonstrated that if we have a treatable health condition, then a contemplative approach may reduce the likelihood of avoidance or denial.

Two psychological scientists at the University of Florida believe they may have an answer. Jennifer Howell and James Shepperd thought that it might be possible to shift people’s focus from the immediate emotional threat—the threat to positive self-image—to a more detached and deliberative analysis of their motives and actions and health. They wanted to see if they could get people to think about their own thinking—why they should want to know this information, and why they might want to hide from it. They call this cognitive state “contemplation,” and they’ve begun exploring its potential for healthy decision making.

Sounds more like honesty to me, but the overall conclusion is certainly consistent with what my wife and I have experienced. We weigh ourselves regularly, do not diet, but do not have weight issues either. My waist measurement is the same as it was when we got married nearly forty years ago. 

I tend to assume that simply knowing my weight and having a rough idea of how many calories there are in food controls my appetite without much conscious effort on my part. I don't need to follow a diet. Mind you, regular walking and an advantageous metabolism may play a part too.

However, an obvious but unexplored aspect of this research is what the researchers describe as the emotional threat of personal health issues. Supposedly it prevents many of us from seeking factual information about our health.

Fair enough, it's an explanation, but surely our government is by far the biggest sponsor of emotional health threats in the UK?

Dear me - could they possibly have made a mistake here? Because on the basis of this research one might assume that decades of largely threat-based health propaganda may have contributed to the so-called obesity epidemic. Not only that, but more threats won't improve the situation.

What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday 26 January 2013

Is language communistic?

From Wikipedia

Language has an irresistible tendency to make thought communistic and ideally transferable to others. It forbids a man to say of himself what it would be ridiculous to hear from another.
George Santayana – The Life of Reason

In other words, language has a tendency to presume we are all essentially equal in the sense that we are all the same. After all, the only individuality we have in our language is a name. There are virtually no words or phrases which apply to specific individuals. Even a name is not usually unique.

George Orwell invented the idea of Newspeak as a deliberately constructed communistic language, but a lesser type of Newspeak is already embedding itself in our verbal behaviour. The global reach of the English language plus a lethal combination of political correctness and mass communication may do as much to grind us down as any amount of legislation.

Of course we all have certain characteristic ways to express ourselves which mark us out as individuals, but nothing that isn’t found in the language of other people. When we use language to express ourselves, we have to imitate others. My Santayana quote is an example.

As Wittgenstein demonstrated, there can be no such thing as a private language, so international mass communication may doom us to a slow process of mass homogeneity via our language.

By far the commonest type of argument seen in the media is the argumentum ad verecundiam, the argument from authority. A mature global narrative will be difficult to resist, especially as mainstream media and even specialist publications are already willing to copy and paste the official view.

I don’t know what weight one should give to the emergence of a global narrative, but it niggles away at the back of my mind. Language plays a huge but somewhat shadowy role in how we express ourselves.

Only a few decades ago, our national borders allowed us articulate and debate national narratives, highly imperfect though the process may have been. Now the politically correct view is to dispense with a national narrative in favour of an EU or global narrative.

It surely follows that without strong national boundaries and local customs there will eventually be no national narrative left to debate. Even the idea of having a debate on important social and political matters from a national perspective will seem quaint and old-fashioned.

To our elite classes it already does. 

A global narrative suits their personal circumstances and transnational ambitions. It may not suit our more circumscribed situations, but when did that ever matter?

Friday 25 January 2013



One of the most disreputable features of mainstream media is how much of it seems to be churnalism.

From Wikipedia :-
Churnalism is a form of journalism in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking.

Churnalism has increased to the point that many stories found in the press are not original. The decline of original journalism has been associated with a corresponding rise in public relations.

I’m not saying any of this is unusual, remarkable or whatever, but if one stands back it can feel seriously depressing. The fourth estate has its good points in that a few scandals have been exposed, but even the scandals feel like dropped balls. Accidental leaks.

Sometimes we have to give ourselves a break to see these things in all their abject ghastliness. Go for a long walk or get away from the media for a few days – that kind of thing. Because it seems to me that most of the time we don’t actually have to be intelligent. Mainstream media can be full of PR rubbish because it doesn’t matter. We aren't bothered.

It’s one reason I’m so suspicious of IQ tests. If we were intelligent, surely we’d see more evidence of it? For example, the present mainstream media wouldn't be mainstream would it? 

Maybe what we do most of the time is imitate each other in very complex ways. Random advantages pop up, we seize them and the seizure is called progress or intelligence. So we can be intelligent when there is some advantage to be gained, but most of the time it isn’t necessary. If we don’t have to do intellectual work we don’t. 

Frustrating for those who enjoy the work, but not for those who don’t.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Snow on the hills

We were walking in the snowy hills of Derbyshire yesterday - wonderful.

Nothing unusual about the walk, most of which we’ve done before, but walking it in the snow was something else. At the highest points, much of the snow lay undisturbed apart from a few fox tracks. A foot deep in some places, it made for hard walking but an exhilarating day.

Lower down among scattered farms and houses we were almost walking through a series of Christmas cards, snow still thick on trees and hedgerows, tracks and minor roads not yet turned to dirty mush.

Even though the weather wasn’t brilliant, with grey skies and flurries of snow, the slightly dour and sombre nature of the landscape was particularly attractive, with a depth of character not seen in fine weather.

Those views and the occasional whiff of wood smoke also brought home just how bleak winter must often have seemed in earlier times. Beautiful but bleak and not a little dangerous.

The picture above is a print by Victor Venner. I like the contrast between the mildly comic consternation of the foreground coach travellers with a rather bleak snowy background. Travelling in such weather was a rather more serious affair than today, with our warm, waterproof clothing and mobile phones.  

Many of our ancestors could not afford to travel by coach and if they had to get from village to village in such weather, then it was done on foot, using the same lanes and footpaths we used yesterday. Did they see the beauty of those trees and snowy lanes? I don't know, but I like to think so.

Yet they were obliged to survive winter too, without the luxury of enjoying it as we do when we remember to look. They had to exist on stored food and eked out fuel until the promise of Spring, but even then life was hard because Spring is still a good way from the first harvest.

In the distance we saw hares, almost black against a white background. A hare would have been a most welcome addition to the pot. We’ve almost forgotten about winter food – bread, potatoes, cabbage, leeks, oatmeal and maybe a few eggs or a slice of bacon.

I originally intended this post to be about Cameron and his EU promises, but he can wait. There are better things to dwell on for now. 

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Every little helps

From PaulR 

Latest asthma wheeze

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist has a fascinating and damning analysis of the recent scare story linking a decline in UK childhood asthma hospital admissions after the 2007 smoking ban.

The Guardian report is typical.

The number of children admitted to hospital after serious asthma attacks has fallen steeply in England since smoking was banned in public places such as bars, restaurants and offices.

Hospitals recorded 6,802 fewer cases of childhood asthma in the first three years of the ban, which was introduced in England in July 2007, according to NHS figures.

Researchers said the fall came as more people imposed smoke-free homes in the wake of the legislation.

Before the change in law, hospital admissions for the condition were rising 2.2% year on year. In the first year after the ban admissions fell by 12.3%, and there were further falls of more than 3% in each of the following two years.

The same story can be found in the Mail and of course the BBC. Most people with any degree of discernment know health-related stories in the mainstream media are usually worthless, but this is a particularly good example of worthless journalism promoting dishonest research. Nothing checked, nothing verified, nothing questioned. 

The people who carried out this "research" would be hung out to dry by a competent fourth estate. Instead, the job is left to bloggers. 

Tuesday 22 January 2013

UKIP and the dunghill

John Constable
Stour valley and Dedham village
The dunghill was located two years ago

I recently did some desultory research on UKIP, the party with no MPs which seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment.

I've voted for UKIP once or twice - at least I think I have. These things don't loom large in my memory. I was probably doing my feeble best to rock the political boat, although quite what I was voting for with UKIP I was never quite sure.

Nigel Farage comes across well and appears willing to poke a stick at the establishment and what more can one ask given the present state of affairs? Because unless one has inside information, and quite a lot of it gathered over quite a long period, it is impossible to get a feel for the culture of a political party.

In a sane world, a natural solution to this obvious voting dilemma would be to rely on open political cultures where on the whole, what you see is what you get and the media tell it as it is. Naive I know, but rational folk need ideals to show themselves why they turned out so cynical.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that if you subtract the charlatans, thieves, liars and idiots from the political dung heap, you don't leave many still standing. Not quite none, but near enough.

What to do? Well it's an impossible situation for voters who prefer to think before they vote. Our political culture is so excessively unreliable, that extreme cynicism really is the best policy. For all I know, Farage might be a control freak and his party a nest of vipers no better than any of the others.

For all I know, UKIP may be a deep-dyed establishment party with no more interest in rocking the EU boat than David Cameron. Their rhetoric may be little more than political marketing.

How are we supposed to tell? How do we know the promises will be kept in the face of relentless pressure and propaganda from vested EU interests?

Even so, next time around I may still vote UKIP as a feeble boat-rocking gesture, but it doesn't mean I support the party. How does anyone support any party with a political culture such as ours? In any event, I soon managed to Google some bitter rivalries in and around the UKIP camp.

Mad as a box of frogs some of them. So what's new?

Monday 21 January 2013

Cameron's EU speech

The Guardian reports on Cameron's much hyped forthcoming EU speech.

David Cameron will deliver his long-awaited speech on UK relations with the EU this week, the foreign secretary, William Hague, has said.

The prime minister had been due to make the speech in the Netherlands on Friday but it was postponed owing to the Algerian hostage crisis.

It's an odd situation, because Cameron's stance on the EU is well known and I suspect few people expect anything from this most evasive and dishonest man.

Cameron is expected to use the speech to warn that Britain could "drift towards the exit" unless there is change in Brussels. He has indicated that he will set out proposals to negotiate a new relationship with the EU which would then be put to a referendum after the next general election in 2015.

The prime minister has made clear that he wants Britain to stay in the EU and opposes a straight in/out referendum. But critics have warned that any "no" vote could mean the UK would have to leave.

It seems to me, and no doubt almost everyone else, that this may be aimed at a number of obvious objectives.

Firstly - kick the referendum issue beyond the next election - beyond what seems likely to be Cameron's only spell as Prime Minister.  This may mitigate further EU damage to the current regime and beyond that Cameron has no need to concern himself - apart from his next career move.

Secondly - Cameron hopes to reduce the UKIP threat by positioning himself as responsibly open-minded on EU membership.

Thirdly - it may be a move in Cameron's planned career as an international anodyne peddler.

None of this impresses anyone with a functioning brain cell, but the speech is likely to be aimed solely at Conservatives who are:-

  • Inclined to vote UKIP.
  • Reluctant to let in Labour.
  • Still open to Cameron's brand of dishonesty.

Will it work? Well his way of doing power politics hasn't been a great success so far. Has he anything interesting up his sleeve? Who cares? The man isn't honest enough for his speeches to matter. 

Unless voters actually listen to the guy and finally wake up how empty the suit is, but I can't see that happening on anything like a useful scale.

Sunday 20 January 2013



The other day we had lunch at a vegetarian café, The Green Way Café in Matlock, Derbyshire.   We aren’t vegetarians although we eat meat only rarely. Most of our protein comes from fish - we're big on fish.

This is the second vegetarian café we’ve tried recently. The first was the Toucan in Minehead which we enjoyed so  much it prompted us to try the one in Matlock.

The Green Way is small, with about five tables, but for us the ambience is just right. I don’t know what it is exactly – a kind of friendly and genially relaxed earnestness. Whatever it is, it works for us. We both had cheesy leek parcels with an excellent salad and a simple traditional dressing. The salad was a treat - far more complex and interesting than anything we could possibly produce at home. 

Whatever it is, the food, the ambience or both, this unassuming little café  is the kind of place that suits us. We don’t go big on fine dining, paying eye-watering prices for bits and pieces piled in the middle of an otherwise empty plate. A café lunch is more our style.

I suppose people opt for a vegetarian diet for many reasons and with many interpretations of what constitutes vegetarian.

It is certainly more fashionable and socially positive than once upon a time. Vegetarian options on restaurant menus are now the norm, although I often sense a slightly tacked on feel. Steak house with veggie option doesn't strike the right note somehow.

Our only problem with vegetarian food is that we aren’t very good at preparing it ourselves. I do a decent vegetable curry and my wife does an excellent goat's cheese tart, but that’s about it, apart from some veggie burgers from Sainsbury's which aren't bad. 

Years ago I tried to make bean-based burgers and kebabs, but they weren’t much good. Actually that's rather close to bigging them up.

So we’ll pay a visit to The Green Way again and maybe pick up a few tips. Once all the global warming has thawed.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Snake on a bus

Bus art from PaulR

Hiding stuff

I’m a fairly tidy person on the whole. I usually put things away sooner or later, but tidiness it has its problems. My wife and I realised how much junk we’d hidden away when we moved house a few years ago. Not in a hurry to do that again. So much bloody stuff!

The official definition of a tidy house is one where most of the readily portable stuff is in cupboards, garage, shed, attic buried in the garden or otherwise out of sight. Nothing wrong with that, but many of us like to keep stuff out of sight don’t we? Apart from books – we tend to display those.

Out of sight, out of mind, isn’t that how it goes? It’s not always been like this - shoving mountains of stuff into cupboards. Originally a cup board was for displaying your cups and plates, not for hiding them away. From Wikipedia :-

The term cupboard was originally used to describe an open-shelved side table for displaying plates, cups and saucers. These open cupboards typically had between one and three display tiers, and at the time, a drawer or multiple drawers fitted to them. The word cupboard gradually came to mean a closed piece of furniture. 

There were such things as food safes which we would recognise as a type of ventilated cupboard. Basically  a place to keep food away from rodents.

Sometimes I think the fashion for minimalist living is merely a development of all this. Not so much a kind of modern asceticism, but a hiding fetish so extreme that even the cupboards have to go.

A blank face presented to the world.

Friday 18 January 2013

The rhythm of political drums


I see settled science has settled again. Anthropogenic Climate Change (AGW) is a bore and its believers even bigger bores, but what sustains it? Is it the harbinger of a new religion – or rather an ancient, pre-rational religion in a new guise? Check out these bonkers quotes to test the idea :-

There are shed loads of this stuff – much of it even more bizarre and extreme than the examples above.

Yet why do people claim to believe in AGW when their lifestyles give the game away just as emphatically as the silliness of their words?

How many AGW cult members have moved to a carbon neural lifestyle? Or is it merely self-serving rhetoric - asking nothing from middle class believers in the way of inconvenient lifestyle adjustments?

How many refuse to consume electricity, fossil fuels, plastics and powered transport? How many eat no food produced beyond walking distance? How many do without clothes, mobile phone, computer, fridge, freezer, heating, lighting, bricks, mortar, water supply or sewage disposal? How many refuse to use computers?


Okay, so more rational folk probably don’t expect AGW cultists to build Iron Age villages all over the place, but something rather more convincing than solar panels and recycling is surely indicated if we are to accept their professed beliefs as genuine.

Yes the whole silly business is a tedious bore and has been for some years, but why are the AGW believers such fanatical and unrepentant liars? They no more believe CO2 to be dangerous than I do.

They don’t even acknowledge the jaw-dropping dishonesty of it all as they hurtle down the motorway at 80mph in a Toyota Prius before jetting off on their hols. I don’t begrudge them the modern comforts and the consumption, but why lard it with lies? Why the scams? Why the frauds? Why did science have to be thrown to the bureaucratic wolves?

Yet people still claim to believe in AGW. Businesses claim to be observing the mantras and climate change legislation hasn’t been repealed. The science is falling apart because the climate won’t play ball and politicians sense an uninterested public. Yet still the lies come.

It tells us something about ancient cults, human nature and the sneaking, alluring rhythm of the political drumbeat - not the climate.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Sainsbury's stripped

We have just returned from a Sainsbury's frenzy.


I suppose it's the Met Office snow warnings. Apparently we are doomed because a few inches of snow are expected tomorrow. Perishable stuff will be unobtainable and we'll all get scurvy.

As far as I can tell from a scrimmage around Sainsbury's, perishable seems to be primarily potatoes and cakes, so the crisis is serious but potentially containable.

Even so, I can understand the sense of distress fluttering around the store.

We managed to snatch a bag of spuds off an old lady while she wasn't looking, so that's us safe and sound. No cakes though, so we'll have to rough it.

The servant problem

Are you a member of the aristocracy? Probably not, but neither am I. They are interesting though, aren’t they – aristocrats?

Aristocracies may change, but they never disappear. The landed aristocracy are still with us. Still in an important sense landed, they have become much more mobile, no longer tied to a traditional estate and the income it generates.

So personal servants are no longer required in the numbers Edwardian aristocrats were used to. It is almost as if the aristocracy have discovered how to outsource personal service so they don’t have to see or manage their servants directly.

The servants have migrated to factories, offices and the public sector. It is no longer necessary to have them working on one’s estate when a few directorships keep the servant class at bay, but not of course the income they generate.

What has changed is the aristocrat’s concept of income-generating estates. The relationship is now more remote, the estates more profitable, the patterns of ownership considerably less transparent. Servants and tenants still work the land, but in a much wider sense than agriculture, mills and mines.

Thorstein Veblen who coined of the term conspicuous consumption, argued that wasteful activity confers social status. An example he gave was servants expected to suffer restrictions and perform activities of little or no value.

Sound familiar? The endless series of behaviour controls with tighter and tighter restrictions on what we servants are allowed to do or say in public. Aristocrats have servants to deal with these petty annoyances – those they so willingly impose on the rest of society. It is uncanny how old lore on dealing with servants is being applied to modern society. 
  • Servants must not smoke within sight of their betters.
  • Servants must not drink.
  • Male servants are generally seen as less tractable than female.
  • Elderly servants are a burden and an embarrassment to be kept out of sight.
  • The children of servants require no more than a basic education. 

Is it so different today? Of course it is, vastly different, but there are disquieting similarities. As ever, there are social, threads linking today with yesterday. Practices which change their names and their outward appearance, but to the eye of a future historian may not seem so very different.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Tesco manager attacked

From PaulR

For the ride

Kim Jong-un

The UN has decided to wag a finger at North Korea. 

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called on Monday for an international investigation into what she said may be crimes against humanity in North Korea, including torture and executions of political prisoners held in shadowy camps.

Navanethem "Navi" Pillay, a one time South African lawyer and apparently a woman of considerable courage and ability, has taken a break from the gender and sexual orientation games to look at something a little more basic in human rights terms – a little more human at any rate.

Yet it may well be that the UN has suddenly decided to poke a small stick at North Korea in view of China's recent declared intention to reform its own forced labour camps.

China will reform its controversial system of forced labour camps this year, state media reported on Monday, which would mark a first step toward legal reform promised by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

So is this a bit of opportunist faux muscle-flexing by the UN chair-polishers? North Korea has been the vilest of vile dictatorships all my life, so I’ll excuse myself for being a little cynical about this move, welcome though it certainly ought to be.

Has the UN achieved anything in North Korea? It has certainly made no positive difference to the lives of millions of North Koreans. In which case one is left wondering yet again what the UN stands for apart from the careers of international bureaucrats, worthy though those careers may sometimes have been before the UN sucked them in. 

Navi Pillay's announcement will have no impact on Kim Jong-un and the policies of his ruling elite, although it is presumably just possible that internal policy decisions have already been made about North Korean labour camps. Decisions known to the UN.

In that case, the UN may be sneaking a ride on changes which it knows on the cards anyway. We shall see.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

No more writing

For how long will we need to write by hand? I ask this not uncommon question, because I've recently discussed it with my better half. Maybe it was the chore delight of writing Christmas cards, but we both came to the same conclusion.

We don't write as fluently as we did.

Instead of our handwriting being entirely automatic, words flowing from the pen like a limpid stream of inky eloquence, we have both acquired a regular tendency to think for a second before putting pen to paper. Not a great long pause and a bit of head-scratching – just a slight hesitation twixt intent and act. Brief, but we both notice it.

So for us, writing by hand isn’t quite as easy as it was. The faintest hint of a lapse from total familiarity has crept into our writing physique. In these digital times, we both lack that regular practice which began almost sixty years ago and never faltered until quite recently.

I still make handwritten notes for blog posts and short story ideas. We both make handwritten shopping lists and diary notes, but that’s about it. We no longer do much writing.

My writing was always dreadful anyway, so it’s no great loss, but noticing our lack of practice was a surprise to both of us, even though the demise of writing has been predicted for years. I suppose we always took those prognostications with a pinch of salt.

Yet do we need to write beyond shopping lists? Won’t the government soon be doing that for us anyway? Will we stop teaching kids how to write, or at least, how to write well? Grandson is being taught to write at his primary school, but is he wasting his time? 

Monday 14 January 2013

Bus art

From PaulR


Pronunciation: /ˈsɒfɪst/

a paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric in Greece in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, associated in popular thought with moral scepticism and specious reasoning. A person who reasons with clever but false arguments.

Pronunciation: /ˈsɒfɪz(ə)m/

a clever but false argument, especially one used deliberately to deceive.

Although we still encounter the words sophist, sophistry and sophism, they aren’t all that common. Google’s NGram Viewer suggests sophist and sophism have become less and less common since 1800, even though there are more sophists and more examples of sophism than ever.

Modern politics is riddled with paid sophists who are even advised by other paid sophists, but there is little to be gained in pointing it out in those terms. The language slips from our grasp, words decay, ideas decay with them.

The mainstream media pump out enormous quantities of sophistry. Charities thrive on it. Celebrities wallow in it. The BBC revels in it.

It’s almost uncanny that such useful words should slip out of the language just when we need them most. Just when certain elements of a classical education would be so handy.

Take education for example. We could easily teach kids about sophistry by linking it to the ancient Greeks. We could introduce kids to Socrates via his battles with sophistry and sophists. We could help them understand just how prevalent these games have always been - and how destructive.

There are numerous examples for them to get their teeth into - right up to the present day. Climate change is riddled with sophistry, as are all manner of good-for-you propaganda messages.

Maybe kids are taught all about sophistry, but I suspect not. I’m not a teacher, but somehow I have a suspicion that teachers don't so much teach kids about sophistry as suffer educational sophistries delivered from high and mighty sophists.

Looping back to my earlier point – it’s frustrating that these useful words have slipped away from common parlance. Their accuracy and pejorative flavour, their ready application to modern life would be so useful. Tools for rational discourse - without them, all we have is the discourse.

One is almost tempted to see such language changes as a kind of internal social censorship. As sophistry invades our modes of communication, the invasion becomes slightly more difficult to express.

Unplanned Newspeak? Almost.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Big cat

We used to live near a large area of scrubland. It was like a huge shallow bowl, too marshy and low-lying for housing, but useful for taking the dog for a walk and for dumping stolen cars. Actually I only ever saw two burned out cars there, so it wasn’t a regular occurrence. Woodpeckers, owls and foxes were much more common.

A footpath skirted our side and and because the land was low as damp, it tended to fill with mist at night. Another reason for not building there I suppose. It was quite a sight in winter moonlight, with black, skeletal trees sticking up out of a sea of mist. 

This could create some odd effects in the morning or late evening too. Walking down into the bowl in the morning, the air would suddenly turn chilly as soon as you left the footpath. Coming back was almost like walking into a warm room.

Sometimes, while walking the dog late at night, I’d stand on the footpath and watch the mist swirling under the moonlight. It would roll up towards the path, break over it like a silent wave then roll back again into the darkness. I wish I'd taken a few photos, but never did.

If you ever saw the film The Fog, then it would probably cross your mind if you ever stood on that footpath under the moonlight. There were only a few street lamps too, which added to the eerie effect. I enjoyed watching it, but the dog didn't seem too interested. No imagination.

One night, quite late as usual, I was walking the dog and happened to glance down into the mist. Maybe I’d caught a movement out of the corner of my eye.

I saw what seemed to be a huge cat trotting through the long grass. The dog took no notice, but he was getting old by then, so that didn’t mean anything.

Although startled be the size of the thing, I realised that it was probably an optical illusion. Because of the mist and lack of clues as to scale, my brain had miscalculated the cat's distance and it was actually nearer than I thought. So it seemed to be much bigger than it should. 

It was an impressive illusion though. I now see how some of those folk tales about big cat sightings could have arisen. 

By the way, startled is playing it down a little.

Saturday 12 January 2013

The Life of Reason

Our task is not to construct but only to interpret ideals, confronting them with one another and with the conditions which, for the most part, they alike ignore. There is no need of refuting anything, for the will which is behind all ideals and behind most dogmas cannot itself be refuted; but it may be enlightened and led to reconsider its intent, when its satisfaction is seen to be either naturally impossible or inconsistent with better things. The age of controversy is past; that of interpretation has succeeded.
George Santayana – The Life of Reason

I’m well over half way through Santayana’s 800 page tome, The Life of Reason. Normally I wait until I’ve finished a book before waffling about it in a blog post, but I’d like to share some early impressions and see if they change by the end of the book. So :-


Firstly, I’ll probably have to read it at least twice because although Santayana is easy enough to read, his philosophy is not at all like that of your average philosopher. Two reads is 1600 pages – not an insignificant investment of anyone’s time. That's a personal take of course - I prefer two steady reads to a slower one.

The book is too long. Much could have been trimmed without any real loss to the sense and the rhythm of it. It is also imprecise in that Santayana doesn’t believe in philosophical systems because he thinks they always fall apart. He sees philosophy as more like literature than some kind of technical discipline.

As a literary work, the book is patchy. Purple prose followed by long-winded arguments which in my view are too wordy to sit well with the general tenor and cadences of his other writing.

I find this fosters a degree of inattention, where a fine passage is followed by rather more insipid or obscure writing. The less cogent material tends to be skimmed over and its importance or lack of importance is missed while the reader remains under the spell of earlier inspirations.

I also feel that the scope of Santayana’s book is too wide, covering everything from religion to art to science and of course - morality. That’s partly because Santayana appears to feel that a life of reason must be wide-ranging. However I’m also sure that he never expected many people to achieve his own range of interests and knowledge, so where does that leave his book and his philosophy?


It’s brilliant. By pursuing his philosophy in a literary manner, Santayana brings out the evanescent and indescribable aspects of real life – life as it is actually lived. It won’t be to everyone’s taste by any means, but yes – so far in spite of the caveats, it is the most captivating philosophy book I’ve ever read.

Friday 11 January 2013


Nick Clegg shares 50% of his DNA with a banana. Surely this is the real value of science - the way it puts things into perspective.


When we identify a fact, is it a fact that the fact is a fact?

What makes a fact?

Well whatever they are, surely there are no facts without narratives. To deal with a fact it has to be brought into the language. That may be as basic as naming it, but even a name absorbs the fact into a narrative. It cloaks it in naming rules through which it must be described, inspected, linked and blended with other facts.

So scientists cannot gather facts in a neutral manner. How could they without giving them a name which is already in use, a name taken from existing narratives?

In that case, when scientists gather facts, they already have narratives telling them which facts to gather and what they mean. A new theory is a new narrative extended from existing narratives. It may be reformulated by new facts, but usually it isn’t.

This seems to be a basic problem with climate science. The climate is so complex there is no reliable narrative to tell us which are the most relevant facts. For example, climate scientists measure temperature when we all know energy measures would be useful facts too - possibly vital.

Yet climate scientists stick with temperature as a key fact because their largely political narrative defines it as such. They never had to justify their reliance on temperature because it fitted existing meteorological narratives.

We group narratives under different headings such as politics, science, religion and so on. In more doctrinal times, these distinctions were probably useful, but in today’s fluid environment, narratives are easily mingled, usually for political or simply rhetorical motives.

This is why it is so valuable to be open to more than one narrative, especially when both the narrative and its facts are complex. Facts morph as narratives morph and it is as well to know who is doing the morphing and why. Many punters in the climate debate seem to think they are dealing with scientific facts rather than a complex series of interwoven political and scientific narratives.

When a government defines a narrative, it also changes the general perception of facts. Some people understand this and are able to construct more rational narratives around the same or similar facts. Or they introduce alternative narratives and facts - those the government would prefer to ignore.

Others are confused, clinging to the idea that facts shape narratives. Facts may well shape narratives, but only in the hands of honest people.

Governments are not honest people.

A useful fact.

Thursday 10 January 2013

School term tricks

As most parents and probably grandparents will know, schools can issue parents with fixed penalty fines of £120 per child for unauthorised absence. Heads and LEAs can give leave of absence for holidays, although if the Web is any guide, experiences seem to be mixed.

Penalty notices can now be issued to parents and carers for non-attendance of children at school as part of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003.
Derbyshire County Council.

Take a look at Center Parcs prices before, during and after term time. The October half-term holiday varies by county round here, so guess which two weeks they are and which is the more common. Even so, I expect Center Parcs would prefer a more flexible situation.

I've heard of one parent making the obvious calculation, although how common it is I don't know.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Parking shelter

From AlanH


We took Grandson to a local play centre on Sunday. For those who don’t know, these are indoor soft play areas for kids, with padded climbing frames, slides, bouncy bits and all kinds of things kids love. They seem to be springing up all over the place - round here they are often housed in units on an industrial estate.  

We sit and watch him tear around for a couple of hours while we drink coffee and wave every now and then. What struck me on Sunday was how extremely safe these places are. Everything is padded, soft and harmless. The same applies to quite a few parents are too, but that's another issue. Children would have to be seriously inventive to hurt themselves.

So I pondered on my decidedly less safe way of amusing myself in the fifties. Climbing trees, lighting fires, barging through hedges, jumping streams, playing on railway lines and falling over - all of them were an important, never to be forgotten part of growing up.

And I thought of thorns.

As a child of the fifties, I don’t think there was ever a time when my hands, arms and legs didn’t have their quota of scratches, bruises and grazes. It has been said many a time and oft, but these minor scrapes and scratches must have exposed us to all the common outdoor bacteria. Our immune systems had to work bloody hard.

The trouble is, we can’t easily quantify the value of all those scratches and compare today with yesterday in any clear-cut way. Yes we know about increased prevalence of childhood asthma and allergies, but are we seeing cause and effect?

More to the point, what are we doing about it? Oddly enough, especially when we consider how we now wrap kids in cotton wool play centres, the answer seems to be nothing.

Why nothing? Presumably because we don’t know how to turn the clock back even if it would be advantageous to do so. We have become so excessively risk-averse that don't know how to give our kids the same advantages we had. We don't know how to bring a few sharp thorns into their lives.

In the end, I suspect this problem is seen by government as an issue and an opportunity for Big Pharma.

Or is that too cynical?

Tuesday 8 January 2013


Piet Mondrian
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930
From Wikipedia

"I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true."

A candidate for Pseud's Corner or Mondrian's mildly imaginative take on his art? Is it worth anything as a description and do his famous rectangular images add even a modicum of clarity to a rational life?

I don’t think so.

Or at the very least, I think Mondrian’s explanation won’t do. To my mind, art has no value when it requires more imagination to describe than is found in the work itself.

Certainly the lines and blocks of colour may trigger something in the mind of the observer, but I doubt if Mondrian had much idea what that might be. It is certainly not obvious from the work itself. In other words, the work does not communicate Mondrian's artistic conceptions without further explanation.

The trouble is, once that explanation is given, once it is set loose to mingle freely with our Mondrian-related thoughts, then it becomes impossible to disentangle image and explanation. We see the image through the explanation.

Of course, many would rather we did this – particularly the art market with its vested interest in Mondrian’s work and a much wider interest in abstract art as a whole.

As a person with no vested interest in these images or their wider rationale, it seems to me that they represent nothing worth the telling. Mondrian's explanation feels like pretentious drivel to me - apart from being a commentary on modernity I suppose.