Thursday 28 February 2013

Chaos 1

Many of us must have looked into chaos theory because it seems so mysteriously promising, but how are we supposed to relate it to the real world? After all it can seem somewhat remote, complex and mathematical.

What helped me with the what does it all mean aspect of chaos theory was putting the logistic map into MS Excel.

Xn+1 = rXn(1-Xn)

Very easy to do and just fiddling* around with it brought home to me how a simple equation can become amazingly complex when the next result depends on the previous value. As we see in natural systems of course.

* fiddling - a mathematical term.

I use a bubble graph because I think it highlights certain features such as bifurcation quite well. Here are a few Excel bubble graphs for different values of r with a seed value of X = 0.3.

Firstly a simple plot with r = 2.00

Next we increase r to r = 3.20. X increases then we see a bifurcation where X settles into an oscillation between two stable values.

When we increase r to r = 3.50, we see two stable values of X split into four. A rapidly progressive series of bifurcations being characteristic of the onset of chaotic behaviour.

Increasing r to r = 3.55 leads to more pronounced bifurcations.

Increase r to r = 3.60 and we see the onset of chaotic behaviour. Remember that this is a plot of a very simple equation in MS Excel. 

Increase r to r = 3.70 and the graph is more chaotic, although there are obvious patterns such as an upper and lower boundary imposed by the mathematical structure and values chosen. 

Round about r = 3.82 to 3.86 we see an island of regularities such as r = 3.851.

If we then plot two graphs with r= 0.390, X = 0.300000000 and X = 0.300000001 we see the graphs diverge after about 30 iterations. The red bubbles are initially hidden by the blue, but soon become visible as values of X diverge. This is a graphical illustration of the so-called butterfly effect - major changes evolving from minutely different starting values.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Career move

Tomorrow, the good voters of Eastleigh, and indeed the bad ones, go to the polls to elect their new MP. Usually a brand new MP makes not a scrap of difference to anything but the MP's own career, but there are nationally significant propaganda coups to be made in this case. Possibly lasting till the weekend.

The by election candidates are listed here in case you haven't seen them. Bit of a motley crew if you want my honest opinion. A fine body of dependable men and women if you want the dishonest version.

However, some well-known points must surely obtrude themselves into the mind of any budding psephologist foolhardy enough to publish in-depth electoral calculations.

  • The previous Lib Dem incumbent has left for reasons of personal dishonesty which have the potential to land him in clink.
  • The current Lib Dem leader has admitted to lying for years about his knowledge of allegations against Lord Rennard, the Lib Dem's then Chief Executive.
  • Many Eastleigh voters will still vote Lib Dem.

So that gives us our starting point. Unless there is a really monster upset, we can be pretty sure that a significant number of Eastleigh voters are insane.

Satisfactory though it is to reach solid conclusions in the midst of these difficult times, it still leaves us with a problem when it comes to constructing our multi-million pound computer model of voting probabilities. Voter insanity is difficult to factor into the model due to its inherently stochastic nature.

Therefore, because of the insanity angle we are stuck with the usual mess of rumour, bias, fantasy and the betting markets. I tend to prefer fantasy in these situations, because although fantasy is hopelessly unreliable and therefore solidly mainstream, it has the merit of conforming quite tightly to one's modes of political analysis.

If well chosen, it may even be convincing, although too often conviction is yet another symptom of fantasy.

How about picking those candidates who show a faint but potentially useful interest in moral verities? Fantasy though it may be to posit such an outré basis for selection, let's give the tombola of pure reason a whirl - to misquote Kant..

Hmmmm... Hmmmmmmm... Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

Tough choice innit?

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Turning up the heat

Thanks to global warming we are almost out of this year's log supply and very close to burning some of next winter's. Fortunately it is fairly well seasoned but I certainly wasn't expecting to use any of it. 

So I recently bought another two loads from our local supplier. It's twice our usual annual order, but unlike wind power it keeps.

Miracle of miniaturisation

The new Samsung Galaxy Note 8.

Not so unkind thought


Following on from yesterday, this is Santayana doing literary philosophy - approaching a subject with which we are very familiar, but in a non-analytical way. We compose plausible stories to make sense of what we see and in the relevance and moral sense of our stories we find our values and our inspirations.

I watch a pair of lovers ; and it requires no preternatural insight for me to see whether the love is genuine, whether it is mutual, whether it is waxing or waning, irritable or confident, sensual or friendly. 

I may make it the nucleus of a little novel in my own mind ; and it will be a question of my private fancy and literary gift whether I can evolve language and turns of sentiment capable of expressing all the latent dispositions which the behaviour of those lovers, unconscious of my observation, suggested to me. 

Have I read their minds ? Have I divined their fate ? 

It is not probable ; and yet it is infinitely probable that minds and fates were really evolving there, not generically far removed from those which I have imagined.

George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith

Monday 25 February 2013

Unkind thought

A while back we were out walking and passed by a gentrified country pub round about lunch time. As we waited for everyone to catch up, I watched a new Range Rover pull up on the other side of the road. A youngish man climbed out with a small child and both set off across the road to the pub.

A few seconds later a young woman with long, bottle-blonde hair, an out of season tan and skin-tight jeans tottered after them in high heels.

Was it Mummy? Or was it Daddy’s trophy tart?

It was a most unkind and uncharitable thought which I'm a little ashamed of, but modern life tends to pop them into my mind like snooker balls slammed into the mental pocket. She may have had a heart of gold and a PhD in nuclear physics for all I know.

She certainly lacked poise though. Bound to turn heads in that particular pub - but not to her advantage. My unkind thought would not have been the last that day and possibly not the unkindest.

Oh dear, I'm not mellowing with age though.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Uncle Jack

My elderly uncle phoned the other evening. He phones from time to time, just to keep in touch. He lives about 200 miles away so I can’t pop in.

But he loves a chat because mine is one of the dwindling number of voices from his past. At the age of 94, his generation have all gone. A survivor of Dunkirk, he’s now stranded on a little demographic island that isn’t really part of the twenty first century.

He married my aunt during the war, after being rescued at Dunkirk. There he was on the beach, waiting for a boat, waist-deep in the sea and as far as he could tell, a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe.

“Sod this for a lark,” he suddenly thought to himself. No doubt he wasn’t the only one.

So Uncle Jack waded back to the beach, dug a shallow trench with his steel helmet and lay in it, staring up at the sky until a boat arrived. Thousands must have done the same, some lucky, some not.

Now he’s alone. Not literally, because there are a few people he knows nearby and he has grandchildren, but he misses his own generation very much, especially my father. They were friends for over seventy years. I well recall them chuckling together over a glass of whisky.

As we get older, do we lay down fewer memories? As we pass the major staging-posts of our lives, do we reach a point where there are no more left in the pipeline - nothing big left to remember?

After all, once we’ve worked through a career, brought up the children, indulged the grandchildren and achieved an ambition or two, then we have our store of memories.

Most of our lives we spend adding to them, from childhood onwards, but surely a time comes for people like Uncle Jack when there are no more big events left. Apart from the Big One of course, but that is never going to be a memory is it?

So I stay in touch with Uncle Jack. He makes it so obvious that he enjoys a familiar voice even from the other end of the phone. Even mine.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Horse meat not the only problem

From AlanH

Hiding The Decline

I’ve just finished Andrew Montford’s book Hiding The Decline, about the Climategate affair, its background, impact and the various inquiries it stimulated. The author is of course the chap who runs the well-known and respected climate blog Bishop Hill.

As with Montford’s earlier work, The Hockey Stick Illusion, Hiding The Decline is clearly written with technicalities kept to a bare minimum, making it easy to read if a little dry in places.

The two books complement each other, but it is not essential to have read the earlier book in order to understand Hiding The Decline. In fact the first part of Hiding The Decline covers the Hockey Stick story in order to set the scene for those extraordinary Climategate revelations.

Most people interested in the subject will already know something of the Climategate affair where thousands of University of East Anglia emails highly embarrassing to mainstream climate science were released onto the internet by person, or persons unknown.

Although the story is familiar to me, it was interesting to have it so clearly laid out in book form and in particular it was interesting to read about the subsequent Science and Technology Committee, Russell, Oxburgh and Penn State inquiries, all of which seem to have been the most shameful whitewashes. The UK establishment comes out of it all very badly indeed.

On a personal note, there were times when I had to put the book to one side. The grotesque corruption of scientific integrity, the casting aside of five centuries of scientific progress, the lies, evasions, distortions and insular pettiness of climate scientists were not just shocking but at times too much for me to carry on reading.

I once believed in people like this. I trusted them and relied on their integrity. There was a time in my life as a professional scientist when, cynical as I am and allowing for human frailties, I believed in the scientific enterprise as one of the greatest of human achievements.

So it once was of course, and could be again, but climate scientists may well have ruined it beyond repair. There is no easy way back from what is by far the biggest scientific fraud in history. There is no way back if scientists can be so ready and willing to sell their science to political coercion and personal ambition.

Yet life must go on and lessons must be learned, so I heartily recommend Hiding The Decline. It’s a good but disturbing read.

Friday 22 February 2013

Lighten up

We all vary in how seriously we take life’s absurdities don’t we? If I read a report of David Cameron’s latest speech, there is a spectrum of basic attitudes I'll adopt, depending on the issues involved, my mood and general take on such things.

The BBC would report Cameron’s speech at face value of course, attributing the content to various political moves and strategies, assessing the range of responses those moves might invoke and the people most likely to make those responses.

In other words, the BBC would report Cameron's speech almost as if they were reporting on a game of football or snooker - tactics, strategies and personalities.

A more sceptical person might see Cameron’s speech in a radically different light, especially a genial sceptic inclined to see the comic side of political pretensions. 

Once Cameron is seen for what he is - a largely ineffectual figurehead, then the meaning and value of his speech may well be treated more lightly, even frivolously by our imaginary genial sceptic. A patch of froth on the political sea, an ephemeral thing with little substance or durability.

There are of course a range of other possible attitudes, but the problem remains. If like the BBC, we take these matters and these events at face value, we are able to deliver what seems like a serious and responsible commentary. At least I suspect it sounds that way to most ears.

However, this serious and responsible commentary is only serious and responsible because it sidesteps the futility of the speech and the emptiness of Cameron's professed aims as Prime Minister. It is a form of deception and possibly self-deception where the manner of a report directs attention from its narrow focus.  The BBC is very good at keeping the focus narrowly genteel.

Futility is an important aspect of power and complexity. Many things our leaders do are most certainly futile, designed for show and for temporary effect rather than anything more permanent. Yet a serious take on these matters has always been identified with a mainstream point of view. Anything lighter is taken as...
...well lighter.

Yet the lighter angle may touch on important matters with considerably more accuracy than a narrowly serious analysis. The lighter angle may be more literary, allusive and metaphorical, but being less restrained it may be more accurate too...

...and less dull.

Thursday 21 February 2013

The play must go on

It seems to me that we have turned a corner on climate change even if the lunacy rolls on. Many people now know that climate scientists cannot possibly forecast global temperatures decades into the future. Look at weather forecasts. The predicted catastrophes are pure fiction - always were.


Yes – for the political classes and senior global bureaucrats, fiction is the tool of choice. A fictitious narrative is much easier to promote than rational argument – harder to undermine too. Official fiction is fluid and adaptable with endlessly flexible storylines, subplots, dramas and even a covert sprinkling of impossibilities.

We see official fiction all the time, from tax policies to passive smoking, from fizzy death-drinks to housing policies. Official narratives are almost entirely fiction because fiction is elusive, malleable and it suits the backers.

Official fictions are easily spun into a tangle of storylines where the politicians themselves are the main characters and the central drama is not easily spoiled by a dose of reality shouted out by rude cynics sitting at the back. The performance may be panned by the critics, but who listens to them, darlings?

Climate change is unusual, because to their myopic surprise, a gaggle of third-rate scientists were recruited as main characters for a global production sponsored by the UN. It is also unusual in the sheer size of the audience. Millions middle class drama-lovers fully prepared to applaud the mad professors as they tried to strut their corduroy stuff on the global stage.

Initially that global audience swallowed the climate drama without demur, powerfully affected by the weepy, feelgood message behind ludicrous but gripping catastrophes. The villains of the piece were all rich too – how delightful! We like our fiction good and strong, but a dollop of finger-wagging makes even a Toyota Prius worthwhile.

This is why consensus was pushed so hard right from the start. 97% of climate scientists and all that. A powerful way to get the audience to suspend their disbelief and pay attention to the performance. They could even have a tiny role themselves by buying curly light bulbs, cycling to work and collecting rubbish.

Since climategate however, almost everyone who understands climate change knows the thing is a crock. The dramatic certainties once promoted with so much sanctimonious relish were not even likely, let alone settled science.

Yet many sad people still think the climate soap opera is real life because the storylines played on their sensibilities with such subtle success. Many still want to be on the side of righteousness whatever fictions they are required to swallow, however frequently their curly light bulbs fail to glow properly.

The play must go on - the backers insist.

It’s all very sad, because the drama never was real. It was and still is a badly acted UN scam. The problem we are left with is that it has all gone too far. Some have quietly backed off, but many can’t or won’t. Hoping for a green miracle, they doggedly keep faith with the warming storylines half-knowing them to be rather silly and a little dated.

What next? As far as I can see the play won’t close merely because part of the audience has wised up and the drama turned out to be a comedy of errors. The political narrative is too big, the backers too committed and this is surely a lesson in global governance.

Global stupidity is too big to unwind.

There is too much global investment in the climate drama, too many powerful vested interests, too much political kudos. The one positive is that it may be a salutary lesson for scientists offered a juicy role in the next piece of global fiction.

Or maybe there are too many drama-queen professors out there?

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The control business

It has always been possible and always lucrative, to make a business of controlling human behaviour and there are many, many ways of doing it - usually much more subtle than a security camera.

We live within a complex network of behavioural influences; many created, administered and monitored by people whose job it is to control us. When the control business becomes highly centralised and dominant, we call it feudal, totalitarian, communist, fascist, socialist, monopolistic, oligarchic or whatever.

Sometimes the control business is overtly criminal, such as the Al Capone era in Chicago. Sometimes it is slightly less overtly criminal, such as the current Putin era in Russia. Sometimes it is so dominant that the distinction between criminal and legal is too blurred to serve any real purpose, such as the Kim era in North Korea.

In the developed world, the control business is political, commercial and superficially legitimate because the controlling agents also make and administer the law. Even so, there seems to be a substantial level of criminal and borderline criminal behaviour. Directorships for ex-ministers and senior civil servants for example may be unethical but not strictly criminal.

So the control business tends to be a mix of political, criminal and unethical behaviour by the controlling agents - all of it profitable in its own way. For example, a scrupulously honest senior bureaucrat still leads a pleasant life with the almost certain prospect of a comfortable retirement, and perhaps a winter villa situated somewhere warm.

Ironically, the modern world seems peculiarly adapted to an uncontrolled expansion of the control business, presumably due to wealth. Modern states can afford heavy-handed behavioural controls.

It is difficult to tell with what degree of cynicism the control business is conducted. Some on the inside seem convinced that what they do is beneficial These are the useful idiots – the idealists willing to mouth the platitudes.

The point is that controlling behaviour is a profitable thing to do.

Because it is profitable and as long as the business is funded, it will divert a significant but covert percentage of its resources into expansion, into acquiring larger budgets, more functions and more laws and regulations to administer.

We all know this, but the problem is one of power. After all, the control business has almost all the power it needs, never all the power it needs because the complexity of human affairs ensures that nothing ever works perfectly.

So there is always a reason for more control.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

How not to board a yacht

From AlanH

A man's world?

At one time or another, our three main political leaders have all been referred to as boys in a pejorative sense. To my mind the term seems to be more than a simple insult - there is something boyish, something not particularly masculine about these guys.

Just look at them.

I don’t mean to imply in that they are not rampantly heterosexual, although the image conjured up by that caveat is not a happy one. Yet I do think they lack the overt masculinity we once expected from most if not all of our male political leaders. Our female leaders too I suspect, but that’s another issue.

These men are not warriors wielding a blood-spattered broadsword high over their heads. They do not lead from the front, urging us on with a maniac war-cry ringing across the field of battle, sending a shiver of pure dread down the quivering spine of every foe – ie the EU.

Of course not, this is the twenty-first century.

This is the era of grey suits, trim hair, shiny shoes and neatly-pressed trousers. Clean-shaven and somewhat fleshy faces suited to the sterile atmosphere of the meeting room. Soft handshakes, manicured nails and a faint smell of soap mingling with the coffee and the faint, almost imperceptible hum of real life so very far away in a distant background.

Maybe it is no longer a man’s world and we should not be surprised at the lack of real men willing to demean themselves by climbing the greasy pole without so much as a decent sword to hack the enemy into tiny quivering pieces.

Monday 18 February 2013

Glacier calving

This isn't new, but still very impressive. Best in full screen.

Dog shit


Is it me, or is the dog shit situation at least as bad as it was in the fifties? We went for a local walk yesterday, it being a fine sunny day with birds twittering on every bough. As ever we found ourselves walking with eyes glued to the ground to avoid treading in dog shit.

There are large green areas near where we live and of course they attract lots of nimby dog-owners. Nearby pavements seem to suggest that some dogs couldn't quite wait until they reached the grassy bits where kids play and dogs shit.

Many doggy folk seem to pick the stuff up in those little plastic bags, because they swing them casually as they walk - look at me, I'm a responsible dog person. Well so they are. In fact I quite admire their insouciance. However, some obviously don't bother with all that.

Maybe the defiantly bagless dog-owners sneak out at night, because we never actually see a dog being allowed to shit on the pavement while the owner stares abstractedly into the middle distance, scratching his latest tattoo.

One of the dogs must be a real monster if turd size and canine BMI are correlated, so I'm not surprised the owner gets away with not picking it up.

Out in the Derbyshire hills, walking is a much more relaxed affair. If you don't mind sheep, horse and cow dung that is. Which I don't, because I don't dislike farmyard smells - nowhere near as bad as the stink of dog shit packed tightly into in the treads of your walking boots. It's something to do with a vegetarian diet I believe. Does it apply to humans though?

I think the whole thing has something to do with climate change.

Sunday 17 February 2013

I got the fly

From AlanH

That luminous modern thing

Eighty years ago this year, the philosopher George Santayana published an essay titled Revolutions in Science, from which the quote below is taken.

His essay was inspired by the theory of relativity, because he thought such an abstruse theory may be an early symptom of scientific decline. I particularly like his phrase Soviet of seers – he certainly got that one right.

A system, even when it has serious rivals, may be maintained for centuries as religions are maintained, institutionally; but a movement comes to an end; it is followed presently by a period of assimilation which transforms it, or by a movement in some other direction.

I ask myself accordingly whether the condition of the world in the coming years will be favourable to refined and paradoxical science. The extension of education will have enabled the uneducated to pronounce upon everything. Will the patronage of capital and enterprise subsist, to encourage discovery and reward invention?

Will a jealous and dogmatic democracy respect the unintelligible insight of the few? Will a perhaps starving democracy support materially its Soviet of seers?

But let us suppose that no utilitarian fanaticism supervenes, and no intellectual surfeit or discouragement. May not the very profundity of the new science and its metaphysical affinities lead it to bolder developments, inscrutable to the public and incompatible with one another, like the gnostic sects of declining antiquity?

Then perhaps that luminous modern thing which until recently was called science, in contrast to all personal philosophies, may cease to exist altogether, being petrified into routine in the practitioners, and fading in the professors into abstruse speculations.

George Santayana - Revolutions in Science (1933)

Saturday 16 February 2013

Kids at the table

From PaulR

Teflon BBC

I was thinking about the Jimmy Savile scandal the other day, wondering if the BBC is faring better than the Catholic Church in terms of vilification over sexual predators within its institutional ranks.

I know the comparison is complex and problematic to say the least, but is it the case that the BBC is so firmly wedged up the establishment arse that no revelation will cause it any real harm?

Is it also the case that this level of immunity is not available to the Catholic Church?

I don’t know if it’s even a useful or valid question because I feel it's too complex to answer without going astray, but it’s one I can’t quite drop.

My intuition, an intuition I can't robustly defend, is that the BBC will continue to be treated more sympathetically than it deserves and certainly more sympathetically than the Catholic Church.

Friday 15 February 2013

Broadband again

BT broadband is shit.

Down for virtually the whole working day for nine days in the past month.

Thought I'd  share that before it goes off yet aga

Are we rational?

How would we set about demonstrating the nature of rationality? Do we use a rational argument to show what it is to be rational? Sounds alarmingly circular doesn’t it?

A more realistic approach might be to admit that there is no such thing as rationality even though we use it to add a kind of objective lustre to our prejudices.

We are evolved animals with interests, ambitions and habits - we are not machines. Yet even though we may be prepared to admit this crucially important fact, there is a tendency for it to slip out of our grasp whenever it comes to building a rationale for favoured ideas or courses of action.

Politicians know this.

They know the world isn’t rational but political. Whatever we say about them, they have at least grasped this important lesson with both trotters.

Yet many of us would like to be rational, if only in our own estimation. Actually, I suspect most of us are only rational in our own eyes, but not nearly so rational even in the eyes of our loved ones. Yet in spite of the problems, I think the desire to be rational is common enough in non-political folk. But...

Political types don't give a fig for rationality.

Tragically, this desire to be rational hands politically-minded people a major advantage. When it comes to promoting a point of view, they have far more resources than those who always insist on trying to articulate the voice of reason.

The politically-minded say anything, dream up any cause, invent statistics and generally flit around the realm of possibilities, and indeed impossibilities, with gay abandon. It isn't possible to shoot them down with rational arguments. It's not even worth the effort because that's not the game they are playing.

It seems to me that this is one of the strengths of blogging when faced with such a powerful and elusive foe. The arguments are now much wider, more witty, bawdy and pointed than ever they were in the days when the mainstream media was almost all we had. Talking heads on TV were a joke really. Still are.

It’s why blogs and comments are so important and why many bloggers leave comments on other blogs. It’s sand in the political wheels.

Or is that merely an irrational hope?.

Thursday 14 February 2013

An honest myth

Santayana was a literary philosopher in that he believed there are subtle and ultimately unfathomable aspects of human life which are best approached in a literary way. I'm sure he was right.

Here he is on the exquisitely complex threads spun from even the simplest question. I don't know how many people spot themselves doing this, but I'm certainly one of them.

How much do I know about my own animation? How much is too fluid to be caught in the sieve of memory, and to be officially assimilated in verbal soliloquy? 

When any one asks me what I think of the weather or of the Prime Minister, does my answer report anything that I have previously thought ? Probably not ; my past impressions are lost, or obliterated by the very question put to me ; and I make bold to invent, on the spur of the moment, a myth about my sentiments on the subject.

Whereupon I may proceed laboriously to create and modulate my opinion, groping perhaps to a final epigram, which I say expresses just what I think, although I never thought it before.

Such is my discourse when I am really thinking ; at other times it is but the echo of language which I remember to have formerly used, and therefore call my ideas. It is clear therefore that even in expressing my own mind when I conceive what I have felt, I have never really felt just that before. My report is an honest myth.

George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith

To my mind, this leads us back to the famous ancient Greek dictum know thyself.

In being open to influences we risk vacillation, but the alternative is a dogmatic personal philosophy which fails to offer the deep spiritual satisfaction of fitting new aspects to old problems.  

Wednesday 13 February 2013

The glue factory

The great egalitarian myth of our age is that the elite classes who mould our lives will put our aspirations on a par with their own and those of their cronies and paymasters.

In daily life, this myth is surely not something any sane person would entertain. Certainly there is such a thing as altruism, but viciously ambitious people are not generally known for their altruism. Yet we tend to elect viciously ambitious people.

We do it even when so many of us seem to know perfectly well that egalitarian doctrine owes far more to the manipulative obsessions of control freaks than it ever could to altruism.

If the twentieth century taught us anything, it taught us about our fellow creatures and the fatal lure of power to which some of them always succumb. It also taught us about the politics of coercion hiding under the tattered flag of egalitarian mantras.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
George Orwell – Animal Farm

Orwell warned us, yet still we elect pigs.

We elect them under their meaningless party banners and slogans and although it’s been said over and over again, the pig metaphor is still worth another airing before we all end up at the glue factory.

Of course the voters of Eastleigh have the power to change everything by decisively rejecting the three main parties. After all they know perfectly well why the previous incumbent lost his job.

But they won’t - they’ll vote glue factory - again.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Porn site

Internet porn site for seniors (and others, if they so wish!)

Oh go on be brave... click on it! 

From PaulR

What is reality?

There is an element of personal freedom connected with physical reality, but it’s one we don’t often hear. I wonder why?

For example, when we see a rainbow, what do we really see? I depends how complex the answer we are looking for, but does the rainbow exist out there in the real world?

Let’s forget the science behind rainbows and think about how we see it.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Not my taste, so try this rather more prosaic quote from the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

The human mind perceives no external body as actually existing save through ideas of modifications of its body.
Baruch Spinoza – Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata

What Spinoza means is both obvious and to my mind indisputable. Our direct perception of external reality comes through our senses, so it is an effect on our own body that we sense when we look at a rainbow – not the rainbow itself.

The issue is one of stimulus and response where what we experience directly is the response – never the stimulus. The stimulus is what we infer – or use as poetic inspiration.

So how did Wordsworth know the rainbow was a rainbow? For me it was his faith in what he saw and what social conditioning had told him to see.

The optical effect creating the rainbow is out there in the real world and in general we can trust our own eyes and what scientists and even poets tell us about rainbows, but the nature of external reality is always a matter of faith.

In everyday life, this faith may be so extremely dependable that we never think of it as faith, but faith is all it can ever be - unless we prefer to call it conditioning.

So how about electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus? Well, to begin with we know that whatever electrons do within an atom, they aren’t orbiting the nucleus in the same way our moon orbits the Earth. So I think it is easy enough to see, that belief in electrons and in their supposed behaviour within atoms is certainly a matter of faith. Scientific findings generally are matters of faith, however secure we may feel that faith to be.

I happen to think that much established science is a very secure – on a par with everyday life. I also think that some of our more recent, esoteric, state-funded and statistical science is not at all secure and my faith in these areas not strong.

Or maybe I should qualify this and say that my faith in the scientists who work in these areas is weak, because science is about people isn’t it? Science is not a magic knowledge net cast around the whole of reality as some seem to suppose.

The link to individual freedom is obvious, because in the end we have to fathom reality in our own way and to our own satisfaction. Only individuals respond to stimuli – institutions obviously can’t.

Yes there are social pressures, social conditioning and the boundaries imposed by language, but in the end my beliefs about external reality are a matter of personal faith – as are yours.

Everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed.
Baruch Spinoza - Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

Monday 11 February 2013

Your age in days

Try this link to see how many days old you are, the day you were born and other bits and pieces.

From PaulR

Marriage of convenience

Once upon a time traditional British politics was neatly divided into two camps. One lot was Nice but Wrong while the other lot was Nasty but Right.

This was always a jolly convenient and an easily understandable system, even for MPs. The downtrodden and paid “helpers” of the downtrodden would elect Nice but Wrong MPs. Once in power, those MPs would, with a impeccable rationale, seek to correct social ills via complex publicly-funded schemes which inevitably made things a lot worse and much more expensive.

This comfortable yet somewhat rickety arrangement was a huge boon for those whose ambition it was to put things right without the remotest risk of succeeding, all from deep within the warm and cosy confines of the public purse.

Eventually the Nasty but Right crew were supposed to come in to patch things up, but being Nasty they tended to feather their own nests - as a reward for being Right I suppose. Unfortunately they weren't often Right let alone right, so the two camps drifted into a strangely incestuous embrace.

Eventually they acknowledged their deep and abiding love for each other, although they never actually came out. Even so, they got married under a special dispensation from the EU and promised to love, honour and obey whatever might be appropriate at the time. 

So we ended up with Nasty and Wrong.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Weeding with drones

Next Big Future has a piece on German research into weed control by laser-toting drones.

German scientists are seriously developing a laser based system of weed control in order to be more "environmentally friendly" than using chemical poisons. What could go wrong ? Laser armed Robots and drones for farming and weed control and they will have artificial intelligence algorithms and high resolution cameras for recognizing plants. They would have the goal of having this on a large scale for better "organic farming". The laser system is currently being tested in a greenhouse.

Drones or small robotic planes would fly over the fields. These could also fight weeds near protected waters, where herbicides are not allowed to be used. According to researcher Christian Marx, the German railway service has expressed interest in the project as well. "30 percent of the railway tracks are in water protection areas where you can't use herbicides anyway."

As the piece suggests in its title - what could possibly go wrong?

Saturday 9 February 2013

The Ikea Effect

npr reports on the Ikea effect

Have you ever spent a couple of hours working on a craft project — or a presentation for work — and then fallen in love with what you've accomplished? Do the colors you've picked for your PowerPoint background pop so beautifully that you just have to sit back and admire your own genius?

If so, get in line: You're the latest person to fall victim to the Ikea Effect.

We've known about this effect for decades. It's what I think of as the cake mix effect. Even though anyone can make a cake using a packet of cake mix, it requires just enough input from the consumer to create a sense of satisfaction when the finished cake comes out of the oven.

It's why early cake mix ads such as the one above from 1955 aimed to create the idea of a creative culinary partnership between product and consumer. Sometimes the product would be deliberately formulated in such a way that an egg had to be added - merely to create a greater sense of personal involvement.

"Imagine that, you know, you built a table," said Daniel Mochon, a Tulane University marketing professor, who has studied the phenomenon. "Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you're the one who created it. It's the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect."

I don't know how much my cynicism comes into play here, but psychology academics seems to be remarkably good at repackaging old phenomena under new names.

Most of us intuitively believe that the things we labor at are the things we love. Mochon and his colleagues, Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University, have turned that concept on its head. What if, they asked, it isn't love that leads to labor, but labor that leads to love?

In a series of experiments, they have demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they built than if the very same product was built by someone else. And in new experiments published recently, they've discovered why it happens: Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.

Crikey - they get paid for this stuff? Of course this bit of research fluff is another example the phenomenon it purports to be investigating. The researchers are no doubt satisfied with their efforts because they mixed in their own angle. 

Cake mix research.

Friday 8 February 2013

Extreme tomorrows

I suppose we all have odd ideas from time to time - ideas from the more extreme ends of the possibility spectrum. I have lots, you’ll be astonished to hear. One of them concerns the fascinating subject of supermarkets.

Suppose over the next few decades supermarkets are forced to search for new business apart from their current role as huge vending machines. Nothing unusual about that because they do it all the time, but suppose with a solid government nudge they extend their reach much further into the private lives of their customers.

We already have proposals to control how benefits are spent, so the idea could grow and conceivably supermarkets would become involved. These things acquire a surprising momentum, however draconian they might seem to us now.

For example, Sainsbury's already has its diet club so we have an idea to build on. All we add to the mix is a dash of authoritarian ambition from some amoral political wannabe - and job done.

Suppose supermarkets acquire a role as nutrition centres for those on benefits. Once established and accepted, the role could be expanded to include those diagnosed by their doctors as obese. In their case, the supermarket would have a contract to supply them with an approved diet – and nothing else.

A few other things would have to fall into place such as the disappearance of physical money. Then it will be technically possible to control the spending of any individual, particularly on things such as cigarettes, alcohol and high calorie food. The drugs war would be over because nobody would have the cash to buy drugs.

Sooner or later it may be possible to control individual, family and household food purchases. Some people could be directed to their local supermarket dietary centre where they would buy their approved meal to eat on the premises. They would not be able to buy food anywhere else.

I don't think it will happen, but that's today's perspective. Tomorrow things could change in ways we didn't expect. 

Thursday 7 February 2013

Boy's toys

A little while ago I was browsing through a three volume set of DIY manuals dating from the nineteen thirties - quite revealing in a social sense. It was all about keeping your chisels sharp, dovetail joints and enough projects to refurbish a gutted house.

The projects included a mock Tudor dining table complete with pegged joints and carved detail – described as well within the capabilities of the average handyman.

I seem to remember a time when the domestic male aspired to a really good set of tools and shed or garage in which to use them. Power tools were not quite the thing for a real craftsman, although a lathe was more than acceptable. 

Things seem to have changed though – toys are replacing tools. Cheap furniture, cars which are no longer so easy to work on, other distractions - who needs tools? 

DIY hasn’t died out of course. B&Q seems to be buoyant enough and the range of inexpensive tools is far wider than ever it was in the thirties when our grandfathers were busy knocking up all those mock Tudor dining tables in the shed at the end of the garden.

Have toys replaced tools though? I’m not sure – many men wouldn’t have had time to make anything in those thirties DIY manuals, especially round here when a fair number of them spent their days down't pit.

Even so, I think I catch a hint of a trend here. Not a major one perhaps, but a trend all the same. A trend where rolled up sleeves and the whiff of pipe tobacco has been replaced by something not quite so masculine – in a safely traditional sense.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

A death by any other name...

The problem is a huge number of unnecessary deaths. The word complacency doesn't quite carry enough weight here does it?

Gay marriage again

I have no strong views on Cameron’s gay marriage adventure per se, but I do dislike are his political distraction games – especially clumsy and carelessly divisive ones like this. In my view Prime Ministers should show a touch of finesse in their play.

Yes there must be political calculation behind it all as I've posted before, but since then Cameron has had a bash at shooting the UKIP fox by promising a referendum on the EU, but only if we are gullible enough to stick with him for another term.

Which of course we aren't if the polls are any guide to his political ineptitude - and I think they probably are.


However, I tend to assume there is a certain traditionalist overlap between EU sceptics and those opposed to gay marriage, but that doesn't fit in with Cameron playing both these games at once. Unless the guy is dim or misguided, or unless these two groups have no great overlap which seems unlikely to me. After all, loathing for Cameron and his ilk will surely unite them now.  

Before Cameron fingered it as a useful ploy, there was no substantive gay marriage issue in the UK apart from the ambitions of a few fringe churches and a comparatively small number of gays. At least that’s my impression. The issue is largely artificial as are most political issues - created for a purpose.

Unfortunately those in a position to pull the strings of public debate have always been able to create issues out of thin air and as the political need arises. Moral men and women resist the temptation. Amoral men and women don’t and those apparently weaned on a diet of PR and the main chance don’t even see the problem.

I can't help feeling that the old boy network should have been more help to our floundering Prime Minister on this one. Maybe public school products aren't what they were though. Certainly if modern politics is any guide, then quite a few are in it because Pater and Mater wouldn't let them anywhere near the family business. 

It’s not that I have any desire to foster a dictatorship of the majority on the issue of gay marriage, but I think many folk are beginning to notice the powerful clamour of minorities favoured by the whims and fancies of political calculation.

Maybe majorities need to wise up to the fact that even they need tactics. Maybe they need to wise up to the dangers of voting for the same party, of being a dependable voter effectively disenfranchised by misplaced loyalty.

Because it is surely this dependability that raises the electoral significance of minorities way beyond what they would possess an purely numeric basis.

After all, climate change is a minority issue and look what pits of insanity that dragged us into.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

My kingdom for a horse

Richard III - a recent portrait.

If you have a new book on Richard III up your sleeve, now is the time to get it published.

I'd like to be a history buff, but it's such a vast expanse I've never settled on a field of interest. Even so, like many others I've been keeping an eye on the discovery of Richard III's grave since the story broke. There is something about finding a mislaid king, especially the last of the Plantagenets, that stirs the blood. At least it stirs mine.

A skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been confirmed as that of English king Richard III.

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch's family.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: "Beyond reasonable doubt it's Richard."

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

Some decades ago we visited the supposed battlefield site near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. There wasn't much to see of course, but the battle itself we found interesting.

If I recall rightly, there was a model of the forces ranged against each other on the low leicestershire hills together with a description of how the battle went - how Henry Tudor could so easily have been defeated but for the fortunes of war and the subtle arts of quid pro quo.

The alliances, betrayals and sheer savagery with which would-be monarchs and their supporters would butcher their way to riches, power and glory - it's all there in the story of the battle of Bosworth. 

Although I believe there is some uncertainty about the precise location. No matter - it's still a good story. Unfortunately I don't have that book up my sleeve.

Monday 4 February 2013

Advice from Northampton

From PaulR

Johnson on broadband

Sir, a sound BT broadband connection is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

When a man tries BT broadband, he tires of life. 

Adversity has ever been considered the state in which a man most easily becomes acquainted with his broadband connection. 

The usual fortune of a complaint is to excite contempt more than pity.

A difference

Last September Grandson started primary school after a number of years at a private nursery.

The big difference I noticed out here on the periphery, was that within normal opening hours of 8am to 6pm and no doubt in spite of reams of regulations, the nursery place was flexible and open 51 weeks a year.

However, it was obvious from day one that the primary school is not there to serve the needs of parents in the same, flexible way. In fact things don’t seem to have moved on much since the fifties when most mothers stayed at home to look after the kids.

Yes I know about breakfast clubs and so forth and the gaps can be filled by various means, but the nursery provided a one stop shop. In a sense, it took whatever childcare business was available.

Schools don’t work that way and in a sense it’s an amazing achievement if you think about it – this lack of response to changing social needs.

I’m not saying this difference is right or wrong, I’m noticing it simply because it’s so obvious.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Climate aftermath

The winter of 62. From

Now many people realise just how silly climate science and alarmist claims really are, maybe we have to move on and account for the silliness, the obviously fraudulent nature of those claims and the global politics behind them. Or maybe not. Maybe the project is too big to fail.

That’s the issue now, as it has been for some time. Climate change alarmism is an attack on the developed world by hostile political activists – not a hostile climate. Yes, it’s still worth trashing the science, but undermining the climate power brokers and their useful idiots is more pressing than the long-discredited science.

So let’s forget the science - obvious junk, yet still we are stuck with millions of useful idiots willing to wave the tattered flag for their political dreams.

Why? What’s the attraction? I suppose it is no more than timid assent to the dominant power structure. It's what we tend to do for obvious reasons. It’s why we have power structures in the first place, why they keep expanding, why we have politics to feed them and keep them growing. In fact it’s quite nurturing in an infantile, freedom-sapping way.

So it is not so just useful idiots, although we have plenty of those, but also a case of too many passive shrugs. The useful idiots are the activists, the joiners, the petty bureaucrats with another set of rules to drool over.

So how to move on?

We can’t. These things have to work themselves out because the climate project probably is too big to fail, however absurd it may be. Unfortunately, if global temperatures rise, then the political games will get worse and we may have a very rough time indeed. The warming itself is not a threat – as ever morally corrupt politicians and amoral businesses are the threat.

If the climate cools or remains static, then we may be okay as political support ebbs away in the face of economic imperatives. Too big to fail may become too big to admit, but not too big to ignore. This already seemed to have happened in the US presidential election, where environmental issues did not seem to be important. The world is not warming and although the juggernaut rolls on, the political will may be fading.

If we see global cooling, then the useful idiots will no doubt crawl back into their holes to dream up some kind of excuse, but with luck their idiot dreams will die. Anyhow, if that happens we’ll have more serious issues to contend with. We have no plans for global cooling.

So what to do?

Preparing for a colder climate only makes sense if we actually see definite signs of cooling. At the moment the climate seems to be going nowhere so there is no pressing need to go into full scale survivalist mode. It’s an impossible call though – the best we can do is be prepared for cold if the signs arrive.

Good home insulation.
A 4x4 if you need the car.
Plenty of rock salt for gritting.
A generator for power cuts.
A portable gas heater – also for power cuts.

For anyone thinking of emigrating to somewhere warmer, now may be the time to think more seriously.

Where to go?

Not the EU because who knows what insanity lies ahead.
Not Australia because the new carbon tax suggests high level insanity.
Not the US because...

It isn’t easy.