Tuesday 30 April 2013

Local elections

Strange people keep bunging leaflets through our letterbox. One even knocked on the door but I waved him away in a lordly manner.

Their miserable lies go straight into the recycling bin, but a quick glance told me that local elections are in the offing. Who’d have credited it? I thought local elections were obsolete, but apparently we still go through the motions every now and then. Something to do with the climate or China I suppose. Most things are these days.

So what’s the best strategy for voting in a local election, should the day be fine, the memory still functioning and a desire to vote still faintly discernible within my cynical core? It’s not as if they have much to offer is it? Not even a free glass of wine at the polling booth.

Firstly, I think it’s worth pointing out that the most interesting candidate would be one who understood the need to oppose the Bureaucracy. There aren’t any of those, so it’s a rather frivolous suggestion, although it does highlight the fatuousness of it all.

This is a post-political age and our enemy is the Bureaucracy, national, EU and UN. Forget the politicians – they aren’t in charge of anything and there is no point voting for them in a post-political age. Not unless you know one personally of course, and are in a position to exact some favours for one measly vote. Seems unlikely doesn’t it? 

That's why we don't get that free glass of wine I suppose. One miserable little vote isn't worth much is it?

The trouble is, mainstream politicians are part of the Bureaucracy because it offers them status and a career beyond politics. As far as local elections go, the Bureaucracy has it all sewn up, so there is no real point voting for anyone, although insane candidates may be worth a punt.

Insane candidates are often unpredictable – a valuable commodity when fighting the Bureaucracy, although one can never be sure of these things. After all, the Bureaucracy appears to be quite attached to inanity. Global warming and so forth.

If there are no obviously insane candidates, then my next choice would be to look at a single issue candidate promoting the release of wolves into Sherwood Forest or whatever. Something interesting and distracting at any rate.

Whatever one thinks of their politics, they may at least be a headache for the Bureaucracy and where else are you going to find that?

Monday 29 April 2013

Morning in Pyongyang


Autopilot "Otto" in the film Airplane!
from Wikipedia

Ironically, this issue has fascinated me for ages. Ironically? I'll get to it eventually.

I know I’ve mentioned this notion before, but I’m sure many of us have arrived at work one morning to discover we don’t remember a single thing about the journey. Nothing, zilch, nada, zero, a total Cameron. It certainly happened to me.

If nothing out of the ordinary occurred to disturb my tranquility, then I’d arrive at work with the journey a complete blank. All that driving, the traffic lights, gear changes, stopping and starting - none of it had registered. My tranquility remained unmolested by other road users. 

It's quite a helpful start to the working day, but that's another issue. 

So how do I know nothing out of the ordinary happened during that unremembered journey? Hmm... Could be the tranquility I suppose.

Anyhow, this kind of experience always sets me wondering about our ability to run on autopilot and I’ve never really dropped the idea - which is another aspect of running on autopilot - hence the irony.

One question I mull over is - how common is it to run on autopilot? For example, when you roam around the internet, are you mainly  doing today pretty much what you did yesterday? Do you visit the same sites and read the same blogs? I certainly tend to.

Do you eat pretty much the same meals, have fixed routines, react in a standard way to similar questions, jokes, arguments, requests and frustrations? Do you react in a standard way to the weather, shopping, burnt toast, wine, a bad cold or your neighbour?

Are we on autopilot 50% of the time? Is it more than 50%? Or less? Is it possible to live almost your entire life on autopilot - say 98%?

To my mind, the tricky and uncomfortable issue is that we don’t really know how to tackle the question. Many aspects of human life do not present themselves in a handy quantitative way, but many more do not even present themselves in an unambiguously qualitative way either.

The autopilot question may be qualitative to some degree, but not in a particularly satisfactory way. We can't realistically claim to be hardly ever or sometimes or usually on autopilot because life isn't that clear cut.

Yet I still see the question as real enough, but it has to be tackled loosely via metaphor, simile and language which may as well be frankly literary as anything else.

So what’s the answer? Is it possible to live entirely on autopilot?

I don’t know, but I think one problem is time. It takes time to switch off the autopilot and back into independent thinking, but even then there is the autopilot waiting in the background, ready to take over the controls. 

So we don’t so much switch it off as turn it down. If we have the time to turn it down that is. The time to meditate, ponder or muse.

Time - that seems to be a key point.

Often we don’t have the time, especially in an environment where the autopilot is not necessarily a disadvantage. So why not extend the metaphor.

Work for example. The work of a senior civil servant, EU bureaucrat or UN committee trying to make the whole world run on autopilot. Because that appears to be the ultimate aim - a global autopilot where nobody has to think because there is a rule for everything and everything has its rules. 

Suppose the world tries to run itself on global autopilot, building systems and processes which also run on global autopilot because that is what bureaucracies expect and aim for.

My guess is that global autopilot is a worthwhile metaphor for globalisation. Something big which runs itself apart from an elite class of stakeholders to reap its benefits and a vast class of factotums to keep it those benefits coming.

It's only a harmless metaphor of course. Isn't it? 

Sunday 28 April 2013

Blogging along

A small selection of posts which survived the vagaries of my memory...

Demetrius on Ivar the Boneless, a gruesome tale if ever there was one.
Demetrius again on Mrs Thatcher.
Dark Buzz on the origins of e=mc2
Macheath on hubris and celebrity antics.
Macheath again with a great post on changes to early parenting.
Woodsy on the fate of the dead tree press.
NoTricksZone with a long list of false winter predictions.
Ross on Margaret Thatcher's legacy
James on the paucity of the soul.
David on being cruel to Lefties.
The Chiefio on approaching instability in the UK grid.
Mark Wadsworth on privatising roads.
Sackers' World Voices blog on Oz Alternative Economics

Saturday 27 April 2013

The Welsh Chekhov

Rhys Davies (1901 - 1978)

For something different, try The Welsh Chekhov, a review of Welsh writer Rhys Davies by Theodore Dalrymple.

For devotees of literary nooks and crannies, it's well worth a read.

Friday 26 April 2013

Parallel Parking

Chains of unreason

If we accept that reality is so complex that it is not fully susceptible to rational analysis, then what is the rational person to do? 

It seems to me that we have two approaches to the problem, one rational and one irrational.

The first, irrational approach is to ignore the limits of rationality by adopting a covert axiom that reality is entirely accessible to rational analysis. We might call this the over-rational position.

The second, more rational approach is to see treat first approach as irrational. We might call this the nuanced rational position.

It isn’t difficult to see the value of the nuanced approach when we consider what rationalism has delivered, from antibiotics to traffic lights, from the theory of evolution to nuclear weapons, from clean water to chemical warfare, from money to taxes.

It’s a mix of solid benefits, mixed benefits and things we might be better off without. Rationality has not been a universal blessing.

However, an over-rational approach to political and social issues has also delivered numerous malign political inventions. In particular, via impeccable chains of reasoning, it has delivered endless state interference in all aspects of our lives.

By the way, I originally wrote almost all aspects of our lives, but deleted the word almost to better represent a complex but generally threatening reality. Not quite as accurate if one is over-rational, but possibly more apt if one has a nuanced view of these things, being concerned to highlight a genuine threat to rationality itself. 

This highly pervasive example of over-rational policy-making derives from an official presumption that we should all live our lives in complete safety, free from all anxieties, risks, threats, discomfort, illness and even personal responsibility.

Surely such nonsense is a result of a narrow, over-rational calculation, a desire to maximise the mechanical security of human life? Surely it is being done at the expense of everything we once valued, from personal freedom to spiritual consolations, from a personal philosophy to the simple joy of living? 

Yet many of the modern world’s problems seem to be due to over-rational chains of reasoning without a single mitigating nuance to stem the fanatical, controlling tide.

In fact many would-be rationalists appear to be part of some kind of rational crusade where the enemy is anyone who might possibly be sceptical of their brand of over-rational dictatorship. Especially unwelcome are those naughty souls who toss nuance-bombs into their neatly painted trenches.

Their perceived enemies are legion, from religious believers to environmental sceptics, but essentially it is any form of scepticism they deplore with a fanatical hatred which at times seems to verge on madness.

Not quite madness perhaps, but there does appear to be something a little unhinged about over-rational folk. Something excessive and lacking in humility and humanity. Lacking common sense too, but we never had a surplus of that.

The real danger to our very concept of rational thought is the incessant tendency of the state to sponsor over-rational solutions to all problems. Even where their supposed solutions are nothing but fantasies – clouds of over-rational nonsense worked out in exact detail by narrow, blinkered and fanatically over-rational minds.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Position Based Fluids Demonstration

As someone who remembers the Sinclar ZX81 very well, I'm fascinated by the remarkable strides made in computer animation. Will we do away with actors eventually?

Squash match

I recently came across this Two Ronnies sketch which raised a smile. It's the kind of faintly surreal comedy I like, although I was never a fan.

The Two Ronnies was a British sketch show which aired on BBC1 from 1971 to 1987. It featured the double act of Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, the "Two Ronnies" of the title.

It also occurred to me that the same sketch could easily have been performed by Monty Python. I see John Cleese in Ronnie Barker's role and maybe Michael Palin in Ronnie Corbett's. Same sketch, different style. 

I'm sure it would have worked, yet the Two Ronnies were seen as solidly traditional while Monty Python supposedly transformed British comedy. 

The television series, broadcast by the BBC from 1969 to 1974, was conceived, written and performed by members Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Loosely structured as a sketch show, but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach (aided by Gilliam's animation), it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content.

In the seventies I was a Python fan - I found it hilarious at the time, although these days I don't think it has worn well at all. On the other hand, the Two Ronnies is still what it always was, never having pretended to push any boundaries. 

With hindsight, I've rather set aside my allegiance to Python, now seeing it as a little pretentious, often silly, but mildly imaginative in a somewhat juvenile way.

So what did Python offer young people to make it so popular? Maybe a kind of faux radicalism without the need to be radical. Maybe it was simply that infantile love of silliness many of us never quite manage to outgrow. Yet the Two Ronnies also offered silliness - as the squash sketch shows.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Too much praise

A little while ago, in my meandering way, I noticed one or two articles such as this one in the DT.

Dr Jean Twenge, the psychologist and author of Narcissism Epidemic, points out that this culture of compliments “puts the cart before the horse”. Surely, when we work hard we develop high self-esteem, and then the compliments come, not the other way around.

More recently, this piece from PsychCentral focuses on problems caused by praising children for their personal qualities rather than their achievements.

Emerging research suggests praising children for their personal qualities, rather than the effort put forth, may not be the best approach.

In fact, for kids with low self-esteem, such praise may make the child feel more ashamed when they fail.

The concept of using praise to motivate children has been in the mainstream since the 1960s-1970s when researchers suggested that many of the problems of American society resulted from lack of self-esteem. 

Of course such concerns may already be visible in some of today’s younger adults. Taking an example plucked out of the air, we might consider the issue of a young and conspicuously untalented government minister. A young person with far too much confidence and far too little experience or ability on which to base that confidence.

Our hypothetical minister, after grossly excessive childhood head-patting and far too many gold stars for mediocre performance would emerge into adulthood pumped up beyond repair.

Our bouncy and irrepressible minister would be accustomed to extract kudos from what many people would regard as the most dimwitted performance this side of sanity.

Even catastrophic failure would fail to dent the armour-plated self-regard instilled by doting parents and right-on teachers since nappyhood.

Is that something we’ve noticed?

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Darwin defied

Word prisons

Words can be real pests when it comes to thinking straight. They may only be symbols to the enthusiastic reductionist, but some of them don't half come with a load of baggage. For example...

We call some people politicians and others we call scientists and as with many words, these two appear to cause rather more confusion than simple symbols ever could.

Yes there are politicians and yes there are scientists, but successful scientists are sometimes led into the role of covert politician but don't actually own up to it. So we tend to credit them for being scientists when in many cases we should discredit them for being covert politicians because their public persona is driven by politics, not science. After all, that's where the power and the money are.

Government science advisors for example are usually scientists who for whatever reason went into politics even though the day job is still science.

Remember when Professor David Nutt had to resign in 2009 because his views on legal and illegal drugs were not in accord with government policy?

Nutt incurred the wrath of the government when he claimed in a paper that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The home secretary has asked Professor Nutt to resign as chair of the ACMD [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs].

"In a letter he [Alan Johnson] expressed surprise and disappointment over Professor Nutt's comments which damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs.

Ah - a clear message was required, not a scientific opinion. That’s what happens when you leave one club and join another. It isn’t complicated or confusing unless people forget that the label scientific advisor doesn’t usually mean what it says on the tin. It means political advisor.

So why the confusion when it comes to climate science? Why the mystification when climate scientists tell us what UN political bureaucrats told them to tell us? Why do we think it possible to be both a scientist and a politician? Because it obviously isn’t.

If any scientist take the state’s thirty pieces of silver, then a dual role results, but it is very clear which will dominate and why. Power and money. Yet a huge weight of climate propaganda has been placed on the notion that we are being advised on this issue by scientists.

It ain't so.

The word scientist is being used to imprison our thoughts. Words do not a scientist make. Behaviour is what counts, not the word scientist

Monday 22 April 2013

Basket case

Even though today is Earth Day, the Washington Post says Europe is becoming a green-energy basket case.

FOR YEARS, European leaders have flaunted their unwavering commitment to fighting climate change — and chastised the United States for lagging behind. But last week brought yet more confirmation that the continent has become a green-energy basket case. Instead of a model for the world to emulate, Europe has become a model of what not to do.

Whatever can they mean?

Monday Sermon

I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to bring to your attention the plight of a special group of people.

Who are they? Allow me to explain.

You see, as we wend our way through life’s many vicissitudes, it is worth bearing in mind that not everyone has the freedom to use logic, reason or facts when they argue their case. Some, through no fault of their own are forced into using the shameful expedient of special pleading.

In so doing they have to suffer ridicule, sarcasm and satire from those with privileged access to sound arguments. Is that fair? Is that equitable?

We have a huge problem in the largely unrecognised plight of special pleaders, especially when we include the government, MPs, lawyers, landlords, bankers, the arms industry, large charities, the BBC, the NHS, high street retailers, the CBI, house builders, landowners, local government, trade unions, quangos, minorities, car makers, energy companies, green businesses, climate scientists, environmentalists, the EU, the UN, developing countries and major political parties.

So the next time you have free and unfettered access to logic, reason and facts, try to remember those who have none of these natural advantages. Try to remember those unfortunates who must resort to special pleading.

Bear them in your thoughts when next you shred one of their arguments with a simple piece of logic. Stop for a moment if you will in your headlong rush to be reasonable. Pause for a while and ask yourself if it is right that not everyone has access to reason.

Please put yourself in their shoes, if only for a brief, irrational moment.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Sore point for Clegg

The Guardian reports the latest Opinium/Observer poll as bad news for Ed Miliband. 

What strikes me is how upset Nick Clegg will be with the UKIP vote. He and his party hate it when popular support isn't matched by a proportionate number of Commons seats.  

Surviving in the Siberian Wilderness

In 1936, a family of Russian Old Believers journeyed deep into Siberia's vast taiga to escape persecution and protect their way of life. The Lykovs eventually settled in the Sayan Mountains, 160 miles from any other sign of civilization.

In 1944, Agafia Lykov was born into this wilderness. Today, she is the last surviving Lykov, remaining steadfast in her seclusion. In this episode of Far Out, the VICE crew travels to Agafia to learn about her taiga lifestyle and the encroaching influence of the outside world.

I enjoyed this short documentary as far as it goes, but for me it highlighted the limitations of the moving image. Much was obviously omitted from Agafia's life.

Saturday 20 April 2013

New hobby

No Religion


I recently saw a guy in Tesco wearing a T-shirt with the words Imagine No Religion combined with an image of the New York skyline. Similar to the above picture with the Twin Towers still standing.

What did he mean? No Buddhism, No Jehovah’s Witnesses, No Catholics, No Scientism, No Plymouth Brethren, No Environmentalism, No Socialism? 

Or did he mean No Islam but wasn’t prepared to walk round Tesco with that particular message on his rather capacious chest?

I suppose he could even have been arrested if he’d been more specific and someone claimed to be offended by his chest message. 

Arrested for being specific, now there’s a thought, and not a new one either. The crime of specificity.

Friday 19 April 2013

Great Grandma's shoe ad

Circa 1910.

Pathological science

Irving Langmuir

While reading Amfortas’ recent post I was reminded of Irving Langmuir, the American physicist and chemist. In 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work in surface chemistry.

One of Langmuir’s many interests was what he called pathological science. He never committed his views to paper, but in 1953 he gave a famous lecture on pathological science – what he called the science of things that aren't so.

During his talk, Langmuir presented a summary of what he believed to be the common symptoms of pathological science.

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

These are examples of pathological science. These are things that attracted a great deal of attention. Usually hundreds of papers have been published upon them. Sometimes they have lasted for fifteen or twenty years and then they gradually die away.

Symptoms of Pathological Science:

  • The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
  • The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
  • Claims of great accuracy.
  • Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
  • Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  • Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

The parallels with climate science are surely obvious and striking. One exception may be Langmuir’s view on duration - fifteen or twenty years. , Presumably that doesn’t take into account politically motivated funding.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Low carbon living

History well invented

History, for instance, is partly a science, since it contains archæological and antiquarian lore and a study of documents ; but it is also, in most historians, an essay in dramatic art, since it pretends to rehearse the ideas and feelings of dead men. 

These would not be recoverable even if the historian limited himself to quoting their recorded words, as he would if he was conscientious ; because even these words are hard to interpret afterwards, so as to recover the living sentiment they expressed. 

At least authentic phrases, like authentic relics, have an odour of antiquity about them which helps us to feel transported out of ourselves, even if we are transported in fact only into a more romantic and visionary stratum of our own being. 

Classic historians, however, are not content with quoting recorded words : they compose speeches for their characters, under the avowed inspiration of Clio ; or less honestly, in modern times, they explain how their heroes felt, or what influences were at work in the spirit of the age, or what dialectic drove public opinion from one sentiment to another. 

All this is shameless fiction ; and the value of it, when it has a value, lies exclusively in the eloquence, wisdom, or incidental information found in the historian. Such history can with advantage be written in verse, or put upon the stage ; its virtue is not at all to be true, but to be well invented.

George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith 

Wednesday 17 April 2013

The Truth About Dinosaurs

unusually pleasant

If you search for "unusually pleasant" in Google, this blog comes up on the first page.

It's an odd beast this interweb thingy.

Sewer Soap

Sewer Soap production trials

Following on from the recent fat and fantasy post about sewer fat causing sewer blockages, it occurred to me that sewer fat could be made into soap. It’s an ancient process easily carried out in open vats with nothing more than fat and caustic soda. 

From Wikipedia
The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC. 

So making the stuff is easy and cheap. Even today many people make their own soap, although not usually from sewer fats. However, the only real problem is how one would go about marketing Sewer Soap. I suppose I'm enough of a realist to admit that this could be the tricky bit.

Obviously the green, recycling-is-next-to-saintliness, planet-saving angle is best. I envisage two basic campaigns here, the first being a little more down to earth than the second.

1. Sewer Soap
Pure soap from recycled waste? Not only is it possible, but it’s here now. No chemicals, no additives. Just soap – the way it used to be.

Why Sewer Soap? Because if that’s what it takes to save the planet, that’s what it takes. Get used to it and don't be an eco-wimp – buy Sewer Soap.

2. EcoSoap
EcoSoap is a new environmentally friendly product made entirely of pure soap. No chemicals, no detergents. Just plain recycled soap with a few fragrant Fairtrade natural oils wafted gently into our ancient recipe. That’s it – EcoSoap.

To be honest, I’m not at all satisfied with either approach, but then I’m not a marketing expert. Could it be done though? Could Sewer Soap become an unlikely eco-nut success story?

Tuesday 16 April 2013


Kowtow – when freedom bows

Maybe China has a political lesson for us. Maybe there was only ever one brand of politics - kowtow – the bow to political authority.

Kowtow - verb [no object]
1 act in an excessively subservient manner.
2 historical kneel and touch the ground with the forehead in worship or submission as part of Chinese custom.
Early 19th century: from Chinese kētóu, from kē 'knock' + tóu 'head'

Head knock – sounds about right on a number of levels.

Politically, kowtow has many names from socialism to fascism to communism, dictatorship, monarchy and last but not least - social democracy.

In extreme cases such as North Korea, kowtow is demanded personally by the leader, even stone dead leaders such as Kim Il-sung. Today, kowtow is more commonly demanded on behalf of state-sponsored abstractions – especially those we lump together as that dreary curse on the modern world, political correctness.

However, the word correctness doesn’t bring out two key aspects:-

  • The coercive demand, the lack of choice – the kowtow.
  • The sentimental sweetening – kowtow makes you a better person.

Sentimental kowtow to political correctness is a key aspect of modern social democracy, leaving freedom-lovers with a problem in that modern kowtow tends to be sentimentally rather than physically coercive.

Modern political kowtow is designed to leave us with a feelgood sense of doing the right thing, being on the right side of the debate, however absurd the debate might be. It’s a powerful approach because the sentimental appeal is overt while the kowtow is covert – little more than a quiet acquiescence. The head knock is hardly felt at all – especially by soft heads.

It comes under many guises where official involvement is often covert, such as health issues, alcohol, gender politics, sexual orientation, racial identity, cultural identity, road safety, transport, education, smoking, abortion, eco-worries and even the food we eat and the air we breathe.

A huge political attraction is that the official line is made to seem almost voluntary, as if designed by earnest people working to soothe cares of the wannabe disadvantaged and maybe a few celebrities in need of a caring makeover.

Sadly, kowtow enthusiasts commonly fail to understand motives other than their own. A love of sentimental kowtow seems to overpower their capacity for rational thought. Maybe it’s all that head-knocking.

Neither do they appear to understand the dynamics of personal freedom. How it may be damaged by too much kowtow to keep those dynamics alive. Not an easy idea to get across to those millions of head-knockers who, being mediocrities themselves, are so willing to kowtow before a mirage of rule by the mediocrity, for the mediocrity.

This is the elephant in the room, as many in the blogosphere see all too clearly. The intimate link between freedom, social dynamism, personal responsibility and social resilience.

Fortunately, freedom lovers and innovators do not naturally kowtow to anything, let alone sentimental blackmail.

Long may they prosper. Long may they refuse to kowtow.

Monday 15 April 2013

Drama queen

From PaulR

Riding the mood

Medieval hermit's cave at Cratcliffe Rocks Derbyshire

On the whole, really successful politicians seem to be those who nurture a political mood into dominance, identifying themselves with it on the way. Mrs Thatcher for example. Others climb aboard an existing mood and peddle it as hard as they can.

Yet the old political moods have changed. They have become self-indulgent, needlessly anxious and possibly a little weary. Too many mood-riding politicians merely pretend they are able to curb unease and suck away those responsibilities people no longer appear to cherish.

Dividing these strategies into left, right and centre now seems more about marketing than any real political divide. A problem which many of us struggle with as genuine political choice vanishes like snow in April May.

There was a time when social class drove the political mood, but not so much now. Political moods have become diffuse and effete, their class-based grittiness smoothed away by prosperity. With little to say beyond general condemnation, dealing with modern political moods is difficult. 

Political moods now seem tailored to sway the uninterested and gullible in favour of powerful people and institutions.  A connected world has made them more bureaucratic and sentimental - more trivial than even a few decades ago.

As always it isn't easy to tackle moods armed only with words. It seems the only way to avoid being swept along by political moods is to avoid being moody – so to speak.

So we’re back with detachment again.

Yet virtually none of us can be wholly detached like the unknown hermit said to have lived at Cratcliffe Rocks. Even he must have had some contact with the outside world, whatever his mood as he gazed out of his lonely cave in the Derbyshire hills.

Sunday 14 April 2013


From PaulR

One last stroke

A Stoic is one of my favourite John Galsworthy short stories. The main character is Sylvanus Heythorp, elderly chairman of a shipping company. After a full life, he is almost immobile and close to death but still retains his grip on the company. His final ambition is to pull one last stroke and raise enough money to provide for his illegitimate grandchildren.

In the City of Liverpool, on a January day of 1905, the Board-room of “The Island Navigation Company” rested, as it were, after the labours of the afternoon. The long table was still littered with the ink, pens, blotting-paper, and abandoned documents of six persons — a deserted battlefield of the brain. And, lonely, in his chairman’s seat at the top end old Sylvanus Heythorp sat, with closed eyes, still and heavy as an image. One puffy, feeble hand, whose fingers quivered, rested on the arm of his chair; the thick white hair on his massive head glistened in the light from a green-shaded lamp

Heythorp's plan is to arrange a secret commission on a shipping deal. He is by no means a sympathetic character, yet the story is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a hard man, now on the edge of the Abyss but with absolutely no regrets for a life lived to the full.

Born in the early twenties of the nineteenth century, Sylvanus Heythorp, after an education broken by escapades both at school and college, had fetched up in that simple London of the late forties, where claret, opera, and eight per cent. for your money ruled a cheery roost. Made partner in his shipping firm well before he was thirty, he had sailed with a wet sheet and a flowing tide; dancers, claret, Cliquot, and piquet; a cab with a tiger; some travel — all that delicious early-Victorian consciousness of nothing save a golden time.

With his last scam safely in the bag, Haythorp is unexpectedly rumbled by a minor creditor. Yet he still has fire in his belly and is not about to be thwarted at this late stage. He secures the deal via his own death, brought on by final lavish meal eaten alone and savoured to the full.

The souffle was before him now, and lifting his glass, he said: “Fill up.”

“These are the special glasses, sir; only four to the bottle.”

“Fill up.” The servant filled, screwing up his mouth. Old Heythorp drank, and put the glass down empty with a sigh. He had been faithful to his principles, finished the bottle before touching the sweet — a good bottle — of a good brand! And now for the souffle! Delicious, flipped down with the old sherry!

So that holy woman [Heythorp’s detested daughter] was going to a ball, was she! How deuced funny! Who would dance with a dry stick like that, all eaten up with a piety which was just sexual disappointment? Ah! yes, lots of women like that — had often noticed ‘em — pitied ‘em too, until you had to do with them and they made you as unhappy as themselves, and were tyrants into the bargain. And he asked: “What’s the savoury?”

“Cheese remmykin, sir.”

His favourite. “I’ll have my port with it — the ‘sixty-eight.”

The man stood gazing with evident stupefaction. He had not expected this. The old man’s face was very flushed, but that might be the bath. He said feebly: “Are you sure you ought, sir?”

“No, but I’m going to.”

“Would you mind if I spoke to Miss Heythorp, Sir?”

“If you do, you can leave my service.”

“Well, Sir, I don’t accept the responsibility.”

“Who asked you to?”

“No, Sir....” 

“Well, get it, then; and don’t be an ass.”

“Yes, Sir.” If the old man were not humoured he would have a fit, perhaps!

Sylvanus Heythorp achieves his last ambition by dying replete and contented, still clutching a bottle of his finest brandy.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Fat and fantasy

Energy Live News has a lightweight piece about Thames Water and its attempts to solve the old problem of congealed fat causing sewer blockages.

Because the fat and cooking oil tipped carelessly away by homes and local restaurants which ends up as congealed gunk contributes to the 80,000 blockages that Thames Water deals with every year. At a million pound a pop to solve, that’s a big old spend.*

Hmm... 80,000 x £1,000,000 = £80 billion. So fat blockages cost Thames Water £80 billion a year? I don't think so. Why don't reporters check these things? In fact it's not a million pounds a pop, but a million pounds a month - source.

We are also told.

In a stroke of recycling genius, some bright spark has found a use for the yucky goo: a fat-fuelled power station. So along with energy firm 2OC, they’re going to collect that grease from restaurants in the city with ‘fat-traps’ and truck it out to a new plant in Beckton.

While it will cost £60million to build the plant, it’s going to save Thames Water an awful lot of money on energy bills – they’ve agreed to buy 60% of the electricity. With energy prices going the way they are (i.e. ever upwards) I think we’re going to see more and more like this classic example of waste not, want not.

I'd take that with a large pinch of salt too. 

Fuel used in collecting fat from fat traps and trucking it out to the generating plant. Refining the collected gunk into some kind of fuel and turning it into electricity at a profit and without a big juicy subsidy. 

No, I don't think I believe that one either. Maybe I'm a cynic.

* Update 14/04.
The original article has been corrected to - At a million pounds a month to solve, that’s a big old spend.

Mostly harmless

About thirty years ago, there was a knock at the door; I opened it to find a guy I’d known at school standing there.

However, it soon emerged that he wasn’t making a nostalgia call, but had appeared on my doorstep as a representative of the local chapter of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He’d seen me out and about and decided to pay me a kind of semi-official visit. 

He didn't have much gossip about our schooldays though. I didn't have any at all, so we had a rather desultory chat about this and that and after a while off he went. I never saw him again.

Where we live now also seems to have its local Jehovah’s Witnesses chapter because we get regular visits. These days they come in pairs, but maybe that’s been the case for a while - I don’t know.

There was a time when this kind of uninvited proselytising niggled me, although as far as I remember I’ve never been particularly rude to these doorstep Witnesses. I’m still short with them, but somehow I no longer mind their giving it a go on behalf of their faith.

I almost find them reassuring, standing there so politely as they do. Because they are polite and seem quite happy to go away at the slightest hint of disinterest. It isn’t necessary to be rude because they are in the immortal words of Douglas Adams – mostly harmless.

Would I like doorstep proselytising to stop – to be made illegal?

Definitely not.  I don’t see a problem if there is no hint of menace, which with Jehovah’s Witnesses there certainly is not. So I wouldn’t like to see it disappear.

Anyhow I rather like a bit of proselytising. We all do if we are honest, but we prefer words such as debate, argument or blogging, especially if we are pushing some favoured non-religious conviction. That’s okay you see. Is it preaching or proselytising to push one’s point of view if it is assuredly correct or safely secular?

Of course it is – we just use different words.

What are advertising, politics and even expressing a point of view if not a kind of preaching or proselytising? Why make a distinction? Why not admit that we all do it because it is a necessary aspect of free societies?

I understand people being miffed by doorstep Witnesses because it is certainly intrusive. But they just go away quietly if you aren’t interested, so where’s the harm? It seems to me that if we condemn Jehovah’s Witnesses for proselytising, there is some danger of condemning points of view or philosophies in general. 

Even worse, there is a danger that we’ll see our own preaching or proselytising as something else. Yet an enormous part of blogging is mere proselytising. So even making the distinction becomes a form of linguistic or behavioural proselytising.

I’m not proselytising but you are.

Yet this post is proselytising – on behalf of proselytising.

Friday 12 April 2013

Breakfast in bed

From PaulR

Ignorant applause


It seems to me that whatever  press regulation results from the Leveson Inquiry may be aimed at fostering social ignorance rather than controlling the detail of what we know. The low information voter is not merely a social phenomenon, but a largely successful official policy.

Overt attacks on internet freedom may not be necessary if mainstream media continue to understand the political and therefore commercial advantages of keeping things trivial. Not an unlikely assumption is it?

So moves towards controlling the web may not be aimed at controlling a minority of sceptics, but at maintaining the current level of mainstream popular ignorance. Particularly ignorance about policy matters and the personal behaviour of the elite. Expenses and outside interests spring to mind here.

If history is any guide, then dumbing down mainstream news and comment is at least as effective as direct, overt control. In fact it is better, because scepticism doesn't disappear underground. The best way to control scepticism may be to sideline rather than suppress it.

For example, mainstream celebrities foster ignorance in their target audience simply because it makes life easier. Rather like stage magicians, they pull the behavioural strings and press the buttons but would never dream of explaining how it's done - the psychology behind it. Mainstream politicians watch, learn and do the same – they much prefer ignorant applause over that never-satisfied critical nit-picking.

For most celebrities, a sceptical audience would expose their threadbare talents, so celebrity politicians such as Tony Blair, Hugo Chávez, Barack Obama based their popularity on fostering ignorant applause rather than critical acclaim.

Critical acclaim is hard to attract and even harder to keep. Tweaking the emotional strings of a bovine audience is much easier and more reliable for performers who know their audience, know how to get bums on seats and keep the critics firmly in their place. It's a gift and David Cameron doesn't have it.

So those who prefer life as autonomous individuals find themselves in a world of ignorant applause and the web may not change that to any great degree. They soon find there is no mainstream audience to join, no mainstream performance to their taste.

Yet strangely enough, those who prefer life as autonomous individuals also find themselves in a more egalitarian world too. Not a large world as far as one can tell, but strangely egalitarian. The status-free world of detached observers.

Thursday 11 April 2013

No salt for you

thecommentator reports:-

Mexico's new hardline stance on salt has led to the removal of salt shakers from over 200,000 restaurants, pubs and cafes in the country's capital.

The government-sponsored move is apparently a part of a larger effort to raise awareness on the dangers of high sodium diets and its correlation to hypertension and other diseases prevalent in Mexican society.

I know little about Mexico, but somehow I had the impression that a sprinkle of salt wasn't anywhere near the top of their worry list.

I'd bum the lot

John Galsworthy

I recently bought the collected works of John Galsworthy for my Kindle. The publisher is Delphi Classics who do a really good job with classic collections and give tremendous value for money. I have quite a few.

However, some typos are so obvious I wonder how they were missed.  

We are all ready to alter our opponents, if not to bum them.

"Fiddle said Mrs. Petty. “In my belief it’s come on through reading those newspapers. If I had my way I’d bum the lot."

At fifteen I went with the army

At fifteen I went with the army,
At fourscore I came home.
On the way I met a man from the village,
I asked him who there was at home.
"That over there is your house,
All covered over with trees and bushes."
Rabbits had run in at the dog-hole,
Pheasants flew down from the beams of the roof.
In the courtyard was growing some wild grain;
And by the well, some wild mallows.
I'll boil the grain and make porridge,
I'll pluck the mallows and make soup.
Soup and porridge are both cooked,
But there is no one to eat them with.
I went out and looked towards the east,
While tears fell and wetted my clothes.

Ancient Chinese poem translated by Arthur Waley

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Right brain left brain

Stare at this picture and you will see this man turn his face.

Apparently, if you see the picture with the face towards you, you are using the left side of your brain. If when you stare at it without thinking you see the figure shift to face away from you because you are using your right brain. You can switch back and forth.

Stare to go to right brain without thinking of anything in particular. Begin thinking and reasoning about it and you will move back to left brain thinking. .


From PaulR

Seriously folks...

A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion
James Gillray (1792)

One of the problems I have with blogging is the many things I don’t take too seriously. Art is one, cinema another, TV, sport, politics and celebrities four more. I also have a deep-seated suspicion that unfathomable complexity rules the roost and we may as well get used to it.

So if one has at best a somewhat genial attitude to matters which others take seriously, then it isn't easy to write with gravitas on that subject. It’s not wholly impossible, but it’s difficult.

That’s why I don’t have much to say about for example, the visual arts. There is enough obvious silliness in the arts to begin with, without any need for me to point out the daubs and dreck. It also comes better from those who care – which I don’t.

Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin for example. Shooting fish in a barrel so why bother? Either it is obvious that these two deal in trashy celebrity stunts or it isn’t. If it isn’t obvious then there is absolutely no hope. Go and look at what they do is the most constructive thing one can say to close the debate.

All this is quite trivial though, when compare with the big one which is politics.

The inner me, the core of what I am doesn’t really take politics seriously. I don’t mean there is nothing of importance to say, because without doubt there is. The problem we all have is that politicians are serial liars with that inevitable hint of the farceur which lying brings to the party.

All we have to go on is what they do and what they say. Because of the lies, dissimulation and exaggeration, what they say is worthless. As for what they do, well part from obvious self-interest which covers most of it, the residue is often too complex to analyse, simply because life is complex and forecasting impossible.

What we appear to be left with are moral verities. They do give us a handle on politics, but don’t actually influence politicians to any great extent. So the overall effect is to trivialise political life. Which oddly enough is the one weak point in our political establishment.

It is easy to parody.

I’m sure that parody is still the best way to tackle politics. It’s been around forever. From the cartoons of Rowlandson and Gillray to the savage visual wit of Gerald Scarfe and the delightfully lacerating prose of Mark Steyn and P J O’Rourke.

We are able to say things through parody which would otherwise be too dry, pedantic, long-winded or simply too partial. Parody has both emotional and intellectual influence and the effect can be remarkably subtle and wide-ranging.

For example. The recent Philpott tragedy was as appalling and tragic as only the death of children can be.


In another sense the Philpott case is a parody of the benefits system and the man himself is a parody of our emasculating culture. It doesn't necessarily suggest what we should do to correct the situation, but at the very least we might note the parody. A particularly savage parody at that.

Analysis and reasoning take us so far, but almost always we end up with either pedantry or we are cast adrift on a sea of complexity, uncertainty and endless battles with self-interest.

Whereas oddly enough, behind all the ridicule, parody often shines the cool blue light of reason on human folly. It gives reason something to chew on behind a wry, detached smile.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Absolutely Safe

From PaulR

Introducing the π-Box

The π-Box

Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has a new climate gizmo all ready to present to the world after Easter.

Called the π-Box, it promises to change the way we think about the vexed question of personal insulation. We will all need more personal insulation if global warming causes increased snowfall as predicted by top climate scientists. 

Essentially, Mr Davey's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) propose to extend home insulation schemes to real people as well as bricks and mortar. How will this exciting and innovative idea work?

Well first of all, Mr Davey points out:-

Purely as a matter of practicalities, it is far more efficient to insulate people rather than their homes. Even well-insulated homes have all kinds of energy losses because of doors for example. So although we have given serious consideration to eliminating exterior doors from new-build housing, a much simpler and more immediate idea is the π-Box.

So what is the π-Box?

"The π-Box is what we originally called the pi-Box which stands for personal insulation box," said Mr Davey. "It was conceptified by our Nu Solutions Forum held in January here at DECC. A brilliant project team has ramped us up to prototype phasing in only three months."

The DECC marketing summary says:- 

The π-Box is superficially similar to the familiar cardboard box often favoured by homeless people. Made from recycled industrial waste, it has remarkable insulating properties.

A computer-controlled, advanced high-tech moulding and forming process shapes the innovative material to  create a human-shaped insulated π-Box in which people can just chill out, or enjoy a quiet nap. Or they may use it to grab some time of their own without any risk of getting cold even in the most severe winter.

Sounds great - how much will the π-Box cost.

"Well that's the beauty of the scheme," enthused Mr Davey. "Because the π-Box is one hundred percent green, planet-friendly, low carbon and made entirely from recycled waste, we are able to announce today that π-Box will be absolutely free of charge to a significant section of qualifying users thanks to generous funding streamed from  the EU GreenLife Programme.

I can't wait to try it out.

Monday 8 April 2013

Barbie time soon?

From PaulR

Interesting times

I’m always well aware that how I judge current political situations is partly an effect of my age and changing perceptions. The elite classes were probably as venal and unreliable in the past, but mass communication and particularly the internet have made it much more obvious.

It's a gruesome effect, like draining a tranquil, picturesque lake to find it was full of shopping trolleys, broken glass and filthy, putrid junk.

Mainstream journalism has always tended to be corrupted by laziness and vested interest, but now we have readily-accessible alternatives we see it more clearly. Especially clear is self-censorship where facts and alternatives are known by every journalist in the land but not reported.

I think it is partly an age thing too. Those of us who are old enough to remember the days before the internet have seen a colossal increase in our options. We may now take our news and commentary from anywhere in the world and to some extent in any language. Not only that, but we may toss our own observations into the public domain.

This wider scope doesn't only apply to the bare facts of the news, but also the range of comment and analysis. Newspapers, magazines and the BBC gave us, with the benefit of hindsight, a very narrow range of views and stodgy, biased and formulaic comment.

Before the internet, some of us may have extended our range with a faintly radical magazine or two, but I doubt if many of us subscribed to, for example, overseas publications.

To my mind, certain aspects of political and economic life are certainly in a serious decline, but the decline began before the internet and I suspect we now know far more than we would have known had the internet never been invented.

The crucial question is will it make a difference?

I suspect not much, but I also suspect that we can’t yet see the effect of the internet on our institutions. As always there are official attempts to curtail what we may know, but to some extent the genie is out of the bottle.

One thing the genie tells us is that the government isn’t our friend.

There will presumably some social effect of knowing this, even if only a minority know it and differ in the weight they give to it. A resulting social change, if there is one, may simply be slow as social changes often are. It may also be far more drastic and profound than we ever imagined. Or it may not - we can't tell.

We live in interesting times and I suspect they will become more interesting still.