Thursday 30 January 2014

Gas pipe


The geography of the room was such that when Lawrence sat at the desk he had his back to the window and his face to the door; nobody had ever been clever enough to arrange the room differently; but some daring and ingenious person had carried an india-rubber pipe from the gas chandelier in the centre of the ceiling to a movable lamp which could be placed on the desk when necessary, mingling its tube with the speaking-tubes. In this apartment Lawrence spent nearly a third of his life.

Arnold Bennett - Whom God Hath Joined (1906)

When I came across this passage with its description of a desk gas lamp connected to the ceiling supply by a length of rubber tubing, I was reminded of laboratory Bunsen burners.

Do schools still use Bunsen burners in the age of health n'safety? Do kids know how to use them to bend glass tubing or make a crude thermometer?

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Total control zone

From Google Earth - Kaechon Gulag No 14 - School for Child Prisoners

Asahi Shimbun has a piece on Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean defector who was born in Camp 14, a political prison in Kaechon, 80 kilometers north of Pyongyang.

He said the camp was like a town. It had a population of several tens of thousands of prisoners who worked on a farm, a coal mine, a cement factory, a sewing factory and other facilities there.

Camp 14 is also a “total control zone” prison, the harshest category for such facilities in North Korea. Inmates of these prisons are not allowed out of the camp for their entire lives.

His story is horrendous and quite impossible for most of us living our comfortable lives to imagine. In particular, indoctrination can do the vilest things to people.

When he was 13, something happened to his brother that prompted him and his mother to plan to break out of the camp. Shin happened to overhear their plot, and he knew that he would be shot if he did not alert the prison wardens. So he did.

His mother and brother were executed in front of Shin and his father.

“Back then, I believed that tipping them off was the right thing to do,” Shin said. “Otherwise, I would have been killed.”

After escaping from North Korea, however, he fully realized the consequences of his action. He says he is still in agony over the decision.

Monday 27 January 2014


The child looked about him, watching with keen impressionable eyes what the grown-ups were doing and how they were spending the morning. Not a single detail escaped the child’s searching attention: the picture of his home life was being indelibly stamped on his memory; his pliable mind was nurtured on the examples before him, unconsciously planning his own life after the pattern of the life around him.

Ivan Goncharov – Oblamov (1859)

The greater part of life is imitation. We have other names for it such as learning, reasoning and intelligence, but at the core of it all lies imitation. Sometimes we are almost original but the opportunity is given to us only rarely. Free will may be real enough, but is far from being the norm.

How could things possibly be otherwise? Life would be chaotic...


Sunday 26 January 2014

The poisonous French novel

From Wikipedia

A while back I read Joris-Karl Huysmans’ short novel À rebours. According to Wikipedia :-

It is widely believed that À rebours is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book's plot is said to have dominated the action of Dorian, causing him to live an amoral life of sin and hedonism.

Much of this “poisonous novel”, which Wilde of course greatly admired, consists of long passages of lyrical descriptive prose about a reclusive phase in the life of the only significant character Jean des Esseintes.

It depicts his somewhat neurotic quest for a sensory world of his own making, incidentally delivering himself from the need to travel. After all, there is no need to visit the sea if the aroma of the seashore can be created at home – or so des Esseintes believes.

Wikipedia summarises the plot :-

À rebours (translated Against Nature or Against the Grain) (1884) is a novel by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its narrative concentrates almost entirely on its principal character and is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Jean des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive aesthete and antihero who loathes 19th-century bourgeois society and tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation.

À rebours contains many themes that became associated with the Symbolist aesthetic. In doing so, it broke from Naturalism and became the ultimate example of "decadent" literature.

I found it well worth reading and not at all poisonous, which may or may not be a comment on modern times. However, in spite of some luscious prose, a thin plot and unsympathetic character made me wonder if I’d finish it. Fortunately it isn’t a long novel and there is a free Kindle version. Here are three passages.

On perfumes :-

He handled this collection, formerly bought to please a mistress who swooned under the influence of certain aromatics and balms,—a nervous, unbalanced woman who loved to steep the nipples of her breasts in perfumes, but who never really experienced a delicious and overwhelming ecstacy save when her head was scraped with a comb or when she could inhale, amid caresses, the odor of perspiration, or the plaster of unfinished houses on rainy days, or of dust splashed by huge drops of rain during summer storms.

There is some ferocious social/political commentary too – giving us the reason why des Esseintes feels compelled to become a recluse.

After the aristocracy of birth had come the aristocracy of money. Now one saw the reign of the caliphates of commerce, the despotism of the rue du Sentier, the tyranny of trade, bringing in its train venal narrow ideas, knavish and vain instincts. Viler and more dishonest than the nobility despoiled and the decayed clergy, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous ostentations, their braggadoccio, degrading these qualities by its lack of savoir-vivre ; the bourgeoisie stole their faults and converted them into hypocritical vices.

And, authoritative and sly, low and cowardly, it pitilessly attacked its eternal and necessary dupe, the populace, unmuzzled and placed in ambush so as to be in readiness to assault the old castes.

Even a comment on the “impious tabernacle of banks” :-

It was now an acknowledged fact. Its task once terminated, the proletariat had been bled, supposedly as a measure of hygiene. The bourgeoisie, reassured, strutted about in good humor, thanks to its wealth and the contagion of its stupidity. The result of its accession to power had been the destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and, in fact, the debased artists had fallen on their knees, and they eagerly kissed the dirty feet of the eminent jobbers and low satraps whose alms permitted them to live.

In painting, one now beheld a deluge of silliness; in literature, an intemperate mixture of dull style and cowardly ideas, for they had to credit the business man with honesty, the buccaneer who purchased a dot for his son and refused to pay that of his daughter, with virtue; chaste love to the Voltairian agnostic who accused the clergy of rapes and then went hypocritically and stupidly to sniff, in the obscene chambers.

It was the great American hulks transported to our continent. It was the immense, the profound, the incommensurable peasantry of the financier and the parvenu, beaming, like a pitiful sun, upon the idolatrous town which wallowed on the ground the while it uttered impure psalms before the impious tabernacle of banks.

The illustration above, taken from the 1931 edition, shows des Esseintes with a tortoise he had covered in gold and studded with jewels. It died.

Saturday 25 January 2014

English bitters

He drank little and was now only drunk from one glass of English bitters. The revolting bitters, made from nobody knows what, intoxicated everyone who drank it as though it had stunned them. Their tongues began to falter.

Anton Chekhov - In the Ravine (1900)

Chekhov is describing a wedding and presumably this is a reference to Angostura bitters rather than English beer which is not at all revolting. Maybe they drank it neat.

Friday 24 January 2014

Sponsor a police car


From the Nottingham Post we learn of an exciting sponsorship initiative.

ADVERTS could soon be carried on Notts police cars as the force makes radical plans to cope with Government cuts.

Under the proposals, vehicles would be sponsored by local companies – and advertising hoardings could appear on police stations.

The idea is one of several strategies to cope with millions being wiped from the force's annual spending.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Grip on the nose

From wikipedia

My thought are still somewhat schnoz-driven, but here goes.

It seems to me that those people who support a political party are doomed to disappointment whenever or if ever their party achieves power. People who lead political parties always turn out to have little in common with their supporters, let alone voters.

In times past, the elite may have had a somewhat diffuse and unreliable sense of responsibility – the noblesse oblige of Bertie Wooster perhaps, but that comfortable notion faded away some time ago, if indeed it ever strayed beyond the pages of agreeable fiction.

Now we are left clinging to the cold comforts of naked political ambition coupled to the need for economic stability - shaky though the goal so often seems. We ordinary folk are little more than economic agents needing a few ameliorative measures to nail us to the straight and narrow.

These ameliorative measures keep us penned in, allowing our productive lives to be sucked dry without actually causing the system to collapse. Folk with full bellies and a warm hut don’t cause much trouble. What trouble they do cause can be controlled by other folk with full bellies, a warm hut and a uniform.

Political foot-soldiers seem to expect more, being undismayed when their lot turn out to be at least as bad as the other lot. Most seem happy enough to go to their graves with all their illusions intact, wholly immune from the canker of doubt.

It’s not so far removed from the old days where loyal family retainers spent their entire lives serving the needs of their masters living their comfortable lives beyond the green baize door.

And yet... 

...and yet it is never quite clear who really runs the charade. Which side of the green baize door keeps the show on the road, whose appetites are the more contemptible, whose social conventions have a firmer grip on the nose.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Snot and Buffalo wings

From wikipedia

I have a heavy cold at the moment, so rather than turning to climate change or politics, my thoughts have been heavily dominated by snot. For example, an obvious question which crossed my mind was - how much snot am I generating here? I decided to do a little research and soon came across this fascinating article:-

Even when you're healthy, your body is a mucus-making machine, churning out about 1 to 1.5 liters of the stuff every day. Most of that mucus trickles down your throat and you don't even notice it.

However, there are times when you do notice your mucus -- usually not because you're producing more of it, but because its consistency has changed.

It generally takes a bad cold, allergy, or contact with something irritating -- like a plate of nuclear-hot Buffalo wings -- to throw your body's mucus production into overdrive.

Crikey - over a litre a day! Actually that feels about right although I'm not sure how to translate it into boxes of Sainsbury's extra soft tissues. They don't seem very substantial to me - with respect to absorbing capacity. I've no idea what nuclear-hot Buffalo wings are, but they certainly sound irritating. However there is much more information to absorb :-

If you've ever stopped to look at the contents of the tissue after you've blown your nose, you may have noticed that your mucus isn't always perfectly clear. It may be yellow, green, or have a reddish or brownish tinge to it. What do those colors mean?

You might have heard that yellow or green mucus is a clear sign that you have an infection, but despite that common misperception, the yellow or green hue isn't due to bacteria.

When you have a cold, your immune system sends white blood cells called neutrophils rushing to the area. These cells contain a greenish-colored enzyme, and in large numbers they can turn the mucus the same color.

So all this sniffling and snuffling hasn't been wasted time - I've learned something I only half-knew already. Now I'll look up Buffalo wings which I'm already sure will turn out to be much more boring than they sound. 

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Embarrassing drama

Every now and then I catch a glimpse of TV drama as I use the BBC's digital version of Ceefax to check the latest weather forecast or news headlines. It's fractionally quicker than firing up my laptop and also a habit I haven't yet dropped.

Sometimes I'll watch a minutes of drama with a kind of embarrassed fascination and for me that's new - the embarrassment. For years I've ignored almost all TV drama, but I was never embarrassed by it, so something has changed.

I watch the actors grinding their way through a contrived and endlessly confrontational script or the plot clunking its way into another predictably tangled relationship or people shouting at each other, behaving as only actors behave in the fantasy world of TV drama.

I don't mean I'm embarrassed in any supercilious way, but until recently I wasn't embarrassed at all - not even by EastEnders. It's nothing I've worked out not a conclusion I've reached after due consideration because I haven't given it any consideration. Not consciously at any rate. Why would I? Yet now I'm embarrassed.

Why should I care about the awfulness of TV drama such as EastEnders? I don't, but I'm still embarrassed. Maybe the conditioning is wearing off - because we can be conditioned to accept this kind of rubbish. Only when the conditioning wears off do we see it for what it is.

Maybe that's where the embarrassment comes from.

Monday 20 January 2014

Central England Temperatures

As we all know, the Central England Temperature (CET) record is the world's oldest continuous surface temperature record, going back to 1659, although to put it mildly the early data has a number of defects. It can be downloaded from the Met Office here.

In an idle moment and as I live in central England, I downloaded the data  aiming to play around with various ways of presenting it. For example, the Met Office shows each monthly mean temperature as a difference from the 1961-1990 mean (fig 1) which brings out the recent warm spell very well.

fig 1
Only data from 1772 is used by the Met Office, as in Parker et al. (1992). By the way, the Parker paper highlights rather well the complexities and the adjustments made in compiling a long historical temperature record. It certainly isn't a list of thermometer readings.

However, if you simply plot the temperatures rather than the 1961-1990 differences (fig 2), the graph is rather more innocuous. After all, it's worth remembering that we experience daily and seasonal temperature changes far larger than those we are supposed to be alarmed about. 

fig 2
I see nothing wrong with either format. I'd use the Met Office approach if I had a reason to emphasise the recent warming spell. However, if I was wondering whether to move north to escape catastrophic warming, then I might use the simple temperature graph in fig 2.

fig 3
The graph above (fig 3) is the CET data from 1979 - the satellite era. Just for fun I've fitted a second order polynomial which appears to show that the CET temperature has peaked, albeit a very shallow peak. I don't yet see it as a trend though, but it is worth noting how easy it is to present the data in many different ways depending at least in part on your agenda. 

fig 4

For example,  the temperature record from 2006 plotted the Met Office way (fig 4) seems to show a rapid cooling trend. Maybe so, but as nobody knows where it will go in 2014, let alone the longer term, what conclusion do we draw from that? Don't try to build an agenda on temporary trends in cyclic phenomena is my conclusion - at the moment.

Finally, the month of June from 1659 to 2013 (fig 5) shows a flat linear trend over the entire three and a half centuries - h/t to sunshinehours for that oddity.

fig 5

Sunday 19 January 2014

North Korean tourism


The Ottawa Citizen has a piece by lawyer Paul Beaudry about his visit North Korea as a tourist.

On April 30, 2011, I boarded an old Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft at the Beijing Airport. I nervously took my seat, knowing I was embarking on a flight operated by one of the world's most poorly rated airlines. 

The reason for Beaudry's visit was curiosity, which presumably is a common enough motive for visiting the place. However he came to regret his choice of holiday destination :-

When I decided to travel to North Korea, I was exhilarated by the idea of going off the beaten path and visiting a country mostly devoid of western influence. However, I now realize that my decision to visit was profoundly wrong-headed and helped sustain one of the most murderous regimes in modern history. I urge you not to make the same mistake I did.

It is highly unlikely that I would ever see North Korea as a holiday destination, but I see why Beaudry went because curiosity would be my motive too. However, I'm sure his final sentence is good advice.

Friday 17 January 2014

Curry on climate

Worth reading  is Judith Curry's statement to the Committee on Environment and Public Works of the United States Senate - Hearing on “Review of the President’s Climate Action Plan” 16 January 2014.

For example :-

The premise of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is that there is an overwhelming judgment of science that anthropogenic global warming is already producing devastating impacts, which is summarized by this statement from the President’s Second Inaugural Address:

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

This premise is not strongly supported by the scientific evidence:

• the science of climate change is not settled, and evidence reported by the IPCC AR5 weakens the case for human factors dominating climate change in the 20th and early 21st centuries 

• with the 15+ year hiatus in global warming, there is growing appreciation for the importance of natural climate variability 

• the IPCC AR5 and SREX find little evidence that supports an increase in most extreme weather events that can be attributed to humans, and weather extremes in the U.S. were generally worse in the 1930’s and 1950’s than in recent decades.

Not only is more research needed to clarify the sensitivity of climate to carbon dioxide and understand the limitations of climate models, but more research is needed on solar variability, sun-climate connections, natural internal climate variability and the climate dynamics of extreme weather events.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Alice puts her foot down

From Wikipedia

Alice is driving along the main road through the Derbyshire village of Wessington. It is a quiet time of day and she notices that she is well above the speed limit. Alice slows down and luckily there are no unwelcome consequences such as a speeding ticket.

Fragmented reality is the reality we live in, a world where most common events are left unexplained because life moves on and we have no time to work out the explanation. Even so, is it possible for Alice to explain why she broke the speed limit in a pleasant little place like Wessington?

Where should she begin? Should she begin with a sociological, psychological, political, legal, modern or old-fashioned view about motorists who break speed limits?

Presumably she will not favour all these points of view – but is there a leading candidate? To make Alice’s problem a little more difficult, let us concoct a list of ideas she might consider if she decides to look at this question from every possible point of view she can think of.

  • Alice may get an emotional buzz from driving fast.
  • Her psychological state – she may be anxious to get home.
  • Her knowledge of Wessington – it may be a place she doesn’t know.
  • Road layout and road sign visibility. Alice may not see the speed limit signs.
  • Body maps and memories located in specific areas of her brain and specific neurological events may explain her behaviour in broad neurological terms.
  • Complex biochemical processes in Alice’s brain may explain her speeding in terms of the molecular structure of her central nervous system.
  • Alice's actions may involve trillions of electrons in the relevant areas of her brain.

Obviously as we go down this list, we soon leave behind the real world of Wessington, motorists and common sense.

There are some broadly usable ideas at the top of the list and scientific theory lurks at the bottom, but we do not have a way to knit them together and it seems unlikely that we ever could. Real life is left behind well before we reach ludicrous notions of electrons in Alice’s brain.

So which is best – top down or bottom up? Rigid determinism seems to suggest that everything from electrons in Alice's brain to her foot on the accelerator are all part of a coherent whole.

Rigid determinism is impossible to prove in real life situations though. So does anyone actually believe it?

Wednesday 15 January 2014

New Year's resolutions


I completely forgot about making some New Year's resolutions this year. I could resolve not to make any and count that as a resolution, but that’s cheating, so here we go...

Firstly I think I’ll eschew more than I have in the past. I don’t mean I’ll eschew more frequently, but I’ll use the word eschew more frequently. It sounds better than commonplace phrases such as give up.

Another resolution is to be a much kinder and much more understanding person, so I’ve decided to knit a new pullover for Nick Clegg. A traditional Fair Isle pattern I thought – with a v-neck to show off his nice ties. I can't guarantee the exact colour though because I intend to knit it from guncotton in case he hasn’t quite eschewed smoking.

Apart from that I think I’ll try to work out why people actually believe political propaganda. I’m thinking here of a new theory which eschews the word stupid and replaces it with something more dynamic and theoretically constructive such bonkers. That way I’ll get under the skin of political strategists because what they mostly do is choose words.

Another resolution is to eat more butter and eschew that congealed yellow vegetable fat sold in plastic tubs. Flora for example. I’m coming round to the idea that it may be no better health-wise than butter and I know which I prefer for flavour.

All the official anti-alcohol propaganda is getting to me, so this year I think I may drink more beer. It’s my contribution to government policy.

I’ll be eating more cheese too. My ideal meal is a cheese and onion sandwich made with fresh bread, spread with real butter and accompanied by a pint of beer.


Monday 13 January 2014


Sherlock and Watson - from the BBC

Last night we watched an episode of Sherlock. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a BBC version of Sherlock Holmes set in the bonkers world of TV drama and a magically deluded version of the present. Not a hansom cab to be seen.

Sherlock is played by Benedict Cumberbatch who makes a good Holmes at times, but is wasted here. Dr Watson is played a rather wooden chap I’ve seen somewhere before and Moriarty by a guy who comes across as a little boy pretending to be insane.

Last night’s plot was something to do with an all-powerful blackmailer who supposedly has the dirt on every important person in the country. Which rather confirms something we all know anyway, but that's by the by. The blackmailer was played by a neatly bearded chap with rimless spectacles and the subtle, spine-tingling menace of a meringue.

At one point, Dr Watson’s wife Mary is dressed in paramilitary black and about to shoot the blackmailing villain with her silenced pistol, but Sherlock intervenes so she shoots him instead. As you do. In a lucid moment she appears to know Holmes is the good guy but shoots him anyway.

The reason why Mary might make this superficially lamentable error was too boring and improbable to follow. She turns out to be some kind of ex-CIA assassin so my theory is this: Mary is very short-sighted and forgetful, so at the critical moment she simply loses her bearings and shoots the wrong fellow. Happens all the time.

At least it explains why the CIA might have wished to get rid of her. Judging by her performance last night, even St Obama would be in considerable danger with her around.

How Mary gains entrance to the blackmailer's almost impregnable hi-tech lair is a minor mystery too. Sherlock goes to all the trouble and incongruity of seducing the blackmailer's assistant, while Mary apparently uses the tradesman’s entrance which Sherlock overlooks in the sheer complexity of his thinking.

Sherlock’s delightfully aloof brother Mycroft appears, sneers and disappears throughout. He's rather good at sneering too – it's almost worth watching for that alone.

Mycroft Holmes - from the BBC
In my view, the BBC should go the whole hog and give Sherlock the ability to fly like Superman. Maybe a bionic eye and a bionic ear would add to the drama. The eye and ear could be designed and fitted by Dr Watson and Mary at a top secret MI5 research lab in Hinckley.

Mary would need a quick visit to Specsavers first though. Maybe the gun could be put in a safe place too.

This would bring Sherlock closer to his real mentors such as Batman and Superman. After all, right at the end we are told that boy wonder Moriarty has taken control of all electronic displays in order to broadcast his evil leer to the whole country. Petrifying stuff, but didn’t Lex Luthor try that?

Sunday 12 January 2014

The Piltdown Climate Monster

What could happen if the whole world managed to screw up enough ethical courage to admit what everyone should already know – the Piltdown Climate Monster is not entirely kosher?

There has been no global warming for about sixteen years - a necessary and sufficient reason to kick the mangy beast into the long grass. After all, we want to build a rational world for future generations don’t we? Much better than covering the country with windmills surely?


Or do we really want that rational world? What would happen if our political class, the BBC, the IPCC and prominent climate scientists were to kill off the Climate Monster and bury the great green slob to a massed beating of chests and rousing chorus of mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa?

What it they were to admit the whole thing has been a scientific shambles of epic proportions – lessons learned, never to be repeated, cross our hearts and hope to die?

Good news or bad?

I’m not sure. We congregate around myths – have done for thousands of years. Many folk seem to see a secular world as a Good Thing, but does it have one or two tiny little weaknesses? Such as killing unborn babies by the million?

So maybe myths are important due to the moral stability they impart and their literal truth is secondary. Ghastly as the possibility may be, this could even apply to the Climate Monster even if it isn’t remotely possible to see how. Perhaps the Climate Monster is too big to bury because the social and political fallout would be far worse than we might assume from our cosy secular bubble.

So which is worse? More Climate Monster and ever more useless windmills or a public admission of the most outrageous scientific disaster in human history? Where even the word disaster is a preposterously lenient euphemism.

Hmm... Perhaps the Climate Monster could be phased out gradually like an ageing Hollywood star – say over a few more addled decades. No - on reflection we should tell it as it is and suffer the consequences.

After all there will be consequences anyway if the real climate doesn’t feed the Monster soon.

Saturday 11 January 2014

A horror of annihilation

Annihilation - the 3D version

When a man says that everybody has “a horror of annihilation,” we may be very sure that he has not many opportunities for observation, or that he has not availed himself of all that he has. 

Most persons go to sleep rather gladly, yet sleep is virtual annihilation while it lasts; and if it should last forever the sleeper would be no worse off after a million years of it than after an hour of it. There are minds sufficiently logical to think of it that way, and to them annihilation is not a disagreeable thing to contemplate and expect. 

In this matter of immortality, people’s beliefs appear to go along with their wishes. The man who is content with annihilation thinks he will get it; those that want immortality are pretty sure they are immortal; and that is a very comfortable allotment of faiths. 

The few of us that are left unprovided for are those who do not bother themselves much about the matter, one way or another.

Friday 10 January 2014

Death certificate

We have a weird attitude to death don’t we? The recent Mark Duggan case highlights it.

If Mr Duggan had been an aborted unborn baby, his death would not have been noticed.

If he had expired under the Liverpool Care Pathway, his demise would have produced not a ripple of interest among the chattering classes.

If he had been a victim of NHS negligence, his passing may have been noted but probably not in any high profile sense.

Somehow our chattering classes don’t take much notice of large numbers of deaths occurring under the aegis of certificated professionals, but certification doesn’t include the police on any scale. Nor should it of course, but why then does it include medical professionals?

The sanctity of life is a myth of course – we always knew that. It depends who you are in the political firmament. It also depends on who ended your life – on the certificates they have on the wall.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Climate blogs

What's the collective noun for climate blogs?

Whatever it is and in case you haven't come across it, ScottishSceptic has created, a site listing about 100 - although I haven't counted them - sceptic and non-sceptic climate blogs with the first few lines of their latest posts. As a preliminary to this work he posted a ranking list of blogs here.

He also has an interesting post which tries to assess the motivations and outlook of the two sides. It doesn't fit me too well, although I agree with those who see a significant political influence in the climate debate.

Monday 6 January 2014

A Sherlock-Spinoza universe

From Wikipedia

Well - now Christmas is over and we've finished the booze I think it’s about time we invented a new universe. I’m afraid it will vary in only a very tiny detail from the old version we are bumbling along with at the moment, but it's not the best time of year for new universes.

I’ve called it the Sherlock-Spinoza universe after two great logical thinkers Sherlock Holmes and Benedict Spinoza, only one of whom is fictional. The only newish feature of the Sherlock-Spinoza universe lies in the how we deal with matters of fact.

Philosopher Benedict Spinoza died in 1677, ten years before Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and our scientific view of the natural world began to acquire much of its current cultural shape, legitimacy and weakness.

Spinoza had a much rougher time of it than Newton. He was widely reviled as an atheist, which he strenuously denied, but nevertheless his books were banned and had to be printed and circulated clandestinely. However he soon became a forgotten name in the history of ideas and so until the nineteenth century.

I often wonder how things would have turned out if Spinoza’s ideas had formed a cultural basis for Newton’s science. If our view of the universe had been shaped by Spinoza’s thinking rather than the vaguely scientific but-only-when-it-suits culture we inherited.

We neither feel nor perceive any individual things save bodies and modes of thinking.
Benedict Spinoza

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Sherlock Holmes

In a Sherlock-Spinoza universe we have eliminated impossible forms of awareness to be left with only two - physical reality and modes of thinking. A physical and logical duality. Scientific and many other issues are resolved by physical observation intimately coupled with a logical use of language.

It is worth noting that both Sherlock and Spinoza’s logical take on things were rooted in natural language rather than symbolic logic. So in a Sherlock-Spinoza universe, the following argument would be decisive.

  • Unrestrained increases in atmospheric CO2 will cause catastrophic global warming.
  • Unrestrained increases in atmospheric CO2 have caused no warming for 16 years.
  • Therefore the first statement is false.

However, in our universe many people with pro-AGW allegiances would attack the argument, in my view because our vaguely scientific culture is – well vague. However, the point of interest is not sterile climate debates, but our cultural use and abuse of language.

The key point is surely this. In a Sherlock-Spinoza universe, the argument above would be readily accessible to almost anyone who speaks the language, has a very basic understanding of logical structures and access to some basic climate data.

In other words, the argument is easily taught – expert opinion is not needed. Almost anyone in a Sherlock-Spinoza universe could use the argument with no appeal to authority other than the implicit authority of a logical philosophy.

Not only that, but in a Sherlock-Spinoza universe, physical reality, grammar and other linguistic structures would all be key aspects of our world view, our science, economics and politics.

English teachers would teach the intellectual framework for all matters of fact - cogently expressed and not easily assailed by charlatans. 

Fortunately for charlatans, all this has been avoided in our universe. The reason of course, is elementary my dear reader.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Wind chimes

From Wikipedia

Whenever I read a gushing piece on the value of wind power, I have two reactions.

The first is weary contempt - so no surprises there.

The second is a strong sense of empathy with the enthusiasm this technology undoubtedly generates among true believers. I'm not one of those, but the enthusiasm chimes with me and I’m left with a strong sense of regret that the technology is:-

Supported by so many loons, spivs and charlatans.
Promoted with such dishonesty.
Based on shonky science.

No - it's more acute and painful than simple regret; it's a deep sense of loss too. Cultural loss, a sense that vandals are with us and there is no easy remedy, no way to blot out their ignorant graffiti.

I’ve been interested in renewable energy since the seventies, as many so many technically-minded people are. I’d prefer wind power to be a more realistic power source. I’d prefer to be optimistic about its prospects rather than having to sigh and shrug my shoulders at the ghastly company it keeps.

To my mind this is one of the disasters of climate propaganda - the invasion of environmental causes by vandals with a worthless, self-serving or ignorant agenda. Usually all three.

Yes - it certainly would be wonderful to extract all the power we need from natural forces such as wind, tide and sunlight. The reason is obvious - we would have built something worth bequeathing to future generations.

Yet what will those generations make of us propagating such obvious drivel about carbon dioxide, the most basic and essential plant food of all?

What will future historians make of it?

Saturday 4 January 2014

Politics and the plastic mind

One effect of growing experience is to render what is unreal uninteresting. Momentous alternatives in life are so numerous and the possibilities they open up so varied that imagination finds enough employment of a historic and practical sort in trying to seize them.

A child plans Towers of Babel; a mature architect, in planning, would lose all interest if he were bidden to disregard gravity and economy.

The conditions of existence, after they are known and accepted, become conditions for the only pertinent beauty. In each place, for each situation, the plastic mind finds an appropriate ideal. It need not go afield to import something exotic. It need make no sacrifices to whim and to personal memories.

It rather breeds out of the given problem a new and singular solution, thereby exercising greater invention than would be requisite for framing an arbitrary ideal and imposing it at all costs on every occasion.

George Santayana - The Life of Reason

To my mind this is the problem with politics – maintaining both a plastic mind and some level of interest in the ebb and flow of political debate. So many political narratives are nothing more than framing an arbitrary ideal and imposing it at all costs on every occasion.

For those with a plastic mind it won’t do - the world is too complex, particular cases too varied. So however important the issues, interest is bound to sag when faced yet again with those arbitrary ideals.

I don't even need to give examples because you will know lots of them already.

Thursday 2 January 2014

A dead pigeon and a sunset

The weather forecast doesn’t look too jolly for the next five days so at short notice we decided on a pleasant eleven mile walk in the hills around Hartington.

After recent rains, the River Dove was unusually fast-flowing and muddy brown so no herons to be seen. All we saw was a knackered-looking pigeon pecking around in the grass where we’d stopped for a brief tea break. It didn’t look at all healthy, having made no attempt to flutter off as my heavy boots clumped down only inches away.

As we sat by the river, a black dog came up, sniffed around us as they do then spotted the pigeon and made a grab at it. The poor old pigeon hardly made a token effort at survival. It just drooped there in the dog’s jaws as if resigned to the indignity of such an end.

The dog soon lost interest, dropped its bundle of feathers by the river and bounded off, the owners having by this time wandered onto the scene.

A gaggle of adults and children in wellies, they gave no sign of having noticed their dog’s exploit with the pigeon. Which was dead by then – I checked. I’d been wondering if I’d have to finish it off with a rock. The pigeon – not the dog.

We’d set off late, having had to stock up with Eccles cakes first. A serious matter and not on any account to be shirked. By late afternoon, the pigeon episode miles behind us we headed due west, dusk not far off.

There is something magical about being up in the hills, striding into the setting sun. Hard to explain the feeling, but for some reason I was reminded of these words.

And as the tree waved its plume in the night-wind, and the bird swayed on the moving twig, and the gas-lamp burned meekly and patiently beyond, I seemed to catch in these simple things a glimpse of the secret meaning of human existence, such as one gets sometimes, startlingly, in a mood of idle receptiveness.

 Arnold Bennett – Sacred and Profane Love

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Know your place

For whatever a man imagines that he cannot do, he imagines it necessarily, and by that very imagination he is so disposed that in truth he cannot do what he imagines he cannot do.

For so long as he imagines that he cannot do this or that, so long is he determined not to do it: and consequently, so long it is impossible to him that he should do it.

However, if we pay attention to these things, which depend solely on opinion, we shall be able to conceive that a man should under-estimate himself.
Benedict Spinoza – Ethics

I’ve played around with this quote for years because it gets right to the heart of a key aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy.

By imagination, he means dubious notions and images we absorb from the outside world without having examined them effectively – or even without having examined them at all.

He wrote long before modern ideas of psychological conditioning, but here he is effectively saying that our abilities as well as our thinking can be conditioned by the outside world.

If we absorb the notion that we can’t do something without taking the trouble to analyse why not, then we simply can’t do it and that’s that. Not a particularly remarkable conclusion for our times, but remarkable enough for his I suspect.

Many of us do underestimate ourselves and I suspect we should always try to notice the fact and analyse why it may be so. Was the underestimate fed to us by external circumstances?

Do you know your place?