Wednesday 30 July 2014


From the observation diary in a bird hide on Holy Island. We didn't see much either.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Commonwealth Games

Still on holiday, WiFi still very slow so here's a quote which seems to fit the Commonwealth Games quite neatly.

We have the same grossly insincere pretence that sport always encourages a sense of honour, when we know that it often ruins it. Above all, we have the same great upper-class assumption that things are done best by large institutions handling large sums of money and ordering everybody about; and that trivial and impulsive charity is in some way contemptible.
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

Sunday 27 July 2014

Hints of compulsion

From the Telegraph we learn

Pensioners can improve their health by doing one minute of intense exercise a week, a study has found.

Elderly people often find it hard to meet current exercise guidelines which consist of performing moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity - such as fast walking or running - several days per week.

Dr John Babraj said: "The ageing process is generally looked on quite negatively by society, with everyone knowing that you find it more difficult to carry out day-to-day activities like standing up from your chair, or carrying your shopping, as you get older..

If people aren't meeting the targets, we need to find ways to work with them when it comes to exercise, rather than just persisting with something that isn't working."

Meeting the targets? A chilling phrase if you ask me.

Friday 25 July 2014

North Korean burger

We're on holiday at the moment, but the WiFi is painfully slow so posts may be limited. However, to warm the digestive juices instead, try this picture of a North Korean hamburger from The Daily Meal.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

A naive observer

I find the best thing about blogging is the way it makes me think. Sounds trite I know, but for me it does exactly that. It’s a little like organising things or packing a bag when I go on holiday – which incidentally will be tomorrow.

Actually I haven’t thought this post through, but that’s part of it too. Writing things down, roughing out an idea to see if it works then leaving it for a while because something just came up as it almost always does.

At the moment I’m in the study on the first floor. My window looks out over the garden with our big old magnolia dominating the foreground. Not now though, because the curtains are drawn to tone down a fierce early evening sun. The window faces west.

So where was I?

Back to thinking but I have to check the potatoes and get started on the sea bass and a salad so off I go and maybe the post will mature into something and maybe it won’t but that’s part of the enjoyment too because sometimes thoughts go nowhere and that’s good. It’s something we don’t always notice...

...okay where were we? The sea bass was excellent by the way. Far too much potato salad but we’re clearing out the perishables and what are those shoes doing on my desk? Ah yes I’m supposed to be cleaning them later. Cleaning them now actually - but later will do.

Right thinking... I see the sun has stopped trying to blast its way through the curtains. It’s almost cool now. Wonder if we’ll manage a dip in the sea? Probably not, it takes me about half an hour to venture in at the best of times.

But this is why I enjoy blogging. It marshals the daily mess, or at least part of it, into some kind of coherence, although you may disagree. It highlights the extraordinary vastness of what there is, what can be said about it and where we go wrong.

So where do we go wrong?

In my view we construct far too many narratives in a vain attempt to stitch together what cannot be stitched together. Obvious enough but sticking to the obvious is much trickier than one might suppose. Obvious often seems naive even when it isn’t.

So in a sense blogging allows one to become a naive observer and strangely enough that can be quite liberating.

Now for the shoes...

Tuesday 22 July 2014

The rise and fall of the gentleman


Do you know any gentlemen? Perhaps you do - perhaps you are even a member of that apparently dwindling band? For we chaps it's not an easy question is it - am I a gentleman

In my case the answer is a reluctant "no". It may not even be a practical proposition in the modern world yet I have a sneaking suspicion that those with no wish to be a gentleman probably aren't.

I may as well add here that I prefer not to pose a similar question our lady readers. If I may I'll stick to the gentlemen - to coin a phrase.

Pronunciation: /ˈdʒɛnt(ə)lmən

NOUN (plural gentlemen)
1 A chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man: he behaved throughout like a perfect gentleman

Historically a gentleman has been many things and chivalrous might be a tad tricky in most areas of modern life, but courteous and honourable shouldn't be too difficult surely? Our leaders could easily set the trend - leading  by example in fact...

...oh dear. I see this line of reasoning might compel me to say something ungentlemanly about our leaders. Which is something I usually enjoy but for the moment I'd better say nothing and move on to a less unsavoury subject.

In fifty years there will be nothing in Europe but Presidents of Republics, not one King left. And with those four letters K-I-N-G, go the priests and the gentlemen. I can see nothing but  candidates paying court to draggletailed  majorities.
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

When Stendhal wrote these words, the use of the term gentleman already seems to have begun its apparently terminal decline although there has been an uptick in recent years. Not exactly a hockey stick though and I'm sure the meaning has shifted anyway.  

Not that we should put too much weight on gentlemanly shoulders because at least some were mountebanks, seducers of virgin innocence and even bankers. Dickens created a few, such as the ghastly Pecksniff who certainly posed as a gentleman, albeit not one of independent means.

So coming back to our less than illustrious leaders as I suppose we must in these troubled times, how about our current crop? Are they gentlemen? Mr Putin? Mr Cameron? Mr Obama? 

Would it help if they were - or have we been seduced by the myths of realpolitik?

Monday 21 July 2014

There’s gold in them thar complexities

There are two basic reasons for analysing complex phenomena such as economies, human health, societies, the environment and so on.

  1. To increase our knowledge.
  2. To increase our knowledge and decrease yours.
It all hinges on the phrase "our knowledge".

There is enormous value in many familiar complexities, but extracting it can be either altruistic (option 1) or selfish (option 2). The value extracted is obvious, being mainly professional, financial and political, but them thar complexities must stay complex or the gold runs out.

The value of complexity lies in the way it maintains barriers to entry. For most areas of professional life complexity is the barrier of choice. Complex language and dubious but complex rationales are the building blocks of choice.

The first move in the game is to gain control over some complex phenomenon such as human health. Here the controllers are big pharma, medical professionals, insurance companies, medical equipment manufacturers and so on. It’s a long list but we are all familiar with the big players.

We should add politicians and health bureaucrats too. Politicians can stay on the sidelines and facilitate or they can churn the complexities for political advantage as the UK Labour party does. It depends on political history, but politically the traditional left tends to extract as much value as possible from health complexities. No surprises there.

Sticking with politics, both the traditional left and right tend to extract value from economic complexities, but in different ways, although both pursue an option 2 strategy.  As far as I can see, almost nobody on the inside wants to discover economic policies that actually work. That would lose economic policy to option 1, so it isn’t going to happen.

Tax policy seems to be similar. Almost nobody on the inside wants transparent and easily managed tax policies which are fair and which promote economic activity. That would also lose tax policy to option 1 so it isn’t going to happen.

From drugs policy to speed limits, from education to agriculture, almost nobody is guided by option 1, particularly when it comes to government policy. Barriers to entry would crash to the ground like the Berlin Wall. There is too much gold to be lost.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Saturday 19 July 2014

Living in Wussland

Thunder, lightning and heavy rain as we drove Grandson back home this afternoon. Nothing out of the ordinary as thunderstorms go, which as far as I know are not a new or even a recent phenomenon. 

It's been quite warm over the past few days too. Again, as far as I know warm days in July are not a new or even a recent phenomenon for the northern hemisphere. Yet look at the Met Office and its warning systems. 

Heat-health watch level 2 - Alert and Readiness.

As always there is probably a head-softening political angle related to climate change and energy policies, but sometimes I just think we're living in Wussland. 

Friday 18 July 2014

EU energy security

It has long been my suspicion that for EU bureaucrats, the orthodox climate message is merely a sales pitch for energy security. Nothing whatever to do with science and the real climate except as a PR vehicle. It’s by no means the whole story behind EU climate orthodoxy, but for me there are four points worth considering. 
  • A totalitarian state such as the EU needs energy independence.
  • Too many oil-producers are unstable or potentially unfriendly.
  • Coal and nuclear have too many political hurdles.
  • In a warming world EU peasants should need less energy anyway. 

So it may well be that energy independence is to be purchased at whatever cost to the general EU population, but that cost is not perceived as excessive anyway. At least not to those who matter.

There has always been a problem in taking climate orthodoxy at face value. From the beginning its protagonists have exhibited political rather than scientific behaviour. In a world which failed to warm as predicted, EU climate policies are seriously weird unless climate orthodoxy is not really the political rationale behind them.

Surely we need a vastly more powerful political rationale to explain both the astronomical cost and the implacable way so-called green policies have been enacted. A few degrees of warming doesn’t come close as an explanation and the political classes are wholly uninterested in the projected timescales anyway. 

This degree of extreme political resolve is more characteristic of crazy totalitarian regimes than democracies. Massive projects intended to root out and change forever certain fundamental aspects of civil society. Soviet collective farms for example. Nothing can stop them whatever the cost, be it financial or social.

In which case, any human cost to the EU peasant is sure to be waved aside as collateral damage. Did you expect to be collateral damage one day? No – I suppose folk generally don’t.

The climate message, the extreme propaganda, the corruption of news media, the vicious malice directed at sceptics all point to a massive political project. A project which must be vastly more important than some obviously dodgy climate predictions about a future which lies decades beyond the political horizon.

Energy security fits the bill even if it isn’t the whole story. Blend it with a bungling bureaucracy and a totalitarian ethos and in my view a plausible picture emerges. The only real problem is that with current technology, aiming to power the EU by wind, solar, biomass etc is bonkers.

Why do we always end up with bonkers?

The Davey Lamp

Ed Davey has an opportunity to make his mark when the lights go out. He could lend his name to a simple non-electric lighting device – the Davey Lamp.

Made in China from recycled power station generators and lavishly plated in genuine Brassex, this retro style no-electric green lighting module is sure to add distinction to any benighted home.

Thursday 17 July 2014

The action is elsewhere.

Roger's typically pithy comment on the previous post about Cameron's reshuffle. Enjoy.

So, with UKIP gone and Milliband floundering I find it hard to see what useful purpose this reshuffle serves. Just rearranging the deckchairs whilst we squabble importantly about who sits next to who at the EU jelly and blancmange party. Perhaps Mumsnet will swing it.

I do get the feeling that much bigger forces are at work, the world's media moguls are carving up the market for hearts and minds. We have become consumer cash-cows - and you know what comes next. Big finance is beginning to short-circuit the West. Here at home the iron fist is beginning to show through the velvet. Gradually we become like one of those dusty southern Europe towns with old men sitting under a tree while old women natter and the children have moved away.

Our leaders live in a theatrical world of faux power and influence, the play goes on but no-one is in the auditorium, the action is elsewhere.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Mediocre circumstances

Pre-eminence is sweet to those who love it, even under mediocre circumstances.
George Eliot - Daniel Deronda (1876)

There doesn't see to be much confidence in Dave's latest attempt to disguise himself as a Prime Minister. Quite remarkable if one considers the amount of research, analysis and weighing of political consequences which must have gone into his recent reshuffle.

The obvious likelihood that Cameron himself doesn't inspire enough confidence - well presumably that is off the agenda. Too disruptive so other, lesser heads must roll even if they are not the root cause of the mediocrity which dogs his every step.  

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Foresight and pickled cucumbers

I made some pickled cucumbers yesterday. It doesn’t take long and they should be ready to eat in a few weeks. We enjoy home made pickles,  but for some reason don’t make them as often as we could. My pickled cucumber recipe is pretty old, so I suggest you go for something more modern, but it works fine for us.

To pickle Cucumbers fliced.
Pare thirty large cucumbers, flice them into a difh, take fix onions, flice and ftrew on them fome salt, fo cover them and let them ftand to drain twenty-four hours; make your pickle of white wine vinegar, nutmeg, pepper, cloves and mace, boil the fpices in the pickle, drain the liquor clear from the cucumbers, put them into a deep pot, pour the liquor [1] upon them boiling hot, and cover them very clofe; [2] when they are cold drain the liquor from them, give it another boil; and when it is cold pour it on them again; fo keep them for ufe.
Elizabeth Moxon – English Housewifery (1790)

[1] This of course refers to the vinegar pickling liquor.
[2] I finish here and omit the following step.

I don’t use thirty cucumbers because these days we can buy them all year round. Of course doughty old Liz Moxon was writing for those with the foresight and diligence to eke out a good crop of cucumbers to take them through the lean months of winter and early spring.

In those days, domestic foresight such as this was part of a middle class lifestyle and still not wholly unconnected with survival. In later decades the job would usually have been passed to a servant and later still a food manufacturer. 

I suppose it's the other side of economic progress and efficiency. It's easier and possibly cheaper to buy pickles rather than make your own. So everything is rosy apart from losing certain intangibles we've almost forgotten - such as the need for domestic foresight.

Oddly enough, foresight seems to be a problem doesn't it?

Monday 14 July 2014

The great toilet seat mystery

Some people replace things on a regular basis which other folk seem to keep forever. Houses, cars, spouses, jobs. In our case it's toilet seats. For some reason ours don’t last long.

The latest failure was an oak seat from B&Q which split after little more than a year. Here it is reduced to kindling for the log burner. Actually I enjoyed making some more kindling, but it’s an expensive way to buy it.

 Our replacement is a plastic seat made in Germany which I hope will last forever. However, after I’d fitted it I noticed the plastic is supposed to be environmentally friendly, whatever that means. It doesn’t sound good for longevity though. Environmentally friendly often means crap or doesn't work or doesn't last

We'll see.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Demise of the baby boomers

But things of which we have not had a direct intuition, which we have learned only through other people, we have no longer any opportunity, the time has passed in which we could inform our heart of them; its communications with reality are suspended; and so we cannot profit by the discovery, it is too late.
Marcel Proust - À la recherche du temps perdu

Recent deaths among my contemporaries yet again remind me that we baby boomers are on the way out. Not just in terms of mortality because there are a few decades to go yet, but in terms of influence.

So what have we achieved, we baby boomers?

For my part I prefer not to make a list. From the EU to windmills, from house prices to taxes to political liars it’s not likely to be a cheery one. Unfortunately, Proust was right about the value of direct experience too.

As genuine hardship becomes a distant memory, it isn’t easy to see where the vitality to change things will come from. If there is no real need to better oneself, then surely the vitality sags. We see many things in modern Britain, but vitality is not one of them.

So maybe that’s what we’ve done, we baby boomers. We’ve sucked the dear old place dry.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Acronym blunder

The government’s flagship acronym generation project (GLPTHLS) has been described as “not fit for purpose” by an influential Commons Committee.

The new £1 billion GLPTHLS IT system was intended to generate snappy, modern acronyms as  the essential precursor for policy-making in the twenty first century. No acronym, no policy as the narrative has it.

However, the National Audit Office (KEN) was particularly stinging in its recent report on the performance of GLPTHLS. For example, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey’s latest energy initiative became WIND – or Wanking IN the Dark.

“It may be fairly accurate” says the KEN report, “but this is not what we expect of a £1 billion system.”

Friday 11 July 2014

Do you veto yourself?

In his book Mind Time, Benjamin Libet raised the possibility that free will is not so much a free choice as a conscious veto on certain options as they bubble up from the unconscious. His experimental work was confined to motor control, but the idea is easily extended to wider issues of belief.

In other words, free will may not be a matter of freely choosing what to believe as freely choosing what not to believe - a conscious veto on social beliefs, opinions or narratives we have no wish to adopt.

If so, then belief simply implies that a conscious veto has not been exercised. Scepticism implies the opposite - a conscious veto has been exercised. In other words scepticism is the footprint of free will - belief leaves no footprint.

The idea is not new and of course it works both ways. If I veto any suggestion that the Earth is a sphere, then I may be exercising free will, but it is a ludicrous and intellectually damaging achievement. I suspect this may be one of the attractions of The Flat Earth Society – the free will aspect, the attractions of dissent.

Because there do seem to be attractions to scepticism and dissent. So much so that wholly conventional ideas are often presented as dissent – which in one sense they often are. The traditional politics of left and right for example. Both sides tend to use the language of dissent, often by inventing straw men - or straw women. It must feel like the cool breeze of intellectual freedom, even when no more than the other side of a numbing orthodoxy.

One obvious attraction of a broader and deeper scepticism is that the options are less constrained. Possibilities remain open, further analysis is always worthwhile. This seems to be the attraction of detachment. The veto is active and well developed, but also rounded by habits of introspection.

Should I accept this idea - or is there more to be understood? No I’ll pass for now - there is more to be understood.

The veto is transformed into a positive experience; an aspect of well-being, of a genial life lived apart from the rancour of intellectual passion and coercion.

If feels like free will – possibly because it is.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Why are we not angry?

What keeps the brake on our anger? Surely we ought to be angry?

The scandal of MP’s expenses – widespread petty and not so petty thieving by our elected representatives. The paedophile cover-up stories which never show any prospect of drying up.

Endless lying, hopelessly complex taxes, petty bureaucracy, incompetence, crony capitalism, crony socialism, crony salaries, crony payoffs, crony sinecures, fake charities, 24/7 nagging by armies of petty officials and a democracy which crumbled away to dust years ago. Even our children are no longer ours – they belong to the state.

Why don’t we strike back? Why have we limited our anger to a pathetic flurry of UKIP votes in EU elections which don’t matter anyway? Why do we dutifully recycle rubbish when we know it’s a waste of our time? Why do we put up with so much genuine rubbish, so many wasted opportunities, so much lying by an endemically dishonest and immoral ruling class?

Why are we not angry?

I think there may be a number of factors, but one may be biological. We are hunter-gatherers who no longer hunt and gather. Victims of our own success, perhaps we simply have too much food and it’s sapping our intellectual drive, turning us into lotus-eaters. Maybe cheap and plentiful food is wrecking our ancient hunter-gatherer instincts, our nose for threats, our ability to weigh options accurately, even our need to weigh options accurately.

Perhaps it’s not so much a question of being overweight as a question of belief. We no longer entertain even the faintest whiff of a doubt about where our next meal will come from. Not so long ago, even the local squire could fall on hard times if harvests failed. Not now.

I recall my great uncle telling us how his family used to catch and eat sparrows. My father-in-law’s family used to pass a single boiled egg around the table, but those days are gone and even their memory has almost faded away.

So maybe basic biology is working against us.

Look around and think about it for a moment. Lots of cheap food isn’t just making us fat, but perhaps it is also making us astonishingly complacent. With the guarantee of food in our bellies we just don’t care. We’ve lost the ability to care, the stimulus of survival, the need for security. We’ve lost even the faintest scintilla of uncertainty as to where the next meal might come from. 

So maybe it's the bread - we already know about the circuses.

If biology is this significant, then what we are up against is not resolvable because it isn’t an issue where we can reason ourselves into a better situation. We can’t meddle with our own biology and recreate the inventive spectre of hunger which brought us here. We don't want to recreate it either - why would we?

It works the other way round too of course. The elite don’t care either, but then they rarely did – their bellies were always full.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

An unstoppable lying machine

Have you ever scanned the mainstream news and thought – “this isn’t the important stuff – the things that really screw us up”? It's not only pap though is it?

There are many threats to free speech and pap disguised as news is certainly one, but to my mind the biggest is the vast amount of money spent on lying in all its many guises. From misdirection to exaggeration, from cherry-picking to lying by omission, from false logic to the barefaced lie, it’s all there in the mainstream news services. Censorship is a risk, but lying is the bigger risk. 

From commercial advertising to government PR machines, from global politics to the weasel words of major charities, from demented pressure groups to politically correct celebrities, the global lying machine is incomprehensibly vast, its pockets virtually bottomless.

The sheer weight of money behind global lying makes it an unstoppable trend. Liars have the money, the people and the myths around which to thread their lies. They make the rules too.

Get used to it.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Heard in the card shop

“Mind the step,” the shopkeeper warns a departing customer. He always says that. The step is a feature of his shop, running across the whole width about ten feet from the door. The step is needed because about seventy percent of the shop floor is a few inches above street level.

“Do people ever trip over it?” asks a customer.

“Sometimes, the shopkeeper replies. People with bifocals don’t always see it and people are sometimes talking and they miss it.”

“I suppose you’ve thought of putting in a ramp?”

“I have, but the whole floor from the step to the back of the shop would have to be lowered to street level which would cost about £12,000.”

“The whole floor? Wouldn’t a ramp do?”

“Yes, I’d like to put a little ramp there with a handrail."

"That would do..."

"It would but too many council departments are involved - plus the fire people. I’d end up with a big ramp all the way to the door, two big handrails blocking the front displays and the fire people would still have to check it and they often disagree with each other. Nobody wants to make things easy. Bureaucracy gone mad.”

Monday 7 July 2014

The blogger's dilemma

Sackers recently sent me this link - a post by John Michael Greer who blogs as The Archdruid Report. It's very well written and well worth reading.

To my mind, one of the problems with blogging is the attraction of extremes. It’s all very well trying to tease out one or two strands of the Great Complexity with what feels like honesty sometimes leavened with a touch of feeble humour. Unfortunately, that approach is almost bound to veer towards the pedestrian.

It would be much easier to choose a more extreme standpoint, skip the logic, ignore the data and blast armies of straw men to smithereens with every trick the rhetorical arsenal. Not that I'm suggesting this is Greer's approach because in a very broad sense I don't disagree with his overall theme.  

However, a gung ho approach would certainly attract more blog hits and probably more comments. The posts might even be more satisfying to write. After all, controversy keeps us on our toes, sharpens the debate and identifies the enemy - and we all like our enemies don’t we?

For me, Greer’s blog is one of the better rhetorical blogs. I think his message is well written, intellectually high-flown but not necessarily wrong. To my cautious mind, nobody can paint worthwhile pictures on such a large canvas, although the temptation is hard to resist and people seem to like the result. Maybe the two are connected?

For me it’s a scoping issue – Greer's scope is too wide. Accuracy suffers and the unfortunate result is that some of what is said is exaggerated and pushed beyond the boundaries of strict veracity. I’ll give one example.

That answer was that science and technology would eventually create such abundance that everyone in the world would be able to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle and its attendant opportunities. That same claim can still be heard nowadays, though it’s grown shrill of late after repeated disconfirmation.

What repeated disconfirmation? What about a few hundred million Chinese and...? But the list is too long and too obvious. To my mind he makes far too much use of emotional rhetoric to push his imminent collapse meme.

Ironically the idea doesn’t need so much pushing because whatever a middle-class lifestyle might be the threat is real enough. Yet it’s only a threat, not a certainty. The complexities, the politics and maybe some more optimistic possibilities could be inserted as caveats – but of course they aren’t because it slows the pace and dilutes the message.

Greer's overall theme of the breakdown or corruption of social imitation, or mimesis as he frequently calls it.

The habit of imitation is as universal among humans as it is among other social primates. The question becomes this: what will inspire mimesis among the internal proletariat? What will they use as the templates for their choices and their lives?

It’s a good question which one should turn around and address to social commentators, popular pundits, journalists and bloggers. A fascinating subject, but an exceedingly complex one where motives continually lurk in the depths of any argument. Unfortunately, tackling the complexity also inclines one towards the duller end of the public arena, the end where caveats come in. Caveats don’t win hearts and minds, don’t feed the anxious soul.

The problem is that people are not amenable to persuasion except under duress or the endless subtleties of social pressure - or mimesis perhaps. So argument is mostly a waste of time. One is mostly stuck with preaching to the converted - and converts like their dose of rhetoric.

The writer enjoys it too.

So the only real alternative for caveat-shackled bloggers is to make a less rhetorical appeal to like-minded people who do not necessarily agree with posts, but are interested enough to read them and interested in the ebb and flow of public debate for its own sake.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Posh nosh digested

For the posh nosh we visited Fischer's at Baslow Hall. The food was extraordinarily inventive and delicious.

I had pan fried turbot with a miso glaze, razor clams, coconut & lime leaf broth and Wakame seaweed. My better half had fore rib & smoked cheek of Derbyshire beef with caramelised onions, grilled asparagus and parmentier potatoes.

Lots of other bits and pieces too. It hasn't turned me into a foodie, but I understand why people might get hooked on fine dining. People with money that is.

Ah well...

What's been going on in the world?

I see that squirt Bercow wants people to pretend he's much bigger than nature, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make him. Surely he knows it's nothing to do with his physical size.

John Bercow has said that discriminating against someone because of their height should be as socially unacceptable as discriminating against someone because of their race or sexuality.

The Commons’ Deputy Speaker, who stands at a below average 5ft 6ins tall, believes society's tendency to see insults about height as acceptable is wrong.

Saturday 5 July 2014

Posh nosh

It's our 40th wedding anniversary so we're off for some posh nosh this evening. Not something we do often -  once every 40 years seems to be the rate so far.

Well perhaps not quite that infrequent. I'm looking forward to it, but I hope it doesn't put me off the occasional fish finger sandwich.

Friday 4 July 2014

The Guardian on... tolerance?

Andrew Brown writes in the Guardian of Yetis and realities.

Living in a world where yetis do and don't exist
Yeti scientists have shown we can bounce through different realities, where what's regarded as 'real' is ambiguous at best.

Scientific hunters for the yeti are easy to recognise: they want to bring back the corpse of some other animal altogether. Most recently, a team led by Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford sorted through 36 samples of supposed yeti fur using the resources of modern genetics and reported their findings with the full scholarly apparatus, including a footnote referencing Tintin in Tibet as the source of "Captain Haddock's suspicions that the yeti was an ungulate".

I see the piece as a welcome affirmation of uncertainty in an often over-certain world. Not quite an unambiguous plea for tolerance though.

Some myths are of course actively pernicious. The stories spread by Aids denialists or anti-vaccine cranks have helped kill thousands if not tens of thousands of people. It's a public duty to go after them.

It's a public duty to go after them - really? In all cases? Actually I suspect Brown's criteria may be pretty tight here, but unfortunately it's a notion many Guardian readers seem to adopt too well and too widely.

Maybe Brown could have included Marxists as an illustration of death-dealing cranks too. Merely to illustrate how complex and confused human notions of reality can be - to widen the spectrum a little. Or perhaps he knows his readership too well for that. I like his last paragraph though.

Normal people – well, everybody, actually – are adept at bouncing through these different "realities" like lumberjacks bounding over spinning logs. We live quite comfortably in worlds where yetis do and don't exist, where they're real in stories and not in the Himalayas. The only dangerous scientists are those who don't understand this or don't believe it's true of themselves, and that they only believe true facts. You couldn't accuse these latest yeti hunters of that. The reference to Tintin proves it.

Thursday 3 July 2014

In An Old Nursery

A prim old room where memories stir
Through faded chintz and wall-paper,
Like bees along the lavender
          Of some dim border ;
Bay-windowed, whence at close of day
You see the roosty starlings sway
High on the elm-tree's topmost spray
          In gossip order.

In its quaint realm how soon one slips
Back to the age of treasure-ships,
The atmosphere of cowboy-trips
          And boundless prairies ;
And when the red logs fret and fume
(They're lit to-night to air the room)
Here come a tip-toe in the gloom
          Old nursery fairies.

Here come dear ghosts to him who sees-
Fat ghosts of long digested teas,
Thin little ghosts of "saying please,"
          Big ghosts of birthdays,
And sundry honourable sprites
To whisper those foredone delights
Of hallowe'ens and stocking-nights
          And other mirth-days.

Its walls are full of musics drawn
From twitterings in the eaves at dawn,
From swish of scythe on summer lawn,
          From Shetlands pawing
The gravel by the front-door yew,
And, wind-tossed from the avenue,
Fugues of first February blue
          And rooks a-cawing.

Old room, the years have galloped on,
The days that danced, the hours that shone
Have turned their backs on you and gone
          By ways that harden ;
But you in you their gold and myrrh
And frankincense of dreams still stir
Like bees that haunt the lavender
          Of some walled garden !

Patrick R Chalmers – Green Days and Blue Days (1912)

A little too sentimental for me yet it still appeals, stirring up delicate pastel tones of long afternoons spent musing in the dappled shade of old memories.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

The UK's rich reptilian past.

For those interested in evolution, International Business Times has a piece on what it calls the UK's rich reptilian past.

Jurassic Britain was a "dinosaur paradise" with more than 100 different species roaming the UK, including three relatives of the Tyrannosaurus rex, according to the author of a new book, Dinosaurs of the British Isles.

Despite this diverse Dino-heritage, palaeontologist Dean Lomax, a visiting scientist at the University of Manchester's School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, claims the UK's rich reptilian past has been somewhat neglected by the popular media and literature.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Dolphins don’t buy books

From Wikipedia

We can be fairly sure dolphins don’t read books simply because we never find sodden pages of dolphin literature on the beach. Anyhow they have no money to buy them.

The dolphin’s lot is abject penury with nothing to read and a diet of cold fish. If they were as bright as some folk make out, they’d do something about that.

Yet suppose human intelligence is merely a complex feature of the natural world. In that case it may be interesting to take dolphin illiteracy and indigence a little further. For example, what if some of our important inventions are not peculiar to humans, but arise naturally from a high level of intelligence and co-operative social organisation?

The two inventions I’m obviously suggesting here are money and books. Paper books are under competitive pressure from electronic devices such as the Kindle and the internet generally, but functionally there is an important equivalence. So I’ll use the word book for traditional or electronic media.

Books are a route by which many adults further their education as they see fit Money is mostly how people manage their material lives as they see fit. Books and money help maintain two of our key freedoms, the freedom to share labour and the freedom to understand what others have understood before us - or at least their opinions.

To my mind it is tempting to imagine inventions which might be common to intelligent species across the universe. In other words, certain socially important inventions could arise naturally on any suitable planet supporting a species of sufficient social intelligence. Perhaps there is a universal logic of exchange and all intelligent social beings would understand both money and books.

Of course we are constrained by our humanity and it is too easy to picture alien species which conveniently share some of our characteristics. Klingons and Dr Who for example. Yet the conjecture is potentially testable because it could be verified if SETI ever makes contact with another intelligent species.

Life being what it is we expect things to be rather more complex though – we expect to be surprised. Also, if dolphins turn out to be as intelligent as we are, then the idea is wrong to begin with because dolphins don’t seem to have much use for money or books. Although as far as I can see, dolphins don’t seem to be particularly intelligent.

So in an odd and inverted sense it may be anthropocentric to assume that money and books must be purely human inventions. On the other hand, it may be that this line of thinking really is anthropocentric and we will never contact an alien intelligence because we cannot recognise intelligence other than our own. And how common is that!

Yet natural law looks very much like the universal language of nature and we would not search in the first place if we did not believe our intelligence to be at least a little more than narrowly human. Surely any contact with non-human intelligence would have to be based on some mutually understood natural regularities – or natural laws.

As things stand this is all lighthearted speculation, but maybe one day it won’t be. Certain aspects of social life could turn out to be aspects of all intelligent life, taking us beyond the range of any telescope - philosophically at least.