Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Freud Files

From Wikipedia

I’m tempted to buy a book called The Freud Files. It claims that Sigmund Freud promoted his own reputation, deliberately placing himself at the centre of a "lone genius" myth at the expense of others in his field. Furthermore, the book claims Freud’s acolytes have promoted and nurtured the myth for decades.

How did psychoanalysis attain its prominent cultural position? How did it eclipse rival psychologies and psychotherapies, such that it became natural to bracket Freud with Copernicus and Darwin? Why did Freud 'triumph' to such a degree that we hardly remember his rivals? This book reconstructs the early controversies around psychoanalysis and shows that rather than demonstrating its superiority, Freud and his followers rescripted history.

I suppose many of us have encountered significant cracks in Freud’s faded reputation during the course of our general reading. Doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is worth pursuing though. The field of Freudian scholarship is so vast that a dabbler is almost obliged to begin from a potentially biased starting position. Otherwise how does one select sources? Even neutrality doesn’t work if one side of this debate is substantially correct.

So as a taster I downloaded a free sample of The Freud Files onto my Kindle. You may or may not know, but this is a standard Kindle feature – browse before you buy. The book appears to be clear, concise, well-written and meticulously researched.

So if I buy it, this may be my biased starting point or it may not. Reviews suggest the book is certainly controversial and I am in no position to resolve the controversy.

However I already have a suspicion that Freud was dodgy. For example, some years ago I came across an essay in Speculum Spinozanum which claimed that he acknowledged an intellectual debt to Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century philosopher but only in three private letters. He never acknowledged it publicly.

This is not necessarily a big deal because Freud could not have owed a huge debt to Spinoza in the first place. Why not acknowledge it more publicly though? It would have attached an interesting thread to Freud’s thinking, locating it in the wider sphere of human thought.

Inevitably his failure to acknowledge Spinoza, however trivial his debt might have been, raises a suspicion that Freud had no wish to extend the public perception of his ideas beyond his own person. Only a suspicion, but there have been others and they add up.

Freud's reputation probably isn't particularly important to the modern world, but I was brought up in a time where he was still a towering intellectual figure, at least in popular culture. A paradigm of the "lone genius" myth. So maybe I’ll buy the book and perhaps bury the myth.

Monday 29 September 2014

Smarter voting

A guy who happens to be a billionaire, or at least very rich by normal standards isn’t like the rest of us. For one thing it is easy for him to buy influence if he so wishes. There are over a hundred billionaires in the UK, but let us introduce a fictional one named Alexander Charles Prosser. Let us also infect him with an irresistible urge to spread his political wings.

To satisfy this urge, Prosser could easily afford to put aside say £500k per year and donate it to a political party. It’s only £5 million over ten years – chickenfeed for a fictional billionaire such as Prosser. So what does that £500k buy our man in terms of political influence?

Firstly it depends which party he chooses to support. Hand over the cash to a fringe party of loons and all he gets is to be is a big fish in a small pond. Which may be nice enough but Prosser also has to speak fluent Loon if he is to enter into the spirit of the thing. A tedious learning process may blunt his enthusiasm.

Apart from which, in terms of political bang for his buck, it is obviously better for Prosser to stick with big parties. In the UK that would be Conservative or Labour. With the Lib Dems there is still too much Loon to be learned. UKIP may be an option, but UKIP might not make it into the big time. Prosser should wait until the fog of political war clears – the moolah will still be welcome to the victor.

Unfortunately Prosser will still have to learn a certain amount of politically correct Loon if he chooses to stuff the Conservative or Labour party with his cash. The big plus here is significant political influence - the thing he really yearns for. He gets to rub shoulders with people who actually pass a few laws every now and then. It’s not quite the EU, but UK MPs are still allowed some residual functions.

So Prosser’s £500k per annum buys him a level of influence far beyond anything the ordinary voter could ever hope to wield. The only trouble is, there are other political heavies in there too, so his money might not go as far as he imagines. Even so, it beats being a voter with only a measly five-yearly cross on a piece of paper to look forward to. 

How do we ordinary voters compete against Prosser's £500k per year? It isn't easy, but we have the power of democracy on our side don't we? So one solution is much smarter voting...


Sunday 28 September 2014

The eye of the priest

Many of us have grappled with the problem of moral imperatives in a secular society. Where do they come from if not handed down by a deity?

These [priests] are however the only teachers of ethics that the people have, and without them where should we be? Will the newspaper ever manage to take the place of the parish priest?
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

How do we replace the vigilant eye of the priest? It is hardly a perfect eye, so do we need to replace it at all? Yet if we don’t, it will surely be replaced by something because the closing of the sacerdotal eye has left a power vacuum well on the way to being filled. So what is replacing the eye of the priest? Something wise and respected?

No I don’t think so either.

So far it resembles a uniquely repressive trend slipped in under the radar while we were busy ordering a pizza with our new iWatch while playing Game of Oafs on our new phone which we never actually pay for because it’s on contract.

What follows is merely speculation, but suppose some organisation with deep pockets eventually builds a computer network which hands down moral and legal judgements. By this stage moral and legal issues could have been tied firmly together anyway, so there’s our shiny new imperative.

Imagine a judicial computer network dealing with everything from a boundary dispute with a neighbour to a divorce to an international patent dispute to a war to offensive language. All human life would fall within its remit. Or rather our lives would fall within its remit - yours and mine. The elite would live their agreeable lives well beyond the reach of the network.

In reality the elite, the effective owners of the system, would be handing down the judgements, but only in terms of policy, guidelines and approved upgrades. The day to day judgements would be left to the system. Or maybe that should be the System?

In a way there is no point speculating how the System might evolve because we are all familiar with the trends, the pieces of the jigsaw which seem to be fitting themselves into a pattern we can’t yet see except in hazy outline.

Bits and pieces of a totalitarian future seem to be coming together well outside the feeble sway of democratic control. Political pieces and commercial pieces, the difference seems to be increasingly irrelevant. They fit together quite nicely these days. I’m not convinced there is much in the way of independent human agency here though. Some kind of blind destiny seems to have us in its steely grip.

Of course the System will never be given a name. It will simply be a complex of familiar systems with some background processing we never get to know about. Still, with a bit of luck it will have too many bugs to be viable.

To be fixed in the next upgrade...

Saturday 27 September 2014

Bennett on mass production

Arnold Bennett shows us the reality of mass production without automation. This kind of thing probably went on well into the twentieth century. In some ways I find it more depressing than any amount of squalor described by Dickens. 

You may have observed the geometrical exactitude of the broad and thin coloured lines round the edges of a common cup and saucer, and speculated upon the means by which it was arrived at. 

A girl drew those lines, a girl with a hand as sure as Giotto’s, and no better tools than a couple of brushes and a small revolving table called a whirler. Forty-eight hours a week Mary Beechinor sat before her whirler. Actuating the treadle, she placed a piece of ware on the flying disc, and with a single unerring flip of the finger pushed it precisely to the centre; then she held the full brush firmly against the ware, and in three seconds the band encircled it truly; another brush taken up, and the line below the band also stood complete. 

And this process was repeated, with miraculous swiftness, hour after hour, week after week, year after year. Mary could decorate over thirty dozen cups and saucers in a day, at three halfpence the dozen.

Arnold Bennett - Tales of the Five Towns (1905)

Thursday 25 September 2014

After the conference?

This little figure of a clown was carved from linden wood by Pascal Bosshardt of Thannenkirch in Alsace. We were there last year and bought the figure after watching him at work. To take the photo I stood the clown by a pound coin to give an idea of scale. 

I'm fascinated by this kind of skill, probably because I'm so far from being able to emulate it. I just don't have the coordination between hand and eye, the sense of scale and proportion. This was one of his simplest pieces too. 

I don't know what inspired M Bosshardt to carve it, but to my eye the clown could be an ironic reference to politics. A clown blowing his own trumpet. Doesn't quite work because his expression has a touch of melancholy. 

After the conference?

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Plight of the good guys

If the negotiator expects a bribe then we have to offer one or we lose the business to someone with fewer scruples.

If their lot tell lies then we have to be a little economical with the truth too. Otherwise we lose the election to someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t report this story as received then my source may go to someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t follow the narrative then my superiors will sideline me in favour of someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t present the data in this way then my superiors will sideline me in favour of someone with fewer scruples.

If I am not more enthusiastic about this absurd idea then my superior will promote someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t spread my share of the gossip then my friends will stop listening and move on to people with fewer scruples.

Too often the good guys get nowhere, never did, never could. When it comes to climbing greasy poles, the logic of corruption and moral ambivalence are compelling. Environments select – it’s what they do. So an environment where corruption and moral ambivalence are condoned will select those who adapt to it. Rotten apples - it's a good metaphor.

We only seem to have two ways round this problem – legal and moral. We sidled around Christian moral imperatives some time ago so that leaves laws and regulations.

But without the invisible hand of moral imperatives, however imperfect it may have been, laws and regulations have to be extremely detailed, rigorously enforced and constantly revised as new evasive strategies emerge. 

Not only that, but human behaviour has to be managed in minute detail. Good guys, bad guys, there is no distinction when it comes to the mass management of behaviour. How could there be?

What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday 23 September 2014

I sit on a man's back

I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means - except by getting off his back.

Leo Tolstoy - What Is to be Done? (1886)

Yes I know it's only another quote, but it seems about right for the party conference season.


From BillR

Monday 22 September 2014

The Great Leap Backwards

Preparations for the Great Leap Backwards began in October 1927. According to Wikipedia that’s when the first feature film talkie was released - The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson.

From this small beginning the world changed forever as a number of social trends began to march in step.

Firstly the moving image became an important part of life all over the developed world. Not just for entertainment, but news, information and commentary. Although books had become much cheaper and lending libraries were popular, the moving image gripped its audience in a way books would never emulate.

Cinemas were built in every town, cities had lots of them. Only a few decades later the moving image entered our homes via television. The conquest was complete.

Secondly as the twentieth century progressed and in spite of wars and financial disasters, the developed world began learning how to feed and house even the poorest of its citizens.

These two factors brought out something fundamental about ourselves, an issue we must have missed while still hypnotised by the moving image. Something to do with how we deal with the real world – how those dealings can be subverted by security and physical comfort.

In a way this something is merely the circus of bread and circuses, but much more powerful, intrusive and sinister. As the moving image and comparative prosperity took hold of our lives, intellectual curiosity began to wane.

Today, nearly eighty years after that first talkie, we are losing the urge to know in favour of an urge to be entertained. With it comes a deep-seated love of show and display - a love of theatre. As if life’s edge has been dulled by comfort and prosperity, as if a less basic need slipped into the driving seat while we were queuing up to watch the latest blockbuster at the Odeon or switching on the box for an evening of family entertainment.

Display has always been important to us, as it is with other animals, but without the sharp edge of survival – well the arts of display seem to be all we have left to push us on into our brave new world.

Perhaps we thought intellectual curiosity was enough to spur us on in spite of our full bellies, but apparently not. Curiosity is intimately linked with survival and we’ve dealt with survival. For now. Folk memories of genuine poverty and real hardship are disappearing from the reach of living memory.

The recent Scottish Referendum was pure theatre, rational argument very much noticeable by its absence. Instead we had the unedifying sight of political theatre and its emotional power to get those metaphorical bums on seats. From economic summits to Prime Minister’s Questions, from elections to great debates, it’s all theatre.

Even the mad murderers of ISIL seem to be gripped by a grisly sense of theatre. Black uniforms, sinister headgear and black flags. All theatre. Grim, deadly, insane and even juvenile in some respects, but still theatre.

Science is certainly drifting towards theatre and away from a knowledge culture. Climate change is pure theatre, always was. Take leading actors on the climate stage. Al Gore, Vivienne Westwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting, Emma Thompson... 


But it's just theatre – nothing else, nothing deeper, nothing demanding, nothing intellectual. Forget the science - the names topping the bill tell you all you need to know about the show. Apart from who dunnit.

Climate impresarios rope in celebrities, fashion designers, artists, pundits and assorted thespians with limited knowledge of the science because they don’t need it. They have their lines off pat. It’s what they do, why they are able strut their stuff on the climate stage without knowing anything worth passing on.

Staying with science - how about physics? Multiverse theories? They look like theatre to me. The vast drama of the cosmos, the thrilling strangeness of untrammelled scientific conjecture, the mysterious depths of untestable notions. Bums on seats matter, even in relatively small and publicly supported theatres such as this.

All the world’s a stage – literally. Yet if people are to be liberally rewarded for acting a part, for learning a narrative instead of the truth, then we cannot use the cold blue light of reason to show us the way to anywhere worth visiting. 

So lots of drama but no happy ending.

A sense of style

From BillR

Sunday 21 September 2014


“My boy,” said an aged Father to his fiery and disobedient Son, “a hot temper is the soil of remorse. Promise me that when next you are angry you will count one hundred before you move or speak.” 

No sooner had the Son promised than he received a stinging blow from the paternal walking-stick, and by the time he had counted to seventy-five had the unhappiness to see the old man jump into a waiting cab and whirl away.

Ambrose Bierce - Fantastic Fables (1899)

Saturday 20 September 2014

The Global Pact

Via my recently invented time machine, here is an extract from a short essay written a thousand years hence by an anonymous scribe of the Second Enlightenment. Titled The Rise and Fall of The Global Pact , it is dated September 3014.


As most of us know, the Global Pact was founded in the late twentieth century although its roots had been growing for decades, possibly as far back as the late nineteenth century.

However, what many people do not realise is that in those far off days it was not known as the Global Pact. The name did not become common until about 2100 when the United Nations formally announced that nations no longer existed and changed its name to The Global Pact.

So what exactly was The Global Pact, why did it arise and why did it collapse with such devastating consequences?

Firstly it is important to recognise that The Global Pact was a technical religion, truly global and designed for everyone but the administrative elite. It was many things to many people, but primarily it was a system of belief supported by incredibly detailed doctrines, laws, regulations and ultimately enforcement.

PactPol was the global policy function, the key top level directorate.
PactBank was the global bank. There were no others.
PactTech provided global technical support.
PactFarm grew the food.
PactTruth provided publicity, languages and iKid - or infant induction.
PactHealth looked after euthanasia and abortion.
PactGuide was the global paramilitary police force.
PactFun provided all global entertainment.
PactRole slotted everyone into a suitable career.

And so on.

There were many other directorates and sub-directorates, but these main directorates give a flavour of the overall picture.

During the preceding century leading up to The Global Pact, many changes took place. Too many to list in this brief review. For example, science disappeared into PactTech. Religion was absorbed into an advisory sub-directorate of PactTruth although it took another two centuries for things to settle down here. PactTruth and the formidable might of PactGuide were tested to the full.

By the early twenty-first century the trend towards The Global Pact had become obvious. A large number of mostly middle class people saw the advantages of discarding their opinions in favour of a host of official doctrines. Almost as if they knew The Global Pact was coming, even if not in their lifetime.

In those days there were early Pact-type doctrines with a variety of names such as political correctness, environmentalism, equality, science and so on. They encapsulated not ideas, but doctrines to which one might safely and even stridently adhere. Many adherents seem to have known, or rather sensed that The Global Pact would one day demonstrate their sagacity in dumping their individuality with such abandon.

Eventually, about five centuries ago, The Global Pact embraced everything. Every person on the planet knew nothing, did nothing and said nothing which did not conform to The Global Pact. Generations lived and died within the same Pact as moving from one Pact to another was discouraged unless demographic change had made it necessary.

For example many generations of the same family might live their entire lived within PactFarm or PactFun. They never knew anything else and thanks to PactTruth and the iKid infant induction scheme they never wanted anything else.

In 2120 the achievement of a permanent global utopia was officially declared by PactPol. An entire year of celebrations was organised by PactFun with mandatory attendance enforced by PactGuide.

So why did such a comprehensive and benign system fail so suddenly and so drastically? Why did PactPol not foresee the problems? Why did PactGuide fail to keep order as cities ground to a halt and endless warfare and riots sent us back to the Dark Ages?

There have been many theories and no doubt there will be many more. My inclination is to go for the simplest. I think the fundamental problem lay in PactTruth.

Nobody actually knew what was going on.

Friday 19 September 2014

The two black wings of self

I wished to believe myself angry, but really I was afraid; fear and anger in me are very much the same. A friend of mine, a bit of a poet, sir, once called them ‘the two black wings of self.’ And so they are, so they are...!
 John Galsworthy – A knight (1900)

Crude it may be, but to my mind the Scottish referendum is well summed up as a battle between fear and anger - the two black wings of self. The Yes camp was angry with Westminster and the No camp fearful of change. Both strove mightily to stoke their emotional engines but fear always had the edge. We live in a fearful age.

The AV vote referendum was much the same and there is no reason to suppose an EU referendum would be any different. The establishment knows how to use the endless subtle pressures of fear, knows too well how potent they are.

In any event it isn’t easy to whip up anger over abstractions such as democracy, accountability or even lying and corruption. For one think, angry criticism is being choked off by the pervasive pressures of political correctness. An intemperate outburst could have the police knocking on your door, an association of ideas which is surely deliberate. Expect more of the same.

So angry words are being squeezed from our language. Not primarily because they offend, although that is the official narrative, but because anger has far too many political hazards for a morally corrupt establishment. Anger rocks the boat - fear doesn't.

To a large degree I think we have the BBC to thank for this deplorable state of affairs. That and our collective laziness. Fear of change saturates BBC output. Not overtly, but covertly in an endless unwillingness to engage with anything genuinely radical.

Comedy and satire are fine as long as they don't quite hit the target, but any serious challenge to the status quo is always beyond the BBC pale. The abode of extremists. A fearful place where decent folk never go. Room 101.

To my mind the important message is one we knew already. It is better to vote against the big three parties than to expect Cameron to deliver a fairly contested referendum. He knows the value of fear and probably knew he was unlikely to lose Scotland. He also knows he is unlikely to lose the EU if voters are foolish enough to trust him. 

Thursday 18 September 2014

The limbo of forgotten races

I tell you what it is, the place is a sink, and if God Almighty doesn’t wipe all this sort of person off the face of England, it’s because He means the poor old country to go right down into the limbo of forgotten races!

Ford Madox Ford - The Simple Life Limited (1911)

Wednesday 17 September 2014

A joke memory

Three of us, all blokes, were tootling down the M1 in heavy traffic. For some reason we began a brief conversation about jokes. Did we know any? Well we didn't because we aren't the kind of people who remember jokes so that conversation didn't last long.

I started me off on a train of thought though - how many people do remember jokes and why do some of us forget them so easily? I must have heard thousands of jokes but in the car couldn't recall a single one. None of us could.

Maybe jokes lack hooks which attach them to our longer term memories. Maybe they aren't socially useful, or at least many of us don't find them socially useful because we don't want to be labelled as a joker. Such people aren't taken seriously and most of us don't want that.

Is that anywhere near right? I don't know, but it's interesting. I'll mull it over before looking up some internet opinions.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

After a Yes vote

The very conditions on which he had held power: the necessity of having behind him a crowd of greedy appetites whose longings he must satisfy, of maintaining himself in his position by dint of abusing his credit, had made his fall merely a question of time. 

And he now recalled the slow efforts of his band, whose sharp teeth had day by day nibbled away some of his authority. They had thronged around him, hung on to his knees, then to his breast, then to his throat, and finally they had choked him. They had availed themselves of him in every way. 

They had used his feet to climb with, his hands to plunder with, his jaws to devour with. They had, so to say, used his body as their own, used it for their personal gratification, indulging in every fancy without a thought of the morrow. And now, having drained his body, and hearing its frame-work crack, they abandoned him like rats, whom instinct warns of the approaching collapse of a house, the foundations of which they have undermined. 

They were all sleek and flourishing, and they were already battening upon someone else.

Émile Zola - Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876)

Monday 15 September 2014

Rubber robot

I usually enjoy robot stories but find this beast a little creepy.

Imagine three chaps

From Wikipedia

 ...called Amy, Baz and Cy – okay Amy is a chap of the female persuasion but this is an equal opportunities post so Cy is of the unpersuaded gender.

Now suppose there are only three phenomena in the known universe and Amy, Baz and Cy understand one each. They sound like politicians already, but let’s move on and call these three phenomena Earth, Wind and Fire.

Amy understands Earth.
Baz understands Wind.
Cy understands Fire.

They all know something about the other phenomena, but can’t be said to understand them because in their universe understanding more than one phenomenon takes a lifetime of study. Sounds like politics again, but still we move on.

So Amy, Baz and Cy have some knowledge of all the phenomena in their universe, but two thirds of their knowledge is mainly hearsay plus a little bit of direct observation.

One day a chap called Daz pops up.

Daz not only upsets the gender balance of the whole universe but also understands Water. So once Daz has explained a little bit about Water, Amy, Baz, Cy and Daz still have some knowledge of all the phenomena in their universe, but now three quarters of their knowledge is mainly hearsay with a little bit of direct observational knowledge.

It’s easy enough to see where this is going. The world beyond our personal understanding and direct observation is complex, uncertain and almost entirely composed of hearsay.

We understand far less than we assume because we expand our range by masses and masses of hearsay. The media transmit hearsay as news to such an extent that we can’t tell if it is second hand, third hand or merely a rumour laced with urban myths. Or just made up as usual.

What to do?

Well the crudely obvious lesson is surely a lesson about human behaviour. Most of our knowledge has its roots in human behaviour, both ours and the behaviour of other people such as those who write books, newspaper articles or blogs. Unfortunately we also need to add academic output to this list too.

Unless we choose to be naive of course. Well it’s an option and quite a popular one as far as I can see.

Mountains of guff have been written about epistemology, but it is behaviour we should keep an eye on. Data and logic are all very well, but human behaviour can destroy the significance of both and frequently does.

So apart from personal experience, the logic of human behaviour comes first. There is no other way to cope with our pervasive need to rely on hearsay. 

Not that this is news to anyone, but it struck me quite forcibly at a recent agricultural show. A chap was judging sheep and I'd no idea what he was doing, what he was looking for in awarding the red rosette. To find out I'd have to rely on hearsay or buy some sheep and set about learning the ins and outs of the sheep business. 

So hearsay it is.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Natural beauty

While on a recent holiday in Wales we visited Cregennan Lakes in Southern Snowdonia. This view of  one of the lakes is taken from some rocks just above the small car park.

We often describe such views as breathtaking don't we? With good reason. Natural beauty seems to have this peculiar life-giving quality. It takes away the tensions of that outer, often ugly world and infuses the soul with a renewed faith in life itself, in its essential beauty and simplicity.

Bloody marvellous it was.

Saturday 13 September 2014

M6 doglocked


And we must always beware of romance: of people who love nature, or flowers, or dogs, or babies, or pure adventure. It means they are getting into a love- swing where everything is easy and nothing opposes their own egoism. Nature, babies, dogs are so lovable, because they can’t answer back.
D.H. Lawrence  ...Love Was Once A Little Boy (1925)

Friday 12 September 2014

Scum lies on shallow waters

To my mind, one of the most striking aspects of the internet is the way it so often brings out the raw power of colloquial language. Many areas of public debate are much shallower than elites and pundits would have us believe.

Social, political, economic – many important aspects of apparently complex subjects are easily described in pithy colloquial language – even crude language.

Most politicians are lying scum.

No, I don’t mean this kind of simplistic yet curiously accurate language. Although it has been enlightening to discover quite how accurate it is. Too many politicians are lying scum aren’t they?

No, I’m thinking of colloquial language in general. How easy it is to use ordinary language to tease out a valid and useful aspect of almost any complex social or political issue. In other words, there is not as much depth to these matters as we may have supposed or as we may have been told in the past. Nobody needs a doctorate in political history in order to say something worthwhile about politics.

We common folk may not have imbibed heaps of academic data about political language and the classification of political trends, but it is surprising how often a simple colloquial summary is good enough.

Politicians always brown-nosing vested interests.

Oops – still somewhat basic, but I think the point begins to emerge well enough. One could write a treatise on political pressures given enough patience and nothing better to do. No doubt somebody has or is doing or will do in the future, but it’s easier and possibly more constructive to keep it simple and colloquial.

To the horror of many and the puzzlement of many more, institutions such as the BBC, the monarchy, established churches, major charities and numerous others are not nearly as trustworthy as we once supposed. Not nearly as truthful, adaptable or transparent either. Even their supposed expertise is tarnished as the world becomes less deferential, more inclined to explore alternative points of view.

There is less depth to many areas of debate than the pundits and experts would have us believe. Yes there may be complexities and yes there may be mountains of data, but many orthodoxies are essentially shallow and easily discredited by even the most limited investigation. And perhaps some sharply descriptive colloquial language.

Something is crumbling, something essentially false, ugly and repressive. The shallowness of social distinctions, the elusive and misleading nature of genuine expertise in the more complex and intractable areas of human life, our tendency to allow determined dullards to place themselves on pedestals. The absurdity of it all.

Perhaps the resources of language and mass communication are killing off something we need to kill off. Yet perhaps the resources of power and mass communication will ensure its survival via censorship and the mighty power of money to confuse and misdirect. As yet we cannot tell but...

Most politicians are lying scum.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

The decline of curiosity

I once had to mug up the chemistry of chromium, molybdenum and tungsten for an exam. Can’t remember which exam it was, but we’d been given a fairly heavy clue by an inorganic chemistry lecturer.

I managed to unearth an old chemistry book which wasn’t modern enough for the exam but full of fascinating details of old-fashioned bench chemistry. Lots of forgotten experiments where chemists tried to make all manner of weird and wonderful compounds based on tungsten. I couldn't put it down for quite a while, but eventually I reluctantly shoved it back on the shelf and turned my attention to the more conventional stuff. 

The chaps in that old book were driven by curiosity and the thrill of making a genuine discovery, even if it turned out to be an obscure footnote destined for a life on dusty shelves. My kind of chemistry in other words.

Maybe I was born too late because I don’t think this kind of science is as common as it used to be, but how does one get a handle on something as nebulous as scientific curiosity?

Yet I suspect anyone who grew up in the fifties or sixties will remember a kind of optimistic curiosity we no longer see. A curiosity tinged with delightfully naive expectations that the natural world will be forever fascinating.

Fifty years on, it seems to me that the curiosity I knew has been so squeezed and distorted by commercial and political narratives that it is no longer recognisable as curiosity at all.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

If Scotland votes Yes

From Wikipedia

What about this Scottish independence malarkey eh? Which way is the vote likely to fall and what are the expected consequences?

If I had Scottish blood coursing through my veins instead of the part Irish blend I have in reality, then I know I’d be sorely tempted to go for the misty glories of independence. For my heart at least it would be no contest.


Delightful though it would be to deliver a sword-thrust into the stinking bowels of Westminster, I’d have to convince myself that Scotland actually wants and is prepared to grasp a new spirit of adventure. To my mind, the value of independence lies in making a distinctively Scottish future from the distinctively Scottish virtues of the past.

I’d need to be sure that a reborn and independent Scotland would rid itself of the soul-rotting government-sponsored illusions of everlasting welfare. It would have to decide once and for all that there is no magic money tree fed and watered by bureaucrats.

So how likely is that? How does the leadership of Alex Salmond infuse the Scottish people with a sense of personal responsibility in this adventure? Because it could be a fine adventure, but not if somebody else is always supposed to do the adventuring.

How does Alex Salmond attract able people who have left Scotland simply because they are able people – because they need something more than an endless tangle of small surrenders - to borrow Chesterton’s telling phrase.

It’s the chance of a lifetime – literally. He isn't the only player in this drama, but is Alex Salmond capable of delivering the fruits of a vote for independence? To me he comes across as a very accomplished political huckster, a charlatan’s charlatan. As ever it comes down to people, so although I’m not Scottish I’ll watch the vote with interest.

If the vote goes for independence, and whatever my concerns I hope it does, then it will be seen as a huge vote of dissatisfaction with Westminster politics. Whether that dissatisfaction amounts to something different and vibrantly inspiring - that's another matter. The people of today are not the people of yesterday.

Sunday 7 September 2014

An obligation

From Wikipedia

Then, again, who does not see how empty, how foolish, is the fame of noble birth? Why, if the nobility is based on renown, the renown is another's! For, truly, nobility seems to be a sort of reputation coming from the merits of ancestors.

But if it is the praise which brings renown, of necessity it is they who are praised that are famous. Wherefore, the fame of another clothes thee not with splendour if thou hast none of thine own. So, if there is any excellence in nobility of birth, methinks it is this alone—that it would seem to impose upon the nobly born the obligation not to degenerate from the virtue of their ancestors.

Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy (around 524 AD)

Friday 5 September 2014

The weirding of the BBC

During our recent WiFi-less holiday I watched some TV, an increasingly rare occupation for us but not yet defunct. As usual I found it annoying that I couldn’t check anything or follow up an idea via the internet.

After the internet, TV seems much too slick and glossy even for someone who grew up with it. It comes across as a rather trashy magazine where you have to buy a special viewer called a television. We Brits even have to pay a yearly licence for the viewer. Amazing because we can easily end up paying more for the licence than the viewer. Surely there is no way such an absurd situation can survive?

Maybe I’m exactly the kind of person who should ditch the TV, yet the programmes could be far better and far more competitive even within its technical limitations. That’s a rapidly ageing phrase though isn’t it? TV programme.

I think it’s because TV is very much like a person. The BBC used to be called Auntie and one can still see why. It’s a comfortable and well-connected middle class person, although not necessarily female. Still, we may as well stick with Auntie as the name has a long tradition.

Auntie is a faux progressive who only sees one side of any question. Steely conviction underlies her sentimental, middle-brow kindliness. She needs to seem progressive without the slightest risk of ever changing her habits or way of life.

Auntie is a well-meaning person to whom one may listen, but she never listens herself because she doesn’t feel the need. She already knows as much as she ever intends to know, as much as it is wise and decent to know. In any event she has her trusted sources and you and I are not on the list. 

So as her declining years slip by, Auntie will seem increasingly weird to those who were never taught to respect her social standing. It should be fun to watch though. Potentially one of her better comedies.

Thursday 4 September 2014

The UKIP revolt

If we are to believe certain oracles of crafty political views, a little revolt is desirable from the point of view of power. System: revolt strengthens those governments which it does not overthrow. It puts the army to the test; it consecrates the bourgeoisie, it draws out the muscles of the police; it demonstrates the force of the social framework. It is an exercise in gymnastics; it is almost hygiene. Power is in better health after a revolt, as a man is after a good rubbing down.

Victor Hugo - Les Misérables (1862)

Of course Hugo was writing of far more dramatic revolts than anything UKIP is ever likely to achieve. He was writing of death and destruction at the barricades on the streets of Paris in the nineteenth century. Even so his words sound a note of caution for those of us who hope UKIP might at least rock the political boat.

Can we really see the future of UKIP in the words of a nineteenth century French writer? Unless the UK electorate suddenly turns radical I think we can. Not clearly and not in any detail, but the establishment is likely to absorb and make use of UKIP as it absorbed and made use of socialism.

When UKIP is absorbed, then Hugo's point will apply. Effective UK opposition to the EU will not only have been neutralised, but the only viable vehicle for that opposition will be gone. A few UKIP MPs on the green benches will probably help the process of absorption rather than hinder it.

Power is in better health after a revolt. 

Wednesday 3 September 2014

The power crunch

And no one can reach you, no one can alter you, poor little bundle of others’ thoughts; for there is nothing left to reach.

John Galsworthy - A Commentary (1908)

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Oaf ahoy!

I stood at the top of the stairs and waited for a big chap clumping his way up. He had a large mirror under one arm. He heaved himself to the top, strode off and I went down. An everyday occurrence but I noticed two things.

Firstly he didn’t thank me for waiting, not even a nod.
Secondly I knew he wouldn’t.

I hardly looked at him at all, just catching an image of this heavy chap with a heavy face in my peripheral vision. I didn’t expect any acknowledgement from him and didn’t get it – not even a grunt. So how did I know?

Maybe we have an acute oaf detector which picks up tiny behavioural signals. The oaf in an important social figure so we need to detect and avoid them – the rewards are considerable. Did Darwin mention the evolution of oaf detectors? Maybe he missed that one so there is work to be done on a viable theory of oafs.

So to begin. As you must know from your own experience, there are two basic types of oaf, full-time and part-time. By the way, I tend to class the dilettante oaf as part-time. Keeps things simple when it comes to oaf theory.

Now presumably the full-time oaf is much easier to detect than the part time oaf because the behavioural signals are that much stronger and more consistent. For example, part time oafs usually know how to smile properly even if they only do it on a part time basis.

I’m not talking of strong behavioural signals of course, such as deliberately treading on my toes as he passed me at the top of the stairs. For one thing we don’t usually see that kind of oaf carrying mirrors. Somebody else would have to do the carrying.

Of course my oaf may simply have been forgetful – a saint mulling over his next good deed. Maybe the mirror was a present for his dear old mum... 

Curses - that’s another social theory down the drain.

Monday 1 September 2014

The Ashya King debacle

About twenty years ago our daughter died from a brain tumour, so the story of Ashya King is a sombre reminder of how acutely painful things must be for his parents.

Not only that, but we were faced with much the same dilemma about proton beam therapy. In those days it was being used by an American hospital and at the time of our daughter’s illness a UK girl’s parents raised enough money to try it as their last resort.

Sadly it didn’t work and that little girl died, but no doubt many technical improvements have been made in twenty years. The medical advice we were given suggested proton beam therapy had no real prospect of success for our daughter. The limited researches we were able to carry out tended to confirm that.

So our daughter was given Temozolomide which was then an unlicensed but promising drug. We think it certainly added a few months to her life.

So how do the police become involved in such an impossibly difficult situation? How does it help Ashya’s parents even if the UK medical advice was right and proton beam therapy has no prospect of success? How does it help Ashya?

No doubt the errors of judgment and the nuances will come out soon enough, but it is surely appalling that they have to come out in a Spanish court. As far as I can see his parents merely wanted another roll of the dice, hoping to tilt the odds in Ashya's favour – just a little.

Who can blame them?