Sunday 31 May 2015

Foot and mouth

The Independent reports on a startling comment from a senior UN official.

Britain risks following the example of Nazi Germany if the Conservatives go through with a threat to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, a senior UN official has warned...

...Professor Crépeau, a Canadian academic, said: "We have to remember the 1930s and how the rights of the Jews were restricted in Germany and then the rights of the whole German people.

"I mean, countries that go down the path of reducing the rights of one category of people usually don’t stop there."

Of course the guy isn't actually claiming that the UK has embarked on some crazed rush to totalitarian atrocities. He is merely making use of ludicrously extreme language as so many people do these days. People we once saw as responsible and level-headed because that's what their position was thought to demand are often nothing of the kind.

In any other cause, I doubt not, you would have cautiously weighed the consequences of committing your name to the licentious discourses and malignant opinions of the world. But here, I presume you thought it would be a breach of friendship to lose one moment in consulting your understanding.
Junius – Letter III 1769

Saturday 30 May 2015

Back from Northumberland

Northern Marsh Orchid on Holy Island

Our week in Northumberland is over but we’ll be back. Fine scenery, majestic hills, a coastline with long sandy beaches and enough history to satisfy anyone. Vast skies and distant horizons which fade into a blue-grey haze as horizons are supposed to. Living in towns and cities, do we even see the horizon on a regular basis? 

Northumberland is quiet too, and that’s what always strikes us as we head back down the A1 to traffic jams, crowds, queues and the intensely compressed nature of modern life. Northumberland leaves one with the impression that life could be different. There are too many people in the UK.

Friday 29 May 2015

To convince a newborn babe


Now most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities. And Mr. Shaw and such people are especially shrinking from that awful and ancestral responsibility to which our fathers committed us when they took the wild step of becoming men. I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice.

That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child. From this high audacious duty the moderns are fleeing on every side; and the only excuse for them is, (of course,) that their modern philosophies are so half-baked and hypothetical that they cannot convince themselves enough to convince even a newborn babe. This, of course, is connected with the decay of democracy; and is somewhat of a separate subject.
G K Chesterton – What’s Wrong With the World (1910)

As he does so well, Chesterton uses a rose-tinted view of the past to probe a genuine canker in human affairs. One obvious response is that we have a problem where modern philosophies are so half-baked, because of our increased awareness of myths and uncertainties.

On the other hand, Chesterton makes a telling point in that our awful and ancestral responsibility has also seeped away into the swamps of relativism and moral uncertainty. Possibly connected with this:

Were it possible to induce the masses to adopt atheism, this belief would exhibit all the intolerant ardour of a religious sentiment, and in its exterior forms would soon become a cult.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

Is atheism a cult? Not in itself perhaps but something secular and cult-like has arisen since Le Bon's time.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Those who lie for a purpose

Pinocchio, by Carlo Chiostri (1901)

Very talkative people always seemed to me to be divided into two classes — those who lie for a purpose and those who lie for the love of lying;
Ambrose Bierce

The recent admission by Sir Malcom Bruce that our MPs are liars is unlikely to surprise anyone over the age of ten.

Asked on BBC Radio 4 whether he was alleging that lying was widespread in public life, Bruce, who stood down at the election, replied: “No, well, yes. Lots of people have told lies and you know perfectly well that to be true.”

He suggested MPs could not be excluded for telling a lie: “If you are suggesting every MP who has never quite told the truth or even told a brazen lie, including cabinet ministers, including prime ministers, we would clear out the House of Commons very fast, I would suggest,” he said.

Not a particularly significant admission one might assume. Yet sometimes political comments stick around to become public facts, absorbed into the swirling network of narratives which make up public discourse.

Official lying has become a fact of life, but we knew that anyway. However if political lying were to become a basic fact of all realistic political discourse, then political life would have to change.

On the other hand, we knew about the lying but still voted for them in our millions in the recent general election. What does that say about us?

Monday 25 May 2015


We're in Northumberland for a week with lots to do and slow WiFi so blogging may be light.  Holy Island tomorrow.

Sunday 24 May 2015

A flock of athletes

There is about as much variety in a flock of athletes as in a flock of sheep.

Wilkie Collins - Man and Wife (1870)

Friday 22 May 2015

Merely to express herself


In the Five Towns, and probably elsewhere, when a woman puts her head out of her front door, she always looks first to right and then to left, like a scouting Iroquois, and if the air nips she shivers — not because she is cold, but merely to express herself.
Arnold Bennett - Hot Potatoes (1912)

Nobody is unfamiliar with this type of body language. We see it all the time in one form or another, yet watching human behaviour isn’t the same as having it articulated in the way Bennett does. if the air nips she shivers — not because she is cold, but merely to express herself. I recall the image which still pops into my mind when I read this passage again.

I see a long row of terraced houses lining an empty street. It must be early because there are milk bottles on doorsteps and the scene is tinged with the past and the sombre, sooty grey of a November morning. A woman puts her head out of her front door, shivers and after this brief imagining I’m back with Bennett's story.

For a TV drama the image would be much the same but it would not be articulated as Bennett articulates it – obviously. We are shown the scene, recognise the body language and the drama moves on. Maybe she picks up the bottles of milk, hugs them to her chest for a moment then disappears back into the house.

This difference between the written word and the moving image is important simply because one is articulated and the other isn't. TV drama doesn’t prevent us from articulating such human subtleties but doesn’t help either. It isn’t feasible for a character to pop up and say to the woman:

I see you looked first to right and then to left, like a scouting Iroquois, and as the air nips you shivered — not because you are cold, but merely to express yourself.

Of course one cannot use this to demonstrate that TV makes people less articulate. We may assert it but that’s not good enough and in any event we probably do too much asserting. Yet the difference is still striking and still feels important.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Bowl bodge

As you see, this porcelain bowl is not in pristine condition. An old glued repair has given up and two lumps fell off. The bowl was made in Lowestoft, probably in the 1770s, so rather than throw it away I decided a crude epoxy job would do.

First stick the two escaped bits together.

Then stick them into the bowl like so. 

When the glue has dried the bowl goes onto a shelf.

Why bother though? With that amount of damage, even a 250 year old porcelain bowl is worth very little. Because of its condition I only paid a couple of quid for it about twenty years ago. 

A professional restorer would have stuck it back together in such a way that only a very close inspection would reveal the damage, but the cost wouldn't be worthwhile. As far as collectors are concerned it is still a badly damaged and not particularly rare bowl.

Yet I could never have thrown it away. It's nothing to do with the value because it has none to speak of, but the age of the thing seems to give it some kind of cachet. The cachet won't last though. One day a descendant is bound to wonder what on earth it is and throw it out.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

A kind of comedy


And what is all this life but a kind of comedy, wherein men walk up and down in one another's disguises and act their respective parts, till the property-man brings them back to the attiring house. And yet he often orders a different dress, and makes him that came but just now off in the robes of a king put on the rags of a beggar. Thus are all things represented by counterfeit, and yet without this there was no living.
Desiderius Erasmus - In Praise of Folly (1511)

Now the election is behind us we have the razzmatazz to look forward to followed by a long coast downhill if the past is any guide to the future. Which it isn't of course so why not be optimistic and see it as Erasmus saw it - as a kind of comedy put on for our benefit?

Tuesday 19 May 2015

A move in the game


Although I don’t have much time for David Cameron, he does seem to have played a weak hand pretty well. The coalition was not popular with the chattering classes yet his party emerged with an overall majority in the House. Not only that, but the forthcoming EU membership referendum seems likely to deliver a hefty blow to those of us who think the UK should leave.

The promised EU referendum was an election trap for the unwary and it is as well to ponder what might happen after the out vote loses to superior firepower, better tactics, fewer scruples and various advantages accruing to the status quo.

Cameron is bound to have other issues to contend with, but the referendum may also give him a hold on the subtle and pervasive power of the BBC, our increasingly shaky establishment broadcaster.

Add in the appointment of BBC-basher John Whittingdale as the the new Culture Secretary and we have some clues as to what may transpire. Mr Whittingdale's voting record is certainly not pro-EU but not without its ambiguities either. In addition, it is he who may or may not kick away the licence fee stool on which our bland and podgy BBC squats. Yet the appointment already seems more cosy than one might have supposed it would be.

John Whittingdale is "a good choice" as culture secretary whose appointment last week will not have an adverse impact on the BBC, the outgoing vice-chair of the BBC Trust has said.

Diane Coyle said Mr Whittingdale recognised the BBC "has great popularity" with Conservative voters.

Sajid Javid's successor, she went on, is "a pragmatic, sensible man".

Quietly pushing the pro-EU cause, allowing its tame celebrities to label everything else with the fruitcake and racist memes are right up the Beeb’s street. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Whittingdale has any need to mention or even hint at a possible quid pro quo re the referendum. The Beeb would have been happy to oblige anyway.

So the licence fee issue may well be kicked into touch if the BBC finds its inner Tory. We eurosceptics may not like it and things may turn out differently, but it is a good idea to consider the strengths of each position and weigh them. Interesting too.

Monday 18 May 2015

Horses, wine and shoes

Some believe the Good to be that which is useful; they accordingly bestow this title upon riches, horses, wine, and shoes; so cheaply do they view the Good, and to such base uses do they let it descend. They regard as honourable that which agrees with the principle of right conduct – such as taking dutiful care of an old father, relieving a friend's poverty, showing bravery on a campaign, and uttering prudent and well-balanced opinions. We, however, do make the Good and the honourable two things, but we make them out of one: only the honourable can be good; also, the honourable is necessarily good.
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

So with 650 newly-minted honourable members, the House of Commons should be awash with prudent and well-balanced opinions.

Maybe we should wait and see though. I think Cameron's lot may still be swayed by riches, horses, wine, and shoes.

Sunday 17 May 2015

We spend our very selves

Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that "buying" refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves. These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself. 
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

Any reasonably complex society seems to be built on a mountain of expendable human life. It appears to be an essential profligacy of hierarchical societies, a need for stark contrast between high and low. Otherwise what’s the point of aiming high if not to waste the lives of those who never made it?

So previous ages had all those futile wars plus millions of lives spend in worthless servitude, endless drudgery and toil from which there was rarely any prospect of escape. Rule by waste where countless millions of human lives are the waste. 

The expendable many have always supported the less expendable few because that’s the only system we ever devised. Or rather, that’s the only system the few ever devised. Managing vast numbers of people is just too damned difficult even for the rarest of rare geniuses. And elite geniuses are pretty rare so there is much waste.

Moving on to the present day, we have for some time attempted to correct this appalling waste of human life. Well sort of – to a degree. Except we still have the original problem, the problem of hierarchy and we’ve made it worse. Global control-freaks gibber and plan while crazy wars sputter and flare as madness stalks the land.

What’s the answer?

Much stronger local government presumably. Local government where the basic political unit is local enough to tackle local complexities, to find out what works and what doesn’t, small enough to reject a thousand vain political fantasies. 

Many of those vain political fantasies are dreamed up by the big to control the small by wasting their lives in endless futilities, thus preserving the precious hierarchy. But the small can usually control and direct themselves and if they don’t, then at least they suffer the consequences without dragging down everyone else.

It’s called trial and error and it’s how we learned everything from throwing spears to launching satellites. Yet somehow we’ve drifted into a lunatic state of affairs where we must have trials on a vast scale but dare not notice the correspondingly vast errors. Will it work out for the best in the end? What do you think?

Saturday 16 May 2015

Under the spell

Lost in Space episode "Wish Upon a Star" from 1965 has Will and Dr. Smith finding a derelict alien spaceship and a mysterious machine which creates whatever they wish for.

They put a strange conical hat on their heads and whatever they wish for appears before them. Apples rain down from the sky, favourite foods pop out of thin air, even a collection of classical music tapes is not beyond its capabilities. Although nominally a popular science fiction series for youngsters, much of the science is much more akin to magic. Will and .Dr. Smith's alien machine is closer to Aladdin's magic lamp than physical reality.

Much science fiction is disguised magic where what is depicted is known to be nonsense. Dr Who's "sonic screwdriver" is a magic wand, Dr Who himself is a magician rather than a scientist. His TARDIS a magic phone box not entirely unlike Enid Blyton's Flyaway Cottage and equally nonsensical.

Captain Kirk's problems with dilithium crystals are problems with magic. Whatever dilithium is and whatever it is supposed to do, it has no connection with physical reality. It's an essential ingredient of the magic spells by which Scotty keeps the starship Enterprise on its magical journeys.

Not that there is anything wrong in presenting magic under the guise of science if the drama requires it. Magic has been with us for much longer than science and we aren't giving up on it without a fight, almost as if it has some hold over our genes and we can't let go.

Borderline magic is even more interesting. Economic predictions which owe as much to the crystal ball as they do to a world of real people coping as best they can without the benefit of magical foresight. From climate models to homeopathy, from the latest diet fad to sustainable energy, from the impossible exploits of James Bond to the mystique of the monarchy there is still a great deal of borderline magic in our system.  

Thursday 14 May 2015

Costly coffee

How much?

An interesting Starbucks story from pcpro.

Hackers are emptying people’s bank accounts using the Starbucks app.

Starbucks has admitted that users of its app are having their bank accounts drained by hackers. Thieves have gained access to a number of users’ apps - and with it access to their bank accounts, PayPals and any other linked forms of payment - all without needing an account number or password.

After gaining access to Starbucks accounts, thieves are exploiting the auto-reload feature of the app. Designed to make buying Starbucks even more convenient, the app will helpfully use a linked bank account to top up your Starbuck balance when it’s low.

Maybe lovers of inferior coffee saw the app as a kind of direct debit, but I still don't see how they could possibly have been so gullible as to drink the stuff on a regular basis.

Wednesday 13 May 2015


Being well acquainted with the psychology of castes, and also with the psychology of other categories of crowds, I do not perceive a single case in which, wrongly accused of a crime, I should not prefer to have to deal with a jury rather than with magistrates.

I should have some chance that my innocence would be recognised by the former and not the slightest chance that it would be admitted by the latter. The power of crowds is to be dreaded, but the power of certain castes is to be dreaded yet more. Crowds are open to conviction; castes never are.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

In various ways and from various angles, an aspect of the recent general election was the widespread view that major political parties are becoming much the same. Presumably their supporters think otherwise but the perception of bland similarity seems to be growing.

Unfortunately we don’t have the political language to lay hold of the problem in a clear and unambiguous way. Politics perverts language – it’s what ruling castes always do.

We could take Le Bon’s quote, extend it and build on the idea that a global caste is taking control of global politics. It’s a sound enough idea, but the word caste is old, has a specific social meaning  and to my mind is insufficiently compelling for modern politics.

Which brings up a deeper problem - what language do we use for global political trends? There does seem to be a global caste, but what do we call it? Current political language is lacking good terminology and for obvious reasons there is no political desire to fix it. The global caste is not in favour of transparency – not yet anyhow. And so we are shafted by the paucity of our language.

Monday 11 May 2015

Belief and wild orchids


I'm no great shakes at chemistry, but for some reason I’ve always found it interesting, easy to understand and the exams easy to pass. Hence my career in chemistry no doubt, but why do I find the subject comparatively easy? Why do you find your areas of expertise easy?

In my case I’d love to put it down to intelligence, but a far more convincing clue is in the words interesting and easy to understand. There is a significant similarity here because we are not usually interested in anything we find difficult, where the learning effort just doesn't yield the hoped for return. So perhaps interesting and easy to understand are much the same.

If we think in terms of conditioning then the similarity also becomes easy to understand. And therefore interesting of course. So I found it easy to imitate the things chemists are expected to do, say and write. I was easily conditioned by these things. 

In other words I absorbed the approved behaviour easily, acquired the correct expectations for mixing copper sulphate with sodium hydroxide or spilling concentrated sulphuric acid on my shoe plus a host of other expectations, both practical and verbal.  

Yet remembering the names of wild flowers is an entirely different matter. Daisy, buttercup and dandelion I know, plus one or two others, but even though I encounter many wild flowers while out walking, their names mostly go in one ear and out the other. So when it comes to the names of wild flowers I am stupid, not intelligent at all.

Yet I do recognise wild orchids such as the Early Purple Orchid because there is something memorable about them. Even though fairly common, people ooh and aah over them, take photos and generally raise their status in the pecking order of local flora. So in spite of my wild flower stupidity I’m conditioned to remember wild orchids because they are associated with a different, more forceful type of conditioning.

So what has this to do with belief?

Belief is also a symptom of a person’s susceptibility to conditioning. It is an indicator of education, upbringing social and economic status and possibly genes. It is evidence that a person is conditioned to respond to certain situations in a certain way, evidence that they were easily conditioned and in consequence they find their beliefs easy to understand, explain and elaborate. As we know, beliefs can be extremely stable, commonly lasting a lifetime.

All belief is conditioning while unbelief or scepticism could indicate some kind of contrary conditioning or simply a lack of conditioning. Or aspects of both. Life is complex.

Does it matter? Of course it does. If we see belief as some kind of rational structure inside our heads then we cannot analyse it adequately. We are controlled by it, unable to think our way round it, unable to see alternatives. The alternatives remain difficult and uninteresting, in stark contrast to the overwhelming clarity of our beliefs.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Horizontal perspective


This afternoon my wife and I sipped a beer or two in the garden which of course is mainly what gardens are for. Very pleasant it was too.

Inevitably we began to chat about this and that and for some reason we began discussing famous people we’d most like to meet for a conversation, including people from the past. Surprisingly perhaps, we couldn’t name many - well a grand total of two actually.

Times have changed. We no longer look up to people in the way folk seemed to in times gone by. We no longer assume that famous people must have something momentous to tell if only they would stoop to our level. Now the social perspective is much more horizontal, we are much more inclined to see weakness behind a facade of strength, skewed narratives behind an image of competence, blind luck behind apparent talent.

If the Prime Minister had joined us in the garden for a beer it would have been a considerable surprise but not an occasion for grovelling wonder. We'd have offered him a beer but we have no forelock to touch these days.

The one mutually interesting person we managed to come up with by the second beer was the Queen. Her uniquely informed indifference may be a facade, but what she could tell if she would must surely be fascinating. Yet we shall not see her like again. One day her irreplaceable perspective will be just that, irreplaceable.

Saturday 9 May 2015

The decline of sneering

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

Hilaire Belloc

One of the more destructive devices used in arguments is sneering. Many people use it to disguise the weaknesses in their position, often quite willing to do so even if it involves wrecking the debate. In any case a wrecked debate is a position preserved to fight another day.

So what? I sneer.

Although common and quite effective, sneering seems to be undermined by the internet. Sneerees now have numerous alternatives, being able to zip off elsewhere with a single click, taking them beyond the range of the destructive sneer. So Sneering is sidelined.

Socially this simple departure isn’t so easy. Relationships are involved. The burning of boats may be too high a cost simply to escape a sneer or two. Yet the sneer is a habit, a frequently unwarranted assumption of authority which grates and frustrates.

The internet is entirely different. If we don’t like the tone of any debate we may up sticks with the click of a mouse or the merest dab of a finger. Delete a bookmark and the job is permanent. Surely not an insignificant social trend, especially for all those erstwhile sneerees, liberated from the tiresome yoke of the oh so predictable sneer.

Unfortunately the decline of sneering doesn’t mean other social devices will go the same way, but maybe it is something to celebrate. Perhaps lying will meet the same fate.

Oh yeah? He sneered.

Friday 8 May 2015

To have heard them once

...just as you are well satisfied, in the majority of cases, to have seen through tricks which you did not think could possibly be done, so in the case of these word-gymnasts to have heard them once is amply sufficient. For what can a man desire to learn or to imitate in them? 

Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

Death of a gladiator


...there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses [*], and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death!
* The xylospongium or Roman toilet brush.

Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

Not quite the popular image of a gladiator is it? As far as I know there is no reason whatever to disbelieve Seneca's story, yet something makes me wonder if it was an ancient urban myth. I'm not sure why, but it is easy enough to imagine how gladiatorial combat could attract such myths. We are still fascinated by combat in its various forms, still cranking out myths.

Two Eds are better than one

I see the odious Ed Balls and the even more odious Ed Davey are both casualties of the election. A satisfactory result apart from the way UKIP voters have been disenfranchised, but we have AV voters to thank for throwing away that opportunity.

Thursday 7 May 2015

The big day

Two decisions to make – my vote and do I stay up till the early hours in case an upset occurs? I’m not sure about the staying up bit – snoring my way through it has always been attractive.

As for the vote, it has to be UKIP. Not the best candidate, but I can’t possibly vote mainstream as that would endorse the decline. Managing the decline seems to be a key subtext for our mainstream parties and their voters.

The Conservatives want a decorous decline with enough juicy sinecures to keep the wolf from the door.

Labour want a more strident and self-righteous decline with enough public sector sinecures to keep the wolf from the door.

The Lib Dems don’t count.

So it’s the admittedly feeble UKIP boat-rocker for me. What a rotten choice because the UKIP candidate won't get anywhere. Hardly worth bothering. Those who voted against AV have much to answer for.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

The muttering of servants


There is a strange and unwelcome odour about many political debates particularly from the traditional left. The atmosphere is forever tainted by a barely audible whine of complaint, often disguised as a call for social revenge justice.

It is much like the muttering of servants from an earlier age. Faint rumblings from behind the green baize door, a hum of ineffectual discontent which often dries up at the approach of master or mistress.

The whine changes volume and tone as one ranges up and down the political spectrum. Flavours and nuances come and go. The muttering becomes strident as one approaches a political extreme but fades to a muted murmur once the centre ground is regained.

It reminds me of tuning an old fashioned wireless, searching for interesting stations, trying to hear exactly what the airwaves are saying amid the crackle and distortion.

Unfortunately for political debate, this incessant whinging adds an undignified note which just won’t go away. Those above stairs aren’t much better with their cringing smiles, lies and apologetic demeanour. If anything they encourage it, the creeps.

Supposedly in a modern democracy we are not servants of the elite, but the green baize door seems much the same as ever. No doubt the muttering of servants is much the same too.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Lapidary inscriptions

In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.

Samuel Johnson - quoted in Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson

Monday 4 May 2015

A letter from Dave

Dear Voter,

With only a few more days to go before polling day and as everyone else seems to have gone to bed and the bottle is not quite empty, may I pass on a few quiet thoughts before retiring?

We both know elections are largely a matter of voting against the party or parties we have been persuaded to dislike or even fear. It is nothing to be ashamed because this is how politics works, how life works. Look at me. I actually joined a political party – the Conservatives.

It is also worth pointing out something I’m sure you already know but rarely hear from your newspaper or television. The two major parties in British politics are much the same.

The Lib Dems merely add a pleasing touch of democratic lustre to our political system. Their delightful arm-waving creates an impression that political divides are greater than in fact they are. Which is good – of course it is.

So it comes as no surprise to me if you are annoyed by the way we major parties are in close agreement on all significant issues such as the EU. You are right to be annoyed, but if you reflect for a moment, you are bound to realise why things are as they are.

As you know the EU has long been an ineradicable fact of political life and there are no political circumstances where we would ever leave. Politics is the art of the possible and leaving the EU isn't even on the agenda.

So what about my pledge of an EU referendum should you do me the honour of asking me to be your Prime Minister again? A very good question indeed, but if you reflect a little further I know you will realise how unlikely it is that even a referendum could possibly eject us from the EU.

Unfortunately, and I know you understand this point perfectly well, unfortunately the EU voice in such a referendum is certain to be by far the most persuasive - and frankly a little scary. Millions of jobs lost, a collapse in investment, a loss of status on the world stage. These arguments may err on the side of mild hyperbole but we both know they will carry the day.

Even if the unthinkable happens and the British people use my referendum to express a modicum of dissatisfaction with the EU, I shall still be Prime Minister.

Therefore it would become my responsibility and the responsibility of Parliament acting under advice from the EU to decide precisely what is required for Britain to “leave”, what form of words are appropriate, which new documents must be drafted, when the next referendum should be.

There, I’ve said more than enough.

Kind regards


Saturday 2 May 2015

A lot of what is published is incorrect


Via the k2p blog. The Lancet recently published a piece about a symposium on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research, held at the Wellcome Trust which begins :-

“A lot of what is published is incorrect.” I'm not allowed to say who made this remark because we were asked to observe Chatham House rules. We were also asked not to take photographs of slides. Those who worked for government agencies pleaded that their comments especially remain unquoted, since the forthcoming UK election meant they were living in “purdah”—a chilling state where severe restrictions on freedom of speech are placed on anyone on the government's payroll. Why the paranoid concern for secrecy and non-attribution? Because this symposium—on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research, held at the Wellcome Trust in London last week—touched on one of the most sensitive issues in science today: the idea that something has gone fundamentally wrong with one of our greatest human creations.

Every now and then we hear these whispers about the untrustworthy nature of science and scientists, how too much scientific research is junk aimed at more funding and fashions rather than the advancement of human knowledge. Understandably the problem seems to be causing significant anxiety in medical fields, hence the symposium and the Chatham House rules.

Yet it is extremely difficult for anyone to put some kind of scale on the problem. There is a problem I'm sure, but how significant is it? To my mind it's another of those areas where we should do our own research and reach our own conclusions. Here's another quote:-

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.

All the scientists I ever knew were decent people who would not compromise sound science. Times change though. During my working life bureaucracy, political fashions and the power of money became ever more important. 

Good scientists retired and numerous external pressures began to dominate the agenda. The integrity of the individual scientist gradually became unimportant, ineffective against a swelling tide of political, bureaucratic and financial exigencies. Finally :-

The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously. The bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system.

Friday 1 May 2015

The greatest possible sum of happiness


Amid the scorched-earth debating styles which general elections seem to encourage, it is perhaps worth injecting a touch of optimism. Life may be improving and may continue to improve simply because billions of people want it and have the money to make it happen.

And it was just this that she saw rising again — the forward, irresistible march, the social impulse towards the greatest possible sum of happiness, the need of action, of going ahead, without knowing exactly whither, but at all events with more elbow-room and under improved circumstances; and amid it all there was the globe turned upside down by the ant-swarm rebuilding its abode, its work never ending, fresh sources of enjoyment ever being discovered, man’s power increasing tenfold, the earth belonging to him more and more every day. Money, aiding science, yielded progress.
Emile Zola - L'Argent (1891)

This passage shows the usually level-headed Mme Caroline being taken in by the visionary eloquence of Zola's anti-hero and would-be mega-banker Aristide Saccard. Zola's intention was to highlight the hugely destructive nature of wild financial speculation, but possibly Mme Caroline saw something beyond greed and ambition.

Perhaps the world is moving towards a future where government becomes just another service and people shop around for the best deal. 

The human spirit and money may be an unlikely combination, but who can tell? With global rule by totalitarian nutters on the horizon, we need something to cling on to.