Monday 29 June 2015

Pavlov rules

Somewhere over yonder, a distant neighbour has one of those small dogs which bark their heads off at nothing in particular. Delightful little things aren’t they? Even though we’ve never seen it we know it must be a small dog because of that completely deranged note they all inject into every bark. Breeding you see.

Round about five o’clock every day the dog seems to be ejected into the garden because it barks continuously for ten minutes. After which time it seems to be taken in again because the barking stops abruptly and is never resumed until the next ten minute garden ejection comes around.

So our unknown neighbour has probably conditioned the dog to bark continuously while in the garden because the canine curse knows it will be rewarded by being allowed indoors again. Stimulus, response and reinforcement. Or -

By its barking the dog has conditioned our neighbour to observe a strict ten minute rule for the in-garden episodes. Stimulus, response and reinforcement again.

One could also say that other neighbours within earshot have been conditioned to ignore the persistent barking because each episode is only ten minutes long - never more. As a reward, the minor pleasure of sudden silence is probably just sufficient to prevent a chap from rushing round with the coal miner’s pick bequeathed by his wife’s father...   for example.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Knock at the door

We had a visit from a guy selling some kind of solar power deal today. I can't imagine anyone buying anything on the doorstep but still they come.

These days they often begin by saying they aren't selling anything. Not a good start I always think - kicking off with an obvious lie. Anyhow I told the sunny solar chap I wasn't interested.

"Why - are you anti-green?" he asked brightly, as if such a thing was unthinkably gross but hey - I'm a grey-haired oldie so it's always possible.

"No I said, but it has to be subsidised..."

"You mean the feed-in tariff. To me that's really good because you make money from solar power which has to be a good thing. I could give you a quote to see how much that could be."

"No thanks, it's only viable because of the feed-in tariff."

For some reason that reply seemed to put him off completely. He closed down the conversation and departed as if he simply wasn't interested in presenting figures to anyone who might actually understand them. As if I'd flipped a switch on his script.

Friday 26 June 2015

Time Trap

A guy from a bleakly dysfunctional future casually robs and mutilates a peaceful past via his ability to manipulate time. Strange how we call it science fiction because time travel makes no sense. It's just magic brought up to date. 

Well done if not hugely illuminating, but it highlights an interesting contrast between short and long films. Presumably the length of films has largely depended on the need for punters to feel they had their money's worth and making the effort to visit the cinema was worthwhile. 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Freezing warmth on the way

The Met Office is predicting again:

A return to low solar activity not seen for centuries could increase the chances of cold winters in Europe and eastern parts of the United States but wouldn't halt global warming, according to new research.

The Met Office-led study, published in Nature Communications, is among the first to look at the regional climate impacts of a possible 'grand solar minimum'...

...On a regional level, the study found a bigger cooling effect for northern Europe, the UK and eastern parts of North America - particularly during winter. For example, for northern Europe the cooling is in the range -0.4 to -0.8 °C.

Winters will be warmer overall, but this suggests a relative increase in the risk of colder winters for these areas during a possible grand solar minimum.

So global warming isn't necessarily global and isn't necessarily warming. If this ludicrous and shameful mess of guesswork and bet-hedging is science then I'm a banana.

Here's the Met Office's Dr Vicky Pope in 2007  - "by 2014 we're predicting that we'll be point three degrees warmer than 2004".

It's no great surprise but here's how the "prediction" turned out.

Monday 22 June 2015

The attractions of evil

Lindisfarne Priory

Does God exist? For an atheist the obvious answer is no while for a believer the equally obvious answer is yes. Arguments are pointless as there is no common ground on which one might be based, but an intractable problem for atheists is the transcendent nature of God.

For atheists God is an ideal they cannot borrow; a transcendent moral schema through which their secular world cannot be interpreted. Fair enough one might say. One might also say there are more gains than losses and perhaps there are but the losses are important.

The essential point seems to be the moral nature of what is lost as religious belief declines. God as an ideal is an open door to moral and social ideals. Corrupted at they are by human nature, they are nevertheless ideals which atheists are unable to replicate.

Some years ago Theodore Dalrymple had this to say in an interview.

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men - that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring

Atheists commonly have no transcendent purpose to their lives because there is nothing transcendent about atheism. Humanism is a pale imitation, a pallid reflection of the moral imperatives laid down by an omniscient and omnipotent creator.

Here again we can be distracted by the endless fallibility of human nature. The trouble is we atheists are still left with our lack of durable ideals, our inability to appeal to a transcendent authority vastly more permanent than ourselves. Equally important and damaging is that we have no ideals safely located beyond our reductionist methods of analysis. If it can be screwed we tend to screw it.

This has the unfortunate effect of leaving the gate open for fabricated social controls in the guise of political and ethical ideals. We don’t like uncertainty do we? We are prepared to make significant sacrifices if offered a more certain world and a more certain future. It doesn’t matter if the certainty on offer is a grossly obvious lie, it still tempts the unwary.

Neuroscientist Karl Friston thinks our brains are wired to minimise surprises. We want certainty – preferably now. This need for certainty creates a political market, a forum wherein purveyors of secular certainty tout their flaky wares to a populace hardwired to be gullible.

There seem to be two factors working together here. Firstly we have a problem in that a secular culture does not provide a transcendent moral schema, it provides laws and social prohibitions.

Secondly, a secular culture seems to offer a degree of spurious certainty. It claims to know more about the world than it actually does; claims to be more connected to the world than it actually is.

These two aspects of modern life are tending to promote a kind of rudderless moral drift which cannot be corrected and which Dalrymple so tellingly deplores. Unfortunately there seems to be no secular answer. Many atheists would argue that religious answers are no better or perhaps worse than having no transcendent answers at all and perhaps they often are. Yet a vital point is thereby missed in that secular societies seem to have only two long-term courses to steer.

Totalitarian domination of the weak by the strong.
Psychological conditioning of the weak by the strong.

Religious belief does not prevent either but neither does atheism.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Things change


I presume I shall be better understood if I day that the month was October and the day October thirteenth; the exact hour I cannot tell you — it’s easier to get philosophers to agree than timepieces — but it was between noon and one o’clock.
Seneca - Apocolocyntosis (divi) Claudii (around 55AD)

A terrific day when the doctor, with face tanned like a chauffeur’s, returned to Clerkenwell and resumed his work, calm, prim, impassible as ever!
Arnold Bennett - Elsie and the Child (1924)

Childhood nutrition
He listens; ay, his lips moving perhaps, and a smile on his old face like a child asking for a slice of bread and sugar.
Walter de la Mare - Music (1955)

As a child I remember bread and butter with sugar sprinkled on it. Slightly crunchy and not particularly pleasant

“How long does it take to go to Westcombe across this way?” she asked of him while they were bringing up the carriage.
“About two hours,” he said.
“Two hours — so long as that, does it? How far is it away?”
“Eight miles.”
“Two hours to drive eight miles — who ever heard of such a thing!” “I thought you meant walking”
“Ah, yes; but one hardly means walking without expressly stating it.”
“Well, it seems just the other way to me — that walking is meant unless you say driving.”
Thomas Hardy - An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress (1935)

Monday mornings
Monday morning is a strenuous but somehow a glad morning in respectable households of regular habits. The clean linen is brought out in lovely white piles from the linen cupboard and distributed over the house, and the dirty linen is collected and shamefully hurried away and catalogued in a place without honour and thrown pell-mell in baskets and despatched, and then everybody has a sweet sense of relief.
Arnold Bennett - Elsie and the Child (1924)

I have just returned from a ride in my litter; and I am as weary as if I had walked the distance, instead of being seated. Even to be carried for any length of time is hard work, perhaps all the more so because it is an unnatural exercise; for Nature gave us legs with which to do our own walking, and eyes with which to do our own seeing. Our luxuries have condemned us to weakness; we have ceased to be able to do that which we have long declined to do.
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

Friday 19 June 2015

Behind The Ton Up Boys

A few years after this video was made I recall seeing a motorcycle showroom full of British bikes each with a drip tray to catch the oil leaks from the crankcase. Not far away was a showroom of Hondas with not a single drip tray in sight. The rest as they say, is history. 

Thursday 18 June 2015

Lying – it’s what we do


What Spinoza, for example, calls ‘blessedness’ is simply the state of non-attachment; his ‘human bondage,’ the condition of one who identifies himself with his desires, emotions and thought-processes, or with their objects in the external world.
Aldous Huxley – Ends and Means

We all know that lying in all its many forms is a common aspect of human life. From exaggeration to evasion, from the sins of omission to barefaced lying we all assent to at least a few dubious narratives because we must and because this is how societies work.

To survive daily life we cannot be wholly non-attached in Huxley’s sense, so we must endure human bondage in Spinoza’s. We must identify ourselves with our desires, emotions and thought-processes, or with their objects in the external world. Hence the lies, hence the bondage.

Not so long ago, visitors to Grandson’s school told the children that God made the harvest. Was that a lie? In my book it was at best misleading. However those visitors saw their words as advocating a genuine truth, and would no doubt be mightily offended at my implication.

Worthy advocacy of noble causes is a particular problem when so few causes are really noble and so much advocacy is unworthy. It all goes to create an unhealthy culture of false virtue, armour-plated against any criticism, securely located on a mountain of furtive dishonesty.

Yet how does anyone advocate anything without so much as a hint of bias in all its many tangled forms? It is possible perhaps, but neither easy nor common. Advocacy is inherently biased because it is incompatible with non-attachment.

A few decades ago, Secretary of State for War John Profumo resigned from the government and from Parliament when he had to admit he had lied to Parliament over the Christine Keeler affair. Only a few years later, Prime Minister Edward Heath lied to voters about the nature of the Common Market as the EU then was.

“There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.”

Prime Minister Edward Heath, television broadcast on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, January 1973. 

Perhaps Heath saw this lie as worthy advocacy but he must have known he was lying and unlike Profumo he never resigned. Far from it – he appears to have seen his lying as an act of statesmanship.

The perennial problem is that we must advocate to live, to form stable societies and economies, to hold political debates, invest in the future, build civilisations and even cultures. So who doesn’t lie through advocacy, whether worthy or not?

As usual, the ethical folk are those who remain non-attached, people without causes, the non-campaigners who prefer not to campaign and the non-advocates who prefer to advocate as little as possible because advocacy is so intimately linked with lying.

The question of whether or not anything can be achieved without advocacy is yet another problem. Possibly not.

Wednesday 17 June 2015



Yet more gloomy news about Greece from the Daily Telegraph.

Bank of Greece issues grave warning of Grexit as British government prepares for fallout - live

Protests planned in Greece tonight, as rumours of a compromise deal swirl

British government accelerating preparations for Grexit as Bank of Greece describes need for a deal as a "historical imperative"

The situation in Greece is interesting to those of us fortunate enough to be uninvolved. In spite of all the analysis available, nobody seems to know how the situation will be resolved. Almost everything I read sounds like frenetic guesswork or a statement of the obvious.

To my economically untutored mind it is a fascinating battle between economic realities and raw political power. In spite of its clumsiness, it forces us to understand just how powerful the EU political machine can be when threatened - and that is a lesson we should absorb and inwardly digest but almost certainly won't.

Possibly worth considering is the potential impact on the EU referendum to be held in the UK. No doubt the EU and the UK government intend to buy their desired result and in that they are likely to succeed. So could this important purchase be put at risk by a successful Greek exit from the euro or even the EU?

Maybe so - in which case the situation in Greece will be resolved.

Monday 15 June 2015

Pig’s trotters and red herrings

Her shop subsisted in its corner by reason of the conservatism of poor neighbourhoods. She sold penny yellow and black tea mugs that came from a pottery down Bristol way — tea mugs of a pattern one hundred and fifty years old. She sold brown moist sugar that was nearly black, and had something the flavour of liquorice, such as none of the new stores sold or would have known where to buy.

She sold red herrings from a factory on the east coast that had been established two hundred and fifty years, and that had only three or four customers. She sold medicinal herbs in packets and cooked pig’s-trotters — which she boiled herself — as well as penny broad-sheet ballads that were hung up all over the shop, and onions from Brittany that depended in long ropes all down the window.

Her profits from the establishment, except at Christmas and about the fifth of November, when she sold fireworks, were seldom more than seventeen and six, and never less than nine shillings a week. In return she was the dictatress of opinions and the wise woman of Henry Street, James Street, and Charles and Augusta Mews, Westminster.
Ford Madox Ford – Mr Fleight (1913)

We may deplore the ubiquity of supermarkets and the consequent change in our high streets, but the alternatives were not always quite so quaint as popular sentiment would have us believe. The pig’s trotters and red herrings might have been tasty though.

Fun With Powdered Alcohol

Sunday 14 June 2015

Your Youniverse and beyond

It seems fair to say that the modern world is dominated by narratives rather than a search for truth. No doubt it always has been so. Listed below are the top ten global PR agencies and their 2013 fee income, giving us a total of just over four and a half billion dollars. Source.

However, the overall market is much larger and dominated by four big holding companies.

The market share of globally reported revenue—slightly more than $9.7 billion—held by the four giant holding companies, which was around 50 percent three years ago, holds steady at around 45 percent. Their share of the overall global PR industry revenue—now estimated by The Holmes Report at close to $12.5 billion based on the vast number of smaller firms that do not provide revenue figures— remains well under 40 percent.  Source.

If we add in the vast number of people outside the PR agency business, from journalists to press officers, from political pundits and their advisers to partisan amateurs willing to be used then perhaps we begin to grasp the vast scale of narrative manipulation.

Naturally it doesn't stand still. The art of the manipulated narrative has become part of our lives and will only dig deeper, deep into your "Youniverse".

This idea of creating your own "Youniverse" is a perfect example of tapping into our emotional desire to be seen as unique personalities. Public relations professionals must assist companies in learning how to move from more traditional tactics in favour of smarter approaches that extend their personalisation capabilities beyond the PC. The ability to deliver relevant communication across multiple channels will transform these marketing efforts from an unwanted intrusion into a valued service.

Studies have shown that people remember only 20% of what they read (are you still with me?) and that 83% of learning occurs visually. The massive popularity of visual social networks like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr, demonstrates the emotional power of images to tell stories in a way that is proven to be far more memorable than mere words
. Source.

"Mere words" eh? We don't want too many of those do we? Even supposedly scientific issues are no longer driven by a search for the truth if politics or commerce have their finger in the pie. For example.

Some of the world’s top PR companies have for the first time publicly ruled out working with climate change deniers, marking a fundamental shift in the multi-billion dollar industry that has grown up around the issue of global warming.

Public relations firms have played a critical role over the years in framing the debate on climate change and its solutions – as well as the extensive disinformation campaigns launched to block those initiatives.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Their despotic instincts


In his book The Modern Regime, Hippolyte Taine spends a considerable time analysing the regime imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte and how he engineered it, his deep understanding of human weakness and how it could be used. Even two centuries later the parallels with our own time are striking.

At his first nod the French prostrate themselves obediently, and there remain, as in a natural position; the lower class, the peasants and the soldiers, with animal fidelity, and the upper class, the dignitaries and the functionaries, with Byzantine servility.

The republicans, on their side, make no resistance; on the contrary, among these he has found his best governing instruments—senators, deputies, state councillors, judges, and administrators of every grade. He has at once detected behind their sermonizing on liberty and equality, their despotic instincts, their craving for command, for leadership, even as subordinates; and, in addition to this, with most of them, the appetite for money or for sensual pleasures.
Hippolyte Taine - The Modern Regime (1893)

In particular, the last sentence stands out. He has at once detected behind their sermonizing on liberty and equality, their despotic instincts... How accurate it all is, and how very modern. Nothing really changes does it?

When our low-information voters make their mark in the forthcoming EU referendum and opt for staying in, then maybe we should keep an eye on Corsica. Metaphorically speaking of course.

Thursday 11 June 2015

As the culture ages


A problematic quote for anyone old enough to observe and also inclined to deplore cultural change.

As the culture ages and begins to lose its objectives, conflict arises within it between those who wish to cast it off and set up a new culture-pattern, and those who wish to retain the old with as little change as possible.
Philip K. Dick - The Defenders (1953)

There must always be a suspicion that deplored cultural changes are merely changes to which younger generations have adapted and will continue to adapt because this is the way of the world. So any perceived decline is merely adjustment as the culture ages and begins to lose its objectives.

Certainly modern times are markedly different from the past, technology, prosperity, communications and general know-how have made it so. In which case there could be genuine problems we can’t see because we haven’t encountered them before. Not that we are much good at learning from the past, but maybe we can’t anyway because the past is too far removed from the present.

Almost two thousand years ago Seneca attributed perceived cultural decline to the vices of mankind and not of the times.

You are mistaken, my dear Lucilius, if you think that luxury, neglect of good manners, and other vices of which each man accuses the age in which he lives, are especially characteristic of our own epoch; no, they are the vices of mankind and not of the times. No era in history has ever been free from blame.
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

It is as if our faults are always with us but from age to age they vary in their significance, in their contribution to the present. Things could be better but that is always the case and always will be until we evolve into something else, something better. Or possibly worse?

Tuesday 9 June 2015

The great sock issue

Every now and then it is worth rising above geopolitical tensions and turmoil to consider more fundamental issues such as socks. 

As many chaps and no doubt lady chaps do, I buy identical socks in bulk to avoid the odd sock debacle when they emerge from the wash. If all socks are the same then odd socks don't matter as I'm sure you have observed.

The only real downside to this winning strategy lies in the purchase, specifically the problem of multi-packs bonded together with what seems like dozens of those little plastic tags. Somehow the end of every single tag buries itself into the sock so deeply and firmly that great dexterity is required to snip tag rather than sock. 

Not only that, but when snipped they fly around like toenail clippings, which I suppose is ironic in a way. I'm sure the above photo is merely an incomplete sample from my latest purchase. I'll find one or two more when I wear the socks and the rest will end up in the vacuum cleaner.

Ah well - back to the geopolitical tensions.

Sunday 7 June 2015

The age of the naked emperor


Prestige lost by want of success disappears in a brief space of time. It can also be worn away, but more slowly by being subjected to discussion. This latter power, however, is exceedingly sure. From the moment prestige is called in question it ceases to be prestige. The gods and men who have kept their prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. For the crowd to admire, it must be kept at a distance.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

A powerful insight from Le Bon, especially relevant to an age such as ours which purports to value and promote equality. This is what many seem to fear, the levelling power of familiarity, the threat to prestige. The threat is genuine - we see its effects everywhere. Declining respect for religions, royalty, presidents, prime ministers, business leaders, major charities and institutions such as the BBC.

We it in major controversies such as the catastrophic climate narrative which now seems so silly and irrelevant. Yet the public is still expected to swallow it largely on the basis of their respect for both scientists and tame institutions such as the BBC. 

Unfortunately for climate science, the dishonesty has become embarrassingly obvious. In part because Le Bon’s caveat is much more difficult to achieve in the modern world. For the crowd to admire, it must be kept at a distance. No doubt that’s where the infamous settled science ploy comes from.

What next? The decline of universities? Having a degree is no longer the distinction it was. The gods and men who have kept their prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. Universities would be well advised to keep this interesting issue off the agenda, as I’m sure they already know.

How about presidents, prime ministers and high officials? We are already familiar with their deficiencies, but no doubt there is more to come if respect continues its apparently inexorable decline. We live in revealing times with hordes of naked emperors strutting their flabby stuff.

Saturday 6 June 2015

The FIFA fumble


The FIFA debacle is interesting isn’t it? We’ve all known about the corruption forever, yet the money involved seems to be dwarfed by, for example, the supposedly legal antics of bankers.

Fifa is a non-profit organisation - which does however maintain a large cash reserve which amounted to more than $1.5bn (£1bn) in 2014 - and has its headquarters in Switzerland, where it is tax-exempt.

The organisation's total revenue of $5.7bn (£3.7bn) from 2011 to 2014 is not large compared to that of giant corporations - for example Coca-Cola, a Fifa sponsor,had a turnover of $46bn in 2014. It is however larger, averaged out over the four-year cycle, than the GDP of several of Fifa's member nations, including the Seychelles and Guinea-Bissau.

One can’t help feeling that what FIFA lacks is political protection. It isn’t part of the UN or any other bunch of sheltered shysters.

In 2006, the then United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan wrote that "the World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy" for its appeal around the world.

Friday 5 June 2015

Long ago

Yesterday we spent some time in the garden with Granddaughter. Kicking a ball around on the lawn, tipping and pouring water, making wet hand prints on the wall and generally enjoying the sunshine.

The garden was quiet as it usually is during the week. A few birds in the trees, brilliant sunshine, the dappled shade of the magnolia under a clear blue sky and that sense of timeless peace such days often bring.

Reminded of summer days long ago I was also struck with the notion that this day too would one day be long ago in Granddaughter’s memory. If indeed she ever recalls anything more than a hazy sensation of green grass, blue sky and those old people she once knew so well.

These are the moments when time seems to go off the boil, when it ceases to be that remorseless road into the unknown. When past, present and future are much the same, or could be if we only knew how.

Thursday 4 June 2015

The net is already woven


The most contagious feelings, the clearest thoughts, of others are clear or contagious only because I can readily make them my own.
George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923)

A typically spooky observation by old George. Clarity is not merely useful for comprehension but contagious too. Clear ideas are often clear because they are in some sense familiar. They slip so easily past our dozing right of veto. When it comes to language, clarity and familiarity are intimately linked, often to our ultimate disadvantage.

Quine likened our ideas to a network which cannot easily be modified without risk of unravelling the whole shebang. So we make sure it stays intact because we must. One idea links to the next in chains of what we think of as reasoning even if the first link in the chain was forgotten long ago or never even noticed as it stitched itself into the network of our predilections and allegiances.

Which links to the forthcoming UK EU referendum because the EU is familiar and life outside isn't. In one form or another we’ve been members for decades so the net is already woven.

Was that always the plan? I don’t know, but any passably competent bureaucrat could easily have foreseen the political advantages.

Wednesday 3 June 2015


By a farm track near Bonsall, Derbyshire. Presumably it was once used as a trough. Some farmers seem extremely reluctant to get rid of anything.

Monday 1 June 2015



I read a number of what I think of as yarns during our recent sojourn in Northumberland. I class yarns as easy to read fiction ideally suited to holidays. They are not too long, only have a few characters and are either amusing or just easy to read.

One of the yarns was a book from the shelves of our accommodation, The Far Country by Nevil Shute. A striking aspect of the book is the way early fifties Britain is compared to Australia, much to the advantage of Australia.

In this novel, Shute has some harsh things to say about the new (British) National Health Service, as well as the socialist Labour government, themes he would later develop more fully in In the Wet.

Apart from that the book is a fairly typical Shute yarn, easy to read, plenty of practical details and with a strong dash of sex-free romance.

At one time Shute was an extremely successful writer, I recall reading a number of his books years ago although I was never a great fan. Originally he was an aeronautical engineer and there is something about his practical outlook on life which still appeals. Shuteworld is a place where problems are there to be solved, usually by hard work and a touch of the inventive spirit so important to Shute's ethos.

There is something else in Shuteworld too, something we’ve lost as the real world grows smaller and more regulated. Possibly it is the pioneer’s love of challenges, particularly practical challenges where hand and mind, determination and good intentions change things for the better.

Shuteworld has gone and many modern readers are unlikely to grasp quite what it is that has faded from their grasp. Ironically, although he was wedded to technical progress, it is progress which rolled over Shuteworld, squashing its delight in bright-eyed individualism, burying it forever in a relentless pursuit of corporate profit and political uniformity.

Robotic chef