Friday 30 June 2017

Chocolate - the intelligent choice

Frontiers in Nutrition has some excellent information for chocolate lovers.

Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids

The specific mechanisms of action of flavonoids responsible for cognitive protection and modulation are not entirely elucidated. Nevertheless, increasing evidence supports the notion that cocoa and chocolate consumption provides several health benefits, including neurocognitive enhancement and neuroprotective effects.

Good news indeed, but it is probably worth reminding ourselves that milk chocolate sold in the UK may contain as little as 20% cocoa solids. Good quality dark chocolate seems to be the intelligent choice, but if we already make intelligent choices we don't need it do we?

Thursday 29 June 2017

Movie guys

It is cold, dark and foggy outside my favourite bar and not so radically different inside. ‘Favourite’ probably deserves a qualification even though it is unlikely get one. No matter.

Whatever the physical deficiencies it is a deliciously atmospheric night if one prefers the real thing. I’m not so sure about that either - so often the movies do it better and if that isn't the ultimate sadness I don't know what is. A guy I used to know pushes his way into the bar, admitting ghostly tendrils of fog and mystery.

Hey what brings you here? I ask with tepid interest.

Oh – a few things. Mind if I join you?

Of course not and forgive my surprise but round here – well it just isn’t what I see as your kind of - tippling establishment.

You were going to say dive – not my kind of dive.

Yes I was - because it is and it isn’t.

No it isn’t.


So maybe I was brought up round here and that’s all there is to it. Sentimental attachment. Scratching a very old sore even though I know I shouldn’t.

Okay – I see. Sentimental attachment. We all play that game which for you is just as well.

I don’t play it though – not usually.

No perhaps not. In fact you never really did - you just faked it. Speaking of which - how is that sexpot wife of yours? Number four is it – or is it five? You see I do keep up with your career – in my own way.

It’s number three and she is fine thank you.

Well that’s nice. And are you still making movies?

Yeah, I’m still making movies.

I only ask because –

Because you don’t go to see them. Since we parted company you never did as I recall.

I saw one –

But you don’t remember what it was called, what it was about.

Well – you know.

Yes I do know. You think movies are beneath you and that includes mine.

No I don’t and please allow me buy a round of something strong and cheap - my usual tipple.

Thanks and yes you do think movies are beneath you and you’re right, they are. All of them. Including mine.

Ah so that’s why you’re here. It’s the angst again. It’s such a swine isn’t it – the angst?


It’s what keeps you going though – lots of lovely angst. It’s where your inspiration comes from.

You’re lying to me again.

I’m not-

Yes you are. You always lied to me in spite of everything. I don’t do inspiration. You always knew that but you always lied to me about it.

You needed me to.

Needed you to what?

You needed me to lie to you – about inspiration and all that shit. You knew I was lying but you needed it so I gave it. That was my job – lying to you. That was why you paid me. Nothing else.

I paid you for your creativity –

I wasn’t creative. You didn’t need it. Movies are like a kid’s jigsaw. A star or two, so much romance, so much pointless violence, so much pathos, so much exchange of sexual fluids, so much prissy politics, so much clunking drama. Put it together in roughly the right proportions and you have yet another movie. The ratings and the audience don’t allow for anything deeper.

So that’s why you think I’m here – the creative angst finally got to me.

I thought it might – eventually.

Well it hasn’t – I don’t care for any of that.

I don’t believe you but do carry on – tell me why you’re really here.


Boredom? Well that’s new – boredom. I never saw you as a victim of something so banal, so juvenile as boredom.


Yeah - juvenile. Good God you must know that – boredom is essentially juvenile. Always.

I’ll say this for you, you still have your old genius for spinning reasons for – for whatever. That’s certainly one you never dropped on me – boredom is juvenile. Christ I could even have used it.

You would have used it.

Yes I would - I shall.

No you won’t.


You won’t use it –ever. You’ve jumped ship.

Have I?

Yes you have.

Maybe I have – although technically not yet. I need to sink or swim and know for sure which it is.

Sink or swim? On what I may as well ask but prefer to guess. The medium of which you speak is the sea of lies - you must sink or swim on that. But how prosaic – even by your standards.

Nevertheless that’s the deal.

My word it’s almost worth a movie – the great man, the spinner of a million fantasies becomes a victim of the most banal and sentimental fantasy. He must save himself from drowning in the sea of lies. He’ll need a heroine of course – a large-breasted heroine if I’m any judge.

You always were a bastard.

You paid me to be a bastard.

Indeed I did.

Old gossip

The other day found us enjoying a quiet coffee but we could not help overhearing a group at the next table. They were passing judgement on recent TV programmes. Nothing unusual about that I suppose, because many people must still watch TV and the BBC licence scam is enforced as rigorously as ever.

Yet oddly enough it did seem unusual. The conversation sounded old-fashioned, a reminder that people do not seem to watch as much TV as they did a few decades ago. It used to be a popular source of casual conversation on a par with the weather, but we certainly don't hear it discussed as much as we used to. Folk play with their mobiles instead.

Tuesday 27 June 2017

It is abduction all the way down

But fortunately not that kind of abduction. 

A few weeks ago Aeon published a fascinating article by Karl Friston, but first of all it may be worthwhile to see what Wikipedia says about the man who wrote it.

Karl Friston pioneered and developed the single most powerful technique for analysing the results of brain imaging studies and unravelling the patterns of cortical activity and the relationship of different cortical areas to one another. Currently over 90% of papers published in brain imaging use his method (SPM or Statistical Parametric Mapping) and this approach is now finding more diverse applications, for example, in the analysis of EEG and MEG data. His method has revolutionized studies of the human brain and given us profound insights into its operations. None has had as major an influence as Friston on the development of human brain studies in the past twenty-five years.

In which case we may take it that Friston is no professional waffler. However, it is not easy to summarise his article because there are a number of interwoven strands, but his starting point is to focus on processes rather than things.

I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists?

To accept consciousness as a process rather than a thing is not at all difficult and many people may do that anyway, but from this simple adjustment to our thinking some remarkable conclusions follow.   

I hope to show you that nature can drum up reasons without actually having them for herself. In what follows, I’m going to argue that things don’t exist for reasons, but certain processes can nonetheless be cast as engaged in reasoning. I use ‘reasoning’ here to mean explanations that arise from inference or abduction – that is, trying to account for observations in terms of latent causes, rules or principles.

This perspective on process leads us to an elegant, if rather deflationary, story about why the mind exists. Inference is actually quite close to a theory of everything – including evolution, consciousness, and life itself. It is abduction all the way down.

Friston then moves on to the oddity of life as repetitive, self-organising behaviour which as he says, seems contrary to how the universe usually behaves.

Complex systems are self-organising because they possess attractors. These are cycles of mutually reinforcing states that allow processes to achieve a point of stability, not by losing energy until they stop, but through what’s known as dynamic equilibrium. An intuitive example is homeostasis. If you’re startled by a predator, your heartbeat and breathing will speed up, but you’ll automatically do something to restore your cardiovascular system to a calmer state (following the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response). Any time there’s a deviation from the attractor, this triggers flows of thoughts, feelings and movements that eventually take you back to your cycle of attracting, familiar states. In humans, all the excitations of our body and brain can be described as moving towards our attractors, that is, towards our most probable states.

A little further on we get to a crucial point in the whole piece.
It’s at this point that we can talk about inference, the process of figuring out the best principle or hypothesis that explains the observed states of that system we call ‘the world’. Technically, inference entails maximising the evidence for a model of the world. Because we are obliged to maximise evidence, we are – effectively – making inferences about the world using ourselves as a model. That’s why every time you have a new experience, you engage in some kind of inference to try to fit what’s happening into a familiar pattern, or to revise your internal states so as to take account of this new fact. This is just the kind of process a statistician goes through in trying to decide whether she needs new rules to account for the spread of a disease, or whether the collapse of a bank ought to affect the way she models the economy.

Now we can see why attractors are so crucial. An attracting state has a low surprise and high evidence. Complex systems therefore fall into familiar, reliable cycles because these processes are necessarily engaged in validating the principle that underpins their own existence. Attractors push systems to fall into predictable states and thereby reinforce the model that the system has generated of its world. A failure of this surprise minimising, self-evidencing, inferential behaviour means the system will decay into surprising, unfamiliar states – until it no longer exists in any meaningful way. Attractors are the product of processes engaging in inference to summon themselves into being. In other words, attractors are the foundation of what it means to be alive.
As suggested above, there is little point in trying to summarise Friston's article, not because it is too difficult but because all the steps are worth following. However, one more quote may give a flavour of the whole piece.
Applying the same thinking to consciousness suggests that consciousness must also be a process of inference. Conscious processing is about inferring the causes of sensory states, and thereby navigating the world to elude surprises. While natural selection performs inference by selecting among different creatures, consciousness performs inference by selecting among different states of the same creature (in particular, its brain). There is a vast amount of anatomical and physiological evidence in support of this notion. If one regards the brain as a self-evidencing organ of inference, almost every one of its anatomical and physiological aspects seems geared to minimise surprise.

So consciousness is a process of navigating the world to elude surprises. That at least is no surprise, as indeed it shouldn't be if Friston is right.

Monday 26 June 2017

The Pernicious Effects of Cuteness


Michael Brandow has a fine piece in Quillette lamenting the rise of cuteness and its pernicious effects on what we are.

Call me a sociopath, but I’ve always had a problem with things conspicuously cute. As a child growing up in the sixties and seventies, unlike most of my peers, I couldn’t help but see something creepy, even sinister in those smiley faces supposed to make us smile. The weird yellow circles with the arched mouths and dead black ovals for eyes, slapped on everything from school binders to rear bumpers and hippie asses, didn’t elicit the warm-and-fuzzy feelings intended, not for me. No more do those favorite emojis on social media today, really just variations on a smiley, make me trust the opinions they’re used to express.

No I don't like emojis either, not because they fail to convey what they are supposed to, but because they are so much more limited than words. Subtleties are lost.

Brandow also describes how Mickey Mouse changed from Walt Disney's original mischievous rodent to something far cuter and less threatening. 

The older Mickey’s ears were gradually ripped back to expose the forehead of a helpless infant. Eyes were swollen as large as any Margaret Keane puppy’s. The snout was crushed to be less wolfish than Wiley Coyote’s, more puggish like a pudgy angel’s button nose. The entire head in relation to the body was infantilized, an enormous bulb bolted to a diminutive body with long, wiry, mobile, unpredictable arms and legs reduced to the fat, dwarfed, lame stumps of a Teletubby or a French bulldog.

The whole piece is a longish but entertaining and interesting read, especially Brandow's references to supposed links between violence on the screen and social violence. He isn't buying it.

Violent crime did skyrocket in the sixties and on through the seventies and eighties, but could scarcely be blamed on Sylvester swallowing Tweety and belching a feather, the sort of gag promptly outlawed by the new cartoon police. Rascally behavior was in fact rising over the very decades when children’s shows were being mollified, apparently with opposite the intended effect.

Towards the end we have this observation about social media.

Behind those smiley faces, I’ll say again, is something grim, and learning later in life that it wasn’t just me, that icons are, indeed, open to interpretation, has been no solace. As an author and journalist, I remember feeling disappointed and demoralized to see intellectuals I respected, fellow writers, and heads of the few remaining serious, independent publishing houses, finally jump ship and hop in the clown car with the kiddies. After mocking the latest video games, they lowered themselves to Facebook, and worse, Twitter, a forum that reduces the most complex ideas to the slick, smug brevity of an advertizing pitch, where knowledge is vast but shallow, truth is based on consensus, and almost no one reads beyond the catchy one-liners, or a tangled mess of links added to reinforce gut feelings.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Glastonbury grotesquerie

From somersetlive we hear that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has already identified who is responsible for the Grenfell horror.

The families who died in the Grenfell Tower fire were “murdered by political decisions", according to the Shadow Chancellor.

Labour MP John McDonnell was speaking at an event at the Left Field area of Glastonbury Festival today (June 25) when he made the remarks.

He was speaking alongside Jonathan Bartley and Faiza Shaheen at the event called Is Democracy Broken?

McDonnell told the crowd the families were “murdered by political decisions" in recent decades.

I suppose it is Glastonbury where nobody is expected to be rational or reasonable, not even the Shadow Chancellor. 

Thursday 22 June 2017

Frantic Times

Round here everything goes eerily quiet in hot weather. During the recent spell we spent a large chunk of our time sitting in the garden, mostly in the shade and often with a beer. Retirement eh? I love it.

Meanwhile the mainstream media seem to be increasingly frantic in what feels more and more like a doomed battle for relevance. Hysteria rules but is anyone listening and more importantly, are their advertisers likely to remain on board? When will their advertisers give up on shouty newspapers nobody under fifty reads anyway?

The impression is partly explained by a series of major news stories from Brexit to Trump to the Grenfell horror, but not entirely. Great changes are abroad which are not encouraging. 

Back in 1952  Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth wrote a science fiction novel called The Space Merchants

In a vastly overpopulated world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge trans-national corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and by far the best-paid profession. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that the quality of life is improved by all the products placed on the market. Some of the products contain addictive substances designed to make consumers dependent on them. However, the most basic elements of life are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel. Personal transport may be pedal powered, with rickshaw rides being considered a luxury. The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; the colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed.

Pohl and Kornbluth's fictional world is dominated by vast advertising agencies where governments are merely clearing houses for business interests. I read it decades ago when to me it seemed like an ingenious but fanciful attack on rampant capitalism, a product of its time. It doesn't seem like that now.

When we remind ourselves that the old mainstream media are struggling to survive in a world dominated by the colossal reach of social media and vast internet advertising businesses. When we add in global elites with no ties to time or place, when we add the growing power of international bureaucracies and their willingness to direct human behaviour - 

Well then - with a few modifications Pohl and Kornbluth's ghastly fictional future seems somewhat less fictional.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Damp spot

A pair of coots building their nest on Carsington Water. Their nest may be tethered to the bottom in some way but the essential feature is that it floats and that helps chicks survive. It's what coots do but unfortunately and with no wish to criticise the experts, this one seems a little flimsy. 

We watched while they busily added a fair amount of material, mainly lengths of weed and and what appeared to be waterlogged oddments dredged up from the bottom. The whole structure never seemed to inspire confidence though - they climbed onto it very gingerly. Reminds me of government projects but no doubt they know what they are doing.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Broken Kindle

My old Kindle has given up - charge it up one day and the battery is virtually flat by the following morning. I could buy a new battery off the internet but that may not be the whole problem so I've decided to treat myself to a new one, a slimmer, lighter touchscreen version which I'll hate at first but eventually I'll get used to it.

The old Kindle lasted about five years which isn't bad considering how intensively I use it and how often I drop it. At the moment I'm enjoying a beautiful sunny morning in the garden while waiting for the Amazon man to deliver the new one. Only ordered it yesterday. Modern life eh? Amazing technology and amazing organisations all mixed together with amazing insanity.

Friday 16 June 2017

Is Higher Education a Scam?

Some very interesting and uncomfortable points made by Peter Thiel. Higher education as a zero sum tournament for example - not something we are ever likely to see presented by the BBC or hear from mainstream political parties.

Thursday 15 June 2017

Voting for bums

I voted for our sitting Tory candidate in the recent general election. Doing so went against the grain, but our MP seems to be a decent enough chap who does his best for the constituency. During the previous election he came to the door and seemed a little overawed by Sajid Javid who was also with him and did most of the talking.

During the run-up to the recent election I saw him walking the streets on his own and almost felt sorry for him. His is a thankless task from the look of it. I don’t think he’ll ever be a minister or see the inside of his party leader’s clique. 

As we know, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were key people heading Theresa May’s clique, a pair of political advisers nobody actually elected because that’s how things are done in our post-democratic age. It is obvious that these two were almost certainly more powerful than anyone you or I voted for. Most of us voted for one of the bums on seats or some poor soul who didn’t even get that far.

We have known this forever, particularly since Tony Blair’s political machine swept all before it. Now Nick and Fiona have reminded us that voting for a party is much the same as voting for its leader. Or rather it is much the same as voting for the leader’s clique. Conservative and Labour leaders both have their cliques through which things are done. If your MP isn’t in the clique then he or she is merely one of the bums on Parliamentary seats, at least as far as the real power is concerned.

That being the case, not voting at all is an entirely understandable attitude. For most of us it cannot possibly make a difference to political outcomes. The leader’s clique is democratically inaccessible and voting for bums on seats merely perpetuates that reality.

Monday 12 June 2017

Deep Sentinel

This isn't new, but an interesting piece from principia-scientific briefly outlines Deep Sentinel, a home security startup which proposes to use AI to protect our homes.

Deep Sentinel pairs AI with off-the-shelf cameras. The startup’s software recognizes potential threats in the video footage — distinguishing someone stealing your mail from a neighbor walking their dog, for example — and alerts you to them in real time. That means unlike with a traditional security camera, you don’t have to spend all day watching the video footage for it to do any good.

Deep Sentinel’s technology is about 99 percent accurate, Selinger said. It uses the same type of technology that self-driving cars use to navigate objects in the road, and Facebook uses to identify people in photos.

Ultimately, Deep Sentinel hopes to not only alert you to threats but also to issue some kind of deterrent to scare away bad actors. That could be anything from turning on automatic sprinklers to sending in a remotely piloted drone.

Even incurable optimists must wonder if this kind of development is desirable. Yet there seems to be little doubt that it can be done so it will be done even if Deep Sentinel itself fails to perform as expected.

The message seems to be that permanent, accurate surveillance may become cheap enough to be used everywhere. Sounds like a great improvement on the Telescreen. No doubt there are people who know where we are headed and why. The rest of us may have to acquire a taste for Victory Gin.

Sunday 11 June 2017

Navvies seducing our women


Derby Telegraph has an interesting piece on the history of the Friar Gate railway bridge and local disruption caused when the railway came to Derby 140 years ago.

Imagine the outcry today if anyone suggested the demolition of Friar Gate railway bridge. It would be at least as vociferous as that which erupted when the bridge was built 140 years earlier.

Not only were our Victorian forebears horrified at the prospect of one of Derby's most historic thoroughfares being defaced, they were also so terrified by the imminent arrival of hundreds of what were regarded as uncivilised, uneducated navvies that plans were laid for missionaries to visit the itinerant population.

As ever, vested interests were decisive and the local council easily brought on board.

The railway, which needed the approval of the town council to proceed, had conveniently commissioned a local man, George Thompson, to survey the line. Thompson ran his own practice, but also served as borough surveyor. The GNR also acted wisely in its choice of solicitor – Samuel Leech, Liberal town councillor and Mayor of Derby.

The Mercury also pointed out that the support of the rest of the council – half of whom had industrial businesses that were nearer the proposed GNR route than the existing Midland line, and many of whom owned the land on which the railway would be built – was hardly surprising.

It was, perhaps, little wonder, too, that the Chamber of Commerce, which shared many members with the town council, also put forward its enthusiastic support.

While the middle classes were concerned about a huge influx of navvies, poorer people had more pressing problems - the demolition of their homes.

In total around 265 houses were destroyed, making homeless around 1,500 people. Most of these were poor labourers and the like, almost all of whom had rented low-cost housing, of which there had already been a shortage.

The GNR was under no obligation to replace the lost homes, and it was difficult to persuade property speculators to build homes that could earn only a tiny sum in rent.

Some compensation was offered to the displaced, but this was a matter of shillings and was of little help.

Saturday 10 June 2017

A symptom

A fascinating aspect of Theresa May’s recent general election debacle was the manifesto screw-up for which Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have now quit. Unfortunately for May the screw-up was obvious before the election. Questions about her competence are now equally obvious, yet that is not the fascinating aspect of it all. To a large degree the recent election was a contest between two dorks, which may be deplorable but may be a symptom of something else too.

On the one hand we had a seventies-style socialist with no political credibility whatever apart from a recent spot of good luck which may or may not be sufficient to carry him over the line at some future date.

On the other hand we had a limited Prime Minister without a distinguished political track record apart from a run of luck which has now apparently expired.

This isn’t how we might expect democracy to work because without an array of credible choices we cannot be said to have a choice in the first place. Opting for one dork over another dork is a major democratic limitation and many voters must have seen themselves in the position of having to choose between the lesser of two evils.

One obvious conclusion is that we are in a parlous state and may be in for some damaging political consequences. A slightly less obvious conclusion is that political posturing has had its day, the sun is setting on democratic political choice and manifestos no longer matter anyway.

When a Prime Minister cannot tell that her manifesto is garbage; when the leader of the opposition cannot tell that his political standpoint has long been discredited then we may be faced with something more radical than any amount of political posturing.

Global wheels grind their way into an unknown future and maybe having to vote locally for dork A over dork B is not so much a disaster as a casting error. Political dorks are merely glitches in central casting because real power has moved on.

Friday 9 June 2017

Allegro zooms round the bend

To widespread surprise voters turned out in their millions to vote for a North London Austin Allegro as our highest political inspiration - or Prime Minister as the position is officially known. Sadly the Allegro has yet to cross the finishing line but at least we now realise how much life is left in the seventies. Time to dig out those crushed strawberry flares I reckon.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Firing range


The Telegraph reports on a fascinating new device capable of firing Londoners into Scotland. I'm not sure why one would wish to do that, but isn't technology wonderful?

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Strangely quiet

No much election fever round here. There are lots of Tory posters but hardly any from Labour and no sign of the party faithful slogging away door to door. All we’ve seen so far is our local MP wandering around on his own.

A few leaflets have popped through the letter box but we’ve no real idea who the Labour candidate is. His leaflet has almost no personal information so we’re assuming he must be some stooge from central casting.   

It’s all very low-key and unexciting for which both main party leaders must take the credit. The only bright spark has been Diane Abbott making an even bigger fool of herself than usual. Now the story is that she is has been sidelined for health reasons which appears to be untrue but nobody seems to care anyway.

Even so I’m tempted to stay up on Thursday night, at least to see how the early results go. Not something I usually do, but in spite of the desultory and inept way the election has been conducted, this one feels too quiet to be uninteresting. As if something is going on beneath the surface.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Just for show

Life stripped of its illusion and its seeming becomes a rather deadly thing to contemplate.
Theodore Dreiser - The Genius (1915)

The other day while checking the weather forecast on whatever Ceefax is called these days I stumbled across a TV programme showing clips of people working in a laboratory. Something nefarious was going on in the world outside and lab folk were dutifully proving evidence to show just how horribly nefarious it was. BBC nefarious that is.

At the sight of a working laboratory I came over all nostalgic for a minute or two. I always enjoyed lab work and recall a number of occasions where promotional cameras invaded our domain for a disruptive hour or two. As one might expect, the folk behind the cameras are only interested in things that move, bubble or just look techie. The person at the bench tends to be a senior scientist finding out if their rarely-used lab coat still fits.

I remember one occasion where our laboratory had been chosen to supply some promotional images. To set the scene we were asked to set up a row of bottles containing coloured water just for the camera. As for the science, the PR people had brought along a blonde model to do that. Her job was to wear a pristine lab coat and pretend to do something scientific for the camera. I’m sure she was pleasant enough, but somehow she managed to convey that sense of vacant prettiness models are so good at.

The final result was just as artificial as it usually is. Anyone with any kind of technical background must see the artificiality. Scientist peering at a tube of liquid, heating it up over a Bunsen burner with the flame set incorrectly to make it visible to the camera. A reflux extractor set up to extract lots of nice clean nothing. A robot injector system selecting the next sample vial - it usually runs overnight but just for the camera we’ll make it do something harmless.

One is left wondering why things are done this way, why the artificiality has to be so obvious. Perhaps it has to be so because it is expected, because promotional artifice is normal and realistic is not. Expectations have to be met and we have wandered too far from reality to turn back now.

Monday 5 June 2017

First impressions

Impression 1
On Saturday, while driving back from Norfolk, I happened to glance very briefly at a roadside sign which seemed to say ‘Dual Carriageway’ with a broad white arrow pointing in our direction of travel. I’d just been reminding myself about a stretch of dual carriageway within the next few miles, so the sign was no surprise, but on a second glance the actual wording turned out to be ‘Dog Sanctuary’.

Impression 2
This morning as I walked past a corner shop, an old chap came out clutching a tabloid newspaper he’d evidently just purchased. He was about my age and somewhat scruffy, wearing baggy blue jeans and a tired old jacket, all set off by pink and grey plastic shoes. For some reason my immediate reaction was a twinge of sympathy. Living on a tight budget I thought. Scruffy, plastic shoes – it all adds up to having to make do.

Until I saw him stroll onto the drive of his substantial bungalow that is. On the drive were parked his large 4x4 and big caravan. His front garden was immaculate and he had solar panels on the roof. As I walked by he was busy opening the gates as if intending to take the 4x4 on a shopping expedition after reading the paper.

So much for first impressions.

Sunday 4 June 2017

The unstoppable rise of fatuous activity

Where will all the jobs come from as robots and AI take over? Problem or no problem?

Much has happened already because automation is hardly new. It has been with us since well before the days of Richard Arkwright’s cotton mill. New jobs will emerge we are told, jobs we cannot imagine now, but they will emerge as they always have since Arkwright harnessed Cromford Sough and made hand-loom weavers redundant.

Ours is merely one of the many worlds automation builds and discards on its way to wherever. It is not some job-destroying digital tsunami lurking just below the horizon, but is already here, as it has been for centuries. Working life is responding and changing now just as it did in the past, but we don’t necessarily notice as we adapt, as memories fade, as inessential becomes essential, as we take the opportunities it offers.

The trouble is, if we stand back and look at ourselves with a sceptical eye, then much of what we do as a consequence of automation feels somewhat inessential. Even worse, it often feels fatuous. Like some kind of game which confers no deep benefits on anything but the economy, which merely satisfies our need to do something rather than nothing.

Not necessarily a problem then, because we like a growing economy don’t we? We are supposed to, but there is something uncomfortable about fatuous economic activity. Fatuous political activity is even worse. Yet this is where automation has taken us on the journey to wherever. A land of games, trivia and fatuous amusements, often disguised as gainful employment.

Alienation was once the fashionable diagnosis for a disconnect between industrial society and human life and perhaps it still is, but few of us appear to be even slightly alienated. On the contrary, we seem to enjoy the prosperity it brings, as if that is enough to offset the fatuous nature of what we did to earn it. Perhaps that’s okay and perhaps it isn’t.

As we all know, money can be earned from fatuous activity – huge great wads of it. In economic terms we are more prosperous than we have ever been. For most of us life is more comfortable than anything even moneybags Arkwright knew. We are healthier and we live longer, but for what purpose have we acquired all this health and comfort? To be gainfully employed?

Now there’s an old fashioned ideal – the crusty old notion of being gainfully employed. According to Ngram Viewer the phrase has largely fallen out of use from its high point in the late nineteen thirties.

Perhaps the ‘gainful’ bit became too naively optimistic. Perhaps that is what took the whole phrase by the hand and led it towards a decent burial. Or maybe the uncertainties of employment made it redundant in a world where any employment is some kind of gain. It all depends what we mean by ‘gain’.

Today we might take ‘gainful’ to mean financial gain and be satisfied with that as we check out the latest mobile phone offers. Alternatively we could mean social gain or moral gain or personal gain but those are more likely to be used as rhetorical flourishes in politically correct homilies. Oh - and there’s a fatuous activity to set the ball rolling - politically correct homilies. We find those useful don’t we?

Once upon a time ‘gainfully employed’ probably had a certain musty, Sunday school flavour of social and moral worth. Not many could aspire to it, but it was up there as an ideal. Yet our automated world has weakened and subverted our always tenuous grip on the ideal – the notion that employment can be or even should be socially, morally and personally rewarding.

As to what has replaced it, the answer seems obvious enough. In many areas of working life it simply faded away to be replaced by economic and political worth. Much of what we do today, many activities through which we are employed, lack a really convincing element of social or moral worth. Much of that is down to the effects of automation and the desperate political dodges designed to mop up an increasingly vast pool of excess labour. Keep the young ones at school for as long as possible then bung as many as possible off to university to take a degree in the sexist mores of hot-tub design philosophies.

What exactly is all this fatuous activity? The low hanging fruit are obvious enough. Nail and tattoo parlours, mass entertainment, university radicalism, professional sport, advertising, public relations, silly cars, fancy restaurants, fashionable clothes, posh coffee, designer labels, posh anything else, recycling, sustainable energy, oversized houses, political make-work projects and so on and so on. None are unambiguously wrong in a moral sense, but they are neither socially nor morally worthy in any sense. To survive and prosper in the modern world they don’t have to be and any notion that they could be has largely faded away. It had to fade away if automation is to continue. 

Grow, build and make have been automated to the point where most of us don’t involve ourselves in these essential activities. These are not the only essential activities by any means. Teaching, nursing, transporting and a host of other activities are essential too, but they are loaded down by a growing culture of fatuity spun off by automation, by the vast amount of work we no longer need to do. People have to do something and so often that something is nurturing and growing a culture of fatuous activity.

As we automate and as the population grows, something has to give and that something has been the ideal of being gainfully employed. There is no place for it. Employment has morphed into a culture which puts economic value on fatuous activity because it is forced to do so, from complex regulations to political and social fantasies to infantile entertainments. We have no idea how to use automation other than carry on building this culture of ours, this culture of fatuous activity. 

It will continue.

Saturday 3 June 2017

Toyota sells Tesla shares

The Times Of India reports that Toyota has sold all its Tesla shares .

TOKYO, June 3 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp said on Saturday it had sold all shares in Tesla Inc by the end of 2016, having cancelled its tie-up with the U.S. luxury automaker to jointly develop electric vehicles.

Japan's biggest automaker had bought around a 3 percent stake in the Palo Alto-based automaker for $50 million.

The obvious question would be to ask if this was connected with the election of Donald Trump as US President. Political calculations touch everything, so much so that nothing seems really clean.