Sunday 31 December 2017

Happy New Year

In these aspirations...

There is will in thought, there is none in dreams. Revery, which is utterly spontaneous, takes and keeps, even in the gigantic and the ideal, the form of our spirit. Nothing proceeds more directly and more sincerely from the very depth of our soul, than our unpremeditated and boundless aspirations towards the splendors of destiny. In these aspirations, much more than in deliberate, rational coordinated ideas, is the real character of a man to be found. Our chimeras are the things which the most resemble us. Each one of us dreams of the unknown and the impossible in accordance with his nature.

Victor Hugo - Les Misérables (1862)

So let us dream.

Happy New Year to all those who happen to find their way here and linger, if only for a while.

Saturday 30 December 2017

Dork of the year 2017

While writing the previous post, the number of possible candidates caused me to wonder if we should blame individuals for wider failings. Almost all dorks take advantage of available trends and social mores, they don’t invent them. Certainly the genuine dork adds something personal and dorkworthy but without social vehicles to carry them, their dorkish nature would be much less visible.

A good example is Prince Harry who seems to be as radically refreshing as a cup of cheap decaffeinated coffee. His squeeze even more so. Two dorks for the price of one, but should we expect anything better?

Having said that, Scrobs' suggestion of Michael Heseltine seems a good one to me. With all his advantages the man is still unable to put his political conceits behind him and make the best of where we are. 

Tuesday 26 December 2017

Dork of the year candidates

As you may know, previous winners of the Dork of the Year (DotY) award have been Mark Carney in 2016Ed Miliband in 2015 and Naomi Klein in 2014. All worthy winners, but what about 2017? It may be worth repeating an observation originally from 2015, repeated in 2016 and still distressingly relevant today.

The sheer number of candidates has made choosing Dork of the Year (DotY) particularly difficult for 2015. Not that the problem is new because each year there seem to be even more Qualifying Dorks than the year before.

This year a few potential candidates are.

Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury for his outstanding ability to come across as some kind of politically correct functionary who might be a Christian but only under certain circumstances - rather than leader of the Church of England with a powerful religious message to impart.

Theresa May who seems to be tenacious enough but quite incapable of rising above the clown Corbyn and his ludicrous acolytes.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission who seems to inhabit a gravitas-free bubble from which he comes across as an inebriated clown. Is this the best they can do?

Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP who promptly managed to steer political tribalism towards a new low by saying she wouldn't “hang out with Tory women” who are “no friends of mine” and “an enemy to lots of women”.

Kim Jong-un is still a young man so he has to think about his long term future. Deciding to have one would be a start. The world's last Stalinist may not be his best option but at the moment he seems quite incapable of grasping this.

The BBC. Not a person but the Beeb seems wholly unable to move beyond its politically correct comfort zone into the real world, a world which is changing while the Beeb isn't.

The UN. Again, not a person but when confronted by its numerous inadequacies one is bound to wonder if people really are the problem. Maybe it's all down to our institutions.

Suggestions welcome and the final announcement will be made shortly before New Year.

Monday 25 December 2017

Christmas quote

It is a terrible dilemma in the life of reason whether it will sacrifice natural abundance to moral order, or moral order to natural abundance. Whatever compromise we choose proves unstable, and forces us to a new experiment.

George Santayana - Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion (1913)

It is a terrible dilemma so I'll need another sherry to think about it...

...maybe another mince pie too. 

Saturday 23 December 2017

Bah humbug

Tesco was quiet this evening although the shelves had been heavily raided as usual at this time of year. We managed to buy some beer though.

Merry Christmas everyone. 

Thursday 21 December 2017

Lunching on Laura

Lancashire Telegraph has a story about a turkey named Laura

A FOUR-AND-A-HALF stone turkey has been donated to a charity which supports vulnerable people by an artisan chef.

The 67lb hen, named 'Laura' was donated by the Tom Wood Artisan Butcher in Blackburn Market to the THOMAS organisation.

Mr Wood, 38, from Longridge, will divide up the bird into smaller cooking portions and will be cooked and given to the homeless by the charity.

The bird, which stands at a whopping 30kilograms, would cost around £260 to buy and could provide food for around 300 people.

Well done that man, although I'm not so sure about giving the bird a name - seems a little ghoulish to me. Oh well, it's my turn to make the evening meal so I'm off to cook Sammy the salmon.

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Douglas Murray on LGBTQ

Interesting observation from about 3:38

I see all of these things used against people all the time. It’s politics. They don’t really care about anything else, they never did.

Referring to the storms raised when dogma is questioned or confronted is another observation from about 5:44

I think the more interesting thing is why people don’t do it back.

Yes it is interesting. Of course there are people who do it back in that sense, but it is an interesting point. Why do some people insist on a civilised discussion while others don’t care and why are the latter group so prominent?

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Worst passwords of 2017

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the worst passwords of 2017 are much the same as those for 2016, 2015...

None of mine are in there. I use drowssap. Clever eh? Nobody would ever guess that one...

Monday 18 December 2017


This replica Iron Age roundhouse at Flag Fen is interesting in a number of ways. Apparently the pitch of the roof is too shallow for thatching - rain seeps through because it doesn’t run off quickly enough. The problem has been solved with turf as you can see, but a turf roof has proved to be very heavy. Our guide told us this along with many other fascinating aspects of the Flag Fen site.

As I’m sitting here typing this blog post I see it is just over two degrees centigrade outside so that is another obvious question – how did Iron Age folk survive a British winter? The roundhouse seemed to keep out the wind well enough and had a pleasant earthy aroma, but I wouldn’t call it cosy. Even if a central fire had been kept burning day and night it isn’t easy to see how the interior could ever have been toasty. Smoky but not toasty, so how did they survive winter?

As we know, many didn't survive and very few reached my age so that may be part of the answer. Perhaps they were constantly busy with the routines of daily life, burning far more calories than we do so generating their own body warmth during the day. Presumably they curled up next to each other under animal skins during long winter nights to preserve that warmth and maybe they curled up with their animals too.

Perhaps they also put on lots of weight during the warmer months so they could exist partly on accumulated fat reserves. In which case nobody would have pointed a finger at them and called them ‘fatty’ because only fatties survived.

Lots of questions, lots of more or less probable answers, lots of speculation. It's what makes history so endlessly fascinating, but beneath all that is a suspicion that the core of it, the soul of those Iron Age lives cannot be grasped by moderns. Too much lost detail, the myriad daily stratagems which left no trace but everyone knew them, had to know them and used them to survive and even enjoy life where we could not even survive. 

On a damp and chilly day the replica roundhouse certainly reminded me of something. Our British climate may be classed as temperate, but is harsh and unforgiving without the technology we now take for granted. How do we make the technology last, or should we learn how to build a roundhouse?

Back in 1978 the BBC broadcast a series where volunteers lived on an Iron Age farm as Iron Age people. I remember watching it. Interesting but somehow unsatisfactory I thought at the time. Moderns gamely trying to grasp what perhaps cannot be grasped.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Frantic festive flashers

Round here lots of houses have strings of Christmas lights in their gardens, festooned on trees, draped around windows, under the guttering or anywhere else which might occur to the festive mind.

As usual some of them flash on and off at high speed like maniacal disco lights instead of twinkling sedately. Any possible Christmassy effect is lost in the hypnotic mechanical flashing. Almost as if they are designed to attract attention rather than create a seasonal ambience. I suppose that’s what flashing is all about anyway.

Friday 15 December 2017

We heard it in like – a café

A cold day found us sitting in a café where there were only two other people. Two young women, probably university students from the gist of their conversation. Was it a conversation though? Hard to tell. It came over as a jumble of disjointed phrases and sentences stitched together with the word ‘like’.

Mrs H and I both wondered how often they used the word. I began counting because it was that kind of day but there were so many it all felt rather silly, almost a parody. I looked round for a camera but knew there wasn’t one. This was for real and they can vote.

I counted like – six times a minute.

Thursday 14 December 2017

We’ll miss you Mrs Blue

He could feel in her what he felt in his own mother—in every good mother—love of order and peace, love of the well being of her children, love of public respect and private honor and morality. 

Any form or order of society which hoped to endure must have individuals like Mrs. Blue, who would conform to the highest standards and theories of that society, and when found they were admirable, but they meant nothing in the shifting, subtle forces of nature. They were just accidental harmonies blossoming out of something which meant everything here to this order, nothing to the universe at large.

Theodore Dreiser – The Genius (1915)

Even in Dreiser's day the sophisticated world had a sneaking tendency to make fun of Mrs Blue because in the depths of its hedonistic soul it preferred to believe that her precious harmonies were indeed accidental. Yet it reaped the benefits of those harmonies even as it sneered , even as it made fun of Mrs Blue for being quietly devoted to her ideals. It smirked at her blinkers, her sweetly fastidious etiquette and the domestic faith she lived by.

Unfortunately for us the real significance of Mrs Blue’s accidental harmonies lay not in their accidental nature but in their harmonies.

Today Mrs Blue has gone, supplanted by Ms Green. Mrs Blue may have been blinkered but so is Ms Green, and a foolish, strutting harridan she is to boot. Her harmony is disharmony and designed not accidental. Ms Green is frantically suppressing the sneers even though every one of them is far more deserved than Mrs Blue’s ever were.

We’ll miss you Mrs Blue.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Memory blanks

The other day Mrs H and I were discussing our early reading experiences because Granddaughter is learning to read. Our first introduction to reading in the fifties was the Janet and John series of books which we both remember reading. We also remember the different coloured book covers indicating different reading standards.

What we do not remember is being unable to read. We cannot recall what it was like to gaze at those black marks on the page and not understand their significance. We cannot remember knowing nothing at all about Janet and John and their thrilling world of cats and mats.

One might ascribe this memory blank to the patchy nature of early memories but it may be an example of something far more interesting. Daniel Kahneman says we cannot easily reconstruct past states of knowledge or beliefs that have changed. When there is such a change we immediately lose much of our ability to recall our state of mind before the change. That would include our ability to read – we cannot easily reconstruct a state of mind where we did not have that ability.

To take a related but more obvious example than early reading, I cannot remember my state of mind when I did not know what occurs when a solution of sodium hydroxide is added to a solution of copper sulphate. Yet there certainly was a time when I didn’t know it. I can imagine not knowing it and associate that lack of knowledge with the right time period, but I can’t recall it as an absence of knowledge. Hardly surprising of course - we can't easily reconstruct our own ignorance. For one thing there is too much of it.

Another example is trying to remember what I thought about the surface of Pluto before we found out via those photos from NASA's New Horizons mission. I think I remember not knowing what the surface of Pluto looks like, but as with the copper sulphate example this is merely an absence - there is no particular state of mind to remember as nobody knew what the surface of Pluto looked like anyway. It is the state of not knowing something now known which is so elusive. Presumably it is more efficient that way -  move on and forget. There is no point remembering ignorance. 

Pushing this a little wider, we cannot easily construct a state of knowing something we have no wish to know such as a celebrity career or the latest reality show drama or accusations of ancient sexual misconduct. What is it like to know and value these things? We cannot easily construct the state of mind of someone who is interested and affected by them. We easily lose sympathy with people who have knowledge and opinions we have no wish to share.

How about reconstructing a state of mind before we changed an opinion, belief or assumption? To my mind Monty Python comedy has not worn well although a few sketches I still find amusing. Over the years I have changed, the sketches have not, but do I remember my state of mind when I thought it was all hilarious? I certainly remember thinking it was all hilarious, but I am not able to reconstruct the associated state of mind. I have no real access to that earlier state of mind where Monty Python was almost uniformly hilarious.

Suppose someone ‘knows’ that capitalism is evil. Such a person cannot easily reconstruct a earlier state of mind where he or she did not know that capitalism is evil. It probably follows that the same person cannot easily conceive a state of not knowing such a thing. Especially puzzling is someone who claims to favour capitalism. How does that happen?

The fallback position here is to imagine that the person who fails to ‘know’ that capitalism is evil must be duplicitous in some way. They must be pretending not to know what is surely impossible not to know. Therefore they must be bad.

And so to politics.

Monday 11 December 2017

A real winter can be beautiful

Photo from 2015
As it was fine and sunny today we settled on a drive out to Bakewell. A lovely drive it was too, meandering through a snowy landscape under a blue sky. As in the 2015 photo above, there was not much snow but enough to whiten the fields and create one of those bright winter days which are so exhilarating.

Gingerly navigating icy pavements in Bakewell wasn’t quite so much fun but there were far fewer people than usual and no traffic queues. The drive back was enjoyable too. Before it turns to slush and crud, a real winter can be beautiful.

Sunday 10 December 2017

No snowmageddon

Yesterday: by early evening I thought we'd be doomed come Sunday, lost from view under a deluge of snow.  A Met Office amber warning no less.

Today mid morning: off to a local cafe for mid morning coffee and cake before everyone else notices the roads are clear and the snow is what we'd have called disappointing when I were a youngster.

20 minutes later: people are now pouring into the cafe but we have the best seat. Peaceful while it lasted.

Saturday 9 December 2017

Mere calculation

Not everyone plays chess so I’ll try to minimise the chess aspects of this post because there is an interesting addition to the previouspost. In one of the games between AlphaZero and Stockfish 8, AlphaZero made what the YouTube narrator calls a deep positional knight sacrifice.

If AlphaZero had been a human player then this knight sacrifice may well have attracted more superlatives - for example it might have been described as brilliantly imaginative. Computer chess can sometimes seem imaginative, brilliant, clever and strategically creative despite every single move being the result of calculation. There are sometimes subtle differences between computer and human chess but usually we cannot tell the difference unless the human makes the kind of mistake computers don’t make.

It is mere calculation, but can seem like brilliant positional insight. Mere calculation – is that all we do too? Not in quite the same way of course, but the question still hangs in the air.

Thursday 7 December 2017

Quick learner

This story has attracted a certain amount of attention but I'm surprised it hasn't attracted more.

BBC version

Google says its AlphaGo Zero artificial intelligence program has triumphed at chess against world-leading specialist software within hours of teaching itself the game from scratch.

The firm's DeepMind division says that it played 100 games against Stockfish 8, and won or drew all of them.

The research has yet to be peer reviewed.

But experts already suggest the achievement will strengthen the firm's position in a competitive sector.

"From a scientific point of view, it's the latest in a series of dazzling results that DeepMind has produced," the University of Oxford's Prof Michael Wooldridge told the BBC.

"The general trajectory in DeepMind seems to be to solve a problem and then demonstrate it can really ramp up performance, and that's very impressive."

There will be unreported caveats and it is reasonable to assume that the two systems ran on different hardware, but on the face of it this achievement looks like a remarkable demonstration of the growing power of AI. Remarkable enough to be disturbing even.

Of course chess is a rule-based environment suited to computation but AlphaGo Zero seems to have taught itself how to play the game to an extremely high standard in a matter of hours.

Strewth was my initial reaction. It still seems appropriate. So much so that I almost hope those caveats douse the whole thing in cold water but I don't think they will.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

A parody

Why is parody amusing? I haven't watched a cowboy film for decades but must have enjoyed them as a youngster. I certainly watched the Lone Ranger and one or two John Wayne films. 

Even so I find myself smiling at parodies such as this one. The hero's ridiculous costume, his ability to fire a revolver from the hip with millimetre accuracy. It's silly but the genre must have been fun once upon a time.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

What I have I hold

You see, for a thousand years we have been going on here, and other people like us, but we only endured because we were alive. We have the usual conventional motto on our coat of arms—Pro Deo et Rege—a Herald’s College invention. But our Gaelic motto was very different—it was ‘Sons of Dogs, come and I will give you flesh.’ As long as we lived up to that we flourished, but as soon as we settled down and went to sleep and became rentiers we were bound to decay…My cousins at Glenaicill were just the same. Their motto was ‘What I have I hold,’ and while they remembered it they were great people. But when they stopped holding they went out like a candle.

John Buchan - John Macnab (1925)

Buchan’s character makes a comment on social change and the hard-nosed self-interest required to keep a firm grip on what we have. Otherwise it will be taken from us by those who are stronger and by this exacting standard more deserving. The meek shall not inherit the earth is the message – so don’t be meek. The motto is not original but this is fiction, a way of adding social depth to a central character. Still worth a thought or two though.

A conspicuous feature of modern culture is how tolerance and intolerance have been twisted around to loosen our grip on the culture we had – the one our ancestors fought two bloody wars to defend. Now we see vicious intolerance towards any suggestion that we are less than thrilled with forced multiculturalism and even worse – any implication that the culture we had was worth holding on to and what we have now is not an improvement.

What I have I hold is not a bad motto, possibly more acceptable today than Sons of Dogs, come and I will give you flesh, but it is already too late. We have been induced to let go of what we once had in favour of – in favour of what?

Monday 4 December 2017

Nothing more is demanded

Nothing more is demanded from candidates but witty speech-making, assertiveness and showing off in public, gross flattery, a display of enthusiasm and promises to place the power about to be conferred on them by the people in the hands of those who will serve its antipathies and prejudices.
Hippolyte Taine - The Modern Regime (1893)

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are very different characters, yet each in his own way has been skilfully assertive. Blair was the silver-tongued orator who relied on finely-judged emotional appeal to sway millions of voters. Brown cultivated an austere image of blunt integrity which would not tolerate compromise.

Assertiveness takes many forms and has many aspects, a fascinating subject in its own right. For example an educated person may use their education to acquire intellectual status as Stephen Fry does with such assiduity. Another equally well educated person may be hopelessly outclassed by someone no better educated but far more capable when it comes to assertiveness. There are infinite subtleties to the assertiveness game, education merely being one of them.

The fascinating aspect of skilled assertiveness is where it is substituted for other abilities, particularly by those who are very skilled at assertiveness but not so hot intellectually. Blair and Brown are intelligent men, but as far as one can tell they are far from being unusually intelligent. Both made glaring mistakes while in office, mistakes which could easily have been foreseen and indeed were foreseen at the time – unfortunately by other people.

Among many other things, Blair misunderstood the likely consequences of an Iraq war and Brown misunderstood the power of money as a lever to influence public sector productivity. But Blair and Brown were skilfully assertive and in the conduct of their political careers they were successful until they weren't, which was an unusually long time.

We see this kind of thing all the time because many people are at least as intelligent as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Many foresaw the mistakes both men made but by then it was too late. Like a series of sucker punches the mistakes had to be absorbed until the assertive skills of both men were finally defeated by the real world.

A plumber's arm

A few days ago we had a minor plumbing problem, a small leak where the cold water pipe is screwed to the bath tap. I've done quite a few plumbing jobs but never mastered the inaccessible ones where even knuckles seem to get in the way. I had a go at the bath tap, but even when lying on the floor, head jammed against the wall I couldn't get my basin wrench onto the nut let alone turn the thing.

Along comes our middle-aged plumber to take a look while complaining of his bad back. He can't see the job without his glasses so he slips those on and fifteen minutes later the job is done. How do they do it? Do they have double-jointed arms?

Friday 1 December 2017

Exclusion zone

A story of council caution via the Beeb

A council has admitted it was "over cautious" when it installed a widely-ridiculed cordon around a Christmas tree for public safety.

Derby City Council said it created the "exclusion zone" in Market Place to "enable people to view the tree at a safe distance".

People complained it was "a disgusting mess" and "not festive at all".

Most of the metal fencing has now been removed but a smaller barrier remains around the tree.

The council said in a statement: "As is the case every year, we review the risk assessments related to the city Christmas decorations based on current health and safety legislation.

"On the basis of that review we decided to increase the security area around the tree.

"However, following feedback from the public, we accept that we have been over cautious and are making alternative arrangements today ahead of the ice rink opening."

By "feedback" I think they mean ridicule. It's a weapon is web-enabled ridicule.