Thursday 31 January 2019

Loons are a market too

Oliver Wiseman has a piece in CapX in support of Bill Gates' claim that from a historical perspective the world is getting better, particularly in relation to poverty but also on many other measures such as education, infant mortality and literacy.

Bill Gates is right. The world really is getting better
The proportion of the world’s population living in poverty is going down, not up
Why do some seem so determined to turn the clock back on human progress?

For the vast majority of human history life really was nasty, brutish and short

Things aren’t nearly as bad as you think. In fact, slowly and away from the headlines, they have been getting better – quite a lot better, in fact, and not always that slowly.

However the Guardian has tried to pour cold water on Bill Gates' claim so Wiseman has a go at the Guardian as one must every now and then. That's what it is for. Rather than join in the fun it may be better to offer a slice of the Guardian argument and leave it at that.

Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Real life is too much effort

From we find that many children seem to prefer an online world to real life.

Children online find real-life interaction ‘too much effort’ – report

Children find it “too much effort” to interact in real-life and prefer to watch YouTube, an Ofcom report has found.

The media watchdog’s report has revealed young people are gravitating not only away from TV toward online video, but also away from seeing friends toward solitary screen-time.

Ofcom researchers found that children between four and 16 were rarely interesting in reading, drawing, playing an instrument or other hobbies.

One child surveyed spoke for the trend, saying said she preferred to “lounge around” watching Netflix and YouTube.

The 2018 research found that young viewers are watching less TV.

When they do, it is considered “family time”, and often revolves around programmes such as I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Of Here and Strictly Come Dancing.

Children were found to spurn real-life social interaction and activities in favour of consuming media alone in their bedrooms.

Real life has to intrude to be noticed and for the modern over-protected child it cannot be surprising that it doesn't, not to the extent that it did a few decades ago. 

Another factor is that real life is not as 'real' as it was. For example Brexit suggests that many MPs find real life is far too much effort. 

Monday 28 January 2019

A racism problem

Those of a certain age will remember characters Alf Garnett and Rigsby, lead characters in two popular TV sit-coms. Both Characters were racists, certainly by modern standards. Comically bigoted buffoons who were always in the wrong and who always tripped over their own social incompetence. It was a healthy and open way to treat bigotry, including racism, a way we seem to have forgotten in favour of unhealthy, craven suppression. Why the change? Ridicule works, just as it worked with Garnett and Rigsby. Free speech is healthy, it shines a light on social cankers.

Anti-racism politics may have started off as an ethically necessary component of civil rights movements. It may have been necessary for social cohesion in a more diverse world, but in recent decades it has acquired more dubious undercurrents. It has become embroiled in an old war and old hatreds.

The horrors of twentieth century Marxism made it more difficult to adopt a mainstream political agenda requiring ritual denunciation of traditional class enemies such as the bourgeoisie. Not only that, but as the working class disappears the bourgeoisie becomes too large for denunciation. What to do?

New language was indicated with the same political purpose packaged in more modern rhetoric. One feature of this newly packaged bourgeoisie is that it must be inherently racist. Another feature is that one may easily avoid the racism tag by conspicuous political correctness. Those who are not politically correct are deemed right wing and therefore tainted by racism. Yet ironically there is nothing quite so bourgeois as political correctness. It’s a mess.

Black footballers find it "almost impossible" to speak out over racism because they are cast in a "victim role" when they discuss it, says former Chelsea manager Ruud Gullit.

An unpleasant experience, but as similar stories are extremely common both in and beyond football, Mr Gullit’s claim seems likely to attract little more than a weary shrug. Oafish abuse can be vile but as I recall, vile yet non-racist abuse was common enough at professional football grounds decades ago. It isn’t obvious why certain types of oafish abuse should be so appalling that the police become involved, why the lesson of Alf Garnett and Rigsby has been forgotten.

Not only that but anti-racism rhetoric has become so pervasive that one has to raise the issue of a political subtext which seems to read – white people are inherently tainted by racism. Yet simple observation suggests that white people are not particularly racist and one could make out a case that they tend to be less racist than other ethnic groups using voting patterns as an example.

However that debate should not be necessary because there is much more variation between individuals within groups than there is between groups. Hence it is inaccurate to convey the impression that all individuals within a particular group are somehow tainted with a racist stereotype. On the whole, oafish abuse is restricted to oafs.

A political desire to create a new bourgeoisie seems to have resulted in strident anti-racism acquiring the taint of racism – anti-white racism as a substitute for the old anti-bourgeois rhetoric. We are moving on from an ethical civil rights stance and mixing it with another, less principled stance where politics, opportunism, malice and ignorance fool around with stereotypes.

At the moment the racism debate is a mess which nobody within the political bubble seems willing to raise let alone untangle. As with feminism it has spawned stereotypes which are as inaccurate and damaging as politically inspired stereotypes usually are. As inaccurate as the stereotype bourgeois was and still is.

It all needs to be aired within open public debates because many people are likely to react to Mr Gullit’s comment with a shrug. Not so much a what do I care shrug, but a weary it’s just race politics shrug and who knows what mischief might arise from that? Who knows what mischief already lurks beyond the political bubble ?

Saturday 26 January 2019

When everyone is more WEIRD

Kensy Cooperrider has an interesting piece in Aeon about aspects of human perception trending towards globalised standards.

For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead.

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it.

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

Although it will probably not be a surprise to anyone, the whole piece is well worth reading. It is not easy to avoid at least one conclusion. If basic human perception trends towards global standard perceptions then the long term consequences are likely to be profound indeed.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Under new management

A cafe we visit occasionally seems to have acquired a new manager. Only a guess because the change isn’t advertised anywhere but the people are different and the cafe is different.

Not so long ago it was a typical cafe serving typically unadventurous cafe drinks and typically unadventurous cafe food. There was nothing particularly wrong with it but nothing particularly right either. The location has some significant advantages such as the view and a big car park, but a significant disadvantage in that it is a little off the beaten track.

Before it changed there were no menus on the table and no clear indication anywhere as to what the menu might be apart from the list of coffees and a few cakes on display. Staff were slow and while not at all unpleasant they seemed faintly surprised that anyone would walk through the door, stroll up to the counter and actually order something. It was clean, new and the coffee was okay but nobody was really trying. 

Until recently.

Now we have menus on the tables, the service is prompt and friendly and if we are going in that direction it is suddenly worthwhile dropping in there. Visually the place hasn’t changed at all apart from the menus. Same decor, same tables, same layout same coffee machine but now the scones are freshly cooked and still warm, the coffee is served with a smile and a comment about the weather but that’s about it as far as the changes go. Apart from the people of course. They have changed. Management – for better or worse it makes a difference.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

NewsNav for snowflakes

Our unreliable Auntie has a piece on NewsGuard and the DailyMail.

The Daily Mail is calling for a web browser alert that criticises its journalism to be changed.

The NewsGuard plug-in currently brings up a warning that says the newspaper's website "generally fails to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability".

It has given this advice since August.

But the matter came to prominence last week, after Microsoft updated its Edge browser app for Android and iOS devices and built in NewsGuard.

This prompted several other media outlets to report the story.

"We have only very recently become aware of the NewsGuard start-up and are in discussions with them to have this egregiously erroneous classification resolved as soon as possible," said a spokesman for Mail Online.

At present, NewsGuard must be switched on by users of Microsoft's Edge app, but the BBC understands there are plans for it to become the default option in the future.

I assume NewsGuard is for anyone who needs to know the difference between orthodox and unorthodox while trawling the internet. Fair enough for those who stick to snowflake news I suppose. Yet surely one of the joys of the internet is analysing the news, not having it analysed on our behalf via criteria which are bound to be somewhat obscure however open they purport to be.

Those of us who do our own analysis are already well aware that all news sources have their limitations. As long as one knows what those limitations are even the BBC has its uses for some stories if not all of them. We know this – it isn’t rocket science.

Monday 21 January 2019


Their talk had drifted back to their early days and how each had made his start in life when he first struck New York. “I tell you what, Jones,” one of them was saying, “I shall never forget my first few years in this town. By George, it was pretty uphill work! Do you know, sir, when I first struck this place, I hadn’t more than fifteen cents to my name, hadn’t a rag except what I stood up in, and all the place I had to sleep in — you won’t believe it, but it’s a gospel fact just the same — was an empty tar barrel.”

“My dear Robinson,” the other man rejoined briskly, “if you imagine I’ve had no experience of hardship of that sort, you never made a bigger mistake in your life. Why, when I first walked into this town I hadn’t a cent, sir, not a cent, and as for lodging, all the place I had for months and months was an old piano box up a lane, behind a factory. Talk about hardship, I guess I had it pretty rough! You take a fellow that’s used to a good warm tar barrel and put him into a piano box for a night or two, and you’ll see mighty soon—”

Stephen Leacock - Literary Lapses (1910)

Sunday 20 January 2019


Mrs H and I wandered into a bric-a-brac shop this morning where we immediately noticed a very familiar aroma - paraffin. A small paraffin lamp was burning not far from the shop entrance, giving off that unmistakable odour. It took us back more than four decades to our flat in Coventry where we used a paraffin heater to keep winter at bay. 

Saturday 19 January 2019

Not Just William


Many folk of a certain age will be familiar with Richmal Crompton’s Just William books from their childhood. Maybe later too.

From Wikipedia

William is the leader of his band of friends, who call themselves the Outlaws, with his best friend Ginger and his other friends Henry and Douglas. His scruffy mongrel is called Jumble.

A William story often starts when William or the Outlaws set out to do something — put on a play, collect scrap metal for the war effort, look after Violet Elizabeth Bott for example. William always manages to get into trouble with his parents, although he can never see why. Often his well-meaning efforts result in broken windows and hysterics among Mrs. Brown's friends.

What may be less well known is that the character of William was probably inspired by and to some extent copied from an earlier book – American writer Booth Tarkington’s novel Penrod. Penrod Schofield is the hero of Tarkington’s novel and no William fan could possibly read it without recognising the similarities.

“Penrod Schofield!” Mrs. Lora Rewbush had come out into the hallway. And now, in this extremity, when all seemed lost indeed, particularly including honour, the dilating eye of the outlaw fell upon the blue overalls which the janitor had left hanging upon a peg. Inspiration and action were almost simultaneous...

Mr. Samuel Williams, aged eleven, and congenial to Penrod in years, sex, and disposition, appeared in the doorway, shaking into foam a black liquid within a pint bottle, stoppered by a thumb. “Yay, Penrod!” the visitor gave greeting. 

“Yay,” said Penrod with slight enthusiasm. “What you got?” 

“Lickrish water.”

Penrod is eleven years old, he had a mongrel dog, a nineteen year old sister, a middle class family life, frequently gets into scrapes and collides with authority and with enormous relish he drinks a concoction called liquorice water. Tarkington refers to him several times as an outlaw which as we recall is the name of William’s gang – the outlaws.

From a piece on William in Quadrant -

The boy hero he is most like is Penrod Schofield, created by Booth Tarkington (who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons) about ten years before William. Though her biographers stoutly deny it, Richmal pinched some of his plots. And why not? She made the stories better, funnier.

More importantly she pinched the character. To my mind she improved on Penrod as she adapted him for a British audience but it seems odd that she didn’t disguise this by avoiding some of the more obvious similarities. My guess, and it is a guess, is that she saw Penrod in boys that she knew and her imagination took it from there. And why not?

Thursday 17 January 2019

Corbyn on stunts

Not sure about this stunt of yours either Jeremy. Maybe the visual aspect could have been better. The background for example.

As an aside this was what cropped up in Google's suggested searches when I typed in "corbyn s"

I don't think he resembles Albert Steptoe at all.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

The Problem with the BBC

Not the usual anti-BBC vituperation which is often great fun but leaves one with a sense that it is all water off a duck's back. 

This video is more concerned with matters such as corporation's willingness to destroy the value of its own creative assets in the pursuit of political correctness. Still water off a duck's back perhaps, but in the end even the BBC must pay some attention to its creative assets. Those assets increasingly depend on audiences composed of people who did not grow up with it.

Monday 14 January 2019

The smell of a house

Son recently moved into a new abode which had been empty for some time. The aroma of a cold, unoccupied house was apparent as soon as we stepped inside. That will change of course. It will change as the place becomes warmed by occupation, as cooking aromas and the vast array of perfumed household products mingle together to create that unique aroma of someone else’s home.

I remember a school friend whose house smelled to me of that hard black toffee I always associate with bonfire night. Where that aroma came from I never discovered.

When Mrs H’s parents passed away we had to sell their house. While unoccupied it had acquired a fusty, slightly damp aroma which it never had before. No doubt that was due to the range of plug-in air fresheners we discarded as soon as the house became our responsibility. We don’t use them and don’t like the cloying, slightly irritating aroma they generate. Of course we replaced them when it came to selling the place hem hem.

Which presumably means our house has a distinctive smell too. It certainly does when I fry fish or when Mrs H cooks her vegetable curry or I bake a loaf of bread or brew some coffee. To my mind houses should have that kind of changeable aroma rather than the artificial scents, oils and candles which are so popular if supermarket shelves are a guide. Which of course they are.

Saturday 12 January 2019

The sense of competence

“What would you call the highest happiness, Lewie?” he asked. 

“The sense of competence,” was the answer, given without hesitation.

“Right. And what do we mean by competence? Not success! God knows it is something very different from success! Any fool may be successful, if the gods wish to hurt him. Competence means that splendid joy in your own powers and the approval of your own heart, which great men feel always and lesser men now and again at favoured intervals. 

John Buchan - The Half-Hearted (1900)

 Not a novel I recommend but within it there is this fascinating variant of an old insight. Via his main character Buchan asserts that happiness arises when individuals are aware of their own competence. This idea runs parallel  to Baruch Spinoza’s dictum that happiness is only to be found in understanding - to understand is to be competent.

If we accept that personal happiness is related to personal competence then a number of things become clear. Firstly there is no value in government efforts to promote happiness unless it also aims to enhance the competence of its citizens. Not collective competence but personal competence. Yet government is predicated on hierarchies of competence - as is Buchan's quote.

Perhaps this gives us a clue to the modern condition. In spite of their imperfections and biases the internet and social media are facilitating competence which is not hierarchical. Anyone can use the internet to enhance their own competence and from what I see many do just that.

Many don’t of course and therein lies a source of modern conflict in that it is relatively easy to become more competent than a government minister, at least in the way ideas are handled.

Other routes one could take with this is the idea that people can be competently stupid and therefore happy in their stupidity. We see this all the time when governments validate stupid activity. Or one could be happy as a competent criminal or happy as a competent benefits scrounger and so on and so on.

What’s the answer? As usual there is no answer although one might suggest a partial answer in that people could aim to be competently moral. Maybe our political class could set an example here. Doesn’t seem likely does it?

Thursday 10 January 2019

A moral crisis in China

Ironic really. The dog eat dog world of capitalism turns out to be even worse under communism. Gosh - who would have guessed?

Wednesday 9 January 2019

I thought that was the government's job

From the BBC

CES 2019: Lumen's breath test gadget tells you what to eat

The makers of a new device claim to be able to give users a tailored daily recommended diet based on its analysis of their breath.

Tuesday 8 January 2019


I'm very busy at the moment so the current blogging pause may last for another day or so.

Saturday 5 January 2019

Fat fascism

For who would want to choose by rule?

Fyodor Dostoevsky - Notes from the Underground (1864)

During my lifetime the private citizen has been driven to the edge of extinction. As with so much government activity this has happened entirely by stealth. For example, this recent claim that obesity should be classified as a disease.

Obesity should be recognised as a "disease" rather than a lifestyle choice, leading doctors say.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) said action to tackle excess weight was more likely to be successful if the problem was treated as one caused by environmental and social factors, rather than by individual greed.

In spite of some semi-fashionable attempts to suggest otherwise, it is easy enough to imagine that most obese folk have no great desire to be obese. In other words obesity is not usually a lifestyle choice – that much seems obvious enough.

Equally obvious is the constant political pressure to be seen to do something about every headline. Classifying obesity as a disease comes under that heading - the politics of conspicuous official involvement. It takes away yet another area of personal responsibility. In so doing it chips away at any possibility that there could even be such a thing as a private citizen.

Yes as Dostoevsky suggests – who would want to choose by rule? That isn't personal responsibility. Rules narrow, restrict or even remove choice and what are the longer term penalties from going down that route? How do we draw lines between official meddling and personal responsibility – where does personal choice become personal?

How do we halt the relentless and ultimately totalitarian politics of conspicuous official involvement? Because it is relentless and it is totalitarian. This choice is stark – breathe some life into the private citizen or the private citizen disappears even as an ideal.

Of course ultimately the ideal of the private citizen probably will be revived. But only for the elites.

Friday 4 January 2019

Thursday 3 January 2019

A way with words


He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animate abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarise it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely.

Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment (1866)

He certainly had a way with words did old Fyodor.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

New Year resolution

Strange gaunt females used to come down from London, with small parcels full of tough food that tasted of travelling-bags and contained so much nutrition that a portmanteau full of it would furnish the daily rations of an army.

E. F. Benson – Queen Lucia (1920)

Hmm - perhaps this quote suggests a New Year resolution –

Be wary of strange females from London with indigestible offerings.

Be wary of faddish diets too I suppose - so that's two resolutions from one quote. Must be a good start to the year.