Thursday, 25 December 2008

A cheerful post

Reviwing my posts on this blog, I notice that a great many are complaints. I've decided to try not to sound like a grumpy old man, even though that's proably what I am.

So here's a cheerful post.

I think I may have discovered an osmotic cure for toothache.

Last weekend a tooth started to ache, especially under pressure. It felt disturbingly like an abscess. That was worrying because I feared my dentist might be unavailable until after Christmas, and possibly till the new year. I feared I might eventually have to pull the tooth out myself with pliers - abscesses unattended can be very painful.

Then I remembered my Rinstead Pastilles, pink antiseptic disks recommended for gum infections. I wedged one between my check and the part of the gum containing the root of the recalcitrant tooth and let is dissolve slowly overnight. A bit of it was still there in the morning, and the tooth was a little less sensitive,

Thereafter the toothache gradually went away. It might have gone away anyway, even without the Rinstead pastille, but I have a theory of how that could have helped.

I don't think  it was the antiseptic soaking through the gum into the infected tooth. Much more likely is movement of water in the opposite direction.

I guess that the surface of the gum is a semi permeable membrane. In between the gum and the pink pastille would be a saturated solution of whatever the pastille is made of, and that solution would almost certainly have a higher molar conentration and hence a lower osmotic pressure than the fluid inside the gum, so that water would diffuse outwards in the direction needed to remove the difference in pressures. That would have dried out the accumulated fluid causing the toothache.

Perhaps a sweet would have worked as well, except that it might have dissolved faster instead of lasting all night, but I like the idea that sucking a sweet might cure toothache.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Peanut Panic

Peanut Panic

Follow this link for the whole story.

As I'm not sure how long that link will be available, I've quoted some of the highlights. 
"A peanut on the floor of a US school bus recently led to evacuation and decontamination for fear it might have affected the 10-year-old passengers."
"Professor Nicolas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School ....  said the number of US schools declaring themselves to be entirely "nut free" - banning staples like peanut butter, homemade baked goods and any foods without detailed ingredient labels - was rising, despite clear evidence that such restrictions were unnecessary. 
"School entrances have signs admonishing visitors to wash their hands before entry to avoid [nut] contamination." 
He said these responses were extreme and had many of the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness (MPI), previously known as epidemic hysteria."

"John Collard, nurse consultant and clinical director of Allergy UK, said people in Britain were also going overboard in their reaction to allergies.  "I heard a similar story in the UK about a school making children wear gowns over their clothing during meal times so there would be no contamination fear from milk."

I'm inclined to giggle at much of that  especially the peanut on the bus, and the ritual hand washing enjoined on those entering schools, but the ban on home baking appals me.

If home baked food is held to be a danger when taken to school, it may soon be thought dangerous even at home, so we might eventually be forbidden to eat cakes or pastries unless they come stale and  in labelled supermarket packets. After all, might not some otherwise be eaten by a visitor allergic to some of the ingredients?

Legitimate visitors could with an allergy could ask about the ingredients, but what about illicit intruders ?  

These days we are supposed to make our houses safe for burglars, and the secrecy with which they ply their trade makes it hard for them to ask what snacks they may safely nibble to fortify them while ransack our houses and steal our valuables. While I should be delighted to hear of a burglar dying in the act, many influential people show a perverse determination to prevent poetic justice whenever they can.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Annual Letter

As I receive annual letters from quite a few people, I've written one myself, but instead of sending it out by post or email, I've put it on my website.

It consists mainly of links to entries in this blog, and to a few pictures, so most of the contents will be familiar to the conscientious few who visit here regularly, but for the benefit of anyone who wants to take a look, here's the link 

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Santa Clause revealed

I had never suspected that Santa might be a mere grammatical abstraction until today, when I read a notice  displayed by an unusually knowledgeable shopkeeper advertising 'Santa Clause Figures'. I was too shocked to notice the price.

If Santa is a clause, seasonal festivities are imperilled, for he would only have to mislay his finite verb to become a mere phrase. I very much doubt whether Santa Phrase would be capable of negotiating those chimneys that remain, never mind about insinuating himself into the interstices of  a central heating system.

The possibilities are most alarming. No wonder that The Powers That Be have conspired to conceal the truth. The expedient of just omitting one letter was brilliant psychology. Who thought of it?

I wonder if the Official Secrets Act has been broken. Will the anti-terrorist police be involved?

I fear I may already have said too much for my own good, so I shall say no more.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Fund managers and their sponsors.

The latest financial scandal seems to involve a pyramid scheme, a type of fraud that is so well known it should deceive only the most naive and inexperienced, yet it seems to have deceived the fund managers of numerous institutions, not only relatively soft targets like local authorities and pension funds, but even Santander, the supposed saviour of much of the British banking system.

The poor performance of fund managers is a matter of public record. Their funds usually under perform stock market indices, so that they do worse than they would if they invested at random. Why then is so much money entrusted to them ? Part of the answer is that our government recruits many of their customers, or perhaps it would be better to say conscripts them.

Most people are required to place savings in pension funds, where, of course, someone 'manages' them. Not only does the government thus prevent people from managing that part of their savings themselves, it goes further and places obstacles in the way of any who try to manage the remainder. The principal obstacle in Capital Gains Tax. Any investment policy accumulating sufficient assets to replace a pension would incur some liabilities under the tax, and as that is based on money value not real value there could be a tax liability without there being any gain. Even when no tax is liable, it would be necessary to keep complicated records and to perform involved calculations to prove that, probably requiring employment of an accountant, whose fees would further diminish the fund saved.

Don't believe the people who say our financial ills require more regulation by government. Government regulation has long been part of the problem.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Pure Evil

A few days ago  a policeman was quoted as applying that description to Karen Matthews, who had kidnapped and drugged one of her numerous children in the hope of sharing a reward for finding her again.

I'm not sure whether the term has any meaning, because I suspect that whatever horrors anyone might perpetrate, it would always be possible to imagine worse, but suppose we don't insist on the precise meaning and treat the phrase as singling someone out as a prominent apostle of the world of darkness, to what sort of person should we apply it?

I envisage an evangelist of evil, inspiring others to forsake the good (whatever that is) and embrace the evil, a person sinning with flair and imagination, and seducing others with  saturnine charm.

Karen Matthews is quite the opposite; it is hard to imagine anyone following when she beckons. I certainly find her most unpleasant, but in a trivial way. I should like her to die from some undignified cause, like a boil somewhere it would be too rude to mention.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Mixed feelings about Chrstmas

Christmas cards have started to arrive. I used to be excited to hear from people I hadn't heard of for a long time, until I realised I had quite a lot of acquaintances I don't hear from at any other time.

I used to keep the Christmas cards containing little messages so I could reply to them, naively expecting that my letters would elicit replies, and that old friendships would be revived. The replies rarely came. People would scrawl a tantalising scrap of news in their Christmas card, but just ignore my letter supplying my news and asking for amplification of theirs. Next year they'd be another unrelated snippet of prattle, but never any reply to my message.

Last year I made the usual selection of cards with messages, intending to reply, only to discover them still awaiting attention a few days ago, when they were mostly consigned to the shredder. I still can't bring myself to stop sending cards to those people I hear from only once a year. We used to have more to say to each other, and I can't bring myself to abandon the hope that we might still have something to say, though I fear that is probably wishful thinking.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

An expensive project

I visited the National Space Centre today because the East Midlands Go Tournament was held there. As the Tournament fee is less than the ordinary cost of entry to the centre, that is a cheap way in.

One of the displays considered the possibility that we might eventually colonise other planets to alleviate overpopulation of the earth.

Even if possible that would be an extremely expensive way of dealing with a pseudo problem.

In the long term, everyone now alive will be dead, and the only humans alive will be people not yet born. There will be no overpopulation unless people cause the births of more people than the earth can support. Contraceptives would be much cheaper than a space colony.

People often talk about population growth as if it were independent of human action. Do they think babies are delivered by storks ?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

More about Bagels

The peerless Gerard has pointed me to a site that tells the story of the bagel, including the information that the shape was favoured because it made it possible to carry bagels about by threading them on a string or a stick. It also appears that they are cooked by boiling - whether as well as baking or instead of I'm not sure.

I visualise bagel sellers carrying their strings of bagels from door to door like the onion sellers we used to see. I wonder what health and safety regulations would apply to bagel stringing ?

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Units of alcohol

At last I know, or think I know, what those units of alcohol are. A unit seems to be 10 grams.

The revelation has been provided by a recent Wine Society newsletter, though it rather coyly doesn't put the matter quite so straightforwardly as I have so I'm not completely sure.

A corollary is that the number of units per glass of wine is usually much higher than 1.

Even for a 125 ml glass, a sixth of a bottle and at one time regarded as the standard, the alcohol content can be as high as 1.8 units, so that even two of those modest glasses would exceed the recommended daily dose.

Alcohol content varies with the type of wine. For whites the driest are the most alcoholic, nearly 11 units per bottle for the 'bone dry' whites, falling to around 7 for the luscious pudding wines I enjoy.

I'd long been puzzled that so many people who like to be thought connoisseurs of wine prefer the very dry sour and bitter wines and are condescendingly disparaging about the delicious sweet ones. Now I have an idea why they behave so oddly; it may be just the alcohol they're after.

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Supposed Sanctity of the Human Body

One by one the beatings and mutilations that used to be the mainstays of the English penal code have abolished, until now none remain. Occasionally someone may propose the restoration of flogging, and a few Muslim countries still cut off the hands of thieves, but such practices are generally denounced as 'barbarous', which is considered a sufficient argument against them.

It is actually no argument at all, amounting to combining the bare assertion that physical punishments are wrong, with a sneer at those who advocate them.

Consider the advantages of physical punishment. It can be guaranteed to be unpleasant for the person punished, it gives the spectators the reassurance that the miscreant isn't 'getting away with it' and it is much cheaper than keeping someone in prison. I suspect that the Sharia practice of cutting off body parts, together with the subordinate role assigned to women, may be one of the factors that persuades some European men to become Muslims.

On the other hand physical punishment has great drawbacks. The degree of discomfort produced by a beating must be hard to estimate and vary considerably from one miscreant to another. In extreme cases the experience might trigger a heart attack or stroke and therefore amount to capital punishment. Removal of a hand would greatly impair the subjects ability to earn a living and might help to confirm him in a life of crime; but a more serious drawback is that the mutilation could not be reversed in a case of miscarriage of justice.

So although I find the thought of medieval punishments quite attractive, and should not call them 'barbarous' I do reject them as imprudent, with two exceptions: castration and sterilisation.

Except for a few people following very specialised careers, those operations would not impair anyone's ability to work, yet castration of violent males should greatly reduce their aggression and hence the probability of their re-offending.

Sterilisation would be an attractive way of dealing with parents who are cruel to their children, because it would bar them from the easiest way of acquiring more children to mistreat. That would not be a complete solution, because it would not save the first child victim, but if it prevented their ever being a second victim it would reduce the problem. It was the recent publicity given to two cases of cruelty to children that inspired this blog.

I'm puzzled by the hysterical reaction of many people to such suggestions. Even people one might otherwise consider intelligent resort to clearly fallacious arguments. The Nazi argument is commonly used in this context. (The Nazis did that so we shouldn't) The Nazis built motorways, had a public health service and a state educational system, but it is rare for people using the Nazi argument to apply it to any of those. Perhaps people find it hard to think rationally about the primitive urge to reproduce.

Of course we should need to proceed carefully. In the first half of the twentieth century people were pre-emptively sterilised on the ground that they were unfit to breed, without any direct evidence to support that judgement. It would be most unwise to proceed just on the basis of what it is thought people might do, but that does not preclude sterilising those whose past treatment of children has shown them unfit to be trusted with the care of any more.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

It's often inappropriate to say 'inappropriate'

Various comments on the current dispute about two rude and probably criminal media creatures, of whom I previously knew nothing, reminded me of one of my phobias: the choice by many people of 'inappropriate' as the general term of disapprobation.

First there is an offence against logic. 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' are relational terms. Something can't just be 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate'; it can only be 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate' in certain circumstances, so to say baldly that some action or other is 'inappropriate' is illiterate.

Even were that error corrected, 'inappropriate' would be ill fitted for use in many of the cases where it is employed, because it typically refers to a breach of decorum, or minor indiscretion, as in 'Morning dress is inappropriate attire in the Sauna'. In such cases it has the force of a mild reproof. It is also unspecific, indicating that something doesn't fit in without saying how. Yet people use the term when much stronger words would be appropriate, and the first part of this sentence illustrates a typical correct use of the term, to assess the choice of words to describe something, rather than to describe the thing itself.

I think the term is overused by many people who are afraid to use words such as 'wicked', 'cruel', 'dishonest', because they think morality must be 'subjective' on the ground that it is not 'objective'. In fact objective/subjective is a false antithesis in ethics, a matter I discuss in the ethics chapter of my philosophy notes.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Story of Maths bumbles on.

I'm glad that Mathematics is being mentioned on the television, but there is little else to be said in favour of the series on BBC4 (Monday nights, 9-10).

As I watched last night's programme I was struck by the irrelevance of the pictures. There were fountains and lakes with swans though the subject matter was neither fluid dynamics, nor the aerodynamics of bird flight. A reference to the growth of mathematics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was accompanied by a film of a red double decker bus in a traffic jam.

Much of the programme was superficial name dropping. The train of thought was something like this:

Cantor investigated the infinite, many mathematicians were sceptical but not Poincare, whose brother was Prime Minister of France, and who stumbled on chaos and invented topology.

There were frequent references to Riemann's Hypothesis, without any indication what it is. As the hypothesis concerns zeros of the Riemann Zeta function, which in turn involves the concept of the analytic extension of a function of a complex variable, it would be hard to explain it in a couple of pithy sentences, or to illustrate it with a picture of a seagull sitting on a bus; perhaps it would have been better not to mention it at all.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

An extravagant Luncheon

Last month I reached the age of seventy, and as a friend reaches the same age next month we decided on a joint celebration at a date roughly midway between our respective anniversaries, and last Thursday lunched at Hambleton Hall which is a minor stately home converted into an hotel. Hambleton lies on a peninsular jutting out into Rutland Water, a quite decorative reservoir in the county after which it is named.

The staff put on a most entertaining performance for us.

On arrival we were ushered into the drawing room, where drinks and little canapés were served. Most of the canapés were just slightly larger than a pea, but of quite complicated construction, each served on a tiny disk of its own, and each dish had a little handle by which one picked it up before tipping the contents into one’s mouth.

When we were led into the dining room two waiters attended us so that we each had one to place a chair in readiness for our posterior and to unfold our napkin and place it across our knees. (I seem to have mixed singulars and plurals in the sentence; please make allowances for my age) From our table we had a view over the garden to Rutland Water.

We chose almost the cheapest option, ‘Lunch For Less’ at £25-25 for three courses - two courses would have been £20-00. On the al la carte menu prices are around £35-00 for main courses, and $15-00 for starters and puddings.

Food was a series of artistic creations, served on square white plates so there was no extraneous pattern that might clash with the chef’s artistry.

For the main course we both had braised lamb, and that was presented as a garden. In the middle of the plate was the lamb covered with a crunchy green topping the constituents of which were unclear, but which made it look like a grassy knoll. Scattered around were the plants - little dabs of tomato and what seemed to be anchovy sauce. I was almost afraid to put potatoes on my plate lest I spoil the picture.

While eating pudding, chocolate tart with orange sorbet, I was fascinated to watch someone at another table being served cheese. The actual delivery of cheese was preceded by a long explanation delivered by a waiter who gesticulated with a knife with holes in the blade. I wonder if that’s what one is supposed to use to cut cheese. Eventually he cut something from one cheese, but than addressed himself to another from which he seemed to be taking thin shavings with a rotating blade. I’m tempted to return to Hambleton Hall to have the cheese, though I think that is only available on the a la carte menu. An 80th birthday treat, perhaps ?

The glorious finale was the serving of petits fours with the coffee. First coffee arrived in a cafetiere, and as well as the usual accompaniments, there was a strange long thin roughly rectangular glass plate which later turned out to be the petits fours plate. A waiter soon arrived with the petit fours box, a large glass topped case on folding legs., and set it up beside our table so that he could conduct a brief seminar on the contents - all home-made sweetmeats that appeared to be specialities of the house, certainly neither of us had seen anything quite like any them before. We wanted to say ‘one of each please’ but didn't want to appear greedy and so restrained ourselves by having just two each. I particularly liked a confection with a raspberry flavoured outside and a creamy truffle inside.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

More Televised Mathematics: Chaos

Just as I was planning both to blog less, and to watch less television, BBC4 is provoking me by broadcasting yet more Mathematics.

There was a programme about chaos on BBC4 8-9 pm on Tuesday 14th October.

I much preferred that program to the previous night’s broadcast on Mathematics. The central idea of chaos was clearly explained, with a careful distinction between chaos and complexity, though they did miss an opportunity by not giving a simple arithmetical example, such as the one in my own essay on the subject.

My only serious doubts concerned the remarks about climate and the economy in the latter part of the programme. I thought that in both cases they were wrong to state categorically that those are examples of chaos. There is reason to suspect that they may both be chaotic, but I think it is still an open question whether they are.

They appeared to reason that because weather is chaotic and climate describes weather, climate must also be chaotic. I do not think that argument conclusive. Climate is a sort of statistical averaging of weather and the averaging might eliminate the chaos. Of course it might not, but I’d prefer not to assume climate chaotic without other evidence.

Some of the discussion of climate, with mention of tipping points and irreversible of changes, reminded me of catastrophe theory, something we used to talk about a lot in the 1970’s. I remember I once made a catastrophe machine from two pieces of cardboard and an elastic band. I wonder if I still have the instructions? A picture of a similar machine is shown here. But I found the computer animation hard to follow and recommend readers to make a model for themselves.

In the case of the economy, they seemed to assume that it must be chaotic because it is not predictable, but as I understand it, unpredictability alone does not constitute chaos.

Chaotic systems are ones that are deterministic and unpredictable. Typically they are in principle predictable, and in practice their behaviour can be predicted with moderate accuracy for a short time, but accumulation of errors limits that time span.

The problem with weather forecasting is that the underlying theory is such that errors accumulate and eventually overwhelm our calculations. The problem with economic forecasting is that there is no plausible theory capable even in principle of making precise predictions; calculations cannot be overwhelmed by accumulating errors because there are no plausible calculations to be overwhelmed. In my own essay referred to earlier, I quote Herbert Spencer’s description of what form a theory of society would take if there were one, and it is clear that we have no such theory.

It is true that social and economic trends sometimes resemble the behaviour of chaotic systems, but I hesitate to state categorically that they are chaotic. They might be, but they might be unpredictable because they are not deterministic, or because they are too complicated for us to understand.

Another possibility is that prediction of the behaviour of society is vitiated by feedback loops whereby human beliefs about society affect the development of the society. In that case it might be only members of the society who are unable to predict its behaviour. It might still be possible for reliable predictions to be made by inhabitants of another planet observing us without our knowledge.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Matthematics Televised

I was surprised and pleased to find that BBC4 was to devote a whole hour to Mathematics (Monday 13th October 9-10 pm), though I realised it would be reckless to hope for too much.

The program did hold my attention, but missed opportunities were too many to list.

The treatment was frustratingly superficial, with bald statements that someone discovered something without any indication of how they did it. I was particularly intrigued to learn that a fifteenth century Indian mathematician discovered the series:

pi = 4/1 - 4/3 + 4/5 -...

The standard way to obtain that uses integration, which, so far as I know was not available then, so I wonder how he did it.

The moving visual display of a television picture could be a very powerful tool for illustrating mathematical ideas, yet it was so used for only a small fraction of the time. For most of the time it displayed either the geometrically uninteresting face of the presenter, or scenes of contemporary everyday life in the countries whose (non-contemporary) mathematicians were being discussed.

There were several glaring errors. Infinity was introduced as the result of dividing by zero; that was not the idea that stimulated the theory of the infinite, but a dead end from which the idea had to be rescued.

It was also claimed that the number of petals in any flower is a Fibonacci number, ignoring the numerous flowers such as the cruciferae with four petals. It could of course be correctly claimed that many flowers have Fibonacci numbers of petals, but as 4 is the only natural number less than 6 that is not a Fibonacci number, that claim doesn't amount to much.

The entire programme was distorted by a false dichotomy between 'Eastern' and 'Western' mathematics.

There was indeed a time when the rudiments of different parts of Mathematics were developed in different cultures, but the subject came into its own only when the various strands were united in a body of knowledge that transcended those separate traditions. That union happened in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the result was not 'Western Mathematics' but Mathematics.

The most important question about the origin of any mathematical idea is not which secretive scholar first thought of it but shared it only with a few close disciples, but who first contributed it to the pool of common mathematical knowledge that provided the basis for future developments both in Mathematics and in theoretical science.

Monday, 13 October 2008


I've decided to explain the increased activity here during the last month or so.

Once I’d started this blog, I found I frequently thought of something I wanted to say, only to forget it when the time came to publish, so I started to make a list of all bloggable thoughts as soon as they occurred to me, and that soon generated quite a long list. I turned out that most of them were not new thoughts, but bees that have been buzzing round my bonnet for years.

Many such obsessions had already been incorporated in my Philosophy notes, and others at various places on my web site, but there was a residue either nowhere written down or just scribbled on pieces of paper in some long neglected file, and it is such thoughts that make up most the material posted here during the last six weeks. The backlog has now been cleared. Possibly one or two old obsessions long buried in my psyche have still to surface, but I expect that henceforth most blogs will either be topical, or elaborations on earlier posts.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Similarity of Fallacies Fallacy

I hesitated about putting this in my blog, because it concerns material dealt with in my Philosophy Notes, but I decided to say something here because logic is so widely understood, even by people who are conscious of its importance and try to get it right; they frequently err by oversimplifying and a common oversimplification is to assume that errors in arguments are usually easily spotted.

If parts of this blog seem obscure, please refer to Chapter 2 (Logic) and Chapter 6 (Science) of my notes available on the Philosophy page of my web site.

Most people have at least a vague awareness of logic, but even among most of the well educated ideas are hazy, garnered mainly from little book abut clear thinking, and lectures on ‘Communication Studies’

Among the complicated tangle of aptitudes and skills that we call ‘intelligence’, two are particularly conspicuous. Ability to spot patterns and similarities, which I‘ll call ‘animal cunning‘, and ability to address a complicated problem by treating it as composed of interrelated parts and to explain the problem by tracing the relations and interactions of those pats. I call that ‘analysis’. Both are vital to our reasoning, but it is analysis that is dominant in Logic.

Unfortunately the popular introductions lean too heavily towards animal cunning, and to that bias I attribute
a widespread misconception, namely that fallacious arguments usually come in one or another of a few clearly defined types that are fairly easily spotted. The popular introductions support that misconception by concentrating on fallacious arguments that are what I call ‘near misses’, coming near to fitting some valid form, but not quite making it. Example: ‘The bank was brought down by short sellers; Fiona is a short seller; so she brought down the bank’

In fact it is unusual for fallacy to be so easily spotted, because there are few patterns that guarantee fallacy, and one of those is just the strategy I’m discussing, of arguing:

Argument A follows the same pattern as argument B; argument B is fallacious, therefore so is argument A.

To argue thus may wrongly condemn arguments that are in fact valid.

The fallacy of the intrusive ‘but'.

Quite a few fallacious arguments follow a pattern of using ‘but’, where all that is justified is ‘and’ . Frequently people do this to confer apparent validity on arguments of the form.

‘Some A are not B’ therefore reject ‘Most A are B’

For example:
X: ‘Most members of chess clubs wear glasses’

Y: ‘But Simon, Hilda and Montmorency all belong to chess clubs and none of them wear glasses’

That exchange may appear to resemble this one:

W: ‘Most native speakers of the Qulmyoi language of Eastern Rumblethump are pipe smokers’

Z: But Simon, Hilda and Montmorency are all native speakers of the Qulmyoi language of Eastern Rumblethump and none of them are pipe smokers’

However, it so happens that there are only five native speakers of that language so Simon, Hilda and Montmorency together form a majority, and their not smoking pipes does indeed refute the claim that most native speakers do.

There is a longer example taken from life in Chapter 2 of my Philosophy Notes.

Start from Validity
An understanding of logic has to start with validity, not fallacy. A valid argument in one that fits some pattern that guarantees validity. An argument is fallacious if it fits no such pattern.

However, a particular argument may fit many patterns (consider for example, someone arguing ‘I'm hungry, so it must be dinner time‘), so although we can establish validity by finding just one pattern that is valid, we can establish invalidity only be showing that no pattern matching the argument is valid.

It is therefore often easier to substantiate a valid argument than to refute one that is invalid. The contrary assumption, that error is easily spotted, is linked to another, the belief that the truth is manifest and clear to see, so that any who fails to see it is at least negligent, and at worst wicked.

The best way to show that a putatively analytic argument is invalid is to concentrate on that particular argument, and describe circumstances in which it’s premises could be true and its conclusion false.

Popular consideration of logic concentrates on deductive arguments, in which it is impossible for the premisses to be true and the conclusion false. Let’s call such arguments proofs. In practice proofs are very rare outside Mathematics and its applications in Science, and it is only in Mathematics that proofs are used to establish the truth of propositions. In Science proofs are used to deduce testable consequences from theories, but not to establish the truth of theories themselves.

Most arguments are not proofs and cite observations to justify more or less tentative conclusions about matters of fact. For instance, we notice that the bin men usually arrive between 9 and 10 on Tuesday mornings, and so expect they’ll continue to appear around that time. Of such arguments the popular logic books have little to say except that we should avoid generalising from samples that are too small, or unrepresentative, without tackling the very difficult matter of deciding what is too small or unrepresentative.

When chemists determine the melting point of a sample, they consider two readings adequate, but two instances of chess players who dislike chocolate would not be considered to establish ’no chess players like chocolate’.

When assessing the adequacy of evidence it is important to distinguish (1) cases provided as examples, (2) samples used to check a conclusion established on other grounds (3) cases put forward as the sole evidence for some generalisation. People commonly apply to cases (1) and (2) the more stringent criteria that would be applicable to (3).

Re-reading what I’ve just written I realise that it is very abstract and would benefit from half a dozen more examples, but that would make it very long for a blog, and there are examples in the Philosophy Notes on my web site.

I plan to comment here on individual samples of popular logic or illogic when I come across them in the media or in conversation.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Bored by the Beautiful

What delights the senses may bore the mind.

I’ve gradually become puzzled by my own reaction to aesthetic experience. Music has never interested me greatly, though I’m not tone deaf. I can recognise tunes, and I have likes and dislikes, but I hardly ever feel a wish to listen to music. Indeed music on its own, not accompanying either action or song, seems odd. Plato considered the principal function of music to be accompanying the marching of soldiers, and he may have spotted something there, though we need to take his comments, on this as on every other subject, with more than a grain of salt.

So far as visual art is concerned, I recently I started looking round the London art galleries. Here my reaction was strange. There were some pictures I found beautiful, and others I found ugly, yet I tended to pass by the beautiful quickly, and the pictures over which I lingered were often the ugly, though I did not linger over all the ugly pictures.

If I were somehow compelled to concentrate on the aesthetic experience, there are pieces of music and pictures I should prefer to others, and I think my preferences would be fairly conventional. However, I do not enjoy concentrating on experience, I like following trains of ideas and solving puzzles, so I prefer to avoid music, because it interrupts my train of thought, and the enjoyment I sometimes derive from looking at a picture is derived mainly from its capacity to stimulate thought.

Pictures of the market stalls, kitchens, machines and vehicles of centuries ago fascinate me because of what they show, but pictures of people enacting scenes from classical mythology interest me only as evidence that people used to think that amusing.

Quite the opposite view was expounded by Clive Bell, who held that no knowledge of the external world should be necessary for the appreciation of visual art, except that to appreciate some paintings one needs to realise how the two dimensional canvass is used to represent three dimensional physical space. He seems to have found artistic merit only in some abstract form that could be appreciated without having any idea of the subject. There is no need o be able to distinguish between a crowd of people watching an execution, a crowd of children watching a Punch and Judy show, and rows of knitting machines in a hosiery factory, because for Bell no genuinely aesthetic judgement should be affected by the distinction.

I seem gradually to be moving to a position where I find value only in the aspects of art that Bell regarded as irrelevant.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Will Inflation be the Governments' way out?

Interest rates have been cut to below the inflation rate, which at first sight seems odd at a time when banks and building societies are anxious to attract more deposits.

As the move closely follows measures by various governments greatly to inflate the money supply, I wonder if high inflation will prove to be their chosen way out.

Inflation could defang the 'toxic debts' by increasing property values until they suffice to cover the mortgages on the property. It would also reduce the value, in real terms, of debts governments have taken on.

It would be particularly dangerous if governments try to use inflation as a way of increasing employment. Experience in the 1960's and 1970's suggests that employment is not increased just by inflation, but only by accelerating inflation, so that relying on it, as Keynes recommended, would soon face us with a choice between accelerating inflation into hyperinflation, or stabilising inflation at the cost of a recession - the so called 'stag-flation'

An afterthought: I recently read a comment that Keynes had very little training in Economics, having attended only one course of instruction in the subject before becoming a lecturer - in Cambridge where his father was already a lecturer in Logic in the same department. As Keynes read Mathematics for his first degree, his formal education in Economics is likely to have been skimpy.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Use and Misuse of the Telephone

I have commented in earlier blogs about the oddity of much conversation. Conversation is at its oddest when conducted by telephone.

The caller and the called are in a state of sensory deprivation relative to one another. Hearing is the only sense operating and that only to a limited extent; each can usually hear most of what the other says, but very little of what may be going on around him, so neither knows much more of the others circumstances that the other reveals, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Telephone conversations are marked by a pronounced asymmetry between the participants. The caller usually calls with some set purpose, otherwise he would not have called. The called, on the other hand, unless the call is expected, is usually in the middle of doing something quite different, and may be disconcerted.

Considerate callers often ask if one is in the middle of anything important; that lessens any inconvenience, but makes the conversation even odder. Now that most of us have telephones that can be carried around the house, we could be doing almost anything when called, though I have never yet answered the phone while seated on the lavatory. Some callers show such an interest in the details of what one is doing that I prefer not to take the risk.

There is a strange convention that the caller’s interests take precedence. I may be puzzling out some aspect of the theory of relativity and just on the point of achieving some degree of enlightenment, and the caller may just be wondering if I know the name of a plant with pink scented flowers and fernlike leaves with a name beginning with ‘K‘. The sensible arrangement would be for us both to start by discussing relativity, returning later to the plant with a name beginning with ‘K’, but in such circumstances it would be almost impossible to deflect the attention of that caller from that plant.

Also odd is the treatment of any others who may be in the company of the called at the time of the call.

If someone walks up to a group of people who are in conversation, the newcomer will often join in the conversation. Not so with a phone call. The companions of the called are usually expected to fall silent, stopping in mid sentence however profound the remark they are making, and to remain silent for as long as the phone call lasts. While someone making a phone call is allowed to interrupt almost anything, it is hardly ever permitted for anyone else to interrupt a phone call. I favour a general convention that:

He who interrupts, may be interrupted in turn.

It could replace one of the ten commandments, possibly the one about your neighbour’s ass.

I’ve tried to get phone callers who interrupt a conversation to join in by using a loudspeaker phone and telling them who is present and what subject is under discussion. It has never worked; they usually seem disconcerted and to have words only for me.

Many people’s reverence for the telephone extends to protective feelings towards other people’s phones. “That’s the phone” they’ll say if my phone rings and I don’t sprint across the room to answer it. What do they think I think it is ? Burglars copulating in the bathroom ? (I have never experienced that particular disturbance by the way, though one of my acquaintance did once discover burglars so occupied in his spare bedroom.)

The irritation sometimes caused by social phone calls is involuntary and to some extent inseparable from the medium. That cannot be said for the sophistical effusions of cold calling salesmen, which must be made in full knowledge of the inconvenience likely to be caused.

One response is to have a short sales talk of ones own ready.

One fellow Go player prepared a little speech advertising the British Go Association, concluding with an invitation to the caller to join. He related that one disconcerted saleswoman for something or other replied, after a pause “Do you mean me, personally?”.

One of my projects is to try to get people to take the telephone less seriously so I sometimes answer:

“Nether regions, Beelzebub speaking”

That once elicited a request, made in an Indian accent, to be put in touch with my master.

To the ultimate in telephonic abuse, the automated call that plays a pre-recoded message, there can, unfortunately, be no immediate response apart from putting down the receiver, though I sometimes console myself by imagining cruel and unusual punishments that might be inflicted on the directors of the companies responsible.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Logic and Language

Some time ago I heard a grammarian say that grammar has nothing to do with logic. That is clearly an overstatement. Grammar is indeed not the same as logic, but it governs the use of language. Logic is a set of rules for assessing reasoning, and all sophisticated reasoning is carried out in language; so one set of rules is likely to have some impact on the other.

Most linguists, anxious to defend the double negative, would object to my saying that grammar governs the use of language, arguing that grammatical rules are just patterns abstracted from observations of usage; but the relation between usage and rules is more complicated. It works in two ways. Individuals learning a language spot patterns in the way others string words together, and apply those observed rules to the construction of their own sentences, so most of what is said is intended to follow a perceived rule, and when people believe they have identified a rule, they treat it as prescriptive, not just descriptive.

It is only because our linguistic behaviour follows rules that we are able to construct many sentences from relatively few words, and that is what makes our linguistic skills orders of magnitude greater than those of other animals Many other animals use signs, and quite a few can learn to recognise some human speech, but in their case the meaning of each sentence has to be learnt separately.

Rule following is a crucial part of linguistic usage, so that a particular usage that breaks a general rule is in a sense a departure from general usage however frequently people use it, so that it can make sense to say that even frequently used phrases are misuses of language.

It is possible for humans to learn individual sentences as the animals do, as in the phrase ‘splice the main brace’ which is normally used where there is no main brace to be spliced, but while a few quaint phrases of that sort have some charm, it would be most inconvenient to have a lot of them.

A case which struck me as odd even while at the primary school is what I’ll call ‘the disposable not’.

It irritated me that people would ask ‘Don’t you…?’ or ‘Won’t you..?’ when they meant ‘Do you ?’ or ‘Will you ?’ After all, if ‘Do you not?’ = ‘Do you?’, ‘You do not’ should = ‘You do’, making ‘not’ redundant. Similar observations apply to 'didn't' and 'isn't'.

I had no extra-linguistic motive, or at that age any philosophical motive, for questioning that usage. It just struck me as absurd. I was very puzzled that other people seemed too obtuse to notice the absurdity; I still am. In my youth I sometimes answered ‘redundant not’ questions as if people meant what they said - although I realised they didn’t.

Adult relative, simpering: ‘Isn’t Auntie thing kind to give you that sweet dear?’

I, thinking carefully of the meaning of the question, ‘No’

Although people were often surprised such replies they never saw the point. At the time I put it down to the obtuseness of adults. It still surprises me that people talk such a lot without reflecting on what they are saying or how they are saying it.

Inconsistencies in linguistic usage are like logical time bombs, posing a permanent threat to communication, because however well established some inconsistent usage may be, the standard meaning of the words in question can reappear at any time to disconcert us.

‘presently’ used to be related to ‘present’ as ‘quickly’ is still related to ‘quick’ (and if anyone asks whether “ ‘presently’ ” should begin with a capital P because it begins a sentence, the answer is no; it should begin with a capital quotation mark). Although very well established the contemporary meaning of ‘presently’ is fragile. The original meaning pops up whenever we read Shakespeare or talk to a student of English as a foreign language.

English is the international language of air traffic control, but it would be a rash traffic controller who used the word ‘presently’ to convey to the pilot of an approaching plane that it will be safe for him to land soon, but not just yet.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Games on Social Occasions

When I was a child we often whiled away the evenings by playing cards, or occasionally other games. For parties there was quite a variety of games, most involving drawing or writing on little pieces of paper, which were then folded over and passed on to whoever was next for another contribution, until finally the papers were unfolded to reveal a bizarre composite effort of some sort.

Party games got a bit too much; so much time was spent playing them that it was hard to find time for a chat. In the late 1950’s a reaction began, and since then there have been parties where housefuls of people have nothing to do save wander around talking to each other, and trying to eat and drink while simultaneously holding plate and glass. That has also has got to be too much, as people often run out of stuff to say and struggle to disguise their nothing as significant communication.

Games playing on the other hand has become largely the preserve of fanatics, usually devoted to just one game which they want to play or read about or talk about, for as long as possible, to the exclusion of as much else of life as it is possible to exclude. One reason I chose to play Go is that most Go players seem to have other interests too, though there are still a good few fanatics among them.

I wish there could be a compromise, where parties still gave one a chance to chatter, without making non-stop chatter obligatory, and where games were available on social occasions but still avoidable.

Monday, 6 October 2008

'That's not the same'

I'm intrigued by the frequent of those words to reject a proposal that things be done differently.

I once said to someone who planned to visit Switzerland, that I should prefer to stay at home and look at pictures of Switzerland, and that great savings could be made if only all prospective sightseers would do the same.

'That wouldn't be the same' she replied.

Would I have suggested it if it were the same? Imagine the conversation.

'Instead of travelling all the way to Switzerland to look at the scenery, you could travel all the way to Switzerland to look at the scenery'

'But that's exactly the same' would come the reply, and rightly this time.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Govrnment Guarantess for Bank Deposits.

I should prefer the guarantee to cover slightly less than the full sum deposited. I suggest deducting one year's interest from payments made under the guarantee scheme.

That would ensure that the guarantee would be less on accounts paying higher interest, which tend to be the less secure institutions. I think Northern Rock paid higher rates on deposits than did most of its rivals.

The question is becoming academic, at least for the time being, as European Governments follow each other in offering 100% guarantees for all deposits, but that raises a new problem.

Governments that guarantee all bank deposits will be tempted to regulate the banks to restrict them to making only the safest loans, which would be loans secured by assets unlikely to depreciate below the value of the loan. That would not just rule out 100% mortgages, but also a great many overdrafts, both for private individuals and for companies, and probably all credit cards. The demise of the latter would at least speed up queues in supermarkets!

Would the restriction of bank credit encourage the creation of new institutions, with no government guarantee, to specialise in risky loans ? If so their services could be very expensive.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Paying ourselves compensation

The inquest into the shooting of the Brazilian electrician reminds me that any compensation that may eventually be paid, nominally be the police, will actually not be paid by the police at all, but by we unfortunate tax payers. That is generally the case when a public enterprise lets us down. I often wonder how we might target the penalty more justly.

Perhaps policing could be put out to tender, with different security firms stating the level of service they would provide and the charges they would make, and the electorate then voting to decide which tender to accept. The danger then would be that dishonest groups would promise what they could not deliver. Trusting the choice to civil servants would risk perpetuating the present system.

If tendering is too radical, one might at least impose a financial penalty on senior administrators in organisations that incurs a penalty, restricted perhaps to that part of their salaries that exceeds the pay of a member of Parliament.

It seems yet another reason for restricting government activity to the bare minimum.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Is silence no longer golden?

The late Dr. A. R. Vidler, speaking at a dinner soon after becoming dean of King's, quoted an anonymous lady who said that one does not feel at home in a house until one feels free to walk about in one's underwear.

I think it could just as well be said that one does not feel at ease in someone else's company until the two of you can sit together in silence without either feeling uneasy.

It appears that many people are so ill at ease that they feel impelled to hold conversations even in the library.

A recent news item reported that libraries were to become jollier places, where people could eat, drink, chat, and apparently do almost anything other than read a book. It was my impression that that change has been underway for a long time, but the announcement still aroused nostalgia for the libraries of my youth.

Libraries used to be oases of quiet amid the desert of idle prattle that makes up much of social life, places where I could browse through strange collections of books, and take one to a table and read it undisturbed if I didn't want to borrow it.

There are so many places people can talk, it is a pity some of them feel impelled to do it even in places where it used to be possible to think in peace and quiet.

I suppose the crux of the matter (one day I must look up 'crux' in the dictionary) is that, although conversations involve the uttering of words, the point of the activity is often not to communicate what those words mean. I once read a book called something like 'Games people Play' that analysed conversational gambits as moves in an elaborate game, in which one identified some people as members of one's 'in' group and others as outsiders, expressing solidarity with the former, and trying to exclude the latter.

Conversation is often used in much the same way that cats groom each other, and indeed groom friendly humans, sniffing, snuggling up against and licking.

It would be a great improvement if people were franker, reserving words for circumstances where they wish to assert what those words mean, and stroking each other when they just want to reassure, though if the stroking produces the loud purring that my efforts elicit from our junior cat, I'd prefer it if people wouldn't stroke in the library.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Bring back the Eunuchs!!

A recent article in the Scientific American (off line for maintenance when I composed this, so I can't give a link) pointed to this abstract of a paper about the effect of testosterone levels on willingness to take risks.

"Using a sample of 98 men, we find that risk-taking in an investment game with potential for real monetary payoffs correlates positively with salivary testosterone levels and facial masculinity"

I wonder if that may be part of the reason some societies appointed Eunuchs to many of the senior administrative positions. Putting eunuchs in place of the financial operators who got the banks into such a mess, could just be the first step; our political leaders too might usefully be cut down to size.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Those City bonuses.

Fund managers control vast pension funds and other investment funds, and much of the money is entrusted to them because the government uses a combination of financial incentives and coercion to get people to put their savings in such funds rather than to manage it themselves.

Fund managers have a poor record; it is rare for managed funds to perform as well as a random selection of quoted shares, yet the managers, with a captive market secured for them by the state, still award themselves large salaries for achieving nothing. Just possibly managers may reduce the volatility of their funds, so a lower expected yield may be partly compensated for by lower risk; I'm not sure about that.

The voting rights of shares in funds are exercised by fund managers, not by the people whose savings are being managed, and they use those voting rights to put on the boards of companies people like themselves - reckless people with hazy visions of marble entrance halls in ever grander offices. Those people then award themselves the huge 'bonuses' that cause such annoyance.

Monday, 29 September 2008


As I stroll around Leicester's recently extended shopping centre, idly contemplating the empty space where the shiny decorative discs were recently removed for safety after one of them fell off, I wonder at the number of large shops devoted to selling clothing. Some people must devote a great deal of time and money to planning and executing changes in their appearance.

I feel some sympathy for the Chinese habit of a few decades ago of all wearing boiler suits, though I personally prefer just a little variety and lots for pockets. I wouldn't mind different people dressing differently if only they wouldn't make so much fuss about it and, having settled on a style they like, would stick to it.

Quite a few years ago I decided to simplify my choice of clothes by always replacing worn out clothes - and of course I always wear clothes until they wear out- by new ones as much like the old as possible. Fashion is unnecessary, and so, I sometimes feel, are the fashionable.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Microsoft Internet Explorer !!!

Although I don't browse with that tiresome piece of software, I do need to use it to test material destined for the web, and I've noticed a particular idiocy - it blocks javascript in pages held on the local machine. It doesn't completely block it, but it does print an inconspicuous message at the top of the window warning that there is dangerous material in that page you've just created on your own machine, and requiring you to click acceptance of full responsibility for the consequences before it can run.

In the case of pages on the web, one can easily alter security settings to allow such material, but one can't alter settings for local files. The MIE help file says that as there is little risk from such files, there's no need to have high security, so when they nonetheless set it high, there's no way of changing it.

I try very hard not to gnash my teeth, fearing the consequent dentist's bill.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Is Harriett Harman turning into a pigeon?

A couple of weeks ago, enjoying the later Summer sunshine while sitting Kew gardens, I found myself idly watching the pigeons, and was struck by the odd way their heads jerk backwards and forwards as they walk. They look as if they are pecking in anticipation, just in case something edible should materialise in front to them.

A few days ago I saw a televised clip of an interview with Harriett Harman, and noted a very similar pecking motion; her nose shot forward with each point she made. I wonder if the psychologists have a name for the condition ?

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Financial Crisis

I know I should resist the temptation to comment on something where it's most unlikely I'll have anything to say that hasn't been said by many others, but I'm commenting nonetheless.

Much discussion overlooks the root of the crisis, by concentrating on the mechanism by which it developed.

People talk of financial instruments so complicated that hardly anyone could understand them, and people selling banks shares short, and the need to regulate someone or other to stop it happening again. I wonder whom should be regulated and how ? The present British Government changed the regulatory system for financial institutions when it came into office in 1997. Had it wished it could have made further changes at almost any time in the last eleven years. What does it now wish it had done differently ?

The problem is bad debt and certain bad debts in particular. Although many institutions owe each other great sums of money, at the root of the problem are mortgages that exceed the market value of the property on which they are secured. If there is to be more regulation, the obvious move would be to set a maximum proportion of the purchase price of a building that can be met by a mortgage. - 85% perhaps ? I haven't heard anyone suggest that, yet without reckless lending to house buyers, the whole process could not have started.

It would indeed have helped if banks had abstained from buying securities they didn't understand, but it might be hard to draft, and even harder to enforce, regulations imposing an obligation to understand anything.

Particularly silly is the widespread criticism of short selling. At most that affected share prices, yet it was not the falling share price that made Lehman's insolvent; quite the opposite. It was a suspicion that the company might be insolvent that depressed the share price. In so far as short sellers accelerated the price fall, they were not creating a problem, but drawing attention to a problem that already existed before they started trading.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Half Cooked Vegetables.

During the last decade or so there has grown up a fashion to serve vegetables half cooked. The perversity of this is most obvious in the case of the carrot.

Raw carrots are delicious, crunchy, sweet and juicy.

A carrot thoroughly cooked is soft and yielding to fork and tooth, and mingles happily with the gravy.

In between those two desirable states is an intermediate one of minimum utility, when the carrot is still hard, but no longer either crunchy or juicy, and it is at that point that it is fashionable to serve it.

I gather that health is given as the reason for this gastronomic barbarism; I just don't believe it.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Minimum Longevity Requirement

I quite like that phrase. It was used by a friend to congratulate me on my seventieth birthday, which is today.

Yet I have reservations about anniversaries, especially after reading a remarkably lucid book about relativity, described on the appropriate page of my website. From a relativistic point of view it is impossible to disentangle space and time in any way that accords with the experiences of all observers, so it is hard even to define an anniversary on a cosmic scale, and even from the blinkered point of view of an earth bound human anniversaries are rather odd.

We say 'this is the very same day on which I was born, Krakatoa irrupted/..' but there isn't much the same about the two days except that we say they are the same because we give today the same date label as the earlier day. The earth will be roughly, but not precisely at the same stage of it's orbit, but the moon will probably be in quite a different phase, and anywhere but the earth the similarity between the two days would seem most tenuous.

There's something to be said for commemorating happy or striking events from time to time, and, it helps to have a simple rule saying when we do that, especially when a lot of people are likely to be involved. An anniversary does that very well, but there is no need to insist on hitting precisely the same date every time.

I shall be celebrating my satisfaction of the MLR three times, and the first of the celebrations will indeed take place this evening, but that is mainly because I don't like cooking on Mondays when the meat and fish market is closed, and so welcome an excuse to eat out.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Innocent

A few days ago the BBC news included a clip of President Bush speaking at a ceremony in honour of those killed when terrorists crashed passenger planes into the World Trade centre and the Pentagon.

The President referred to the victims as 'innocent men, women and children'

The word 'innocent' set me wondering what other sorts of victims there might be. Could there be a guilty victim ? In what circumstances would people deserve to be killed like that ?

Of course the terrorists themselves were killed and they were guilty, but I did not think that that was the President's point. I had the impression that he considered the crime particularly offensive because the chosen victims were innocent, suggesting that more discriminating terrorists might have chosen their victims better.

Did he mean that the terrorists would have done better to to target the President himself and members of his government?

That thought led to another. IRA terrorism in Britain received financial support from Irish Americans, and some people wanted in Britain for terrorist offences were able to shelter in the USA because it proved impossible to extradite them from there. Americans are not all innocent of complicity in terrorism, nor are all members of the American Government and Congress.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The intrusive 'do'

Many years ago an acquaintance whose native language was Portuguese remarked on the strange English circumlocutions involving various parts of the verb to do.

Until then I'd taken it for granted that one should say things like 'Do you play Go?', but ever since my attention was drawn to the waste of words, I wanted to ask 'Play you Go?', restrained only by the wish not to seem to be trying to draw attention to myself.

The short form of questions seems to survive only in the case of 'have' . 'Have you the time' just about passes, though 'Know you the time?' would appear odd.

Recently 'do' has intruded even further, in the strange locution 'I don't do X' where 'X' is not anything that could be 'done' . For instance an unusually honest user of the idiom might say ' I don't do thoughtful' to mean 'I don't think'.

Politicians often express themselves thus. Perhaps they are so obsessed with doing things, or being seen to do something, that they want to use the vocabulary of action even to refer to inaction.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

The right time, at last

One of my earliest posts lamented the use of American time, or to be more precise one of the several American times. Today, while browsing through the various settings options, I've found a way of changing that. Beware though; it is not immediately obvious how the various time zones are ordered. They are not ordered alphabetically, but according to the magnitude of their deviations from GMT, so you down the list until you get to the zero deviations, and then choose London.

I shan't be quite sure I've got it right until I've posted this, so here goes (an odd form of words that will have to be considered later)

Friday, 5 September 2008

Collecting mail from the Post Office

Yesterday the postman called with something that needed to be signed for. I was changing clothes before going our, so I was wearing only a pair of underpants. By the time I was sufficiently dressed to answer the door he was gone.

Today I tried to collect the item, only to be told it was not yet available, and one should allow at least 48 hours after the attempted delivery before calling for anything. There was a long queue of people, many of them eventually receiving the same bad news. Last time I had to collect anything one got it later the same day.

I gather there is now some procedure involving postmen leaving undelivered items in 'grey boxes by the roadside' and vans later driving out to collect the boxes.

I long for the ending of the Post Office monopoly. I suspect it was originally introduced to give the government a chance to snoop on people's communications, but these days there are much more sophisticated ways for the authorities to do that.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Why Bother with Bagels ?

Tempted by a special offer, I recently bought some Sainsbury's so called 'taste the difference' bagels.

I found them even more inconvenient to eat than spaghetti.

They were rather dry and so needed spreading with something. As it would have been hard to spread anything on the outer surface , I had to cut it each two, and butter the two circular annuli thus created, taking care not to lob butter over the edge. The operation was tiresomely fiddly. Inserting a filling to make a sandwich, or toasting the thing, would have been even more fiddly. Why should anyone want to form material designed to be eaten into such an inedible shape?

Is one supposed to put the bagel on a plate and spoon in some sort of filling ? If so a flan case or individual Yorkshire pudding would be a better template.

The only point I can think of in favour of the shape is that the torus is a surface on which the map colouring problem was solve much earlier and more easily than the four colour problem for the plane.

Perhaps bagels could be baked with their surfaces marked out with a seven region map that needs seven colours. and sold packaged with sachets of seven edible and environmentally friendly food colours. Then we could treat them as works of art and shouldn't need to eat them.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Being NICE about drugs

I'd written quite a long blog about this and it suddenly disappeared; I was still puzzling how to get at the copy blogger saves automatically, when it auto-saved the blank message on top of the original. I shall put a short note here now and add to it as I remember what I said before. This time I shall make sure the text is saved by posting it at frequent intervals, so anyone who finds a partly written and uncorrected blog will know why.

I suspect some rationing of expensive treatments by the NHS is essential to avoid a state of affairs where the entire gross national product is spent on medicine, but I have misgivings about the details. Drugs withheld include some that extend the lives of kidney cancer patients by as much as six month, yet the NHS does provide free cosmetic surgery for the removal of tattoos, and one alternative use of funds I heard cited as more deserving then the cancer patients was the treatment of people with cystic fibrosis. Both tattoos and cystic fibrosis are avoidable. Tattoos may be avoid by not having them, and cystic fibrosis, which is a genetically determined condition, would be avoided if people who are carriers avoided mating with other carriers. In both cases prevention should be quite easy.

Quite apart from the details of treatment permitted and treatment withheld, there is one practice that I find particularly objectionable.

If patients decide to pay for drugs that the NHS does not provide, those patients are punished by being required to pay for all their treatment.

I think that is spiteful and vindictive, and points to a disturbing aspect of the welfare state, a suspicion of anyone who tries to look after themselves instead of throwing themselves on the mercy of the state.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

A Buddhist tearoom.

Yesterday a friend and I explored the Buddhist meditation centre in Kelmarsh Old Rectory, near to Market Harborough, but just over the county boundary in Northamptonshire.

We didn't want to commit ourselves to a spacial guided tour, and so just went into the tea room, which is open to all. We were not in any way the victims of evangelism, though I did decide it would be tactful not to kill the wasp that showed an interest in my companion's jam. However the visit did set off a train of thought which I record here.

I'm increasingly attracted by the Buddhist idea of detachment from the world and its contents, though not for quite the same reasons that the Buddhists advance.

Buddhists see detachment as the only way to escape from an otherwise infinite sequence of deaths and rebirths. As the Buddha seems to have adopted an empiricist view of personal identity, it is not clear what component of on an individual he might have supposed to survive death and later to be reborn.

I don't belief there is any rebirth, or any entity capable of being reborn, and favour detachment as a sort of mental hygiene. Although I do not believe that any individual has the potential to live an infinite sequence of lives, I do think there is in human life a potentially infinite succession of dubious value, namely the succession of human generations. I think there is a coherent point of view from which that succession appears pointless, and I find that point of view ever more congenial.

It is conventional to regard the present and future welfare of the human race as the primary good. We are supposed to deplore and if possible to avert potential changes in climate that might reduce the number of humans who can live on our planet. It is customary to regard children, and especially babies, with a sentimental affection and to refer to them as 'our future'. Yet why should we want a future of any sort for the human race ?

From the point of view of an individual human, humans are special because they are his own species, include his own relatives and in particular his descendants, and there are strong instincts to produce and nurture descendants, but all that does not make humans special from any non-human point of view. Members of any other species might just as well consider their own kin as the most important inhabitants of the cosmos - they might, if there were capable of having a point of view of any sort.

That points to the only respect in which humans might be correct in considering themselves special; so far as we can tell we alone are capable of having a point of view, of understanding the cosmos and our place in it.

Yet the intellectual achievements of humanity are mainly confined to a small minority, and for most people intellectual curiosity is a passing phase confined to childhood and adolescence. Adult life usually centres on breeding and rearing children, in the hope that they in turn will repeat the same process.

I'm gradually losing interest in that process. I have many interests, but the the future of the human race is not among them.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Trapped in Blogger

I can't find any link from Blogger back to the my main Google Account page. Every other part of Google I've used has such a link, but not this one, so I usually leave this bit till last, to avoid fiddly multiple pressings of the browser's 'back' button.

Would anyone aware of a more convenient escape route please let me know.

Intitutional meanness

I've just finished filling in my Income Tax return. When I 'd checked it, signed it and was putting it in the envelope I noticed that the addressed, but not pre-paid, envelope provided for its return was A4 size, making it a 'large letter' under the new Post Office classification, so an ordinary first class stamp did not suffice.

As I don't know the cost of a large letter I had to consult the Internet. It's 52p, compared with 36p for a small first class letter and 27p for a small second class letter. Eventually I made the sum up with a first class stamp a 10p stamp and three twopenny stamps, from the little tin of assorted stamps I keep for such contingencies. I imagine that many people have no such tin and would have needed to queue at a post office to get the stamps.

I thought how much easier it would be if postal rates were more simply related. With a 26p second class rate, two second class stamps would pay for a large letter, and a second class stamp together with a 10p stamp would do for a small first class letter.

Given the complications of sending large letters, the tax people could, if they were considerate, have either provided pre-paid envelopes, or used A5 envelopes, which would take tax forms easily provided the forms were folded just once.

Although it may appear just a detail, it is not insignificant, because it illustrates a lack of generosity and consideration. Although officially called 'public servants' tax collectors don't behave at all like servants, at least not like our servants.

The tax collector's job is one in which kindly people would be unhappy, and officious busybodies would be likely to thrive, because the tax system is complicated and it's implementation inquisitorial.

Were the country run like an hotel, with each customer charged for the services provided, assessing tax liabilities would be quite easy. The complications arise from a professed wish to help what used to be referred to as the 'poor and needy' but are now usually called 'the underprivileged' . It is that supposed generosity that necessitates the employment of people with inquisitorial powers to ferret through what should be the private details of our finances, with a meanness that reveals the falsity of the supposed generosity of the Welfare State. For to be generous is to help people from one's own resources; using other people's resources for the purpose is a faux generosity, that is usually a combination of envy and spite.

Finally, that 52p charge is quite substantial. When I worked in Lincolnshire an occasional treat was the five course dinner provided by the Grand Hotel in Lincoln. That cost 12/6d, 62.5p in the debased currency of today, only 10.5p more than the stamp for a large letter, and much, much more enjoyable than posting an income tax return.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Radovan Karadzic

When he was in power I sincerely wished him dead, yet now he's on trial I feel uneasy.

Misrule is common, yet few of the culprits ever face trial, and those who do are tried only when they have ceased to be powerful, and even then only if they have no powerful state to protect them. It would be most unlikely for a former head of state of one of the great powers to be tried by the International Court. Nor do I think it desirable that that should be possible.

Many powerful governments are repressive and corrupt. An effective system of international justice would be likely to fall under the control of repressive rulers desirous of protecting themselves from criticism. One way of doing that could be to arrest rulers of any states that allowed the expression of dissident opinion.

Returning to Karadzic, a number of rulers have in my lifetime been responsible for many more deaths than he, and yet are still admired by many of their countrymen. I'm thinking not just of Stalin and Mao, but even our own Harold Macmillan who was at the end of the war involved in handing large numbers of prisoners of war over to the Yugoslav government to be massacred. Picking one or two scapegoats to bear the guilt for human cruelty, while most of the guilty are lionized seems just a ridiculous exercise in self righteous pomposity.

Meanwhile, I suspect Karadzic will make fools of the International court as Milosevic did a few years ago.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Our unpopular prime Minister

Once again popular euphoria has been replaces by popular discontent. Were the pattern not familiar it would seem strange.

In 1997 I welcomed a change of government, and was glad that the Labour party that took power seemed to have shed the some of the innumerate stupidity and thuggish envy that had characterised that party in the past. However I still had reservations, especially about the self righteous moralising of the new leaders, who seemed to get on disturbingly well with Rupert Murdock, and received from various business men sums of money orders of magnitude greater than the puny donations in brown envelopes with which Mr. Al Fayed had persuaded Conservative back-benchers to ask question in the Commons.

I considered Brown discredited by his first budget with it's removal of tax concessions from pension funds.

Even in the light of those considerations, our electorate returned Labour to power with a huge majority in 2001, and again, though with a smaller majority, in 2005, after they had taken us into an unnecessary war on the basis of false intelligence.

Since then, little has changed that may reasonably be attributed to any change on the part of the Government, yet there has been a great change in popular sentiment. The state of the economy does indeed give cause for concern, but insofar as government policies have contributed to those problems, those policies date back to the days of Labour popularity.

The swing in popular sentiment seems to consist partly of people who supported the policies, objecting to their consequences, and partly of people greatly exaggerating the power of the government to control the economy. My first reaction was to feel depressed that I live among such stupid people, but I console myself with the thought that the stupidity of collective decisions may be much greater than that of most of the participating individuals.

During the last three decades the share of the vote won by each of the major parties has varied between about 28% (Labour in 1983) and the mid forties, a variation of about 17%, or about one sixth of those voting, so the ranks of those voting against the results of their own policies may be relatively small. In a way that is just as depressing as my first conclusion, if not more so. Collective folly is particularly irritating because it is hard to anyone in particular to blame, and I like having someone to blame !!!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Other people's governments

I'm very dubious about attempts to reform other governments simply on the grounds that they mismanage their own affairs inside their own borders.

I recall saying something of the sort to a gaggle of self righteous people picketing Sainsbury's because it sold goods from South Africa, though I think the only item of South African origin on sale at that particular branch was tinned pineapple.

When Apartheid came to a largely peaceful end a few years later, I wondered if I'd been wrong in the case of sanctions against South Africa, but as one intervention followed another (Yugoslavia, Iraq) my doubts revived.

It's most interesting that in the recent argument about sanctions against Zimbabwe, even the government of South Africa, an apparent beneficiary of a sanctions campaign in the 1980's, seems to have lost faith in the process and now opposes action against Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Schools may become prisons.

I notice that a minister called Kevin Brennan has suggested that schoolchildren should be prevented from leaving school during lunch hours lest they buy food thought to be unhealthy.

Critics have argued that such a ban would be unenforceable. I suspect that that would be true in the case of most schools, but that does not mean that imposing the ban would just be harmless folly.

It would damage relationships between teachers and pupils by giving the latter yet another excuse to resent the authority of the former, so that it would be even harder to persuade children to study hard, which is what I thought they were supposed to be doing at school.

Children who managed to smuggle into school those derided snacks high in fat and salt would enjoy them all the more because the enjoyment would be illicit, and combined with a chance to laugh at the ineffectual efforts of those teachers foolish enough to try to enforce the ban.

Who's Who tells me that Brennan taught (Economics and Business Studies) in a school for nine years; unless he is exceptionally unobservant he should know what children are like !

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The stupidity of good people

I don't maintain that all good people are stupid, but many of the noisily good appear conspicuously stupid, as they participate in one moral panic after another.

Just now there is a moral panic about Zimbabwe.

I think that many people cannot face the fact that cruelty corruption and misgovernment are universal, and even extreme forms of those ills are very common. It is therefore consoling to concentrate on the affairs of one small ill governed country, to attribute its ills to a very small number of people, and to plan to remove them. The recently favoured scapegoats have been Yugoslavia and Iraq, and now it's Zimbabwe. I offer no excuses for the misrulers of those places, but do deplore concentration on them almost to the exclusion of other news.

It helps people forget the misdeeds of countries that are too powerful to be confronted like China, an autocracy that oppresses about a fifth of the world's population, and the USA that has forced corruption and organised crime on the entire world with its absurd drugs war.

Mathew Parris recently wrote an excellent article about Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A strange percentage

From time to time reference is made to a report by a number of scientist asserting
that there is:

"a 90 per cent chance that humans were the main cause of climate change"

I'm not at all sure what that means, mainly because I can't imagine any method by which such a figure could be calculated.

In everyday conversation someone might say "90% certain" to indicate moderate, but not complete confidence in the truth of the proposition in question. However, in scientific discourse as opposed to casual chatter one expects a number to be the result of some calculation. The choice of 90 indicates a reason for thinking it is greater than 89 and less than 91.

I assume that the 90% is meant to be a probability, so the claim is equivalent to:

"The probability that humans are the main cause of climate change = 0.9"

I think that such a use of probability is untenable.

In the 1930's and 1940's philosophers of science, including some scientists in their philosophical moments, tried to solve the notorious Problem of Induction by assigning probabilities to hypotheses. After fierce controversy in which Sir Karl Popper was prominent, those attempts are now generally accepted to have failed. I consider the matter in chapter 6 of my Notes on Philosophy.

I feel a general unease about the discussions of climate change.

It is difficult to distinguish change in climate from fluctuations in weather. Such a distinction would require careful statistical analysis, yet much of the discussion is conducted like the evangelical campaign of a millenarian sect, complete with denunciations of any heretics who dare to express any doubt. That is not the behaviour of honest scientists.

On the other hand the theory of climate change is supported by what I like to call double verification. As well as statistical data that seems to point to some degree of change, there is independent evidence of a mechanism which one would expect to produce such a change, namely increases in the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

I wonder how accurately one can predict changes in climate. The weather is chaotic, so it is worth considering the possibility that climate, when it varies, also does so chaotically. However as climate is a sort of average of weather over moderately long period, chaos in weather does not in itself imply chaos in climate.

I believe that something is going on, though I'm not sure precisely what. People would be wise to brace themselves for a shock of some sort, yet to keep an open mind about precisely what form that shock might take.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Double Death ?

I bought some fly spray today and noticed that it claimed to 'kill bugs dead'

How else could it kill them ?

I find it amusing to invent meanings for apparently meaningless collections of words, and found 'killing dead' quite stimulating.

Perhaps it means killing beyond hope of resurrection. Plato thought all living things have 'souls' which can be reborn in bodies attuned to the merit or otherwise of their previous lives. Perhaps mine is a Platonist fly spray that puts an end even to the cycle of death and reincarnation.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A strange urge to share one's misfortunes

I've just seen a report that "A third of gay men who know they are HIV positive are still having unprotected sex"

See this article on the BBC site.

I particularly noted:

"According to the survey, those who knew they were HIV positive were statistically more likely to have unprotected sex than those who did not."

For a moment I imagined patients, overjoyed at the discovery that their disease can be controlled by drugs, crying 'Goody, Goody, now I have plenty of time to infect someone else', but I don't suppose that many are as frank as that, even to themselves.

Much more likely than conscious malice is casual aversion to thought, and especially to precise scientific thought, an aversion defended, if at all by, some piece of ridiculous prattle which the more sententious may refer to as their 'philosophy of life' and which might include phrases such as 'if it's going to happen, it's going to happen and there's nothing you can do about it' or 'science isn't everything; I'm interested in people, not machines and test tubes'

It appears that an unintended consequence of the development of drugs to treat HIV may have been an increase in the rate of new infections.

Saturday, 7 June 2008


I was very depressed to see the following in the press recently:

"Children should no longer be taught traditional subjects at school because they are "middle-class" creations, a Government adviser will claim today.

Professor John White, who contributed to a controversial shake-up of the secondary curriculum, believes lessons should instead cover a series of personal skills.

Pupils would no longer study history, geography and science but learn skills such as energy-saving and civic responsibility through projects and themes."

Note the evasive language with obscure or question begging terms like 'middle-class' and 'civic responsibility'

I shall concentrate on the first, which is often used without any indication of its precise meaning or relevance to the subject under discussion.

'Middle-class' is often used as a term of disapproval by people who consider it important to assert that they themselves are 'left wing', and I get the impression that they object to people who try to be honest and polite, to save and generally to order their finances prudently.

In summarising the results of market research, the term 'middle class' tends to be applied to professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, accountants academics, and to the self employed. In that sense of 'middle class' the people concerned include those whose careers are most dependent on extensive education, so that in a sense education must be largely 'middle class'. To disapprove of such people and the education that produces them comes near to disapproving of civilisation itself.

John White's proposals amount to teaching children his opinions while denying them the knowledge on the basis of which they might form their own opinions. A man who appears to disapprove of careful rigorous thought wants to to exclude such thought from education.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Dr. Who sems to have improved

The last instalment let us into the secret only slowly, and I thought the hints of horror adequately fulfilled by the 'piranhas of the air' eating the living flesh down to the skeleton. Conservation of mass is a problem, but I'm prepared to overlook that.

There are still secrets to be revealed. Who are the little girl and her associates and how are they linked to the library?

Will there be complaints that it is too frightening? I hope that if there are they will be disregarded. Any story exciting enough to be worth following is likely to give nervous children nightmares, just as one of the criteria of an effective medicine is that it is labelled unsuitable for children.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Thinking about thermodynamics in Wales

I recently spent two nights in Wales with a friend who collects railways, crematoria and hats.

We didn't find any new hats, but did visit two railways and a crematorium.

We stayed in the Trefeddian Hotel, Aberdovey, a delightful establishment where the amenities included an 'adults only' lounge. We were pampered with strawberries, and of course lots more too, for breakfast, and delicious five course dinners in the evening. If one doesn't finish a bottle of wine, they keep it till the next day, so we ordered both red and white on the first night and finished them off on the second.

On the Talyllyn Railway I had a chat with a friendly fireman while the engine was getting up steam. He told me that all the steam is vented to the outside (extremely inefficient) and when I peeped inside the driver's cab I noticed that the maximum safe pressure was 150 pounds per square inch. That provided food for thought during, because it was the first time I'd seen any figures for a steam engine, and didn't know the conversion factor from pounds per square inch into anything useful

Although the scenery was very pretty, with wooded hills and waterfalls, I should have enjoyed the journey a lot less had I not been busy converting pounds per square inch into pascals - the answer is about 6900, so the engine operated at about a million pascals, or 10 atmospheres.

Once I got home I looked up the vapour pressure of water and discovered that that pressure corresponds to about 180 degrees C, and by making a rough estimates of work done by the expanding steam in the pistons, and the heat put in, I estimated an upper limit of 6% for the efficiency.That makes steam trains seem much less fun.

It is not because I'm an ardent environmentalist, but because I find waste aesthetically unappealing. Even though I can remember how unpleasant railway travel could be when steam was almost universal, I'm not immune to the superficial charm of the surviving steam railways. The technology is very old and yet it works, thus do we condescend to previous generations. Steam engines make a cheery chuff chuff chuff and whistle frequently, and those that survive often potter along through pretty countryside, but using 94% of the fuel to produce the steam and smoke, and only 6% to make the thing move seems an unreasonable preference for the superficial.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Ham and Cheese Sandwich Theorem

My patient plodding through the definitions and basic theorems needed to get Topology underway has at last been rewarded with substantial result. The formal statement is:

Given three finite volumes, U, V, and W in Cartesian 3-space, there is at least one plane that bisects all three.

The application to the bisection of a ham and cheese sandwich with one cut should be obvious. Note that no assumption is made about the way the ham and the cheese are distributed within the sandwich.

The proof is quite short and fairly easy to understand, though it does depend on the Borsuk-Ulam Theorem, which my book considers too hard to prove except in one special case.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

I almost forgot to watch the last episode of Dr. Who. At one time I'd have almost been counting the minutes to the next episode.

It isn't just the loss of suspense between episodes now that most programmes show a self contained story, though that is a factor. What spoils the new series for me is mainly a combination of over hasty development, and an excess of what the producers probably call 'human interest'.

Much of the excitement provided by good science fiction comes from following the solution to a puzzle, and one cannot enjoy the solution to a puzzle unless one is first given a chance to be puzzled by it.

Dr Who's adventures used to start with people notiving that something a little odd was happening. As the Doctor probed into events things appeared odder and odder, eventually revealing the, usually malign, source. But even when the culprits were revealed there was still the further puzzle of why they were doing it and whether they were acting on their own account or as agents of some even more sinister power. One used to be kept on tenterhooks for weeks, but no more, alas.

Something else science fiction can do is to show the universe from an unfamiliar, non-human point of view. I'm not sure how realistic it is for we human beings to try to adopt a point of view that can probably never really be ours, but the attempt can at least be thought provoking. Having Dr. Who falling in love makes it harder to develop such point of view, because our thoughts about love are an elaborate ideology of collective self deception.

Human society with its politics and morality is an elaborate mechanism that serves to increase the number of human beings, a sort of epiphenomenon of the reproductive instinct, what F. A. Hayek (Law Legislation and Liberty) would have called a Spontaneous Order. Insofar as love transcends the primal impulse to mate, it is a sort of megalomaniac desire to have descendants, and society is a compromise between the competing reproductive instincts of different people, hence the strange belief in the sanctity of life.

Because we are human we cannot easily escape from this point of view, and possibly cannot escape at all, but it is refreshing sometimes to contemplate the world as it might appear to one whose vision was not obscured by the ideology of love. It seems a pity to miss an opportunity.