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.