Thursday, October 30, 2008

Inappropriate Behaviour

The antics of Messrs. Brand and Ross have made all sorts of headlines and we now have the usual oscillatory statements from members of the public; some condemnatory, some ultra-forgiving. What I find odd is the description - virtually everywhere - of their behaviour as "inappropriate". I think "wrong" is the right word.
I have noted with rising depression this over-use of "inappropriate" when something is clearly "wrong". Am I missing something? Has "wrong" become one of those words we can't use any more? I've heard bullying in schools, vandalism, theft, public drunkenness and a dozen other similar things tagged as "inappropriate" recently. It implies that they are, in the right place, "appropriate". No they're not. They are wrong.
Watch out for this one. See if your blood pressure jumps every time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Smelling Fear

Dogs, amazingly, can smell cancer. Thankfully, they don't appear to be able to smell fear.
When I was eleven years old I had the back of my right leg ripped open by a dog. The external scars have healed but I remain very wary of dogs. Two years ago we stayed at the Gateway Hotel Nottingham. Our visit coincided with the National Rottweiler Convention. Two hundred rottweilers. Scared? You betcha.
This weekend we paid another visit to the Gateway*. Same convention. Two hundred slobbering rottweilers from homes throughout the East Midlands and South Yorks. Owners in purple velour track suits sporting rosettes and fake tan; men with tattoos of dogs on their over-developed right arms; the words "he's quite gentle really" spoken by nervous people with bandaged fingers.
It was awful. Scared? You betcha.
But the rottweilers didn't notice. Perhaps Lynx drowns out fear.
*The Gateway Hotel Nottingham is generally OK by the way. It is dirt cheap and does a decent breakfast. The fact that it is the venue for the East Midlands Rottweilerfest is unfortunate.

Good: The New Bad

There is an assumption being made by just about everyone that Global Warming is a bad thing. I'm not so sure. It might be extremely good news.
Have a look at a globe without ice caps. The continent of Antarctica will be amenable to human colonisation and exploitation. Who knows what natural wealth lies beneath the ice? An Arctic free of ice will open up a whole new trade route - the North-West Passage that Franklin dreamed of. We already know that the Arctic Sea has oil fields. We will, globally, have lots more rain and this will ultimately render many now-barren lands fertile again. Lots of positives.
Of course, there are plenty of "downs" to match the "ups". Coastal flooding will become a major problem. We will need to move or perhaps imitate the Netherlands. We can cope. The Polar Bear will probably die out*. Everything dies out eventually. Ask Darwin.
The biggest problem with Global Warming is that it will make things different from what they are today and were yesterday. We are not good with the notions of tomorrow and change even when it might be absolutely fine. Be adaptable. It is the only strength we humans really have.
*Oh dear, what a shame, never mind.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Belief Systems

It must be true that if there is no God there would be no atheists. The fact that atheists do exist means that God must also exist, so that the atheists have something not to believe in.
Not believing in something is an interesting concept. For a good number of years I believed in Father Christmas; then I didn't. Then, it turns out, I was Father Christmas so, for a few more years, I not only believed in Father Christmas I had actual proof of his existence.
Extraterrestrial life is another issue where my beliefs oscillate rather wildly. The Drake Equation (go see Wikipedia) predicts that there should be around 10 Earth-like civilisations in our galaxy and, therefore, millions in the universe at large. At present, I just don't buy this. I am much happier with Fermi's question "Where are they?" than with Drake. There are so many, possibly crucial, terms omitted from the Drake Equation that I suspect that the actual number of Earth-like civilisations might be vanishingly small. Given half an hour any decent scientist could come up with 50 additional terms for the Drake Equation. Today, I think we might be alone in the Galaxy and possibly in the Universe. Tomorrow, I might think differently.
So, as of late October 2008, I am pretty convinced that we are unique, intelligent, conscious beings within a generally lifeless Galaxy and that to explain this uniqueness and to ease the ache that this loneliness brings, it helps a lot of people to believe in some sort of God.
On balance, me included.

Monday, October 20, 2008

America: Vote with your eyes shut!

In the forthcoming election in the USA there remains the nagging doubt that the colour of a man's skin will be the deciding issue. Unbelievable.
Obama is manifestly the better candidate. His speeches are redolent of the best of Lincoln and King. He is clearly unafraid to face America's future, whatever that might be. McCain should cash in his chips now. He is not even close.
And yet.
America may still discard the best hope for a generation based on nothing other than the amount of melanin in a man's epidermis. The same chemical compound that gives a lot of us brown eyes, incidentally.
The turnout in American elections is always low. About half of the electorate can't be bothered to cast their vote, although every American seems to have the right to bellyache afterwards. It is interesting that the world's only superpower will cross the globe to defend someone else's democracy but won't cross the street for its own. Let's hope that bigotry and apathy are mutually inclusive.
Perhaps America should just take the next two weeks to simply listen to Obama and McCain. If so, Obama has a good chance.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

I am worried by the increasing weight of the dead hand of orthodoxy in our society. We are beginning to conflate "conventional wisdom" and "truth" and I, for one, am not in the least bit convinced that doing so is a good idea.
There are lots of examples: High fat diets cause heart attacks1. The National Curriculum is a good idea2. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction3. The Taliban are terrorists4. The Universe is full of Dark Matter5.
Global Warming is a good example of the triumph of orthodoxy over debate. We are told (in an infant school sort of way) that the overall warming of our planet is because we are releasing too much CO2 into the atmosphere and creating a greenhouse effect. To disagree is no longer an option. The "environmental thought police" will not countenance disagreement. It might endanger their funding.
Yet still, I disagree.
I am sure that what we are doing to the planet is not good and that releasing all the carbon dioxide that we do is not a great idea BUT I do not believe that there is an inexorable link between the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the average global temperature.
To claim that such a link exists is to reduce the science to the level of a soundbite.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from about 300 ppm* in 1960 to about 387 ppm now. Five hundred million years ago carbon dioxide was at least 20 times more abundant than today, slowly decreasing to "modern" levels. We know very little about what regulates the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but we do know that the planet has survived much higher concentrations than 387 ppm.
Perhaps the eco-fascists would like to go and have a look at the work of the Serbian mathematician Milutin Milanković. His work has linked Ice Ages and the so-called Interglacial periods (like now) to the orbit and rotation of the Earth. Interesting. Non-political. Probably true.

1. Not proven and not even remotely likely to be true. Ask the Inuit and the Eskimoes (yes, there is a difference)
2. Independent schools that don't follow the National Curriculum always outperform State Sector Schools that do.
3. No they didn't; but we still have our forces over there fighting and dying because someone believed they did!
4. The Taliban have never been terrorists. We don't like them now but we cheered them on when they were kicking seven bells out of the Russians in 1980.
5. See an earlier blog.
*ppm = parts per million

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The House of Lords

Thank God for our upper chamber!
We might not elect them but they played a blinder last night in chucking the Government's plan to detain WITHOUT CHARGE for 42 days.
So we are not quite a facist state yet.
Well done Lords!


The good people in Powys are up in arms because their streetlights - most of them anyway - are being turned off. They are grimly anticipating a crimewave and a succession of nasty accidents. The county council is dressing this up as a "save the planet" ploy by claiming that it will cut greenhouse gas emissions . Bollocks; they are out to save money. Let's stop being so coy.
Actually, I'm fully on the side of the Council here. We don't need and have never needed streetlights. At a rough guess, 99.99999999999% of the light generated by streetlights is used by absolutely nobody, ever. We pay a fortune to illuminate areas that need no illumination. We will not have a darkness-fuelled crime wave. We will not have gangs of hoodied youths clustering on unlit corners dimly lit by the orange tips of their shoplifted fags.
Perhaps, when the lights are off, the good people of Powys might look upwards to the black - not orange - night sky and wonder at the beauty and splendour of the Universe we all share.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Top Ten Handshakes

We all have people we would like to meet. People you would like a chat with; just to get them into a corner in a pub or cafe and find out what makes them tick. At the very least we would like to shake their hand. These (with reasons, and in rank order) are my Top Ten Handshakes:
  1. Nelson Mandela - runaway leader; turned apartheid over through sheer moral power.
  2. Mohammed Ali - an awesome man; greatest sportsman ever
  3. Pope Benedict XVI - an intellectual giant.
  4. Steven Fry - I have a feeling that we have much in common.
  5. Ralph McTell* - My favourite musician/songwriter
  6. Ian Botham - greatest cricketer ever
  7. Boris Johnson* - an enigma; a deep, intelligent character wrapped up in a buffoon
  8. Bill Gates - I have a book that belongs to him and I really should return it
  9. Patrick Moore - My love of Astronomy comes directly from him and "The Sky at Night"
  10. Charley Boorman* - Well worth a beer.
Those marked * I have already met, but they stay in the list for when we have a beer/coffee.
I am puzzled that there are no women in my list.
Who have I left out that I really should meet?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dark Matter

One of the great puzzles in Physics today is the supposed existence of Dark Matter. The theory goes like this: We observe galaxies far away; these galaxies are rotating at a certain rate; the rate is too high given the amount of matter we can see in these galaxies therefore there must be an invisible type of matter that contributes to gravitational effects but is otherwise undetectable.
Now, hang on. That is exactly the same as saying "it's magic".
Invoking a magic ingredient (up to 90% of the mass of some galaxies, "they" say) is completely against the "rules". It explains everything and nothing in the same breath. If Science goes down this route elsewhere we might as well stop doing Science.
My own view is that Dark Matter is complete bollocks.
To adumbrate a little. Physics can explain the movement of two bodies moving in response to their mutual gravitational fields. It can not explain the motion of three bodies (called, quite unimaginatively, the Three-Body Problem). Attempting to explain the movement of billions of stars and planets in a galaxy far away might be a bit beyond our capabilities. Additionally, we can explain all sorts of orbital motion in our local area (Sun, planets, comets etc.) without wheeling in the smoke and mirrors that is Dark Matter. Surely it exists here as well? If not, why not? Is that magic too?
In his masterful book Most Secret War, R.V. Jones (a personal hero) outlines what he calls "Crow's Law": Before you think what you want to think, know what you need to know.
Wise words for modern Physics, I feel.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Ralph McTell, my favourite musician and national treasure, ends one of his songs:
"Autumn makes me sad."
I think his hypothalamus might be short of light. The hypothalamus and its good friend the pituitary gland are extremely light-sensitive and they control all manner of mood swings and seasonally-activated depression. Paradoxically, it is right in the centre of the brain; exactly where the light isn't.
I've taken to shining a very bright LED torch in my ear, and it appears to work. I feel much happier.
The other thing I'm doing is breathing through only one nostril. The logic is this: breathing in cold air into one side of your nose cools and slows down the brain activity on that side. So if you want to enhance your creativity and "right-brain" activity, breathe through your left nostril to slow down the analytical "left-brain" chemistry.
So I'm the creative one with a finger up my right nostril and a torch shining in my ear.
Easy to spot in a crowd I'd think.

Weights and Measures

We British are clearly insane. We torture ourselves with all manner of units with which to measure things. We buy our petrol in litres but we talk about miles per gallon for fuel consumption. Almost nothing is measured in feet and inches, except our height. In B&Q you can't buy 5 ft of wood. It has to be in metres, even if the wood is labelled 4"x 2". We hung on to pounds (£) through decimalisation but our over-50's still talk about "ten bob" (£0.50). We still auction horses in guineas (£1.05). We drink our beer in pints and halves but buy our milk in litres. Nearly all the measures in a pub are imperial. We sell our fruit and veg. in kilogrammes but have a sly nod to pounds (lbs) every now and then. We weigh ourselves in stones and pounds and buy our sugar in kilogramme bags. Recipe books seem to have ditched ounces and have gone for the pragmatic: teaspoons, tablespoons and the indeterminate "dash". A hot day to a youngster will be "getting on for thirty" but for our older bretheren it will be "pushing a hundred". (By the way; I REFUSE to use Celsius. It will always be Centigrade to me)
This debacle really does have to stop. Before my generation Brits had to deal with the Imperial System. In school today they are taught Metric. I was caught in the middle but, now, we are sending kids into the outside world who have absolutely no idea how things are weighed or measured.
Every year, at GCSE results time, the BBC dredge up some "captain of industry" who pontificates on the low standard of mathematics coming out of our schools.
The poor kids don't have a chance!
Colour code: Imperial in blue, Metric in red. Confused? So are the kids.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I am a great fan of laws. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a personal favourite; it makes sense and - the best bit - it can't be broken. Laws that we have to obey to be part of our society aren't so impressive. They can be broken. And they are. Regularly.
The real bind with so many of our laws is that we don't know what they actually are. We could do with a book: "DON'T DO THIS" or a similar title, that tells us what we can and can't do.
We still have lots of obsolete laws. I recall that the requirement to walk in front of a car whilst waving a red flag was still on the books until 1968 and I have a sneaking suspicion that Hackney cabs are supposed to carry hay (for a non-existent horse). Having a book that actually spells out what you must not do would also allow us to clear out this dead wood from our 21st Century lives.
It would also remove that "bloody hell, I didn't know that" moment when the Police pull you in for drinking a Coke whilst driving or getting on to an aeroplane with a biro.
A book full of laws (with subsequent average penalties in the margin) really would be incredibly useful. We have a highway code; why not a life code?

Friday, October 3, 2008

My Father's Lifetime

Chaos theory is well worth curling up in a chair and reading about. Butterflies creating hurricanes. That sort of thing. Here's one I'm exploring as a "chaotic event": my Dad's life.
In 1929 the world was rocked by a massive Wall Street crash. Nothing like it had shaken capitalism so badly. The world (or, at least, the bits that America was interested in) plunged into depression. October 29th 1929 is the start date for this crash. On November 20th 1929, my Dad was born.
This year, so far, the world (or, at least, the bits that America is interested in) has been spiralling down into another Great Depression. Capitalism has hit the rocks again. Black Monday, 29th September 2008. Billions wiped off the value of shares around the globe. On March 3rd this year my Dad died.
In the same way that it was good of my Dad to mark the 1929 Depression by being born, I think it was fitting for capitalism to put on a good show in the year he died.

The Terrorist Threat

Baron Imbert, once Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, was speaking last night (2nd October) on the BBC News about the removal of Sir Ian Blair from the Met. Police. During this he made what I think was an extraordinary statement: that the terrorist threat facing The Metropolitan Police has never been higher.
Eminent people spouting utter bollocks is, I am sure, as common now as it ever was, but this will go down as a pretty good example of the type.
Does he not remember the IRA?
I do.
They were proper terrorists. They terrorised.
I have a sneaking suspicion that (and Baron Imbert isn't alone in doing this) ramping up the "Islamic terrorist threat" is a subtle manifestation of a general shift in national opinion towards being anti-Muslim . If enough people are afraid of Islamic Extremists then that fear will spill over into the wider community. Job done.
But in doing so, we repeat the stupidity of a previous generation when "The IRA" became conflated with "Nationalists". The argument is hopelessly flawed: the IRA are terrorists; the IRA are Nationalists; therefore Nationalists are terrorists. Are we going to be as idiotic again and do the same with "Islamic Extremists" and "Muslims"?
Knowing us, probably.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I have been reading a lot recently about the derivation of European languages and trying to tie in the whole idea of a "proto-language" with the fairly well-established findings of Prof Bryan Sykes on our genetic links. The PIE (proto-Indo-European) camp has it that our language (and that of just about everybody from Bantry Bay to Bangladesh) stems from a common source. There have been some excellent attempts to reconstruct PIE from the common threads of many words and "a trained linguist" can see the commonality immediately (they say).
The genetic story is very different. PIE - in mitochondrial-DNA terms - must have come from the "Jasmine" clan that moved out of Syria into Europe and India, bringing their farming techniques with them. Europe was, by the time the "Jasmines" arrived, populated (albeit sparsely) with "Ursulas", "Xenias", "Helenas", "Taras", "Katrines" and "Veldas". These were all hunter-gatherer people and, although they might have absorbed some of the "Jasmine" words (especially farming-related), I can see no reason why they would take a language hook, line and sinker when they will have had their own, possibly interrelated, and quite ancient languages.
I personally think the PIE people might, in fact, be talking "bhel-oks" as the "Jasmines" might say.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Identity Cards

I'm looking forward to the new identity cards. All that biometric data. Excellent idea. That will mean that anyone with a card reader can access all sorts of stuff about us. What might be even more useful is if "they" could fingerprint our mitochondrial-DNA and find out which Clan Mother we came from (you really MUST read "The Seven Daughters of Eve").
If all this was on our new identity cards...what fun. We could wear special clothes depending on our clan. Or our religion. Or blood group. Or whether we had AIDS or not. Actually, simpler than special clothes, we could just go for armbands. Different colours for, say, Catholics or Moslems or Jews. That might not be enough for some groups though. They may take their armbands off. If you were a paedophile you might get painted yellow. Bankrupts might be painted red - head to foot; just to let everyone know.
We might need to set up special camps for these people to let them - what's the word - concentrate. We wouldn't want the un-British walking the streets now would we?
So bring them on, these new identity cards.
We will probably be able to collect them at special government agencies. They will "give" you a card. In return, you hand over your freedom.
Seems fair.