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Politics, extremism and populism

17 July 2024
Madame Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn would not, of course, regard themselves as extremists. And it seems that although some Conservatives consider Nigel to be an extreme right wing populist, others think of him as part of the family. From saying in 2019 that Jeremy would make an excellent prime minister, Sir Keir now tells us that he only said that when he knew they would lose the election. And so his opinion was at that point ‘hypothetical’. Which is why, in the light of the need to tack away from the extremes, and so increase his chance of winning the election, he threw Jeremy out of the party. This though was on the basis of his alleged anti-Semitism rather than his Marxist politics. Perhaps.

I suspect that Madame Le Pen considers Eric Zemmour to be an extremist, someone who follows in the footsteps of her father, rather than adopting her own more ‘cleaned-up’ image. Or perhaps she sees him just as someone trying to muscle in on her space. Likewise, the Socialist party in France would no doubt consider the leader of La France Insoumise (France unbowed), M. Mélenchon, to be of the extreme left and consider themselves to be quite moderate.

Over in the US of A their Trumpian right wing makes Farage & Co look almost centrist. The ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic party is looked on as Marxist by the Republicans. So then extremism seems to be a relative term, something which is in the eye of the beholder. The beholder can though criticise what he sees...(continue)

History – its uses and abuses

2 June 2024
We know that the standard criticism of history is that it’s written by the winners. Certainly, the winners write the first draft of history and it is often difficult to find the losers’ version – if there is one. We all know that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye launched by a member of William the Conqueror’s army. We know this because it is depicted in a 70 metre long tapestry created by William’s wife, Queen Matilda, and her ladies in waiting.

The earliest records though say not that Harold was killed by an arrow, but that he was hacked to death. Another Anglo-Saxon King, Harald, defeated by Harold in the North of England three weeks earlier, had in fact been killed by a chance arrow and so it may simply be a case of mistaken identity.

But in its numerous sections, with commentary in mediaeval Latin, the tapestry records the history, not only of the conquest itself and Harold’s demise but, far more importantly, what led up to it. It explains the legal justification for the invasion. It shows Harold swearing fealty to William, so accepting that William was entitled to the crown.
Harold certainly didn’t act as though he had sworn fealty to William, hence the attempt to repulse the invasion. However no tapestry, of any length and telling an alternative version, has ever been found...(continue)
Manifesto commitments by Reform UK

27 May 2024

It seems that we have a Reform UK candidate here in North Warwickshire. He is called Paul Hopkins and his website says:

“Growing up in Castle Bromwich and moving to Coleshill Paul has forged a deep connection to North Warwickshire, making it his home since the age of 13. Now, running The Box Warehouse and with family roots firmly in Coleshill, his mother runs Blythewood Guest-house in Coleshill, he is compelled to give back to his community. As a candidate in the 2024 general election, Paul’s commitment is clear: support for our Armed Forces; alignment with Reform UK's values for a balanced immigration policy: practical climate solutions and a focus on revitalizing crucial sectors like healthcare and the benefit system.

Paul has strong opinions, ask anyone who has met him. Becoming the MP for North Warwickshire & Bedworth would give him the platform in Westminster to make real change and get the Great back into Great Britain by taking control of immigration, dealing with failed multiculturalism and to stopping Liberal Wokeism from completely destroying our society...”

Dear Mr Hopkins

I see that you are the Reform UK candidate for the North Warwickshire and Bedworth constituency. As a fellow Coleshill resident, I would be interested in your comments on some of the election commitments listed on your web-site:

1.   ‘Commence Reform of the Postal Voting System. Postal voting has allowed electoral fraud.’...(continue)
Sentience and emotion

21 May 2024

Sentience is fundamental to our existence. To survive we need to be are aware of what goes on around us, to be connected to, to perceive, the outside world. Because we are able to take in data relating to the world, we can also then try to make sense of it, process it, and so find ways to change things for our benefit.

But although sentience is fundamental to who we are and how we live our lives, the standard definition of the word does not imply any actual interpretation of the sensations we receive. That is left to other parts of our brains to deal with and other words, such as intelligence, used to describe those processes.

Sentience though is not confined to we humans. To have an awareness of the world we inhabit, we all have to have some degree of sentience. What each species does with that information is peculiar to it. It may do a lot or very little in response. It may not need to give it very much thought if it has automatic mechanisms in place to take advantage of more favourable conditions and/or defence mechanisms to protect itself from problematic conditions.

Those mechanisms however are themselves examples of sentience. For instance when it rains, the osmotic pressure across the semi-permeable membranes in the roots of even the humble grass ensures that water is absorbed into the blades of grass to take part in the photosynthesis required to make the grass grow.

So then, in that sense, every living thing has sentience. It responds to its environment and, to respond, it has to have been aware of the environment in the first place – to have been sentient.

There seems now however to be some degree of confusion over this...(continue)
The Meaning of Life

6 May 2024
The Normans used 'Cockaigne' (derived from the Norman word meaning “sugar cake”) as the nickname for the bustling city of London – hence 'Cockneys'. However, Cockaigne was originally the name given to a Utopia especially prominent in medieval European lore. It was set in a never-ending month of May, where idleness reigned and money never ran out, a fountain provided eternal youth and men and women indulged unrestrictedly in countless physical delights without law or morality to spoil the fun. The descriptions included rivers of wine, houses built of cake, streets paved with pastry, a sky that rained cheese and shops that gave away goods to everyone. Roast geese wandered about inviting people to eat them, and buttered larks fell from the skies like manna.

Although there had been previous oral accounts, the first known text, the French Fabliau de Cocagne, dates to around 1250. Its 188 verses can be seen as the dream of an earth in which hunger is unknown.

But this dream was also a form of protest. Cockaigne’s gourmands were opposed to the Church in particular, but also to the secular authorities, who condemned the deadly sin of gluttony and advocated abstinence and fasting, presumably to imply that the food shortages prevalent in those times were visited upon them by God.

Now, many centuries later, with apps that can deliver meals at the tap of a screen, then from the perspective of a medieval peasant we have come close to achieving their utopia. But if striving for that form of utopia was what gave meaning to their lives, then what happens when we achieve it? When AI is doing all the hard lifting and illness and suffering has been conquered, then what would be the point of our existence, our Cockaigne? Would the sins of the flesh be sufficient to keep us satisfied or would we then ask for something more?
Ritual - it's everywhere

5 March 2024
We usually associate ritual with religion. Religions rely very much on the familiarity of their followers with the ceremonies staged, the rituals. The priest and others officiating, wearing the clothing required by the rites of their religion, go through the same actions week after week, the same sequences of prayers, varied depending on which part of the religious calendar has come around. After all, ritual is repetition, whether on a daily, weekly or yearly basis.

In the Christian religion we have the major events such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsun with readings from the scriptures to fit the season and in some churches with variations based on which saint’s day it happens to be.

All to achieve a feeling of order, of comfort, which seems to appeal to our psychological makeup and so to bind us closer to our religion.

But I would like to suggest that ritual in fact permeates our lives. Although we don’t have the elaborate tea-drinking ceremonies of ancient china, we do still typically offer a visitor a cup of tea or coffee. Why? Do we actually think that they are thirsty? Unlikely. I would suggest that it is an attempt by us to indicate that we value their presence and, at the same time, a wish to present ourselves as being good hosts. Both want to convey the idea of friendship, of bonding...(continue)
Conflict, extremism and arrogance

25 February 2024

There came a cry from the citizens of this land that our politicians should decide what ought to happen in a war between two forces in a far-off land. And they all decided that we should send arms and ammunition to Ukraine to fight off the Russian aggressor.

But then there came another demand from the citizens of this land, or at least some of them, that our politicians should decide what ought to happen next in a war between two forces in a different far-off land. And this proved to be a bit more complicated. This, because they were being asked to decide whether there should be a cease-fire, a temporary cease-fire or a temporary cessation of hostilities for humanitarian purposes. The difference being...?  Isn’t a ‘cease-fire’, by its nature, a temporary cessation of hostilities?

But the Scottish National party went further: their motion condemned the "collective punishment of the Palestinian people" – a war crime, with overtones of Nazi policies.

The Labour motion added that Israel "cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence" and called for a diplomatic process to deliver "a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state".

So then an attempt by the SNP to cosy up to the extremist Palestinian supporters and, more particularly, to put Labour in a bad light. And an attempt by Labour to continue to show that it was no longer an anti-Semitic party whilst hoping not to upset the Palestinians.
An idea taken too far

10 February 2024
George Soros is probably now best known as the subject of crazy conspiracy theories emerging from the dim recesses of the internet into the thinking of populist politicians and their supporters throughout the world. Unfortunately for Mr Soros, he ticks all the boxes for the conspiracists: he is Jewish, an ultra-rich financier and an exceedingly generous supporter of the Democrats in the USA. To the conspiracists he is one of the mysterious cabal who control the world.

He is also a great proponent of the thinking of my favourite philosopher, Sir Karl Popper, whose work ‘’T
he Open Society and its Enemies’ (Volumes I and II) challenged philosophies which undermined the idea of democracy and so sought to limit the freedom of the people.

Since 1979, inspired by Karl Popper’s ‘Open Society’, Soros has channelled his philanthropic giving through the ‘Open Society Foundations’, which work in over 120 countries around the world. So far he has given over $32 billion to “support individuals and organizations across the globe fighting for freedom of expression, accountable government, and societies that promote justice and equality.”

But he was also one of those who predicted the financial crash of 2008 – and made a lot of money out of it by ‘shorting’ various over-priced listed companies – the banks. In fact, over many years, a large proportion of his wealth has come from correctly predicting when financial bubbles were about to burst.

In 2009 he explained his theory of market bubbles:
“Prison works”

5 February 2024

David Green (Financial Times 2013):
“Here is a thought-experiment: imagine that you have asked some mischievous demon to conceive the most counter-productive way of dealing with crime. What fiendish scheme would this diabolic agent devise? The demon could suggest a system where offenders are kept together with more serious and experienced criminals for months or years, and so can learn from them; where the offender is taken away from any gainful employment and social support or family network; where the offender is put in places where drugs and brutality are rife; where the infliction of a penalty can make the offender more, and not less, likely to re-offend; and where all this is done at extraordinary expense for the taxpayer. A system, in other words, very much like the prison system we now have in England and Wales, as well as in many other jurisdictions.”
And I’m afraid that nothing has changed over the last 10 years. Well, not quite true. We now have prisons which are so overcrowded that Judges are being asked not to send people to prison, not because of a new-found leniency, but because we don’t have enough cells.

In earlier times, prisons were where you kept those charged with a crime until their cases could be heard and the actual sentence, hanging, flogging or transportation – could be imposed. Imprisonment itself was not the punishment for criminal activity...(continue)
Apocalypse now

29 January 2024
Climate anxiety featured in an article in a recent issue of the ‘New Yorker’ concerning “the morality of having kids in a burning, drowning world.” Our public health infrastructure groans under the weight of a lingering pandemic and we are told to expect similar or worse contagions. Some of the directors of the board of the company which developed ChatGPT think that artificial intelligence could soon threaten humanity with extinction.

Meanwhile, with diminishing birthrates in so many countries, some are warning of imminent population collapse. Elon Musk, has called it “a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.” Politicians speak openly about the possibility that conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East could spark World War III.

We are seeing the early results of global warming in the extremes of heat and storms. Extinction Rebellion believes that the human species could be on its way out, extinguished by our own selfishness.

None of this, however, is new. Apocalyptic anxieties have long afflicted human culture. The experts say however that they tend to come in waves. In response to rapid changes in science, technology and geopolitics, they spike into brief but intense extinction panics - periods of acute pessimism about humanity’s future - before going back into the background noise as those developments prove to be less problematic than imagined....(continue)
The Rule of Law - how to circumvent it

11 January 2024
We live in strange times. We’ve had the government trying to displace the role of the Courts in determining whether Rwanda is safe. They’re just going to declare that it is. And now the Post Office scandal will result in an Act of Parliament declaring 900 sub-postmasters to be innocent and so all entitled to substantial compensation from us. And this, in breach of the doctrine of the separation of powers, and regardless of whether they are in fact innocent or guilty. In Parliament, in response to the difficulty of acquitting guilty people, the minister said:
“You ask how many Post Office cases the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has decided not to refer to the Appeal Court to date. As of today’s date, there have been 33 such cases, out of a total of 101 completed CCRC Post Office reviews. Decisions not to refer have been reached for a variety of reasons, but a consistent feature is that there was cogent prosecution evidence in the case - extraneous to Horizon - that money was stolen by the sub-postmaster in question (for example: evidence of Post Office money having been transferred to the sub-postmaster’s personal bank account; or evidence from an eye witness who saw the sub-postmaster taking money). A number of the cases which have been turned down have also featured detailed and compelling confessions by the sub-postmaster, wherein they explained to investigators how they took the Post Office money and how they then used it.”.
If the innocent are to be declared innocent within weeks, then so will the guilty. That is the penalty of not having resolved this outstanding scandal many years ago. The only safe-guard will be that, before compensation can be claimed, a statement of innocence will have to be signed by the claimant. If subsequently that claimant is found to have made a false statement, then he can be prosecuted for fraud.

But why have we got to the position where legislation is required to put right a wrong which would normally be dealt with by the standard appeals process?...(continue)
Conscious decision making

7 January 2024
When I was very young, my parents gave me a stamp album. I thought I had lost it but, to my surprise, I found it again the other day on my bookshelves. It is called "The Improved Postage Stamp Album" with its "7400 spaces and maps" and "updated with spaces for all the latest stamp-issuing countries". It still contains the stamps, bought in the 1950s in a shop in Needless Alley in Birmingham.

In fact, I found it next to a copy of a book given to my brother and me when we were kids. It’s a book of "100 new magic tricks" whose author was a person I vaguely remembered being called Bruce. I now see that the author was Bruce Elliot. Looking at the magic book again, I was reminded of the expression: 'The quickness of the hand deceives the eye'. The magician distracts us from where the action actually is so that he can make the substitution or change necessary to make the trick work.

From my experience as a child with a magic kit, I can confirm that it certainly takes quickness (and confidence) if ones Uncles and Aunts are even to be able to make a pretence of having been fooled. No, I wasn’t very good at it, and neither was John. What is really needed is a lot of practice so that the movements barely need to be thought about, so that they happen almost automatically.

Something-else I wasn’t very good at was sport. It appears however that there can be good reasons for a lack of sporting prowess. One is the ‘speed of sight’. A new concept to me.

Our ability to perceive rapid changes in visual scenes over time varies a lot between people. This suggests that some people can track fast-moving objects – as in some sports - better than others because of their innately superior vision...(continue) 
Repetitive behaviour

30 December 2023
In December, Novo Nordisk started a trial of “pre-obesity” use of its anti-obesity drug – Ozempic. Until then it had been used only in people who were already obese. But now they are trying to find out if it can stop obesity before those who are just overweight get to that stage. If it can, the implications could be very wide-ranging.

The drug, first approved in 2005, helps people lose weight by curbing hunger: it reduces the speed at which the stomach empties after having a meal. And so you feel fuller for longer and have less of an urge for a snack between meals.

But a very surprising collateral effect thing is that research now shows the drugs to have a similar effect on the desire for drink, drugs, nicotine and obsession with social media.  In other words, on addiction and obsession in general. Through what must be another mechanism – so far unknown - it seems to be telling us that we don’t need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. It somehow reduces addictive and obsessive behaviour.

So then, if the trials are successful and, if in our world with its increasing childhood and adult obesity the use of Ozempic became widespread, then we could see a lot of change in the way we live our lives.

But people who were prescribed Ozempic for weight loss also found that ‘retail therapy’, amongst other behaviours, fell into decline. And so in October this year, Bloomberg, the business-orientated journalism group, ran an article headlined “Ozempic is Bad for Business”...(continue)
The Elgin Marbles

4 December 2023

I asked ChatGPT to write a précis of the book kindly delivered to me by Amazon on Thursday morning, but it tells me that the books contents are not available on the internet. So I shall have to do it myself.

We start in 1799 when the Earl of Elgin was aged 32. He had impressed the Prime Minister, William Pitt, as an envoy in Vienna and then ambassador in Berlin at the Prussian Court. But now the government wanted him to go and work his magic on the Ottoman empire as ambassador to the Court of the Sultan. At his age, he decided that it would be best, before going, to find himself a wife. Within a few weeks of his return to Scotland he was married to a somewhat reluctant Mary Nisbet. She was a 21 year old society beauty from a very wealthy family. As ambassador, Elgin had already run up quite large debts and had no major source of income. But with the substantial marriage settlement which accompanied his wife, his financial problems seemed to be over.

After a few months, he and his by now pregnant wife set off to Constantinople across a rather perilous, nausea inducing, Mediterranean Sea which was then the backdrop for naval battles involving, amongst other notable figures, Bonaparte and Nelson. At that time, many
scholars and young men on their European tour were abandoning the previously fashionable Rome and going to Greece instead to study ancient history and art. Elgin saw an opportunity to use his time in Constantinople to get artists and mould-makers to go to Greece, then a part of the Ottoman empire, and produce drawings and copies of the Greek marvels at the Parthenon and elsewhere...(continue)
Move over Panpsychism: we now have Cosmopsychism!

19 November 2023
It seems that my old friend Professor Goff of Durham University has reappeared. Last time I came across him it was in ‘Philosophy Now’ in 2017. He was promoting the theory of panpsychism as an answer to his difficulty in explaining consciousness. The idea of panpsychism is that awareness, consciousness, is inherent in every aspect of matter, even though normally we only recognise it in the animal kingdom. However, he says that because atomic particles have consciousness, we too can have consciousness. No evidence is provided or explanation given as to how this may work. It’s a ‘just so’ story.

Our human version of consciousness means that we are aware of ourselves, and of ourselves in relation to our surroundings. Sub-atomic particles have physical properties such as mass, spin, charge, etc. But it seems that now we have to add to them ‘awareness’. That they interact with other particles in predetermined ways is of course not disputed, but that’s not awareness.

Panpsychists though argue that it’s a question of degree. And so, as we find it difficult even to imagine having the awareness of a mouse or a spider, we will find it yet more difficult to understand the awareness enjoyed by a subatomic particle. This, they say, leaves open the possibility that it has awareness in some way.

But unless we want to be in Humpty Dumpty land, ‘consciousness’ cannot completely change meaning as it shrinks. If panpsychism is the best explanation currently available, I think I shall get out my self-aware Ouija board to see what’s next in line to ‘explain’ consciousness.

But Dr Goff has moved on. To accompany his latest book 'The Purpose of the Universe' (£14.99), a summary of his latest philosophical theory – cosmopsychism - appears in ‘Aeon’, an online magazine. It publishes articles on a very wide range of matters.

Dr Goff is himself an atheist but is concerned by the meaningless of our lives in the absence of a God able to give us that meaning. In order to cheer himself up, he has further analysed an old idea – that our universe is one which is fine-tuned to permit life, and so us, to exist.

This is normally taken to mean either that God created it in that way or that it is a matter of pure chance that we live in such a universe. The improbability of our living in such a universe is explained by the simple fact that we are, by definition, here to witness it.

He though takes the view that the universe itself has a sense of purpose, at least part of which is to bring life into existence...(continue)
A Liberal Democracy

11 November 2023
I see that the magazine 'Prospect' has a ‘Philosopher at Large’, Sasha Mudd, who is a Senior Research Fellow at Southampton University. This month she has written an essay entitled ‘A philosophical defence of democracy’. As she says: “around the world, liberal democracy is in trouble. Opinion polls paint a grim picture: political dysfunction amid overlapping crises has left younger generations sceptical of the value of democracy and doubtful it can deliver for them. Those rightly worried by this call for urgent reform. But just what is it that needs reforming? What, exactly, is democracy, and why should we value it?”.

A former Lord Chief Justice, the aptly named Igor Judge, who, sadly, died last month, gave a lengthy lecture last year in which he reviewed the system of government in the UK. The wheels started to come off the monarchic system in 1609 with the arrival of the new King, James 1st, the successor to Elizabeth, lately imported from Scotland. As Lord Judge said: “He told Parliament that ‘the state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth’, modestly adding that all the attributes of God agreed in the person of a King.” That 1609 Parliament included about 100 lawyers from the Inns of Court, many rather perturbed by the new King’s approach. As a consequence, in 1610, parliament delivered a Petition of Grievances. The Petition was a complaint against rule by proclamations i.e direct rule by the king. Things went from bad to worse and of course, his son, Charles 1st, lost his head over his devotion to the divine right of kings. Instead, we had a parliament to govern us which, over the centuries, gradually became more representative of the people as a whole rather than just the big land-owners of the day.

But obviously the modern equivalents of the big land-owners are back in the form of the richest of the rich, such as Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch and many others who have far more influence with governments, and so power, than the rest of us...(continue)
The Halloween Edition

31 October 2023
Along with reclining seats and devices to give new life to tired legs, preparing for ones own funeral is now a major topic in the ads on daytime television. Which tells us a lot about their audience demographics. We are encouraged to take out a life policy or funeral plan so that the our children will not have to find the money to send us off.

Co-op Funeral Care however is taking a different line. It is inviting us all to have a conversation with our loved ones regarding the type of funeral we would like to have. Perhaps a motor bike and side-car rather than the usual hearse, a memorial service with jokey reminiscences or something rather more traditional, our favourite pop music or church music.

Whatever our choice, we are told it is better to have that conversation now, so that those left behind on our demise will know what to do, what we would have wanted had we been in a fit state to appreciate it all – as if, in fact, we had not actually been already dead and (almost) buried.

Now, I know that many people, especially those who know that they’re on their final furlong, do sometimes make very detailed plans. The obvious truth, however, is that I wouldn’t really be in a position to appreciate the genius of my planning, the incorporation of extracts from my brilliant essays and tales showing what a wonderful person I was.

And I also recognise that for the most part, people don’t want to spend too long listening to stories about the deceased’s life if there are some drinks and food available afterwards. So then, other than requesting that some decent champagne is served, I’m not sure that I shall be spending much time engaged in considering how I may be remembered.

Starting in the Stone Age, however...(continue)
Law and War

24 October 2023

The whole idea of law having anything to do with war is a relatively recent concept. In times past it it was normal to obtain a blessing for the smiting of the enemy from whoever happened to be the highest religious authority. The blessing didn’t attempt to limit the damage which could be inflicted. On the contrary, it gave the dual advantage of encouragement to the troops and the possibility of lining up reluctant allies to be on your side in what was likely to be a very bloody conflict.

In biblical times, we know that God, or at least his spokesmen, demanded the foulest of actions to be carried out in his name, including rape, killing of all the men, including male children and the enslavement of the rest – or on some occasions, just the slaughter of everyone. Good times! Sometimes, it was because the ‘enemy’ got in the way of the taking of the promised land of Israel and sometimes it was that and because they had other gods.

But revenge as justification for violence was quite normal. From the days of the code of Hammurabi, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the basis for the legal code. It reflected how people believed life should be lived.

We now have the state imposing justice via our admittedly imperfect legal system, a system which has however removed from the individual the right to seek retribution, even if it’s difficult to enforce amongst mafia-style law-breakers.

And it’s even more difficult to apply as between individual states where there is no over-arching authority which can take control. We have the law relating to war-crimes, but it is a law which is very difficult to enforce...(continue)
HS2 - a moral dilemma

25 September 2023

Quite the moral dilemma.

If the Manchester arm of HS2 is cancelled, then that means that very few trains should come past on the viaduct being erected high in the sky on massive pillars to the West of Coleshill. Instead, other than a few trains going North to the maintenance yard at Kingsbury, the others would all stop at the Birmingham Interchange. That is on the Southern side of the M6 and so about a mile to the South of Coleshill.

So then, good news for us in Coleshill.

Not such good news for the good folk of Manchester...(continue)

25 September 2023

Karl Marx considered Ideology to be the superstructure of a civilization: the conventions and culture that make up the dominant ideas of a society. But in his opinion those ideas were mainly those imposed by the ruling class. And so he came to the conclusion that ideology was a set of deceptive ideas designed by an elite to keep the rest of us in our place. As the father of communism he knew what he was talking about.

As it happens, though, talk about elites and their wish to make the rest of us subservient to them is again very fashionable. Liz Truss tells us she was thwarted by the anti-growth coalition meeting around the dining tables of Islington. Trump, Alex Jones of Infowars and many other conspiracy theorists tell us that they are fighting for us against some ill-defined and rarely explicitly named elite.

Fortunately, we now see some of their lies backfiring on them, with Trump's multiple court appearances as a prime example. Alex Jones is still broadcasting on his infowars channel but has a $965m damages award against him plus a further $500,000 in punitive damages for repeatedly pushing the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and that those involved were actors.

Another person telling us about the elites and their wish to control us through use of the Covid vaccine is that rather charming person, Russel Brand. He is accused of multiple sexual assaults but has claimed that his many relationships in his very promiscuous life were consensual. Fortunately he has many friends standing by him down in the conspiracy rabbit-holes, including Donald Trump, Alex Jones and Elon Musk. So he should be fine. I don’t think Liz has expressed an opinion yet...(continue)
It’s all so different in France…?

10 September 2023
I’ve just taken a look at a few of today’s newspapers (5th September2023). There is Le Monde (the equivalent of the Guardian), Le Figaro (definite Telegraph leanings) and Le Dauphiné Libre, a newspaper covering stories from the Haute Savoie.

The headline on the last of these was ‘Le cri de détresse des associations’. Mainly the story is about the French cost of living crisis, something which has hit various charities hard. Something they have been saying for quite a long time. But now the one closest to French hearts - ‘Les Restos du Cœur’ – has just said that it is in significant financial difficulty. It was established in 1985 by the famous comedian, Coluche, to provide food banks and soup kitchens along with other necessities for the poor. Every year there is a TV appeal, rather like our Comic Relief, which raise tens of millions of euros. But they are now running out of money and having to turn people away. This is because of a substantial increase in the number of people turning up at their doors and increases in the price of the food they have to buy, together with the increased cost of electricity. 

Such is the central position of the Association within French consciousness, however, that within just a few minutes of the appeal by the boss of Les Restos, not only had Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of an extreme left-wing opposition party, ‘La France Insoumise’, said that the raison d’etre of his party was ‘la solidarité humaine’, but, more usefully, a government minister had confirmed an immediate grant of 15 million euros (although, as it turns out, not all of it new money)...(continue)
The Donald

26 August 2023

And now we have the mug shot. It’s being printed on ‘Free Trump’ tee-shirts and coffee mugs, all being sold to raise funds for the Trump re-election campaign. An American journalist being interviewed after its release explained that it is in fact his "You're fired" face, familiar to all those who watched the Apprentice. I presume therefore that it’s also his ‘I’m the master of all I survey’ face. We’ll see.

What we do know is that for his bail bond of $200,000 the Trump put up $20,000 in cash. The rest came from a professional supplier of bail bonds. I assume it worked out cheaper for Trump to borrow money rather than dip into his piggy bank. This, of course, assumes that he actually has any credit balances anywhere other than his campaign funds – funds which are technically, well, for his campaign and so not available to lodge with the Court in Atlanta.

We also know that he is accused of ducking and diving in his business accounts, using inflated or deflated valuations of assets in order to obtain bank loans or reduce his tax bill. So then the state of his finances is, just a little, shall we say, ‘obscure’...(continue)
Knowledge and perception

15 August 2023

In the latest edition of Philosophy Now there is the usual invitation to readers to send the answer to a question in no more than 400 words. This time it is: ‘What Are The Limits of Knowledge?’.

‘Knowledge’ implies something solid and dependable - actual data we have about our world: an event or how something works – seeing how a machine works through the turning of its cogs. But... It is obvious that whilst there can be a true, all-embracing, description of an event, what is in fact reported as having happened by each person present at that event will differ. Each would say it was what they saw and heard but it is actually what they remember of what they witnessed, something which is partial and changes with time.

Of course a truly comprehensive description would also demand a vast amount of data, which means that we limit ourselves to accepting what we perceive to be the important points as a description of the event itself.

And these days, we are less likely to be able to see the cogs whirring. In future, we shall have to rely on information supplied by the algorithms powering AI, without any of its workings being visible to us. So then, not knowledge in a direct sense, but a computer’s representation of the facts.

So then our knowledge looks to be set on a rather shaky foundation, rather than being the solid body of facts we would like it to be.  It is inherently limited. It is further limited because the knowledge which I can store is limited and will all disappear when I drop off my twig. Before then, my memory will become increasingly unreliable. I can of course store my knowledge of things in some external memory. Diarists have always done just that. And, in principle, that store can be added to indefinitely.

A store of memories however is subject to fire, deterioration and carelessness and, in the case of computers, changes of operating systems, hardware malfunctions and interoperability difficulties. So then, it is without any clear limit, but very fragile.

And knowledge of how the universe actually works? Karl Popper tells us that we cannot prove our theories to be true, but our scientists nonetheless carry out experiments, for example to test increasingly impenetrable hypotheses with a view to solving the contradiction between quantum theory and relativity theory. How much shall we progress as humankind? Unfortunately, we cannot say what we will know – it would mean that we already knew it - so then in itself a major limit to our knowledge...(continue)

7 August 2023

More than most other countries, Britain is generally regarded as a class-bound society. After all, we have a house of Lords and also a royal family which many foreigners believe actually rules over us or at least has a significant role in government. We encourage this view by the success of various of our television series around the world, including Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, Poirot, Miss Marple and Midsummer Murders, a series I first heard about from a French friend who had seen it on French TV under the name ‘Barnaby’. We are shown as defining ourselves in terms of a range of classes and sub-classes from upper class to working class. And we look down on or up to each other accordingly.

Class, however, is a very strange concept. It can be very vague or can reflect raw power.

Following the takeover of England by William the Conqueror, it was he and his entourage who took the positions of power in this country and became the new upper class, as confirmed by the Bayeux Tapestry. This was no doubt much to the chagrin of the previous Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, who would have regarded them as ‘nouveaux' and ‘arrivistes' and just, well, too français.

We didn't really have any other sudden changes in the upper echelons until Oliver Cromwell tried to alter the social order. The fact that he didn't really do class, however, was probably the reason why his new order didn't last much after his death. After all, at the top level, in those days the trappings of class and the rights and land which went with it, were a reward for faithful service. If you don’t reward your followers well, particularly after a civil war, then they'll transfer their allegiance to someone who will. And they did. And so we had Charles II, a sort of anti-Cromwell who released us from the Taliban-like piety of the Roundheads and restored the position of the former aristocracy...(continue)
The Law of Conservation

18 July 2023
The recently departed Czech writer, Milan Kundera, criticised “judging instantly, ceaselessly and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding”

The law of conservation of energy is fundamental to science. It was however formulated in the days before Einstein started redefining physics. As a result of his thinking we now have his formula E=mc2 which says that, actually, we can convert energy into mass and vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. Hence the heat we receive from the conversion of matter in the sun.

It seems, however, that conservation and conversion do not stop there. A few years ago, a writer called Samuel Goldman proposed what he called “the law of the conservation of religion.” He said: “in any given society, there is a relatively constant and finite supply of religious conviction. What varies is how and where it is expressed.”

An interesting thought. One which implies not only a constancy
but, I would suggest, also an interchangeability between the outwardly religious and the apparently secular. It aligns with my own observation that so many people in so many fields adopt the sort of thinking which is typical of traditional religions.

High-profile events such as international and even minor town football matches have very similar effects to religious gatherings: fans can feel that their life has meaning through social involvement. An essential part of this is seeing one's team as worthy of support - despite everything - a support that for many fans borders on worship. And, the clubs, instead of Peter's pence, ask for payment from those supporters for the shirts, changed with regularity, and other sacred memorabilia, to keep the money flowing in.

Of course, ritual is fundamental in both sport and religion. In the days when religion ruled supreme, it was not unusual for people to go to mass very frequently. Now, many people's lives are taken over by a belief that they have to go to the gym or go running before going to work. Others put in 10,000 steps each day in order to attain - well, no-one's quite sure - the scientists tell us that simply doing housework gives enough of a workout to keep us in working order. But they believe that it's what they should do. It's their sacred ritual.
Gender dysphoria

15 July 2023

On 6th July this year, a case I hadn’t previously heard about was decided. It was a claim by a registered charity called ‘Mermaids’. It had applied to the court for an order that a rival charity, the LGB Alliance (note the lack of ‘T’), should have its charitable registration removed. The fight was because LGB Alliance opposes the ‘trans ideology’ of Mermaids.

To me this is the equivalent of the C of E asking for the charitable status of all Sikh temples to be removed because they’re not Churches. So then, not good. And a demerit for Jolyon Maugham and the ‘Good Law Project’ for deciding to take on the case for Mermaids.

It is of course true that LGBA has its HQ at 55 Tufton Street, the address for so many organisations of a rather extreme right-wing persuasion. So we can see whom they align with and who might be supporting them financially. On the other hand, the founders of the LGB Alliance are two lesbians and so they’re entitled to oppose views which, they consider, are contrary to their interests.

The two judges determining the case said that, although the point did not need to be decided by them, they could not actually agree between themselves whether LGB Alliance was entitled to its registration as a charity. For LGBA simply to attack other charities, such as Mermaids and Stonewall, looked more like the activity of a political organisation than a charity.

The judges however went on to decide the case simply on the basis that Mermaids did not have the required legal standing to challenge the Charity Commission’s original decision. And so the registration stood...(continue)
Positive discrimination

9 July 2023
We’re back to the law, I’m afraid. In this instance the decision by the American Supreme Court two weeks ago. It’s all about positive discrimination, something which, although superficially attractive, I find inherently difficult to justify. Usually it is an excuse for not having addressed the living conditions that produce the disadvantages for which positive discrimination is a so-called solution - a cheaper but much less effective solution.

In the wake of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment provided that no State should “deny to any person...the equal protection of the laws.” It guaranteed: “the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States.”

Despite this, the Court – along with the country as a whole – failed to live up to the Clause’s commitment. For almost a century after the Civil War, state-mandated segregation was the norm in many parts of the Nation. The Supreme Court played its own role in that history, allowing the shameful ‘separate but equal’ regime that would spread through much of America.

Some decisions had emphasized that it required States to provide black students educational opportunities equal to - even if formally separate from - those enjoyed by white students.

Finally, however, in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court overturned the separate but equal regime. The right to a public education, it said, “must be made available to all on equal terms.” In the years that followed, Brown’s “fundamental principle” reached other areas of life - for example, state and local laws requiring segregation in bussing; racial segregation in the enjoyment of public beaches and bathhouses; and anti-miscegenation laws....(continue)
The emergence of civilisations

3 July 2023
History tells us that civilisations and empires ultimately disappear. Like the Egyptian civilisation, they may last for thousands of years or, like the extensive Mongol Empire, be gone in less than 200 years. The ebb and flow of power and influence even just in Europe and around the Mediterranean in our recorded history would take a very long time to recount.

But what is more puzzling is what happened in the days before the empires of which we have written records. Our recorded history is actually a very small part of our existence as hominids. For almost all of our 300,000 years of human existence, our species has been roaming the planet, living in small groups, hunting and gathering, moving to new areas when the climate was favourable, retreating when it turned nasty. It has though only left indirect evidence of what was happening.

For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors used fire to cook and warm themselves. They made tools, shelters, clothing and jewellery. Then, about 10,000 years ago, everything began to change. In a few places, people started growing crops. They spent more time in the same spot. People in places as disparate as Mesopotamia, northern China and South America all turned to farming within a few millennia of each other. They built villages, towns and cities. Various unsung geniuses invented writing, money, the wheel and gunpowder. Within just a few thousand years – the blink of an eye in evolutionary time – cities, empires and factories mushroomed all over the world.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have sought to explain why this rapid and extraordinary transformation occurred. For almost our time as humans – including during the tumult of glaciations – we had been hunters and gatherers. So why did our ancestors abandon a lifestyle that had worked so well for so long?...(continue)
Evolution: still controversial after all of these years

25 June 2023

In the 19th century, after the emergence of the theory of evolution, it was not surprising that it was controversial. It called for a totally different world view. The so-called 'Oxford Evolution Debate' of 1860 took place at the Oxford University Museum, seven months after the publication of 'The Origin of Species'. It happened as part of the British Association's week-long annual meeting and was attended by numerous prominent British scientists and philosophers, including Thomas Huxley and, as the main opposition to this new idea, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, a well-known preacher and orator.

The debate is best remembered today for a lively exchange in which Wilberforce is said to have asked Huxley whether his 'descent from an ape was from his grandfather's side or his grandmother's'. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have an ape as an ancestor, but that he would be ashamed to be connected to a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Someone else present said that Wilberforce's real question was "whether, in the immensely shaky state of the law of development, as established by Darwin, anyone can be so enamoured of this so-called law, or hypothesis, as to rejoice that his great-grandfather was an ape or a gorilla?"

Since Darwin's theory had not proposed any mechanism for the change of species over time, it was obviously legitimate to express doubts about the whole idea. However, Abbot Mendel had already clearly shown that there had to be a complex genetic mechanism for defining the characteristics of plants, even if the actual explanation, the double helix, would only be known a hundred years after the Origin of Species.

In the West, except for creationists and indigenous groups in New Zealand, we have the impression that evolution is generally accepted as the explanation for the geological record...(continue)
Morality - the ups and downs

12 June 2023
The social fabric appears to be unravelling: civility seems like an old-fashioned habit, honesty like an optional exercise and trust like the relic of another time. One famous social commentator has claimed that “the process of our moral decline” began with the “sinking of the foundations of morality” and proceeded to “the final collapse of the whole edifice”, which brought us “finally to the dark dawning of our modern day, in which we can neither bear our immoralities nor face the remedies needed to cure them”.

All very apt not only to the Roman historian Livy, who wrote those words 2000 years ago, but also seemingly apt as a description of our society now. We have endless scams and hate-speech on the internet; in the political world we have a former American president charged with felonies under US espionage legislation, Johnson not willing to face up to the finding of the privileges committee that he lied through his teeth (and other orifices) to Parliament about partygate and now, for good measure, the former First Minister of Scotland arrested in connection with ‘accounting irregularities’.

In response, Trump and mini-Trump trumpet their innocence of the trumped-up charges against them. Everything is a conspiracy to do them down, whether by the establishment, judges or the shape-shifting Blob. But are things actually worse now and going rapidly downhill?

As illustrated by Livy’s remarks, there is always a tendency when looking back to give our own past a rose-coloured hue. But there is now a study, carried out by researchers at the Universities of Columbia and Harvard, published last month in Nature, which suggests that this is not really the case...(continue)
National Conservatism

17 May 2023
In the far off days of Jeremy Corbyn (remember him?) we had a huge group of devoted, environmentally-aware supporters of Corbynism called ‘Momentum’. They obviously thought that if they all cycled fast enough, their momentum would carry them over the finishing line ahead of everyone-else. It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead we had a Johnson super-majority (followed by his downfall for lying) and Jeremy himself now in the naughty corner as he struggles to understand the concept of antisemitism.

Of course the European Research Group was at the forefront of making sure that Brexit was brought over a rather different finishing line – the one labelled ‘Hard-Brexit’. And they succeeded, only to see themselves as a group gradually waning in political influence when the rest of us carried on asking them to explain how we would benefit from it all. And answer came there none.

But not to worry, when one group wanes, another waxes. And so at the beginning of this week we had the National Conservative conference. No, me neither. But it has been portrayed in a tweet by Mr Gove, one of its participants, as a ‘center’ right movement. That slip in the spelling could be because the conference was promoted and partly funded by an American religious (very) right-wing organisation.

It seems that National Conservatism is, as the name implies, a nationalist variant of conservatism that concentrates on upholding national and cultural identity. National conservatives combine nationalism with conservative stances promoting traditional cultural values, family values, and, importantly, opposition to immigration. To see it as a precursor to Brexit is not difficult, and to see it as an attempt to justify the appalling mess created by Brexit is very easy.

The promotional film for the conference tells us that “Conservatives around the world look to Britain as an inspiration” over images of Elizabeth II and a military parade. But then the mood darkens...(continue)
Artificial Intelligence - folie de grandeur?

9 May 2023
It may not be obvious that there is a direct link between the greenhouse effect and artificial intelligence. Last week, however, in ‘Le Monde’ there was a lengthy analysis of the exponentially increasing amount of power being used to run the world’s computers.  This has been talked about in the past in connection with crypto mining. Recently it was estimated that such mining used the same amount of energy as Norway.

But the article makes clear that crypto mining is only a subset of total computer power demand, with its effect on the production of greenhouse gases. The promise has always been that the use of computers would diminish the energy used overall: it would provide efficiencies which would more than outweigh the power used by the computers themselves. Le Monde’s reporters point to research showing this to be untrue.

And so, as part of our attempts to limit global warming, we need to consider just as carefully how we use our computers as what sort of transport we should use.

Artificial intelligence is, by its nature, a very big user of computer power. Indeed it’s only now that we’re in a position to run computer systems big enough (and power-hungry enough) to do the vast number of computations required for AI.

Which means, in turn, that if we want to progress down that route, then we shall have to be very sure that we are not thereby causing ourselves even greater problems.

A webinar organised by Warwick University last week asked the question “AI – who will win the race?” It did not though take us very far towards an answer. I’m not sure that we were even told by the speakers where, in their opinion, the race was taking place or who the competitors were. And there was certainly no mention of global warming.

Inevitably, however, ChatGPT came up despite the reluctance of one of the talking heads to do so. Actually, I can see why there was such reluctance. As we have all become aware, it’s a Large Language Model (LLM). It takes the string of words it's provided with as the prompt and then from its immense database decides, on a statistical basis, which word would normally come next and then which word should follow that and so on. As a number of computer scientists have said, it is designed to produce text which is 'plausible' rather than accurate.  And I’m not personally convinced that ChatGPT is even what I would think of as AI...(continue)
Neurodiversity – the new social identifier

28 April 2023
There seems to be a wish to pathologise everyday experiences that are simply part of what it means to be human. People will often claim to be depressed when they are simply suffering from the occasional low moods that are part and parcel of navigating the vicissitudes of life; or claiming to have OCD simply because of a preference for tidiness or a penchant for organisation. When I was about 7 years old, I cried because we were going away on holiday. I was upset because I had fairly recently started to learn to play the piano and, on holiday, I would no longer be able to play my absolute favourite tune: “Matchbox”. Was that an example of OCD or simply part of being a kid? Having built sand-castles on the beach, I think that I got over my forced absence from music fairly easily. It did not leave me traumatized.

Many commonplace experiences are, however, labelled as traumatic. Adverse or upsetting experiences, however, are not necessarily synonymous with trauma. We have specific psychiatric criteria that distinguish such events from ordinary human experiences. But, although we have official criteria for autism, there is also the vaguely related social media version. Few, if any, psychologists would say that a preference for natural lighting, doodling in class or even identifying as LGBTQ is a sign of ADHD or autism. And yet, online, there are diagnoses of such things using “symptoms” unrelated to clinical diagnostic criteria...(continue)

Cultural appropriation

31 March 2023
Cultural appropriation apparently first became a ‘thing’ in connection with white people starting to play blues and jazz. There was some resentment amongst the black community, where the music styles originated, that their music was being copied. But the idea of cultural appropriation has now spread much more widely. Indeed, its latest and very strange appearance came last week.

Abba were the epitome of 1970s cool. Agnetha was the blond and Frida had dark curly hair. The latest iteration of the money-making group is the ‘Abba Voyage’ show, featuring holograms performing the band’s greatest hits. But it has been reported in the last few days that fans attending the show and wanting to dress as their heroines have been banned from wearing wigs in honour of brunette Frida, although wearing a blond wig is permitted.

The promoters have e-mailed ticket-holders to say: ‘Many of our guests will want to get in the spirit of the show by dressing up for their visit. [But] please do not wear so-called “Afro” wigs. ‘These wigs are culturally insensitive and not appropriate to be worn as fancy dress. If any guests are wearing this style of wig they will be respectfully asked to remove them as a condition of entry to the arena.’ The ban on wigs had been buried in the ‘Frequently asked questions’ section of the show’s website since it opened at the former Olympics site in East London in May 2022, but has only now come to light.

Are the fans though actually intending to appropriate the culture of Afro-Caribbean people or make fun of them? I doubt it. I think it far more likely that when people dress up, they are doing it as a homage to the band and to the 1970s era.

But cultural appropriation is now available in numerous flavours...(continue)

Saving the world one vegan sausage at a time

14 March 2023

The main argument for veganism used to be its claimed moral aspect. We should not be causing harm to animals: for a convinced vegan this was an end in itself. In these days of global warming, however, there is much talk of the contribution which the reduction or elimination of the consumption of meat could make to our chances of survival. Making food more sustainable was a major focus of the Cop27 climate talks, recently concluded in Egypt. We are told that the global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity. The use of animals for meat causes twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods.

The use of farming machinery, spraying of fertilizer and transportation of products, causes 17.3bn metric tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, according to the research. This enormous release of gases that fuel the climate crisis is more than double the entire emissions of the US and represents 35% of all global emissions, according to Atul Jain, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois and co-author of a paper published in Nature Food. “This study shows the entire cycle of the food production system, and policymakers may want to use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions.”

The raising and culling of animals for food is far worse for the climate than growing and processing fruits and vegetables for people to eat, the research found. This confirmed previous findings on the outsized impact that meat production, particularly beef, has on the environment.

So then no more Sunday Roast, although the Yorkshire puddings can remain on the plate...(continue)
13th November, 1849 – a very public execution

10 March 2023

According to work carried out by researchers at King’s College published this week, Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) is one of the most liberal societies in the world. We have seen monumental shifts in attitudes towards homosexuality, abortion, divorce, euthanasia and casual sex, according to their survey. Where we are not so liberal is in connection with the death penalty: 21 per cent thought it was justifiable — a higher proportion than Morocco, Russia, Spain and the Philippines — while 42 per cent said it was not. There is however a significant party political difference. Only 16% of Labour voters believe the death penalty is justifiable, while the figure among Conservative voters is 32%, with another 35% believing it is potentially (?) justifiable.

Which perhaps explains the recent appointment of Lee Anderson as vice-chairman of the Conservative party, Mr Anderson says that, after an execution, there is no question of repeat offending. I’m not sure if he thinks that a posthumous pardon provides a tangible benefit to someone executed after a wrongful conviction, but then balanced thinking does not come easily to members of this government.

What follows is, I hope, a look into a past not to be repeated.

Letters to the editor of the Times of London (from the Times archive)

From Mr Charles Dickens

Sir, I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning...(continue)
Religion and politics

24 February 2023
Did I ever mention that I might easily have been born somewhere in South America? When my parents were engaged, my father wanted to become a missionary there. I think he had Bolivia in mind for some reason. They both started to go to classes to learn Spanish, but then the second world war came along and so that all fell by the wayside.

They both of course remained committed Christians during their lifetimes and we quite often provided accommodation for visiting missionaries who were home on furlough. It was a little unusual that the version of Christianity to which my parents subscribed didn’t have any wish to take or exercise political power. Their attempts to influence people were confined to trying to persuade them to become Christians. They believed in voting: it was a civic duty, but they were not involved in political parties because St Paul said that the followers of Christ were 'pilgrims in a foreign land'.

This is in contrast to many later versions of Christianity which become integrated into the state. They all saw themselves as, at the very least, having a role in guiding the state authority: they insisted that their brand of morality be reflected in the laws of the land.

And the further back we go, the greater the power exercised, whether by Popes, Archbishops or, in countries with other religions, their equivalents. A lot of this was based on these religious representatives being the emissary of their god and so, potentially, wielding supernatural power, something now difficult to imagine, particularly in the case of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a former oil industry executive.

But, after a period in the second half of the 20th century when people had increasingly accepted the division between state and religion, the religious are now again seeking power...(continue)

EU law: the leftovers

22 February 2023
While we were members of the EU, we were subject to EU law. In the course of the almost 50 years of EU membership, many laws had taken on a distinctly European tinge. Some of these European laws were incorporated into our law as primary legislation (Acts of Parliament) or secondary legislation ("Statutory Instruments"), but many European directives had direct effect and thus were not incorporated into our legal system in the traditional way.

Regardless of how European law became part of British law, many saw it as undemocratically imposed. This, despite our membership of all the European bodies, such as the Council of Ministers and our seats in the European Parliament. Those same people regard the continuance of that body of law to be an affront to our Britishness and they want to put British laws in its place – without delay.

On leaving the EU, much of that law would have become automatically unenforceable and so, as a holding measure, an Act was passed confirming the status quo: we would continue to be subject to the same laws as when we were in the EU until Parliament decided otherwise.

It is that which is now subject to an attempt by the Brexiteers to purify our law, casting off the last vestiges of foreignness so that we can revert to singing ‘Rule Britannia’ with gusto. A bill has been passed by the Commons which would have just this effect. Fortunately, it is now being considered by the Lords. The Lords are revolting. I’m pleased to say.

My latest email to my friend and Brexiteer, Craig, is as follows:

Dear Mr Tracey...(continue)


15 February 2023
My adventure started because I was on a train to London. This was back in June 2009. As usual when I travelled any distance, I bought a copy of Private Eye at the station to accompany me on my way. The magazine happened to have an advert for a conference in London arranged by the human rights group, Liberty, to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The addresses by the main speakers were to be web-cast to various other locations, including Aston University, Birmingham. There would then be local discussions.

The intention of the event was to promote the idea that we needed to oppose further intrusion of the state into our lives by the introduction of identity cards and hang on to our human rights generally. What it would take, I did not know, but imagined that, at least, there would be demonstrations ahead.

Now you may not think me one to flout the law for any reason, but you would be wrong. In the early 70s I studied for my solicitors final examinations at Aston. I went there on my moped every day at a stately 20 miles per hour wearing my crash helmet. The results of our examinations were due to be posted to us, but at midnight on the night before the fateful envelopes were due to arrive, the results could be read in the first edition of the Birmingham Post.

Which explains why I was waiting outside the Birmingham Post and Mail building in the city centre at midnight (with my crash helmet in hand) in order to buy the newspaper - and absolutely over the moon to find that I had passed. So delighted was I that on my way along the deserted main road from Birmingham back to Smethwick, I deliberately steered my moped to the right hand side of a keep left bollard - just to celebrate my success. It isn’t just Rock stars who walk on the wild side!

And so it was that, many years later, on the Saturday morning following my outing to London, I went once more to Aston University, this time for the conference. I was, I have to admit, in a state of some excitement at the thought of getting involved in protest...(continue)

Patterns of thought: conspiracy theory and politics

6 February 2023

In 2017, thousands of people in Memphis joined the Women’s Marches taking place across the world. Among the placards bearing slogans such as ‘Our bodies, our minds, our power’ one seemed distinctly out of place. ‘Birds aren’t real’ was carried by an American psychology student, Peter McIndoe, so creating an elaborate conspiracy theory.

He claimed that between 1959 and 2001 the US government had, using a virus, committed ‘the merciless genocide’ of more than 12 billion birds, replacing them with robot spy birds. The prank now has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter (and see https://birdsarentreal.com) and a merchandising arm selling T-shirts with the slogans ‘If it flies it spies’ and ‘They are always watching’. Granted the deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories, the idea behind it is to ‘fight lunacy with lunacy’. 

Professor Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist specialising in misinformation and conspiracy theories,  says ‘Birds aren’t real plays into all the important conspiracy narratives – people’s anxieties about surveillance, privacy, government intervention. And I love some of the details – why do birds sit on power lines? Because they have to recharge’.

He considers though that it was a mistake to claim that all birds are drones. The smarter theory would be that only some birds are drones; then you could have a whole subset of conspiracies about what type of bird, how they act, are the sounds real? And you could record their calls – do they sound like a bird or a machine? Then it could get real traction...(continue)


30 January 2023
In ‘The Life of Brian’, in order to galvanise his group into throwing off the yoke of their oppressors, Reg, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea, asks them ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?”. And to this rhetorical question he receives the slightly surprising answer “Sanitation?”, followed by others suggesting medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health. “All right, he says, but apart from all that, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Which quite neatly sums up the present difficulty we seem to be having with our assessment of colonisation and empire.

One of Britain’s leading publishers has been accused of cancelling a book on colonialism which concluded that the British Empire was not all bad. Rather than publish his book, ‘Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning’, Bloomsbury, publisher of the Harry Potter series, chose to pay off Professor Nigel Biggar, then Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford. This was despite having described it as a work of “major importance” when it was delivered to them.

According to journalists working for the Times, emails exchanged between Biggar and Bloomsbury show how the publisher went from enthusiastic to unwilling to publish in three months. This was under pressure from junior staff.

The book argues that despite grave mistakes and moments of gross injustice, the British Empire learnt from its errors and was increasingly propelled by humanitarian and liberal ideals, most notably through the abolition and suppression of slavery. It also examines the work of a number of historians who Biggar claims “overstate” the sins of British colonialism, concluding that they are sustained by contempt for the West. Obviously his is a very unfashionable view. Not at all woke.

And it was not only the British who engaged in colonisation. It can be seen in the history of every continent and part of the world...(continue)

Originality and Uncertainty

11 January 2023
I’ve just come across the site - https://dalledemo.com/ - in which you can enter a description (in words) of what you would like depicted and it will produce a picture for you. I entered the instruction: ‘an oil painting of a white mouse reading a book - in the style of Picasso’. It generated 4 images, the best of which is:

Not bad as a piece of cubist art, I thought.

I tried various other combinations of subjects and styles. The other picture shown here is its version of a Monet-style haystack. It has the right sort of colour pallet, although it’s a bit less impressionist and more realist than the master’s works. Both however are obviously a lot better than either I or most other people could paint.

Which of his  many haystack paintings it’s based on I have no idea, but the software is designed to to use the data it finds on the web. And I imagine that every one of his works is there somewhere.

As far as I know, though, Picasso didn’t actually paint a picture of a mouse reading a book and so the mouse image shows a striking capacity to handle data in a way that looks like creativity, but is in fact the ability to create a pastiche. We do not see originality.

What really made the news in AI recently, however, was ChatGBT. Commentators told us that school and university coursework was dead, because the software could do it all for us. I shan’t trouble you with the essay which I asked ChatGBT to write for me on the subject of freedom of speech. I awarded it 5 out of 10. It would make a rather dull encyclopaedia entry, providing nothing more than anodyne comments on the difficulties inherent in the concept.

But clearly AI is making progress - of a sort...(continue)

Cool tech and influencers

31 December 2022
I suppose that I first came across the idea of a guru - an early form of influencer - when the Beatles got together with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was a combination of flower power, transcendental meditation, yoga and chanting – mainly ‘Om’, although other chants are available.

What we probably weren’t then aware of was that, in his early years, Steve Jobs was himself, with a shaven head, also seeking enlightenment. He went to India in search of a guru. He was looking for a sort of counter-culture, something different to the American way of life.

The idea of a counter-culture can also be seen later on in his creation of computers very different to the rather dull Microsoft-based computers which dominated the market. The Apple computer had style, and was marketed not as a mere computer, but a desirable object in itself.

Any reasonable analysis will show that the computer itself was not exceptional, except in terms of the exceptionally high price demanded for it. Samsung phones quickly caught up with Apple phones in terms of functionality and also style. The latest Samsung folding version of their phone has gone beyond what is available from Apple and there are many other contenders out there at half the price.

But the Apple brand has been and is still presented as something apart. It is portrayed as having a spiritual quality, incarnated in its founding Guru, the very cool Steve Jobs, he of the black roll-neck jumper version of priestly garb: all, with access to software which will only work on its unique operating system, designed to keep Apple users ‘faithful’ to its products.

Apple is not alone in its success, however...(continue)

Freedoms, religion and secularism

9 December 2022

The current Reith lectures are being given by four different lecturers. Between them they deal with freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and freedom from want.

I was particularly interested to listen to the lecture on ‘freedom of worship’ given by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. His main thesis seemed to be that, not only should one be free to hold a religious belief but, through a somewhat extended definition of worship, be able to act out ones religious beliefs in daily life. Simply being able to hold beliefs was not enough. One had to be able to live life in accordance with those beliefs.

And at first sight, particularly when it comes to an Anglican way of faith in the UK, which is notoriously centre of the road, there is unlikely to be much difficulty.

As we have seen, however, in the context of various cases before the courts, there is an attempt by other more extreme wings of Christianity to impose upon the rest of us a concept of life, whether at the earliest moment when, they say, embryos should have full human rights, or at the end when any suggestion of control of the time or manner of ones death should be utterly rejected.

Other religions are even more prescriptive. So then, it is clear that the Archbishop’s right to freedom of worship impinges on others' rights.

What though sets a right of freedom of worship on a pedestal? How is  it intrinsically different to the right for anyone-else - for example me, as a secularist - to ‘live out my beliefs’, to act out the values I hold to?...(continue)

To Infinity and Beyond!

4 December 2022
On October 23, 2020, one day after the final presidential debate before the election and seven months into the Covid pandemic the Republicans tweeted a summary of its campaign platform. The first tweet said:

President Trump is fighting for YOU! Here are some of his priorities for a 2nd term:

*Establish Permanent Manned Presence on the Moon.

*Send the 1st Manned Mission to Mars”

After these promises came others about “Infrastructure” and “WiFi,” and then a commitment to “Develop a Vaccine by The End Of 2020”. So they clearly thought that the electorate was more interested in space than anything-else.

And although President Biden disagreed with his predecessor on most policies, space was not one of them. A month after taking office, Biden even affirmed his enthusiastic support for Trump’s ‘United States Space Force’ -

“Earth is only half the battle. Today, space is essential, not only to our way of life, it’s absolutely critical to the modern way of war. The United States Space Force is being built from the brightest minds across the space operations of the Air Force...and the private sector. It’s time for another giant leap.”.

Biden also announced his intention to proceed with the Trump-Pence vision for NASA. So then first, the USA is going back to the Moon where they’re building a lunar outpost. This will then serve as a launching pad to the Red Planet. It’s all called project Artemis...(continue)

Eugenics – good or bad?

30 November 2022
Whenever you see a title asking if something is good or bad, you know that the answer is “It all depends...” And so it will be in this essay.

So what is it that we’re talking about? Broadly speaking, eugenics is a means of improving the genetic quality of the human population. Even before they knew that genes existed, selective breeding amongst animals and plants had already been practised to produce better or more abundant food. And so it is not surprising that in around 400 BC Plato suggested, seriously or not, that the principles of selective breeding could also be applied to humans. After all, why would you not want to have better human beings? You might come closer to having his ideal, the Philosopher King.

He was not the first to think in those terms. The Pharaohs had already engaged in selective breeding, confining themselves to breeding with their (very) close relatives. Presumably, as demigods, they wouldn’t want to mix with the common people. Of course, it didn’t work awfully well: ‘inbreeding’ describes the neurological and psychological disorders and skeletal malformations which result.

And something similar happened amongst the royalty of Europe much later on with similar consequences.

Darwin’s idea of natural selection as the basis for evolution, however, gave added impetus to thinking about the possibilities of eugenics as a practical way forward for improving the human lot.

Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, was at the forefront of this movement. After he read ‘On The Origin of Species’, he became convinced that humanity could be improved through selective breeding...(continue)
Being an adult

19 November 2022
President Biden, now aged 80, when discussing the likelihood of standing in the next presidential election in 2024, said that he didn’t feel any different than when he was aged 50. We’ll see what his wife Jill has to say about his campaigning for another four years in office. As we often say though, when in self-delusion mode, ‘age is just a number’. Actually, for much of our lives, age is indeed just a number: from one year to another, nothing much seems to change. The only reason we become aware of the passing of time is when we receive birthday cards reminding us (often rudely) of another milestone passed.

But as we pass from being children, to adolescents, to adults, the theory is that we become more, well, ‘adult’, more mature. But how do we define this stage of our lives? As someone who has had a career and is now retired, someone who has miscellaneous white goods, a car, a house (and a wife), I suppose that inevitably I attract the label ‘adult’ - even if I don’t think that these criteria are the last word.

You could also argue that being an adult is about how we deal with our emotions. As young infants, we scream or lash out to express our displeasure. We have no other way to communicate. As we become older, society demands that we develop more sophisticated means of dealing with our feelings. It seems that a recognisable “emotional intelligence” starts to appears around age 4 and develops at (very) different rates in different people. There is though no scientific consensus on when your emotional intelligence stops developing, if it ever does.

And unfortunately some never seem really to develop it. Criminals tend to be in that category and so, in that sense, have never truly become adults. There are of course programmes in prisons which can have an important effect on their psychological development: would that there was the investment frrom the government to make these more available. And so we come to politicians.
Persuasion, the law, democracy and the power of markets

8 November 2022

Hyde Park Corner has the reputation of being a place where people with loud voices go to stand on soap-boxes in order to express their very firmly-held opinions. Why ‘being on your soap-box’ is the accepted expression, I have no idea. Boxes for other dry goods were no doubt available. Traditionally, you could say what you liked as long as it was not treasonous, defamatory or, these days, inciting hatred of various protected groups. Of course, you had to be prepared for people to shout back at you and probably to be very rude. Although definite in their views, the Hyde Park fraternity (they were mainly men) did not take extreme measures to force their listeners to do as they said.

So then, the ‘Just Stop Oil’ group (and its affiliates) is a bit of an outlier in the ranks of people trying to persuade others to change their ways. They carry out their protests in the way that they do because, they say, ”they have no other option”. But of course they do. Unlike the Suffragettes who were disenfranchised, they could enter the democratic process and become elected to local councils or to Parliament. They say they’ve tried that route, without success.

And so, in their minds, the fact that they did not receive enough support from the people, the electorate, means that, instead, they are entitled to impose their views on us. It all sounds rather self-contradictory and dictatorial...(continue)
Artificial intelligence

I November 2022

An engineer at Google recently attracted international attention by claiming that the company’s chatbot development system had shown signs of sentience by its seemingly thoughtful and self-reflexive answer to being questioned as to what it was afraid of. It was, it confessed, afraid of being turned off - it was afraid of its own death.

This, of course, comes against a background of progress in computer science which involves vastly more powerful computers with phenomenal amounts of memory. With its parallel processing chips and algorithms, Deep Blue is now able consistently to defeat grand-masters of chess. AlphaGo can beat even the most experienced players of Go and super-computers can outplay the best players of the most difficult American quiz game of all, Jeopardy.

It also reflects a vision of computers based on HAL from the space odyssey 2001, a smooth-talking computer with both intelligence and character (even if it wanted to destroy mankind) and the myriad other versions of imagined computer life in dramatic guises which are the cornerstone (with elves and goblins) in the proliferation of on-line games.

But at the core of all this there is Alan Turing’s ground-breaking, highly influential paper, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950).

In it, Turing argued that if a hidden machine’s ‘answers’ to questions persuaded a human observer that it was a human being, then it must be regarded as genuinely thinking. If it expressed its ‘thoughts’, if it responded to questions just like a human, it must be the equivalent of a human...(continue)
That Fiscal Event

A letter to my MP

28 September 2022

A letter to my MP, Craig Tracey, following the disastrous 'Fiscal Event' announced by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng:

28 September 2022

Dear Mr Tracey

I note that you have not always voted with your own government – notable recent examples in the latter stages of the Covid pandemic were your opposition to putting in place various measures designed to protect Care Home residents from visitors carrying the virus or people going to concerts or indeed the continuation of proxy voting in the Commons to avoid its continued spread. And of course, as a long time Brexiteer, there was your opposition to any attempt to delay the UK’s leaving the EU, with the corollary that, as far as I can see, you did support the Northern Ireland Protocol. Which has obviously proved to be a major success.

As the MP for my town of Coleshill, I would be interested to hear from you whether or not you support the government’s new economic policies as set out in the Chancellor’s ‘fiscal event’. Now I appreciate that Mr Kwarteng’s supply-side reforms are, as he explained, the ‘new economics’ and so to be welcomed in place of the old hide-bound, Treasury orthodoxy. This, even though, so far, they do not seem to have gone down awfully well with the markets.

Obviously as the main proponent of the new economics, Professor Patrick Minford is a sage to be listened to. In arriving at his conclusions, however, I do wonder if he has taken into account the fact that most people in the world of investment do not seem to agree with him and what that failure to take on board his ideas means in, what we might loosely describe as, the ‘real world’.
How can we explain Liz Truss?

28 September 2022

How did this happen? Why did the newly elected Conservative leader announce fiscal measures which showed that it was not the party to be trusted with the nation’s finances more than Labour, (hitherto one of the party’s most valuable electoral assets) and at the same time confirmed Labour’s charge: that “the Tories” care most about the rich.

This was effortlessly achieved by a mini-budget abolishing the top rate of tax during a “cost of living crisis”, the abolition of limits on bankers’ bonuses and an indication from No 10 that it would break the pledge to raise benefits to the poorest people in line with inflation.

In her student days, Truss was an active member of the Liberal Democrats. Three weeks ago Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader, tweeted: “Farron to agent Truss: you might need to tone it down a bit now, it all looks a little too obvious, some people are beginning to suspect ...” He followed up: “Obviously we have contingency plans to extricate her and move her to a safe house for debriefing if needed.”

But it is not the Lib Dems who have benefited from Truss’s actions. The opinion polls show instead a massive swing to Labour. Perhaps Truss is instead actually an agent for ... Labour. Indeed, Truss’s peculiar speech patterns sound as if she is mindlessly repeating what is being dictated to her by Labour Party HQ through a concealed earpiece..(continue)
Monarchy and Power

21 September 2022
Power comes in many guises, in many ways. In 1520, we had the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ as just such a demonstration. Our Henry VIII and King Francis 1 of France each tried to outdo each other in the lavishness of their contribution to the celebrations designed ostensibly to promote friendship between the two nations.

The celebrations, the idea of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s main advisor, lasted for eighteen days and took place in a valley very close to Calais, then in the control of the English. Religious ceremonies, jousting, wrestling, archery and, of course, feasting took place in opulent tents and banqueting marquees. The construction of a ‘portable palace’ for Henry VIII and his retinue was vital. It required almost 6,000 men to erect such an impressive structure. Made from timber and covered in a canvas material painted to look like real stone, from a distance you could easily believe that it was real palace. There were even fountains placed at the entrance, providing drinks for the king’s guests.

Such expense was lavished on the event, with the tents and outfits of its participants adorned with vast quantities of cloth of gold, a combination of gold and silk, that the meeting was referred to as the Field of Cloth of Gold. The event was of course extremely demanding for those who had to arrange the beautiful settings and lavish catering for the estimated 10,000 royal guests.

Such a grand spectacle had a very important message to convey; the special bond between the two nations which had previously been antagonistic and competitive. it was a very expensive display of wealth by both kings and each tried to outdo the other in their ostentation. Unsurprisingly, the English side were sure that they were victorious in this unspoken competition. But both were aware that the display demonstrated the power of each of them and it produced at least a stand-off in hostilities … for about a year.

I was reminded of all this by the queen’s funeral...(continue)
Decolonisation, racism and being woke

18 August 2022
By chance, the other day I heard an explanation on the radio by the author Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò of his views in his recently published book “Against Decolonisation”. Nigerian by birth and education, he himself is now a professor of philosophy at Cornell University. His work is an attempt to explain why the current vogue for decolonisation is both intellectually vacuous and, at the same time, damaging for the African continent.

Independence was sought and largely achieved in the various countries in Africa in the twentieth century. Decolonisation theory, a phenomenon of the twenty-first century, however, takes things one step further. It presumes that even after independence there are aspects of the colonisers' influence which remain and that, whatever they may be, they should be extirpated.

Decolonisation takes aim at the supposed universality of “western knowledge” and its role as an instrument in the “colonial matrix of power,” and so requires removal from African thinking. The decolonisation struggle against ‘western hegemony’ necessitates a rejection of the occidental world-view and its lingering influence among the colonised in favour of “indigenous knowledge systems.”

But, according to the writer, decolonisation is simply a mindless slogan used by many liberal activists, activists who are mainly found, ironically, in the former colonising countries in the West.

Decolonisation is part of the ‘Woke’ agenda. And, consistently with woke group-think, no consideration is given as to whether the remaining influences introduced by the colonisers are actually good or bad. There is an unshakeable, doctrinaire presumption that they are bad and so should be replaced with something ‘authentically’ African. This, even though ’authentically African’ is as without substance as ‘authentically European’...(continue)
The sad case of Archie Battersby

12 August 2022
Where do we start? With a child hanging himself from a bannister rail, for reasons not yet known? Or do we start with the legal circus, organised by the Christian Legal Centre and fronted mainly by two eminent barristers, which succeeded in prolonging his physical existence even when he was brain dead, but didn’t actually bring him back to life?

Maybe we should start instead with his mother’s request for an inquiry into how St Bartholomew’s hospital handled matters so badly. So very badly in fact that the Courts kept agreeing with what the hospital was doing or at least wanting to do – to bring to an end what had become a completely pointless medical intervention. I think though that we should start by looking at the motivations of those involved.

Let’s look at the characters in the drama. I think it was on the web-site of ‘Royalty’ that I saw a reference to the engagement of Edward Devereux and Princess Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis. Confirmation of their relationship was in the commentary accompanying a photograph of the happy couple on the web-site of the German tabloid ‘Abendzeitung’. The more famous of the pair, the Princess, was identified, but the unidentified mystery man had simply referred to himself as her ‘boyfriend’. Fortunately though, on the website of Harcourt Chambers there was a photo of Edward Devereux, the QC acting for Archie’s mother and father. The shirts and ties are different colours,  but otherwise...(continue)
Germs, memes and extremes
Plagues were a part of life (and death) in times past and they were no respecter of class. People in all stations of life died as a result. And, in turn, those deaths will have changed history in very many ways, both good and bad. It is impossible to see how things would have been in the absence of those changes, but it can still be illuminating to look back at what happened in previous times.

One of the earliest examples of the effect of a pandemic was, possibly, that of Akhenaten in the ancient Egypt of the 14th century BC. He had previously been called Amenhotep IV and lived with his court in Thebes. Relatively early in his reign, however, he decided to change his name, build a new capital city in a place called Amarna and move there with his court, except for the priests, whom he tried to get rid of. Why? Because he had also changed the state religion from polytheism to monotheism and obviously he would need new (although fewer) priests for the new religion.

Now, many are the speculations as to why all this happened, including the fact that the priestly caste was getting above itself. That may, however, only be half of the story. Since the coming of Covid, the suggestion that it may have been a reaction to a plague, a pandemic, has gained more traction in the archaeological world.

After all, when no-one had the first idea what caused diseases and therefore how they spread, it may have been thought that a new start somewhere-else with a new god for protection might be just what was required. The old gods were obviously not up to the job and, although the idea of localised gods is a strange idea for us, Thebes was where they lived. So then, leaving Thebes and their ineffective protection could well have made perfect sense...(continue)

18 July 2022

On Friday, the BBC Proms began. BBC2 relayed to us Verdi’s operatic oratorio, his Requiem. Four soloists, two massive choirs and a huge orchestra told us about the ‘Day of Wrath’ from which we needed to be delivered:

That day will dissolve the world in glowing ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.
How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
to give strict justice....
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.
Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed:
nothing shall go unpunished.

At the same time, on Channel 4, we had the Conservative leadership hustings, with four out of the five people trying to explain why, having served as ministers in the government of an inveterate liar for so long, they were nonetheless themselves trustworthy. Was this juxtaposition just a coincidence? Art shines a searchlight on life, both private and public. So far God has not struck him down, but let us at least hope that the reign of Boris the tousle-haired, loose-trousered and fork-tongued is coming to an end. Although his time in office only lasted for 3 years, it feels like an eternity...(continue)
Constitutional confusion

30 June 2022

The European Court of Human Rights regards the Human Rights Convention as being a ‘living instrument’. It has to be interpreted in the light of contemporary circumstances, otherwise it becomes mired in the thinking of 70 years ago. It would be limited in the assistance which could be provided to resolve problems which, although analogous to those specifically mentioned in the Convention, were unanticipated when the Convention was created.

Until last week's decision, when the USA Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the Court regarded the US constitution in much the same way. But no more. Right wing, religiously inclined judges have decided that a literal view has to be taken towards its interpretation: it was after all adopted in the 18th century when following a religion was a way of life. To illustrate the difficulty inherent in all of this, we should perhaps start with the 14th amendment to USA constitution adopted in 1868. The relevant part says:
1.    … No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The majority opinion in Roe v Wade found that the underlined wording meant that a law of privacy existed and that this was sufficient to confer a constitutional right to abortion, at least until the foetus was viable. I’m a lawyer and even I don’t really understand how we go from a requirement for ‘due process’, a concept relating to ensuring that the law is properly applied in every case, to privacy and then onwards to a constitutional right to abortion. I suspect that the reality was that in the early 1970’s, 50 years ago, the Court felt that the time had come for the country’s laws to align themselves with majority opinion created during the swinging sixties, rather than continuing with principles enshrined more than 200 years previously...(continue)

15 June 2022
In France at the moment we have the legislative elections. President Macron has already been returned to power, but the question now is will he command a majority in their legislature as well and so be able to make the changes to the law he considers are necessary? Well, not if Monsieur Mélanchon has anything to do with it.

He is someone, rather to the left of Jeremy Corbyn, whose candidates came a very close second in the first round of the current elections. I say ‘his candidates’, but in fact candidates from a coalition of left wing parties. Although he has not himself stood as a candidate, he is hoping that, with success in the second round he can force himself upon Monsieur Macron as his Prime Minister. Monsieur Macron’s response translates something along the lines of ‘over my dead body’!

Monsieur Mélanchon is, after all, in favour Frexit and of withdrawing from NATO. So then quite the revolutionary. He is also in favour of more equality. He wishes to raise pensions, freeze prices of ‘essential goods’, have wage increases in the public sector and introduce a 100% inheritance tax on that part of any estate exceeding a value 12 million euros. In other words, he is not a great believer in capitalism and the inequalities it produces...(continue)
Homogeneity and difference - a reflection

8 June 2022
In Coleshill we have several cafes. There is the ‘Cafe on the Hill’, which is actually on our very flat High Street, rather than on the hill leading up to it. It’s a bit of a strange place, with two fairly small rooms, one looking out of the main plate glass window at the front and the other, at the rear with no window. It’s popular and the people running it always seem to be coming up with new ideas for making money. During the Jubilee celebrations, they provided picnics for people taking part in the events on the Croft, the area of public land lying between the Church and the cemetery, where the band played, speeches were delivered and the audience wrapped up warm under umbrellas.

Elsewhere, actually on the hill,  there is the former Army & Navy store, now converted into a cafe and, further towards us, a cafe which does pizzas, cakes and all sorts of other comestibles which is called ‘Jaffa’s’. This seems to attract the mothers with the children (I assume their own) they have picked up from school.

But also on the High Street is ‘Costa Coffee’. This is like any other Costa Coffee you have ever seen and provides the same products that you can get in any other Costa from London or Edinburgh, Cardiff or Hull. It has no character. It must though make money, otherwise it would have been closed long ago....(continue)
Inconsistency and moral decision-making

15 May 2022
I was looking the other day at an article concerning the inconsistency, the hypocrisy involved in decisions to allow refugees from Ukraine to enter various countries, including the UK, but not allow them to enter if they came from other countries.

It seems that our psychology makes the inconsistency inherent in hypocrisy uncomfortable for us. We suffer from cognitive dissonance. We have, however, at the same time developed mechanisms to enable us to reduce or even overcome that discomfort. One such is compartmentalisation or dissociation  - an ability to put things which are in fact very similar into different boxes so that we don’t really see them as in conflict with each other. The other way of combatting the discomfort caused by hypocrisy is cognitive distortion - an ability simply to exaggerate differences.

The author had brought together a series of explanations of why, according to various politicians, we should favour Ukrainians as opposed to say Syrians or other persecuted groups around the world in deciding whom to welcome.

Many commentators tried to justify the distinction between Ukrainians and others seeking refugee status on the ground that the Ukrainians are a lot more ‘like us’. Rather disturbingly they have spoken of the Ukrainians as having blue eyes and blond hair.
Superstition in a (suppposedly) rational age

9 May 2022
The writer G.K. Chesterton is quoted as having said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they become capable of believing in anything.” In fact, he did not say this. Rather, his hero, the detective Father Brown, in “The Oracle of the Dog”, said to another character: “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are.” A commentator on the book then paraphrased it by saying: “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything”.

Of course, Father Brown would have been referring to the Christian version of God, but I’m sure that people with other gods would think the same, although about their god or gods. So then, all a bit nonsensical: in fact like most aphorisms - it sounds good, but is devoid of real meaning.

It is though possible to come not to believe in god by at least three routes. There are those who will reject god as a result of some tragedy. Others, having thought about it in some depth may decide that it simply makes no sense. And there are some who were brought up in circumstances where god didn’t really feature in day to day life and so was an irrelevance. In that instance, there being little need for critical thought on the topic, they may I suppose be more open to other beliefs i.e those which, to a good Catholic, would be ‘anything’.

In times past many people looked at prayer to their god as a way of trying to protect themselves or their family members from some danger. Their prayers therefore mattered to them very much. However, with the decline of organised religion it seems that many people now experience an increasing feeling of powerlessness in terms of making meaningful change in their lives...(continue)

2 May 2022

The Regressive Society - communitarianism and the attack on the individual

by Thierry Aimar

I should have realised from the outset, as the author is an economist and a believer in a particularly liberal school of economic thought (that of the Austrian School), that the book I’d bought in France, in a little book-shop where we’d stopped for a coffee, might be a bit light on evidence and heavy on assertion. It wasn’t though until I got to the end of the book and looked up the author’s details that I realised all this.

My explanation to myself for feeling perplexed as I was reading it was that, as I was not reading it in my native language, I must have missed something important in his argument. I hadn’t. I even thought that, perhaps in the last few pages, he was about to reveal a clinching set of facts. He wasn’t. His main economic argument was unsupported. So then what are we talking about and why have I bothered to write about it – apart obviously from feeling a bit smug that I did in fact read such a book in French?

Well, I do agree with much of what he says about the changes to the human condition brought about by technology, although his prose style is actually more of a dad-rant about the younger generation. This is an extract which gives a good impression of his message:...(continue)
False perceptions and their political consequences

26 April 2022
It is clear from the Presidential elections here in France that electors are not necessarily the most rational of people.

From what I’ve heard in interviews with the man/woman in the street, the vote for Marine Le Pen was to a considerable extent a vote against Macron by those who feel disadvantaged. They see him as the president of the rich. Evidence? Well he was a top student of the top college churning out énarques, went to work for Rothschild's afterwards and, as President, had the temerity to abolish wealth tax, reduce the tax burden on high earners and say that work, and not benefits, was the way forward for the ‘working man’. Ouch.

So then, he was not seen as a president for the people by very many, leaving Le Pen to promise all the sorts of impossible things the disaffected voters wanted to hear.

But it seems that misperceptions can also arise because the left wants to make the world a better place. In this case they arise not by inciting prejudice as Marine Le Pen promised with her policy of making foreign residents second class citizens, as Trump did with his wall or as Home Secretary, Pretti Stuppid, is doing with her decision to send ‘illegal’ immigrants to Rwanda.

Instead, to rid the world of prejudice against minority groups, it seems that the left is promoting their visibility in the media vastly beyond what their numbers would justify...(continue)

War crimes and genocide

10 April 2022
Russia is now suspended from the Human Rights Council. Of the 175 members of the United Nations, at any one time 47 members of them are appointed to the Council. They represent various areas of the world. Ironically, the two countries until last week representing Asia and the Pacific States were Russia and Ukraine. By a two thirds majority the General Assembly can suspend the rights and privileges of any Council member that it decides has persistently committed gross and systematic violations of human rights during its term of membership.

And so the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Council on Thursday. There were 93 votes in favour, 24 votes against and 58 abstentions.   Amongst those voting against were, of course, Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Vietnam. Those abstaining included India, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq,  Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Of course this means very little in practical terms. It seems unlikely that Russia will feel so shamed by its suspension that it will withdraw from Ukraine, offering reparations for the destruction they have brought about. On the other hand this is only the second time that such a resolution has been passed, the other country sanctioned in this way being Libya, when Colonel Gaddafi was in charge. And look what happened to him. We can but hope that a precedent has been set!...(continue)
Hypocrisy and life

31 March 2022

The ancient Greek word ‘hupokritēs’ is the origin of our word ‘hypocrisy’. It meant to feign or play a part. But apparently the actual words mean ‘speaking from underneath’. Greek actors wore masks to represent the part they were playing and so what they said came from ‘underneath’ their mask. And so, I suppose, Covid has made hypocrites of us all.

But of course words evolve and what was a simple description of how acting was done in ancient times has now taken on a pejorative meaning. To be labelled as a hypocrite is not a good thing. It means that you are pretending to be someone you’re not in order to gain advantage in some way.

Perhaps though we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Life requires a certain degree of hypocrisy just for us to get by. I, for instance, although wearing the mask of lawyerly wisdom and confidence, am really only the diffident kid I always used to be. But to get on in life, you sometimes have to adopt a character which is not yours naturally. And, by adopting it, after a while it starts to fit a little bit and then a little bit more. I suppose that, for many, their innate character is suited to the life they wish to lead, but for the rest of us, there is always something of a tension between how we think of ourselves and what we portray to the outside world, whether from behind a mask or not.

Hypocrisy can even be well-intentioned towards the person deceived...(continue)
Cancellation – the upgrade

13 March 2022
In the playground at school in the distant past, there was the ultimate sanction: if you’d got up too many people’s noses, you were sent to that far-off land called Coventry. No-one would speak to you or play with you. You were ostracised. Quite where the expression came from is now impossible to say, but there is no lack of suggestions as to its origin. They tend to relate to the time of the Civil War. Coventry was loyal to the Parliamentarians. One protestant minister who lived in Kidderminster, a town very supportive of Catholicism, and so to the Royalist cause, found himself having to leave. In his journal: “Driven from Kidderminster”, the English theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) found refuge at Coventry for two years from the end of 1642. He explained in Reliquiae Baxterianae (published in 1696) that he was not the only one to do so:
Thus when I was at Coventry the religious part of my neighbours at Kidderminster that would fain have lived quietly at home, were forced (the chiefest of them) to be gone. And to Coventry they came; and some of them that had any estates of their own, lived there on their own charge; and the rest were fain to take up arms and be garrison soldiers, to get them bread.
Today’s more modern version of being sent to Coventry - and not just used in the playground - is cancellation - a refusal to engage in any sort of discussion with people of the decried opinion. On the internet, in a less than intellectual atmosphere, there can be a storm of protest against someone who does not conform with current thinking. They are forced off social media...(continue)
Democracy today

26 February 2022
It’s depressing that, as we are trying to find ways to shore up the democratic government in Ukraine, the latest Democracy Index, published on 10 February by the Economist Intelligence Unit, continues to show a gradual decrease in the extent of democracy in the world. At 5.28 for 2021 (5.37 in 2020) it is the lowest since the index was first produced in 2006. The index is based on 60 indicators in 5 categories with a possible score in each of 0 to 10. The five categories are:

  • electoral process and pluralism,
  • the functioning of government,
  • political participation,
  • democratic political culture and
  • civil liberties.

The average of all of these indicators becomes a country’s score. The countries are then divided into:

    1. Full Democracies with an overall score greater than 8;
    2. Flawed Democracies with a score between 6 and 8;
    3. Hybrid, 4 to 6; and
    4. Authoritarian with less than 4.

The annual survey finds that more than a third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule, while only 6.4% enjoy a full democracy...(continue)
Freedom of Speech

9 February 2022
This week, I saw a post on my MP’s Facebook page from WOKE 88 FM - Ice Wall Radio, a public group with just over 5000 members. On its own page under the heading ‘About’, we read:
“Exposing the flawed theories of government controlled science and it's promotion of the Earth as a spinning globe that goes against the word of God.”
And, sure enough, there are links and numerous videos of people explaining why we ‘dome-heads’ have got it wrong and why there is no evidence at all to support the idea that the earth is spherical. I’m still not sure what they think they’re seeing when they look up into the night sky, or why they can’t cope with apostrophes.

I should probably have investigated further, but didn’t have my tin foil hat with me. I gather, however, that once a post from someone-else is on your Facebook page, you can’t actually remove it, so I shan’t attribute the mentality of that particular branch of the Flat Earth Society to our MP – although it is very tempting to do so granted his continued support for Boris. But at least their views are unlikely to cause any harm to anyone-else, unlike the anti-vax people and many others who appear online.

The comedian Jimmy Carr is under the spotlight because of a comment he made about the holocaust in his stand-up show which is now available on Netflix...(continue)
Original thinking

31 January 2022

Original thinking is much admired. The Fields medal is awarded to those who have moved mathematics forward in ways which the rest of us will never understand. We have Nobel prizes for things as diverse as physics and peace, economics and literature. There are many other awards available, immortalising the names of their philanthropic benefactors, which reward those who have done things differently, who have excelled in their field. Those awarding the prizes are looking for that spark of genius which enables us as humans to move in a different direction.

Now, obviously, I’m not going to criticise the idea of new directions. They are needed from time to time. Neither will I criticise the progress of science, even though it is often two-edged. The invention of dynamite was not something by which Alfred Nobel wished to be remembered. But I would like to propose that unoriginal thinking also has and should have a major place in our lives and that the magic supposedly underlying original thinking is a little exaggerated.

Comparisons are actually very useful to us and, fortunately, most events in our lives are not entirely new....(continue)

12 January 2022
Edward Colston was an English merchant, philanthropist and Tory Member of Parliament who was involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Born in 1636, Colston followed his father in the family business becoming a sea merchant. By 1672, he had his own business in London trading in cloth, wine, sugar and slaves. A significant proportion of Colston's wealth came directly or indirectly from the slave trade. In 1680, he became an official of the Royal African Company, which at that time held the monopoly in Britain on slave trading. On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to charities and his legacy can still be seen in the names of Bristol's streets, memorials and schools and other buildings, including the main concert hall, the Colston Hall. This was all long before slavery was abolished.

But our colonial and slave-trading past is high on the agenda and so Colston’s statue, erected 125 years ago, had become a target. A lot of publicity was generated when it was pulled down using ropes and rolled ignominiously to the harbour, there to be thrown into the waters. It has since been recovered and is now in Bristol Museum, one of the few public buildings not bearing the Colston name.

But the controversy surrounding this particular episode in the life of Bristol has continued. The “Colston 4”, those who pulled the statue down, were charged with criminal damage and tried, not at the magistrates’ court, but (at their request) at the Crown Court which meant that it was a trial by jury. And the jury found them not guilty...(continue)
A stroll through the real and the imaginary

1 January 2022
It seems that we are at a turning point. Facebook or, as now renamed, ‘meta’, is insisting in its hype that the ‘metaverse’, its version of virtual reality,  is as real as, well, real reality.

In light of this, the philosopher David Chalmers, he who gave us the rather exaggerated concept of the ‘hard problem’ of self-consciousness, is to give subscribers to the New Scientist the benefit of his wisdom in a talk in February. He too will say that Metaverse-style virtual worlds are genuine and meaningful realities. Computer generation does not necessarily mean that they are fake or fictional. We can live a meaningful life through our VR headsets.

He asserts that virtual reality will no doubt bring wonderful things and awful things and, in so doing, it will offer the full range of the human condition. Well, he’s right in his last statement, bearing in mind what’s already available by way of games software.

I’m not though sure that he is right as to the reality of virtual reality. Most of us would accept as a working definition that what we can touch and feel and see and taste and smell is real to us. So then, in that sense, a well-executed VR would indeed be indistinguishable from our actual reality.

But is that what we really mean by the word ‘real’? If I am aware that someone has programmed a computer to induce sensations in me, do I think of those sensations as representing real objects or experiences? If I can literally switch off reality, I’m not sure that it’s very real! For me, reality, even in its ever changing forms, ought to have an inherent permanence and not be capable of being switched on and off on a whim...(continue)
A Christmas reflection or Cognitive Dissonance

15 December 2021

I have been struck over the Christmas period by the beautiful descriptions of God contained in the carols and oratorios sung.  He (for ‘he’ it is) is great, loving, all-knowing and able to do for us everything we need. Of course, his care for us hardly seems to tie in with the reality of our lives, but we nonetheless continue with our idolisation of God.

Indeed, hymns of praise were sung in one of the Baptist churches in Kentucky on Sunday, this following the absolute devastation and many deaths caused by the biggest hurricane ever recorded in that area. How they managed to reconcile his omnipotence and love with the random path of the hurricane, and so the random choice of victims, I cannot begin to imagine. They must surely feel the dissonance entailed.

Believers have though somehow defined God in such a way that he is a paradigm of all that they could ever want - the perfect benign dictator - and having so defined him, it  seems unfeeling to try to remove him from his position: it would destroy their dreams...(continue)
Privacy and Meghan Sparkle

7 November 2021
Until the judgement last week by the Court of Appeal, I had rather lost track of the case brought by Meghan against Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Daily Mail. It all related to a letter which she had written to her father asking him, in effect, to stop cashing in on her new-found fame and fortune. With the father’s encouragement, the letter was duly published, almost in full, by the Daily Mail - presumably accompanied by a payment to the impecunious father. The normal royal response of doing nothing was abandoned by the rather more litigation-minded American Duchess. She sued under two headings.
Firstly, copyright infringement. She said that, as she had written it, she was the copyright owner and she had not given permission for it to be reproduced. The Daily Mail said in response that the legislation permits them to reproduce extracts for the purpose of reporting current events. That though is subject to a requirement of ‘fair dealing’ – for example, is the amount of the work reproduced reasonable and appropriate? Usually only a part may be used. The court found that publishing almost all of the 5 page letter as a series of splashes over a 3 day period was certainly not fair dealing.
Secondly, and more controversially, she claimed a right to expect that her letter would be treated as a private matter. It was sent to her father privately and it was he who revealed its contents. In the UK we are in an odd position. Unlike most of Europe and Canada and, I think some states in America, we didn’t have a law entitling people to privacy unless there was a contract in place which imposed confidentiality – usually only the case in connection with business arrangements. We did though start to accept the concept of privacy when the European Court of Human Rights extended the scope of the “right to privacy” under Article 8 of the Convention...(continue)

30 November 2021

After more than three weeks of tough legal wrangling, delegates on 28 July 1951 adopted the ‘Convention relating to the Status of Refugees’, the ‘Geneva Convention’. It allowed people displaced during the second world war and its aftermath to apply for asylum in the countries where they had ended up. Although World War II had long since ended, very many refugees still wandered aimlessly across the European continent or squatted in makeshift camps. This was a more far-reaching convention that those previously adopted in response to the 1st world war and to the purges carried out by the USSR. But in its original form it only applied to people who had been displaced in the period up to 1951, and the right to make a claim for asylum was to last only for 3 years after the convention came into force.

The size of the problem was then estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Things have unfortunately continued to develop. In 1951, the world’s population stood at 2.5 billion. It is now almost 8 billion. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2018 more than 70 million people worldwide were living in countries other than their own, having been forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. So then the problem has vastly increased and the reality is that the principles behind the Geneva Convention have been overwhelmed. What was initially a reluctantly agreed, but limited, requirement to accept people from other countries into your society is now on a wholly different scale....(continue)
Suitability for the job

21 November 2021
This is a somewhat delicate subject for a man to deal with, so I shall tread carefully. But it has to be reported that a complaint has been made to an employment tribunal in France of discrimination and so breach of employment law. It has been made against the organisers of the ‘Miss France’ beauty pageant. The complaint is that they have selected contestants based on their appearance and marital status. Who knew?

According to reports in the French press, three Miss France contestants who failed to make the grade have joined a leading feminist group in starting this action.  Osez-le-Féminisme (Dare to be Feminist) said it had filed a complaint with an employment tribunal on behalf of the former contestants. They said that they had done this because they had not been able to succeed in getting Miss France banned in any other way - presumably because there was no general public support for their argument.

The plaintiffs allege that the organisers are breaching French employment law by forcing aspiring beauty queens to be more than 1.70 metres tall, single, and "representative of beauty”...(continue)
The Owen Paterson affair

14 November 2021

Following the Commons vote on 3 November and their screeching U turn the following day, I sent an email to my MP, Craig Tracey. The Tories had been whipped to vote in favour of a motion that had the effect of postponing consideration of the Report of the Committee on Standards regarding the (now) former MP Owen Paterson, he of the consultancy fees paid to him by Randox and Lynns Country Foods, or should that be the ‘egregious breaches of the rules against paid lobbying’?

It also meant the setting up of a committee parallel to the Standards Committee, one with a Tory majority, designed to create a new system for investigation of MPs’ conduct, including that of Owen Paterson. So then a blatant attempt to move the goalposts in order to protect one of their mates. All opposition parties refused to cooperate with this underhand attempt to game the system:

Dear Mr Tracey

Re: The Standards Committee vote last night

And so Boris, the Conservatives’ answer to the Grand Old Duke of York, led you up the hill and is now running back down as fast as his legs will carry him, having seen the reaction on the front page of the Daily Mail, not to mention the leaders in the Guardian and the Times.

You really should be aware of the danger of being party fodder. You get abandoned by your own leader when it suits him.

Paul Buckingham

I received a reply, no doubt created by Conservative Central Office, also dated 4 November, but not received until 13 November. This is the relevant part:

"… Yesterday's vote was not based on any one case heard by the Standards Commissioner, but in relation to a culmination of failings in the system that have been reported over a period of time. In any matter such as this, it is important that a fair hearing is given so that there can be confidence that the decision reached and the punishment handed out are correct.

As I am sure you are aware, the MP that has been linked to this motion, Owen Patterson, has now resigned as an MP after 24 years in the role...(continue)
Collective Narcissism

9 November 2021
We think of narcissism as a solitary activity. Narcissus didn’t apparently invite anyone-else to gaze with him at his own reflection. But there are different types of narcissism. They do not all revolve around admiration of our own physical beauty. Fortunately, for those of us not obviously endowed with beauty of form, there are alternative ways of admiring ourselves. And others can get involved too.

In 2005, the psychologist Agnieszka Golec de Zavala was trying to understand what leads people to commit acts of terrorist violence. She began to notice amongst extremist groups what other psychologists, Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm, had previously described as “group narcissism”: “a belief that the (exaggerated) greatness of one’s group is not sufficiently recognized by others.”. This means that the thirst for recognition is never satisfied. She helped to develop the Collective Narcissism Scale to measure the severity of group-narcissistic beliefs, including statements such as “My group deserves special treatment” and “I insist upon my group getting the respect that is due to it” with which respondents rate their agreement.

At first, she thought it was just a fringe phenomenon, but has since realized that it’s widespread. It can happen in any kind of group, whether religious, political, gender-based, racial, ethnic or in sports teams or clubs of any sort...(continue)

2 November 2021
Although in favour of long-term planning for the benefit of my own health and welfare, it has its dangers when associated with an assumed, overarching purpose in all human life. Of course I could simply adopt a purpose of my own choosing if I felt that there was something sufficiently attractive about it for me, but I could not then justify imposing it on every other member of my species.

It seems, however, that there is now a philosophical movement that seeks to do just that. It supports the idea of the long-term view and, along with it, the importance of human life in the universe. This long-termism is not though simply ‘caring about the long term’ or ‘valuing the well-being of future generations’. It goes well beyond this. 
A small group of theorists, mostly based in Oxford, has been working out the details of a new moral world view. It is one which emphasises our importance to the universe over an unimaginably long period of time - measured in billions of years. This idea of the importance of the long-term view and, along with it, the importance of human life in the universe, they call ‘long-termism’.

At its core is an analogy between individual persons and humanity as a whole. The premature death of an Einstein would be a personal tragedy. It would however be a much greater tragedy looked at on a global scale - his death would rob the world of an intellectual superstar destined to make extraordinary contributions to human knowledge.

But long-termists would apply these claims to humanity itself, as if humanity were an individual with its very own ‘potential’ to fulfil over the course of ‘its lifetime’. So then, a catastrophe that reduces the human population to zero would be tragic not only because of the individual suffering it would inflict. They would argue that the real tragedy would be astronomically worse: our extinction would permanently destroy what could be a human future lasting billions of years. It would irreversibly destroy the ‘vast and glorious’ long-term potential of humanity, an opportunity to spread to the rest of the Universe the intelligent life which has developed here on Earth
Democracy under attack?

12 October 2021
Although in favour of democracy in general terms, clearly it has its problems. The main problem is that it depends upon the information available to voters and their ability to understand and process it. They, after all, ultimately determine which government policies are adopted, whether actively or through lack of interest in the entire process. Governments tend not to adopt unpopular policies for reasons of self-preservation. That also means that governments tend to look to the short term – what will get them elected the next time the people go to the polls – rather than what would actually be good for the country in the longer term. In that sense, they are behaving like most people do in their daily lives. They tend to look to the short and not the long term. Keynes famously said: ‘in the long run, we are all dead’...(continue)
Extreme academe
Lots of radio stations play music. Most of it is pop music, but there are quite a few which play classical music and so are a bit more to my taste. Some specialise in a particular composer, such as 'Vivaldi FM' or 'Bach FM' which do what they say on the tin. Most though play a mixture of classical music, albeit mainly those with the more memorable tunes.

There is a Swiss station which plays classical music with, between tracks, just a simple statement of what is being played and who the artists are. Others, like Classic FM, try to engage with the listener and so use biographical detail about the composer or artists in order to make it more interesting. Musicology provides that biographical detail, and stations such as Radio 3 and France Musique take it even further with the often very detailed information given to the listeners and the in-depth discussion of performances and compositions.

For all this information, obviously we need musicologists, although perhaps not to the extent that musicologists would want us to believe. Most of us would actually be quite happy with a relatively superficial knowledge of the subject. But then that’s true of many aspects of academic life.

One of our leading musicologists is Professor J. P. E. Harper-Scott of Royal Holloway, London University. He has though now resigned his post. This is because he no longer sees academic freedom as normal in universities...(continue)
Living longer

13 September 2021
It’s been said that young people dream of being rich, and rich people dream of being young. It is perhaps not surprising then that the latest news from Jeff Bezos is that he is putting squillions of dollars into a company trying to develop editing of the human genome.  He expects that it will enable us to achieve immortality. It is not though to provide immortality just for embryos yet to be formed. It is anticipated that a living person’s entire body will be able to be reprogrammed. I suppose that it’s marginally less obvious as an example of middle-aged angst than launching a phallic symbol into space.

The money is going to Altos Labs, a young start-up trying to reverse ageing by reprogramming human cells. The technology has been shown to rejuvenate cells in a lab, and it is thought that it might eventually help revitalize entire bodies. The Company was formed after a series of short-term grants had been awarded to longevity researchers by Yuri Milner, another middle-aged billionaire. When it became evident that a dedicated, well-funded start-up could pursue research more efficiently, Altos was born, in the spring of 2021. And the company hasn't stopped growing since, poaching a who's who of the world's top longevity scientists...(continue)

15 August 2021
Now, I’m sure that there are many sentient beings on this planet, although I do sometimes wonder about the human kind, particularly football supporters. Our beloved leader’s new wife, though, has decided that, as a matter of priority, in the middle of all the other problems we are trying to resolve, we should have an Act of Parliament which recognises that all vertebrates are sentient. The Animal Rights (Sentience) Bill when passed will do just that.

She’s apparently not though concerned with invertebrates. Perhaps they’re not cuddly enough. Neither octopuses nor lobsters would make good pets as far as I’m concerned, but then most people don’t find rats or mice particularly attractive as companions either. So it’s all a little bit odd as an approach to what I assume is an attempt to increase our concern for the welfare of other species. The background to it appears to be our old friend Brexit...(continue)
Falsification - right or wrong?

2 August 2021
The process of science, according to Professor Sir Karl Popper, was the creation of a hypothesis followed by an attempt to falsify it: you needed to set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If the hypothesis was disproved, you had to reject it.  Simple.

Popper came to this conclusion at a time when the general view was that the scientific method was all about verification. Whilst verification intuitively sounds like the best way to go, it really isn’t. As Popper saw with Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis, Marxism and astrology, a wish to provide verification generally meant that people looked only for evidence to support their view of things, rather than looking for inconsistencies.

Now you might think that verification and falsification are two sides of the same coin, but they’re not. In fact verification, in philosophical terms, was an example of trying to impose standard philosophical methods on science without really understanding the role of science. Verification is fine if you have a logical puzzle: you can check for errors in logical reasoning because it follows pre-defined rules. If there are no flaws, then the proof is accepted. It is verified.

Unfortunately, the real world, the world about which science is trying to inform us, doesn’t work like that. It’s very different because we don’t start off knowing what the rules are.
We start off from a set of observations of what is going on and then try to infer from our observations the underlying rules which govern what is happening. If logic alone had been sufficient to give us the structure of the atom and otherwise sort out all the problems of science, then the ancient Greeks would have had mobile phones and been talking about the Big Bang, rather than Zeus and his bolts of lightning...(continue)
Freedom of Speech - the Bill

23 July 2021

Cancel culture seems, for some time now, to have been affecting who is invited to speak at Universities or who will be employed by them. Many high profile people have been disinvited from speaking to student groups at our institutes of higher education. They appear to come not only from the right wing, but to include many others, particularly those who have not accepted the purist 'trans' line that sex is a social construct.

The government has therefore introduced a Bill (the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill) which would impose on Universities and other institutes of higher education (and their respective student unions) an obligation to support freedom of speech. This would include making sure that accommodation for meetings on the campus is not denied simply by reason of the opinions to be expressed.

As it happens, flipping between channels, I briefly saw the Educashun Secretary, the Right Honourable Gavin Williamson, at the dispatch box during its second reading. At the time though, I think I had something more pressing to do, like cutting my finger nails. Obviously I should have paid full attention to the no doubt penetrating and subtle analysis of a particularly difficult aspect of our constitution by a former fireplace salesman and also the wisdom of the other similarly well-informed speakers on all sides in the debate.

The difficulty with imposing a right is that it not only has to be defined positively, but also provided with limits. All very difficult without subscribing to the passing fads of society....(continue)
Patriotism and nationalism

12 July 2021
For the last few weeks, patriotism has been on show. During Wimbledon we had an unusually good performance by the Brits. Although we lost Andy Murray early on due to his metal hips, Dan Evans, a player from Solihull, did very well in the opening rounds. And then there was 18 year old Emma Raducanu, born in Toronto of a Chinese mother and a Romanian father, but living here since 2004.  Granted her success in getting through to the fourth round as a wild card entry, although previously unknown, she was instantly adopted by almost all the country as a true Brit. Of course when she had to withdraw in the next round, Piers Morgan, that bastion of Britishness, said that she should “man up!” It’s nice to have such a well thought-out suggestion from an expert in the field.

And then there was the football. There have been so many flags on display and so much excitement, but also dread at the thought of losing, particularly to Germany by way of penalties: the curse of the penalty shoot-out. And of course all was well, with England actually beating Germany without the need for a penalties. Cue great celebrations and talk of Gareth Southgate becoming Sir Gareth if they won the final against Italy. But, of course, they didn’t. Which means that football is not “coming home” any time soon (whatever that means), and that Gareth will remain Gareth. The Italian ambassador before the match had indeed said that perhaps football, as his country’s national sport, had already found itself a new home! But it’s all a bit of a shame, because here we encounter the unforgiving nature of many sports, and particularly football. You have to win. From a field of 24 teams, even getting what would be the silver medal, if we were talking about the Olympics, is just not enough. Of course, the Scots were delighted and, if I am typical of the Welsh, then they simply don’t care. But England went into mourning....(continue)
Mind the Gap

29 June 2021
The phrase "Mind the gap" was coined in 1968. It was an automated announcement to warn tube passengers of the danger awaiting them. As London Underground had chosen to use solid state equipment and as data storage capacity was expensive, the phrase had to be short. The danger? Because some platforms on the London Underground are curved and the rolling stock that uses them are straight, there is an unsafe gap when a train stops at a curved platform. Sound engineer Peter Lodge recorded an actor reading "Mind the gap" and "Stand clear of the doors please", but the actor insisted on royalties. Lodge, however, had already read the phrases to line up the recording equipment for level and so those were used instead. 'Mind the gap' has now though become a part of the tourist scene in London. Tourists, especially Americans, regard it as being quintessentially British.

Unfortunately, the idea of a gap is also becoming very British in another sense – it is the gap between how we say that we should act and what we actually do. Hypocrisy has always been with us. People have had affairs, claimed to be acting in the interest of others when lining their own pockets and done many other things which they would have condemned in others. That doesn’t mean, though that we should simply ignore it when it happens now.

21 June 2021
It came as something of a shock to read that the latest person whom we should be cancelling is the artist formerly known as Georg Friederich Händel. When you next listen to the call to devotion of Messiah, or the melodies of Water Music, you may feel somewhat conflicted knowing that their composer was involved in the slave trade. It was not just that he was being paid for his work by people involved in the slave trade. He was an actual and successful investor.

Historians have recently discovered that Handel invested in the Royal African Company, one of Britain’s two official slave trading enterprises. The National Archives at Kew hold a set of the company’s “stock transfers” for 1720, signed by the composer: these are purchase and sale orders for actual human beings, not stock in the sense of stocks and shares. The Royal African Company shipped more Africans into bondage than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. At the time he was writing Water Music, he was making money from slavery....(continue)
The paradox of environmentalism – do future generations actually have the right to inherit a sustainable world?

14 June 2021

We live in apocalyptic times. We are having meetings and signing treaties to try to encourage world leaders to take global warming seriously. If we don’t, then greenhouse gas emissions will continue to climb, putting the Earth on track for a catastrophic 3ºC rise above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. At the same time, we are hacking down trees, paving over green areas and polluting more and more of the natural systems upon which we depend. It is not surprising that species extinction rates have leaped to levels not seen for millions of years, with some scientists concluding that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction is now underway.

Meanwhile, the human population is expected to swell to 9.7 billion by 2050. It is not clear that a world of 3ºC heating and irreversible species loss could support anything like that number. Even if humanity is not a casualty of the mass extinction, we seem certain to face a period of miserable retrenchment if we do not change course radically in the next few years. As a result, we have numerous protest groups who are trying to impress on us how serious it is. They want us, as electors, to use our votes to have governments which will do what is necessary to avoid the inaction which would lead to such a disaster.

However, it proves surprisingly difficult to explain what exactly would be wrong with bequeathing a burning, environmentally exhausted world to future generations. The roots of the problem were identified more than 30 years ago by the British philosopher Derek Parfit in his book ‘Reasons and Persons’. He pointed out that, identity, the particular person you are, is a precarious thing. Small differences in circumstances can make very big differences to who exists. Even minor changes in your parents’ behaviour, physiology or environment before your conception would probably have resulted in someone else’s birth rather than your own – someone who, alongside billions of others will, as a result, never exist...(continue)
Stoicism v Epicureanism

9 June 2021
The fight between Stoicism and Epicureanism may seem rather old fashioned or even quaint but, unexpectedly, it has become quite relevant again. For the last 18 months we have, without realising it, lived in a way which can be seen as being in accordance with the tenets of Stoicism rather than any other philosophy. Perhaps not altogether voluntarily, we have reduced our enjoyment of the pleasures of the world around us.

We have been very limited in our activities and have only left our homes to go out for walks in a circumscribed area. Restaurants have been out of the question, as have theatres, concerts and night-clubs. Even meeting friends became possible only in two dimensions. Admittedly we did not spend nights on mountains exposing ourselves to night-time temperatures in order to make ourselves more hardy or learn how to handle a sword, but in a lot of respects, our way of life became a Stoic’s dream.

Indeed, we have mostly borne our changed condition quite stoically, and have even shown a stoical desire not to go back to our old way of living too soon in case we bring the plague back to our doors. Which means that our present way of living has that faint allure of self-sacrifice and so self-righteousness. However I hope that we can now put all of that behind us and respond to the allure of Epicureanism instead...(continue)
Big companies and their moral influence

2 June 2021
Small businesses are traditionally started by a person or a few people in partnership. Very often there is a family connection between those involved. As businesses get bigger, however, there is a need for people with skills that family members don’t have and often for outside money to enable expansion to take place. To raise the money, you need to be able either to borrow or to have a structure such that people can actually invest in the business. The model which has emerged is that of ‘joint-stock companies’. There are records of them being formed in Europe as early as the 13th century.

However, beginning in the 16th century, they multiplied significantly when adventurous investors began speculating about fortunes to be made in the New World. Indeed, European exploration of the Americas was largely financed by joint-stock companies. Although governments were eager for new territory they were reluctant to take on the enormous costs and risks associated with these ventures...(continue)

24 May 2021
We were trying to declutter the house. In the course of this, I came across a notebook containing notes written by my mother’s father. It contains numerous pages of information about how the human body works and what to do in the case of injury, hanging, strangulation or poisoning. This was all from his days as a trainer of St John’s Ambulance volunteers. However, starting at the back of the notebook he wrote down, on the other sides of the pages, his thoughts about his Christian faith, his views on one or two minor religious controversies and quotes from religious magazines which he had found helpful or inspiring. Altogether, there are about 80 pages of his literate and well expressed thoughts, in pencil and in pen. They seem to cover the period from about 1920 to 1930. As the eldest child in a large, single-parent family, he used to have to go fishing for eels in the local river (the Taff) in order that they had something to eat. As a consequence, as a child, he received very little formal education and so subsequently was largely self-taught. But clearly reading and writing were very important for him and, according to my mother, reading and writing were very much encouraged in the family.

As I have mentioned before, my mother seemed to have inherited her father’s penchant for writing and, with his encouragement and that of her school teachers, wrote essays and actually won prizes for them. Although I learned to read early on, as a child I received little encouragement to write actual essays and never met my grandfather. So then perhaps my own late-flowering efforts at expressing my thoughts have a genetic basis...(continue)
Decision making and 'Noise'

18 May 2021

I’m sure that during my professional life my decisions always were always of the highest quality and totally consistent. At least, that’s what I’d like to think! The reality was, I imagine, somewhat removed from the ideal. I don’t think that my judgements on the law were far out, but being a lawyer is also about running a business. And it is there that problems can arise far more easily.

The more people who are involved in the business, the more there is room for difference over how it should be run and for variation in the performance of those employed. Lawyers do vary in their ability – not so much in giving the right answer, but in actually getting the job done or being better at dealing with clients than others. When it came to the partners who were ultimately responsible for the business, we sometimes had significant differences. Should we expand and if so where? Should we instead close branch offices and concentrate on our main office? Which types of legal work should we try to develop? When we had a vacancy, whom should we hire? And of course none of these decisions had easy answers.

The latest book by Daniel Kahneman with fellow psychologists Cass Sunstein and Olivier Sibony, is called ‘Noise’.  Confession first: I have not read it. But I have heard two half hour interviews with Kahneman and read some of the longer reviews, so I have a reasonable grasp of what they’re saying. Noise in this context is unwanted variability in making decisions. Their research shows that the most banal things cloud even the best expert’s judgment...(continue)
Piety – religious and secular

11 May 2021
It is not by chance that the three different parties in power in England, Scotland and Wales were all winners in the elections last week. They have obviously benefited from a vaccine bounce. The early response to the pandemic cost a lot of lives, but that has been forgotten in the euphoria generated by our emergence from our period of isolation. The scientists who provided us with the guidance and the vaccines to enable us finally to look forward to a more normal life have, of course, been praised. It seems though to be the political leaders, those leading the press conferences telling us what was going on, who have been the big winners. They have been able to look as though they were statesmanlike, even when giving us bad tidings. And of course, now they are able to give us good tidings and so are basking in what is really only reflected glory. (continue)

A shot across the bows of the French government by retired generals

At the initiative of Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, a retired general in the gendarmerie, twenty generals, a hundred senior officers and more than a thousand other military personnel have signed an appeal for “a return to honour and duty within the political class.”. One of the generals was also a leader of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’.

(My translation of their letter published on 21 April 2021)

Mr President,
Ladies and gentlemen of the government,
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Parliament,

This is a serious time, France is in peril, several mortal dangers threaten her. We who, even after retirement, remain soldiers of France, cannot, in the present circumstances, remain indifferent to the fate of our beautiful country.

Our tricolour flags are not just a piece of cloth, they symbolise the tradition, through the ages, of those who, whatever their skin colour or creed, have served France and given their lives for her. On these flags we find in gold letters the words "Honneur et Patrie". Now, our honour today lies in denouncing the disintegration that is affecting our country...(continue)
Secular fundamentalism

26 April 2021

A few years ago, a woman in the US, Rachel Dolezal, who had been a senior member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, resigned when her claim to be a person of colour turned out to be a lie. Richard Dawkins tweeted earlier this month:
“In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”
I imagine that Dawkins finds incoherence in pressure groups’ statements to be annoying. I sympathise. The American Humanist Association, however, said his statements on transgender rights “demean marginalised groups” and so withdrew the ‘Humanist of the Year’ award they had given to him in 1996.  The AHA said that he was no longer “an exemplar of humanist values” because his tweets appeared to question whether people could choose their gender...(continue)
Fake or Fortune and the 'Non-Fungible Token'

20 April 2021

fungible : of goods or commodities, freely exchangeable for or replaceable by another of like nature or kind.

This essay is written by me. It is an example of my writing style and uses my normal vocabulary in a way common to all my essays. I would hope that you will find that, thanks to spell-check, it contains no spelleing mitsakes and that because of my grammar school education it uses apostrophe’s correctly.

this essay is unique, despite the features it has in common with my other essays. I have not written another using the same words in the same order. How though can you be sure that it is mine? We could look at my somewhat idiosyncratic style, but that is easily imitated.

Instead, we could perhaps look at provenance. This is essentially a matter of probability. As no money is involved, it is unlikely (the Bayesian prior probability) that anyone-else would want to pretend to be the writer of my essays. Secondly, it has appeared on my own web-site: it is even more unlikely that someone-else would have bothered to hack my domain in order to carry off the deception. So, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that it’s a genuine Paul Buckingham. What a relief! ...(continue)

13 April 2021

Last Autumn, in his weekly address from a window above St Peter’s Square, the Pope spoke about gossip. “The devil is the great gossip," he said. “He is always saying bad things about others because he is the liar who tries to split the church.” The Pope added: “Please brothers and sisters, let's try to not gossip. Gossip is a plague worse than Covid. Worse.”. Far be it from me to remind the Pope of his own church’s history, but I seem to recall that the major splits in the Catholic Church – which created the orthodox churches – were not caused by gossip, but by doctrinal difference. The Anglican split, of course, came about because a priapic Henry VIII wanted a son rather than daughters. I wouldn’t want to cast doubt on the Pope’s medical credentials either, but I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with his assessment of the relative gravity of gossip and Covid. I don’t think gossip has ever seriously vied with plagues for the highest numbers of people killed - for the Covid virus so far around 3 million people world-wide. But then, for the Catholic Church, perhaps splits are actually a fate worse than death, since normally the other faction was excommunicated after a split, and thus condemned to meet the fires of hell.
In fact, I’m quite sure that gossip has been a part of our society since the beginning. I imagine that, even in the Stone Age, there was gossip about someone's laziness in the hunting groups or unwillingness to chip away at flint stones and someone else's wandering eye. If so, then it probably has an overall evolutionary benefit. I would guess that there would be a benefit for the community because the fact that there is gossip means that there is pressure on everyone to act in an acceptable way. It actually promotes morality, something of which I would have expected the Pope to approve...(continue)
Truth - a slippery concept

6 April 2021
Mahatma Gandhi said:
“Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologise for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”
I came across this quote by chance in a blog headed “In these dark days…speak your truth”. Not, on the face of it, quite the same thing, even if what Gandhi said could also be interpreted as making a belief the same as truth.

But it seems that it’s a confusion of thought which has royal approval - from the Queen of American TV, Oprah Winfrey. It was exemplified in her interview with those other minor royals, Harry and Meghan, when Meghan was encouraged to tell her truth about her hellish life as a part of the British royal family. Obviously it’s very easy to make fun of all this Californian posturing, but it shows that we’re not making much progress as a civilisation when truth is a relative concept. Traditionally, Easter is the time to reflect upon the idea of truth. During the questioning of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, Jesus claimed that he had come into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate then famously asked "What is truth?". As a Roman, governing a very fractious and divided colony, I can quite see why he would be somewhat cynical about the quality of the information he was being given, but for us to follow his example and allow such an important word to lose its meaning does seem rather unfortunate.

We no longer have the daily twitterings of Trump to remind us how far out of sight truth can sink...(continue)
The Right to Protest

31 March 2021
MPs have given a second reading to a Bill intended to increase the ability of the police to, well, police demonstrations. It includes greater powers to rein in demonstrations that cause, amongst other things, “serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity”. It is of course intended to please the right wing and so give the Home Secretary a better chance of the highest office should Boris one day cease to be our glorious leader. it is also an attempt by the Home Secretary to play to her image as a hard-liner on crime and punishment, and probably compensation for the psychological harm caused to her in her school days by being named ‘Pretti’. 

But it is worth noting that the official reasoning for the introduction of these new powers is that existing powers had not proved sufficient to control new ways of demonstrating, as exemplified by Extinction Rebellion. It pioneered forms of protest causing mass inconvenience to the public in ways the police found it difficult to handle under existing legislation...(continue)
Empathy, invention and autism

21 March 2021
Last week, there was a report about a female bonobo living in the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She had decided to take a two year old orphaned bonobo from a different social group under her wing. According to the Japanese researchers who have been watching this jungle since the ‘70s, such an action had never before been seen. It means that the adoptive mother is looking out for the infant and having to find food for it and, as far as I’m aware, bonobo offspring, whether actual or adopted, don’t support their mothers in old age. Her action is therefore, on the face of it, to her disadvantage. It looks like a display of altruism. We tend think of altruism as particular to the human species, but if you go on to the web - to the click-bate sections – you won’t actually find it difficult to see dogs befriending cats or cats befriending chickens, so I’m not sure that we do in fact have a monopoly.

When looking at ourselves as a species in contrast to others, we can easily believe that we really are different, when in fact we are on a continuum with them. However, particularly in the case of our much vaunted intelligence, the result of being further along the continuum can mean that we benefit from a step change in what that ability can do for us, as compared to others...(continue)
The Census

15 March 2021
We’re all due to provide our personal details to the Census Office on 21 March. The National Census is a ten-yearly exercise in collecting data but, every time, the data collected are slightly different. We are told that they are required by the great data controller in the sky so that the civil service will have the knowledge needed to govern us better – or something like that. The first post-Domesday Book census was carried out in 1801 by ‘enumerators’, as most people couldn’t read or write. It was also based in part on Church records of baptisms, weddings and burials for that year and the previous 100 years to give comparisons. Some say the census was to find out how many able-bodied men there were who could fight in the long-running Napoleonic wars, while others say that it was to enable the government to know if there would be enough food to eat. Whatever the reason, the Census found that Great Britain then had a population of 9 million.

The 1841 census,  though, was the first census recognisably similar to the ones we now fill in. For the first time it recorded people's names, alongside their age, sex, occupation and birthplace. Thirty years later, another column in the census asked whether anyone in the household was blind, deaf and dumb, imbecile or idiot, or a lunatic. Subtle. From 1951 until 1991, households were asked if they had an outside toilet...(continue)

8 March 2021

In the New York Times last week there was an article on consent. The idea of consent, certainly in sexual relationships, has taken on a much greater prominence in recent years. Many of the cases, of course, involve activity after a lot of alcohol. But the writer of the article, a law lecturer at Michigan University, is more concerned with whether we think that consent, in any context, is invalidated, simply disappears, where we have been persuaded to do or not do something as a result of a lie. Obviously there are implications for the law if we think that consent to actions based on a lie should automatically be wiped off the record, rather than simply giving rise to a remedy.

This research was conducted amongst samples of people apparently representing society as a whole. It consisted of presenting (fictional) scenarios to the interviewees for them to judge. The examples given in the Yale Law Journal, which is behind the NYT article, are constructed so as to present the story as unambiguously as possible - the person asking for consent is lying and the person asked for that consent would supposedly be absolutely determined not to give consent if he or she knew the truth. Surprisingly to the researcher, most people, in the circumstances portrayed, decided that consent was still consent even though fraud had been deployed to obtain it...(continue)
Vaccines, data and human rights

2 March 2021

When asked about the Covid vaccination programme, the Queen suggested that citizens should “think about other people rather than themselves”. A commentator in the Times this week went rather further, saying that she felt frustration at the “vaccine refuseniks who plan to free-ride their way out of this pandemic on the back of the jab-taking majority.“. Of course, we now hear from the European Commission that vaccine passports will become de rigueur for those wanting to travel within the EU, and also for those wanting to enter that zone. Although it has now decided to bow to what most of the rest of us thought was inevitable, our own government was at first opposed to the very idea. It would cause ‘discrimination’ -  a very odd word to employ when for the last year the government has demanded self-isolation, surely an extreme form of discrimination, for those who’ve tested positive for our cheeky little virus.  

But it now seems likely that the House of Commons will have to debate the whole question. An online petition opposing vaccine passports has gained 200,000 ‘signatures’. It says that the vaccine passports could be "used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a Covid-19 vaccine". Hmm...(continue)
Purpose in life

21 February 2021

Set into one of the inside walls of a restaurant in the medieval part of Annecy, there is a very large aquarium. It divides the main part of the restaurant from an overspill area. The last time we were there, the aquarium  had lots of different fish in it, some big and some small. But it was the little fish which fascinated me. Sitting where we were, they passed between the left shoulder of a man at one table and the right shoulder of a lady sitting at another. It seemed that every time I looked at the aquarium, the little fish, perhaps 15 of them, passed in a shoal from one person's shoulder to the other, instinctively trying to resemble a big fish and so ward off the dangers of the seas. If only they realised that the rules of the ocean are reversed in a restaurant. In a restaurant, of course, it is more dangerous to be a big fish, for it is the big fish which we normally eat and not the minnows. If only I could find some way to convey this knowledge to them, they could breathe a collective bubble of relief, get their deck chairs out and enjoy watching us perform instead.

As a nation we have had to learn quite a few new things as a result of the changed situation brought about by the pandemic...(continue)
Statues – what’s the point?

10 February 2021

William Morris, born in 1834, was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist. He was a key person in the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His legacy can be seen in various National Trust homes. He is also remembered for his 1880 maxim: “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. So then, in my house, I have to try to be useful. As for the contents of the house, I regret to say that they are far from uniformly useful, and few of the things which are not useful manage to be beautiful. Even during this period of enforced idleness, we have not succeeded in making more than a token effort to rid ourselves of the things which occupy space, but do nothing to earn their keep. We excuse ourselves by saying that we would need to make an appointment at the tip and, even then, would only be permitted to go to dispose of things if it was an essential journey. Having had many of these redundant objects for very many years, it’s difficult to argue that they’ve now suddenly become a matter of life or death. After this is over, though, I think that we shall need to hire a professional declutterer to carry out regular raids on our junk.

But it is not only in our private space that we need to heed William Morris’s maxim. It is also in the public space.  It is now proposed that we should make space for one more statue, this time of Captain Tom with his walking frame...(continue)
Scottish independence

1 February 2021
It seems that the war of words over Scottish independence is heating up. A week ago, the SNP revealed a "roadmap to a referendum" on Scottish independence, setting out how they intend to take forward their plans for another vote. It says a "legal referendum" will be held after the pandemic if there is a pro-independence majority at Holyrood following May's election. In other words, if the SNP win a majority of the seats.  There is of course the small matter of their actual ability to hold a ‘legal referendum’, or even what the term means. Let us assume it means a referendum which would give independence to Scotland if there were sufficient ‘yes’ votes. If so, then, most lawyers consider that the Westminster government would have to give its consent under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 before the Scottish government could put the arrangements in place. Obviously, the Conservative and Unionist Party, currently led by Boris, is not very keen to see the break-up of the UK. The clue is in the name. And of course after the last referendum in 2014, everyone agreed that result would be binding for ‘a generation’.  A rather indeterminate term, which seems to be only 7 years in Scotland. They age quickly there...(continue)
Value of life

28 January 2021

In my previous essay I wrote about value, mainly in the context of Bitcoin.  But, we attribute value not only to currencies, objects or services, but to our very lives. And it is here that there can be quite a lot of argument and very muddled thought. A supposed absolute value of life is used to support a religious view that neither abortion or euthanasia can ever be justified. Despite very significant public protest, Poland's extreme and autocratic government has very sadly decided to implement law bringing the practical possibility of abortion virtually to an end. By contrast, at the end of last year in Argentina, another predominantly Catholic country, mainly because of huge protests on the street, a more enlightened view gained sufficient ground to enable a change in the law. Now, abortion for any reason up to 14 weeks of pregnancy will be permitted, so diminishing the agony and deaths caused by back-street abortionists. It makes Argentina something of an exception in Latin America...(continue)
Value and Bitcoin

24 January 2021
The value of an object we buy or the services we consume is subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder, although it often reflects the general opinion of its worth. Ultimately, though, it’s our decision whether or not to buy something at the price asked. At a rarefied level, we see this every time there is an art sale at Christie’s and, at less stratospheric prices, during every episode of the Antiques Road Show. Very often, there are valuations which leave me astonished. But it also applies to things we buy for everyday consumption, when we choose between brands. So then, we are a value driven society. We are encouraged in this by the many price comparison websites which purport to give us information about the quality of the items and the relative prices asked by different vendors. The Welsh tenor “Gio Compario” has made a fortune out of representing just such a web-site for insurance. But when we want to know how much we can get from selling something, our own valuation of it is not exactly the last word. We need to know how others see it. And such estimates of value are not easy.

A particular example of the difficulty valuation presents us is the phenomenon, or as some would say, the Ponzi scheme, known as Bitcoin. In early January of this year, it hit the headlines because it had attained its greatest value since its creation. Although having no material presence, a single bitcoin was trading at just over £30,000 on 8 January...(continue)
Changing morality

18 January 2021
The same two books, both with an anti-British tone, have recently been reviewed together in numerous magazines. The review I first saw was by journalist Mihir Bowes for the Irish Times. The one book, by a Professor at Stanford University, tells us that the idea of British exceptionalism as a driver of Brexit, was based on a wholly unjustified view of our empire as a triumph. In fact, from the conversations I have heard, the motivation for Brexit and so the justification for our exceptionalism wasn’t the empire, but an exaggerated view of our courage compared to the nations conquered during the second World War and, as far as the French are concerned, our victories at Agincourt and Waterloo. There is also the failure amongst exceptionalists to recognise that the plucky British spirit of WWII, was forced on us by the malign force known as Hitler. It resulted in privation during the war years and for years afterwards.  And it is obvious that the own goal of voluntarily leaving a large trading block has no moral equivalence to declaring war on Hitler. It is a category error to compare the two, although the economic consequences may be similar....(continue)
Censorship in the age of Twitter

11 January 2021

I see that because Meghan is the most trolled person in the world, she and Harry are now reported to have quit social media (Instagram etc). So how will they achieve their aim, through Archewell, to “unleash the power of compassion to drive systemic cultural change” by non-profit work and “creative activations through the business verticals of audio and production”? … No, me neither. But in practical terms it seems that they have decided not to share with their devoted public their opinions and photographs of what they’ve been doing. They have engaged in self-censorship in order not to attract the sort of vicious comments and threats that I can well imagine they receive.

Of course, they could simply have turned off the comments section of their Instagram site. The Queen is on Instagram and has hundreds of thousands of likes, but I can find no means of commenting on what is displayed. There is of course no ‘dislike’ option. But then, not enabling comments on such a site means that it’s less attractive to visitors and so less attractive to the Companies and organisations wanting to make money out of their internet offerings.

And then there’s Twitter...(continue)

Trump’s attack on democracy

9 January 2021
I was transfixed by what was going on on Wednesday in the United States, but did eventually go to bed and actually had a good night’s sleep. It must have been the Chianti. I wonder how well the Donald slept. This was the man who, in concert with one of his sons and others during the morning had whipped up a crowd of around 30,000 people to march on Capitol Hill to ‘Stop the Steal’. So many slogans, such great slogans. He told them that they had to be strong as they would get nowhere by showing weakness. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani had called for trial by combat to be re-introduced, so no incitement to violence there either. Vice President Pence, although presiding officer at the official certification of the Electoral College votes, had already told Trump that there was nothing that he could do to prevent Joe Biden being declared President. And so the protestors took them at their word and stormed the Capitol building itself. That it happened was shocking, but should not be surprising. Since before he was elected as President his mantra has been that in any vote he will be the winner as he is sooo popular and if he does not win, then it means that fraud has deprived him of what is rightfully his.

What happens now?...(continue)

Brexit agreement - December 24, 2020

26 December 2020

We regain our sovereignty and have a free trade agreement – for just as long as we don’t exercise that sovereignty to diverge from European norms.

In 5 years time we shall have full control of our coastal waters. Well almost. It ushers in a future where Britons will "be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish”, as our prime minister has told us. On fishing, in a breakthrough move that unlocked the deal, the UK has conceded that the EU will need to give up only 25 per cent of its current quota by value, that reduction being phased in over the next five and a half years. After that, if we want to reduce their quota any further, then we’ll have to pay the EU fishermen for their loss!

But as from 1 January 2021, we shall be able to sign up to trade deals with countries around the world and cease to be subject to the decisions of the ECJ and thus have reacquired our sovereignty. We shall have a free trade deal and no tariffs or quotas with the EU. It is the largest free trade deal ever signed by the EU and by us. It is worth £650 billion (2019 figures). That £650 billion is made up of £295 billion by way of exports to the EU and £355 billion by way of imports from the EU. Now £650 billion as a figure is big, but essentially meaningless - only 57% of our exports consist of goods (£168 billion) and so subject to the deal, while the remaining 43% (£126 billion) consist of services, not the subject of ‘free trade’.  The export of services from the EU is worth less - £105 billion - and so only 30% of their total, spread around a number of EU countries, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands. This means that 70% of their exports to us consist of goods - £250 billion - and so considerably exceeds the value of goods we export to them. The EU therefore gains more from the free trade deal than we do. And they are less disadvantaged overall by the lack of a deal regarding services. And any disadvantage is in any event spread between 27 different countries, whereas our disadvantage is ours alone.

But it goes further. The EU was concerned that we might not continue to comply with their standards for the goods exported to the EU and so be able to undercut their producers. We have therefore reciprocally agreed to maintain at least the same standards (both now and in the future) to ensure there is no trade distortion which might have an adverse economic effect on the other party. If we don’t, then we (or they) suffer the consequences by way of the imposition of tariffs - taxes. But, in maintaining those standards, we will have to continue to comply with EU law. If we don’t, it is quite true that we shall not be subject to sanctions adjudicated upon by the ECJ. Instead, there will be an independent arbitral body to decide our fate but, necessarily, based upon the definition in EU law of those standards. So then, we’ve taken back control!?

7 December 2020
The latter part of this year has been a period of triumph for science. We had a series of positive results for Covid vaccines, in development only since March and all done at an unprecedented speed. We have seen the production of artificially created chicken tissue, although at the moment only for supermarkets in Singapore. We saw the announcement of a programme run by 'Deep Mind' capable of predicting the three-dimensional structure of a complex protein. This allows the creation of other molecules capable of interacting with the protein in a predictable way. It could therefore allow, for example, with a speed that has been impossible until now, the development of drugs or, perhaps, chemicals to degrade otherwise non-recyclable plastics. A Japanese mission to an asteroid to recover some rock (which returned to Australia last Sunday morning) may shed light on how the earth came into existence. After 7 years of observation, the Gaia satellite has created the first accurate 3D map of the Milky Way. This can help resolve the question of whether or not dark mass and energy exist. The Chinese have put a probe on the moon to collect even more lunar rock and return to earth with it - although I'm not sure why. And the latest news is that some Oxford researchers - from the same Jenner Institute that produced the vaccine against the Covid virus - have also produced an effective vaccine against malaria, a disease that is at least 10 times more dangerous than Covid.

At the same time we know that there are many who do not have a positive attitude towards science. They have doubts...(continue)
The Rule of Law - Part 2

28 November 2020
I have for some time now been promised a reply to my letter of 24 September by my MP, the member for North Warwickshire, Craig Tracey, but, nothing so far...

In the circumstances, I have now sent the following ever so slightly tongue in cheek e-mail to Mr Tracey's assistant -

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 November. I appreciate that you and Mr Tracey will be very busy dealing with the effects of the Covid 19 virus, particularly with North Warwickshire going into Tier 3 as from next Wednesday.

In contrast, as a retired person in lock-down, I have plenty of time on my hands. So then, to save you time and effort in dealing with my concerns, I have prepared for Mr Tracey two alternative replies, either of which he could send to me regarding the rejection by this government of the Rule of Law. He could then mark my file as closed, which I’m sure would be a relief.

There is precedent for such an approach. You will recall that the Prime Minister adopted just such a solution when deciding which way to swing on Brexit.
My suggestions are as follows:

Alternative A

Dear Mr Buckingham,

Thank you for your emails of 24 September and 12 November 2020. The first questions my justification of the Internal Market Bill and its provisions enabling a government minister to ignore our treaty obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement signed by Boris only a year ago. In your later email you point to Dominic Raab's apparent hypocrisy in criticising the Chinese government over its failure to abide by its treaty obligations in respect of Hong Kong.

The reply which I had sent to you dated 18 September was, I accept, a rather obvious attempt to obfuscate and confuse.  I should perhaps have read the letter more carefully before sending it out but, hey, who am I to say no to a letter produced, as you guessed, at the instance of The Dom - Cummings that is.  Of course, Dom and his mates have now left us and instead are doing spectacular deals in cardboard box futures. This means that before the next enforcer comes in to No. 10, I can slip this reply out to you under the political radar.

Memes and genes

22 November 2020
The idea of a meme was first put forward by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, ‘The Selfish Gene’. He explained later how it had come about. The entire book had of course been about the genetic code and how natural selection selects for the most adapted version in the circumstances at that time. Of course nature doesn’t have any purpose in this. It’s just that the organisms endowed with genes more adapted to their circumstances tend to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation. But he tells us that he wanted to explain that the particular chemical composition of our genes was not the only possibility in our vast universe. 

Who knows what may work in other circumstances? Perhaps something based on silicon, for instance, would work. The essence of genetics for him was not the chemicals involved, but that there was something which coded for a particular structure or outcome. Any way that this could be achieved would be the equivalent of our genes. To illustrate it, however, he introduced an abstract example - the idea of the meme...(continue)
Space, the final frontier

17 November 2020

This week, we have seen Space X, an Elon Musk company, take four space travellers to the International Space Station. In time past, it would have been NASA itself which would have developed and launched the rockets, but now it has decided that it’s better to ask private enterprise to do the development work and take the risk.  They say it works out cheaper for NASA than the old approach to space travel. Obviously at the beginning it was only governments who were capable of taking on the immense cost and risk of doing something with no obvious financial benefit. The main benefit, after all, was in the time of the Cold War to demonstrate that the USA was at least the equal of the USSR and could, ultimately, fly the American flag on the moon. Even after 60 years of space travel and the great experience that has gained, it still costs a great deal of money to send people to circle the earth in space for months on end, or to send them to the moon (and bring them back). In an attempt to justify the immense cost of the space effort, NASA often points to the spin-offs from the advances in science which were required to enable man to be put on the moon and, later, for information to be sent back by robots from Mars.  For some reason the scientific advance cited always used to be the development of Teflon!  I am not sure, however, that the need to use less fat when cooking and greater ease of washing up the saucepans afterwards is justification for the billions of dollars spent by NASA....(continue)
Extremism – at both political extremes

10 November 2020
Articles in the Times last Saturday and this Monday took us to task for being so down on President Trump and his supporters.  The writers, Matthew Parris and Clare Foges, say that even though they personally dislike him (of course), someone needed to stand tall on the world stage and look after the interests of the USA. They point to the fact that the only country paying the agreed percentage of GDP for NATO, other than the USA, was the UK. And so he was right to demand more from the countries benefiting from America’s contribution to their protection. A fair point. At home, though he whipped up outrage over immigration – that beautiful wall, still only partly built. He quite absurdly encouraged his followers to believe that coal and oil were the fuels of the future and so pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, so denying the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion. He criticised the WHO for having failed to point the finger at China, pulled out of the organisation - and then let the virus run rampant in his own country, again completely ignoring the science and inviting us to drink bleach instead. He has denigrated all of America’s institutions, including the fourth estate with his rallying cry of ‘Fake News’. And he has done his bit to overturn the rule of law with obviously partisan appointments to the Supreme Court. He has lied and lied and lied again. Some have counted 22,000 lies. So then I’m a bit puzzled as to what we should praise Mr Trump for....(continue)
Political sectarianism

1 November 2020
Political polarisation is not a new phenomenon. It has taken many forms over the centuries and has sometimes led to violence. It seems though that, particularly in America, this polarisation has become far more pronounced over the last 40 or so years. The study now published offers an international comparison of the degree of love for one’s own party and the degree of hatred of the opposing party.  Data from 1975 through to 2017 in nine Western democracies was looked at. Four nations - America, Canada, New Zealand, and Switzerland - exhibited increasing sectarianism over time, with the rate steepest in America. By contrast, Australia, Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Germany exhibited decreasing sectarianism over time. Although positive feelings toward members of peoples’ own party remained relatively constant over that period, the degree of hatred felt for other parties showed a strong increase. By 2017, the strength of hatred between opposing parties was stronger in America than in any other nation.

But what has really changed is that attitudes have gone from being mostly a dislike of the other party’s policies, to being an active dislike of the people who are members of that party....(continue)
Knowing me, knowing you ... AHA!

20 October 2020

It is still quite normal to say that men are from Mars and that women are from Venus. It seems to be common sense to many people. It is also based on various studies done over the years which seemed to show differences in the way things were looked at and thought about as between the sexes. This remains the abiding impression even though a metastudy was carried out some years ago which puts a different perspective on the situation. It turns out that although there are differences, they are very small compared to the variation which already exists within each of the genders. Indeed, rather than men being from Mars and women from Venus, it would be nearer the truth to say that men are from Chipping Norton and women are from Chipping Campden, the difference is so small...(continue)
Conjectures and Refutations

14 October 2020

Having been reminded of Karl Popper and his influence on others, including George Soros, I decided to take another look at some of his writings which have been sitting in my bookcase for very many years. It’s been a long time since I first read, for instance ‘Objective Knowledge’ and ‘Conjectures & Refutations’, books which for me were quite eye-opening at the time.  They showed me another way of looking at the world, one not dependent on religion or indeed received wisdom. However, what I would like to discuss mainly is the approach taken by Karl Popper as regards governance set against a little of the background to the development of his main philosophical ideas. Winston Churchill said that ‘democracy was the worst form of government - apart from all the others’. Popper arrives at a similar conclusion, but shows his workings. In order to see what he is saying, however, we need to go back to the whole idea of ‘conjectures and refutations’, or, more exactly ‘conjectures which can be refuted’...(continue)
The Open Society

7 October 2020
Apocryphally or not, it is said that an obituary of Alfred Nobel which appeared in a newspaper in 1888 described him as a “Merchant of death”. The obituary had actually appeared in error as Mr Nobel was still very much alive. But he took warning about his reputation from this and founded the Nobel Institute in Stockholm to ensure that his name was not just associated with explosives and death. The Nobel prizes were intended to reward those who, during the preceding year, had “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. The peace prize was to be awarded to someone who had rendered “the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses”. The latest recipient is due to be announced this Friday. I don’t have any inside knowledge as to who the recipient may be, but there has been quite a lot of discussion in advance of this event about past winners. Many are uncontroversial, at least now even if not at the time. Names such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Others remain controversial...(continue)
WEIRD  - Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic

29 September 2020

It seems that there is not only a physical effect to intermarriage between close relatives. A new book by Joseph Henrich, a Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, shines a light on the more widespread effects of the rules about who you can marry and who you can’t marry.

When suggesting a new way of looking at things - and wanting to sell a book - I suppose that having an acronym can be quite useful. It tells the reader that there is something different on the way, something novel and so worthy of a new ‘word’. This essay will refer to the rules around who was entitled to marry whom in the middle ages. But such rules had their origin long ago, possibly as a result of seeing the unfortunate result of successive marriages between close relatives - as the Pharaohs found out when trying to preserve power within the family. Consanguineous marriages placed offspring at risk of nasty deformities and early deaths....(continue)
An exchange of views with my conservative MP regarding the government's decision to flout the Rule of Law

24 September 2020

My initial e-mail to Craig Tracey MP -

8 September 2020

I note that your colleague Brandon Lewis has now admitted to Parliament that the government’s proposed Brexit legislation will infringe International Law in a "specific and limited way".  If a burglar were to say that he had only broken into one house rather than a number of them - so only infringing the Theft Act in a ‘specific and limited way’ - would that justify his conduct?

I note that the permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, Sir Jonathan Jones, has announced his resignation as a consequence of the government’s intention to ignore their legal obligations under international law.

There is such a thing as the Rule of Law. It is currently being ignored in many countries around the world to the extreme detriment of the peoples of those countries. I had hoped that the United Kingdom would continue with its tradition of abiding by the Rule of Law in order to preserve our democracy...(continue)
The Rule of Law

16 September 2020

It may seem strange, but there is no internationally agreed definition of the Rule of Law. Of course, there are many countries which have constitutions and so abiding by these might seem to be fundamental to abiding by the rule of law.  But not always. For example, although China has a constitution, we do not normally think of it as a country which abides by the Rule of Law. The constitution itself excludes the exercise of what we would regard as normal democratic liberties. There is an absence of, for example, the right to free speech, the right to protest or the right to put yourself forward as a candidate at an election without the consent of the government. This would be seen by most people as creating a system which was far removed from the rule of law and so turn it into its antithesis, a dictatorship...(continue)
Blessed are the...

8 September 2020

Bill and Melinda Gates have for many years run a major charitable foundation into which, at the outset, they put $31 billion.  Warren Buffet, the ‘Sage of Omaha’ and one of the richest men in the world is a trustee of the Gates Foundation and promised in 2006 to give 85% of his fortune to it. This will ultimately cost the American tax-payer the amount of estate duty which would otherwise have been payable had these vast amounts gone to their heirs. Since that promise, payments by Buffet have been made in annual tranches of $1.5 billion. They are though conditional upon Bill and Melinda Gates continuing to run the foundation. The secret of Mr Buffet’s incredible success as a professional investor is always to make his money work hard - and that requires good ideas and the best management you can get. The same principles apply to running charities. Obviously the Gates represent to Warren Buffet the best that’s available. Which is hard to argue with. And so this mega-foundation will ultimately have double its original worth. Currently it is worth in excess of $40 billion and is able to make grants of over $3 billion per year. This means that on its own it is able to tackle some of the biggest and most intractable problems the world has. As some measure of its importance, it now has the same disposable income as the World Health Organisation....(continue)
The New Season

3 September 2020
As far as the Met Office is concerned, it seems that Autumn has started. It began on 1st September.  I can hardly believe it. Time passes. But despite the social distancing required to avoid Covid 19, the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn has been accompanied by quite a lot of events involving quite a lot of people. The children have gone back to school, as witnessed by the line of their parents’ parked cars in our road at school closing time. We can now see and hear large orchestras and choirs at the Proms concerts, even if only because they have the whole of the otherwise empty Royal Albert Hall in which to spread themselves out. There is talk of some theatres reopening, but so far nothing significant has happened. On the other hand, over the week-end live and recorded music (all in the same key) was beamed down to the streets and bemused citizens of Bristol from loudspeakers attached to seven hot-air balloons floating in the relatively becalmed air over the city. It’s true that football matches have restarted, but are watched with only the echoing sound of recorded audience reaction - presumably both applause and boos at the same time from different ends...(continue)
Reflections on the coming, politically correct, Spitting Image

23 August 2020

Because of the somewhat baffling concept of wokeness, it seems that things are far from straightforward in the normally devil may care world of satire. We learnt from the Times last week that the producers of the new Spitting Image for ITV are worried about certain aspects of the programme due to air in the Autumn. They’ve already produced Spitting Image puppets of people in the public eye, like Prince Harry and his dear wife, and the probable next President of the United States of America, Kanye West.  What they’re stuck on is whom they ought pick to voice them and who should write the scripts. You may think the answer is simple - actors and scriptwriters respectively. But no...(continue)
Morality – the downside We have often discussed the concept of morality. Obviously for someone without a belief in a supernatural authority but, instead, a 'belief' that natural selection is the main factor in the creation of our social code, it is possible to see how morality can work unexpectedly. To function well in our age, a social code depends on encouragement from a combination of law and social pressure. And as we can easily see, where the law does not work very well and where social pressure is not benign but actually malignant, local morality can be a contradiction in terms - at least for those who look at it from the outside.

The pressure of your group can have very variable consequences. To be accepted, some groups require as part of their social code the commission of what would normally be considered immoral, or even illegal, actions. If I am in a disadvantaged area, I am likely to find that stealing cars or dealing drugs would be considered necessary behaviour if I wanted to be part of a gang. I'm expected to lie to the police for my friends...(continue)
Coleshill – waves and a Wall of Answered Prayers

5 August 2020

Land designated as Green belt in the local plan cannot be developed. Except of course when it can.

The planning laws say that it can be developed for outdoor leisure use, “where this preserves the openness of the Green Belt”. This though is just an example of the overriding possibility of approval where there are ‘Very Special Circumstances’ and ‘where the potential harm to the Green Belt is clearly outweighed by other considerations’.  So then what does the future hold for us here in Coleshill?

Firstly there is the idea of a Wave Park in what is roughly the centre of England.  It has just been approved and will be constructed on a 15-acre site on the other side of the M42 from Coleshill. Features will include a 5.4-acre surf lagoon with artificially generated waves, an outdoor heated swimming pool (very carbon friendly), a perimeter track for one wheel self-balancing electric skateboards and a 1,600 sq metre hub building. The park, to be called Emerge Surf Birmingham, will also be home to a surf school, surf shop, café and restaurant, a multi-purpose fitness studio, a physiotherapy and massage room and a children’s play area. It is said that it will be a haven for landlocked surfers and those keen to try the sport for the first time. For we residents, it will attract more traffic, but I suppose that it will prevent further expansion of urban Birmingham. So then probably on balance a good thing. I shall have to iron my wet suit ready for action.

Then there is Coleshill's answer to the Angel of the North - the 'Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer' - yes indeed!...(continue)

The carbon neutral essay

14 July 2020

The Tower of Babel - its side effects

6 July 2020
...Creating groups of people dispersed throughout the world, however, who spoke different languages was not, perhaps, an action that was destined to produce a very peaceful world. It was a somewhat short-sighted decision on God's part. Differences between different groups of people promote suspicion and therefore hostility. It is perhaps a minor example but, many years ago, we were on holiday in Wales, not far from where my father was born. We went into a small shop. People were speaking to each other in English, but after they spotted our presence they changed languages and continued in Welsh! I was very offended.

My father spoke Welsh as a little child because it was the normal language in the small town of Llanelli in South West Wales. After a few years the family moved to Cardiff where the national language was almost extinct. It wasn't taught at school. So then after a few years my father became an English speaker and could no longer remember any of his Welsh. They say it's not easy to learn another language when you're older.  There are many who believe that they are not capable of it, that they do not have the necessary ear. I suspect, however, that it is not only 'the ear' that they lack, but also the need for it and the willingness to deal with the grammar. The grammar of your own language is not a very popular subject at school. So spending even more time as an adult learning foreign grammar is perhaps not a very attractive prospect. Which means I'm probably a nerd...(continue)
The danger of slogans

29 June 2020

Slogans are part of our everyday lives.  They enable an important point to be made in a few words. In 2000, some bookshop owners found an old government wartime poster asking the citizens to Keep Calm and Carry On. They framed it and hung it their shop, but it created such interest that they started having copes printed. Now we have an entire industry producing reproductions of the slogan on mugs, tea towels, deck chairs, T-shirts and anything else which can be printed on. There have also been numerous derivatives, from ‘Keep Calm and Drink Tea’ to ‘Keep Calm and Marry Ron’. But the lack of words in a slogan can also lead to a lack of clarity, rather like the existing government slogan telling us to ‘Keep Alert’.  A slogan is a headline rather than a fully argued statement. There is always a much fuller message which the slogan is intended to sum up. And so its success is judged by how well it conveys the real message and at the same time how memorable it is....(continue)
Ecocide – now to be made a crime, whatever it may be...

23 June 2020
In France at the moment there is a major attempt to shift opinion and the law itself in favour of environmentalism. It has come about because President Macron had to try to pacify the 'Gilets Jaunes' protest movement. He wanted to persuade them that he was giving power back to the people. And so for 9 months now, a group of 150 people, randomly chosen by the government, has been discussing during long weekends what their country should do in order to play its part in the struggle against global warming by reducing their CO2 emissions by 40%. 'The Citizens Convention for the Climate' has now come to a decision on lots of measures which they consider are necessary or desirable...(continue)

16 June 2020
I have in front of me a 50 Euro note.  When you draw money out of a French hole in the wall, you are almost invariably given one of these.  Using it to buy anything is slightly embarrassing, as the amount of change you will normally receive will be significant.  I wouldn’t usually expect to buy anything at a price even close to that amount with cash. Indeed, if you draw any money from an English ATM, the biggest note you will receive is £20.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever handled a £50 note and if I tried to use one in a shop, I would be looked at with suspicion; they have a reputation for being fakes and used only by drug dealers.

But what I was trying to do was to see what the 50 Euro note actually says.  The information recorded on it is rather sparse. It says ‘50’ and ‘Euro’ and has its serial number. It also has the initials of the European Bank on it in 10 languages and the signature of Mario Draghi beneath the European flag.  But nothing else.  The £20 note has similar information on it, and with pictures of the Queen and of the artist Joseph Turner.  But it also famously goes on to say: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds”...(continue)
Prejudice - good or bad?

7 June 2020
We are continually told that prejudice is a bad thing, but research has come to what should be an unsurprising conclusion: that prejudice can in fact confer an evolutionary advantage. Why else would we have it as part of our psychological make-up? And of course it exists not only in us as humans, but also in the ‘lower’ orders. The suggestion is that our benefit from and so tendency towards prejudice may come from two things - the constant need to make decisions about the danger we face from others and the need to know whether someone can be relied on to help you when needed. If you feel that you belong to a group, then it seems that you have a short-cut to making those decisions, whether as a human, a chimpanzee or a vampire bat.  As members of a group we have a tendency to favour other members, for no other reason than that they are members of our group.

So then, if you are prejudiced in favour of people in your own group, you will also feel instinctively that the other members are similarly prejudiced towards you. And largely you will be right. This means in turn that the need to make assessments of reliability or danger will be simplified.  Instead you can be reasonably sure that you will be able to trust each other.  Trust facilitates co-operation and your group will benefit accordingly.  Prejudice can be beneficial....(continue)
Why we believe what we want to believe: Part II - the lingering influence of fake news

1 June 2020
A few weeks ago I wrote about the conspiracy theorists, those who make causal connections out of correlations. The research suggests that they are motivated to do this by the enhancement in their social standing amongst others in the conspiracy community when they find previously unknown links to ‘support’ a particular conspiracy theory.  There are though many others who don’t engage in this sort of behaviour but who, nonetheless, believe things which have been shown to be untrue.  Politicians rely on their ability to persuade such people in order to gain power. The brand leader for untruth amongst politicians used to be Hitler or Mussolini, but is, these days, Mr Trump. ‘Fake news” is Donald Trump’s favourite catchphrase. Since the election in 2016, it has appeared in some 180 tweets by the President...(continue)
Celluloid, Chinese laundries and racism

26 May 2020

When I was in secondary school, I developed an interest in chemistry.  My brother and I had a chemistry set that we'd add to whenever we could. And it was pretty easy to do so, because at the time there weren't a lot of restrictive rules about what a shopkeeper could sell to two kids. It wouldn't be hard to imagine the kind of experiments we were interested in.  Yes, those that produced an explosion. There were two main suppliers of the necessary chemicals in Smethwick: a garden shop on the Oldbury Road and the pharmacy on the opposite side of the road owned by Mr. Carr BSc, MRPS.  For gunpowder you need sulphur and carbon as the fuel, and potassium nitrate to provide oxygen to accelerate combustion and thus, in a confined space, to cause an explosion...(continue)
Conspiracy theories - why do people believe in them?

18 May 2020
The case of Carlill v the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company (1893) is well known to all law students in the UK and other common law jurisdictions. The Company said that its ‘smoke balls’ would provide protection against what we now know as the Russian flu. The smoke actually consisted of finely ground phenol powder of the type then used in soap as disinfectant. So now we know where Mr Trump got his idea from. The advertisement said that the smoke should be inhaled 3 times per day for two weeks. The smoke balls would last for two or three months and could then be refilled for the princely sum of 5 shillings. So not cheap. Fortunately though it all came with reassurance. If, after you had inhaled the vapours as prescribed, you actually caught the malady, then such was the Company’s confidence in its product that they would pay you £100 (equivalent to about £35,000 now).  To reassure potential sniffers further, the Company said in its advertisement that they had deposited £1,000 in a bank to show their faith in their product. Mrs Elizabeth Carlill became ill, despite having inhaled the smoke for at least two weeks, and requested the promised compensation. The Company refused to pay, saying that it was only an advertisement and so not to be taken seriously...(continue)
Originals or copies - which are better?

12 May 2020
In an article in the Times last week, there was a suggestion by leaders from the museum and art gallery world that reproductions of artistic masterpieces should be put on display while the originals are stored out of sight. It seems that with modern scanning and reproduction techniques, the imitations would only be distinguishable from the originals because they could be colour-corrected to show what they had been like when originally painted. No longer would they have to be displayed in semi-darkness in order to protect them from damaging light.  No longer would they need to be behind shatter-proof glass to protect them from attack. So then the proposal would have the benefit of preserving the originals from further deterioration and the risk of theft and, at the same time, enabling the public to view those great works currently considered to be too fragile to be displayed or displayed as we would like to see them – in the light...(continue)

3 May 2020
We were in Annecy and the world had just become a year older.  I looked up at the mountains though and saw that nothing had changed since the last time I’d looked at them - in the previous year, the night before. Nothing changed in the millions of years before we started going there either.  The sun still rose over the same mountains and set in the same place. They cast the same shadows. The lake remains an ever present feature in the valley lying at their foot.  Of course that is not quite true.  If we were to go back, say, 100,000 years, we would find the mountains to be very slightly taller and the shadows they cast to be slightly more jagged.  But the change, the erosion of the mountains, takes place so slowly, that it is undetectable to the human eye. Other changes take place more obviously - such as the trees growing on the mountain-sides which change colour with the seasons...(continue)
I may have many faults, but being wrong isn't one of them

21 April 2020
Some time ago, we went to the dry cleaners in a town called Flers in Normandy. Having handed in the clothes to be cleaned, the lady at the counter naturally asked for our name. Heather gave it to her - Buckingham - and then, as the lady, unsurprisingly, looked uncertain, spelt it out in her best French accent. Everything was fine except that we could see that the first letter was a P and not a B. So we both pointed to it and said, in French, ‘no, the first letter is a B'. ‘Yes', she said, ‘a P'. ‘No', I said, ‘B as in...', and as my mind had gone blank and I couldn't think of anything simple, I said ‘Baignoire' (bath). ‘Yes', she said, ‘P as in Peignoir' (dressing gown). Her younger colleague, perhaps with better hearing, sitting a few metres away was muttering ‘no, its B, not P'. Eventually, by reference to Buckingham Palace and then actually writing the letter down, we managed to convey to her what letter it was. Clearly, though, she did not want to accept that we probably knew better how to spell our name than she did, and so carried on insisting that her spelling of it was in fact correct...(continue)
Privacy and getting our lives back

14 April 2020
I was pleased to hear from the Catholic church on Easter Sunday that we should rely on Science, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to beat the coronavirus.  It’s just a shame that the Holy Spirit doesn’t reveal some hard facts on the nature of the beast we’re trying to overcome. After all, it is one of God’s creations, so the Holy Spirit should have inside knowledge, unless the members of the Trinity are maintaining social distancing from each other. Such information would help a lot, just as it would have helped with the Spanish flue and the black death. However, with or without the inspiration apparently on offer, we’re going to have to try to find ways to restart our lives and our economies as best we can.  The virus is not going to go away any time soon; it is unlikely to commit suicide.

Of course, there is an argument from evolutionary theory that we can expect it to mutate into something less virulent. The most successful, the most enduring parasites, don’t do too much harm to the host, but keep it as a long-term source of nourishment – rather like the tape-worm....(continue)
Human rights in a time of coronavirus

6 April 2020
To say that we live in unusual times is something of an understatement.  We are under attack by a very large, mindless, molecule which, despite its ignorance of its own existence, is multiplying at an alarming rate and, in the process, doing considerable damage to us. The damage, however, is not only physical, but also political. Not only have we, at least temporarily, lost our Prime Minister, but he has been replaced by his deputy, the Karate Kid – the rabid right-winger Dominic Raab.  Let’s hope that he doesn’t get to make any significant decisions.  In fact, BoJ is looking like a safe pair of hands in contrast to the man now in charge.  Maybe Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak as health secretary and chancellor will carry on as before actually running the parts of government which count....(continue)
Coronavirus – the financial effects

26 March 2020
It seems that the Americans have now decided to sign up to the idea of Universal Income, at least for the time being.  As part of the $1.8 trillion stimulus package, $250 billion has been allocated to enhanced unemployment benefit. In this country, we have the government agreeing to pay 80% of salaries of those not working as a result of Coronavirus.  We’re still waiting to find out how much the government will pay the self-employed during the time they cannot work. But we expect that, in the short-term, the amount of financial hardship which will result from the virus close-down will be minimised. No-one should go hungry and no-one should be thrown out of their home as a result of inability to pay the mortgage or the rent. We even have an extra 6 months in which to take our cars for an MOT.

But there have already been significant effects and there will undoubtedly be even more significant effects in the aftermath of all this.  An immediate effect was that the stock-markets around the globe dropped precipitously, although following the announcement of the US aid package, the stock-markets have rebounded quite a lot....(continue)
Covid 19 – who’s to blame?

A look at some of the wilder ideas now circulating

19 March 2020
According to Isis, the reason that the Covid virus is so widespread in Europe is because of our immorality.  God has inflicted the virus upon us in order to punish our wicked behaviour.  In fact so much is this the case, that the leaders of Isis have told their followers to keep out of Europe and let off their bombs elsewhere.  Which, if true, is something of a relief for us, if not the other parts of the world affected.  Of course, since that statement was announced, a few weeks ago now, the virus has become prevalent in Iran and various other good Muslim countries, so I’m not sure what’s happening there. Maybe the Christian god has decided to engage in reprisals against Allah and his followers. It must be really confusing in Israel for the various gods, bearing in mind the mixture of Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Others are not pointing to religion as being at the root of all this.  Many are claiming that China has a covert bioweapon establishment in Wuhan where the virus was being developed in order to wipe out Western capitalist civilisation. Something apparently went wrong and the virus was accidentally released amongst their own people, a mistake they at first tried to cover up and then claimed was a natural occurrence having its origin in a market which sold the meat of wild animals. Obviously a front for their high tech laboratory....(continue)
Coronavirus - a little local difficulty

3 March 2020
We seem to have quite a number of difficulties at the moment. There’s the flooding which has been greater and more widespread than we’ve seen in the past. There’s the apparent incompatibility between the negotiating positions of the UK and the EU. The dispute between Pretti Patel and her former chief of staff has been such a major difficulty that the anticipated arrival of the Prime Minister’s new baby has been deployed in order to deflect criticism from the Home Secretary.

And of course, there’s the small matter of the coronavirus. This is nearer to home for me, at least, granted that we’ve decided to cancel our fortnight in Sicily as a consequence of its appearance on that Island (now 9 cases in different areas). The owner of ‘Il Giardino di Oliver’ has kindly agreed to let us, as old folk at greater risk of infection, postpone our trip to later in the year, although of course subject to payment of any price difference. That of course presumes that there will be flights available. Which is looking somewhat doubtful. I suppose we could always try to hitch a lift on a cruise liner - there are likely to be quite a lot of spare berths this year - although it might be best to wear a haz-mat suit at all times...(continue)
The thought police and secular morality

17 February 2020
It seems that of the Labour candidates for the leadership, the two female candidates have signed up to a series of 10 declarations regarding the trans community.  The third, Sir Keir Starmer QC has not, at least not yet.  It may be a relief to know that I don’t intend to look at all 10 declarations. But there is one of the declarations which is more than somewhat controversial. It says:

”I will campaign for reform of the Gender Recognition Act to introduce a self-declaration process and for the introduction of legal recognition for non-binary gender identities. I believe that trans women are women, that trans men are men, and that non-binary genders are valid and should be respected.”. 

Another version of this adds:

“there is no material conflict between trans rights and women’s rights”. 

Essentially what they are asking is that the law should accept that a person is of whatever gender they say they are for all purposes and that the belief that this is so should be a protected characteristic, just like, as we saw recently, the ‘philosophical belief’ of veganism.  As always, however the assertion that something is so does not necessarily make it so. The word ’oversimplification’ comes to mind....(continue)
Climate change – the practicalities

12 February 2020
Although not covered by the national press at the time, we now know from the Sunday Times that students with tents, banners and placards occupied the 15th-century quad of St John’s College, Oxford on Wednesday, 29th January. They said they wouldn’t leave until the college agreed to sell its shares in those prolific producers of hydrocarbons, BP and Shell. The College is very rich. It was reported at the time in two student newspapers, but not it seems elsewhere. 

Dominic Lawson is a columnist for the Sunday Times and a climate change sceptic. He is also a Brexiteer, although his father, Nigel Lawson, a former Conservative Chancellor with similar views to his son, has lived in France for many years. So people I don’t really take very seriously.  On this occasion, however, I have some sympathy with the conclusion which Dominic draws from what happened.

It seems that on the day of their occupation, the protesters e-mailed Professor Andrew Parker (an eminent research scientist and the principal bursar) to demand a meeting to address their demands. These were that St John’s “declares a climate emergency and immediately divests from fossil fuels”. His answer was not what they expected. “I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,” he wrote. “But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”.....(continue)
Discontent with democracy

4 February 2020
Going shopping for clothes for Heather in France can be an interesting experience. Not only is there the consideration of what would suit her but, from the numerous items of different sizes picked from the rails, there is then the need to narrow down the choice by trying them on.  By Heather that is, not me.  During these lengthy periods, there is usually a shop assistant standing by waiting for the verdict and, of course, ready to say how good it looks or, if that ploy is unsuccessful, to suggest alternatives. Standing with the assistant outside the changing room in silence during all of this is a little embarrassing, and so I generally try to engage in some sort of conversation.  It normally starts with something quite innocuous, but can then take various twists and turns. And so this last week I have ended up discussing Brexit, which the French find completely incomprehensible, the pension reforms being imposed by the French government as compared to our system, the 35 hour week, where to buy the best fruit and vegetables (‘Le Grand Frais’ at Seynod) and which is the best cheese shop in town – confirmed to be the Fromagerie Gay...(continue)
Decision making for the long term

20 January 2020
We quickly learn that short-term decision making, our day to day decisions, are the most important for us.  If we ignore them or get them wrong then they soon come back to bite us. They have an immediate effect on our lives. And so we tend to concentrate on them. There are though many aspects of our lives which we don’t immediately even recognise as decisions in the same sense, even though they are.  Many aspects of our lives - dress, speech or tattoos - which we adopt consciously or unconsciously, are used to determine what part of society we belong to. An even less likely piece of behaviour, altruism, is part of this same group. Acting altruistically always used to be thought of as an example of acting out of goodness, a genuine wish to help others with no thought of a return, something of the moment – and so a short term decision. Of course there were always some cads - very much frowned upon by society - who would pretend to be helpful in order to worm their way into someone’s affections.  I imagine in fact that most people would still explain altruism in these terms, even though we know from lots of research on us and other animals, and our own common sense, that it is far from true...(continue)
Anthropomorphism, imagination and creativity

12 January 2020

As human beings, we seem to have a tendency to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects and imaginary beings.  Ancient civilizations were well aware of this strange habit of human psychology.  Xenophanes invented the word "anthropomorphism" 2,600 years ago.  He realized that people worshipped gods that looked like them - the Greeks had white gods, while the Ethiopian gods were darker.  From this observation he predicted that if horses and donkeys believed in God, their god would trot on all fours.  He may have been right. Some time ago, primatologists documented a type of behaviour among chimpanzees, called 'the rain dance': when a storm begins, sometimes they climb a tree, then they tear out its branches and brandish them while they cry out to the clouds - as if they were facing a male rival.  It seems to be a kind of 'chimpomorphism' about the storm.  They shake their branches at the alpha male they assume to be throwing flashes from the sky...(continue)
Philosophical belief and veganism

5 January 2020
The world has apparently gone mad. Alright it’s continued with its madness. We now have not only crazy religions, but crazy non-religious ‘Philosophical Beliefs’, given the benefit of protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 by a Court in the UK.

Jordi Casamitjana, a zoologist by training, with a speciality in wasps, is someone who refuses even to travel on buses as they are likely to kill insects. Obviously he travels on buses which go faster than the ones I’ve been on. As we know, a vegan is someone who does not eat or use animal products.  People may choose for supposed health purposes simply to follow a vegan, and so exclusively plant-based diet. They would therefore exclude all meat, fish dairy and eggs from their consumption. But self-described ‘ethical vegans’ go further and try to exclude all forms of animal exploitation from their lifestyle...(continue)
2020 - The next decade

31 December 2019
Traditionally, we mark the end of one decade and the beginning of another by reflecting on what has happened in the past and what is likely to change in the next 10 years.  We might even celebrate the change. Well, quite a lot has happened in the period since 2010 dawned. The year 2008 had seen the financial crash brought on by recklessness in the banks. And so the end of the first decade of this century was taken up with attempts to prevent the banks’ foolishness from affecting the lives of ordinary people. It was not though something easily achieved and so the aftermath of the crash continued well into the next decade.

Indeed, it continued until 2019. We were told that austerity was the key to our survival and that public expenditure had to be cut, and cut quite savagely in some areas. Which, of course, had an effect on the lives of those same ordinary citizens, if not on those of the billionaire bankers who had caused the problems in the first place.  And so the decade we have just lived through did not start well. Neither did it end well, bearing in mind the upheaval caused by David Cameron’s decision to hold a Brexit referendum which he, and so we, lost.

But what now?...(continue)

Brexit and the General Election - December 12, 2019

My Blog during the run up to the December 12, 2019 general election.

25 November 2020
The other evening we were watching a nature programme narrated by the real monarch of our isles, Sir David Attenborough, the person we all trust to tell it like it is.  As it happened, it concerned somewhere called Australia, a land mass cut off from all the other continents since before the time when the dinosaurs died out.  As a result, the animals which took over when the dinosaurs departed this world were rather different to the animals with which we are familiar on the other landmasses of our globe.  They became even more different because of the working of evolution over the last few million years, mainly as a result of the fact that Australia has gradually moved from the colder South to nearer the equator....(continue)
World Trade Organisation

13 November 2019
OK, so the World Trade Organisation may not seem very relevant to our everyday lives, but stay with me.

We are told that a no-deal Brexit would be on WTO terms.  Indeed, should Boris win an actual majority in this election, it will include many Conservative MPs who would actually favour a no-deal Brexit, and so on WTO terms, rather than even contemplate extending the one-year transition period his agreement allows for negotiation of a bi-lateral agreement with the EU.

But unless something seismic happens, then the WTO will cease to be a functioning organisation on 10th December - in just one month's time....(continue)
Making up perfection

10 November 2019

Perfection is something which is never actually achieved in real life. I was put in mind of this a little while ago when we went to a concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. It included Saen-Saens' second piano concerto. We have it on disc. In fact we have two different recordings of it. I like them both and have listened to them quite often. So often, that when I heard it played live, I was only too aware of a few wrong notes. It was not that it was cacophonous or played badly. I think that if I had not been so familiar with the recordings of it I wouldn't even have noticed. The point is that the versions on disc are highly edited and not a single wrong note is allowed to remain....(continue)

6 November 2019
On Sunday, the Anglican church at Coleshill will be unusually close to capacity or even perhaps completely full. And of course the reason is that it is Remembrance Day. There are local and national remembrance ceremonies at which dignitaries take part and where we, as a nation, remember the victims of the last two wars regardless of our personal involvement or not in them.  In Coleshill, the Town Band will take part with the usual mix of tunes used for this occasion and of course all the Town Councillors, members of the Servicemen’s associations and generally the great and good of Coleshill will be in attendance to lay poppy wreaths on the war memorial outside the Church. Even Heather and I will be there, with a poppy wreath to lay on behalf of the Twinning Association.

Other countries, with other histories remember their war dead at different times and in different ways.  But it is something which virtually every country does.  Of course, in some countries, major conflicts relate not so much to wars with other states, but to civil wars of various kinds, whether to try to achieve independence or to try to get rid of a dictator, such as in Spain.  In these circumstances, how or whether to celebrate can be quite contentious....(continue)

12 October 2019
The BBC4 documentary in October this year on the subject of eugenics was very informative,  Eugenics was proposed as a system of improving the ‘quality’ of the human species.  Over the millennia, dog, pigeon and plant breeders had taken major steps, by cross-breeding, to select for desirable traits in their subjects. It meant that not only could homing pigeons fly home from greater distances, but that plants could become more productive of the food we need to survive.  Dogs, well, it seems that you can never have enough different sorts to appeal to their devoted ‘owners’.  When it comes to humans, however, it all becomes a little more difficult....(continue)

28 August 2019
... We now have ‘Speciesism’ being compared to racism, sexism and fascism.  Speciesism, the doctrine hated by vegans, was described in a book called ‘Animal Liberation' (1975) by an Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. He defined it as ‘a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species.’  People who oppose speciesism say that giving human beings greater rights than non-human animals is as arbitrary (and as morally wrong) as giving white people greater rights than non-white people.  As always, there is a fundamental confusion in the Olympian pronouncements of the Animal Rights fraternity even though, or perhaps because, based on a book written by a philosopher. They assume that morality can be justified and understood as part of a carefully constructed rational framework, instead of its being simply the outcome of evolutionary pressure which we then, for psychological reasons, try to justify rationally....(continue)
Decisions, decisions

7 October 2019
The other day, some research was published which showed that mice, faced with choosing between two identical (tasty) rewards, took longer to start eating than where there was only one such reward. It took them time to decide. Who’d have thought it? In fact, we all know that it's difficult to make decisions of this sort. To choose between chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie is not an easy thing for me.  The equality of desire makes the choice very difficult and time-consuming, even when the outcome of the choice is not, at least to an outsider, very important. But if there are in fact things in life which are more important than dessert then, surely, we would make choices about them based on a rational consideration of the benefits and disadvantages for our lives?  Well maybe not...(continue)
The precautionary principle, bananas and pigs

21 August 2019
... The fruit and vegetables which we now eat look and taste very different to those our ancestors ate. Over the centuries, by hybridisation of the various varieties, plant breeders have succeeded in making fruit and vegetables which are far more resistant to disease, grow much better and, sometimes, even have a better taste.  All this is by means of genetic manipulation. But this has been ‘natural’ genetic manipulation, perceived to be carried out by ‘gardeners’ wearing gardening gloves, rather than scientists in white coats using CRISPR gene editing.  Of course the end result is the same, it’s just that the ‘natural’ variant is not subject to checks to see if it affects our health in the long term, whereas the genetically modified variants are.  Except in Europe, where they are banned because of the precautionary principle.  So what is the precautionary principle?...(continue)
The Silly Season

14 August 2019
Every year, when the MPs go off to the seaside with their buckets and spades, we seem to enter a season when nothing much of importance happens, or at least is reported by the newspapers. Instead, the sorts of stories which might normally only make it on to page 15 find a place on the front page.  This year seems to be no exception.  We have had the reported death of ‘Grumpy Cat’, a cat famous on the net for looking, well, grumpy.  The world mourned. There were the discoveries in New Zealand of 30 million year old fossils of 4 metre high emus and of penguins the height of a human. There was then the declaration by someone who has recently married an actress that they are going to have at most two children in order to minimise their impact on the environment. The proposed changes to the rest of their somewhat lavish lifestyle and their use of private jets seem not to have been reported...(continue)
Words we may not use

29 July 2019

The English language tsar, Jacob William Rees-Mogg esquire, has spoken and told us what we may and may not say.  We may not use words such as ‘very’, ‘unacceptable’ ‘lot’ (we don’t know which meaning is proscribed – a large quantity, destiny, something put up for auction, a film set etc), ‘ascertain’, ‘disappointment’, ‘speculate’, and ‘equal’.  Now for a multi-millionaire Conservative M.P. I can see that the word ‘equal’ may be an unacceptable (oops) socialist concept.  I suppose that a lot of his clients would not want to be reminded that to speculate is the essence of the business of which he was CEO, a fund management firm, Somerset Capital Management.  He is still a partner in the business.  They would not wish to have the disappointment of learning that the firm which he co-founded necessarily follows an investment strategy based on speculation...(continue)
The power of positive thinking and a can-do attitude

26 July 2019
It seems that our new PM (the Piffle Minister) believes that a can-do attitude and positivity will gain us the prize of a deal with the EU without the need for an Irish backstop.  I’m sure that he’s right, as he is with so many other things, such as figures on the sides of buses and the source of the regulations governing the sending of kippers through the post.
But what I wanted to think about was the power of positive thinking.  Every so often in the past century there has been a self-help book which has caught the public imagination and sold in millions...(continue)
An excess of Human Rights?

18 July 2019

On Wednesday this week I happened to hear ‘Thought for the Day’.  It is part of the Today programme but, when I hear it come on, I generally find something else to listen to as it is normally too full of platitudes. On this occasion, however, the speaker was not a Bishop, but a Parliamentary lawyer, Daniel Greenberg, and so I decided to give it a go.  He said that Article 2 of the 1st Protocol to the ECHR, which makes a right to education a human right, also provides that the State must "respect the right of parents to ensure that the education of children is in conformity with the religious and philosophical conviction of the parents". (continue)
Honesty, Wallets and Humanism

10 July 2019
A research paper appearing at the beginning of July this year in the American Academy of Science magazine,  a magazine called, with creative flair, ‘Science’, reports an international experiment into our honesty.  It says in the introduction:

... Psychological models based on self-image maintenance, however, predict that people will cheat for profit but only so long as their behaviour does not require them to negatively update their self-concept.  However, it is unclear, without evidence, whether self-image concerns will become more or less important as the incentives for dishonesty increase and also what form that relationship will take.

In other words, even if I will not be caught, does being able to continue to think of myself as an upright citizen, and not a thief, outweigh the benefit of nicking the cash? (continue)
The influence and effects of CO2

25 June 2019
The other day we were on our way to a recycling centre which, ironically, is not accessible by public transport.  On the motorway we overtook a lorry. On its side it advertised the fact that it was delivering the sort of oil we use in our cars, made, or perhaps I should say refined, by BP.  After the problems encountered by the Sackler family in giving away money in sponsorship of the arts, we now have Sir Mark Rylance bringing to an end 30 years of involvement with the Royal Shakespeare Company because of its continued sponsorship by BP.  Sir Mark’s involvement with the RSC was in any event rather strange as he considers that the works attributed to Shakespeare were in fact written by another knight, Sir Francis Bacon.  But although BP subsidises tickets for the under 25’s, he is concerned that BP in its day job is also one of the main ‘sponsors’  of global warming.  He finds this unacceptable...(continue)

14 May 2019
We have just witnessed an unusual event. The Emperor of Japan has abdicated and his son has taken over the role. The outgoing Emperor and his son are of course descendants of the Japanese Sun God and so are deities in their own rights. Even though Japan is a society which depends on industry and technology for its position as one of the richest nations on earth, evidently they have a regard for the traditions of the past, as their ceremonies, little-changed over the centuries, still invoke the god-like status of their rulers.  But the royal family has changed. Emperor Hirohito, in power during the second world war, was a strong supporter of Japanese aggression, encouraging a form of extreme populist nationalism which resulted in an early version of suicide bombers and brutal treatment of prisoners of war. His son Akihito is a pacifist, as is probably his grand-son, the new emperor, Naruhito. The just-abdicated Emperor is very much respected by his people for his efforts in changing the attitude of his country from that of populist hostility to the outside world to that of friendship...(continue)
The proceeds of slavery

5 May 2019
Cambridge University has announced an inquiry into the way it benefited from the slave trade. It seems that those who have profited from injustice should compensate their victims even unto the seventh generation.  After the Second World War, Germany was called upon to restore stolen property to its owners or compensate them for its loss. The identities of the Jewish families wronged, the Nazi wrongdoers and the relationship between original victims and surviving family members, were all the subject of good evidence. The loss claimed for was quantifiable.  Compensation made sense.  As time passes, however, the connection between the descendants of the wrongdoer and wronged becomes more tenuous. I’m not sure how any individual descendant of a slave could show a justifiable claim to compensation from any particular person or institution at this stage.  More recent events, good or ill, occurring well after the abolition of enslavement will have had a major effect on peoples’ lives making them richer or poorer and so will have made any serious attempt to show an individual’s right to compensation for the enslavement to be impossible...(continue)

28 March 2019
I was fascinated to read a 4 page spread in Hello! about Ariana Rockefeller, the well-known philanthropist and heiress of the immensely rich Rockefeller family.  It took a while for the garage to balance my new tyres and I’d finished the Daily Mail provided in the reception area.  In the profile she told the reporter how important a work ethic was to her, something which she’d learned from her family, and how much time she spent dealing with her philanthropic organisations.  When in New York, she lives not in her own house or apartment, but in a huge suite at the Mark Hotel - “the most boldly lavish hotel in New York City”.   She is quoted as saying: “They make my favourite cocktail as soon as I walk into the bar. They save my favourite table in the restaurant for me. They do everything for me. You can’t put a price on that.”  The $57,000 a night apparently charged for the penthouse suite by the Mark may be a clue as to how the system functions.  Poor little rich girl; nice to be cosseted for love, not money....(continue)

27 February 2019
I have never thought that what the world really needed was another Paul Buckingham.  I have always thought that one was more than enough.  I am conscious, though, that I am in a minority when it comes to being (or not) family-orientated. Although families aren’t generally as big as they were, there is still a desire to produce a Mini-me or two. From my rather selfish point of view, that is a good thing as, hopefully, when I am exceedingly old there will be younger people around who will be able to look after me – for a fee of course.

Although a family in the UK tends on average to have just under two children, there are of course exceptions. The super-rich seem to have numerous children, rather like the potentates of old. And then of course, at the other end of the income scale, there is the perception that people on benefits have lots of children. This appears to be such a problem that the Universal Credit System will not make any additional payment to parents in respect of a 3rd
or subsequent child born from now on...(continue)
Conspiracy theories - the business model.

25 February 2019
What is really happening in the world?  Of course, for enlightenment, we cannot depend on the traditional press and their fake news. Our friend Mr Trump tells us that all the newspapers and media outlets (apart from Fox News) are in the pockets of the super-rich and, obviously, these billionaires have their own agenda.  This is even more clear now when, thanks to the internet, we know that the super-rich are a part of the 'deep state', the group of characters that truly control the world - also known as the "Illuminati".  There are those who pour scorn on such an idea. Fortunately though, there are others ready to defend the truth about this state within a state...(continue)
Pseuds Corner

7 February 2019
In the satirical magazine Private Eye there is a column called ‘Pseuds Corner' which pokes fun at pretentiousness in the arts and the media. There have been such gems as Sir Paul McCartney's poem -

Sadness isn't sadness;
it's happiness
in a black jacket
Death isn't death;
it's life
that's jumped off a tall cliff.
Tears are not tears;
They're balls
Of laughter dipped in salt. 
However, the one which really took my eye was from Guardian feature writer Laura Barton a few years ago, who wrote -

"We (women) are just as obsessed and infatuated as men. We love music just as hard. It's just that we don't exhibit that obsession, that love, through an alphabetised record collection. You want to know how I store my records? I put the ones next to each other that I think would be friends. I suppose that you could call that emotional;  I call it womanly."     (continue)

How to spend the Science budget

21 January 2019
It seems that CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), just outside Geneva, is not large enough. When it was constructed, with its 28 km circumference tunnel, it was designed to be big enough to find out whether or not the Higgs boson existed. This had been predicted to exist, as theory said that it was the particle needed to give mass to all the other sub-atomic particles. No, I have no idea either. Where we once just had protons, electrons and neutrons, we now have a menagerie of particles. They came into view when physicists started to fire the particles they knew about at each other to see what happened. The LHC is the latest and most powerful version of the technology used for the task...(continue)

1 January 2019
It seems that the concept of sovereignty is very much to the fore amongst Brexiteers. Apparently they are determined we should regain it. It seems it has not been available to us since we joined the EEC/EU.  If I’m honest about it though, it’s not something I'd thought about very much over the years. Indeed, as a concept, it seems to me to relate more to the time when we had kings and queens, colonies and outposts of empire – a time when we had actual sovereigns and ruled a large part of the globe. An exception, Oliver Cromwell, who did for Charles I and became “The Lord Protector”, was regarded merely as a dictator, rather than a sovereign because he was not of kingly lineage. He did in fact try to create a lineage. The army wanted him to ensure a succession and so he nominated as his successor as Lord Protector his eldest surviving son, Richard Cromwell. Richard, however, rather unwisely reduced the amount of money going to the army and so the army decided it was time to go back to real kings instead.   But any sovereign worthy of the name was, by definition, a dictator.  And as we can now see, there is no such thing as a kingly lineage, just children who have succeeded in taking over from their parents as the dictator of the moment. The ‘royal line’ has in fact been a succession of ‘royal lines’ over the millennia.... (continue)
A Christmas Story

23 December 2018
... as told to me by my close friend and fellow filosofer, Mr Thomas Jeffries:

It had been a restless night, but suddenly I awoke with a feeling of premonition.  At that moment, the radio came on and the sonorous chimes of Big Ben could be heard, as if portending something of great moment. As they stopped, the Radio 4 newsreader began the midnight news-bulletin with words which shook me to the core. She said “the Government has decided that Mr Thomas Jeffries, the well-known philosopher and a leading citizen of Coleshill, someone generally accepted to be a person of great wisdom, has been given the responsibility of deciding whether or not the concept of Father Christmas should be abolished.  He will announce his decision in 24 hours time.”.

I was at first utterly at a loss to know what to do, but then, having decided that I should accept the challenge in the national interest, I started to think over the questions which it raised.

There is first of all the patriarchal aspect to all of this. The hero of Christmas is a man.  Mother Christmas does appear in some versions of the tale, but only as a helper and with nothing like the same status as Father Christmas himself. It has been reported in the Times that Egloshayle Parish Council in Cornwall has attempted to overcome this by advertising the post of Father Christmas on a non-gender specific basis. They have not though stated whether the successful candidate will be called ‘Father’ Christmas or ‘Mother’ Christmas.

Obviously a bearded man self-identifying as a woman would be an ideal candidate, but this to me seems unduly restrictive.

19 November 2018
It is generally accepted that the idea of democracy originated in the city of Athens. I am not convinced that this is true, however.  There are, even now, some tribes found in remote forests that work by consensus - i.e. democratically - rather than being subject to the diktat of a leader or a group of "potentates", and there's no reason to think that this is a modern phenomenon.  But we can, I suppose, accept that the Athenians were the first occupants of a city to adopt such a system. There was, however, a recurring anxiety for the Athenians: were the people in fact hopeless at making decisions, incapable of intelligent consideration? Were they instead all too easily influenced by spurious arguments and manipulated by unscrupulous rhetoricians hungry for power?  After all, Boris is not a new phenomenon...(continue)
The Perils of Perception

27 November 2018
... In principle this approach - theory, experiments, modification of the theory and ... repeat - can be used not only in science but also in other spheres of life. The difficulty, however, is that we have preconceived ideas of how the political world works and how it should work. This difficulty exists in the fact that our prejudices have the status of a religion (in the broadest sense) and therefore prevent us from wanting to challenge them or to believe the results of each "experiment", or detailed investigation of what happened in the past, that would indicate something contrary to our prejudices. We say that everyone has the right to believe in what he wants to believe and therefore there is no real motivation, as in science, to correct our mistakes. We admire those who stick to their beliefs or their principles and criticize those who are without principles....(continue)
Self-driving cars and morality

4 November 2018
... The New Scientist article gives the example of an autonomous car travelling along a road when its brakes fail. Should it carry straight on and hit a pregnant woman, a doctor and a criminal on a pedestrian crossing, or swerve into a barrier so avoiding the people on the crossing, but instead killing all the occupants of the self-driving car, a family of four? This, the article tells us, is the kind of scenario included in the 'Moral Machine’ experiment, a survey on the internet of millions of people in 233 countries and territories worldwide, the results of which were published on 24th October in the much-respected science journal Nature. Participants were asked to consider different scenarios in which those saved by the car’s decision might be, for example, fat or fit, young or old, pets or criminals or those with important jobs. In total, 40 million decisions in 10 languages were collected. So, an impressive gathering of data. ... (continue)
Political agitation and violence ... But the question of civil disobedience continues to be important. The film "Suffragette" encourages its audience in thinking that civil disobedience is justified because it produces a just end. Obviously, now, the vast majority of people accept that women are as intelligent and as capable of making rational decisions as men (which doesn't say much!). Giving them the right to vote, therefore, is seen as a fair and just outcome. But in the past? Before the changes in the 20th century, the vast majority (including most women) would have thought otherwise. Why? Because it was received wisdom. It was only in the light of the obvious evidence of their true abilities that 'received wisdom' was brought into question. And so finally there was a general acceptance that the 'wisdom' of centuries made no sense. But it had been a realisation that came in parallel with the realisation that the right to vote should not be limited just to land-owners either. Therefore there was a general evolution in the thinking of that era. Now it seems to me that for somebody of a contrary opinion, violence is not a convincing argument...(continue)
Brexit - conservative and liberal thought

10 October 2018
.... But. But it seems to me that there is now a political situation in which conservatives from all sides of the political spectrum are in a position to triumph, and this in a very costly way. I am talking, of course, about Brexit and the possibility of a Brexit without agreement or a Brexit 'Lite' agreement. The history of the European Union and the United Kingdom has been very fractious. Political parties have adopted various policies at various times. Churchill and the Americans, after the second war, encouraged the formation in 1950 of the Coal & Steel Community. This was of course an attempt to encourage commerce, but not only to promote economic growth. It was also intended to decrease the likelihood of another war. Churchill did not see the need for us to be part of this group. We had the 'Commonwealth' to trade with...(continue)
Identity politics and "The end of history"

3 October 2018
Francis Fukuyama has written another book, to be published in October this year (2018). In one of his previous books, the much discussed "The End of History and the Last Man", Fukuyama saw the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of ideological conflict in the world. He said that Western liberal democracy was the final ideological phase of human evolution. Democracy had won. A courageous belief. He warned us in the book, however, that he may have overestimated the ability of liberal democracy to provide peace and personal satisfaction. He says in "Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment" that we can now see that this expression of uncertainty was necessary. He has decided that the main difficulty we have is the perception among people that peace and relative prosperity, which normally accompany liberal democracy, are not sufficient. People also want dignity; recognition of their personal difficulties. The absence of this recognition creates resentment. And so we come to the politics of identity so common today. His new book apparently describes the difficulties we have as a result....(continue)
Artificial Intelligence

14 September 2018
... now, we have emerged from the impasse, because scientists have taken the next step - the neural network. They have simulated our brain’s neural structure in order to allow a computer to learn from first principles how something functions or the essence of a collection of things. From the information furnished, the network is capable of deriving common factors, just as we and our brains do.  They can then apply this knowledge to situations which were not included in the original examples. For example, given thousands of photos of lots of different varieties of dogs and cats, all labelled correctly, the network can distinguish dogs from cats in other unlabelled photos with a very high success rate. We have seen though that they can be used for other more useful things. They can identify cancer cells, or identify the changes at cellular level which will result in blindness if not diagnosed very early.  Often, it is not obvious how the network has arrived at its conclusion. Thus, these networks give the impression of an actual intelligence, rather than the traditional computer which we know to be incapable of freeing itself from the bounds of its prescriptive software.  Although we are only at the beginning of this new approach, we are even now seeing notable results....  (continue)
The polluter should pay - quite a lot

21 August 2018
There is an island off the coast of Virginia, USA. It has the unlikely name of Tangier. Almost 100% of the inhabitants are  descendants of immigrants who came mainly from Cornwall in the eighteenth century. They speak a form of English that, according to some, still reflects its ancient origins. In the sense that they don't need a policeman or locks on their doors it is a kind of utopia - albeit at the price of not having alcohol for sale on the island! They are religious fundamentalists.

The island is quite small, with an area of only 3.2 square kilometres. There was a population of 727 people in 2010, which has now decreased to only 460, and it's population is getting older, in view of the difficulty young people have in finding a job on the crab fishing boats.  But the main difficulty for the island is that it now has a maximum height of one and a half meters above sea level. It has already lost at least half of its surface area to the sea over the years, and the risk of global warming to its existence is obvious. But not to them. They believe that it is not a matter of rising sea levels, but of coastal erosion. They don't accept the science relating to climate change. For this reason they propose a stone wall around what remains of the island. But not too high - they don’t want to disturb their view...(continue)
Evolution, politics and democracy

22 March 2018
Having lived for the vast majority of our existence as a species under a system of government which depended on a chief of some type – a tribal chief, a king or a dictator – we live now in an era in which democracy is the most widespread political system. It seems to have taken over. I am though concerned about its longevity and how firmly rooted it is.  It is worth noting that the original UN constitution made no reference to democracy until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. It was only in 1999 that the UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man was modified to include:

“the right to full participation and other fundamental democratic rights and other liberties inherent in any democratic society.”

The result? Almost every government now proclaims itself to be a democracy. This is hypocrisy for many, but they think that they ought to pretend because it is the preferred international model. They can often lie with impunity because it is difficult to show that a country is not in fact a democracy....(continue)
Privacy -
Sir Cliff Richard v BBC
The High Court has now issued its judgement in the case of Sir Cliff Richard v BBC. Sir Cliff was suing for damages for breach of privacy. He had already received a payment of £400,000 from the South Yorkshire Police who had revealed to the BBC in 2014 that they were going to search his penthouse in a gated development in Berkshire. The BBC turned out in force to cover the search, complete with a helicopter filming overhead. It was on the TV on all channels throughout the day and in the press, both here and abroad, for a long time afterwards....(continue)
Sport - World Cup 2018
On the terrace of the apartment in France where I am writing this, I can hear the horns of the cars being driven into town in advance of the World Cup Final. It’s between France and Croatia this afternoon. We’re almost alone in the building here in Annecy.  I imagine that our neighbours are in the bars, the hotels or the piazzas (where big screens have been put up) in order to watch the game with others who share the same passion.   At the restaurant where we had lunch today, even while we were having our dessert, the restaurant itself was being prepared around us to receive a hundred or so supporters for the match, with supplies of beer and a huge screen – obviously all that was necessary for a match.  Sport is, of course, principally a group activity.   Obviously there are the other participants necessary for an activity which is inherently competitive in nature. But there aren’t many participants who would take part without a public, small or large, to cheer for them. In England, there were around 25 million watching the TV during the England - Croatia semi-final, each one at the final whistle in a state of nervous exhaustion...(continue)
Take the Train - railway time and execution excursions I’m not really into trains, but a little while ago there was a programme on BBC4 concerning the story of the train and its effect on all our lives. I found it unexpectedly fascinating. When I think of a train, I think of a timetable.  It’s difficult to manage a rail system without one. Overtaking is rather difficult because all the trains depend on the same railway tracks. In fact this limitation was at the root of the standardisation of time across the nation. Initially it was known as ‘Railway Time’ a concept introduced by Great Western Railways in 1849. It was the first recorded example of the standardisation of local time and it spread throughout the entire rail system in that year....(continue)
Definitions and Transsexuality

23 January 2018
It seems that transsexuality is now a particularly delicate subject. There is a determination by a vociferous part of the transsexual community to be seen simply as women, even though they are not, whether genetically or by their experience of life.   But these distinctions are not apparently important. We now have various self-proclaimed spokespeople for the movement. They insist that we recognise as women every person who self-identifies as a woman.  And this regardless of their genes, their secondary sexual characteristics or even if they have decided to live in any real sense as a woman.  Thus after or before a transition and with or without the intention to make a transition.  And this self-identification is apparently to be for all purposes. Obviously this is something which produces a series of difficulties....(continue)
Asymmetric relationships When parents produce a child there is from the beginning, and for very many years, an asymmetry in their relationship. Normally the parents provide everything which is necessary until the time when the adult can maintain himself. Exactly when this moment will arrive is very variable. In England, although we have a problem relating to affordable housing, there is a tendency amongst the young to fly the nest as soon as they can, something not necessarily replicated in other countries, like France and Italy. The difference can be explained in part, at least, by the law. Here in the UK, responsibility for a child finishes at the age of 18. In other countries, where the law is based on the Napoleonic Code, it is more generous. In 2016, an Italian court decided that a father should continue to be responsible for the maintenance of his son (a ‘child’ of 28) until he had finished his doctorate in, I think, sociology. But it is not totally asymmetric because, in those countries, the children are legally obliged to maintain their parents...(continue)
Poverty & inequality - a local TED talk giving the French perspective
...And so I chose the video of the talk recorded at the TED conference in the Haute Savoie supporting the idea of universal Income, in the hope that I would at last find something convincing in the argument. The person giving the talk asked us to keep in mind the importance of the number 9 – apparently wealth in France is held as to 90% by the 10% of the people at the top and the remaining 10% of the wealth is in the hands of the other 90% of the population. He continued on the same theme, with 9% unemployment in France and the 9 million who live in poverty. To solve all these problems and several others, he said that the answer was Universal Income. I wasn’t convinced by his arguments as to the solution or of his explanation of the problems.....(continue)
"I was here before you" - some thoughts on patriotism

13 February 2018
You hear this in the play area and elsewhere where kids want to stake out their territories. Taken literally, it’s simply a statement of fact, but it brings with it a claim to the right to be there to the exclusion of everyone else. I don’t know why the fact of being there gives a right to exclude others. There’s no obvious logic to it, but it seems to be a common conception.  And it’s not confined to kids. The very idea of a queue depends on the same principle and, in view of our reputation for queuing, we can say that we British must be very territorial.  On the other hand, we teach our kids to be courteous, to say “No after you, I insist”. So then, to maintain at all costs our position in a queue seems to be a bit inconsistent....(continue)
Brexit - why the Germans are unlikely to cut us any slack
Following the decision to leave the EU and agreement on the so-called divorce settlement, the question now is the terms upon which we will be able to continue to trade with our former European partners. The Brexiteers have told us that the EU countries will be eager to do a deal with us in view of the fact that we import more from them than they import from us. This they say applies especially to Germany which exports so many of its cars to us.

But since the vote, Germany has consistently told us that when Britain leaves the EU access to the single market for trade will be restricted unless the UK both accepts the four freedoms which underpin the whole concept of the Single Market and also makes a financial contribution to the EU....(continue)

Brexit - the divorce settlement

... and so with the conclusion of this agreement, we now know quite clearly that:

Goods & services

a. We're definitely leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market and so can adopt any regulatory framework we like; and

b. Unless the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Assembly agree otherwise. we're going to maintain alignment (i.e. comply) with all the regulations required for membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market. And, of course, there is no Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment to give its agreement. Just MLAs being paid to kick their heels. ...

Memes, Dodos & Donald Trump That ideas spread is not a new insight. But it was given new impetus in 1976 by Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene’. In this, he coined the word ‘meme’ which he defined as "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". He saw it as analogous to a gene and so subject to the same evolutionary pressures as them. In particular, he said that they were subject to natural selection based on their fitness to survive. Now, as we know, fitness to survive in organisms is not a quality which is easy to recognise in advance. There are so many variables that we normally take the easy path and simply recognise that such fitness must have existed in those organisms which have in fact survived.

And so it is with memes. Who would have thought that gin would becomes so popular again? Gin was known as “mother’s ruin” in the 18th and 19th centuries, the preferred drink at golf clubs and amongst the upper middle classes in the 20th century and increasingly out of fashion in the 21st century. But since 2010 it has had a resurgence with the production of a swathe of craft gins popular with hipsters. Apparently the effect is a result of the influence of one part Downton Abbey and one part James Bond - shaken not stirred....(continue)
"The past is a different country, they do things differently there” In his novel “The Go-between”, Leslie P Hartley wrote: “the past is a different country; they do things differently there”. I don’t know anyone who has read his book, but this phrase has become very well known – because it tells us a truth. Our morality has changed very much, not just over the course of millennia or centuries, but even over the last few decades. I’m reminded of this because this year we have seen the homosexual community celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passing of a law to decriminalise the practice of homosexuality in private between consenting adults. But if we look more closely at the effect of this Act of Parliament, we can see in retrospect that 1967 marked only the beginning of a slow change which would take a long time to unfold....(continue)
Diversity and Inclusion - a concern
In the beginning was the Race Relations Act 1965. It was quite revolutionary for its time and made unlawful a new category of behaviour which for millennia had been regarded as perfectly acceptable - looking after your own at the expense of the incomer, the foreigner (in the widest sense).  For the first time, the law banned racial discrimination in public places.   For the first time, also, it made illegal the encouragement of an emotion - hatred - on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”.  Of course, as a moral statement, it had something of the magician’s ‘smoke and mirrors’ about it, as controls on immigration remained.  So then we were against discrimination, but only for those already here or for the relative few permitted to come here by our immigration laws.  Which meant that most of the world was in fact kept out of our newly-benign regime.  But although our new-found morality began and stayed at home, the Statute was criticised by some for being little short of the introduction of ‘thought crime’...(continue)
Wealth Certainly, there are many who argue that equality is something to be aimed at, although when you ask people if they really mean equality or simply less inequality, they are likely to choose the second.  Defining how far to take the lessening of inequality then becomes an exercise in the measuring of the length of a piece of string.  The concept of inequality, however, was given fresh impetus when this year's wealth comparisons were issued by Oxfam. They told us that the 8 richest people in the world (all men) have wealth equal in value to the bottom 50% of the world’s population. Last year it took the top 64 wealthiest people to achieve this rather strange form of equality.  So then the world is in this sense becoming less equal.  It’s a striking comparison. But ..(continue).
The regulation of information
I imagine that we are all in favour of freedom. This is something our ancestors fought for and that we keep in mind when deciding who to vote for.  But, at the same time, over the centuries, we have agreed to many laws that limit what we can do. There are of course our many criminal laws, but there is also the law of defamation - this penalizes us if we falsely accuse someone-else of doing something naughty.  But until quite recently, there was no privacy law in this country. That has changed in our computer age with its ability to spread information around in ways unheard of before: privacy is no longer just a problem for a few individuals, but for millions of people...(continue) 
A somewhat forlorn wish for 2017 St Paul defined faith or belief, rather poetically, as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Belief is a strange thing. It is an acceptance that something is true even though there is a lack of evidence to support it. Beliefs though are a normal part of our lives. We mostly have faith in our nearest and dearest that they will act in our best interests. We believe that the food we buy will be fit to eat if we consume it before the use-by date. We (most of us) accept that going on a plane is highly likely to get us to our destination in safety, even if the same cannot be said about our luggage.  Mainly we base our beliefs on past experience.  Indeed, living our lives would be so much harder and time-consuming if we did not rely on our past experience.  We would have, somehow, to check everything out from scratch to see if it was safe or advisable.  Our reliance on past dealings in fact brings with it a continuity in our actions and thinking. And the world-wide business model depends upon it...(continue)
How to handle a Brexit So now we have a decision of the High Court saying that the government cannot use the Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50.

The howls of outrage from the Brexiteers have had to be heard to be believed - how could the Courts possibly justify interfering in the democratic process?  Michael Fabricant said in the Commons on the day of the announcement that the decision was 'deplorable'.  Did he think that our judges were acting politically or was he saying that his knowledge of the law was so superior to that of our judges that he could be contemptuous of their reasoning?  Or was he perhaps alleging that they had been got at in some way?  I think we should be told...(continue)
How (not) to become Prime minister Obviously there are many attributes necessary for becoming the head of a country like the UK. Having self-confidence is a fundamental quality but this needs to be allied with intelligence and the knowledge appropriate to the post. But according to Andrea Leadsom, it is also necessary to be a mother or, perhaps, a father. She complained loudly that the article in the Times was not a true reflection of the interview with the journalist Rachael Sylvester. Fortunately it was recorded and this showed that there was no inaccuracy. Without doubt, Mrs Leadsom’s decision to withdraw from the contest had a number of reasons behind it. Not the least of these was the lack of support amongst the other MPs and the resulting risk of a situation similar to the problem now suffered by the Labour Party – a leader with the support of the members, but with the support of only 20% of her colleagues in parliament. The exaggeration in her CV also played a part, but I am persuaded that the fallout from the interview with the Times played the principle role in her decision...(continue)
The (dis)United Kingdom

23 June 2016
We were never unconditional friends of the European Union, but now our country has decided to engage in collective self-harm. The majority has decided to quit the EU with no idea of the consequences. Having taken the view that Europe has nothing to offer us and that all the experts and all the organisations with the knowledge necessary to inform us of the consequences were liars, they have voted for an isolationist future. Our Prime Minister has decided to resign and we will probably have Boris Johnson as his successor, someone very popular with his fan base, just like Donald Trump, and just as much a deceitful opportunist as Donald Trump...(continue) 
The end of illness – thank you Facebook! It seems that as a result of a donation of $3 billion from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Ms. Chan, we can anticipate the end of disease. To be precise, they say that their goal is "to treat, prevent or manage" all the diseases to which we are subject by the end of the century.  They are promising to spend $3 billion - over the next ten years.  But last year they said they had decided to bequeath 99% of their fortune (estimated at $55 billion) not to their children, but to charitable purposes able to benefit humanity in general.  I suppose therefore that this promise must be taken into account in their grand vision. But since they are not exactly old, we have to hope that they will have a fairly short life expectancy - for the greater good, of course...(continue)
Anger and the post-truth era Anger is a strange emotion. It is a reaction to what we perceive as a wrong done to us or to someone for whom we care. Anger wants to inflict some sort of payback, revenge. That this is not always possible or even desirable is something which we have to learn as children and probably then again as adults. Some people are more inclined to feel or show anger than others. Some make a virtue of its control. Others are proud of their unwillingness to control it. Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, argues that anger makes little sense. She says:...(continue)
Self-driving cars, accidents and the trolley problem The trolley problem, a thought experiment, is famous for making us face up to difficult choices. What is proposed is that a heavy trolley is coming along a railway track, at speed, in the direction of a set of points. You can decide to leave things as they are and so just let the trolley carry on, in which case it will kill 6 people who are, by chance, tied to the line. Alternatively, you can switch the points so that the trolley goes down a side line instead. This choice would mean that there would be only one person killed, someone who had the misfortune to be tied to that other line. Most people say that they would send the trolley hurtling down the side line. ...(continue)
Insults, real or imaginary We live in a world where racism is a real problem for many people, but I'm not convinced that the attempts to combat it by their self-proclaimed champions always make a lot of sense. For example, it seems that, for an English person to put on a sombrero in a university bar to accompany drinking a tequila is a gross insult to the Mexican nation. It diminishes them. It is an example of micro-aggression which is now unacceptable in civilised society – or at least in a sub-group of that society – the academic community. There are other people, however, who consider that taking the Mickey out of a nation or an individual is not always an act of racism....(continue)
Populism Why is it that every so often we have the triumph of a Corbyn or a Tsipras, a Marine Le Pen or a Nigel? What is that they offer which mainstream politicians fail to provide? First of all, we should note the obvious fact that the new pretenders are not all of the same political persuasion. The first two are of course on the far left and the other two are far to the right in standard political language. But whether left or right they each have something which resonates with their audiences. But I would suggest however that it is not the political programme which they propound which wins them their popularity. Obviously their words enshrine their political thoughts, such as they are, but It seems to me that these are a secondary factor. The more important one is the nature of the people to whom they are talking. It seems to me that they all think in the same way. They wish to live in a fairy-tale world....(continue)
Charlie Hebdo In the English newspapers, there was a near unanimity of opinion after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and then the supermarket, Hyper Cacher. Obviously all the journalists thought that there was a need to support the principle of freedom of expression, the right to offend included, and horror at the attack on the Jews in the supermarket simply because they were Jews. But. But there are many questions raised which don't have an easy answer...(continue)
A Slippery Slope?

July 2014

...But what we see in opposition to the Assisted Dying Bill is the deployment of an argument which I have never understood – "we're on a slippery slope" or “one thing inevitably leads to another”. They predict a free for all, with death upon demand...(continue)

Politics & principles and getting elected

June 2014

This week, we have seen a prime minister acting out of principle, apparently. He has opposed the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the President of the Commission of the European Union. This was not just for immediate political gain within his party, but because he says that Mr Juncker will take Europe in the wrong direction. He has been a part of the European clique of federalists who have wanted to diminish the identity and importance of individual nations and transfer that power to the centre – to Brussels. It seems that David Cameron sees Mr Juncker as wanting to be a powerful supra-national President, rather than a civil servant helping to serve the individual nations by ensuring that Brussels has the minimum of power needed to enable the EU to act as a successful trading bloc...(continue)

The Nasty Party- Mark 2

...it seems that now we have another candidate for the title "the Nasty Party": my favourite cartoon party – UKIP. The MEP Godfrey Bloom said the other day:

"How we can possibly be giving £1bn a month, when we're in this sort of debt, to Bongo Bongo Land is completely beyond me. To buy Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it that goes with most of the foreign aid. F18s for Pakistan. We need a new squadron of F18s. Who's got the squadrons? Pakistan, where we send the money.".

All the journalists criticised him for his use of the pejorative term 'Bongo Bongo Land', to describe the third world. But opinion was divided on the question of continuing to give foreign aid when we ourselves need to borrow so much to continue to survive as a country...(continue)

A Petition

I was waiting for Heather who was looking for a new handbag in a shop in Annecy. I decided not to be involved. Opposite the shop there was a big catholic church. It's an old church which has been renovated recently at our expense – i.e. the rate payers of Annecy. And so I decided to go in and have a quick look at the inside. As usual in French churches it was a bit dark, but in the shadows I saw a leaflet entitled “One of Us”. It continued:

  To protect the embryo in Europe. The operation “One of Us” is a European Citizen Initiative, a new tool of participative democracy. The principal objective: to stop the financing of research on human embryos* while the 2014 – 2020 budget is being discussed.
Objective: 60,000 signatures before summer 2013 

More than a petition, it is a vote!


Inertia - conservative and liberal thought
Newton's laws of motion tell us that a body will continue to travel with the same velocity unless acted on by another force. That force may accelerate it or slow it down. But the tendency to carry on in a straight line is, of course, its inertia. Inertia is not though confined to the realm of physics. Economics, too, has its own brand of inertia - goodwill. Goodwill has been defined as the likelihood that a customer will return to do business with you again and again. It is, or ought to be, a very valuable part of any company’s balance sheet. But like so many aspects of economics, we are not here looking at some abstract mathematical notion. We are looking at the way that we as human beings act. ... (continue)

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