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Essay title Extract - to read the whole of an essay, just click on its title or on '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)
A rather rambling essay, but one which doesn’t mention Cov....

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
It had been a restless night, and 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 Paul Buckingham, the well-known philosopher 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 this responsibility in the national interest, I started to think over the questions which it raised.(continue) 

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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