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Essay title Extract - to read the whole of the essay, just click on the title.
Eugenics 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)
Speciesism ... 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
We know it's difficult to make decisions. To choose between chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie is not easy for me.  How to choose? The equality of desire for two things, such as desserts, makes the choice very difficult, even when the outcome of the choice is not very important. But even I have to admit that there are things in life which are more important than dessert and there, surely, we make choices based on a rational consideration of the benefits and disadvantages for our lives? Yes?  Well maybe not...(continue)
The precautionary principle, bananas and pigs
... 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 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

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
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?
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
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 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)
Populism 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
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)
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)
Pseuds Corner
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
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)
Living with the consequences
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)
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)
Conspiracy theories - the business model. 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)
A Christmas Story 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) 
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 ... 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 ... 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 encourages its audience in thinking that it 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
.... 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"
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)
Artifical Intelligence ... 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)
Evolution, politics and democracy
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 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" 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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