Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life's transitions

Putting aside the many mini-transitions of school, the first significant life transition I recall was in my mid-twenties. Suddenly all the people hanging-out and going to parties were younger than me: my own age-cohort was moving on. A couple of years later I was married and starting a career in computer programming.

I don't really recall any transitions in my thirties through to my fifties. I got more senior but somehow we were all 'in it together' - same culture, same pre-occupations, same corporate-speak.

The strange transition to being old has come upon me slowly. Over the last few years I've come to be detached from those 30-50-somethings. It's some visceral thing, like all of life's transitions: nothing you can put your finger on, no qualitative decline in energy or cognition, just a sense that you've departed (or been ejected from) that younger cohort.

Is this the last transition? I don't think so. When I look at people half a generation up from me - folk in their late seventies and beyond (the'old old' as distinct from the 'young old') - I see another phase change, another transition in my potential future.

Transitions happen to you: they don't emerge from the inside. It's a collective, visceral judgement of a younger cohort - of reclassification and exclusion. It places a burden upon you of mental adjustment, to 'act your age' and to accept that you have to make a psychological transition, to match the social one already imposed upon you.

Ageism? No. I detect the signs of something deep in the human psyche.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Devonshire cottage

A weekend with Clare's niece and her husband in a Devon cottage, a few miles north of Bude.

Clare watches Le Tour in our cottage

A nearby Devon cove

The author - hey, lighten up there!

Picnic at Hartland Quay

Dinner at The Old Smithy

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Woke up recalling a dream where I was working as the new member of a Warehouse team - probably an Amazon elf. Awesome how the brain can create simulations of other people with their own personalities in dreams.

Then recalled that's how it is when you're awake as well. Everyone you deal with,  your brain has created a simulation model of them which you mistakenly believe to be 'out there' and objective.

Then thought. Applies to me too - I'm a self-model. No wonder other people are amazed at my self-delusions. Remind myself this is only what my simulations of them are saying -although these have proven remarkably accurate in the past.

How do stupid people create accurate simulations - in their sorry apologies for brains - of smart people?  Obviously they can't. Am reminded of how often my own predictions of other people's responses go awry.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Not so smart

I see the 'experts' are setting a date for ‘high–level machine intelligence’ = one that can carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human about 50 years out from now.

If they were really expert they would know just how stupid this proposition is. Consider this: you have never seen a self-hating computer system. To loathe yourself you have to be a multitude: one part standing judgement over another for its presumed failings. Poor design for artifacts, but comes with the territory for social creatures bent only on their best options for genetic-survival. Why build any of those on our own cute planet?

There's more to smart than passing heavily g-loaded IQ tests.


It's embarrassing, though, when you can't do the first question on an intelligence test for four year old kindergarten kids. Ambiguous picture, heh?


Lunch yesterday with my brother Adrian and mother in Bristol. I'm the one who never gets the celebrity PR right.

At the 'King Billy', Hallen

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The letter from hell

Clearing out my files today I found this wonderful letter, as sent to my parents when I was aged twenty (1971). Click on image to see full-sized. The arrogance and self-confidence of youth. I believe it was not well received; the point at the end - about the car - is particularly impressive.

I see I already posted this back in March 2011.

Truly the letter from hell

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Twenty seven years later

Views from the downstream and upstream bridges of the Ponte Vecchio, Florence. The early picture was taken, we think, in 1987; the later just a month ago. Twenty seven years.

28 days later

My first visit to the gym for twenty eight days. First it was our two weeks holidaying in France and Italy, then my week of food poisoning and finally my week of 'regaining strength'. Anyway, conscience doth make gym bunnies of us all and so today my toe was dipped once more into the breach.

Do you know how fast you lose fitness when you stop exercising? Exponentially. Usually I treat two kilometres (= 240 Calories) on the cross-trainer as a wholesome warm-up. Today, I made 1.1 km and then had to have a sit down. After a rest, and with Chris Froome-style willpower, I returned to the infernal machine .. and managed another 300 metres before l'abandon.

Aerobics done, it was time to hit the resistance machines, where I was pleasantly surprised to hit my three sets of 15 repetitions per machine. Pleased, that is, until I again ran out of energy and this time had to lie down. I pretended to be doing stretching exercises.

On my arrival, I had thought the staff would have noticed my long lay-off and had my excuses prepared. But they smiled as usual and when I laughingly confessed that I hadn't been for a while, they looked genuinely surprised and enquired "Why is that?"

I must stop thinking I am the centre of everyone's universe!

Friday, July 11, 2014

"Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy" by Rod Liddle

Hard to find anyone with a good word to say about Rod Liddle's latest. Here's Rob Killick's review, which tries to explain why.
Selfish Whining Monkeys by journalist Rod Liddle has had a good duffing-up by reviewers and commentators. Some of his harshest critics are, unsurprisingly, the sort of people Liddle blames in his book for many of the ills of modern life. David Aaronovitch, Will Self and Julie Burchill are among those who have lined up to put the boot in.

Why has Selfish Whining Monkeys, which, in style and content, is very much like Liddle’s popular column in The Sunday Times, had such a hostile response? Liddle could see this as proof that he has hit his target, as most of the hostile reviewers are part of what he characterises as the ‘faux left’, the metropolitan elite who ‘consider themselves left, or leftish, but whose views are either wholly irrelevant to the poorest indigenous sections of our society, or positively hostile towards them’.

And there you have the nub of why Self et al have attacked this book so viciously. The claim against Liddle is that his championing of the white working class, his opposition to immigration and his nostalgia for an overwhelmingly white, prelapsarian 1950s Britain (Liddle cites the decline of organised religion as one of the reasons for our current social malaise) automatically make him a racist. The critics do not prove this claim, preferring, as Aaronovitch does, to notice ‘the sly references to racial characteristics’. Self is subtle enough to suggest that Liddle may be suffering from a kind of false consciousness, that Liddle ‘thinks he believes’ he is not a racist but really he is, as evidenced by his use of words such as ‘tribe’ to describe the Muslim community.

If this sounds familiar it is because it is the same charge that has been made against the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its supporters over the past year. In many ways, Selfish Whining Monkeys could be a manifesto for UKIP. Each chapter is its own furious polemic against an aspect of modern life – schools, the class system, the aforementioned faux left, the EU, the free market, London. Like UKIP, Liddle professes to give a voice to those who have been disenfranchised by the congelation of political life into a ‘New Establishment’. In his column for The Times, Hugo Rifkind helpfully summed up what this New Establishment stands for:

‘I find myself perhaps belatedly realising, I am a man of strong establishment views. I am broadly Europhile and certainly unionist. That’s only half of it, though. I am also politically correct, feminist, environmentalist and avowedly multiculturalist. It’s a bit of a shock to realise these are all now establishment views; they certainly never used to be.’

Liddle’s crime, in the eyes of the New Establishment, is to claim to speak for those who feel they have been left behind by modern life. These days, as we saw with the media’s relentless campaign against UKIP leader Nigel Farage, this is enough to turn him into a pariah.

But his book is more than a simple Farage-style saloon-bar rant. Like his columns, it is also often very funny, self-deprecating and quick to notice the absurdities of modern life. He reflects on the aftermath of his Spectator column, ‘Dr Liddle’s Casebook’, in which he panned the claims that ME is a physical disease. Among those who wanted him prosecuted for hate crimes against ME sufferers was a woman who, Liddle recounts, was told by police ‘that the man [Liddle] was a well-known arsehole and it was best to ignore him’. ‘So common sense still exists in at least one constabulary, then’, is Liddle’s witty aside.

Liddle’s crime, in the eyes of the New Establishment, is to claim to speak for those who feel they have been left behind by modern life

He also picks up on other, less populist aspects of modern life which he finds distressing, such as the intrusion of the judiciary into political life, the rise of censorship and intolerance (he defends Muslims who burn Remembrance Day poppies in public), and the false ‘choices’ we are offered in public services. In defending democratic rights, especially free speech, he is firmly on the side of the democrats (with the egregious exception of his opposition to freedom of movement).

Liddle’s instinct is that of a satirist. Part of the cause of the vitriol hurled at him is that nobody likes being mocked. But I think what has really infuriated reviewers is that, in the process of mocking, Liddle often transgresses the New Establishment’s most stringent rule: You Can’t Say That.
I can't say that the book is really good. It's repetitive, some parts are frankly rather tedious and it's not funny enough. The observation that modern capitalism systematically undermines traditional social relationships was not even original in Marx's theory of alienation. And like all rants from the heart, it's one-sided and short on both analysis and remedy.

However, truths need restating every generation and Rod is saying some stuff which - as he is careful to point out - you don't get to hear either from The Economist-style 'let capitalism be free' right-wing or the smug, bien-pensant, faux-left monkeys who dominate our media (.. channelling Rod there for a moment).

His Sunday Times pieces, though, are better.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Burnham on Sea

On a whim, sunshine-related, we drove to the seaside today. Burnham-on-Sea was bathed in a chilly wind off the eponymous water which ruined the 'beach experience'. Our subsequent walk encompassed Morrison's, Lidl and a renovating pub which finally drove us out with over-amplified Jamaican ska.

On the way back we did the Burcott Mill tour: one thousand years of milling.

Clare, the concrete, the picnic, the cold wind, ...

The desultory donkey trade

Somewhere the sea ...

Thursday, July 03, 2014

1917 US Army IQ test; aliens; Cluny

1. Items - the US Army 1917 IQ Test

Showing the depth of my own stupidity, it took me hours to figure out that syntactically:
Lion : cat :: Dinosaur :  a) Mammal   b) Extinction   c) lizard   d)  Tyrannosaurus Rex
should be read as:
"Lion is to cat as Dinosaur is to ... choose one of the four following options."
The answer, by the way is c). So now we are all newly less stupid, it's time to take the test.


2. More on the Fermi Paradox

Carl Sagan was notorious for believing there were thousands and thousands of alien civilizations out there in the Milky Way and that they were all super-civilized and benevolent. Typical liberal astronomer. I recently reviewed "Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional—and What That Means for Life in the Universe" by David Waltham (who is a geologist with a contrary view) but I hadn't realised that the world is polarised between physicists and astronomers who think aliens are plentiful and biologists who think they are non-existent.

All is explained here.


3. Where we are inundated at Cluny, France

We arrived in Cluny, France (site of the famous mediaeval abbey) last Saturday evening after a sleepless night and a lengthy and exhausting drive up from Northern Italy. The weather was sunny, interspersed with violent thunderstorms. We pitched our tent and drove into Cluny, to the abbey which now houses, amongst other stuff, a restaurant. The outside tables were bathed in sunshine (also way too many flies but we were too fatigued to care) but mindful of the weather I pointed to a table under the canopy.

Our food arrived, and then this (video).

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


1. Dieting Aids

Recovering from a mild dose of food poisoning I note how my appetite has quite gone - the infamous 'illness diet'. Isolating the appetite-suppressing hormone involved would be the ultimate dieting aid, so how hard could it be? Very.

2. Monogamy

Stephen Pinker (in The Blank Slate) noted that monogamy has nothing to do with women's rights but is instead a conspiracy of weak men against the strong, so that every male gets a mate. He argued that most women would prefer to be the second wife of President Bill Clinton than the first wife of Bobo the Clown.

In fact, monogamy seems mostly to suit sedentary farmers and was adopted in European agrarian societies in the Dark Ages, if not before. Nomadic pastoralists are typically aggressive with an 'honour culture' involving high rates of inter-male violence, and presumably mortality. Is it any co-incidence that such cultures neither prescribe nor practice monogamy? Think the Arab tribes which were organised under Islam (four wives), or the Mongolian steppe nomads with their vast harems. Big problem when they settle down.

And don't get me started on selective female abortion (China, India) resulting in way too many males.

3. Cuckolding

Most males have a negative emotional reaction if their wife conceives a child by an unrelated male. The child is a cuckoo in the nest - the genetic implications are obvious.

Some time in the future, it will be possible for Mr and Mrs Average to have their gametes combined by a company which will sequence the pre-foetal DNA and make allele changes for improved health, beauty, intelligence and character. The resulting optimised offspring might well be genetically further from the father than that resulting from any conceivable adulterous mating by his wife.

How, actually, is he going to feel about that?