Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Cult of Null-A

In "The World of Null-A" (1945) and "The Pawns of Null-A" (1956) A. E. Van Vogt was writing as a disciple of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics. I was going to write some thoughts on this, where it is now etc, but of course Wikipedia got there well before me.

Many people from Lao Tsu onwards have observed that the map is not the territory; the world is too complex to be circumscribed by mere words - language misleads by imposing simplistic models and categories on an always-more-complex-and-dynamic reality. Characterising this insight as 'non-Aristotelian logic' (null-A) is intellectual catch-up.

The cult-aspect arises from training purporting to suppress mindless emotionalism in favour of rational responses to life's complexities. There is of course something to it - rationality can offer superior solutions - but pure rationality is motiveless: there's always some underlying biological impulse driving our actions. Who's to say that murderously lashing out isn't sometimes the right answer? Certainly not the game theorists who analyse the logic of revenge. Suppressing your own emotions subcontracts your goals to those of others (the corporation, the state) while nullifying kindness, mercy or empathy.

Null-A's unemotional, hyper-rational supermen seem more like idealised Gestapo agents than heroes to me, although Van Vogt clearly liked them.*


On a related topic, the prospects of genetically engineering our children never goes away, with daily reporting of advances in genetic sequencing, analysis and engineering. The professionally-horrified (it's ethically wrong to play God) seem to think we'd all elect for a kind of bland niceness: beautiful/handsome clone-ish people, uniformly smart and nice.

Game theory applies here as well: if the majority elected to have their children fashioned as doves, it would be very much in the interests of some to fashion their progeny as hawks!


* This is a bit unfair, as Van Vogt seems to believe that the Null-A trained do not suppress but are consciously aware of their emotional reactions, integrating them as 'facts' into a supremely cerebral response through the famous 'cortical-thalamic pause'.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Glastonbury on Speed

... or as I would prefer to title it: Glastonbury with guns.

Kafka wrote the prototypical airshow report with his 1909 piece "The Aeroplanes at Brescia" which I just re-read. Of course he had Italians to write about - a rich seam. With the stout folk of Somerset it's safer perhaps to let the pictures speak for themselves.

What I wanted from the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton was low, exceedingly noisy, very fast jets. They were mostly there - though they seem to veer away from breaking the sound barrier over the runway at fifty feet, to my intense disappointment.

Stall after stall sold fish 'n' chips, pies, AA membership, aircraft DVDs and Mr Whippy. There was a bungee trampoline and a Eurofighter simulator; static displays of vintage cars, military vehicles and heritage aircraft. The grass beside the runway was thronged with thousands of picnickers; and here are the pix.

As I mentioned: Glastonbury with guns

The author: with helicopters

A woman with an ice-bottle on her head

A Vulcan bomber - as used in the Falklands

An F16 'Fighting Falcon'

The F18 Hornet on a fast, low pass

Not a huge fan of airshows .. but enjoyed the picnic

Our car was parked maybe a kilometre from the runways. We trudged back laden through the mid-afternoon heat - and hilariously, we couldn't find it. We split up and after ten minutes or so I managed to locate it - hundreds of metres away from where I had thought it was: no sign of Clare.

I carefully climbed onto the bonnet and looked around
" stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien." 
She was wandering a couple of hundred metres away, tired, hot and dispirited. I shouted and hollered, clapped and waved - to no avail. Finally I drove through the heavily mown grass to the dirt road and caught her up, to her extreme delight. Going home, we were in aircon heaven.

Update: Back home I said to Clare, "There's got to be an app for that. You know, click when you park and then later you just fire up the app and it shows an arrow and how far away you are from your car."  She replied, "Well, write it and you'll make a million!"

Sadly, the Google app store has 'quite a few' already and I downloaded this one - My Car Locator - which functions just as I had imagined.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Death and sex

Selection, artificial and natural - a wonderful concept.

Those serious-minded jihadis out in the Caliphate raise psychopathy to new levels. I expect the prospects of joining them in their exciting campaign of mutilation, amputation, beheading, FGM and crucifixion will likely prove more attractive to UK psychopaths than the average religiously-observant regular guy who has a bit of empathy. And so the pit is dug deeper.

A completely different example of selection. Nature used to select women with an interest in sex (hard to believe, perhaps, but how could it be otherwise?).

These days, in advanced countries with contraception, selection is for women who actively like children (or are too unconscientious or unmotivated to use birth control). Interesting to speculate on the psychological and social consequences in future generations.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Starting the new assignment

As a consultant (telecoms in my case) every new contract was like starting a new job: it gets better with practice. Here are my top three super-hints for doing it right.

1. Be a 'yes' person

Tom Wolfe in 'Bonfire of the Vanities' reminded us of the 'favour bank'. This is the informal register of favours done vs received. It's essential to build your credit when newly in position .. so show willing. Success and effectiveness go to the friendly and cooperative.

Effective consultants know this.

2. Suck it up

Most people are idiots aren't they. Self-important, opinionated, biased, short-termist, incapable of seeing the obvious, blind to detail .. just plain wrong.

Most of these people are your colleagues and some are your superiors (obviously only in a bureaucratic, hierarchical sense). Still, they seem to have uncanny antennae for the partly-suppressed sneer of contempt.

It's helpful if you can think of them as clients who cannot be wrong .. but may need friendly and diplomatic assistance in seeing things exactly correctly.

3. The first week is the worst

Day one you know nothing and no one. My first priority was to draw up a chart showing everyone I had to deal with, detailing their role and place in the organisation chart.

Next I would note each person's location, mobile phone and email address .. making sure to capture this in Contacts on my laptop/mobile.

Then I would get copies of all relevant documents so I had an idea of what was expected.

Good to go!


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Iain M. Banks: still read in 20 years time?

Will Iain M. Banks' science fiction still be read in the middle future? Golden age authors such as Heinlein, Van Vogt and Philip K. Dick have held up well;  others such as Asimov and Clarke not so much.

I'm not optimistic about Banks. His Culture novels - great tomes that they are - sprawled towards increasingly complex and unmemorable plots. They are undeniably intelligent but seem (like much contemporary writing) to lack authorial conviction and intensity. Style trumping passion.

You write best when you really care about something, the writing borne aloft by longing, hope and fury.

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 as an Amazon elf. Awesome, isn't it, how the brain can create simulations of other people with their own personalities in dreams?

Then I 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. Your brain fabricates that creative illusion by neural activity alone.

Then I thought. That's got to apply to me too - I must be a self-model. No wonder other people are amazed at my self-delusions. I remind myself this is only what my simulations of them are saying -although these have proven remarkably accurate in the past.

I idly wonder how stupid people can ever create accurate simulations - in their sorry apologies for brains - of smart people? Obviously they can't.

I then remind myself of how often my own predictions of other people's responses go sadly awry. I hurriedly move on.

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?