23 June 2017

Separation of past and future

Albert Einstein:

For us believing physicists, the separation between past, present and future has the significance only of an illusion, albeit a stubborn one.

From letter to Michele Besso’s family, 1955. “Für uns gläubige Physiker hat die Scheidung zwischen Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft nur die Bedeutung einer wenn auch hartnäckigen Illusion.” See Metanexus.

16 June 2017

American Gods

Poor Neil Gaiman. Has he seen what Amazon have done with American Gods? (Rhetorical. Presumably he has.)

The TV series constructed from what some regard as his best book is one of the trashiest things I have ever watched.

Mediocratic culture is characterised by a relatively high level of trash, but its attitude to it is ambivalent. In part mediocracy celebrates its own trashiness, in part it denies and conceals it.

Compared to other societies, the trash of mediocracy is relatively sophisticated. There is aesthetically presented trash, technically complex trash, extraordinarily expensive trash. (Mediocracy, p.176)
Expensively produced trash can be entertaining, and so would this be, except for the fact that the way it is trashy is exactly the way loads of other American TV series are trashy, only more so. It is all pretty brainless, like a crude comic strip turned into live action. I imagine it is designed to provide maximum enjoyment for people with an IQ of about 100. That can work well for adaptations of books which themselves were written for that IQ level, but for novels like Gaiman’s it results in a depressing parody.

Gaiman doesn’t seem readily filmable in the normal cinematic medium. Stardust (2007) was a reasonable stab, but perhaps Coraline (2009) – a stop-motion animation – is the only visual product to have captured the flavour of his novels, so far.

(Don’t worry, Amazon. You’re good at lots of other things.)

09 June 2017


Post-election-recovery Julep:

1 glass of mineral water

5 drops of freshly squeezed lime juice *

Er, that’s it.

* This ingredient may be omitted.

02 June 2017

Statistics tutorials

My colleague Dr Charles McCreery recently posted updated versions (in PDF) of his statistics tutorials for psychology students:

The Chi-square test

Probability and Bayes’ Theorem

Analysis of Variance

26 May 2017

Sleight of hand in The Pinch

Among other things, The Pinch is an apologia for the role of government. Not surprising, perhaps, given the author is a professional politician. But the way in which David Willetts tries to provide support for the state frequently uses sleight of hand.

In chapter 1, for example, having discussed the history of the British people (pre welfare state), Willetts explains the significance of John Locke, who helped define the individual’s right to property and freedom from interference. He then writes:

This English political tradition emphasizes the strength and importance of civil society, our country’s historic freedoms, [...]
Fine so far, but then:
[...] our country’s historic freedoms, a legitimate role for government in providing equitable justice accessible to all, together with a faith in evolutionary social progress.
Suddenly the “English political tradition”, the discussion of which had hitherto made no mention of welfare, supposedly involves the government providing it. The paragraph continues in the same vein:
[The tradition] sustained a political programme – spreading the rights of citizenship widely and generously – which still matters today. That meant widening the franchise and also spreading what Beveridge called social security – mutual insurance against the evils of Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor, and Idleness.
So we somehow jump from Locke, who wrote on the limits of the state and the right to private property, to the government having an important role in redistributing resources. This I call sleight of hand.

19 May 2017

Age quod agis

Celia Green on the difference in ethos between a private school and a state school.

Girl to state school teacher: You have marked my work wrong!
State school teacher to girl:

“In a hundred years no one will remember.”

12 May 2017

Duck Duck Go

Why not use DuckDuckGo for search?

The Alphabet group’s products (slogan: “do the right thing”) are admirable in many ways.
However, I suspect Google Search may be ideologically biased.

05 May 2017

The Pinch: house prices and student debt

David Willetts’ The Pinch (2010) made what amounted to a single point, fluffed up into over 200 pages of discursive ramble. The single point: capital and income differentials between older and younger Brits appear to have increased over recent decades. The resulting book was a readable but somewhat vacuous moan about the alleged deterioration of the “intergenerational contract”.

The book caused a stir at the time because hand-wringing about inequality had previously focused on class, rather than age, differences.

There is no a priori reason why there should be financial equality between any two social groups, or why a given level of financial inequality should be bad, or wrong. Similarly, there is no a priori reason why an increase in such inequality should be bad, or wrong. (Perhaps the previous level of inequality was too low.) This is more obviously relevant when looking at young versus old, since there are statistical differences in financial requirements for different age groups.

Such observations don’t deter writers like Lord Willetts from trying to score emotional points. As education spokesman, Willetts opposed grammar schools, which gives some indication of the type of equality espoused by him.

In The Pinch – as in most writing about inequality – the supposed unfairness aspect is mostly presumed or insinuated. The reader is simply expected to be shocked that one group is better off than another, or more so than at some earlier time. It is taken as axiomatic that any trend in inequality should be in the direction of less rather than more.

Because Willetts is a Conservative, his suggested solution to the supposed problem (to the extent one can be inferred from the book) seems to involve calls for more cooperation and less selfishness, rather than for direct intervention.

The Pinch received a re-mention recently because it superficially links to the ongoing issue of Britain’s runaway property market, which has meant that young people face difficulty making their first house purchase.

As is usual, the possibility that distortions caused by leftist tinkering might be the main culprit is not considered. Could the massive rise in the welfare state have changed things for the worse for those who come after it? Could inflation of university degrees have led to the appalling student loan scheme, crippling the young with debt? Could an over-enthusiastic immigration policy, leading to a shortage of housing, have generated a bubble? Commentators like Willetts tend to ignore such questions, preferring to blame popular bogeymen such as individualism.

The above is a brief commentary on a complex issue.
Additional funding would facilitate a more detailed analysis.

29 April 2017

spellcheck #3

Conservatives’ leaflet for the 4 May Oxfordshire County Council elections, my emphasis.

Support for [proposed infrastructure projects] will be forthcoming only if the benefits outweight the disadvantages for Oxfordshire residents.
And here’s a case of eats shoots and leaves:
[Oxfordshire is] a fantastic location to live, learn work and play.
“Learn work”? As in, “it’s time for you to learn work, my boy”?

21 April 2017

spellcheck #2

Like the last one, it’s wrong apostrophes.
This time we are looking at a web article and its typographical flaws.
It’s only the web, but it’s the NME.
Essential reading, when I was a teenager.
And weren’t its hallowed halls where Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill started their careers?
If the web is to become Newspapers 2.0, its attention to detail needs to improve.

[Bob Dylan’s] fifth album caused shockwaves that were to be felt long after it’s 1965 release ...

[re Neil Young’s Harvest:] it’s huge sales gave him the freedom to do what he wanted ...
(Emphasis mine.)
Incidentally, re the NME: its list of the top 500 albums seems a good deal sounder than Rolling Stone’s. But The Smiths at number one?
The group’s sound was peerless at the time, but I fear its brand of melancholia has not aged well.
It’s just my opinion against the NME’s, but its top spot seems more suited to the late Mr Jones.

14 April 2017

Morally inferior minorities

Further to the previous post, I was struck by this sentence in the article by Labour’s education spokesperson.

Only 7 per cent of children in England attend private school.
Given that morality seems to be invoked (according to the headline, taxing private school fees is “fair”), the use of “only” suggests some interesting possible implications. Presumably, if the figure were 30 per cent, the proposal would be deemed to be significantly less acceptable, morally speaking.

One might infer a new principle of democracy from this, according to which there is some threshold level (perhaps 10 per cent?) which helps to determine the moral score assigned to a possible action of government. If fewer than this threshold percentage of voters are expected to suffer from the action – and this minority can be considered as ‘better off’ in some sense – then the action will be regarded as morally acceptable.

Presumably, if the percentage is well below the threshold level – say 1 per cent, or 0.1 per cent – we need not worry much at all. And if the proportion is really small, say 1 in 10,000 – well, why aren’t we doing it already?

07 April 2017

Socialist education

Socialists claim to believe that parents giving their children a better-than-average education is unfair. But do any of them consider that state schools might be a bad solution, damaging lives and (if anything) entrenching existing advantages?

Is it possible there is something flawed in the assumptions that:
(a) the motivation of teachers is not a revelant variable, or
(b) motivation is not affected by whether it is individual parents, or the state, paying the salaries (“he who pays the piper calls the tune”)?
Or is there perhaps a misplaced belief that the collective wants every one of its educational charges to do well, with the same fervour as that of a parent towards their own child, and that this will somehow be transmitted to state school staff?

Judging by the remarks of Labour education spokesperson Angela Rayner, proposing a 20% tax on private school fees (allegedly to finance school meals), none of these thoughts have crossed the minds of any of the key people in her department. But that is hardly surprising, since the same could be said about most of the academics operating in the area of “education” – even if none of their research identifies itself as being socialist in spirit.

The likely result of the proposed policy? A few thousand of the least well-off middle-class parents – already straining under the burden of also having to finance the state system, whether they use it or not – will find it impossible to spare their children from the horrors of that system. Will state education improve as a result of the tax revenue gained? Unlikely, judging by past experience.

A possible interpretation. Socialism does not like people being able to avoid indoctrination by the collective, e.g. by having their children taught things of which the collective does not approve, or by avoiding schools and other collectivised institutions altogether.

However, banning private schools, home education and so on, and simply forcing all children, without exception, to attend the same grim places (for as many years of their lives as possible) might arouse opposition. Instead, the plan may be to strangle the alternatives gradually – by abolishing charitable status, increasing child removal powers, taxing private schools more heavily, etc.

31 March 2017


Gate of Dawn, Vilnius
In 1991, there were celebrations in Vilnius when Lithuania declared independence from what President Reagan had called the “evil empire”.

Former Soviet states had to confront many problems in achieving the transition to a market economy. Nevertheless, the transition was successful, and few of their citizens would nowadays countenance a return to communism.

When long fought-for independence finally becomes a reality, it is right to celebrate, even if the event itself is only the start of a long process.

24 March 2017

Nietzsche and tattoos

Apparently, young people (also known as “youth”) often amuse themselves these days by drinking vodka and getting tattooed.

These both seem like forms of self-mutilation, and remind me of descriptions of the former Soviet Union. There, life was mostly grim, and if you were young you sometimes reacted to it not by avoidance but by embracing, as a kind of rebellious gesture — both acknowledging the pain and defying it.

I wonder what Nietzsche would have made of it. Nietzsche believed in the virtue of exposing yourself deliberately to pain and hardship, as a way of advancing psychologically.
Perhaps he would have applauded vodka and tattoos as expressions of yea-saying to bleakness. On the other hand, he might have condemned them as symptoms of slave morality.