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Sunday, August 30, 2015

1975: we were warned

Tony Benn, 27 May 1975

Congratulations and thanks to The Boiling Frog for scanning a 1976 study of the previous year's Common Market referendum. What is clear is that the sovereignty issue was buried in a heap of other, more temporary concerns (including the oil crisis and inflation), and biased and personalized media coverage.

Plus a consciousness among the media bods of the risk of boring the voters, which opens another debate on whether democracy is really able to deal with complex matters.

Back to bias: Peter Hitchens has pointed out the way the Yes and No pamphlets differed in their treatment:

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/08/the-1975-common-market-referendum-campaign-documents.html

- but that the truth was there if we cared to look closely:

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/08/there-was-no-excuse-for-thinking-the-common-market-was-just-a-free-trade-group-in-1975.html

... which was even less obvious in the 1970 General Election that preceded Heath's move to get us into "Europe":

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/08/what-the-main-party-manifestoes-said-about-europe-in-1970.html

I wonder whether the campaigns and coverage will be any better in the lead-up to the promised 2017 Referendum?


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Saturday, August 29, 2015

No black scorpion


But if you ask me what is the good of man, I cannot mention to you anything else than that it is a certain disposition of the will with respect to appearances. 
Epictetus

Many dreadful events unfolded in the nineteen thirties, events which changed the world, but something else was unfolding too, a certain pragmatic clarity of outlook with more subtle consequences. Or perhaps there were no consequences at all. Perhaps that’s the point.

No black scorpion.
In 1934 behaviourist B F Skinner attended a dinner where he sat next to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. After Skinner had explained his work on behaviour to the great man, Whitehead remarked “Let me see you account for my behaviour as I sit here saying ‘no black scorpion is falling upon this table.’”

Next morning Skinner began work on his book Verbal Behavior, in his view his most important book. An account of language in terms of stimulus, response and reinforcement, it took him twenty years.

Language, Truth and Logic.
In 1936 philosopher A J Ayer published Language, Truth and Logic, a short and accessible philosophy book which rattled the teeth of the staid world of philosophy. In later years Ayer rejected much of it as wrong, yet for most of us it is near enough, a starting point, an engaging account of what makes sense and what doesn’t, what a personal philosophy can do for us and what it cannot do.


Skinner was 30 and Ayer 25. Young and keen as mustard. Both were empiricist in outlook, believing that what we know of the world is mainly derived from what is observable. Both were interested in the way we use language, knowing how deceptive it can be. Skinner was interested in how we use language to mould our personal and collective behaviour, Ayer in how we use it to deceive ourselves and others.

Unfortunately there is a problem with the essentially straightforward approaches used by both men to tackle the endless complexities of the human situation. Vested interests, hierarchies, the power of politics, authority, academia, status and money all benefit from otherwise pointless complexities.

There is another glass ceiling apart from the one we hear so much about these days. Cause and effect are all very well in their place, but allowing such ideas onto the hallowed ground of politics and power is a different matter. Everything would have to change. Everything would have to adapt, to accommodate the cold blue light of reason emanating from even the lowliest peasant, from even their children. Whatever next?

When Ayer and Skinner were young men, science, engineering money and optimism were helping to transform their world into what appeared to be a better place, not merely physically better but intellectually better too. The stultifying deference of centuries appeared to be crumbling away before an onslaught of merit, education, curiosity and cool reason.

Perhaps the onslaught still goes on at a slower pace, but the horrors of war intervened, diverted our attention into less useful directions. Other imperatives and influences choked off anything which might damage the status quo. The imbecilities of popular culture began to take hold. The mindless thump, thump of popular music, mawkish sentiment, idiot lyrics and faux rebellion.

The embarrassing crassness of celebrity culture grew and grew as mass communication grew and grew, as the technology of influence became cheaper and cheaper. An endless diet of dumb piped into almost every home via millions of radios and televisions.

Ayer and Skinner were revolutionaries in their way. If we had listened, if we’d absorbed the essence of their message then perhaps in time we’d have learned to control the world. But we didn’t. And we won’t because of the sheer weight of pressure to bend the metaphorical knee, swill the beer and dance round the maypole just as our medieval forebears did.

Democracy and mass education went nowhere because how could they go anywhere? The peasants would have to get up off their knees, throw aside the beer mug, burn the maypole and that would never do. So we have cheap wine instead of beer, cheap food, cheap jobs, expensive homes and mass voting instead of democracy. Maybe our suspicions should have been aroused as the franchise grew because surely a vote wasn’t worth anything if millions could have it for nowt.

As for education, no doubt it serves its purpose but we aren’t about to teach the radical stuff which so enthused Ayer and Skinner eighty years ago. We aren’t about to teach kids how to think clearly, how to slice through the mental shackles because in the end it still doesn’t suit the way we are, the way we seem content to remain.

Behavior used to be reinforced by great deprivation; if people weren't hungry, they wouldn't work. Now we are committed to feeding people whether they work or not. Nor is money as great a reinforcer as it once was. People no longer work for punitive reasons, yet our culture offers no new satisfactions.
B F Skinner

It seems that I have spent my entire time trying to make life more rational and that it was all wasted effort.
A J Ayer

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Education

Look at the first five minutes of this (thanks so much, JD) (for the impatient, from c. 3:30 on):

Mother told by her father to sacrifice everything for a good education for her children... 1944 Education Act... grammar school... competitive ethos... grant to go to University... free public access to museums and art galleries...

Sir Roy Strong - son of a commercial traveller... Sir Peter Hall - son of a railway station master...



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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Drugs, games and talent

"90% of the adults I know are on drugs because of what they think is the normal stress of life. Here I am counting the doctor-prescribed meds, the binge-drinking on weekends, the medical marijuana, porn, tobacco, wine before dinner, or even the exercise addiction that gooses the body to release feel-good chemistry." - Scott Adams: http://blog.dilbert.com/post/127569040096/digital-distraction-syndrome#ixzz3juvGloFN

Dumb kids go for drugs, my brother tells me, but modern temptations - e.g. computer-based role-playing games - trap the bright ones. His daughter knows several lads who were thrown out of college because RPG stopped them working.

Actually I think clever kids go for drugs and booze and all the other vices, too. Horace's "Genus irritabile vatum" (which I would paraphrase as "excitable creative types") often try to fight fire with fire, adding more stimulation to an already over-stimulated mind. Writers are infamous for the indulgences that have often burned up their gifts.

A combination of academic dilution and anti-elitism, with a cornucopia of distractions for the young, could lead to poor harvests of the talent we need to sustain our civilisation.


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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Who licks old china?



Only the simple and the humble were abroad at that early hour: purveyors of food, in cheerfully rattling carts, or hauling barrows with the help of grave and formidable dogs; washers and cleaners at the doors of highly-decorated villas, amiably performing their tasks while the mighty slept; fishermen and fat fisher-girls, industriously repairing endless brown nets on the other side of the parapet of the road; a postman and a little policeman; a porcelain mender, who practised his trade under the shadow of the wall...
Arnold Bennett – Sacred and Profane Love (1905)

The photo shows a porcelain coffee pot made in Bristol in the 1770s and as you see it is not quite in pristine condition. An old repair uses metal staples and wire inserted into holes drilled into the porcelain. Bennett’s Italian porcelain mender would have employed the same technique. 

I recall an expert telling us that the staples were inserted hot so that when they cooled they contracted and clamped the pieces together. A skilled job, especially when we consider that where staples were used in this piece, the holes were not drilled all the way through even though the porcelain is very thin.

Missing bits appear to have been filled with plaster which you may be able to see in the right hand image just below the lid. These old stapled repairs are quite common, especially for old Chinese porcelain. Presumably the owners still wished to display the piece even though its value would be much reduced. Was the servant responsible usually dismissed I wonder?

Today a restorer would take out the staples and begin all over again with modern adhesives and resins. The repair would not be easy to see without close inspection, as we discovered on a couple of occasions before we learned to be wary.

One way to tell is to lick suspect areas with the tip of the tongue which is sensitive enough to detect slight temperature or texture differences between porcelain and resin. The teeth are able to detect slight differences too. Any dealer will know what you are up to.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Circular



Dear Golden Roof Investor,

You may have heard that the Chinese stock market has undergone a minor bout of turbulence in recent days. This is to be expected in such an exciting, where-it’s-at market and is not a cause for alarm for anyone with the Golden Roof Investment Trust.

Although the whereabouts of our CEO Mr Wun Awei has been the subject of much scurrilous press comment, be assured that he is diligently seeking new opportunities. We intend to contact him in the very near future to discuss these opportunities plus a range of other options he may wish to consider.

Meanwhile, our advice for all investors in the Golden Roof Investment Trust is to sit tight while current disturbances are brought firmly under control by the Chinese authorities.

In addition to this exiting news, you may be interested in a new investment opportunity, the Platinum Roof Investment Trust for which you should already have a prospectus. Remember - you take the risk so we don't have to.

Yours sincerely

Richard Dastardly (Acting CEO)

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Corbyn and the clowns

source

There appear to be two broad possibilities emerging as folk frantically try to predict the outcome of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. Two broad possibilities, disaster and blessing, each with a range of nuances:-

Unmitigated disaster.
Corbyn will be an unmitigated disaster for Labour, causing it to split into progressive and modernist factions leading to the rise of an alternative mainstream party.

Mitigated disaster.
Corbyn will be an electoral disaster for Labour in the 2020 general election but the party will make the best of it and will not split into progressive and modernist factions.

Mixed blessing.
Corbyn will be a mixed blessing for Labour, leading it to rediscover its core principles and reject the baggage of impure socialism left by Tony Blair.

Unmixed blessing.
Corbyn will be an unmixed blessing for Labour, leading it to rediscover its core principles, reject the baggage left by Tony Blair and triumph in the 2020 election as the only party of principle.

However things turn out, the only real pleasure in watching the political circus has always been the clowns. Jeremy Corbyn is a gift to jaded political palates. Whatever one thinks of him, he has surely exposed his leadership opponents as clowns merely by being straightforward.

What a brilliant wheeze eh? It’s all great fun too - they should do it more often.

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