Sunday, 30 August 2015

Ill at ease

The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne - The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

I don’t see myself as ill at ease and I’m not big on onward impulses, but from a sample of one I hesitate to say Hawthorne was right. There is an itch to know more, explain more, read more and analyse more deeply in that futile pursuit of the ever elusive Answer.

Great swathes of popular culture seem designed to keep us not so much happy as reasonably contented. Presumably the political classes beyond the green baize door genuinely want us to be happy below stairs, almost as if they have quietly given up on merit now lots of useful stuff has been invented for them.

It’s enough to make a chap ill at ease.

Saturday, 29 August 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. 

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

Thursday, 27 August 2015

No greater bugbear


Strength is incomprehensible by weakness, and, therefore, the more terrible. There is no greater bugbear than a strong-willed relative in the circle of his own connections.

Nathaniel Hawthorne - The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

It's a common problem - strong-willed people who lack the capacity to be anything else, who cannot use their inflexibility for the common good. It isn’t merely relatives either.

Hawthorne presents the alternative as weakness which is harsh, but his was a harsh world and what else is it when we strip it bare? Somebody has to give way, be accommodating, turn the other cheek, adapt. Either that or move on, out of range.

A small percentage of such people cause havoc because they cannot be accommodated and without enormous disruption will not be ejected, sidelined or otherwise made safe for everyone else. More than a bugbear I'd say.

Tuesday, 25 August 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.

Monday, 24 August 2015


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)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Corbyn and the clowns


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.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Agents of chaos

There is a type of person, often a pleasant and likeable person, who sows chaos wherever they go. Not merely major outbreaks of chaos such as we see in banking circles from time to time, but minor outbreaks too, such as plans and schemes which never work and never could work because they exclude that essential element of stability - human adaptability.

At the very lowest end of the scale, agents of chaos are the kind of people who reach the front of a busy supermarket checkout only to find they have no credit card with them. Car drivers who cannot see the need to drive more slowly than usual in very heavy traffic, who cannot see why constantly switching lanes is pointless. You must have come across them, as I have. 

Further up the social scale agents of chaos sit in meetings making suggestions which may sound reasonable for a millisecond or two. Fatal flaws may become obvious to others quickly enough, but by then it is too late, discussion has moved into more dubious channels and isn't easily dragged back to the shores of sanity. Chaos branches out so smoothly and so rapidly into a veritable raft of chaotic possibilities.

So the meeting loses its way. The seeds of chaos are sown, pragmatic action blighted and there is nothing left but retrench and hope for better things in the future. Unfortunately new protocols, regulations and even laws are often the result and winding back has become virtually impossible.

Chaotic behaviour is a natural feature of the natural world, including the human world, its onset and its consequences being forever unpredictable. Here's the rub though - winding things back is usually unpredictable too. Consequences have emerged, vested interests have sprouted, people have adapted and tried to move on under the new regime. There is rarely any way back.

Moving still further up the scale, the pomp and fanfare of the political stage attracts agents of chaos like moths to a candle. Tony Blair was an agent of chaos in his handling of the Iraq war. Not the only one of course, but a significant player. Even without the Chilcot report and whatever else Blair may be, it is not easy to see him as the kind of person who if he could, would not roll back the bloody chaos he was instrumental in creating.

There is no common thread to agents of chaos other than their tendency to spin the next shambles from the most unlikely materials. At all but the lowest levels they seem to put far too high a value on their own minds, their ability to spin possibilities into probabilities. Those who would tread more carefully on more familiar paths are swept aside by a kind of madness, an insane faith that whatever happens things will turn out for the best because all has been foreseen.

In the corridors of power chaos seems to select its agents carefully. When they reach positions of power, that is the time to worry because corruption thrives on chaos and therein lies a powerful incentive to make a mess of things from the sidelines. 

So chaos will always be with us along with its agents - it pays.