Five Questions, Series 9 #2

Here we are at the answer to question 2 of answers to this ninth round of Five Questions.


Question 2: How do we guarantee “this” (whatever it is) never happens again?

Whatever “this” is, you can’t guarantee it never happens again. It doesn’t matter how many laws, procedures, checks, firewalls or storm-troopers you put in the way there will always be a loophole, or a stable door left ajar, somewhere; and they will be exploited, sometime, by someone – if only by some ingenious idiot.

Moreover, anything which the system allows – or more correctly doesn’t prevent – will be taken advantage of by someone. See, for instance, the rows in recent years about MPs’ expenses.


Welcome to our monthly collection of quotes which have amused, interested or inspired us over recent weeks.

You bustle around tutting and narrowing your eyes, in the manner of a dog territorially pissing on a lamppost.
[Emma Beddington]

His virtues were so conspicuous that his enemies, unable to overlook them, denied them, and his friends, to whose loose lives they were a rebuke, represented them as vices. They are here commemorated by his family, who shared them.
[Ambrose Bierce, American Writer, 1842-1914]

In those rare cases where states have managed to destroy their opponents by repression, they have often destroyed also the foundations of a healthy and vital body politic, and been consumed by a destructive institutional paranoia. Rational behaviour has little to do with any of this. Reason, after all, so rarely governs politics. This is particularly the case for governments nervously fingering the hair trigger of emergency.
[Stephen Alford; The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I]

A danger to any state is the powerful and often circular logic of conspiracy. It is pronounced when fear translates into a sense or feeling of national vulnerability, something very dangerous when it is institutionalized by any government that possesses the coercive means to make its will felt. This is especially true of countries where a narrow or isolated governing elite puts its own political survival before everything else, and where the instruments of the modern state can be used to subdue opposition at home or even abroad. These elites tend to see as identical their self-interest as a governing group and the welfare of the public body. They invest in propaganda. They promote a fear or hatred of outsiders. They feel beset by their enemies. We see regimes like this governing today. All of this may have been true of Elizabethan England … certainly the Elizabethan state was busily fashioning the tools of modern government in conditions of war and emergency in Reformation Europe.
[Stephen Alford; The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I]

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
[Douglas Adams]

If you go far enough back, all our ancestors were Pagans. They practised religions that had few creeds or dogmas. There were no prophets. There were myths and legends, but no scriptures to be taken literally. These religions were based on the celebration of the seasonal cycles of nature. They were based on what people did, not what people believed.
[Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon]

Hope and wish for it otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone.
[EO Wilson]

[The] meaning of life … is whatever gives you joy, or consoles you when life has got you down. It is something you believe or do that makes your life worth living. And by “you” I mean not the collective you but the individual you.
[John Horgan at Scientific American blogs]

The meaning of life belongs in the category of beauty, not truth. It is an aesthetic and hence fundamentally subjective phenomenon.
[John Horgan at Scientific American blogs]

And most of the harmful consequences of beliefs stem from the insistence of believers that everyone agree with them … The notion that there is one true meaning of life is not only wrong. It may be the worst idea that humans have ever invented, in terms of how much harm it has caused.
[John Horgan at Scientific American blogs]

Het Zesde Metaal had their fourth album ‘Calais’ coming out last year and we were stunned! Even though they are singing in West-Flemish dialect, which is practically incomprehensible for the biggest part of Belgium and the rest of the world, everyone feels it, that folky music. The electronic elements on the new album are a real enrichment.
[Quoted by Emma Beddinton at Belgian Waffling]

You have only one choice when things aren’t going well: find a way to pay the bills.
[Lord Heseltine]

True love is finding that one person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.

Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s okay. You’re here to live your life, not to make everyone understand.

To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.

We’ll sooner or later accept that politicians are, even at their best, parasites. We are the host and they will adapt or die as we change.
[Dan Harmon]

Real ale is a balanced diet as long as you have a pint (250 calories) in each hand.
[John Hein]

As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face up to what challenges us. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but everyone who has to undergo hardship, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome what troubles us.
[Dalai Lama]

Personal Ethics and Morals

Almost every individual – excluding perhaps those insane persons who have no sense of right and wrong, but certainly including everyone from religious leaders to gangsters and serial killers – has a set of ethics.
… … …
Each person draws portions, sometimes bits and pieces, of their personal … ethics from an almost random variety of sources, such as their childhood upbringing, a dramatic or otherwise pivotal life experience, religious beliefs, discussions with family, colleagues, and friends, and the ethical teachings of whatever philosophers [they] may have read.

I’ve written a number of times before about ethics and morals (see for example here and here). But stimulated by a conversation with one of my friends (yes, somehow I do still have one or two!) some days ago I’ve been moved to return to the subject at a more personal, rather than philosophical, level.
What follows is a summary of some of those “bits and pieces” I’ve garnered over the years as my personal ethics and morals. These are the things which I try to live by.

  1. Causality. Things are as they are for a reason which is seldom disclosed to us. There are more things in heaven and earth than we can ever know or understand.
  2. Respect People. Always treat others as you would wish them to treat you – with respect, dignity, kindness, equality, compassion and integrity. Essentially this is the old adage: do as you would be done by. Or in the words of Matthew 7:12, Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. Or to spin it the other way: if it harm none, do as you will. If you can do this one thing, all the rest pretty much follow.
  3. Respect Nature. We are but a small part of this Earth. It is not ours, it was here long before us and it should be here long after us. We are merely it’s current custodians and as such we should behave as ethically towards the Earth, Nature and all living creatures as we should to other human beings. Do not rape our natural resources or screw the environment. That doesn’t mean being vegetarian, living off-grid or the like – after all eating plants and felling trees can be considered murder just as much as eating animals – but it does mean respecting what you do eat (we almost always raise a glass to the animal we’re eating), recycling as much as possible, and not consuming for the sake of it. Do not play god; there is no reason to suppose we know better than Mother Nature.
  4. Be Honest. Be open, honest and truthful in all things and at all times. Open government and fair dealing. Admit it when you don’t know; don’t guess.
  5. Respect Relationships. Never do anything to unhook or put in jeopardy anyone else’s relationship. This is something I formulated for myself as a teenager: that I would never do anything to harm or unhook another relationship. It didn’t matter how much I fancied the girl (and for me it always has been girls) in question, nor how strongly or loosely committed the relationship; if there was a relationship the parties were strictly off-limits as anything more than friends. It just seemed to me to be ethical, kind and respectful not to meddle while the relationship existed. (This is one reason Noreen and I knew each other for several years before we started dating.) I have continued to live by this, not just as student on the pull, but as an adult where others might have seen/wanted an opportunity for adultery.
  6. Freedom of Speech. Be liberal and relaxed in dealing with other people’s views and beliefs. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and is entitled to express those opinions even if I don’t like it. I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death, your right to hold and express your opinion. To do otherwise is but a short step to censorship.
  7. Beliefs. Each of us is entitled to believe whatever we like. Just don’t expect anyone else to share your beliefs. It’s not what you believe that’s the problem, but what you think I should believe.
  8. Use Your Abilities. Do everything to the best of your ability.
  9. Don’t Judge. Don’t be judgemental: you can never know how someone else feels inside, what motivates them, nor how their relationship works, so don’t assume or judge.
  10. No Revenge. Don’t hold grudges or be vengeful – be compassionate and forgiving; understand the other person’s position and move on. It’s OK to be angry; it’s never OK to be cruel.
  11. Admit Errors. If you’re wrong, be strong enough to admit it, apologise and if possible do something to remediate the error. Never blame others for your failings.
  12. Never Regret. Do not regret anything which has happened, even if you now know it was not the best thing to do. If it’s good, that’s great. If it isn’t, it’s experience to learn from and move on. We all do things that with hindsight we wish we hadn’t; but they cannot be undone and rarely properly repaired. Regret is unhelpful and destructive.
  13. Be Responsible. You are responsible for what you do, say and think; accept that responsibility. However you are not responsible for other people’s emotions, beliefs, actions and reactions; nor they for yours.

That’s the high level stuff and I feel sure I’ve left something out. I can’t think any of it is very startling, but it is interesting to put it all together – something I’ve never done in quite this way before – as it really does make one consider whether the whole is self-consistent. Of course, I’ve not yet made any attempt to integrate this with my core constructs (such as I know them).

And below all that are my personal beliefs, like the legalisation of sex work and marijuana; nudity and body acceptance; the scientific method; the absence of deities; etc.

Heavy stuff. I need a gin & tonic.

Wind Turbines

Those who have an interest in energy and the environment might like to look at this article on wind turbines from the Spectator.

If what the article says is correct (and I haven’t checked the assertions) then it supports what I have long maintained: that wind turbines for power generation are a sideshow, and potentially dangerous one at that.

Windmills D1-D4 (Thornton Bank)

The assertion is that globally they produce less than 1% of power consumption – hardly impressive given all the hype. Moreover, and this is what has always worried me most, constructing them uses so much steel, rare earths and cement – all of which have to be mined, refined and transported – that they can effectively never break even environmentally (at least that’s my extrapolation of what the author is saying).

Now the author, Matt Ridley, admits he has an interest in coal, although he’s not proposing coal as a substitute for wind turbines. What he suggests is that we should invest in gas powered energy generation in the immediate term, pending the development and construction of nuclear. I disagree with him on the former as he is advocating fracking. But I agree about nuclear, although that too is hardly immune from the environmental impact of mining, steel smelting etc. And that’s leaving aside the problem of nuclear waste, which I discussed a while back.

As has been obvious for many a long year, there is no good solution except to drastically cut back on power consumption. And I’m as guilty as anyone of failing at that.

On Manners, Expectations and Love

Is there a relationship between manners, our expectations of others and love?

Weaving together three articles from several years ago, I think there may be. This post is really me trying to see if this works. So you may disagree and I’m open to discussion.

First of all let’s think briefly about manners: those actions we try to instil into our children to help them survive in polite society.

According to an article in New Scientist in September 2013, “Manners maketh man: how disgust shaped human evolution” by Valerie Curtis [paywall] …

We need to better understand manners for two reasons: first, because they are a principal weapon in the war on disease, and second, because manners underpin our ability to function as a cooperative species … [M]anners are so important that they should be up there with fire and the invention of language as a prime candidate for what makes us human.
The first, and most ancient, function of manners is to solve the problem of how to be social without getting sick.

Those who master manners are set to reap the many benefits that come from living in a highly cooperative ultra-society. Manners are therefore a sort of proto-morality, a set of behaviours that we make “second nature” early in life so that we can avoid disgusting others with our parasites and our antisocial behaviour.

It’s the “cooperative society” part which interests me here as this seems to mesh with the idea (Business Insider; 25 March 2013) that

What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

This was tested on teachers and children. Teachers were told (randomly) a child was a star or a dunce; the children didn’t know how they’d been allocated. A while later when the child’s subsequent achievement was independently tested the stars had done significantly better than the dunces.

Thus we have a situation which reflects what I always say:

If you treat people as you would like them to be, you give then the space and incentive to grow and develop. If you treat them as they are, then they stay as they are.

If you expect manners, you’ll (hopefully) get manners; if you expect no manners, you’ll get no manners. And like it or not, manners oil the wheels of society.

So where does love come into all this?

Reflect on this comment from Candice Chung in an article “Why Chinese parents don’t say I love you” from the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2016.

From a sociological perspective, studies have also found that the phrase ‘I love you’ tends to be used less in a high context culture [eg. Asia] where “expectations are high and well documented”. While in the West (low context society), relationships are often managed with ‘I love you reminders’ to reassure someone of their importance [whereas], in high context culture, “intensely personal and intimate declarations can seem out of place and overly forceful”.

What this is saying seems to be that the Asian way, covert love, is thought to be less intense than the Western, more overt, way. In fact it seems to me the opposite is true and that the Asian way puts far more pressure on families and relationships than we do in the West. There seem to be far greater expectations of family connection, responsibility, loyalty etc. amongst Asians than amongst Westerners, and that the Western way appears to me to be more balanced and permissive of personal freedom.

And that amounts to essentially a difference of manners and expectations between cultures, so it is no real wonder that the cultures work differently.

Five Questions, Series 9 #1

OK, so let’s get going with the answers to this ninth round of Five Questions.


Question 1: Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and why?

Yes, very definitely. That book (or series of 12 novels to be precise) was Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve written about this, in many ways, many times, but here is (a lightly edited version of) what I wrote recently for the Anthony Powell Society Newsletter in a column headed “My First Time”.

A child of intellectually bohemian parents in the 1950s I was always encouraged to read. We went to the local library every week and I was allowed to read anything in the house: dipping into my father’s Penguin Lady Chatterley shortly after publication; reading Peyton Place (how? why?) under the bed-covers; plodding through Ulysses in my mid-teens. But being a boy and a scientist reading fell by the wayside, not helped by my reading very slowly and finding the classics taught at school tedious beyond belief.

I rediscovered reading for pleasure as a post-graduate student, when I devoured chunks of Evelyn Waugh, Clochemerle, Laurie Lee, Gormenghast, Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, plus the likes of John Gower and Piers Ploughman.

After Noreen and I married and moved into the house, Noreen’s best school friend, Jilly, was staying one weekend in early 1983. Jilly trained as a librarian; both she and Noreen read far more than me; talk naturally turned to books. Jilly, knowing I enjoyed (some) Waugh, suggested I might like AP.

Thus began my encounter with Dance, naturally at the beginning. I found A Question of Upbringing very slow; I really didn’t see the point, but I persevered. I decided to try the next book – try everything twice, to see if first impressions were right. Lo, by the end of A Buyer’s Market I was hooked.

This was the summer I had off work with glandular fever. On good days I picked our soft fruit and made jam. On bad days I read and watched cricket on TV. In between I had an affair with Jilly! (It’s OK, it was an open secret even at the time!)

So that summer I read Dance, with some gaps between volumes as the next of the (first) Marc Boxer Fontana paperbacks was sourced. The war trilogy especially captivated me; Temporary Kings was strange but powerful; the finale, weak.

By then AP had become one of my “heroes”. In the early 90s, I wrote my first webpages and it was natural to include a little about my “heroes”. Whereupon I realised there was almost nothing about AP on the internet: my AP page expanded and become a separate website.

In 1997, at the time of the Channel 4 films of Dance, I started getting emails from around the world; this stimulated me to set up the APLIST [the Anthony Powell related email discussion list on Yahoo Groups]. Then when, in March 2000, AP died Julian Allason rang me: “We must celebrate the man,” he said, “we must have a conference”. Recovering my composure we arranged for half a dozen of us to meet in Julian’s Chelsea rooms, when it became evident we needed an organisation on which to hang the conference. Thus was the Anthony Powell Society born. The rest is history; I’ve been the Society’s Hon. Secretary ever since.

Since that first reading I’ve reread Dance in sequence only once; however I dip into it continually – so continually that I’m not sure I could now read it straight through again. But I’m keeping that option for next time I’m laid up for a while.

So yes, reading Dance caused a huge change in my life, nearly 35 years ago, and that change is still happening; the Anthony Powell Society is always throwing up something new; it has me places, and introduced be to people, I could never have imagined.

Five Questions, Series 9

Yet again it is around a year since I started my last round of Five Questions.

So here is this new series of five questions, ranging from the interesting to the downright crazy and even morbid.


The five questions for Series 9 are:

  1. Has reading a book ever changed your life? If yes, which one and why?
  2. How do we guarantee “this” (whatever it is) never happens again?
  3. If you had to be executed but could choose the method, what method would you choose?
  4. How many even prime numbers are there?
  5. If you had to marry your “significant other” where you met, where would the wedding be?

Like the last series, I will post answers on a regular basis, because I’ve decided to write the answers up front, possibly before this post even goes live!

As always you’re all invited to sing along and join the karaoke – I’d like it if you all joined in! You can either answer the questions, as I answer them, by posting in the comments or by posting your answers on your own blog (in which case just leave a comment here so we can find your words of wisdom).

The answer to Question 1 should appear in a few of days time and then they’ll be at roughly weekly intervals.


Ten Things

It’s just over 500 years since Sir Thomas More first described what he called Utopia in 1516. So this month’s Ten Things celebrates More’s fabled island nation.

Ten Essential Elements of My Utopia

  1. Always a perfectly sunny warm early summer weather
  2. No death or life-threatening illness; all illness cured by love
  3. A perfect ethical code that everyone follows, hence a world without greed, hunger, thirst, violence or war
  4. No rat race and no oppressive employment
  5. No fossil fuels and hence no polluting transport or power generation
  6. Magic carpets for transport
  7. Good, free education for all; higher education which everyone wants to attend for the sake of learning
  8. No religion or politics; no political parties
  9. A universal respect for Nature and the environment, hence a green and pleasant land
  10. Everyone is open-minded with a universal acceptance of nudity, sex & sexuality, freedom of speech.

Unfortunately we all know that Utopia is, by definition, unattainable, for if we ever got there there’d be another Utopia just beyond reach. The grass is always greener, and all that!