Friday, February 05, 2010

A little story about skeptisism

A friend of mine posted this rather confused polemic on his facebook page.

What I found interesting was that it finally exposes the whole climate-change-skeptic movement for what is really is - an attack on science altogether, and an attempt to contort the whole concept of empirical evidence to suit an agenda.

Apparently science is "just information". Good. I'm glad we got that resolved then.

My somewhat flippant response, was to write the following story. I hope It's not to complicated for the intended readership. :)

A man went skiing. On his first day in the resort he fell badly. His arm hurt, so he went to see the doctor. The doctor examined the patient's arm. It appeared to be broken, but she sent him to get an x-ray to be sure. The patient went to see the radiologist, who took a number of x-rays, from different angles. The radiologist gave the x-rays to the doctor, and sure enough, although a couple of the x-rays were not clear, the others clearly showed a break in the bone. The doctor considered treatment, and weighed up the options - the nearest hospital was some way away, the cost of an operation could be expensive, and it might be enough simply to splint the arm in the surgery, and arrange for him to be operated on after his return home. She consulted with the radiologist on the severity of the break (the radiologist was not a doctor, but was very experienced, and had seen many similar breaks before).

The doctor was about to give her recommendation, when the door burst open, and an angry looking man marched into the consulting room.
"Stop!" he yelled to the three of them. He grabbed hold of the prescription and tore it into pieces. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded of the injured man. "Surely you're not going to follow the orders of these two cranks?. What of the spirit of the enlightenment, every man's duty of liberal skeptical enquiry?. I hope that you're not considering blindly following the orthodoxy of the establishment?"
"Well," said the injured man "it did seem pretty clear cut."
"CLEAR CUT???" the skeptic bellowed "What's clear cut about it??"
"Umm the x-rays? "proffered the patient.
"That's exactly what they want you to think" he cried. "Who built the x-ray machines, hmm? And who paid for them? Yes? You see? If the x-ray machine didn't show any breaks, then both these men would be out of a job, wouldn't they? So it's rather convenient that it shows a break, don't you think. You find what you want to find, and see what you want to see. Look, this x-ray doesn't show anything at all"
"Umm that's not an xray, that's my mousepad" interjected the doctor.
"EXACTLY! You see the level of deception we're dealing with here?!" cried the skeptic, wagging his finger in the doctors face. "You really want to trust these people with you health??"
"But what should I do then?" Asked the bewildered patient? "
"Continue doing what you were doing before, of course. Get back up to the top of the mountain and ski, ski like you've never skied before. If fact, why not extend your holiday by a few weeks? Embrace life."
"But what if it really is broken, won't that cause more problems in the long term?"
"Look, in the highly unlikely event that there is some sort of break, a few weeks or years won't make much of a difference anyway. And in the future they'll have all sorts of solutions you can't even begin to imagine now. Amazing scientists and inventors and doctors - much better than these two cretins here - will have invented all sorts of amazing things. They'll probably be able to give you a whole new arm. Made of metal. With extra attachments for opening tins and making tea and everything. What matters now isn't your arm - it's YOU, your HUMANITY!"

With that, before the doctor and radiologist could say a thing, he whisked him out of the surgery, and bundled him into a taxi back to his hotel.

As he waved him off the doctor stepped outside. "Just one question" she asked the skeptic. "Who, exactly, are you?"

Leaning over to her, he put his lips to her ear and whispered:

"I'm the resort manager", before stepping into a large black car and driving off.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


So, I thought I'd get this started up again. Where to start? Anyone see the football? Only joking, you know I don't have the slightest interest in football. So here's a picture of some washing machines that I took in Brighton just after Christmas. Unfortunately I cut off the right hand side, so I'll have to go back to Brighton to take it again.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Dried French Sausage

Today I'm supposed to be being creative. As it's far too cold to go outside, this mainly means eating saucisson from the fridge. Like most things, saucisson tastes better straight from the fridge, as the naughty frisson of eating it devoid of civilized accompaniment (eg bread) gives it an extra zing. Until the fifth slice, when I have to eat a little gherkin get rid of the layer of pig fat coating the roof of my mouth. I am contemplating making a sandwich with the one pitta bread I know is left in the freezer, and half a tomato left over from yesterday. But a sandwich would constitute a sort of proto-meal, which would spoil my lunch/tea/dinner (delete as applicable for 4 pm), and I just can't live with the guilt.

Laura is angry with me, as she knows I'm supposed to be being creative, but doesn't consider eating dried bits of pork as a valid form of personal expression. I think she's a cultural fascist, and consider proving it by writing an insightful blog posting on the culinary delights of artisanal French meat products, although the saucisson we have was cheap and a bit tasteless, so I decide against it.

Alternatively, I was thinking of writing something about Susan Blackmore's article on free will. She doesn't think it exists, and from pictures of her on the Internet, it certainly appears that her hairdresser at least is lacking any internal supervisory system.

I went to see a talk by her when I was a student. I remember her being really captivating; she was talking about memes, which is a pretty captivating subject anyway, but she was a particularly engaging speaker, and I bought her book afterwards. At the time it was a pretty radical to talk about applying evolutionary theory to culture, and she was seen as a bit of a maverick; her past life as a parapsychologist probably didn't help her scientific credibility, to be honest. Now the term "meme" seems to have fallen into everyday use (at least among nerds like me), and it looks like she got it mostly right.

In yesterday's article she suggests that we should reject the concept of free will in the same way that most intelligent people have rejected God. I think I generally agree with her - it's certainly a bit weird to have a legal system based on a clear distinction between sane ("I did it because I wanted to") and insane ("I did it because my brain made me"). It's pretty clear that most (all) cases fit the latter category - no-one seems to have come up with a very good explanation of what the first would look like.

Nevertheless, I can see of few problems with actually doing away with the whole free-will illusion as advocated by Blackmore, not least that we'd have to let a lot of not-very-nice people out of prison. One solution might be simply to re-name the prisons "treatment centres", and give them all a few more comfy sofas. If we're honest, this is basically the path we've quite rightly been going down for the last 100 years or so anyway, as we gradually take the whole old-testament-revenge part out of the equation. Even so, I'm not sure society is ready for that kind of liberalism yet (those Daily Mail readers can be a pretty aggressive bunch).

So for the time being I propose that we hold on to the free-will idea as a pragmatic white lie. A bit like Father Christmas (social control of children) or Homoeopathy (social control of hypochondriacs).

I'm off to eat more stuff (I think there might be some processed cheese behind the tonic). I just can't help myself.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I just saw Natalie Portman! A verified sighting too, because Laura saw her immediately, and Natalie caught me looking, and gave me a brief look which could only be construed as saying "yes it is is me, now fuck off".

We were sitting an a cafe at the end of our road, eating sandwiches bought from the boulagerie opposite. She walked passed with an older woman (her agent?), looking chic but not exactly glamorous in a long coat, hair pinned back, no obvious makeup. She would easily have passed for French, and I didn't see anyone anyone else on the terrace notice or comment.

Afterwards I felt a little light headed, and stared into the distance. I'm ashamed to admit I'm always a bit star-stuck around celebrates, even D-list soap-stars (not that I even meet those ever). Laura, annoyed, asked me if I was a little bit in love. I told her no; that I was just wondering what it must be like to have people stare at you all the time. I think she could tell I was lying.


Laura and I went running today, for what was shamefully only the second time since we arrived in Paris. Nevertheless, we hoped it might go some way towards counteracting the effects of numerous hazy party nights, an unavoidable hazard of attempting to embrace the local scene.

We ran under the overhead metro line, which created the disorienting impression of being in New York rather than Paris, and made me fell a tiny bit like Rocky. Further along, we turned onto the picturesque Canal St-Martin, lined with pretty barges; mostly houseboats or floating cafes and theaters.

A lifting bridge crosses the canal, opening to allow larger boats to continue northwards. At the safety barrier, the light showed red, so we waited to be allowed to cross. The were a number of black teenage boys, in baggy jeans and hooded shirts, hanging around by the crossing.

I was wearing my ipod, with my running music at maximum volume, in order to render myself as oblivious as possible to any distractions. A younger boy, about 13, made an indecipherable gesture at me, and I ignored him. As the lights changed to green I ran across the bridge, probably at a slightly faster pace, to place some distance between myself and the group. I noticed from the corner of my eye that the boy appeared to be running behind me. I felt a slight irritation - I wanted to focus on the running, rather than be forced into some sort of confrontation, however minor. At the end of the bridge, I stopped, and turned to look for Laura, bouncing on the spot to try and maintain momentum. The boy was standing in front of me, and said something urgent. I took out my earbuds, and said "Pardon?", with some annoyance. He reached out his hand, and handed me my house keys, with a grin. They must have dropped out of my belt pocket (the zip slips open), somewhere near the beginning of the crossing.

I thanked him, probably over-enthusiastically, and I'm sure he heard the note of apology in my voice. On the way back I felt a slight euphoria at having my prejudices so roundly discredited, and disappointed in myself for having held them in the first place, however subconsciously. I guess I still have some way to go to be the kind of person I'd like to think I am.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm back!

Hey there, after a short absence, I'm back in the blogoshphere. I'm sure you're all (imagined huge, adoring and extremely patient readership) very pleased. I will be writing again here regularly on a broad range of fascinating up-to-the-minute subjects and issues.

But for the time being, here's a picture of a potato.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

From traveller to tourist and back again.

I'm aware that I have been through an entire country since I last updated this, and whilst I want to write about Vietnam, I also want to share my experiences of Cambodia. I'm not sure I'll reach Cambodia in this post, but we'll see.

We arrived in Vietnam across a bridge, which seemed strangely fitting, as for me it sort of marked the end of the beginning of my trip. Originally I'd never intended to go to Russia, Mongolia and China, and had thought I'd start my trip in Vietnam. My first Vietnam visa had expired over a month before I'd arrived, having spent much more time than expected in China. But here a was finally - Southeast Asia.

The weather was terrible, but I was immediately enamored with the country. When had we barely stepped across the border, we found a little street cart selling sandwiches in freshly baked baguettes. There are many things you can say about the decades of French colonialism, but they certainly taught the Vietnamese to bake. In fact the French influence on Vietnamese culture is everywhere to be seen from cooking to architecture. It gives Vietnam a unique feel, and somehow mixes perfectly with more traditional Vietnamese culture.

Our first stop in Vietnam was the sleepy hill town of Sapa. This rather wonderful town has steadily gathered pace as a tourist centre, and now boasts a number of slick hotels alongside the usual backpacker haunts. We rented little 125 cc motos, and rode Easy Rider-like around the surrounding Cham minority villages, often wreathed in thick fog. We were welcomed into a local house by some women, who told us about their day to day lives. It was a fascinating insight that can't be gained just by doing the usual tourist things.

Hanoi has the most amazing traffic I have even seen. It's as if the entire population decided to ride a motorbike all at once. They take their motorbikes everywhere, and are astonished that foreigners might consider walking a few yards down the chaotic streets, as if we'd decided to cross a lake by swimming rather than boat. But again the French influence means that chic boutiques and cafes rub shoulders with noodle stalls and metal fabricators, and the whole city oozes charm.

Halong Bay provided a surreal break from our usual budget existence - we ended up on surprisingly luxurious boat trip with a number of honeymooning couples, and felt out of place surrounded by the more civilized tourist classes. The package tourist experience was a little claustrophobic - strange to be penned-in by structured itineraries and plodding behind the annoyingly effervescent guide. Nevertheless, the scenery was spectacular, and we met some great people, who were to become accidental traveling companions as we bumped into them again and again at various stops on the way south.

As we headed south, the weather deteriorated, such that many places we stopped were almost completely flooded - the locals paddling the streets in canoes - and we were left to wade knee-deep in the suspicious murky water. We had rather dapper suits made in Hoi An, by a particularly camp tailor and his equally fay and diminutive assistant. They turned out well, but very fitted, leaving little room for any additional traveling-chub. I shall have to go easy on the spring-rolls.

That's all for now, but some more soon.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ahhh, ok here goes.

Yes, so I've lost some momentum, at least as far as chronicling my adventures goes. A lot of the time the summarising of the things I've seen and done seems a little empty and trite. But I appreciate that at least someone might be interested. Nevertheless, from now on, I've decided as far as possible to treat this as my own personal travel journal - the public be damned.

I've been in Vietnam for over a week now - the experience is very different to China - much more oriented to western tourists. This is a mixed blessing. Everything is laid out for the traveler on a plate, tours are cheap and easy to organise, and people are relentlessly helpful and friendly. But you also tend to feel funnelled into a pre-defined tourist programme, meeting the same (albeit friendly) fellow backpackers at every stop, doing the same tours etc.

I suppose I should make some effort to sum up my experiences in China, or at least the highlights. But I'm afraid it's bullet points again.


The freedom of cycling round Beijing, blending in effortlessly with the locals.

The atmosphere of Shanghai side streets, so many peoples lives in such a small space.

"Meat on a stick" at midnight - diverse meats and other treats cooked on tiny street barbecues.

Waking up from hard-sleeper journeys at your next destination.

Jumping from Jade Dragon Bridge, swimming in the river, then taking a sleepy bamboo raft trip down the river, as the sun sets with spectacular karts mountains all around.

Leaving the crowds behind, and discovering some spectacular scenery.

Meeting mad locals in clubs who refuse to let you buy a single drink all night.

Renting electric scooters, and whizzing round the countryside.

Freshly steamed dumplings, for pennies.

Eating snake.


Crowded, maddening railway stations, trying to find a seat, being made to feel very unwelcome.

Being ripped off in situations where you're trapped, eg bus journeys.

Trying to order in restaurants where all the food is clearly on display, but the cashier can't be bothered to look where you're pointing.



Noise. Oh the noise.

Eating snake.

That's all for now. I'll remember more soon. Our hostel has a pool, so I'm going swimming. I miss you all (all of you I know at least)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Ok, so it's not exactly the biggest mountain in China, or even Yunan, but I climbed it.

A few days ago (don't ask me exactly how many - the boundaries blur), Ben and I took the overpriced (aren't all tourist attractions in China?) chairlift from Dali old town up to 2600m. We marched up the last 150 meters along a precarious footpath, following the signs to the Higherland [sic] Hostel, as recommended in the LP (of course). By the time we reached the hostel we were both aching and panting like octogenarians; I was secretly pleased that Ben appeared almost as tired as me, having 6 years extra slobbery under my belt.

The hostel was an eccentric collection of tumbledown wooden buildings with corrugated steel roofs, liberally painted in a mishmash of styles - the guests are encouraged to contribute their own artistic talents. We were shown to a cosy twin room, with amazing views through the pine trees, down to the town below.

We spent the afternoon tackling spectacular but un-challenging walks that traverse the mountains; cascading waterfalls crash down steep gullies, the path dropping off to sheer rock-face on either side. Every few minutes we would pass a group of Chinese walkers, always immaculately dressed, and would greet them with a cheery "Nee How", usually returned with a "Hallo".

In the evening we ate local food (fresh lotus buds, shredded beef, cabbage with chillies)at the communal round table, and shared stories with other travellers. The hostel had a calm and relaxed feeling that I think is often associated with places genuinely off the beaten track, that require some special effort or exertion to reach.

The next day we attempted the summit, and set off early, fully equiped with water and rations for a full days climbing. After about an hour we realised we were hopelessly lost; the hand drawn map from the hostel making up in character what it lacked in accuracy. We climbed up a virtually disused trail beside a waterfall, the path falling away on occasion, requiring us to cling insect-like to the sides to avoid sliding into the torrent below. Eventually we accepted that we could go no further, and examined blisters and other minor scrapes beside the glistening clear pools. Nevertheless, we returned to the hostel slightly dejected, to eat our packed lunch in the courtyard, and spent the afternoon reading in bed, somewhat sulking in our failure.

Determined to succeed, that evening we re checked the route with the hostel staff, and having discovered the cause of our error, re-calculated our route, and rose early the next day.

The start of the climb gave some forewarning of the challenge to come. Within minutes we were both struggling hard with the barely discernible trail, which struck upwards at such an oblique angle that we were reduced to scrambling on our hands and knees at almost every step. The going eased a little after an hour or so, giving us false hope as the path then sprang up even more steeply than before, emerging through dense bamboo scrub into bleak rock-face, traversing an escarpment, dropping hundreds of meters to either side. I could easily have imagined myself in the highlands of Scotland, were it not for every breath reminding me that we were at altitude far exceeding anything on the British isles.

The day had stared with wisps of cloud, but rather than abating as hoped, the mist drew in closer, until visibility had dropped to 50 meters at most. Nevertheless, the penultimate marker before the summit, we stopped to share a sandwich, and debated our course of action. Each of us held just too much pride to make the decision to return, although each of us would have quickly accepted the decision had the other taken it. Therefore we pressed on despite the inclement weather.

We were both almost certainly ready to call it a day when we reached the final marker indicating 40 minutes to the summit. At this point there could be no question of going back, and with renewed vigor (and other cliches), we pushed along the increasingly worn path. The temperature continued to drop below 8 degrees, and the visibility to a few meters. The wind whipped cloud up the mountainside, and for a moment I could imagine myself melodramatically on the North face of the Eiger. Finally we sighted some abandoned machinery, and soon afterwards the shape of the television transmission tower marking the summit loomed out of the mist. We were elated, at 4092 meters.

The summit held a small building, and peering inside we were greeted by a couple of somewhat perplexed engineers, apparently permanent residents on the desolate peak. After a hastily munched sandwich held in frozen hands (I had never imagined I would be so cold in China), and shivering posing for celebratory photos, we said goodbye to the engineers and began our decent. The decent seemed to last for ever, we soon began to slip and fall due to fatigue and the residual effects of altitude. The last 2 hours seemed to last for ever, particularly as light rain had turned the rocky path ice-slippery (both our walking boots had "Vibram" soles, which seem to have all the adhesion of polished teflon). Eight and a half hours after we had set off we reached the hostel again, just as the heavens opened, and we scurried to shelter.

That night we had the fortune to celebrate the moon festival with the hostel owner and her family, and were treated to one of the most sumptuous and extensive feasts I have had in my whole time in China. This was washed down with home made plumb wine, followed by traditional moon cakes. After eating I felt my eyelids gradually closing with contentment, and I made my excuses and collapsed into bed. I slept like I had never slept before.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Sorry that the last post was a bit rubbish - this one won't be much better.

We (Ben, my new travelling buddy, and I) arrived a couple of days ago in Dali. After a tedious train ride, only made bearable by sleeping on the luggage racks, and bus ride crammed with Tibetan-looking locals and their produce, we arrived at sunset. Dali has an almost Tibetan feel - this is definitely not the China I was used to - far too sleepy for one thing.

As we wandered the streets looking for the requisite LP recommended guest house, a local man run down the street with a chain of lit firecrackers, scaring the living daylights out of everyone (except us hardened travelers of course).

Yesterday we cycled through the local rice fields. Despite having spent some time now in fairly remote parts of the country, this was the first time that I really felt like I was seeing Chinese farming life for real, unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years. These are the real poor, people left behind in the great push for modernisation. Most don't even own a motor vehicle for taking their rice back to the communal farming communes, instead pulling traditional carts by hand.

I felt pretty ill on the way back (a combination of altitude, sun, a greasy breakfast and cobbled streets conspiring against my constitution), and struggled the make the 18 km ride back. I lay in my bed with the room spinning around me, and for the first time missed not just my friends and family, but home itself. But this morning I feel fine, so we're setting off up the mountain to do some hiking in the clouds.