Friday, 14 July 2017

The wisdom of a Barbados taxi driver

Our taxi driver on a trip round the island in Barbados was called William. He said William is a good name for a husband, because you always have bills. He said there are people in the world who don't want to be happy. He will have their happiness if they don't want it.

Something unexpected happened to him: one of the passengers on the trip was visually impaired, and required a lot of assistance (although actually the man was pretty independent to have come on the trip on his own in the first place). William said that all difficulties thrown in his path are a test and an opportunity to see how well he will deal with things.

This last idea is the one I like best. If we live in a heartless mechanical universe, then anything that happens outside our expectations is annoying and makes us grumpy and negative. It puts us in a small dark place in our minds. If on the other hand there is some purpose to it all, then we can place ourselves in the hands of that higher power, do our best and be happy.

What if it is all meaningless? Someone once said that the Greeks dreamed the right dream. Since, one way or another, we dream our way through our lives, it is good to dream a dream that works ('a path with heart' as Carlos Castaneda put it). To keep our minds open and in the light. To take challenges with a good attitude. Better still, to dream well and know that we are dreaming.

Attributed to Meher Baba: "Don't worry, be happy, make efforts."

(Note: I have not found the source of this quotation despite an internet search.)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Uncertainty in economics and in life

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one." -- Voltaire, quoted in Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy.

"At the heart of modern macroeconomics is the same illusion that uncertainty can be confined to the mathematical manipulation of known probabilities." -- Mervyn King, ibid. p.121.

As has been argued elsewhere, for example in Taleb's Black Swan and in Mandelbrot et. al. The Misbehaviour of Markets, many market analysts, economists, politicians and others, including probably most of us ordinary folk, imagine that most things stay more-or-less the same most of the time, and when things change they do so within reasonable boundaries. Those of a mathematical persuasion may further imagine that things follow a normal or Gaussian distribution, that is, events are distributed in a bell-curve, in which very few things are extreme and most things are more-or-less average.

This is the case with things like people's height, for example, or fitness, or biological variables (see my earlier blog post about the misuse of this) or workers' incomes (excluding oil billionaires and bank executives). However it is not the case with non-linear dynamic systems.

What, I hear you ask, is a non-linear dynamic system? It is any system in which there is any degree of complexity in the relation between inputs and outputs, and in which the outputs feed back as inputs. An example is the weather and the so-called butterfly effect, in which the flapping of a butterfly's wings can change the course of a tornado several weeks hence. An outcome can be radically changed by a small change in initial conditions. This is why even with much more powerful computers it is unlikely that the weather will be predictable with any accuracy more than ten days ahead, because it is simply not feasible that we could ever measure the initial conditions with sufficient accuracy.

When we come to the stock market there are so many variables and so many unknowns that long-term prediction is impossible. Someone bets on an oil company, then a major accident happens and the stock falls, or else someone announces a major breakthrough in solar power and the stock falls, or there is a war involving a major oil exporter and the price of oil rises. I such cases the unexpected occurs frequently and is better represented by some kind of fat-tailed distribution, in which uncommon events happen more frequently.

There are up-sides and down-sides to this. Our lives in general are subject to the unexpected. We enjoy the stability of relationships and our homes and jobs and we value living in a country that is not at war, if we think about it at all. But the unexpected does happen. We prefer not to think about it, other than the approximately 1 in 14 million chance that our lottery ticket will win.

The up-side of the butterfly effect, though, is that if the beating of the wings of a butterfly in China can change the course of a tornado on the other side of the world, imagine what the effect of a smile could be!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

A Mermaid in the Bath is now available in Mexico!

A Mermaid in the Bath is now available in Mexico!

I have made it especially cheap in Mexico because Lola in the story is Mexican. I have also made it especially cheap in India just because I feel like it. If it is cheap in the USA that is because of Amazon's pricing policy, however I do not think that the official price of $3.99 for the Kindle edition is all that much for a philosophical love story.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Free Silly Stories for Grown-ups

I have created a selection of stories entitled Silly stories for grown-ups. It is in Kindle format (also readable on your mobile phone with the free Kindle app) and you can get a copy by subscribing to my emailing list (not the same as the signup for receiving notifications of blog posts).

It contains such gems as The girl who was not a vampire and The true story of Redcap and the Wolf, and how vengeance was wreaked on the woodcutter. There is also a drabble (a hundred-word novel) called Love in space, and a couple of other things to brighten your early morning commute. Don't read Chocolatina on public transport as random giggles tend to create an odd effect on other travellers.

I am using MailChimp so you will not get any dodgy files because MailChimp does not allow email attachments. The ebook is hosted on MailChimp's servers and they know where I live, so no dodgy business. Also I don't like spam and neither do you, so there is a big fat unsubscribe button if I send you too much rubbish. (It may be rubbish but at least it's British rubbish.)

Thursday, 8 June 2017


My daughter aged 4 was pinched by another child at nursery. Apparently there was no provocation, and in any case I know my daughter to be a placid and non-aggressive child. One of the nursery teachers told my daughter to pinch back, 'to show him what it's like.' My daughter did as commanded, but with reluctance, and in a way that amounted to a touch rather than a pinch.

In her own way my daughter was resisting the command, or carrying it out under duress and with minimum force. It was the furthest she felt she could go short of open defiance. But clearly she was not happy with what she had been told to do.

On the one hand I felt admiration for her, that a small child already understands what is 'not nice' and has the understanding not to do things that are 'not nice' to others, even if told to by an adult. On the other hand she is at an age at which she has to learn to obey, simply because there are a huge number of aspects of the world that she does not yet understand, and there isn't always time to explain them. 'Stay on the pavement!' must be obeyed sometimes without question. Going to bed at the right time is another thing that has to be done whether the child wants to or not. Without obedience a child may do all manner of things, pulled this way and that by the impulses of the moment, and lack the structure that is necessary for a calm and healthy life.

My preliminary conclusion is that, in the usual order of things, obedience must be learned first and conscientious objection later, even if in the case of the pinching, conscientious objection has begun early. For us as adults also, inner self-control has to be developed as a strong base from which occasional necessary resistance to what is expected of us is possible.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

A Mermaid in the Bath is now available in Kindle format!

Well this took a while! There are books out there that tell you that you can convert your word-processor files into e-books in an hour. But it takes a lot longer than that if you care about the look and feel of the result.

While an e-book can never quite match the experience of having a real book in your hands, I have done my best to put into the Kindle version the little images that are scattered between sections of A Mermaid in the Bath, including mermaids, starfish, jellyfish, an evil-looking squid and the wonderful union-jack underpants. The lovely mermaid facing the title page I had to leave out because Amazon charges authors by the kilobyte for the so-called download fee. Even so a smaller version of the sleeping mermaid is still to be found in chapter 44.

Ah me! Because of the download fee I had to reduce all the images to the minimum file size possible without losing too much quality. Current e-readers will not support the 600 dots per inch that print allows in any case. That's why it all took a long time.

Anyway, it's a work of art and it's a bargain at less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Friday, 26 May 2017

I believe in the religion of love

(This Ibn Arabi quotation was found here.)

How can anyone believe in a God of hate? But as Hannah Arendt pointed out, evil is banal. It is a failure to think and to understand. It is the mindless acceptance of whatever rubbish someone else has said, or the mindless misinterpretation of scripture. Think, question, and don't trust your own conclusions.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The missing mermaids

Phew! The mermaids are back! Was this censorship?

Martin's mermaid images disappeared from Etsy recently, and his Etsy page (visible at that time only to him) had a red banner saying that the mermaids were under review to see if they violated any of Etsy's policies.

Some people seem rather sensitive about nakedness, not being able readily to distinguish between art and pornography. A similar thing happened on Wattpad, when the management became aware of A Mermaid in the Bath. They liked the story so much that they wanted to feature it (it is still featured on Wattpad in the humour category) but they asked that the mermaid's breasts be covered up. He duly put cockle shells on them, although this is explicitly excluded in the book and for excellent reasons. (If cockle shell bras were a good idea you'd see whole sections of Marks and Spencer devoted to them. I dare you to go and ask.)

Michaelangelo had exactly the same problem with his painting of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, having to put up with some other artist painting trousers on his nudes. The trousers are still there.

Having read Etsy's policies carefully, Martin discovered that Etsy permits breasts within the bounds of decency, as long as it's art or proper photography. It turns out that he just hadn't paid, and as soon as that minor matter was sorted, the mermaids reappeared in all their glory.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Innocent faith

Clever atheists sometimes mock the faith of the faithful. I used to do the same. But there is an obtuseness about the mocking.

If I may plead in my own defence, it was because I was looking for the door and no-one seemed able to show me the door. The myths by which religions live were opaque to me. The myths are the door, but without the key the door is a wall.

Some denied there was a door at all let alone a key. Specifically, in my youth I would ask, 'what is the meaning of life?' and I was told that the question was naive. Probably I'd grow out of it. At the same time I didn't see how the Virgin Birth or even Hanuman and his army of monkeys could help me. Are these not stories for children?

Again, some of the faithful claim that their version of the truth is the only correct one, the only path to Paradise. How should one choose? Choosing on the basis of ones parents' belief seemed to me rather arbitrary. Surely one should choose what is right, not necessarily what is habitual? Given that my revered primary school teacher was a Spiritualist (who believed her dog was the reincarnation of her previous dog, but had the clarity of mind to explain to us children that not everyone believes as she does, and that there are other points of view), my father flit between the Quakers, the Roman Catholic Church and some kind of misunderstanding of Buddhism, and my mother became a born-again atheist, I did not have a clear route to follow.

I cannot resist putting in a little anecdote told to me by a Bahá'í: someone was travelling through some part of the USA and passed a sign saying The Church of God. A little further down the road was another sign, reading The One True Church of God. Later they passed a third sign reading The One and Only True Church of God. Now clearly they cannot all be the only true church, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell would have pointed out that asserting that something is true does not add one iota to its truth value ('P is true' means exactly the same as 'P', where P is a proposition).

There is a problem with belief and it is this: a clever atheist can always come along and point out that parthenogenesis is recorded among some animals but not among humans, or that a reporter from the Daily Mail was not present at the Annunciation (not that that would have made the events any more plausible), or that no-one has ever been seen with blue skin (and I certainly mean no disrespect - dancing with all the cow-girls is one of the most delightful stories in all religion). How do we address this?

It seems to me likely that there is a door and there is a key. I cannot prove this, but without this assumption there is no point in even starting. This assumption has been made by the best minds since the dawn of history and probably before. The world is full of it and civilisations have been built on it. Correctly understood, the similarities between the faiths and the wise are there to see, although clothed in different styles and with different myths. A myth is simply a story, in this context a story that contains a truth. A truth that cannot be expressed better any other way.

Everyone needs a story to live by. Carlos Castaneda refers to 'a path with heart.' As we live and learn, perhaps the way we describe our path becomes less naive, we put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). Meanwhile, a childish faith is a path with heart.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

- William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Let your body do the driving

Zen in the art of driving. Become one with the car.

My car is an ageing Mazda MX5 (Miata). The principal virtue of this car is that it is fun to drive. But listening to the radio, mostly depressing news about things over which I have absolutely no influence, I am not feeling the car or deriving the pleasure that is to be had from one of the best driver's cars on the planet. One day I decided not to turn on the radio.

Then I applied one of the lessons I learned long ago from a wise person. Put your attention on the place where the working surfaces meet. I experimented with trying to be aware of where the front wheels made contact with the road. After a while of making this effort I observed several things. I was aware of my body in the driver's seat, my hands on the wheel. I was also more aware of other road users and what was happening up ahead. I was driving with more attention and almost certainly more safely. In addition I started to enjoy the car and the sensation of driving with precision.

Very quickly my mind started to wander, thinking about these things and other quite unrelated things, even about writing this blog post. I refreshed the effort of sensing where the front wheels made contact with the road. Gradually a sense of peace started to settle on me, as the continued gentle effort to be present pushed other thoughts out of the way.

One might imagine that thought is essential for driving, but if it is then it is a very bodily form of thought. The thoughts that kept intruding had nothing to do with what was happening on the road.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Footnotes and end-notes in the Kindle and other e-readers

About footnotes*

[* and a man with three testicles]

When I am reading a printed book I actually read the footnotes (and I shall explain why you might also want to). If there are end-notes I keep an extra bookmark in the end-notes section (ok, I'm a geek). But doing this in a Kindle is not easy. This is one reason why e-reader formatting needs to be re-thought.

You may be one of those people who never read footnotes or end-notes, so you will not see a problem here. In a moment I shall try to persuade you otherwise (I shall explain about the man with three testicles and what the Pope did about it). But the main point of this article is to question some of the assumptions about book layout in e-readers. Simply transporting a book text unmodified into an e-reader such as the Kindle does not always translate into a good reader experience. This is particularly the case with footnotes and end-notes.

Footnotes, properly used, are there to enhance the reader experience while not interrupting the flow of text. Uses include explaining an obscure reference or phrase with which the reader might not be familiar, or adding an illuminating anecdote that is not a proper part of the text. In Bailey and Love's Physical Signs in Clinical Surgery there is a section describing the harmless swelling called a spermatocele that can arise in a man's scrotum. This can resemble a third testicle. That's all you really need to know. But a footnote adds, "The story goes that, in the 14th century, on petition from a patient with a spermatocele, the Pope granted a gentleman to marry two wives because he had three testicles."*

[*Also in Bailey and Love's Short Practice of Surgery p.1383.]

 The anecdote is not strictly necessary, but it is memorable. I would point out that Bailey and Love do not reference the source of the anecdote, so they may have made it up or copied it from someone else who made it up. If they had referenced it properly they could have put the reference in with the footnote. Perhaps Dan Brown can go and look for it in the Vatican archives, or perhaps it's just a rumour in Piers Plowman.*

[*I've no idea.]

While I am not aware of any strict rules, it seems to me that end-notes are more appropriate where it is less likely that the reader will want to look them up straight away. For example, there may be repeated quotations from a particular source, and you might want to look up the original for context ("A wonderful evening" - Groucho Marx; original quotation: "I've had a wonderful evening, and this wasn't it"), or because you feel inspired by what has been quoted and you want to go right out and buy the book.

With Kindle books, footnotes are more-or-less impossible. This is because the text flows across the screen according to the precise model of Kindle that you have and the size of type you have set as default, and so there is no guarantee that a footnote will appear at the bottom of the screen or even on the same page. In future this ought to be fixable, because if you highlight a word the definition will come up automatically at the bottom of the screen in what is in effect a pop-up footnote. But I know of no way that an author can exploit this. In any event, footnotes are generally translated into end-notes, which are fiddly.

I can move the cursor down to the end-note number (the little superscript number that denotes that there is an end-note) and click on the end-note link and sometimes it will take me to the end-note, and then I can click again and sometimes it will take me back. Not only is this tedious, it is also not reliable. Some writers and publishers do not bother to make their end-notes work, so you click and nothing happens.

In A Mermaid in the Bath* there are a number of footnotes and they are there for humorous effect. Therefore they need to be close to the text to which they refer. The solution that I have come up with is to put the footnotes in square brackets and in a slightly smaller font size immediately below the text which refers to them, and denoted with an asterisk as shown here.

[* A Mermaid in the Bath, a humorous philosophical novel and love story by Milton Marmalade, available from Amazon worldwide.]

Additionally, footnotes could be indented, although I have not done this. (The Kindle version of A Mermaid in the Bath will be available soon.)

I should be interested in any comments on this or any other topic related to Kindle and e-reader formatting.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Every thing that is possible to be believed

If the believer understood the meaning of the saying 'the colour of the water is the colour of the receptacle', he would admit the validity of all beliefs and he would recognise God in every form and every object of faith. - Ibn 'Arabi (from The Meccan Revelations)

Every thing that is possible to be believed is an image of the truth. - William Blake

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Bargain! 'A Mermaid in the Bath' for £2!

Hello Saline Sympathisers and Mermaid Lovers everywhere,

The lovely paperback version of A Mermaid in the Bath by Milton Marmalade, with its mermaid illustrations and print margins calculated according to arcane medieval principles, has been discounted to close to the printing price by Amazon uk! This is for brand new copies! I don't know why, they don't tell me. The usual cover price is £7.99. This cannot last - order your copy now! (It's still $10.99 with offers from $7.76 on

Go to my links page for all Amazon links.

Your chum,

Mellifluous Mollusc

Thursday, 13 April 2017

On those who deny the existence of God

It is reasonable to deny the existence of God, if by 'God' you mean some being external to yourself who hangs around in the sky either interfering or not interfering in the creation (since either causes problems). Also, a god who is supposed to be the creator of everything begs a number of questions, such as 'who created God?'

If however we begin to look at the world from the bottom up, so to speak, we realise that the whole thing is a living mystery. Just being conscious is inexplicable. We can talk indefinitely about neural networks and emergent properties, and still not understand how I, now, can be conscious, or even why the consciousness that contains me seems not to be the same as the consciousness that contains you (why am I me and not you?). (This is a question that has perplexed me since I was five years old and my toy rabbit was confiscated in school and put on a shelf where I could see it and not get it. I remember thinking, why am I me and not that toy rabbit? Of course I now understand that cloth animals are not made in such a way that they can be conscious, at least it is reasonable to suppose so, but the question 'why me here now?' remains.)

The question becomes less or more confusing (depending on our point of view) if we start to look at it from a god-like perspective, as it were from the outside, as if we could see the whole creation, and imagine creating beings such as ourselves wired up in such a way that we can exhibit complex behaviours. Then we can say, well, that one thinks it's conscious because that's how it's made, and so does that one and those over there. No mystery really. But actually we are only privy to a god-like perspective in our imaginations - that's not how it is.

Then again, if God exists it follows that God is more than our human understanding, and therefore we should not expect to be able to reason about God, except to say that logically it follows that we cannot reason about God.

Why have what the atheists would call an unnecessary hypothesis? Let us go with Hippocrates and ask for no unnecessary hypothesis. Then if we glimpse something more than the imaginary world in which we say we live we can allow space for what we don't know.

From Robert Graves's poem Warning to Children:

"Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this: ..."

Thursday, 6 April 2017

God rewards fools

Quotation abbreviated from that quoted in Out of the Labyrinth - setting mathematics free by Kaplan and Kaplan - the quotation is from Martin Hellman, one of the inventors of public key cryptography:

"... the way to get to the top [...] is to be a fool, because only fools keep trying. [...] Unless you're foolish enough to be continually excited, you won't have the motivation, you won't have the energy to carry it through. God rewards fools." (p.29)

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The limitations of reason 2

Previously I wrote about the limitations of reason, and suggested that the part of reality that cannot be reasoned about is very large, as though what can be reasoned about is equivalent to the top of a small table in the middle of a very large world.

Consider in any case that reason starts from premises, and premises come from experience. Reason itself generates nothing new - it merely re-arranges things in law-conformable patterns.

I should like you to indulge me in a thought experiment. Suppose it is the case that there is a world beyond or even prior to reason. Suppose further that you are someone who habitually interprets the world through reason. You test every claim and hypothesis against reason.

There is, I would emphasize, nothing wrong with that. There is a great deal to be said for pointing out contradictions and requiring evidence, especially for dangerous, tendentious and unpleasant opinions. There is, in effect, a proper use of reason and a proper realm in which it operates.

However, if you are such a person you may find it difficult to conceive of anything outside the reasoning world. You would be like the cartographer of old who leaves a blank where definite knowledge ends, or perhaps fills it with mermaids and fantastic creatures, or writes, 'here be tygers.' Although more usually these days it is those wedded to reason who insist on not merely leaving a blank but insisting that there is nothing there or that reason will one day fill the blank, given more research. Whereas it is those opposed to reason or who do not value it who fill the blanks with sirens of their own invention.

If reason is a game of chess, what do the pawns or even the kings and queens know of the world beyond the chequered squares? Reason cannot reason about that which is outside the world of that which can be reasoned about. It is impossible, like a Flatlander trying to point to the third dimension.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Price slashed by Amazon for 'A Mermaid in the Bath'

I see that Amazon has slashed the price of 'A Mermaid in the Bath' from £8.00 to £6.17, at least on, and $10.99 on Buy now while you still can at these bargain prices (you know you want to). The book has fishy printer's ornaments consisting of mermaids, fish, starfish, jellyfish, crabs, coelocanths and union jack boxer shorts, and a lovely mermaid in a circle and square opposite chapter 44. And quite a lot of jokes. Go on, go on!

Friday, 17 March 2017

The limitations of reason

In one of Carlos Castaneda's books, perhaps A Separate Reality but I don't recall for certain, Carlos has a conversation with his shaman teacher Don Juan Matus, in which Don Juan explains reality in terms of the contents of a small table.

He is attempting to explain two terms, the Tonal and the Nagual. I have read since that anthropologists dispute that Yaqui shamans use these terms in the way Castaneda has Don Juan explain them and some have claimed that Castaneda never went to Mexico and that Don Juan himself is a fabrication. In any event my own memory of A Separate Reality may be faulty and I have not checked, nor do I possess a copy any more. None of this really matters for the purpose of this essay, which is about how we experience reality and the limitations of reason in apprehending reality.

The explanation went like this. See the contents of this breakfast table. There is a table cloth (for some reason I remember a gingham check-pattern plastic table cloth, but that is probably my fabrication) on which are plates, perhaps salt and pepper shakers, knives and forks and so on. I imagine sunshine on the table cloth - perhaps this is a humble breakfast on a day in which there is no hurry. Again, the details are not important. Don Juan explains that the table top and everything on it represents the Tonal. The Tonal is the normal everyday world (although even this description needs to be qualified). The Nagual is everything else.

At first I wrote that the Tonal is the world of our everyday perceptions, but that is not right. The world of everyday perceptions is extraordinary and is not the world we usually inhabit. Rather we live in a world constructed out of thoughts and ideas. In any event, as I understand it the contents of the table top represent the realm of things we can talk about, and what we can talk about we can also reason about.

Somewhere in Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a description of two philosophers meeting for a discussion. Instead of using words they bring along a large number of disparate objects (kettles, armchairs and so on) and dispute with those. Now clearly that is a bit impractical. That is why we use words instead. If I wish to tell you about an elephant it is very inconvenient to bring an elephant into the room, and although people talk about elephants in rooms quite a lot, there is rarely a real elephant there.

So over perhaps tens of thousands of years, perhaps longer, humans have built up vocabularies of words and signs to refer to things and to states of affairs. The words stand in place of the reality. Words, ideas, images build up to form an internal representation of reality, and these representations are necessarily different from one person to the next, although there will of course be large overlaps and similarities (otherwise communication would be impossible).

While this is all very convenient it also distances us from the reality of our immediate perceptions. We see a tree, and instead of marvelling at its size, structure, the way the light catches innumerable leaves, the way it rustles, it is as if we only see the label, 'tree.' The same can happen with our interactions with each other, and with every mundane event. The label is fitted into our internal map of the world, which is as much like the real world as Google maps is to the town you live in, that is, it is and is not. It is in fact not merely a map but an internal monologue that replaces much of reality, so that it is as if we were wearing virtual reality goggles all the time through which we can see a dim representation of the real world as through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is the world of words and ideas that we can reason about. Everything else belongs to the Nagual. That does not of course entitle us to make bold unsupported assertions about anything. Any assertion can be reasoned about, challenged, disputed. All one can do with things that cannot be reasoned about is make poetry, art, dance or drama in order to try to resonate with that within us that knows already.

As Simon and Garfunkel sang:

Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said:
"The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence."

Friday, 10 March 2017

That strange moment

... when the mind catches up with our feet. Suddenly we're there. Then we're not again. It is a mystery.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Reflections on Mr Trump

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

(The sleep of reason produces monsters)

What will the president do or say next? It's a rather compelling soap opera, like the Real Housewives of wherever, where one is momentarily fascinated by shallowness out of control. It is tragedy with a veneer of glitz.

Are we not shallow also, when mesmerised by events entirely outside our control?

Stuff happens, especially when some of the most powerful rulers in the world are fast asleep.

This fellow who calls himself the Happy Philosopher says it rather well. Don't listen to the media.

Anxiety, despair, fascination butter no parsnips. Remember the six handshakes theory? We are each connected to everyone on the planet by no more than six handshakes. What can we do? Carry on being ourselves, and making ourselves be and act the best we can. Be in the moment and be aware of others' needs. Look and listen more and talk less. Assume the best of each person we meet until proven otherwise. Make every moment the beginning of a new creation.

That is real power, and it will still be yours when the strange people in charge are replaced (hopefully by a peaceful democratic process) by other strange people.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Where do we go from here?

A rather serious meditation on what is, after all, intended to be a funny book. Lionel's quest in 'A Mermaid in the Bath.'

Do I live in a dream?

Yes, because I live in my head, or at least, I am not for the most part aware of my own existence. Yet as soon as I think about it, immediately I am aware of my body, these hands typing these words.

Or if I am driving, my mind can be away with whatever is on the car radio while my hands, feet and senses drive the car, perfectly safely, on autopilot, correctly stopping at red lights, anticipating and avoiding hazards and so on.

To be aware of the body driving is an interesting and even enjoyable experience. The mind does not need to interfere -- indeed it is too slow -- but it can watch. One can become aware (without looking) of one's hands on the steering wheel and also, somehow, of the traction of the wheels on the road. It helps to turn off the radio.

Touch-typing is a similarly odd experience -- to trust the fingers to find the correct keys, which inexplicably they do.

One learns to watch oneself doing all kinds of things.

Then on top of all this there are the complications of life, any life in which one takes some responsibility for the choices one has made, taking what is not so pleasant along with what is pleasant, because avoiding the unpleasant consequences of what one is, is to become a kind of tramp, barely to live at all. On the other hand, to live responsibly is to live fully, gradually to become free of little me.

That, I suppose, is what happens to Lionel in 'A Mermaid in the Bath.' The mermaid becomes his heart's desire, so he has to make the payment of leaving behind the safety of his previous self, and he has to do this with no certainty of success.

Yes, that is the other element: one's heart's desire.

Still, I believe in happy endings.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Redcap and the Wolf - the true story

Hello again Fishy Friends, Twinkling Teleosts and Elegant Elasmobranchs,

Moving for once away from the topic of fish and Mermaids, you will be entranced to learn that I have written the true story of Redcap and the Wolf (Red Riding Hood), which was vouchsafed to me in a dream. You will discover that the story has been given a false spin by unscrupulous journalists in the past, and that the Wolf, while not entirely innocent, was not as dark as painted, and in fact survived the unprovoked attack on him by the Woodcutter. As for the grandmother, well, just because you're old doesn't make you a saint necessarily.

Your chum, Milton Marmalade

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Thursday, 26 January 2017

An interesting medical scam

When I was writing the chapter about the pink alternative medicine clinic, I found myself challenged to come up with something so bizarre that it would be obvious it was a satire. Just so, I later discovered that bananas occasionally emit positrons. This means that the wobbly bananas I described are occasionally sending out electrons that are going backwards in time.

No doubt sooner or later someone in the alternative medicine world will conclude that sufficient exposure to wobbly bananas, preferably while lying naked on a couch, can make you younger. Of course you'd have to be properly quantumly entangled with the bananas.

However there are some forms of medical wackyology that are more cleverly dressed in the outer garments of science and can fool even quite intelligent people. I here present one such piece of tomfoolery for your education.

It works like this: the practitioner promises to improve the patient's health by re-balancing them. To do this he or she orders a very large number of blood tests. Then, if there are any blood tests that are abnormal the practitioner will offer to rectify this by prescribing some supplement or other.

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? After all, if someone feels tired and their doctor finds out that they have a deficiency of (say) iron, they can fix it by prescribing iron tablets.

However, medicine is generally a bit more complicated than that. If someone is genuinely iron-deficient it is important to ask why, and to look for the cause. In this context, merely 're-balancing' could be dangerously negligent.

The real basis of the scam is actually mathematical. Consider a field full of women of the same age. Line them up according to height. Most of them will be somewhere around the average, but there will be a few really short ones and a few really tall ones. Even if we remove the ones who are tall or short because of some medical abnormality, there will still be a variation. Thus, healthy people can be tall or short, and a few will be extra tall or extra short without there being anything wrong with them.

(Image taken from this web site)

When the laboratory measures something in someone's blood, most of the time the result will be somewhere in the middle of the range, but some results will be outliers. This will happen fairly often even in perfectly healthy people. There is no absolute cut-off where something suddenly becomes abnormal. The laboratory somewhat arbitrarily defines the range as the middle 95% of values. This should not be referred to as 'the normal range,' rather, it is properly referred to as 'the laboratory reference range.'

It's the same thing with height. If a child is in the bottom 10% for height, you don't think much about it, especially if their parents are short too. If they are in the bottom 2% for height, you start wondering if there is a problem, and you look at the parents' heights and at the previous measurements of growth to see if there is a pattern suggesting disease or not.

In the same way, if a laboratory value is outside the laboratory reference range, you ask yourself if there is a pattern to it or not (such as, all the liver tests are out and the patient drinks too much, or, only one of them is out and the patient is a perfectly healthy teetotaller).

So now we come to the essence of the scam. One or two values being 'out' may or may not indicate a disease process. What is the probability that at least one value will be out in a perfectly healthy person?

Consider first the simpler case of tossing a coin. What is the probability that it will be heads? Fairly obviously 1 in 2, or half, or as normally expressed, a probability of 0.5.

What is the probability that it will be heads twice in two tosses? The answer is the probability that it will be heads the first time multiplied by the probability that it will be heads the second time: 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25 (a quarter). Three times in three tosses? 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.125 (an eighth) - and so on. What is the probability that in three tosses of a coin at least one will be tails? 1 - 0.125 = 0.875 (seven-eighths).

To do our calculation we use the same process. The probability of a test being within the laboratory reference range is 0.95 (19 times out of 20). The probability of  two tests being within the reference range is 0.95 x 0.95 = 0.9025 (nearer 18 times out of 20). We multiply the probability together with itself the number of times there are tests. If there are 20 tests that is 0.95^20=0.36. This is the probability that all the tests will be 'normal' - just over a third. To get the probability of at least one test being 'out' we subtract this number from 1. So if we do 20 tests on a healthy person, the probability that at least one will be out of range is almost two-thirds (0.64).

For thirty tests the probability of at least one test being 'out' is 0.78, or more than three-quarters. So in such a case on average three out of four healthy people will be convinced they need 're-balancing' and will no doubt purchase whatever is recommended to do the re-balancing, plus of course the consultation fee. Of course this is unlikely to make any difference to anything so they'll be back for more until they decide to save their money and get on with the rest of their lives.

I'm not a cynic, I am simply reporting what I see. As the saying goes, 'you do the math.'

Monday, 23 January 2017

On not believing everything you read

[...] By which it appears how cautious men ought to be of taking things upon trust from vulgar opinion, and that we are to judge by the eye of reason, and not from common report. - Montaigne, from Of Cannibals.

Don't believe anything as certain unless you have verified it for yourself. As to things spiritual, they require verifying ceaselessly.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Mermaid in the Bath is available in India

A Mermaid in the Bath is now available in India. Go to my Amazon links page for where to order around the world.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Archimedes' bath and the Dogon method of divination

How to let the creative mind play its part in solving problems

Many years ago I was much influenced by one of those little talks Radio 3 (the Third Programme in those days) used to sandwich into the intervals in live broadcast concerts. It was about the divination method of the Dogon tribe of Mali in West Africa. (My memory of details may be a little inaccurate after all this time, but the principle holds good.)

Apparently they have two gods, Nommo and the Fox. Nommo represents order and the beginnings of things, and is fixed and rather crystalline. The Fox represents disorder and change. A person with a question will draw a diagram in the dust near the road, the diagram being a box divided horizontally into upper and lower sections, representing respectively the world at large and one's immediate neighbourhood or household. The box is also divided into three vertically, representing respectively Nommo, the questioner's own place in the world, and the Fox. One might think of this division as representing past, present and future, but that perhaps is more our own way of thinking in linear time. Thus we have six cells each representing a part of our world.

The person asking the question will place various sticks and pebbles in the various cells, representing aspects of the problem or people involved in the problem. The interpretation of the diagram to anyone else will not be obvious because the enquirer doesn't want everyone to know his or her business. He or she will then also place some pieces of meat around the diagram, and go home and stop thinking about it, confident in the knowledge that the question will now be answered.

In the night the foxes will come, eat the meat and in the process scatter the sticks and pebbles around. The enquirer returns in the morning and interprets the diagram. A crude example might be, should I make the journey to the distant village or not? If the pebble representing the enquirer has moved from the lower middle cell to the upper right cell, the answer is obviously 'yes.' However the interpretation will usually be subtler than that.

The point of this process is that the enquirer has gone through an intellectual process of wrestling with and defining the problem in clear enough terms that the question can be expressed using the diagram. Then the intellectual mind rests, because at this stage reason would otherwise produce an unending stream of 'yes, but' contradictions.

Meanwhile the creative part of the mind works quietly on the problem, hence our modern advice to 'sleep on it.' The solution is allowed to emerge during the interpretation of the oracle.

Similarly, Archimedes wrestled with the problem of how to determine the composition of the king's crown without breaking it. He had done all the intellectual groundwork. The creative part of his mind presented him with the solution while he was relaxing in the bath.