Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Check out Martin Dace's new art blog

My illustrator Martin Dace has a new blog at This replaces his old blog, however the old posts will stay for the time being.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Persistance and endurance

Ausdauer and Durchhalten as far as I know mean persistence and endurance - but they sound more impressive in German for some reason. We sometimes lose what we might have gained by giving up too soon.

I wonder if this is what happens to some of those film stars who get married half a dozen times (and no doubt this happens to other people who are not famous so we don't know about them). In that first falling in love, or perhaps in the slower development of a relationship that grows on us more gradually, we see everything beautiful and wonderful about the other person. With more time certain things we used to overlook start to irritate. Perhaps when they irritate or even exasperate enough we start thinking that we should move on, look elsewhere. This is the point at which to apply Ausdauer und Durchhalten. 

It does sometimes happen that a situation is beyond redemption and it is better for all concerned to move on. But first one must consider what in the situation might be redeemable, and what efforts one must make oneself. Thinking about what changes the other person must make will not achieve anything useful. And endurance and persistence can sometimes lead to surprising results. Just as a couple who have been through a difficult external situation together become closer to each other, so it can happen if they successfully negotiate difficulties in a relationship.

In other areas of life, too, success usually depends more on persistence than anything else. Why am I not a very rich successful business person? Because I am not fixated on those goals enough, I do not put the necessary effort into those things. Not because there is anything fundamental in my nature preventing it other than the lack of sufficient desire.

Not to worry: decide what you really want (that's the hard part) then go for it. And like a child learning to play a musical instrument, don't get put off because you cannot play Beethoven after your first lesson.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Mermaid at St Doris Island - work in progress

Mermaid at St Doris Island - work in progress
Here is the current state of the latest mermaid linocut. Apart from a few wavy wiggles the sky will be more-or-less white. In the background you can see the volcano on St Doris Island and on the other side is Drake's Golden Hinde at anchor, as described in Sir Henry Herring's book, S. Doris Iland and the Divers Marvells therein, as quoted in A Mermaid in the Bath by Milton Marmalade.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Do one thing at a time

There is evidence that multitasking lowers your intelligence.

This blogger says it better than me. Do one thing at a time. You'll feel better for it, and get more done.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Ethereum - don't do what I did

Ethereum, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are increasingly in the news. You may see in this an opportunity to get in on something that may turn out to be big (or all manner of mishaps may happen to it). However it's interesting enough to put an amount of money into it that wouldn't hurt you much if you lost it all.

Ethereum is interesting because it's not just an alternative currency (although it has value), it's a platform on which what are called 'smart contracts' are written. The idea is to write contracts in code on top of the blockchain (ethereum's existing distributed ledger) making contracts enforceable automatically and (presumably) avoiding the necessity of going to law in the case of disputes. That is, both the rules and the execution of the contract are encoded, and the code is tamper-proof, so no external arbitration is required. That's the theory anyway, and it does depend crucially on the code not having exploitable loopholes.

Anyway, long story short, it might be a good although high-risk investment. In my naivete I went to the official site at on the basis that this is all new and there are no doubt some scams out there, so might as well go to the source. If you scroll down you will see that you can download the wallet free. A wallet is somewhere you can keep cryptocurrencies. Using the wallet I purchased a modest quantity of ether (the cryptocurrency). From my experience with Bitcoin I did not expect the amount to show up in my wallet immediately, as these things generally take between a few minutes and an hour. I ran the thing day and night from 11 September until I gave up on 9 October and my ether still did not appear in my wallet. This was because the software was still trying to synchronise with the entire blockchain.

At various points I went to the user community discussion forum discussing this very problem. Although people were mostly kind I was told more than once that this was not the correct forum. I could not understand why people were spending any time on this piece of software that clearly wasn't working for any of them. Anyway I persisted and eventually a user gave me enough information to rescue my ether to the point where if I want to convert them back to regular money I probably can.

So if any of this makes any sense to any of you, take heed, and if you want to play around with this, don't invest a lot of money in it until you understand what you are doing.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

How to get spiritual understanding: Mark 7:28

Mark 7:28 Context

"For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. Mark 7:28 And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter."

This is remarkable. The woman was given a hard answer, but she didn't give up. That's how humble we (i) need to be to get spiritual understanding.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

More about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies

I do not know enough to pontificate, so what I write about this is a guess (please contradict if you wish).

Big institutions including governments are looking into cryptos and blockchain technology (not necessarily the same thing) for their own reasons. But that doesn't mean that an independent cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin would not continue and indeed prosper. In the long term that means people being able to buy things and services with it.

In the pipeline are systems that will allow contactless payment much like Applepay but with Bitcoin, with virtual debit cards loaded from Bitcoin accounts by the user. It could be attractive for at least two reasons: (1) being able to access foreign currency when abroad without having to pay exorbitant fees and spreads on currency exchange; (2) having a store of value that would not depreciate significantly in an inflationary crisis.

Once people start actually using Bitcoin for purchases its value might well stabilise, or at least become less volatile, as now I presume the volatility is largely driven by speculation. The threats as I see them are (1) most of the Bitcoin mining takes place in China, where electricity is relatively cheap. This problem will not go away until we have quantum computing, and of course then we have to hope that someone will redesign the blockchain technology to make it tamper-proof again; (2) the unresolved speed/ capacity problem. On the up side, given Bitcoin's ultimately limited supply, if it does not collapse then the value will ultimately rise - quite a lot.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

They're not looking at you

(Occasionally I have thoughts that might actually be useful to someone.)

Do you worry about what other people might think about you, or think other people are judging you?

Usually they're not. Usually they are worried about what you think about them.

Learn not to care about what other people might think about you. Do what's right, keep doing your best, forgive yourself mistakes and keep going. Other people will come around in their own time.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

C. S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress

Is it possible to change merely by hearing the word spoken?

The suggestion in C.S.Lewis's allegory The Pilgrim's Regress is that the quick way across the ravine from the intellectual desert of the 20th century to the island paradise is by Old Mother Kirk, in other words, the Church. But for some reason the hero, John, does not take that route.

The island paradise is glimpsed by John towards the beginning of the book. This island paradise is not a mere fantasy or daydream, rather it is a glimpse of the truth. Its nature is not defined, but I take it to mean the real Self, the heart of the world, the still small voice. John has a memory of reality. As you can see, my own ability to describe it in words fails, because it is one of those things that is prior to words, as I have discussed previously here and here.

My feeling is that simply hearing the word spoken is not enough - we must strive to understand it and to put it into practice. No amount of theoretical understanding about the chemistry and techniques of cooking can make us into chefs nor can a Haynes manual make us into car mechanics - we have to get our hands dirty and do it. The theory helps of course and is often essential, but it is nothing without practice. That is where real understanding comes from.

Yet hearing a sacred text spoken at least opens up thought, often a thought more useful than the many thoughts that come from other sources. And if we see something different in the text than is in the sermon, that too can be useful.

We are bombarded with thoughts and opinions, many of them without merit, mere opinion based on nothing. Some of these impressions are simply nasty, not something we would wish to become. Our mental and emotional lives are made of the stuff which we allow to come into us. To put ourselves in the way of hearing and seeing something better, whether at church or elsewhere, must change us.

Whether it will do more than change us, whether it will lead us to the island, will almost certainly require practice as well.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

How to prevent terrorism on the tube

Could the Parsons Green bomber have been stopped by citizen action? Quite possibly.

We could widen our attention as little children do and probably spies do, too.

We all like to lose ourselves in our mobile phones or books on the usually uncomfortable tube ride to work. So if someone gets on the tube with a bomb and then leaves it there we are unlikely to notice it. What if we all took notice of our surroundings? Not necessarily all the time but just at stations, and note who gets on, what baggage they are carrying, and who gets off and whether they have forgotten their bag.

If only ten percent of us did this then the risk of a repeat incident on the tube would be much less.

I have the number of British Transport Police listed on my phone under BTP. Thus it would take at most six keystrokes to call them (phone - contacts - BTP - call). The number is 61016. If you commute in London, put it on your phone now, and stay alert at stations.

This also gives us opportunities to come into the present moment and out of the mist of imagination in which we dream into work.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Jane Austen on the banknotes, as predicted by Milton Marmalade

As predicted on page 198 of my magnum opus, A Mermaid in the Bath, as of 14th September there will be a picture of Jane Austen on the ten pound note.

This is a further demonstration of the inspired nature of my oeuvre.

From page 198 of the paperback edition:

...Half way through Milton addresses himself to you with the words ‘gentle reader... .’ Who does he think he is, Jane Austen? Anyway I hope they put her picture on the banknotes as it’s about time we had a woman on there. Mind you the Queen is on all of them isn’t she? Talking of Jane Austen, that would have been a good name for a car in the heyday of the British Motor Corporation, instead of the Austin Cambridge, like. Then the Morris Oxford would have been Jane Morris. As you no doubt know, Jane Morris was the muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. It must be nice being a muse and getting all that male attention.

Goodness, this Argentine wine is good! I’m feeling quite inspired now. Perhaps I’ll write that bodice-ripper myself and then I can ask Milton to help me with it while I snuggle up to him. Once I’m back in England. And I’m not living in a shed at the back of the Co-op. He’ll have to get a proper house.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The mysteries of cryptocurrencies

You can buy this mermaid print using Bitcoin

Is the electronic currency Bitcoin the borderless currency of the future?

From time to time I may share with you my understanding, such as it is, of Bitcoin and alternative digital currencies, sometimes called cryptocurrencies. You can take this as a starting point for your own enquiries if you wish, and whether you agree or not with what I write, if you have something to add to the discussion you are very welcome to comment.

Bitcoin is a digital currency on what is called a distributed ledger. This means that the record of who owns what and all transactions are held electronically on computers all over the world. There is no central banker. The system is designed for peer-to-peer transactions, that is, ordinary folk buying from and selling to each other without banking interference and across borders. Also if, for example, you lose your virtual wallet (for example, you own Bitcoin in your smartphone and your smartphone is lost), as long as you have your code words you can get your money back.

Currently the UK, USA and most if not all countries of the world use fiat currencies, that is, money not backed by precious metals. The USA left the gold standard in 1971 (Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy, Abacus 2017 p.73) as did Britain temporarily in 1797 when at war with France and permanently in 1931 (ibid. pp.75-6). Fiat currencies allow governments to print money whenever it seems useful to do so, whether to fund a war or to get the country out of economic difficulty.

One problem with fiat currencies is that if they get out of control, hyperinflation can occur, rendering money virtually worthless, as happened during the Weimar republic and more recently in Zimbabwe. In such times people who hold gold can do well, because gold holds its value as the supply is limited. Limited supply is also a feature of the digital currency Bitcoin.

Holding gold is difficult, partly because it has to be stored somewhere and at some cost and partly because it has somehow to be converted into fiat currency in order to spend it. Bitcoin can be held securely in a number of ways including on a smartphone and can also be held off-line and so secure from hackers. It can be converted into many fiat currencies on-line, and a very small number of businesses world-wide will accept it. Its value in terms of most (but not all) fiat currencies suffers from extreme volatility, but on average its value as measured against fiat currencies has trended very much upwards up until now. (Where it will go next is not something I'd like to predict, because I wouldn't want to get the blame if it all goes wrong.) Interestingly Bitcoin is much less volatile when measured against currencies in crisis, such as the Venzuelan bolívar.

What effect the large-scale adoption of Bitcoin would have on the world economy is difficult to imagine. It would allow borderless transactions between ordinary people without going through a bank and without having to pay currency conversion and transmission charges.

One thing that is holding it back now is that a little bit of research is needed for an ordinary person to understand exactly what Bitcoin is, and storing it requires a little bit of technical know-how. Another thing holding it back is lack of sufficient speed in the system to support the number of transactions that major card companies do every day (a complex topic which is covered elsewhere) and a third problem is the lack of charge cards or debit cards that can be used to pay with Bitcoin.

If it were possible to have a charge card that would convert the Bitcoin held on it into the local fiat currency on the fly (that is, without the intermediary of a bank) to pay for goods at a contactless or chip-and-pin checkout then I believe Bitcoin would take off.

There are a large number of debit or charge cards available that claim to be able to let you pay with Bitcoin, but as I understand it for the most part these cards require you to convert Bitcoin into fiat currency in order to load them up, and they cost money to use. Therefore this leads to the same old bank charges for cash withdrawal and currency conversion. I cannot see the point of them.

A true Bitcoin card would do currency conversion via an on-line Bitcoin exchange. The only contactless Bitcoin payment system I've found that comes close to a true peer-to-peer system doesn't actually exist yet: it will be an app that you have on your smartphone. In this case you send as much in Bitcoin as you want to spend that day to the address on the app. The Bitcoin is converted to your local currency using a peer-to-peer trading network and is then available to spend using your smartphone for contactless payments. It remains to be seen whether you will be able to change your preferred fiat currency easily within the app (for example when travelling). This is not a product recommendation but it certainly looks interesting. If I were to use it I'd only put as much on it as I was likely to use in a day or so, since funds held on-line are at least in theory vulnerable to hacking or the system organisers closing down and running off with the money, not that I have any reason to suspect that particular organisation.

Anyway, as an experiment I have created a page on OpenBazaar (a peer-to-peer alternative to eBay - perhaps one day) to sell some artist's prints in exchange for payment in Bitcoin (see illustration at the top of this post). So far I have not become rich (or actually sold anything) but it's early days. My next hurdle is to set up an old computer to be a server so that I can have my page on-line all the time.

All comments and questions welcome.

[Disclaimer: I am merely passing on my own understanding and hoping to start a debate. I do not claim to have expert knowledge and no-one should base any financial decisions on what I have written, nor do the links provided necessarily imply a recommendation (except that Mervyn King's book, which is not about Bitcoin, is very good).]

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The European dream

I imagine most people are getting fairly fed up with the topic of Brexit. So my 2p will be short.

Our local German bakery and deli has come up with a new biscuit. It is called the Europäischer, and it is round with blue icing and decorated in a circle with yellow stars. There is as yet no picture on the internet but I'm sure you can imagine it.

I didn't buy one as it looked a bit too biscuity and sugary, but it's a sweet little gesture of defiance. I like our local German bakery, it's a small island of quality in an otherwise slightly depressing line of shops. I try to order stuff in German as my own contribution to European solidarity.

Hardly a week goes by without some aspect of Brexit being potentially watered-down. We won't suddenly tell all the Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and others to up sticks and go, because we actually need them. We might continue to pay into the EC budget in order to keep tariff-free trade within the EC. We will probably keep the border between Eire and the six counties open. We shall have to retain in some form legal arrangements for deciding jurisdictions in cross-border legal matters, and we'll probably have to be subject to the European Court of Justice at least insofar as matters pertaining to trade with Europe are concerned. I don't know, I'm just repeating what is in the news.

No doubt there are some areas for which it will be pleasant to have sovereignty. We could sell jam (as defined in the UK) in pound jars, for instance. Less irksome bureaucracy would be nice. Less trivially, we could open up trade with countries such as Australia which suffered from trade barriers with us when the UK entered the EC. We can continue to avoid the problems inherent in the Euro currency as we have so far.

What is overlooked in all this is the European dream that I suspect underlies the whole European project. That is, the idea that a group of countries united by a common interest will not go to war with each other. People in power now had parents of the generation that lost relatives in the 1939-45 war (my uncle's headstone read that he was 'un aviateur Anglais qui mort pour la France'), and of course there has been brutal war and genocide on European soil in much more recent times. Perhaps because we live in an island that has not been successfully invaded (leaving aside the Battle of Medway) for almost 2000 years we as a nation are a bit complacent.

On the positive side there is something rather wonderful about acquiring a European and ultimately and international identity that celebrates unity in diversity. We as a mongrel nation from the earliest times should be able to understand that, what with our Royal Family having from time-to-time been French, Scottish, Dutch, German and even a bit Greek.

Anyway, my prediction is that when all's said and done we'll still be eating pizza and chorizo and we'll still have German bakeries and Polish shops and we'll still drink French wine and Kronenbourg and Guinness and play Mozart and read Yeats and we'll still be speaking our great mongrel language, absorbing and transforming foreign influences with hardly a blink as we always do.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Thumbnail sketches for the imagined frontispiece
of Sir Henry Herring's account of St Doris Island

In A Mermaid in the Bath the hero, Lionel, discovers a sixteenth century book containing many clues about his missing mermaid and about mermaids in general. The book is by Sir Henry Herring who travelled with Sir Francis Drake on the voyage in which St Doris Island was discovered and claimed for the English Crown. I have asked Martin Dace, the illustrator of A Mermaid in the Bath to recreate the frontispiece to this book.

The picture described by Lionel shows a view of St Doris Island together with Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hinde, and in the foreground "a triumphantly naked mermaid." The intention is to carry out the design as a linocut, since the limitations of the medium should to some extent emulate the kind of woodcut that would have been used in such a book.

Above are the thumbnail sketches and below is the preliminary working sketch from which the lino print will be produced. With the thumbnails it became clear that putting the Golden Hinde together with the view of the island would produce an unbalanced picture with unused space at one side. When the pose of the mermaid became more dynamic it was obvious that the mermaid had to take pride of place in the middle, then Drake's ship and the island could be placed on either side.

Mermaid, ship and island
Working sketch for the frontispiece to St Doris Island
That still left space to either side of the mermaid, which was easily filled with flying fish and a sea monster, and the empty space on the rock on which she sits will be decorated with seaweed and a scallop shell. As always I remind readers of delicate sensibilities and prone to apoplexy at the sight of nipples that mermaids only wear cockle shell bras when on Disney and otherwise they glory in the natural state in which God created them.

I shall post the print when it is available. Limited edition artist's prints will be on sale on Etsy and on OpenBazaar, as will inexpensive electronic download versions.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Technology: taking back control

Somehow I can't do without my mobile phone, which packs as much computing power as a roomful of kit in the '70s. It helps me not get lost, enables me to read books or check the etymology of a word on the go (geeks simply migrate to available technology), check the weather forecast, share a calendar, pay for car parking without getting out of the car, buy stuff without even going outdoors, even video-phoning which in Dan Dare's future was still a phone attached to a wall.

The problem is that this thing can easily take over one's life, what with messages, emails and apps. One can get sucked into the phone screen and lose minutes or hours in some parallel universe of dreamlike disconnectedness, emerging later like some bewildered time-traveller. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? - to quote the late great Freddie Mercury. It can drain energy if one is not careful.

“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emails. No, I don't want a Russian bride and I've no idea what the people are advertising whose emails are entirely in Cyrillic script. I'm considering blocking all emails with a .ru domain. Nor do I know why Chinese companies think I would want to buy bulk raw materials. I don't need Viagra or Xanax and I don't think that a computer program that shorts the stock market will make me rich. Somehow we get onto mailing lists of companies we've never heard of.

The company that hosts my email account blocked 726 spam emails in the last week. That's over 100 a day I'd have to sift through and delete if they weren't blocked automatically. Even of the 10-20 daily that get through there are usually fewer than half a dozen that I actually want to read.

Marking emails as spam is easy on a Mac using Mail, but I have yet to find a way of marking and blocking spam on an iPhone. There are apps that claim to do this, but then you have to give them access to your account details. How do we know we can trust them with our information? That is why I pay my ISP for spam blocking, and I still cannot mark emails that get through on my phone as spam. As for spam blocking, I have blocked the very persistent Anastasiia but now she has been replaced by Oksana. Sorry .ru, if any of my Russian friends want to contact me they'll have to get a gmail account.

Within my lifetime there was no internet and no email. If someone wanted to contact me at work they would have to bleep my pager and then I would have to find a phone and phone in. Needless to say when not at work and out of the house I was uncontactable.

Sometimes I feel a bit of nostalgia for the days when the world was a little less busy. If people wanted to write to me they'd have to write a letter, which meant there weren't that many of them, and the time taken to reply would necessarily slow the whole world down. There is also something soothing about the purposeful movement of an ink pen on paper.

We need to take steps to bring technology under control, so that it serves us rather than driving us. All advice welcome.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Stranger in a strange land - derealisation and realisation

(Somewhere in England) 

It is possible, for example while commuting to work, to entertain the fantasy that one has just this moment been put into this body going about its business, that one has come from somewhere else (perhaps a previous life which one has forgotten).

Luckily this body knows where it is going, and one knows that if one thought about it one would easily remember details such as what one's job is, one's home situation, loved ones and so on. But for the moment one doesn't pursue those thoughts. Therefore there is no need for any anxiety, yet at the same time one experiences the world as a stranger in a strange land.

The current Wikipedia article describes derealisation as "an alteration in the experience of the external world so that it seems unreal." However what I am describing makes the world seem more real. One realises that most of the time one is preoccupied with some thought or other, barely noticing one's surroundings. As a stranger freshly arrived from somewhere else one notices everything.

A similar phenomenon occurs when driving or walking to a new place. Even if the journey is quite short, it seems long, because one has to notice things in order to find one's way. The same journey when familiar seems short, and one remembers few details. It is possible to drive for an hour on a familiar route in perfect safety and remember nothing.

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that derealisation includes "feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional colouring, and depth." However with this experiment the world has more depth and colour, and things are generally brighter. If there is beauty, one notices it, sometimes in unexpected places.

Interestingly the Wikipedia article says that derealisation is related to depersonalisation, which is sense of unreality in one's personal self. There may well be an actual psychiatric or morbid condition characterised by this, but it is also of note that psychologists and philosophers have pointed out that the idea of 'self' itself has an unclear meaning, or even, the 'self' does not exist. Am I the same person I was yesterday? The one who decided to get up as soon as the alarm went off is the same as the one who decided to lie in for an extra 15 minutes instead? But this is a topic for another time.

I went in search of the original quotation, 'stranger in a strange land.' It comes from the King James Bible translation of Exodus 2:22 and is spoken by Moses in exile. I was also led to this excellent poem by Rita Dove. At the beginning of the poem Rita Dove quotes Emily Dickinson: "Life is a spell so exquisite, everything conspires to break it." It is by experiments like the one I describe, and others, that we can try to return to the magic of reality.

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.'