Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Mr Popper's Pensées

It may seem, at first glance, that Margaret Thatcher and I have little in common - what with her being a deceased former Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom widely held responsible for the demolition of the Welfare State and me being a part-time bartender with anarcho-syndicalist sympathies who talks to his cactus - however, I was alarmed to discover recently that Maggie and I have the same favourite philosopher: step forward, Karl Popper.

I've written about Popper here before - you probably read the account of how I used Conjecture and Refutation to find the cause of a mysterious noise in my flat back in 2013 and thought that I had exhausted my Popper material. But I have a couple more things to say.

Karl Popper is held up as one of the great defenders of Liberal Democracy. This is chiefly the legacy of a book he wrote in New Zealand during the Second World War (he was an Austrian of some Jewish descent, so continental Europe was not a place that he could stick around in at that time). The Open Society and its Enemies is a pretty zippy title for a work of political philosophy. No wonder it has sold better than its sequel, The Poverty of Historicism.

The citizens of open societies are permitted (even encouraged) to ask questions about the best way of doing things in a kind of rolling debate that prioritises pragmatism over dogmatism. Closed societies, by contrast, limit the questions that may be asked. Primitive closed societies achieve this by Taboo. The governments of advanced closed societies enact policies based on the dogma of their particular utopian vision and debate and criticism is discouraged or even punished.

Popper's big contribution to the philosophy of science is his Principle of Falsification. He offers a solution to the problem of demarcation - how do you differentiate science from pseudoscience? - by defining science as a process that:

  1.  Offers up theories that can be falsified.
  2.  Vigorously attempts to falsify those theories.
  3.  Abandons those theories that are found to be false. 

My copy of The Open Society and Its Enemies is on Kindle,
so here's a picture of The Logic of Scientific Discovery

There is a link between Popper's political philosophy and his work in the philosophy of science. An open society should approach a problem like a scientist. If an approach is found not to work, it should be abandoned in favour of a different one.

The problem with this is what to use as your benchmark of success or failure of a policy. In a truly open society, this is up for discussion as well. Obviously, here in the UK - from Thatcher, through the New Labour years to the present Brexit fiasco - the benchmark for policy adjustment has been and will be set by neoliberal ideology not open discussion. More's the pity.

A major critic of Karl Popper's work in the Philosophy of Science was Thomas Kuhn. In his slim and eminently readable The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn pointed out accurately that the work that scientists do bears little relation to science as Popper defines it. I have never understood why this is considered a criticism of Popper and not of scientists. In my view, Popper's major theses in his scientific and political work could be considered normatively - he can be read as describing how things should be not how things are.

The United States inaugurates its new President on Friday. By Popper's standards, the USA is a pretty open society. The american people can question its government's decisions and protest its actions. The press is independent of government and can be critical of power (except corporate power, obviously, you don't bite the hand that feeds you). Let's hope that the open nature of American society will enable its people to keep tabs on their new leader and mitigate some potential disasters that might ensue from his team's environmental and nuclear policies.      

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Limoncello Reminiscences

One of the first times I got drunk was on limoncello - the liqueur that Italians make from their annual glut of lemons - I was on a school trip to Italy, age 14, and we discovered that the Italian shopkeepers had no qualms about selling souvenir bottles of the strong (about 20% ABV) sweet alcoholic drink to teenagers. We smuggled the bottles back to the hotel room.

On that trip, we climbed Mount Vesuvius and explored the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we saw the Colosseum and took a tour of the Catacombs of Rome, we took a ferry across the bay of Naples and visited the island of Capri. But if you asked me what I remember most, twenty years later, it would be the taste of limoncello, the boldness that drinking it engendered and the hedgehog notepaper on which Sarah-who-sat-behind-me-in-Science replied politely and negatively to my bold and poetic request for a date.

Limoncello has crept into my life once or twice since then. Notably, on a trip to the Peak District in 2013, where five friends and I depleted the entire limoncello stock of a small Derbyshire village pub. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the following day, I felt too ill to embark on a tour of the world's largest Blue John mine which I had been rather looking forward to. 

It occurred to me (as these whims sometimes do - see also the time I made some face-powder for my Sister-in-Law) that it might be a good idea to make some Limoncello for my Mother-in-Law for Xmas. Limoncello is made by soaking lemon peel in ethanol for months then adding a tonne of sugar to make it palatable.

I wanted to use Trump Vodka as my base spirit but, would you believe it? The President-Elect's brand was discontinued in 2011. Luckily, I was able to source a bottle of Putinoff.

Premium vodka.
I was in a hurry (it was the week before Xmas) and I didn't have months to soak the lemon peel. Pro tip: if you ever need to make vodka taste of lemons in a hurry, you can just soak some wedges of lemon in the vodka in your fridge for a couple of days.

Job done.
The final step is to make a sugar syrup and mix everything together with some lemon zest.

The zest of one lemon.
Just make sure the jar or bottle you use is properly sealed, because you wouldn't want your limoncello to, for example, leak all over everybody else's Secret Santa presents. That would be bad. Your wife would probably tell you off or something.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Kitty Delusion

When a large group of people go out drinking together, it is sometimes suggested that a kitty - a shared moneypot - is a sensible and fair way to pay for drinks. Prima Facie, this may seem like a good idea. Almost a socialist idea. Let's all share our money! This is what bartenders call "the kitty delusion" and outbreaks of it are pretty common at this time of year. 

Before agreeing to pay into a kitty, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who's holding the kitty?
Remember, far from being a fair pooling of resources, the kitty is essentially a way that alcoholics fund their excess and bully others into drinking at their pace.

  • Does he drink faster than me?
Those who have paid into a kitty are forced to go at the speed of the lead drinker. Slower drinkers are faced with downing or abandoning their drinks.

  • Are his drinks more expensive than mine?
Chances are that he is getting himself a double vodka and red bull for every pint of bitter you order. 

  • Does he like shots?
Shots are a terrible way to get drunk. I like watching the faces people pull after drinking them. Faces of horror and disgust at what they have just done to themselves. In particular, cheap tequila is so horrible and disgusting that the only way to hide the taste and stop your stomach from hurling the vileness back out again is to trick your taste buds with salt and lime. 18 Jaeger bombs please, barkeep. Small wonder the kitty needs topping up again.

Time to top up the kitty.

Let me give you the bartender's perspective. Remember, all a bartender wants to do is serve everybody as quickly as possible and get back to solving the cryptic crossword. The most efficient size of group to serve is about four. Large groups - twenty or more - pose a problem. The person holding the kitty won't think to ask anyone what they want before coming to the bar. He will order his own drink first, drink it while everybody else shouts over each other to get their order in, then get himself another at the end of the round. People will inexplicably wander off to play the fruit machine mid-order. The bartender will be blamed for any missing or incorrect drinks in a round that has been produced more by a miracle of inductive reasoning than response to instruction. When the bartender tells the kitty-holder the price of the round, the latter will exclaim "How much!?" in the time-honoured fashion, while his friends laugh sycophantically and secretly wish that they had thought of making the hilarious joke of pretending to be shocked at the price of a round of drinks!    

If you are going out for a drink with a big group this Christmas, don't succumb to the kitty delusion. Find two or three people in the crowd that you like and who drink at about the same pace as you and take it in turns to buy each other drinks. You might even find that you enjoy yourself. 

Feeling festive? Read previous Finnginn Xmas blogs hereherehere and here.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Young Farmers Balls

I promised you a poem. I thought I would try something inspired by the Westcountry. I was aiming for William Barnes but it came out a bit Wurzels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Westcountry dialect: "droi zoider" is an alcoholic drink made from apples; "on the scrump" is the act of drinking droi zoider over a period of hours or days and "zummer" is a great time of the year to go on the scrump. The Young Farmers are an unimaginatively named social society and their balls are enormous: the highlights of the social calendar in agricultural communities.

This is the story of a young Westcountry lass who longs to join her older brother and his friends on the scrump and what happens when she does. 

'Ot Zummers

When I was a young girl, my brother would go
With all the Young Farmers to the Dorchester Show
They’d sit sippin’ zoider and judgin’ the hens
An’ the cows an’ the bullocks in the sheepdoggin’ pens.
As I grew up older, I begged to take part
But he said, “You are too young, not ready sweetheart
For ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.
A zummer without balls ain’t no fun at all!
When you’re ready to scrump, we will give you the call...”
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.

One night, the Young Farmers a prank went to play
They rolled in molasses, then rolled in the hay.
The rumpus awoke me, I looked out and saw:
Ten men runnin’ bare-arsed and covered in straw.
When I asked my brother to explain all the fuss
He said, “Soon you’ll be ready to come out with us
For ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and and Young Farmers’ balls.
A zummer without balls ain’t no fun at all!
When you’re ready to scrump, we will give you the call...”
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.

My brother, he taught me the ways of the farm;
I looked up to him and he kept me from harm.
But they other young farmers, I wanted to know.
Like that old zinderella: to the ball I would go
An’ sit sippin’ zoider and dance through the night.
I knew I was ready: the timin’ was right
For ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.
A zummer without balls ain’t no fun at all!
I was ready to scrump, just awaiting the call...
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.

I sat for an hour on a bale made of straw
A-watchin’ the dancin’, I liked what I saw.
Just when I thought I ‘ad missed my last chance,
Young Billy approached me an’ asked me to dance.
He waltzed me around somewhat inexpertly,
An’ offered to show me, if I’d like to see,
More ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.
For a zummer without balls ain’t no fun at all!
With him holdin' me close, I could feel it an’ all...
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.

The hour it grew late, and my face it grew red
Young Billy leaned closer and ‘ere’s what ‘e said:
“Meet me at midnight, t’will be just thee and me
And I have a treat you’ll be wantin’ to see.”
When I told my brother this plan in the rough
He told me: “Young lady, you ‘ave ‘ad enough
Of ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.
‘Tis definitely time f‘you to ‘ead ‘ome to bed  
This ball be your first ball, what’s gone to yer ‘ead...
Is ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ Balls.”

The years they went by and the zummer’s stayed ‘ot
Young Billy ‘e taught me what my brother could not.
When the ‘eat of the zummer is getting too much
When that tankard of zoider gets too ‘ot to touch
An’ the zoider inside ‘er is too ‘ot to sup
A jump in the sheep dip will perk you right up!
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.
A zummer with no balls ain't no fun at all!
When we're out on the scrump, come and give us a call...
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers' balls.

But there will come a time now in every man’s life
When he’s settled to workin’ and taken a wife.
Well the dreams of ‘is youngself, they never quite left
But the toilin’ and children has left him bereft
He’ll still sip a zoider, still sing the old songs
But you’ll see in his eyes, just how much he longs
For ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls
For a zummer without balls ain’t no fun at all!
When you’re ready to scrump, we will give you a call...   
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.

My brother grew old and swapped days in the fields
For spreadsheets of data revealing crop yields.
I moved to the city, got a teachin’ degree
An’ now I train kids for their GCSE.
When the work gets me down, I can still reminisce
But it hurts me to think of just how much I miss
Those ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls
A zummer without balls ain’t no fun at all!
If you fancy a scrump, you can give me a call...
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers' balls.

Old Billy is married and works all the day
A-haulin’ the straw: no more rolls in the hay.
The zummer’s are colder, the world it ‘as changed
And from what’s replaced it we all feel estranged.
On a Zaturday night, we will drink like they fish
For we knows it’s all gone now, but we can only wish
For ‘ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers balls
These zummers without balls ain't no fun at all...
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.
‘Ot zummers, droi zoider and Young Farmers’ balls.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Consequences of Going Viral

Things got pretty manic at Finnginn HQ last week. 

In case you are wondering, Finnginn HQ consists of me on a sofa in my writing clothes (pyjamas) with only a duvet, a laptop and a flat white decaf for warmth.

There's no reason why you would have noticed, but our quiet corner of the internet had a lot of visitors. Over 140,000 unique pageviews. This is atypical. A typical week might see 140 unique pageviews. So, what happened?

Firstly, some people shared my post on the new anti-rationalism on their Facebook pages. This alone might have sent me heading for a record week, but because the post had a philosophical theme, I also posted it on the r/philosophy discussion forum on the social media platform Reddit.

Reddit works by a system of votes. If people are interested in a link that has been shared they can tap an 'up' arrow to upvote it. If they find the topic distasteful or irrelevant they can downvote it. My post garnered 4500 upvotes which took it to the frontpage of Reddit where the most popular topics amongst all the discussion forums are displayed. This is where the bulk of that extra traffic came from. 

Inevitably, with that amount of traffic, there were some people who disagreed with my arguments. About 90% of the 900 comments found some flaw or bias in my reasoning. Here's the archive of the comment thread if you are interested. I'm just going to quote the guy who stuck up for me: 

"I'm surprised at the contents of much of this comment section. This post doesn't do the best job articulating his point, but he's one of very few people talking about this at all. This has been my biggest concern this whole campaign. Trump's whole campaign has been based on anti-rationalism. This is not an indictment of conservatism, but of the campaign and debate style of Trump himself. He consistently lied about things he had said, lied things others had said, flip-flopped on his own positions, refused to answer straightforward questions, and insulted rather than made points. There was almost no logical argumentation or consistent policy to be found. And yet we as a country still took him seriously, and even went so far as to elect him.

You might disagree with Hillary's positions, but Hillary actually had positions. I normally advocate choosing between candidates based on logical reasoning. But this election had one candidate directly against logical reasoning."    u/dalr3th1n

One unexpected consequence of going viral is that Google are now trying to bribe me into having adverts on this page. They say I can fast track to Adsense and make £50 a month. Obviously, I told them to stuff it where the sun has never been seen to shine.  

Anyhow, seeing as how I'm popularity averse, I think I might leave the philosophy alone for the rest of the year. Maybe a poem next week? A rant about how much I dislike office Xmas pub crawls the week after that? And then BAM! hit back with my new appraisal of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies in time for the inauguration of the new POTUS. 

What do you think? (I'm glad its just us again.)

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The New Anti-Rationalism

Rationalism has a specific meaning in philosophy: it is the creed of the rationalists - those who believe that knowledge states cannot be derived solely from sensory input. As it happens, my tent is guy-roped firmly to a tree in the centre of the rationalist camp. However, for the purposes of today's rant, I am using the everyday meaning of rationalism - i.e. the creed of those who reject ideas that are logically inconsistent.

(If you are thinking, 'What the hell is he going on about? I only come here to read the anecdotes about the crazy people that drink in the pub," thanks for stopping by, but this isn't one of those weeks.) 

Still here? Cool. Let's begin by defining some more terms.

Why, you might do very well ask, do we need a term like 'anti-rational' at all? Surely the opposite of 'rational' is 'irrational'? 

As previously stated, a person who is rational rejects logically inconsistent ideas. A person who is irrational does not or cannot reject logically inconsistent ideas. An anti-rational person happily disseminates ideas with no regard for their consistency, logical or otherwise. The anti-rational person has no desire to establish truth (or at least eliminate falsehoods). They wilfully choose to ignore truth in favour of provoking an emotional reaction.

We are living through an age where anti-rationalist rhetoric is being used to gain political ground. In Europe, the last great age of anti-rational rhetoric was the 1930s and it culminated in events that led it to become rather unfashionable for quite some time.

George Santayana's quote is apposite here: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The generation who fought Fascism in Europe are mostly too dead to give their great-grandchildren the clip round the ear they deserve for joining the English Defence League and Le Front National.

In his essay, The Ancestry of Fascism, Bertrand Russell describes three characteristics of reason:
  1. Reason relies on persuasion not force.
  2. Reason seeks to persuade by the use of arguments that the user himself finds completely valid.
  3. Reason values observation and induction over intuition. 
You only have to look at the recent American election and the plebiscite on Britain leaving the European Union to see that the second and third characteristics have been abandoned in much political discourse. If President Donald Trump carries out his threats to the American Moslem population, then the first characteristic falls as well.

The Ancestry of Fascism is included in the collection In Praise of Idleness

The Ancestry of Fascism makes for sobering reading. It was written in 1935 and presciently predicts both the Second World War and America's decisive involvement in its termination. Russell also points out that: "Rationalism and anti-rationalism have existed side by side since the beginning of Greek civilisation, and each, when it has seemed likely to become completely dominant, has always led, by reaction, to a new outburst of its opposite."

The latest anti-rationalist discourse is extremely dangerous at a time when the world needs to address the threats posed by anthropogenic climate change.  

We are in dire need of an outbreak of rationalism.    


Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Backing the Losing Team

I should consider myself fortunate that I am not the sort of person whose temperament is dependent on their team doing well. It's not been a good year for my team. I'm not certain that my team have had a good year in my lifetime. 

Obviously, I am not talking about football: my home team, the Weymouth Terras, came a respectable seventh in the only Premiership that matters (the Southern Football League Premier Division) and everyone knows that (even though their fans are reluctant to mention it) my adopted team, the Norwich Canaries, won the Milk Cup in 1985. 

It was a simpler time: the 1980s, a time when events were sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board. Milk - the nutritious drink that we suck out of cows, heat to a high temperature to limit microbial growth, then sell in a supermarket for a price less than it costs to produce - sponsored the League Cup from 1981 to 1986. Coincidentally, this was a time when I was particularly interested in milk - I guess advertising works. 

Do you know who is sponsoring the League Cup next season? Carabao Daeng. Carabao Daeng is, of course, Thailand's second most popular energy drink. This is the world we live in.

I digress, I was talking about my team. My team are the people who yearn for a decent progressive world where people are nice to each other. Where the less able are supported by the better able. Where the quantity of light that is absorbed by your skin, the direction that your sexual organs point and the gender of the person that you want to kiss do not limit your opportunities. Where wealth is shared instead of hoarded. 

That's the team I support. The team that keeps on losing. 

The Cardigan's - My Favourite Game

On the plus side, I think I have just figured out how to insert videos into these posts. For someone who makes half of their living writing the internet, you would think I would have worked that out sooner. I'm guessing I'll never get a contract with Buzzfeed.