Thursday, March 30, 2006


Living, as I do, part of the time in Norfolk, I suffer from the problem of twitchers. What is a twitcher? You may well ask. I offer this definition from one Dave Appleton at here. Dave writes:

"And that leads me on to one of the most mis-used terms of all time: twitcher. This does not mean birdwatcher as the general public seem to think, but specifically refers to people who travel out of their way in order to see a particular bird, usually a rare vagrant that doesn't normally occur there. And while we're talking about what we're called - birder means birdwatcher but it implies someone who takes this interest pretty seriously. Dude seems to have gone out of fashion but in relation to birdwatchers it means someone who's not very good - a bit of a demeaning term. Worse is stringer which is someone who habitually mis-identifies birds, especially claiming to have seen rare birds when in fact they were common birds which they convinced themselves were something rarer. The biggest insult of all is bird-spotter - only used by non-birders who think birdwatching is like train-spotting or plane-spotting."

Hmmmm, I am proud to be a stringer. Anyway, there is a Norfolk story about a man so incensed by a gang of twitchers standing round his garden fence staring at some tedious small brown bird that he took his 12 bore shotgun and not so much shot as utterly dematerialised the bird in question. I know how he feels. I once nearly terminated a twitcher gang by driving into them; they had elected to stand in the middle of a road just past the apex of a blind corner. They, of course, looked at me with anger and contempt, cuddling protectively their amazingly expensive Swarovski telescopes (monoculars?)The problem I have with these people is they can stand on Cley marshes with their backs to a display of staggeringly beautiful but common birds and their monoculars (telescopes?) trained on a dull little creature that has been blown in from Lithuania or somewhere, never having intended to visit Norfolk. Beauty, therefore, is not the issue, only rarity. Or rather not even that as these damn creatures may well be common as muck in Lithuania or wherever. It's all about making lists, ticking boxes. Why do people need to do this?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Air Guitar

There was a bad moment in the gym. An orange, muscled hulk had risen from a bench after struggling with what seemed to me to be fairly modest weights. He was wearing earphones and, as he rose, he embarked upon some alarming, rhythmic convuslions. His eyes were closed so perhaps he had forgotten he was not alone. That can be the only explanation for what happened next. He began playing the air guitar. Now we have all done this from time to time - in private - and it is a more or less unavoidable habit for anybody aged less than about sixty. It is, nevertheless, a pretty comprehensively dorkish thing to do and something of which I assumed one ought to be ashamed. Or perhaps not. What, I wondered idly, if air guitars were visible? It turns out they are and you can buy them. See here. R. "Bud" Philson sounds like an impressive kind of guy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Gordon Brown

We all know that Gordon Brown does not wish us well. Lawyers too are generally agreed to be a bad thing as are traffic wardens and anybody who works in the passport office in London. None of these people can stand to see us relaxing, having fun or idly wandering along the street humming Van Morrison songs to ourselves. All of them hate these things for the same reason - they are possessed of an embittered, inner conviction that their private world view has not been fully accepted by the population as a whole. This is hardly surprising because their private world view tends to be a deluded hyper-rationality akin to that of Lenin, though usually without the topping of evil. A recent superb book - The Philosophy Steamer by Lesley Chamberlain - tells the story of how Lenin evicted a group of intellectuals from Russia in 1922. He could not have them shot because they were famous enough to be known in the West. They were a disparate bunch but they shared one quality utterly alien to the imagination of Lenin: uncertainty. This rendered them incapable of mass slaughter. I have a weird and ominous feeling that there is now too much certainty in my world, as manifested by Brown etc. In fact, my friend John Gray suggests that the last bastion of uncertainty in the world is now the Church. Is he right?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Walk of Shame

One wonders about such things - here - is it about the destruction of manhood or its resurrection? The former through an analogue of impotence; the latter through manly humour and comradeship. Just wondered.

Friday, March 17, 2006

French Students

If the Revolution had never happened, would French students be quite so awful?


Being a member of the Psychology of the Paranormal Network - contact Chris French ( if you're interested - I receive some disturbing emails. The latest comes from Nick Pullar who seems to run an operation called Skeptics in the Pub - site here. He is worried that creationism - usually interpreted as the belief that an intelligent being created life - can be taught in science classes. "This is," he writes, "a shocking indictment on the education system!" Two points:
1)Is it really so awful if a few people believe in creationism when most people don't?
2)Creationism MUST be taught if anybody is ever going to understand what most people do believe - Darwinism or evolution through natural selection. This seems blindingly obvious to me; indeed, I even persuaded Richards Dawkins to agree. I don't say that creationism has to be taught as an alternative to science, but as a way of understanding its context. The impact of Darwinism on the Western imagination would be incomprehensible unless people understood the alternative.
The neo-Darwinian thought police get very jumpy about these ideas. In their Stalinist minds, anybody who does not subscribe fully to the idea that Darwinism answers any and every question must be a crazed religious nutter or new age fantasist. So here is a thought experiment.
We are a hundred years in the future and we have discovered a)that there is an intrinsic drive towards complexity in matter and b)that, as Stephen Jay Gould suggested, structural considerations play a large part in the design of organisms. This means that Darwinism is not the only organising system, it is still true as far as it goes, but it has become one aspect of a much larger system. How would people at this time look back on the saliva-flecked rantings of the neo-Darwinians of today? ("Saliva-flecked" probably gives away the fact that this is a rigged thought experiment.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Phase Transition in the Cosmic Background Energy

Like most people, I have been concerned for some time about the possibility of a metastability disaster brought on by some physicist with a tabletop particle collider and a breezy "What the hell let's give it a whirl!" attitude to his work. Basically, he could smash particles together in such a way that the energy equivalent of two 747s colliding would be release in a space the size of a quark.... or something like that.If we are living, as some seem to think, in a "false vacuum" - see here - then the effect of this irresponsible physicist's experiment could be to flip the entire universe over into an entirely different stability. This would not only put us out of existence, it would put our existence out of existence. We would never have happened. Anxious as I am about this, it is consoling to think there will be no possibility of recriminations or regrets. Anyway, physics never ceases to amaze. See below for a new theory that makes Douglas Adams look tentative and which, to my delight, suggests that black holes don't exist. Never liked them.

New Scientist link here

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Before the jury

This blog begins just as I am about to do jury service at the Old Bailey. There may, therefore, be a brief hiatus after these first few posts. In future I will say little or nothing about what I am doing because a)it's boring and b)it would give away what I am doing for The Sunday Times to be seized upon by villainous competitors who watch my every move.
No, my intention with this blog is to inspire thought, speculation and to create imaginary worlds. Thought experiments are used by philosophers, scientists - Einstein arrived at relativity by imagining what it would be like to sit on a beam of light - and, I think, all of us at one time or another - as in, for example, what if I didn't go to this stag party tonight? That last was another rare example of me saying what I am doing.
Anyway I begin with the question: what if the first camera ever made resulted in a picture that looked nothing like what we see with our eyes? This has troubled me for some time as I have always been amazed that photographs do make any sense at all. Is it because we built machines to reproduce what we see or is it because the world is really like that? And, anyway, do photographs look like what we see with our eyes? Comments and other ideas welcome.