Monday, April 30, 2012

Economics Scaled

Like a fish, it should be — scaled and gutted. This bastard subject is cobbled together from the residues of common sense and inane graph-plotting. It's one of those subjects that presents too many hypotheses of ideal situations, elucidating nothing but plotting pretty relationships that one could easily obtain from empirical observation with no fancy names.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

To Fight The Invisible Foe

They always fight the invisible foe, cats do. They shadow-box in dark or light, in cool tree-shade or searing heat. Having boxed the shadow, they wrap it, tie a bow on, and microwave it to death with their laser eyes.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Education Cycle

Once upon a time on a small island, the people learnt that education got you a better-paying job. So they got better-educated. However, as supply matched demand, the better-educated of the better-educated got better jobs. This went on for a while, but because not many people were educated, there was a large lag time before the pain began.

Since education was touted as the meritocratic leveler and the path to better jobs (and hence more of a different kind of merit which got conflated with the first kind), everyone got competitive on education. This resulted in jobs that were linked with providing education, and then in paying more for good educators.

This was OK as long as such jobs remained more-or-less civil and more or less a public service.

Then, the more educated people realised that if they became less civil and less a public service, they could earn more. But that would subject them to the stresses and pressures of the private sector, so they would have to do better than the public sector.

So they did, and this led to lower average competency in the public sector, since only the good ones survived in the private sector, and those who survived earned more than those who remained in the public sector.

The people of the small island thus learned that getting a better education equipped you to influence the market such that costs would go up but service quality declined. And in addition, you would have to go to the private sector for the better education while being made to endure the public sector one by law (and human expectations).

And so they all lived unhappily ever after, running a Red Queen's Race.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Break #3

Here are my notes from Friday, which was today until a short while ago:
  1. I still can't get Captain America. But Doctor Strange has grown a pair.
  2. I remember drawing a unicorn under an oak tree.
  3. The mosquitoes are bothering me. I shall kill them.
  4. Everyone should learn to look things up.
  5. I looked some mosquitoes up. Bang. Dead.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Break #2

Here are my notes from Thursday:
  1. I dreamt I was back in the zoo. The unicorn was sad and lonely.
  2. I know why I am taking a break. Paper smells nice.
  3. Actually that's not it. The unicorn made me do it.
  4. Even that isn't it.
  5. Corn chips are better than potato chips. Or silicon chips.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Break #1

Here are my notes from Wednesday:
  1. I learnt to speak a new language.
  2. Doctor Strange needs 313 experience points.
  3. The new airconditioner is a harsh mistress.
  4. I have discovered that writing is still faster than typing.
  5. This is mainly because paper is more accessible than silicon.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012


The three parts of a lever system — the fulcrum, load and effort, and that old mnemonic, 'Father Lays Eggs' — these are the things that stay with you, the submachines of your mind. They are there with the inclined plane of your plain inclinations, the wheel of transmigration and transmogrification, the pulley which would otherwise be le coq sportif. This is a bright world, a world of shining metals and deep enamels, an in-turning world of windswept forest silences, a re-tuning world of sudden harps and last trumpets while the interminable groaning of drums lies drowned in the gulfs.


Monday, April 23, 2012


There he is, the cat hanging on for dear life at the edge of disaster. He miaows, furious at having got into this situation, but he is not about to commit to acceptance of help. He is a cat, and he is ultimately confident of a place at the right foot of God.

But still, there are several more lives to go, and he'd rather this one was not severed too early. So he will swing like a pendulum, commit his life to harmonic oscillation and cat-flexibility, the gift of spinal laxity and the power of long abdominals and dorsals.

And there he goes, gracefully stretching across the sky into split-second razor-edge safety. He assumes the laconic, nonchalant paw-grooming pose. And that is how he hangs.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Faster, Better, Healthier

Fast food is actually healthier than you think. This thought has percolated in my head for about two decades of analysis. Do you know why this is so?
  1. It's more highly regulated. McDonald's is probably a safer bet than most restaurants simply because it has fixed standards of preparation and cannot risk harming its customers.
  2. It contains standard preservatives — salt, baking soda, sugar and fat. Lots of them.
  3. It has lower water content. The higher the water content, the greater a chance of bacteria, mould and other forms of spoilage.
There are certainly other kinds of foods that are much healthier than mass-produced fast food. But as I've pointed out about two years ago here, people should think about food before being alarmist. The human body has a proven ability to deal with many foods, even ones that would kill a cat or dog. In fact, even if a food were deadly to bacteria or other living things does not mean that it would be deadly to humans (major examples: alcohol, coffee, chocolate, honey, celery).
One of the most egregious examples of false reasoning along these lines is the 'food that doesn't spoil' meme. The reasoning seems to be that if food doesn't spoil naturally, it shouldn't be eaten. Madness. Humans don't digest food by spoiling it in their stomachs; humans digest food by mobilising a vast range of otherwise toxic chemicals — acids, bases, enzymes — and applying these in relentless sequence in the chemical factories of the digestive system. It isn't easy to digest food.
Indeed, humans have spent the last few thousand years learning how to prevent food spoilage, so it shouldn't alarm us that Spam™ can last 20 years or more unopened, that modern baked bread (unless one is foolish enough to leave out the calcium propanoate) will last for months or years if kept dry, or that salted food will keep for centuries.
Don't eat fast food (or any kind of food) in huge quantities. Vary your diet, and get yourself a science-based (or at least history-based) education if you want to worry about food.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012


The science of analysis of language is dying. Over the last few weeks, what I write has been misinterpreted by otherwise intelligent people not a few times. That seems to be because they interpolate and extrapolate without sufficient justification.
I do try very hard to be careful with my words. However, in the past this has led to accusations of deviousness.
This is how it happens: I say or write something. Somebody else interprets it wrongly, looks stupid. Blames me for what I didn't say. Is shocked when I defend myself and then accuses me of being devious by laying a trap in my words for people to fall into...
Sigh. There is almost always a very good reason for putting my thoughts in such a form — I deliberately avoid saying things I don't mean or which I cannot verify; I use phrases like 'seems to be' or 'might imply that' when the degree of certainty is not as firm as I would prefer it to be.

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Friday, April 20, 2012


There is a very fundamental world, of things that are and things that aren't. These things interact, and from them come energy, and matter, and the properties thereof. And they interact through a stately dance of elegant rules, and these we call forces.

We have codified this world, and the codex is what we call physics. And because physics overwhelms us in its desire to make the one-to-one map of reality a logic that allows us to interpolate and extrapolate what we cannot clearly see, we approximate for practicality.

And so are born chemistry, and biology, and geology, and astronomy: these are the fruits of our empirical powers, of natural history and natural philosophy — they are what we call the natural sciences.

But we, the messy masses of cohering chemistry, and biology, incidental and accidental to our geology and astronomy, and containing so much physics that our minds cannot pause to compute it all — we humans must see ourselves as selves, and ask questions about self and other, and selfhood and otherhood, and the narratives thereof.

And so begins the decline, the declivity, from the airless heights of cold physics to the fecund morasses and fertile plains of the aesthetic and the literary and the religious. The water that flows down from those heights becomes a torrent in the foothills of the social sciences and the technological arts, the creative and narrative disciplines.

It is a serendipitous liquid flux in which the elements of humanity erode the banks of math and logic, and by the time we reach the broad and open spaces, it is a delta that carries the silt of science and feeds the starving of the nations.

And on those spaces we build cities, even if they might be prone to flood. We build monuments, even if the volcanic urges of war should destroy them. We build libraries, we build fortresses, we build places of holiness and worship.

From those manmade towers, we look back to the mountains of pure physics, the thin and chilling air of logic, of mathematics, of joining-the-dots and predicting-the-dots. And then clarity comes.

There is a very fundamental world, of things that are and things that aren't. These things interact, and they are called principalities and powers — the convolution of energy and dark matter, the gnarling of strings. And they interact through a stately dance of elegant rules, in the infinite mansions of God.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Turnover Time

Things turn over time, and when turnover time is due, things turn and some of them do not return over time. But sometimes all things are made new, and what is new was never there to be turned over anyway, any time.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Wood would water woo, wood water wooed; without water, wood withered — without wood, water wasted. What woe!

Wanderer walked Wanderer's whistling way. Where Wanderer walked, Wanderer watched — watched wood with water, water within wood. What wonders!


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Coffee Associations

Coffee-taking is no mere affectation, nor is it the bare consumption of a necessary drug. Rather, it is a bond between people, sealed with a drink. It carries memories and remembrance; it is like a sea between diverse shores and distant ports, or the blood that flows between many different groups of cells.

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Monday, April 16, 2012


Cat sleeps in the rain
Tiny bullets, no pain
Nothing to explain
In his little domain

Somewhere the unicorn tosses her head
Envies the cat who is limp in his bed.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Word of the Day: Myawn

Man, this is Mr Cat, said the cat. And having finally caught the man's attention, he opened his mouth wide and yawned, meowing.

Thus was the myawn created, and the cat felt that it was good.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

God, This Is Mr Cat

I recently came across Prayers from the Ark, a collection of poems by Carmen Bernos de Gastold, originally in French, and translated by Rumer Godden. They include this gem:

The Prayer of the Cat
Lord, I am the cat.
It is not exactly
  that I have something to ask of You.
No — I ask nothing of anyone —
  but, if You have by some chance,
  in some celestial barn,
  a little white mouse or a saucer of milk,
  I know someone who would relish them.
Wouldn't You like, someday,
  to put a curse on the whole race of dogs?
If so I should say

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Friday, April 13, 2012


Dry brightness. Grey water. Sharp air. New growth. And all the stretchy stride that was pent up in the sitting-down and the long thin waiting. Freedom, one's own feet.


Thursday, April 12, 2012


The eagle has landed, said the tall man from the north. I look upon this friend of mine with gladness because he was not always like this, dispensing the largesse to the uneducated of the world. But now the raptor has turned provider, life is genuinely interesting.

I hope his mission succeeds. After all, what else are missions for, but to spread the hope of a distant awakening?


Wednesday, April 11, 2012


The cynic is the original dog in the manger. Not believing in much, he would deprive those who want to believe even of that choice.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Normal is an Island

The problem with humans is that they are limited by the presence of a relatively small corpus callosum between the hemispheres of their brains. This makes them prone to reification, or at the very least, oversimplification. That's why they like universal laws, universal beliefs, universal rights; and if not, at least the appearance of such things through the application of normative fiat or normal distributions.

If a fundamental assertion of human thinking is that a less complicated answer is always better if it explains exactly the same things as well as a more complicated ones, then what if the things are not always exactly the same? This is true with comparisons between island-states, city-states, nation-states, federated states, overlarge conglomerated states, and so on.

I mean, why on Earth would citizens of one of the 50 (plus change) United States want to compare themselves with the last major (but very tiny) city-state in the world? Or with the ancient Confederatio Helvetica? Or anywhere else? And the reverse applies. What is world-class, but the idea that the entire world rates you in the same way, which is silly in a world of differences.

But surely there are absolute morals in a human world? Absolute rights, absolute ethics? No, I'm afraid not. There cannot be such in any biological population, since you can always engineer the environment or the circumstances to allow for any deviation from the defined norm. Worse, 'normal' in this context, and its supposed antonym 'deviant', don't mean what you think they mean. They are statistical ideas — the perpendicular to the turning point of a distribution is the 'normal', the spread of difference from that norm is 'deviation'.

I am certain there are absolutes. I just don't think that they can be derived from statistics, which by their nature are relativist.

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Monday, April 09, 2012


Institutions are like forests. They create darkness below while absorbing light from above. They host the bloodiest battles of nature, all the while living off the corpses of the slain. The only organisms that can thrive in them, as opposed to merely survive, are the fungi which need no light and have their own subterranean network of carrion consumption.

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Sunday, April 08, 2012


It is Easter, that repurposed pagan feast-day on which the risen Christ is celebrated. And in the Greek-speaking parts of Christendom, they say "Χριστός ἀνέστη", Christos anestë, which means "Christ is risen!"

Oddly, it puts me in mind of electrochemistry. The anode, anodos is the 'rising way'; the cathode, kathodos, is the 'descending way'. If you know enough Greek, then you therefore know the anode is where the electrons rise from the cell into the rest of the circuit and the cathode is where the electrons descend into the cell.

But we celebrate Easter today, and it is not about Elektra, 'amber', leaving its cell. Something altogether more energetic escaped that day, and remains in the world at large.

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Saturday, April 07, 2012


Like pudding of plums, or a pie of thumbs; like cold water a hundred years ago, the wailing mist of a Titan's last scream. Cold comfort, cold farms, the cold barrens of the silent moon.

And here I am, waiting for the last train that never comes.

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Friday, April 06, 2012


Those dried-out things which sit and wait endlessly in the corners of the refrigerator when all else is lost or eaten, those are the things I wish I had kept or catalogued or mourned or buried in decent state — such is the fate of the long-preserved but forgotten soldiers of the last evenings and mornings of the world of men.

I have one last wedge of Stilton entombed in rind, an unlabelled liqueur time out of mind, and you my friend — always you were too kind.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012


And so it was that I finished indexing the many branches and roots and twigs and other woody-woodened-he bits of the huge plant that had bracketed my life and entrellised my days.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not the tree of eternal life. Anyone who has read the old tales knows this.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Which witch wishes what? Wanderer wonders which wily witchy who waited while weather worsened would work wastefully, walk wildly, whicker winsomely, worry wartily, whisper wintrily.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2012


It wasn't until I was about two years out of the classroom that it struck me. I had taken for granted, whether true or not, the idea that I was significant in some way to the hundreds of students I knew. No doubt, at some low level of significance, this was true.

But what hit me harder was that for a very short while, to be honest, I felt sad that I no longer meant anything to so many people. Fortunately, some old boys turned up and disabused me of that thought. They were quite clear I had been of significance to them — but also that now I was just a slightly odd friend for whom they had some residual respect a bit above the norm.

You have to let it go. I had come to secretly, unconsciously believe that I was of greater import than I really was. What was really important was my work, my service, my calling. In the dark days, I had sometimes forgotten that.

It reminds me of the etymology of the word 'arrogance'. This word comes from the Latin verb rogare — 'to stretch out (one's hand in demand)'. 'Arrogance' is the attitude of assuming that anything you want is there to be taken when you stretch your hand out for it. Mea culpa. Guilty, guilty.

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Monday, April 02, 2012


The attitude some people have to eating odd things amuses me as a chemist. I call it the monchies, the idea that some things are monstrous to eat even in doses that the human organism cannot naturally detect.

Take for example the case of Starbucks and its strawberry frappés. Recently, it was leaked that the pink colour of those frappés came from cochineal, an extract from powdered beetles. This extract is converted to carmine, the aluminium or calcium salt of carminic acid, a completely natural and harmless product to the vast majority of humans (although some, as in the case of nearly everything else, might have dangerous allergic reactions).

Reality check: the deadly impurities in honey can be detected by human taste-buds. People with various sensitivities and allergies can be killed by honey. Honey is far less pure than refined cane sugar, or glucose powder. So why do we insist honey is healthier? Well, it contains trace impurities that would be useful in significant amounts (like if you consumed the whole jar of honey), and it tastes better. Honey is also less concentrated than sugar crystals (duh) being a supersaturated solution of impure sugar (which is why it can blanch or crystallize in the fridge).

Cochineal, however, has no discernible taste or effect on most humans at the concentrations used to colour food. It isn't carcinogenic, teratogenic or mutagenic. It is far less dangerous than honey. The only grouse people have is that it is a beetle product.

I have no idea why there should be biological or ethical considerations against consuming carmine. You can get it from plants and it would be chemically identical, but far more expensive. And beetles don't have the same sensations as higher organisms. They don't feel pain or suffering. They have far less awareness of life and death than lobsters (which don't have much to begin with) — as you can see from watching the many cases where adult male insects continue to fertilise their female counterparts while being eaten by them.

I'd rather eat carmine than soy products, actually. Those soy products are naturally dangerous to men, being full of hormones that make people sprout the wrong secondary sexual characteristics. OK, I'm exaggerating. But I speak nothing but truth when I say that cannabis sativa is the world's second most nutritious crop after soya beans — and what do 'civilised' societies do? They ban it.

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Sunday, April 01, 2012


Today is the day we should celebrate the fool, not celebrate folly. A fool and his folly are not soon parted, but I do not speak of the fool who is of his own will unwise. I speak rather of the fools who either a) choose to confound the wisdom of the world, or b) choose to acknowledge that they will never be completely wise.

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