Sunday, 28 October 2007

Back to Greenwich Mean Time

Today is the day when the clocks go back. I wish they'd stay back.

Civilisation has many things for which to thank Benjamin Franklin, but I don't count daylight-saving as one of them. Twice a year we have to wrench ourselves forward or back in time by changing all the clocks, and in high summer we have to put up with unnaturally late sunsets. I don't blame Franklin though. He may have been the first person to suggest the idea, but it wasn't a serious recommendation - it appeared in a humourous essay he wrote in 1784 while he was in Paris.

Benjamin Franklin is famous for proving in a dangerous experiment that lightening was a form of electricity. He had started out in life as a printer. Another, greater scientist interested in electricity also began his working life in a trade linked to publishing: Michael Faraday, born the year after Franklin died, who completed a seven year apprenticeship as a book binder. It's not really much of a resemblance, though, since Franklin never lost his love of printing and made his fortune by it whereas Faraday got out of bookbinding as soon as he could (by taking a job as Humphrey Davey's assistant at the Royal Institution). But it does show that the sky's the limit for a boy who knows how to read and is willing to make the most of it.

I learned only recently that Faraday was a chemist as well as a physicist and is also famous for isolating benzene. Of course the ancient Ethiopians were able to exploit a natural source of pure benzene, but I don't believe they knew its formula. (Actually, neither did Faraday; that had to wait for Kekulé.)

Friday, 26 October 2007

Wait your turn!

Brent Cowgill alerted me (via UKOA) to this wonderful story in the Daily Mail. Published on 23rd October, it is about a petrol station cashier who told a robber she was too busy to serve him:
Instead of surrendering the £15 cash from her till, the 51-year-old turned to the raider and told him she was too busy to deal with him.

I just got on with it," she said. "British people don't stop work just because someone is trying to bully us with guns."

Yesterday David Collinson, 42, was beginning a seven-year jail sentence after he was convicted of robbery at Gloucester Crown Court.
When her colleague told her she had to give the robber money,
"I said, 'Whatever for?'"


"I was going to thump him, but I thought twice because it may well have been a real gun. Anyone that knows me, knows that I would."
Good for her.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Why we need more chairs 2

There are two of us and two of them. We bought enough chairs for ourselves. There will never be enough chairs for them.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Cat's Pyjamas

Here is Pussy Janeway showing off her fine... um... markings. The book is Ayn Rand's The Art of Non-Fiction - which is, of course, the cat's pyjamas.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Right on target

Today Pussy Janeway sick-bombed the ironing board. About half went on the cover, soaking through to the foam below, and half went on the shirt I had been going to iron. Well aimed, PJ. And now I am going to cook you.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Cascades of error

Several recent posts on HBL refer to this interesting John Tierny article, published in the NYT on 9-OCT-07:
Diet and Fat: a Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus

The whole article is worth reading, both for its specific discussion of the crusade against dietary fat and for showing how the mechanism of mistaken consensus leads to such crusades. An extract:
We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.
The obvious analogy to the anti-fat crusade is the global warming crusade. Only heretics dare question four assumptions that have yet to be provided with a plausible foundation:

1) Long term global warming is occurring
2) Economic activity causes global warming
3) Global warming is a bad thing
4) Governments should curtail economic activity to prevent global warming

One HBLer discussed another interesting article, Science is the pursuit of the truth, not consensus, by John Kay in the Financial Times (also on 9-OCT-07). Some extracts:
Numbers are critical to democracy, but science is not a democracy. If an evangelical Christian converted all members of the Royal Society to creationism, that neither would nor should affect my belief in evolution. Most scientists know no more about climate change, HIV/Aids or the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine than do most lawyers, philosophers or economists, and it is not obvious who is better equipped to assess conflicting claims on these issues. Science is a matter of evidence, not what a majority of scientists think.
Statements about the world derive their value from the facts and arguments that support them, not from the status and qualifications of the people who assert them. Evidence versus authority was the issue on which Galileo challenged the church. The modern world exists because Galileo won.
I have to agree with that.

Independent of the Truth?

Here's a disappointing example of unprofessional journalism - a factually innacurate attack on Ayn Rand ineptly disguised as a news story:

The Independent, 12 October 2007
"Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness"
By Leonard Doyle
[Several paragraphs at the start, asking why Americans don't vote for welfare-statists, snipped.]

So what's the matter with America?

The answer may be contained in the writings of the Russian emigrée and radical libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. Two decades after her death, she remains the darling of right-thinking Americans and sales of her novels, paens of praise to unbridled capitalism, are even outselling The Da Vinci Code.

More copies of her book Atlas Shrugged are sold now than when she was the literary pied piper of Wall Street. In his early thirties, no less a figure than Alan Greenspan, who married one of her closest friends and went on to become the chairman of the Federal Reserve fawned over her. On Saturday nights he made his way to Rand's deliberately darkened apartment in Manhattan to sit in rapt admiration as passages of her novels were read aloud to her conservative salon.

[several paragraphs about Alan Greenspan snippped]

Some argue that it was Rand herself rather than her philosophical ideas that held the public gaze. Biographies penned by spurned lovers and collections of her letters reveal a difficult personality, alternatively passionate and cold. A woman who kept lists of sworn enemies. She enjoyed kinky sex with swinging couples and enforced a cult of loyalty among her followers.

Rand was born in 1905 in Russia and her comfortable life was turned upside down when the Bolsheviks attacked her father's pharmacy, declaring his business to be state property. She had fled the Soviet Union by1926 and soon arrived in Hollywood. There she looked
though the studio gates to see the director Cecil B. DeMille on the set filming a silent movie, King of Kings.

She talked her way onto the set, and got a job as an extra, later becoming a junior screenwriter. There she also met and married the writer Frank O' Connor.

For a few years she wrote screenplays as well as novels that failed to sell. It was only in 1943 that her career took off when word-of-mouth campaign got The Fountainhead noticed and put her on the road to success.

Rand's most influential book, Atlas Shrugged begins in a recession. To save the economy her hero, John Galt, calls for a strike by intellectuals against government interference. Factories, farms and shops close. Riots break out as food becomes scarce. Rand herself said she "set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it treats them" and to portray "what happens to a world without them".

The book was published into a welter of criticism. The New York Times critic denounced it as "written out of hate" and called it "a triumph of English as a second language". Both conservatives and liberal critics disparaged it, with the right condemning its promotion of a godless ethic and the left condemning its message of "greed is good". Rand cried every day as bad reviews poured in.

But now she is back in fashion of a sort. Her theories have made inroads into academia. Objectivism is taught at more than 30 universities, with fellowships at several leading philosophy departments. The Ayn Rand Institute has a war chest of over $7m to promote her ideas and more than a million high school pupils are being given free copies of her novels to read.

[several paragraphs on Ayn Rand's influence and the continuing high sales of Atlas Shrugged snippped]

One of the characters in Atlas Shrugged, summarises her philosophy of Objectivism with the following oath: "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine."

[one paragraph snipped]

One way or another Rand's ode to American individualism has made her one of the towering figures of US political thought in the late 20th century.

By rejecting altruism and embracing selfishness she rejected the Judaeo-Christian underpinning of the religious right. The only moral obligation a person had was to his or her own happiness. That meant capitalism should be given a free rein with an unregulated market economy.

She pushed America's cult of individualism into uncharted waters where ruthless self-interest and disdain for poorer members of society were the guiding principles.

Her admirers partly credit her revived appeal to an absence of ideas coming from the US left: "Today's left doesn't have anything positive to offer to young people," says Yaron Brook, director of the Ayn Rand Institute. "When they were socialists, there was at least something they were fighting for, and they believed in a right and a wrong [snip] Ayn Rand is the only voice that offers a secular absolutist morality with a positive vision and agenda, for individuals and for society as a whole."

The coming presidential election will reveal the extent to which ordinary poor Americans will proudly vote themselves out of jobs, off the land and ensure that their children can never afford to go to university or afford health care. It happened in the last two presidential elections, and the Ayn Rand Institute is banking that it will happen again.
Aeon McNulty, a businessman, wrote to the editor. In a letter too long to be published, though not long enough to enumerate all that was wrong with Leonard Doyle's article, he summarised the reporting errors:
Sir: the article on Ayn Rand entitled "Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness" by Leonard Doyle (12th October) contained the following errors.

1. Ayn Rand is categorically not a "libertarian". She repeatedly expressed her profound disagreement and disgust with libertarians, branding them "hippies of the right".

2. The phrase "biographies by spurned lovers" is severely misleading because the use of the plural directly implies that there has been more than one. In fact, although there are certainly many biographies of Miss Rand in print, there is only one penned by a former lover: the bitter and biased account by Nathaniel Branden which was published after her death.

3. Miss Rand did not keep "lists of sworn enemies". What she kept, and frequently wrote about, were notes on intellectual ideas that she disagreed with. Since ideas come from people it's entirely unsurprising that these notes often contained the names of their proponents.

4. There is no evidence that she "enjoyed kinky sex with swinging couples". Miss Rand did not view sex as a smutty or casual indulgence. She regarded it as a profound expression of joy and affection. At the time of her alleged affair with Mr Branden she was, by all accounts, deeply in love with him. There is no indication ofany other extramarital sexual activity during her life.

5. Frank O'Connor, her husband for fifty years, was an actor not a

6. John Galt (the hero in Atlas Shrugged) does not call a strike in
order to "save the economy", that is obviously never his aim (or the result), he explicitly calls it to free the "men of the mind" from the "morality of self-sacrifice".

7. "Greed is good" is not a phrase attributable to Miss Rand, she never said it. It comes from the well-known 1987 film, "Wall Street".

8. Miss Rand did not cry "every day as bad reviews poured in". This is lifted directly from a ridiculously arbitrary assertion by Harriet Rubin that appeared in a recent article in The New York Times. To those that knew Miss Rand the very notion of her crying over a bad review is laughable.

9. The following is a misquotation, "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine." It should instead be: "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

10. It is claimed that the Ayn Rand Institute is hoping for (indeed "banking" on) another Republican victory. It is a matter of record that the ARI has been a consistently harsh critic of the Republican Party since the institute was founded.

Thank you for your time and attention.
The writer Ed Cline agreed. In his own letter to the editor he said:
The errors present in Leonard Doyle's "Guru of Greed: The cult of selfishness" (12 October) are too numerous to list in a letter. These errors center on what Ayn Rand did or did not do, on what she said or did not say. To cite one instance, she did not cry "every day as bad reviews poured in" of her novel Atlas Shrugged. If she did anything, she shrugged. And, her novel is having the last laugh; after 50 years, it is still selling strong and influencing people, while all those smarmy, vitriolic critics are gone.
My contribution was:
The title of Leonard Doyle's article "Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness" set the tone for the absurd assertions that followed. Ayn Rand identified rationality as the basic virtue and the source of all others. In her philosophy of Objectivism, selfishness is the virtue based on the facts about what man requires for his proper survival. To call rational self interest a cult, and Ayn Rand a guru, is a profound misrepresentation of the greatest philosopher of the modern era.

DSA Murray, an artist, targeted misapprehensions about Objectivism in two separate letters - first on 13th October:

Contrary to Leonard Doyle's article, Ayn Rand was not an advocate of the commonly held view of "selfishness".

Through her integrated philosophy, Objectivism, Ms Rand rejected the false alternative of sacrificing others to yourself (Nietzschean behaviour), or sacrificing yourself to others (altruism), by advocating a rational self-interest of neither living as a profiteer of sacrifice, nor as a victim, but as a voluntary "trader" of values for mutual benefit.

By upholding a "benevolent universe premise", Ms Rand argued that it is not "selfishness" that is the route of malevolent behaviour, but precisely the absence of a "self" e.g.,
the need to be admired, envied, feared, thought great, etc., by others.

She opposed altruism, which she defined as, "service to others as the moral justification of a man's existence and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty", because it destroys genuine benevolence and is the foundation of all forms of tyranny. Indeed, by elevating the idea that helping others is an act of selflessness, she argued, altruism implies that a man can have no selfish concern for others, that morally an act of goodwill must be an act of sacrifice, in effect destroying any authentic benevolence among men.
and then on 15th October (in response to somone else's letter):
...Rand was not opposed to acts of kindness towards others, indeed, she upheld a "benevolent universe premise" based on "rational self-interest". What she opposed
was a sacrificial moral code that turns men into either profiteers of sacrifice or victims.

She argued that by elevating the idea that helping others is an act of selflessness, altruism implies that a man can have no selfish concern for others, that morally an act of goodwill must be an act of sacrifice, in effect destroying any authentic benevolence among men.
The Independent, to its credit, did publish this last. As Daryl explained to its letters editor, "I don't expect The Independent to necessarily agree with, or fully understand Objectivism, (it requires major study), but I do expect the chance to correct any editorial errors or misconceptions about Ayn Rand's life and philosophy."

Note: all hyperlinks inserted by Valz.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

TV confession

I don't watch TV often enough. My friends have recommended many shows I know I should watch, but I never seem to find the time. I've missed most episodes of Firefly, Lost , House and Heroes. Maybe Lost is not such a loss... but I didn't see the first season of 24 until about forty thousand hours after it was broadcast on Sky (I watched it on DVD last January). Most episodes of Seinfeld have come and gone without me. Niles in Frazier got married without my knowledge. Documentaries are being presented by people I've never seen or heard of. I just have to buckle down to the box!

Morning call

Here's how many cat owners greet the day:


Pussy Kirk does this sort of thing to Paddy every morning, about ten minutes before his alarm goes off.

But I'm the one who wields the baseball bat, and I only do that to stop the snoring.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Whose environment is it?

Decades ago, most governments banned the use of DDT to kill mosquitoes. They did it because it was supposed to be bad for the environment. Millions of people in Africa and Asia died of malaria as a result of the ban. Now, some of those countries are allowing DDT again - because it is the safest and most effective way to eliminate malaria from the human environment. Whose environment are the environmentalists trying to protect? Not ours - not one fit for human beings to inhabit.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

article on Yaron Brook in OCR

There's an excellent article in the Orange County Register on one of the locals:
It appeared on 9th October and was written by Terry Sforza under the heading Atlas came to Irvine: ex-socialist runs the Ayn Rand Institute. Here's what it says:
Yaron Brook grew up a socialist. What choice did he have?

His parents were "standard leftist intellectuals," he said, driven from their homeland of South Africa by the injustices of apartheid, and drawn to Israel by dreams of Zionism and kibbutz-living. A kibbutz, you know – one of those communal farm/socialist-type utopias where everything is shared, collectivism rules, and other people help bring up your kids.

Brook's dad was a doctor. The family spent time in England and Boston, and he fondly recalls arguing with his Western capitalist classmates over the blights of poverty and economic inequality that went hand-in-hand with the free market.

So honestly. How did Yaron Brook come to be one of the nation's – nay, the world's – leading spokesmen for "rational selfishness" and "laissez-faire capitalism"?

How did he come to conclude that making money is good – very good – and that life's highest moral purpose is achieving personal happiness and individual fulfillment, not necessarily helping the neighbor in need?

How did Yaron Brook come to be president of the Ayn Rand Institute?


He was 16. It was summer break. A friend lent him a copy of Rand's 1,000-plus page "Atlas Shrugged" (which was published 50 years ago today to mostly scathing reviews and is now hailed as one of the most influential business books ever written).

In "Atlas," the capitalist movers and shakers – "individuals of the mind" – go on strike to protest overbearing government regulation and forced income redistribution. They simply drop out, refusing to contribute to a corrupt social order that confiscates their profits and tries to dictate their actions. These folks are, Rand argues, the very glue that holds society together.

In Rand's view, selfishness is a virtue, not a vice. An individual is an end in himself. He should be motivated by rational self-interest and guided solely by reason. And making money is a sign of success, proof that you have created something of value. The government shouldn't take money away from you and give it to the unsuccessful hordes.

Whoa. "I fought the book," Brook says. "I didn't want to agree with it. It challenged everything I believed in." But, after "Atlas," there was no going back.

At age 18, Brook entered the Israeli army, where he met his wife, Revital. On their first date, he gave her a copy of Rand's "The Fountainhead." On their second date, he took her to a lecture.


Now, what does a young man afire with rational self-interest do with his life? Brook got his civil engineering degree from the Technicon — Israel Institute of Technology, but it didn't much agree with him. This backbone of civilization stuff – bridges, roads, sewer systems – had rather limited appeal. There wasn't a great deal of individual fulfillment involved. And the money wasn't so hot either.

"After you come to the conclusion that the purpose of life is to maximize your own well-being, then there is only one country in the world that allows you to do that," he said.

So, like Rand, Brook came to America.

He got his master of business administration from the University of Texas at Austin, and followed up with a doctorate in finance. In a delicious irony, he became an assistant professor at Santa Clara University in San Jose, a Jesuit Catholic university. He started several businesses, including an investment consulting firm and Lyceum International, which organized conferences on objectivism, Rand's philosophy.

It's through those conferences that Brook got to know the movers and shakers in the world of objectivism. Warm, smart and funny, he was eventually asked to head the Ayn Rand Institute, the largest of the think tanks devoted to Rand's work.

Its mission: "To spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today's culture," its Web site says. "The major battleground in this fight for reason and capitalism is the educational institutions – high schools and, above all, the universities, where students learn the ideas that shape their lives."

The institute began in 1985 with just two staffers in Marina del Rey. Brook agreed to take the job in 2000 on two conditions: that he get an Apple computer, and that the institute move from Marina del Rey to Orange County.


The institute devoted to the high priestess of profit is, well, a nonprofit. Brook proudly earned a total compensation in excess of $356,000 as president last year (he says he could make a lot more in finance).

When he took over in 2000, the institute's budget was less than $2 million. It just closed the books on the 2006-07 fiscal year at a stunning $6.7 million.

More of that money is going into programs, and less into fundraising and administration. In 2004, 57.8 percent of the institute's spending was on programs. Last year, that shot up to 80.6 percent, according to financial information filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

"I don't even know where I am anymore, it has grown so much," said Donna Montrezza, one of the institute's original employees. "Beyond my wildest dreams."

It gives away Rand's books to high schools (some 700,000 to date). Runs an essay contest that annually attracts some 20,000 high school students. Supports college objectivist clubs, writes op-ed pieces, comments regularly on Fox News and CNBC. Next year it will open an office in Washington, D.C., to educate those in the capital on what America is reallyabout.

And, as a special treat for locals, it holds public lectures in Orange County, delightfully poking its fingers in the eyes of conventional wisdom and the status quo.

On Nov. 7, a talk titled "Religion vs. Self-Esteem" will argue that religion undermines every essential precondition of self-esteem.

Brook has lectured on "The Morality of War," arguing that trying to spare civilian lives has prevented the U.S. from winning in Iraq. "If, once all the facts are rationally evaluated, it is found that directly bombing civilian populations or torturing POWs will save American lives, then it is moral – morally mandatory – to do so."

Brook isn't exactly an ideologue. He's fine with charity, for example, so long as it's done voluntarily and for personal fulfillment, rather than out of guilt or self-sacrifice. He lives in Trabuco, watches lots of movies with his wife and two sons, takes in the opera, loves to travel – Italy, Thailand, China, Japan. But, more than anything, he loves the intellectual joust.

Brook sits at his desk and smiles, clearly relishing his philosophical about-face. "My parents," he says, "are still waiting for me to grow out of it."

Register wire services and staff writers Peter Larsen and Frank Mickadeit contributed to this report.

Worth preserving, I think.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Centre of the World

My home town is the setting for a silly science-fantasy novel I recently borrowed from the local library:
[It] is an old town and not all of its ghosts sleep the sleep of the just. Nestled in the rolling hills and valleys of the county of Wiltshire, in the ancient heart of the south west of England, many kinds of people have lived in [it] down the centuries, and some of their past deeds live on to trouble the present.
According to the novel, more ley lines cross each other here than anywhere else in England, making it the real centre of the world...

But its oldness does fascinate me. When I was a child nothing around me was old: my parents had been on earth longer than any of the buildings I walked past. Almost all the buildings in the centre of this town are old, and if you walk over ploughed fields in its environs you're quite likely to find bits of Roman or mediaeval pottery in the soil and see pieces of stone from Roman villas in the dry stone walls separating the fields.

Why we need more chairs 1

The handbag was not put there for scale. (It's true that Janeway is a small cat, but there again, the handbag is huge). No, I put the handbag there to prevent the cat from claiming my chair - but the chair was big enough for both of them.

The thing is, Jinny-Puss, my chair is not big enough for both of us.