Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Junk Page Views: and Others

A while ago Google introduced Google Stats on Blogger. Very interesting it is as well. I have recently ascended to the giddy heights of roughly ten page views a day - which can be more than I get e-mails at work - and I would like to think that those are all real people brought here by a search on Google or the "Next Blog" button on Blogger.

Then I saw that a site called was a top provider for a few days. Never having heard of it, I went to have a look. What a nasty site. It seems to be offering software to set up a whole bunch of random blogs from which you can, allegedly, make money. Because if it was that easy, why don't they do it themselves and cut out the middleman?

I had noticed other odd-looking sites before. was one, another and,, yet others. Many of them are based in, oh!, look!, Russia. I am willing to believe that someone might have been browsing from what looks like a Russian furniture store, but then I trust everything from Russia, from the blondes to the billionaires.

I'm assuming the scam is to spam sad and lonely bloggers like me with views so that we go to their site, where they will infect us with viruses or try to sell us some bogus software that will make us rich or popular or attractive to women. Maybe they will hi-jack the blog. I don't know.

This is never going to be a popular blog. It's too text-heavy, the entries are often long, the tone is personal and the photographs don't feature Abbey Lee or Lily Cole on a regular basis. (I don't know how many page views Terence Tao gets - in a sensible world, it should be thousands - but I bet it's not as many as Rumi Neely gets.) I'm not writing about things people care about, like fashion, music, mathematics and cooking. Nor is it chirpy in tone and garishly colorful in design, which also seems to help.

I would like to know that the page views I get are real. Occasionally someone leaves a comment, which just makes my week. (I've never left one, which I know makes me a Bad Blogging Citizen, but I can never think of anything to say other than "Interesting post" that wouldn't take half an evening to compose. I would feel frustrated if I read "interesting post" because I would want to know why.)

Google know about these junk page views, but doing anything about them isn't on their list.  Best advice seems to be: don't click on the link. Just like you don't "unsubscribe" from spam e-mails.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Art of Non-Conformity (3): Lucie's Laws

Hold back the sophomore comment about "there can't be ways to be a non-conformist, because then you'd be conforming to the rules of being a non-conformist". I can conform to the rules I choose, and I can choose your rules or their rules, and it doesn't matter, because tomorrow or in the next instant I can change my mind. The point is not to conform to their rules because you can't think of anything better to do, or because you want to be accepted by them.

I'm going to cheat and quote myself, because this is the best way I've put this, though I wasn't thinking about it at the time. This is Lucie and Adam's second date, and Lucie is explaining the Laws she and a friend mentioned as an aside when Lucie and Adam first met.

LUCIE     One: do not watch television and only read foreign newspapers...

ADAM     I can read the FT?

LUCIE     I do. Saturdays. Vanessa Freidman, Jackie Wullschlager, Peter Aspden. Sometimes even to make sure they've kept their promises.

ADAM     Oh. You really do know everyone.

LUCIE     Or I'd have a day job. Rule Two?

ADAM     Okay.

LUCIE     A light suntan and good muscle tone are not optional...

ADAM     Damn straight.

LUCIE     Three: outside the home, even casual clothes should be classy.

ADAM     That's what I was trying to say...

LUCIE     You were. Four: shopping is not...

ADAM     ...a destination activity...

LUCIE buy your food and washing-up liquid on your way to somewhere else...

ADAM     Aha.

LUCIE     Aha indeed. Five: drinks begin with a w - whiskey, wine and water...

ADAM     You just took that from me.

LUCIE     Well, you might think so. But actually I didn't. Six?

ADAM     Six.

LUCIE     If you can see a crowd, you're in the wrong place...

ADAM     So true.

LUCIE     Seven: butter, coffee and toilet paper, however poor you are, never scrimp on those three things...

ADAM     That sounds familiar, but I shouldn't let on I know it's India Knight, should I?

LUCIE     No. People will think you read your girlfriends' books.

ADAM     And we wouldn't want that. Eight?

LUCIE     Eight: argue with your dentist and your doctor, but not with your petrol gauge or your first impressions.

ADAM     My petrol gauge is as reliable as my first impressions?

LUCIE     Which are way more reliable than your doctor.

(05:20 In The Morning - un-produced theatre script)

Lucie's Laws are about keeping the crap out of your life so you have time, energy and money to enjoy the good stuff. Do what you want except consume junk culture, junk food and the poisonous air of the English media. Rules two and three mean you're going to dress well and you will be going to the gym or playing sports a couple of times a week at least (because being an overweight slob in sloppy clothes is so desirable). Rule four keeps you away from the High Street at the weekends, and from having a family, because you can't shop for a family on an ad-hoc basis. Rules five and seven tell you to aim for simplicity in taste and quality in essentials, not quantity or novelty (that's where most people fall on their faces). Rule eight tells you not to accept so-called experts at face value: many doctors and dentists have ulterior motives, whereas your petrol gauge doesn't (some phone battery indicators do, I read somewhere). Rule six reminds you that the last time the crowd was right was in the mid-Sixties about the Beatles and the Stones. Since then, what's interesting and quality has diverged further and further from what's popular.

You can do whatever else you want. Adam he is an accountant and Lucie she is a PR. You can have a day job or a career. You can like your sex vanilla or kink, you can be a vegetarian who believes in global warming or a carnivore who doesn't, you can have ink or clear skin, you can dig Mozart or Ornette Coleman - as long as you dig someone. You can be well-balanced or you can be a screw-up. You just can't be so messed-up you so things because you think other people think that's what you should do. You can be as dogmatic as you like in the instant, as long as you drop your dogma when it gets in the way of doing what you need to get done.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Sunday Stroll Along The Canal in Utrecht

Once or twice a year I stay with a friend who lives in Utrecht. The more I go over to the Netherlands, the more I like it. Just walking through the streets is restful. Even when it seems, that the Dutch had started their Christmas shopping that weekend.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Friday Afternoon Around Culemborg

Culemborg is a Utrecht dormitory about fifteen minutes south by train from Utrecht. It dates back to the 1300's, with a market square, a church, a very fancy town gate (bottom photo), a modern railway bridge over the river, but no road bridge, so there's a the ferry that runs from about six in the morning to ten-thirty at night. 70 cents the single trip for foot passengers. We had lunch in a cafe - there are quite a few decent-looking restaurants and cafes there - and crossed the river, where the wind was cold, but the cottages picturesque, then returned to the town, stopping at the shop with the marzipan pig to buy some marzipan sweets for desert that evening.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Art of Non-Conformity (2): What Non-Conformity Isn't

So we were talking about non-conformity, and how it has nothing whatsoever to do with being prepared to sit around ramshackle airports in poor countries waiting for the pilot of the held-together-by-duct-tape DC3 to sober up and fly the plane, while eating vegetarian tacos and re-coding your client's website. It may sound exotic, and it narrowly beats commuting in suburban London, but it's not non-conformity. Non-conformity in those circumstances would be finding a doctor to give the pilot a vitamin B shot to help him sober up.

Non-conformity isn't about not following rules or not doing what everyone else does. To do anything that resembles an organised activity, from playing chess to driving (even in Naples), requires you to follow some rules. This is one of those points philosophers don't make enough of: to "do" anything that other people can recognise as our doing X means that we have to follow the rules they have for doing X. If we start moving chess pieces around at random, nobody will think we're playing chess. They will either think we're bonkers, or being silly. Even Mornington Crescent has rules - it's just that the rules aren't about what you think they're about.

Conformity is about following the rules when you have forgotten why, or never knew why or just because you like to follow the rules. Bridge clubs are full of old people tut-tutting at the newbies who don't know that a bid of three clubs is never followed by four hearts except when your partner has bid one no trumps and it's the third Thursday after Lent. Professional players will tell you that these "rules" are guidelines: you use them, don't use them, according to your judgement of the situation. Pros always say stuff like that, no matter what the subject. The point for them is to go home with a shed-load of money. But the point for the amateurs is to take part in a ceremony that confirms them as being insiders, members of the club and good social team players. Process is more important than results. (Which is why even now I recoil inwardly when I hear people talking about "process" in business: the point of business is to make a product people want at a price they can afford that leaves you with a profit. Not following a "process" that like as not has no positive effect on profit. But that makes me a non-conformist.)

Non-conformity is not about being random or ignoring common social conventions. If you have the opportunity to bathe on a regular basis and don't, that doesn't make you a non-conformist: it makes you smelly and anti-social. If you don't return things you borrow, that doesn't mean you are questioning notions of personal possession, it makes you a thief. If you do things without thinking the consequences through, that makes you impulsive at best and a dangerous and irresponsible twerp at worst. Some rules and conventions are there to enable co-operation and the smooth passage of business and human affairs. Mess with those when it matters and you're just an a..hole.

Non-conformity is about following the spirit of the law and focusing on the results, not the letter of the law and the ceremonial trappings. Non-conformists treat everything as a guideline, each rule applicable in perhaps many circumstances, but not in all. On a clear road with turns you can see round, why not have fun using the full width of the road? In heavy traffic, stick to your side. As for ceremony and process: those are regarded as optional, content-free and to be performed only if it will result in getting what they need. To a non-conformist, "process", "convention", "the way we do things" are not real. Reality is creation, getting results and making things happen. If there's one thing that most non-conformists do, it's jay-walk.

A conformist gets a large chunk of their identity from following the rules and taking part in the ceremonies. A conformist goes to Church because they like the routine, the feeling of being with other people, and of being in the place. The non-conformist goes because they need the religion: if they wanted to be surrounded by people, they would sit in a cafe. When they don't need the religion, they don't go. The non-conformist is not defined by what they do, and that's scary, if not actually a contradiction, to most people. After all, isn't "you'll do anything to (insert objective speaker doesn't share), won't you" one of the standard junk-drama put-downs?

The downside of non-conformity is steep and deep. I am never going to one of the gang, because being one of the gang means committed, unquestioning acceptance of their rules. Ain't going to happen. There will be something in my body language and facial expression that suggests I'm deciding or otherwise judging for myself. I'm not supposed to do that. Other people want to know that when they do X, I will automatically approve, and when one of the Other do Y, I will automatically disapprove. That way they don't have to worry about being judged they because they know just what to do. I mess all that up, because I insist on starting from scratch every time. And people don't like people who are motivated by results: they prefer ceremony. The merchant middle class that emerged across Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries upset both the aristocracy and the workers exactly because it was focussed on results, on profits and on political change.

The benefits of non-conformity? I can't think of one, to be honest. It's something that you're born with, or start doing very early in your life. At some point you find yourself choosing to be where the crowd is not. And when I think of it, that's the main benefit. And if you understand what I meant by that, you too are similarly cursed.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked: Around The Brunswick Centre

Some Sundays are nearly perfect. The Sunday I took these pictures, I drove in to central London in thirty minutes, ran two miles in 16:50, swam the fastest I've ever swam, saw Mademoiselle Chambon at the Renoir, and had these blue skies to walk under.

The Renoir Cinema has been underneath the Brunswick Centre for as long as I've been watching movies. It used to be one large auditorium with the seats arranged in curves, and was split into two screens a long while ago. It's part of the Curzon art-house chain.

Back in the 1970's the Brunwsick Centre was a concrete wasteland with the little hut of the Renoir box-office in the middle. If you were blindfolded and dropped there, you might think you were in Soviet Russia or a northern council estate. Which you were: a Camden council estate, that is. I visited the Renoir a few times in the early 2000's when I was working over in a City telco, and it was still pretty dire. The Giraffe cafe was there. I think.

Then someone refurbished it and brought in the shops and cafes. When I started working at The Bank in 2007, I went to see a movie there, and was amazed. Because it looks like this...

When I came out from the lunchtime show, it was even more busy. But then, the whole area has changed. It used to be deserted, but at almost any time there are people walking around, even if they are tourists going to Heathrow via Russell Square tube. I've written about the Goodenough College before, so here's a view of Marchmont Street on the other side of the centre. London did not look like this in the 1970's. And I know which I prefer.

The idea of a health store with a pavement cafe being open on Sunday in Camden on Marchmont street, or the Italian on the corner of Marchmont and Tavistock being open, in 1970? It would have been un-thought of, it would in fact have been impossible to think. Philosophers would have given you elegant explanations of the idea of the logically impossible and used "pavement cafe in Camden" as an example of the logically impossible.

And yet here it is. With two Americans talking about "pro soccer" over their cappucinos. Which is something that would have been equally impossible to think in 1970.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Art of Non-Conformity (1): The Review

Recently I read a book called The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebreau. You know how that happens. You're browsing, you pick up a book, it seems to have things to say on the pages you turn to, presto! Another pop-culture slip.

I grew up in an era when "conformity" was a grey, grey word to colour parents, teachers and people with clerical jobs. (Oddly, manual workers were neither conformist nor non-conformist: they were "the workers" and as such outside cultural judgement.) Back then we knew what it was people were conforming to: marriage, children, job-for-life working for a bank or one of the nationalised industries or in government, washing the car on Sunday and middle-brow culture. It meant fitting in with what other people said they expected you to do and believe.

An updated version of this is roughly what Chris Guillebreau means by "conformity". I think he makes two mistakes. The first is that post-modern capitalist economies don't want you to conform, except to your employers' dress and IT codes. Expecting you to conform to anything else would mean setting standards and training people and generally making commitments, and post-modern capitalism needs to be able to dump it, outsource it, price it out of your salary range and generally melt it into air at any time with minimum disruption and expense. The second mistake is that conforming is not about product choice and how we make the rent, and many of the choices we make are constrained by the numbers. Most of us have to work 9-5 because most jobs are 9-5, not freelance. Most of us have to work at what we're good at rather than at what we love, because what we're good at pays and what we love doesn't. Following your bliss is viable if it so happens that your bliss pays enough, or you are prepared to live very cheap.

Indeed, the book's title should be "Live Cheap and You Need Never Go Into The Office". He's a web developer and seemingly one of the few who are good enough to find enough clients prepared to let him work off-site, which not many clients are prepared to do. He only needs some telephony to do his job - sometimes, I'm gathering, sat phones so he can dial in to a client conference call in the middle of Africa. (That strikes him as cool, but I think it's a little... disjointed.) He travels a lot - not in a Tyler Brule style. He's not going to Biarritz for dinner at Restaurant Phillipe, but to Azerbaijan, Syria, Turkey and other Poor Countries. His idea of fine dining at lunchtime is Chipolte and he's a vegetarian, which keeps the costs down. He's also prepared to sit around airports for a day waiting for connecting flights, delays and the like, on cut-price airlines. Going to poor countries makes your income last a lot longer, and provides months of comparing your material circumstances with Poor People, which makes you feel a lot better about yourself than a few weeks in Manhattan or Kensington.

If I said that books like this were actually commissioned by corporations and western governments to convince you that it's your fault you're a wage-slave tied to a soul-crushing commute and job, which given your skill-set you can only change for a different soul-crushing commute and job, you would mutter something about "Corporations and governments aren't that smart". He may not know it, but he's blaming the victim, the favourite tactic of the oppressor and his lackeys. If only we had the gumption to Do What We Love And Find Someone To Pay Us For Doing It, we would be happy and unafraid of being replaced by someone in Mumbai. Good thing Chris likes web development, which he can do from a rooftop cafe in Syria, and not Java enterprise systems, which would mean he would have to be on-site right up to the day they at-will terminated him.

I felt cheated, because a book with this title should be about more than working freelance, which is a way of life that takes a particular character and mind-set that most of don't have - which is why we don't do it. Non-conformity is about just a lot more than how you make your pay-cheque and where you go on vacation, and there are moments he addresses that stuff, but not for long enough.

There are three posts in this series. The next one is the philosopher's analysis of the idea of non-conformity.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Audrey Runs In Paris

"Audrey runs in Paris" was the slogan on the back of a woman's black tee-shirt. We were boarding the 8 line metro at Bastille. It was so early, the only people out were going somewhere for their morning run.

"Audrey". It's an interesting girl's name: classic without having overtones of social class, rare but not unusual. You've heard the name more often than you've met girls called Audrey, because you've seen the poster for Breakfast At Tiffanies so many times. Audrey Hepburn was nothing like the characters she played but made you believe she was. It's a brave parent who christens their daughter Audrey. An Audrey is going to be good at her job and responsible without being serious, with a suggestion that she might just be a little more fun than the Fun Girl in the next booth.

"Runs". Not walk, stroll, daydream, swim, take taxis or buses. Not hide, work, play, party or get stoned. She might do all those things, but what she wants you to know about her is that she runs. Exercises, glides over the pavement in her Nikes, sweats lightly and politely, and she runs somewhere particular, that she needs to take the 8 line to get to.

"In Paris". She's an American in Paris. She runs in Paris, and you are just visiting. She runs here, so she works and lives here. She's on the metro in the east, so she lives in one of the arondissements, not in the banlieues. Maybe she works in banking, or fashion, or perhaps as for one of the French companies that own the bits of the UK that the Spanish don't own.

"Runs in Paris". She runs in Paris - and Paris is not where people go to run. They go to shop, to look at the art, to bathe in the atmosphere, to listen to the organ recital Sunday at Saint Sulpice, to walk by the Seine, to walk in the parks and stroll round the markets, to sit in the sidewalk cafes and eat in the restaurants. But Audrey runs in Paris. Audrey does unconventional things, and running Paris is one of them. Perhaps she dances to drum-and-bass, and is into Wittgenstein, and white fish recipies, and plays Earl Hines and Art Tatum CD's in her flat, and only watches Jacques Rivette movies on her iPad.

One day she will know it's time to go back to the States, and then Audrey will run in Central Park when she does, but until then, "Audrey runs in Paris".

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

How Bureaucrats Make The World Uglier: Example 13,258 of 100,000,000

Those of you who cross Hungerford Bridge, which takes the Southern South-Eastern railways north of the river to Charing Cross, on foot will recognise this sight.

The bureaucrats will say that the spikes are there to stop people trying to jump across either for the thrill or to put graffiti there. And you just nodded along. Whereas I say, it's not the bureaucrats' business whether someone wants to jump across. But it is their business to give us a pleasant public space. Which this ghastly scene is not. They will say they could be sued by the relatives of someone who jumped, if they didn't put discouraging spikes up: I say that the legislation should make it clear that Railtrack, or Westminster Council, or whoever, are not responsible for the stupidity, drunkenness, desperation or foolhardiness of the public. Which means you and me.

You may say that this is a fine line: between guard rails to stop us falling into the river and spikes to stop us jumping.

The real point is this. Every time you pass that scene, or one of the thousands like it, you are reminded that the this country is not managed for your benefit, but for the mitigation of financial risk to the State and companies, and to this end, the servants of both will do what they want, when they want, with as little thought for the effect on your world as they can be bothered to show. You are the victim, and they are the bully.

Except here's the funny thing. One of you works there. In the Department For Putting Up Ugly Spikes. And when you decided to do that, you forgot you were one of us, and thought like one of Them. You left behind your citizenship when you swiped in the door and became a lackey. Millions of people do it every single day: in fact, I think the British go to work specifically so that they can mis-treat and abuse each other, and make each other's world a nastier, more ugly place.

Monday, 7 November 2011

What Darwin Got Wrong: What Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini Got Wrong

I've recently finished reading What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. I was pre-disposed to its central thesis because I've always thought the Theory of Evolution, especially in its (very) Vulgar forms, such as Evolutionary Psychology, is just a tad on the weak side. By being for instance totally ad-hoc in all its meanings (see any paper by Imre Lakatos for explanations of the various forms of ad-hoc-ness.)

So let's understand one thing: God did not design the cockroach, though He may have had a hand in creating Eva Mendes. If Intelligent Design is the Conspiracy theory ("it's all God's doing"), then Evolution is the Cock-Up theory. Looked at as heuristics, Creation suggests we need to understand why purpose God put the hippopotamus on the planet, whereas Evolution suggests that we need to understand how a particular feature of the hippopotamus helps it flourish in its habitat, and how other hippo-like animals without that feature might have thereby been at a disadvantage. This is the "Africans have dark skin to protect them from the sun, while Swedes have white skin because they need what little sunlight they get to make Vitamin D really quickly" line of thinking. Darwin may or may not have been a gradualist: who believe the genome is subject to random variations which, if they give rise to advantageous features, will cause that version of the species to be preferred by females (or to be better at forcing itself on females, but Evolutionists tend to  be very PC, so they don't mention that bit) and so breed more than others.

That's the Vulgar view of Evolution. The obvious question is: who or what is doing the selecting? And how? What can't be happening is that species breed for fitness - otherwise no-one would marry anyone who didn't look (and behave) like Eva Mendes. People, let alone elephants, aren't smart enough selectively to breed their own species: and only a small number of humans have ever successfully bred other species. So what might be happening is not that this or that species thrives but that the others starve: evolution proceeds by elimination. This is the usual story about what happened to the dinosaurs: they couldn't take the global freezing after the meteor. On this account, evolution isn't about the most fit, but the least vulnerable, or most adaptable. That would explain cockroaches and Rupert Murdoch. But it's nowhere near as nice a story, not very flattering for alpha male academics and justifies the wrong sort of free-market capitalism. Not that any of that has to do with the attraction of a scientific theory to the layman.

Vulgar Evolution is what's not known in the trade (but should be) as a Monet theory: looks good at a distance, but a real mess close up. Ask it a sensible question, like why there are still so many ugly and dumb people in the world, if smarts and looks are advantageous, and they are likely to come back with an answer like "fitness is about reproducing, not being successful or cool, and smart cool people reproduce less because they have other things to do at night." Which suggests that evolutionary fit people can be unemployable nail-biters with bad skin, and only survive because the evolutionary less fit don't let them starve. In other words, smart people are dumb people's way of staying alive. The pop literature is full of stuff like this, and it's entertaining in the way that an episode of CSI Vegas is: but just as no-one confuses CSI Vegas with real forensic work, they aren't likely to confuse pop evolutionary theory with real science either. (Except a lot of people do, and that's a problem.)

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini choose to take the philosophical high-road. There's rather forbidding talk of "nomological laws", "natural kinds", agency, intentionality, counterfactuals and the distinction between generalisations and actual Laws of Nature. For one thing, they tell us, laws of Nature "support counterfactuals", but I had to guess what that means, because they didn't explain it. These ideas are very, very far from being "common ground" (another signature phrase) amongst philosophers, and to base a critique of a thriving Pop Science industry on them is, well, like saying Natalie Portman isn't a "real" ballerina because she didn't hold her arms as well as the girls in the corps. Who cares about details like that? She did a lot of her own moves, and besides, they needed a talented actress who could dance competently, not a talented dancer who could act competently. I'm not going to discuss the ideas of natural kinds and nomological laws because, well, I thought those ideas were extinct (so Carl G Hempel, so 1945).

As a good Lakatosian, I can ask: who cares if the detailed logical structure of Evolution is a little shaky? Does it have heuristic power? Have people working with it suggested and neatly solved a whole bunch of interesting problems? To which the answer is: Yes, and No. Has it solved at whole bunch of scientific problems? No. Of course not. The serious work in understanding why animals and plants are how they are comes from genetics - and here is something very important to understand: you can be a creationist and support genetic research. After all, if God created the universe, She created the genome as well. Understanding how the genome works, how it interacts with its environment, is part of the worthy task of understanding and celebrating the work of God. The study of DNA comes from the Mendelian programme, not from Darwin: DNA was the answer to "what's a gene?". Post-DNA evolutionary theories have had to bolt genetics on: it doesn't fit in naturally.

Has it solved a whole bunch of political and employment problems for intellectuals? By Darwin and Freud, yes. Writing an Evo pot-boiler is a terrific way for a cute-looking alpha academic male to make a quick buck: even writing a not-so-best-seller can get you into some hip soirees. While Evolution is not the "universal acid" for genuine theories, it is the litmus test for dangerous religious cranks: they can hide, but unfailingly they turn purple when you suggest that great-grand-daddy was an ape.

What's wrong with Evolution is not that it is, as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini point out, a species of history, and therefore a tale of One Damn Thing After Another. It is that Evolution makes no novel predictions and it does not generate technology (to repeat: all the technology comes from genetics, and genetics is not intrinsically evolutionary). What it does, and why it is so popular, is to provide an interpretation of the world. People love an interpretation: it tells a story, or it can be used to tell a story, about all sorts of human behaviour, no matter what that behaviour is. Why do girls sleep around? To get the best alpha sperm for their babies. Why do girls not sleep around? To keep the provider father faithful and happy. Why do men sleep around? To make sure their genes survive. Why are men faithful? To make sure that their babies grow up and survive. You can have it blue, black, any colour you want, and with raspberry stripes.

The technology of the human genome, heck, the technology of the fruit-fly genome, is probably going to turn out to be an even bigger mess than the codebase of Windows Vista. In the end we will need good, old-fashioned stories. The reason that there are a great many natural blondes in Newcastle has nothing to do with nightclubs and evolution. It has to do with genes and marauding Nordics back in the day. That's a story we can understand. Evolution will vanish like a puff of smoke the moment we have a decent understanding of the gene and the latest crop of alpha academics can popularise it (which will mean all those silly names for genes will have to go) with a few nifty diagrams.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini recognise the very different attitudes between the hard-core scientists working around genetics and inheritance, and the pop science authors of the potboilers. What they miss is a decent structure: starting the essay with a whole mass of sound bites from the Pop Guys to convince us that there really were people who think like that. Then they could have explained the difference between the Pop Guys and the Real Scientists, not least the fact that the two work in very different disciplines, only one of which requires lots of specialised knowledge, and run through the fascinating stuff that the real scientists have done. (You can make a fruit fly grow a stubby set of wings by exposing it to ether when young. Do this for a few generations and the stubby-wing gene stays put. Last time I learned genetics, the genotype had to be inviolable by the outside world, or you had Lamarkianism, which was like Gnosticism but more serious.) The reader will then be on board with the idea that genetic change is way more complicated than simple random variation. Instead of burdening us all with the idea of "intentional agency", they could have just pointed out but less flippantly, that if we are "selecting for fitness", we're doing it very badly, or "fitness" has nothing to do with what it takes to get ahead in any man-made environment. Explain that the real attraction of Evolution is that it is conventional history, and helps us make sense of a very diverse world in a way that we're used to. There will be very few left on the Pop Train by this point.

It hurts anyone's case to be rude about the opposition. At this point they need to explain what's good in the Pop books, and what is rhapsody. Merely to list the sales figures of the top Evo potboilers would make the point: everyone would instantly understand that it couldn't be real science, because that many people don't understand that much science. A brief tour round the sociology of the Evo community: the superstars, the sales, the institutions and their funding, the numbers of academics, and therefore wives and families, supported by the Pop stuff, and we're done. That gets them into trouble with their mates, sorry, peers, but the general reader knows it's all about the money, it's just that in academia, it's hard to see where the money is.

All that's lurking is the readers fear that if we abandon Evolution we will all have to go to Church on Sunday. Wearing black suits. In buggies. They could deal with that by pointing out that there is a perfectly acceptable non-Creationist alternative to Evolution, which is genetics + inheritance + falling in love and having babies. They will have laid the foundations for that in the earlier chapters. And they can point out, and rightly, that there is no need for a universal mechanism to explain species change, any more than there is a need for an universal mechanism to explain regime change throughout history.

Which then leaves the final chapter, which makes them hot sellers: that's the one called "Evo Porn". This is where they quote some juicy passages where Evo is used to "explain" human behaviour, and then have some fun explaining why this has nothing to do with Darwin, Dawkins or even Cronin. The general reader will be left both titillated and with the impression that the Pop writers are really a bit ridiculous.

And having thought it through like that, I can think of another sub-title: never send an epistemologist to do a methodologist's job.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Spinning With Clarissa

All of us have been on our bikes for at least five minutes, often ten. The bike needs setting-up: saddle and handlebar height, seat position and pedal straps. When you've done that, you put your towel over the handlebars and do something else until it's time for the class. Very few people turn up at the last minute: even the warm-up needs a warm-up.
Hello everybody,
Clarissa is almost invisible by the electronics as she calls us to attention.
light gear, fast pace....
The music gets turned up. Loud. The gym has its own DJ. Clarissa doesn't shout over the music, as most of the others do. She's found a way of mixing her voice in, so it sounds like she's part of the music.
Medium gear. On the top. (beat) Warming up. When Clarissa says "on the top" we all rise as one to pedal standing up. During the hour, we follow her body language almost more closely than her words.
Take a seat, light gear.
Resistance is changed with a knob on the frame just behind the handlebars. Our right hands swoop down from the handlebars, turn the knob, and grasp the handlebars again. There are four settings: light, medium, medium-to-heavy and heavy. Light means as little resistance as necessary to stop your legs rotating out of control; medium is enough to take your weight when your standing on the pedals; medium-to-heavy hurts your thighs when you sit down; heavy needs body-weight to move it when you're standing up.
Lots of leg rotation.
I look round and I'm surrounded by energiser bunnies. The women who do the class regularly pump their legs up and down fast. Maybe it's easier if your legs are half the size of mine. And you're half my age.
On the top, medium gear, warming up.
I haven't timed how long we warm up. Once the class starts, you can't look at the clock, or you may lose heart. Warming-up slides into the class proper.
Micro-turn to the right.
To the right is more resistance; to the left is less.
And a little more.
Building up for a climbing section: perhaps ten minutes of solid medium-to-heavy on the top.
A little faster...
Prepare for take off...
Doors to manual,
and cross-check.
Clarissa chuckles at her own improvisation. She even paces the phrases like the pilots do.
Faster than this.
She means: than she is pedalling. I watch and have no idea if I'm going slower or faster.
Your pace is so regular, it's sending me to sleep.
We've been "climbing": medium-to-heavy, on the top, for the last five minutes.
A little more gear for some of you.
Clarissa looks round the class with sharp eyes: who is going too slowly, who may have not turned up the gear. It's like a ticket inspector yelling "Hey": the guilty person turns round.
Rhythm in the ride.
Oh yes. Miss a beat, miss a downstroke, slow down, and you might be lost forever.
Let the music help you.
The DJ is on form tonight. I have no idea what genre this is: I'm guessing it's some kind of house, and it fills up my head and keeps me moving. If anyone had come back to the 1970's with this stuff, we would have wondered what the heck we were hearing. We had no idea music could sound like this. No-one did.
Take a seat. Don't touch the gear.
I don't like this bit. When the resistance is medium and above, it hurts more when I sit down because I have less body-weight to bring to moving the pedals.
If you don't turn it up, you will regret it tomorrow.
Yeah. Right. I laugh out loud and Clarissa gives us a mischievous smile.
No regrets. More gear. 
Three, two, on the top.
Light to medium. No more, no less.
Three, two, take a seat. Double!
No-one can double their rotation speed, but we speed up anyway.
Speed on demand.
Is that something competition cyclists need to be able to do? Suddenly speed up no matter if they are slogging up a hill or pushing along a level section?
Three, two, on the top. Triple!
No, I can't do three times the pace I was, and anyway, I know what's coming...
Now, as fast as you can!
There's a countdown, and since it's less than a minute and my feet are solidly in the pedals, I go all-out. I really am doing twice the rotations of the people around me. For thirty seconds, I know I can.
From start to finish... stay strong.