Shop window creatures

In the same shop that I found this bloke in a tiger jacket, I also encountered these smaller creatures:

I could go all ironic and have a big old sneer at these little trinkets, but the truth is I entirely get it. Cute animals are … cute. I don’t buy things like this, if only because I have nowhere I could put them, and because I hate dusting. But I love to photo such things.

I am also fond of saying, on account of it being true, that we hate architectural styles that we feel threatened by, but later often fall in love with those same styles once they are in retreat.

Something very similar applies to animals. For most of human history, animals have been threats as well as sources of food, if only because they demanded scarce time and effort to be caught or killed, and scarce resources for them to be looked after. You no more loved most animals than you loved mountains (mountains being a similar story). But now? Well, put it this way. At present animals are still hunted a bit, and still imprisoned and then eaten a lot, but it won’t be that long before a majority of the animals on earth are our pets.

What I now feel able to say about Prince Philip

Nothing at all remarkable, just so you now know. Don’t read this posting for dazzling insights. It’s just that the last couple of days and the next few days are an example of a common thing, which is that everyone who is in the habit of expressing public opinions about this or that public thing feels obliged to hold back his or her regular opinions and instead to express an appropriately gracious and portentous opinion about whatever just happened.

For instance, BBC Radio Three, the classical music radio channel I listen to quite a lot, especially on Saturdays, was going to spend this Saturday concentrating on the life and works of Igor Stravinsky, no doubt emphasising what a fine composer the BBC thinks he was. But they scrapped this plan, and instead today merely played a succession of suitably profound and solemn classical selections, and also, I believe, a church service with lots of profound and solemn singing.

“Inappropriate” is typically now just a way of saying “wicked” without sounding like your great grandmother. But for once, this word is now, well, appropriate. Communicators suddenly fear saying anything “inappropriate”. Given that Prince Philip just died, will it make sense for us to be banging on about Stravinsky, or whatever it was were thinking of banging on about? Typically, it does not feel … appropriate.

Sporting events continue, because nothing can be allowed to interrupt that. But black armbands are liable to be worn and long silences endured by all present, during which all rebellious thoughts along the lines of “So bloody what?” are kept under heavy wraps of silence.

Above all, anyone who thinks that Prince Philip was, I don’t know, a horrid old racist, tends to keep quiet about that, for the duration of this strange public moment, or at least to be careful about who they say such things to. Or they do if they are wise, and if they do not want a storm of critical attention on social media, as some presumably do. We must not “speak ill of the dead”. Instead we say things like: “My thoughts are with his family”.

Which some of our thoughts probably are. I can’t be the only one now thinking that maybe the Queen will soon give up the ghost, having lost a husband she has been sharing her life with for so long, and by most public accounts very happily.

As it happens, the opinion I now find I want to express about Prince Philip, in carefully selected company, is a complaint although not that severe a complaint. I don’t think he was a racist; more like an equal opportunities tease, if only to get people to relax in his company and to stop trying to be so damn appropriate. But I definitely have one very particular and personal objection to this man, and by extension to his entire family. (It’s not a big enough objection for me to want them all denationalised, so to speak. As to that argument, I go along with the title of this posting at Quotulatiousness. If they got dumped, the likely alternative would be someone like John Berkow.)

But for now, in the event that you care what I think about Prince Philip and want to learn the particular way in which I objected to him, you will just have to wait.

For me to tell you today would be inappropriate.

Funerial thoughts

Strange day. I spent a lot of it planning my own funeral, which will, as is traditional, be an event at which I will be present but not paying any attention, if you get my meaning.

The thing is, it’s no good saying: Look, I don’t care, do whatever you like. If you say that, you are liable to cause endless arguments and at the very least uncertainties among your loved ones about “What he would have wanted”. So, you have to say what you want, even if you aren’t actually that bothered.

Plus, although I say I’m not bothered, I can imagine plenty of scenarios which even the thought of would bother me, so a period of introspection was called for. Just saying “Do whatever you want” would be very selfish, in a bad way. Saying exactly what I want is selfish in a good way.

Apparently David Bowie (the old blog seems to be back working again without any
Screen of the Red Death
) had a very private cremation, followed by a more public ceremony at which celebs took it in turns saying how great he was. But not being that great myself, I figure the people present at my funeral ceremony would appreciate knowing that this is the actual funeral. If they suspect that the real funeral, the one I was actually burnt at, was earlier, they might not want to be at the later pretend funeral. So, just the one event for me, and everyone will see me being fed into the incinerator room. It’s what I would have wanted.

And now, my Designated Best Friend is in my front room, chucking superfluous paper into supermarket bags:

Since that photo was photoed, three SIX more entire bags of totally obsolete bumph have accumulated.

In other funerial news, earlier today GodDaughter2, the one who has just finished learning how to sing, accepted the job of being in charge of my pathologically huge classical CD collection, when I am dead and burnt. So, if you love classical CDs, and even if you hardly now know me, leave a comment that this is a list you’d like to be on. Don’t wait for me to die before expressing such interest. Think of my beloved CDs not as inanimate objects but as a colossal pack of puppies each of which I am seeking a good home for. If I can die knowing that my CDs will be well cared for and listened to, rather than just thrown into about three skips, well, … that’s what I would have wanted and meanwhile do now want. GD2 herself leads too mobile a life just now to be wanting such responsibilities, and in any case CDs are, for her, absurdly twentieth century and completely superfluous to requirements. But if you, like me, feel differently, then like I say, get in touch, now.

A good day. Good not merely because it was pleasurable, but because I got some difficult and important things decided and done. And because other such things were done for me, by various loved ones. The least these people should be getting from me is a description of what I would have wanted, even if it is a bit of an effort to work out what that might be.

On how the English revolutionary ideology of improvement took its time

During a recent conversation that Patrick Crozier and I recorded (although as always Patrick did all the button-pushing and editing), about how the Industrial Revolution came about, Patrick asked a question that I didn’t answer at the time but which I think I can now answer, at least in broad brush strokes.

My thesis was and is that the Industrial Revolution was and is the English Revolution. It was an ideological event, sparked by mass literacy, just as the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions were. (See all my Emmanuel Todd postings.) Patrick pointed out that, unlike those three very political revolutions, the English Revolution, if that’s what it was, sure took its time to mutate into the Industrial Revolution. The political bit of the English Revolution happened in the seventeenth century, but the big impact of the industrial bit of the English Revolution didn’t achieve lift-off until late in the eighteenth century.

At the time, I just said yes, hm, I’ll have to think about that. But now I have, and I think the answer is not that difficult to supply.

The three very political revolutions were successful, not in the sense they accomplished much that was good, but in the lesser sense that they did at least achieve political dominance, after which they did their best to improve things but ended up doing mostly their worst. They were all very destructive in their impact. And this all happened very quickly. Destruction and catastrophe doesn’t take very long to happen.

But the English Revolution stalled politically. The political bit of it ended in a draw, with the old monarchical and aristocratic institutions changing quite radically, but not being destroyed. And so, having failed to make the big breakthrough in the manner of the French, Russian and Chinese ideological breakthroughs, the English Revolution turned its attention to peaceful progress. To “improvement”, to use the word the English ideologists themselves used.

And, improvement takes time. As the English eighteenth century unfolded, presided over by a rather contentious and corrupt mixture of aristocrats and well-connected capitalists, the ideologists of improvement started to achieve actual improvements, step by inventive step. They were creative rather than destructive, and creativity takes time. I say “started”, but in truth they merely somewhat accelerated a process of step-by-step invention and innovation that had already got under way.

And that’s my answer, for the time being. Destruction happens quickly, and the quicker it happens the more it “succeeds”. Creativity, aka actual improvement, takes far longer.

This ideology of improvement spread, way beyond England, first to America, and subsequently to the whole then Germany, and now everyone. And the world outside Britain and America realised they couldn’t beat the damn Anglos with only their own atavistic and destructive methods, adorned by mere political rhetoric. To hold their own against the Anglosphere, they realised that they would have to copy it. So, they did. And the English ideology of constant improvement now rules the world. We now all live, with ever greater ease and comfort and contentment, in that world.

The English Revolution is, on the whole, not understood by modern educated people. Insofar as the typical Educated Modern has a theory of how all this happened, it is that the English achieved their industrial revolution pretty much by accident. In other words it wasn’t a “revolution” at all, because there were no revolutionaries in the usual sense. Selfish go-getters achieved a mass economic breakthrough that was neither anticipated nor even wanted in each of their individual, selfish little plans. Adam Smith, basically. But the English Revolution, which was and is the global industrial revolution, was an ideological event as well as a merely economic event. Modern educated people cannot see this, because that would involve realising that here was a gang of starry-eyed ideologists and idealists and altruists, with a radical and ludicrously optimistic plan for transforming the lives of all humans everywhere for the better, making omelettes and breaking eggs with relentless single-mindedness. And their plan ended up being triumphantly, fabulously, world transformingly successful. Educated Moderns just don’t have a mental box in which to place events like this. Ideologists always fail, always cause havoc. Even most ideologists nowadays proclaim that their alleged creative miracles, in the radiant future that they proclaim, must be preceded by a phase of destructiveness, during which they destroy all the human barriers to their vision, and of course the rest of us assume that this is all that they will ever accomplish.

But the English Revolution was not like that. It was a Revolution, but a Revolution which only began by being destructive. That part of it failed, in that the political regime that it tried to overthrow was merely modified somewhat. So instead, the English Revolution turned its collective mind towards creativity, and in that it succeeded, beyond its wildest dreams.

To any commenters who want to say it, let me say it first. I know that I haven’t proved, or even really argued, the above proclamation. I have simply proclaimed it. But although I haven’t proved it, I am nevertheless right about all this.

BMNB QotD: On the sunk cost fallacy

Ryan North:

I’ve learned far too much about the sunk cost fallacy to stop now.

And I might as well carry on blogging, given how long I’ve been at it.

I spent today postponing but mostly organising my death

I have spent my day doing two important things.

First, and this only took a moment, I swallowed an Osimertinib pill. I take one of these pills every day. How hard is that? Harder than you might suppose, at my advanced age with its accompanying loss of short term memory. Several times during the last month or two, I have taken one of these pills, or not, and then moments later not known whether I had taken it, or not.

Hence this contraption, which my Senior Designated Friend gave me quite a while ago. This was when the pill problem was that there were lots of them, but none of them were that important:

I don’t need that, I said. Turns out I do. Now that the problem is just the one pill, but a vitally important one upon which my continuing ability to function now seems entirely to depend, I need to be sure that I have taken one, and only one, of these miraculous little things.

And the other thing I did today, which took pretty much the whole day and which also consumed most of yesterday, was to do that other thing that people who have received a death sentence from the medical profession do, besides take pills. I refer to the process known as “putting my affairs in order”.

The most impressive result of this process so far has been a load of rubbish:

I have been trying to sort my many accumulated bits of paper into more logical piles than they had been arranged in. Happily, the biggest such pile is that one in the above photo, which is the one I’ll be chucking into the recycling bins out in front of my front door, tomorrow.

So, a day spent (1) postponing my death, and (2) trying to make my death more organised.

By the way, I do recommend following the Osimertinib link above, and then feasting your eyes on the list of “Other drugs in the class protein kinase inhibitors”, on the right. It is quite a list, I think you will agree. If any of these are anywhere near as clever as the Osimertinib that I’m taking, then it’s an even more impressive list than it looks.

Predator or prey – look at the eyes

I found this here:

Which I guess makes us humans predators. Makes sense. Many surely knew this and predator eyes and prey eyes, but I did not know this.

I further guess that fish are accordingly the ultimate prey.

Otters in Singapore City

The whole world is becoming a giant zoo, curated by humans. Now, for instance, there are otters living in Singapore City:

Singapore’s otter families all have names. Here, the Bishan family crosses a street in the city center.

Start reading this National Geographic article, and you soon encounter a link to another NG piece about how Hundreds of wild parrots are thriving in this Brazilian city.

But back to those otters. As Singaporeans become more affluent and more inclined to welcome the otters into their midst, and less inclined to do things like kill them and eat them, instead treating them as sort of mobile urban sculptures, …:

In 2016, an otter family suddenly ran across the Singapore Marathon route, and Otter Working Group volunteers rushed to warn the runners of the otters’ presence, as well as also position themselves along the route to prevent the animals and runners from colliding.

… the otters themselves are, understandably, becoming less frightened of humans than they used to be. Evolution in action. The adventurous otter families, willing to explore human cities in search of new ecological niches, get selected for, and the more timid ones have a harder time of it.

LATER: It’s happening here also. Otters are making themselves at home in UK cities.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the Breton fishing boat

I finished reading The Ape That Understood The Universe about a week ago now, but there is one further bit from this book that I want to scan into this blog, because I think it is my absolute favourite.

At the beginning of the second half of the book devoted to Man, “The Cutural Animal”, SS-W offers six examples of cultural evolution in action. These are: Breton Boats, Conditioned Behavior, Language, Teddy Bears, Businesses, and Science. I have already copied the bits on Teddy Bears, and on Language. Here is the bit about Breton Boats (p. 224):

The first example concerns the fishing boats used by Breton fisherman in the Île de Groix. Where did these boats come from? At first glance, it looks like a no-brainer: If anything’s a product of intelligent design, it’s a boat. On closer inspection, though, it turns out it really is a no-brainer … or at least a partial-brainer, in the sense that human brains played a more modest role in crafting the boats than we normally assume. This possibility was first mooted by the French philosopher Emile-Auguste Chartier (aka Alain), who in 1908, took a Darwinian hatchet to the common sense view. “Every boat,” he observed,

is copied from another boat … Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied … One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If a boat returns, the boat makers may copy it. If it doesn’t, they definitely won’t. The boats that are most likely to be copied are therefore those that survive the longest. As Daniel Dennett points out, no one needs to know why these particular boats survive. To make a good boat, you don’t need to understand what makes a boat good; you only need to be able to copy another boat. How do you know you ‘re copying a good boat? Well, you don’t need to know, because the sea automatically culls the not-good ones from the boat population. Meanwhile, any especially good boats get copied at a faster rate. Over time, this process of culling and copying fashions more and more seaworthy boats.

Now maybe each and every step in the gradual evolution of the boat was a product of intelligent design: of a thousand forgotten boat makers figuring out a thousand different ways to make their boats more sea-worthy. But maybe not. Maybe many steps along the path were simply fortuitous accidents, which were automatically preserved and propagated. To the extent that this is so, the design evident in Breton boats comes from blind, mindless selection, rather than the machinations of intelligent minds.

Language and Teddy Bears are a bit off the beaten tracks I like to beat. But with this discussion of the design of a quite big physical object, in this case a boat, SS-W’s core agenda, and one of my obsessions over the years and decades ever since I was a failed architecture student, overlap in a very big way. As I said at the end of the language posting linked to above, I have long been thinking along the same lines as SS-W, about “mindless” design. And as I said at the end of another recent posting here, about Facadism, Keeping Up Appearances and so on, it is my earnest hope that I will, by and by, be able to pull such thoughts together in a bigger piece for Samizdata.

The Modern Movement in Architecture was, when it started out, shot through with the idea that you should not “mindlessly” copy an established design, even if it worked well, unless you knew why it worked well. Wrong.

Equally and oppositely, the first lot of Architectural Modernists said that you should turn your back on “mindless tradition” and design anew, from “first principles”. Very dangerous, as a design technique. Sometimes necessary, provided you choose good “first principles”, but never without extreme hazard. Architectural Modernism only worked well, and in a country like Britain has only started to work well, when Modernism itself became a tradition, embodying the experience of what worked and what works, and what did not work and what does not work.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the teddy bear

I am now nearing the end of The Ape That Understood The Universe. Steve Stewart-Williams has said what he has to say about the survival of the fittest genes, and is now talking about the survival of the fittest memes. The evolution of culture, in other words.

Here (pp. 227-228) is what SS-W says about the evolution of one bit of our culture, the teddy bear:

Language evolution is at least as old as we are, but other arenas for cultural evolution have a much more recent pedigree. One of the most important is the capitalist marketplace. Just as species compete for limited space in the local environment, so too products – from books to fizzy drinks to exercise equipment – “compete” for limited space on supermarket shelves and bestseller lists. This competition may foster the evolution of products exquisitely designed to suck money out of people’s pockets and bank accounts – designed, in other words, to sell. Importantly, business people don’t necessarily need to know why some products sell better than others. They only need to copy the ones that do. To the extent that that’s what happens, the design we find in our products comes from blind selection rather than intelligent design.

An example concerns the cultural evolution of the teddy bear. The first teddy bears went on sale in the early twentieth century. In those days, they had long snouts and long, thin limbs. They were pretty ugly. As the century wore on, however, teddy bears became progressively cuter. Their snouts receded, leaving them with cute flat faces. Their foreheads grew larger. Their limbs grew shorter and chubbier. In a word, they became more neotenous or baby-like. More and more they came to resemble the innate Kindchenschema we discussed in Chapter 4. Today’s teddy bears are, in effect, the answer to the question: What do you get when you cross a human baby with a bear? And they raise a new question of their own: How do we explain the evolutionary trajectory of this enduringly popular children’s toy?

Here’s one possibility. Successful teddy bear makers were sensitive to market trends, and generally copied the designs that sold best last season. But they didn’t copy them exactly. Some happened to push their designs a little further toward our evolved standards of cuteness; some happened to push them a little further away. The former sold better, and the better-selling bears became the baseline for the next season. Little by little, teddy bears drifted toward neoteny. Did successful bear makers know that increasing neoteny was the secret of their success? I doubt it. After all, if they did know, they could have just jumped straight to the most neotenous models. The trend toward neoteny is something that people only noticed after the fact. While it was happening, bear makers simply made more of whatever sold. In a sense, consumers redesigned the teddy bear with their aggregate preferences and purchasing decisions. If your parents bought you a teddy bear, they were contributing to the evolution of this beloved children’s toy. Generalizing the point, any time you or anyone else buys anything, you’re helping to guide the evolution of culture.

For me, the killer line here – the killer meme, you might say – is the bit about how all that is necessary is to copy. You don’t have to know why your product does the job and will consequently be popular, you merely have to know that it does the job and will be popular.

“Mindless” copying is a much under-rated design method.

I was ruminating upon ideas of this sort back in 1988.