The Certainty of Chance

As I was fuming my way along yet another terrible M25 experience this morning, it occurred to me that I would have taken it a lot better had I not had expectations that, since it was half term holidays, the journey would in fact be shorter, not twice as long as normal. If you know that it is going to be bad, you can prepare yourself better. A nice cup of in car coffee, maybe, although the wisdom of that when you are going to be stuck in heavy traffic some time is questionable. Maybe it could affect the choice of CD or playlist for something a little more cheerful, or contemplative.

Either way, today I was not well prepared and so was an irritated bunny by the time I made it into the office. But I am still not sure about whether it was actually being nastily surprised that was the main cause of that irritation rather than the ordeal itself.

The Lovely Wife will tell you that I do not take changes of plan with a lot of grace. Although I feel life is chaotic in a lot of ways I like to know what is going on at any point and, if possible, be prepared for it. Going to a new place involves research up front including printing out maps and knowing my train times; although to be fair the increasing quality of phone applications is starting to reduce (rightfully so) my demands on the planet regarding paper (although I have still not quite gotten used to getting away from a nice sturdy paper ticket when travelling on the Eurostar).

But I like certainty, in the same way I like a nice warm duvet on a cold day. And in the same sense, when I am forced out of the duvet by the need to get on with my life, it can sometimes be unpleasant.

I think, generally, that most of us do, at least for some parts of our lives. But it is not like that. Views on the metaphysical aside, practically very little is certain and I wonder how much of that leads to entirely avoidable dissatisfaction.

Recently I had a good discussion over coffee over climate change. In particular I was being asked if I thought that scientists had actually shown it was happening or not. Now I do not want to warble on about the particular subject, and it could have been any number of other topics from evolution to medical research, because actually I am not so much interested in the subject as much as how we seem to approach it. The question could be pitched several ways. Is it ‘proven’ being probably the simplest and probably least helpful.

I sometimes wonder, you see, if we are too keen on answers and do not spend enough time on the question or why we feel we need certainty in the first place.

A cursory glance at the newspaper will usually be rewarded with some ‘Scientists say…’ story (especially on Thursdays – publication day for New Scientist, the mainstay for lazy mainstream journalism looking for science stories). My heart sinks when I read that.

Which scientists? Has anyone reproduced the results (probably not, at least not yet, time pressure to publish is too short these days)? Are they quoting a peer reviewed paper in a reputable journal (itself not a guarantee of quality in recent years, but better than nothing)? Often not…

Now, I do not think it makes it wrong, either the going public or the reporting (I know that others will disagree on a point of principle and ethics, but ethics is a personal matter. Something for another day, but I digress – again). But it does worry me how we then seize on what may be very early research and instead of being excited about how that should be further investigated we seem to want to go to the end point straight away; which is usually inaccessible anyway. I tend to flinch when someone asks me to prove something outside of the formal use of the term in mathematics. It’s usually not that simple and I usually end up waffling about the ‘weight of evidence at the moment suggests…’

But a lot of the time we want it be simple and clear cut. I think we think it would make our lives easier, but I personally think – like my maps and forward planning – it is child being comforted with a favourite Teddy bear.

Is it safe? Will this work? Are the kind of questions we ask, and we want black and white answers. But people cannot and should not pretend it can give black and white answers (although they frequently do). We can and must advance our knowledge and we have to make the best decisions we can on the evidence available to us at this point but our expectations should be tempered by the experience of history, which is littered with people who at the time thought they were right and were quite clearly wrong. Whether that was because they did not have access to other data or ways of thinking or chose to ignore it I am not sure matters. My point is the tremendous trap of hubris we can all fall into of ‘I’m right.’

I am trying to be happy with uncertainty; it’s not an easy struggle.

I am however reassured by something I read recently (in a peer reviewed journal) that, when talking about the field of philosophy at least, that in 2600 years how few of the big questions in life have come to any kind of consensus1. Personally, providing the debate avoids actual conflict, I would rather have that situation then a world when there is nothing left to talk about.

1Christensen, David (2009) ‘Disagreement as Evidence: The Epistemology of Controversy.’ Philosophy Compass 4/5 pp.756-767


Stuff and Nonsense

Why do we sometimes just want something when we know we don’t really need it? Or is it just me?

Case in point is the sad case of the muffin warmer.

No I’m not trading euphemisms (although I could, the very odd coverage today of what some are claiming is the first example of sexual intercourse between prehistoric fish in a lake in Scotland is hysterically funny). I actually mean a dish to keep English muffins (just differentiating there from the fluffy coffee shop calorie explosion variety) snug and warm for the journey between the grill and the butter and assorted other delights that might be waiting in our Sunday morning ritual breakfast. A few weeks ago we were at a National Trust property where in the dining room my eye was taken by a silver domed vessel sitting on a patterned silver base. The information to hand indicated that this was in fact, a muffin warming dish. The base concealed a separate chamber into which boiling water could be poured, with a liner placed on top, and then the freshly toasted muffins. Finally, the ornamental dome would hide the muffins from the eyes until Sir and Madam were ready to eat their still warm bread related delights.

I suddenly thought,’ I want one of those. It would be so useful, for our Sunday morning muffin festival that forms breakfast for me and the Lovely Wife. Even the last one will still be gently warm, ‘and immediately I began to taste said warm muffin, with hot melted butter and maybe just a dash of Gentleman’s Relish.

I think the room guide was becoming a little nervous as I stood there looking intensely at a piece of 1920s silverware with a look that probably genuinely be described to have contained an element of ‘hunger’.
‘It’s a muffin dish,’ she said, cautiously.

The reality that I might be tackled by an over protective room guide (and probably as a result lose my Life Membership) shocked me back into reality and we moved onto the next room.

But the muffin dish had wormed its way into the back of my brain. I had never heard of a muffin dish. Now that I knew such things existed I knew it would not let me go until I at least looked into acquiring one of my very own.

I know. I do not need a muffin dish. I do not live in a huge country house where my time down to breakfast is uncertain (as I make breakfast) or there are miles between the kitchen and the breakfast room (they are next to each other). I do not need a muffin dish any more that the Lovely Wife thinks we need a Maid (she does not agree with Mr Sondheim on this point, cannot think why).

But I still looked it up on eBay.

Yes, there they were. A previously unknown race of 1920/30s silverware (mostly silver plate) designed primarily for the keeping warm of muffins and now being sold in various states of disrepair, some of the sellers desperate to convince any potential buyer that, actually, they could be used to keep other things warm, such as vegetables. As if. Muffins or vegetables… Not the hardest choice to go with. And not particularly expensive for a piece of historic tableware, my evil Shopping Pixie kept saying in my ear. ‘Look,’ it squeaked on,’ look, there’s one with that ‘buy it now’ option! You don’t have to do that annoying auction thing that means only the last few seconds of the auction actually matter and inevitably you’ll lose out anyway to someone much more practised that you are for anything that is actually desirable.’

But I resisted. The good Reality Pixie pointed out how much stuff we have and the complete waste of money this would be, and that the reason it was cheap was because it was a piece of junk best consigned to history.

But I bought it anyway. Bad Pixie sniggers, good Pixie sighs.

I regretted it, of course. Especially since then everything I have heard or read has gone on about people being tied to their stuff and how we should live more simply.

Still, I’ll have the warmest muffins in the street next Sunday. That’s something I suppose.

Be nice to each other (starting with yourself)

They were playing ‘I’m still standing’ by Elton John this morning on the radio, and I was reminded that for an old friend of mine (OK, kind of ex-girlfriend) this was one of anthems, one of the songs that made her feel better when not everything is going right. I think most people who are interested in listening to music have their smile inducing tracks, just as you if I am ever feeling down a good dose of The Princess Bride will inevitably perk me up. Quite often the Lovely Wife and I talk about Beachy Head songs at the other end of the spectrum, of which there are the tonally obvious (Sinead O’Connor warbling Nothing Compares 2U for example) to the annoyingly cheerful sounding tracks that are, on reflection, incredibly depressing (personal favourite – ‘Hello, this is Joannie’ by Paul Evans, where *Spoiler alert* the protagonist is left pathetically listening to his dead girlfriend’s answering machine message in a fit of guilt).

I was wondering about what lies for me at the positive end of the spectrum for me and immediately came up with ‘Thinking of You’ by the Colourfield and ‘Bluetonic’ by the Bluetones (love the cheeky second verse). But I am sure I can come up with others.

I think it is important we have things that can pick us up when we are down as being happy in the head is a something that we need to hold onto. When we cannot be cheerful about something then I think that we are in a slippery slope.

This musing all stemmed really from spending last week near Ashdown Forest and East Grinstead. I knew nothing about East Grinstead before booking a cottage nearby, but it is an odd little place, not spectacular in any way but interesting for me in two ways. Least interestingly is that having spent a number of visits to the Cincinnati in the US, which kind of sits at the border of three US States I think I have now found the English equivalent, as East Grinstead is at the border of four counties. More importantly, it has self-styled itself rather proudly as the ‘town that didn’t stare’.

During the Second World War the Queen Victoria hospital in East Grinstead was one of the places that a lot of injured servicemen were treated that had suffered burns or other disfiguring damage. The surgeon there, Archibald McIndoe, was one of the first to realise that skin grafts worked better if the skin still had connections to blood vessels etc. so managed a much greater success rate in treating such injuries. But it was not that which made things special here. They also realised that, in the end,’ not matter how successful the surgery there would still be extensive disfigurement, and the crucial insight was that the mental impact of this could be just as important on the patients as the clinical outcome. So he encouraged his staff to socialise with the patients in the town, to show openly that while people might look a bit odd, that they were perfectly normal people that should be treated normally with acceptance and warmth. The patients met at the self-styled ‘Guinea Pig Club’ in town, in a classic bit of British depreciation and by all accounts it was a huge success. The town not only accepted their guests but positively became proud to have them. And the condition of the patients improved as a result. For some more colour see,,1945108,00.html or

The hospital there still specialises in this kind of treatment, and although The Guinea Pig Club has gone in its physical form it continues to provide support. But it just brought home to me again just how sometimes someone thinking a little differently – and with a hefty dose of compassion to balance the technical skill, something scientists of all types should keep in mind – can make such a difference. More generally, we have a responsibility to be good to each other – and ourselves – because with a relatively low effort we can all have an important positive impact on our neighbours. And looking at the news every day we need that so much.

An Unhealthy Addiction?

I worry myself sometimes that I am becoming dependant on being connected. I’m writing this in a converted water tower on a farm in West Sussex with a manége on one side (as opposed to a ménage – à trois or otherwise – which is something entirely different and an unfortunate misunderstanding of some, going along with saying ‘J’ai plein’ when you really want to say that your host’s meal was particularly delicious and filling and not that you have some news your parents are probably not expecting – especially if you are a boy) and on the other side a field with three large goats that the Lovely wife and I have decided to refer to as the Marx brothers (OK, get over the fact they are obviously female, it’s a joke). We decided that calling them after Donald’s nephews was less appropriate giving the looks they gave us this morning when we did not have any food for them.

What is the point of the ramble? Well, we are out in the country and watching a day of unexpected October sun go down quite beautifully, and all I can be grumpy about is that the cottage has no wifi. I mean, really, do I need to be that connected? I have a phone signal after all (which is the only way this is going to be posted before Friday) and I’m hardly cut off. But no, I want full on, browse worthy internet.

When did that happen? I’m guessing this is a bit like a dive into alcoholism but with less damage to the liver, an insidious creeping of dependency that thinks that looking at Facebook on the generic phone device is not enough; you need it widescreen and faster. Full access all areas to those websites needed. Now, quicker and all the time, or I am just not satisfied.

I hang my head in shame and as with the alcohol promise to give it up for a while for the good of my (in this case mental) health. But will I follow through on the promise? Well, maybe. And a nice place in the country is by far the best place to do it, as the British countryside is one of the best places to cleanse myself from the stress my South East England busyness inevitable exerts on me. One of the reasons I love staying in Landmark Trust properties, for example, which include bits of castles, follies and generally unloved but quite wonderful historic and quirky buildings is that they do not have radios, TVs or DVD players, let alone an internet connection. They are places to go and rest, relax, go for walks and come back and cook some honest local produce. I have yet to stay in one and not find it a memorable (and from a writing point of view) inspiring experience.

The place I am writing this in is not a Landmark trust property, but is close. I need to relax and enjoy it for what it is and realise the one of the biggest pluses is that it does not have on tap internet, as rather than tapping this out and then trying to get it uploaded via a dial up connection (!) I would probably be doing work email, and trying to hide it from the Lovely Wife (work porn?).

Lucky escape, eh?