13 March 2021

Following the science

Aged eleven, in the first physics lesson at our grammar school, we were given an introduction to the scientific method. There were about thirty of us in the form, and we were each issued with a yardstick. At one side of the room lay a heap of cardboard boxes of many different sizes; we were told to calculate the volume of each and draw a histogram to show the distribution of volumes so calculated.

It was a fairly normal distribution as I recall, pretty well bell-shaped. Some of the boys went to immense pains to make their histograms look nice. One of them was singled out by the master and his graph held up for us all to admire.

Then, with due theatricality, the master slowly tore the paper in two, and then into four, before crumpling it and throwing it over his shoulder.

To his shocked pupils he said, ‘However pretty your results might be, they are intrinsically worthless because you assumed that the yardsticks I gave out are accurate. Before undertaking any scientific inquiry whatsoever, you must, above all, question everything about what you are proposing to do. You must eliminate personal bias, as far as you can; you must be sceptical; and you must be prepared to discard your results if you realise later that you have made an unwarranted assumption.’

Nine years later, as part of my undergraduate studies, I was enrolled in a course called The Philosophy of Science. Here we studied the work of such men as Nagel and Kuhn and learned of the gradual evolution of scientific inquiry from ancient to modern times. We learned that science is not a fixed body of knowledge but a process consisting, today, of assertions backed by experimentation and a constant attack on those assertions until a ‘fact’ emerges, which fact can and should yet be questioned if further experimentation casts doubt on its validity.

To give a very simple example: I hypothesise that if I drop a stone from my hand it will always fall to the ground. To test this, I drop 100 stones and each of them behaves as expected. I publish the results of my experiment and assert, as a fact, that if you drop a stone it will always fall to the ground.

Other scientists will then repeat the experiment; but if even one of the stones so dropped does something other than fall to the ground, my ‘fact’ will be questioned. 

Thus anyone who uses the phrase ‘the science’, as in ‘we are following the science’, is either ignorant or deliberately trying to mislead. And anyone who attempts to censor a scientist who questions the prevailing orthodoxy cannot be a scientist himself and is moreover, when the science involved concerns medicine, a menace to humanity.

6 March 2021

Public virtue

 

On YouTube there is an American man, ‘post 10’, who makes videos of himself voluntarily clearing drains and culverts and allowing floodwater to subside. His videos are curiously fascinating and, judging from the number of views they rack up, very popular. He provides a running commentary, occasionally emitting mild animadversions – for example, against litter louts or the incompetence of local authorities in the matter of street-drainage. However, he is on friendly terms with the police, who sometimes wave to him as they pass by in their patrol cars: they recognise that he is doing, unpaid, a public service and no doubt wish there were more citizens like him.

He goes prepared, with a long-handled rake, wellington boots and, in colder weather, a fluorescent yellow jacket, and seeks out floods that need his attention. Great indeed is his satisfaction when he unclogs a drain and the polluted water begins, with sucking noises, to form a powerful vortex. Our satisfaction cannot match his, because we are not there, but it is of the same sort: a small victory against entropy, disorder, neglect, the forces that drag us down and in the end, alas, always prevail, whether in the form of putrefaction or the smoke from a crematorium chimney.

I cannot imagine a woman making such videos, and I suspect that most of his viewers are masculine. He is playing with water, something I remember doing myself as a small boy – and even now, after a rainstorm, I like using a booted foot to ease earth or wet leaves aside to let a big puddle drain or to divert the course of a streamlet flowing down one side of a lane.

Our man is warmly praised in the comments for his public spiritedness. Rightly so, but of course virtue is its own reward, and besides, he so obviously enjoys what he does that he surely wouldn’t do it otherwise. In a way, he exemplifies what should be the ideal society, without money, in which everyone conscientiously does that which he enjoys.

The fact that ‘post 10’ makes his activities public and presumably makes money thereby does rather compromise the purity of his virtue: but then that is counterbalanced by his encouragement of others to think about their own public spiritedness – or lack of it.

28 March 2020

Serendipitous


Recently I started using an Alphasmart Neo. Today I wondered if the rechargeable battery-packs are still available; my search brought me to Reddit and then this page.

The Neo is obsolete but still has plenty of fans (like me). It automatically saves every keystroke to non-volatile memory. Reddit user 'ZuffsStuff' says: 'I got a Neo2 last week and just got the USB cable today. The first four files are leftover from previous owners (who knows who wrote them?). I thought it would be a shame to delete them forever, mundane as some of their contents are. So here they are.'

The text he/she found in File 2 runs as follows:
Left wings and right wings still belong to the same beast. That two headed bird. You've seen it before, so many times. Just look around and notice the duality. Never plurality. Always one side against the other. Heroes and enemies. Profit and power through eternal chaos. Those who know stay tucked safely and securely in the center of the mess. Those who don't know pick a side and throw their life force away, fighting for ideals and opinions that are never one-sided. Short-sighted are those fools. And the rulers always stay one step ahead by concocting new things for the peons to fight over. What's your favorite sports team? Are you a democrat or republican? Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Who the hell cares... We lose sight of what really matters when we fight over inconsequential labels and alliances. What about focusing on health, happiness and prosperity by sharing and caring for all. What about an ethos of "do no harm" and everything else is fine and dandy. What about stopping the fighting? What about bringing down the duality and replacing it with broad-minded plurality? Treating all peoples and ideals as equal. We must learn to swallow tradition and swallow our pride. Look how our forefathers plot in secret from beyond the grave, concocting their elaborate schemes of nothingness from their stone fortresses of cowardice and nepotism. We must move forward and not dwell on the way things have been. For we are still living in an era of kings and slaves. Only the kings conspire in secret, while the slaves fight publicly. Until the slaves see the maze laid by the secret kings, the never-ending battles of duality, they shall remain slaves. And the bird will flap its wings faster and faster. The left wing then the right wing. The two heads forever snapping at one another while the world weeps.
I thinks this bears repeating, especially now.

7 August 2019

How to scan documents with an iPad


It is not immediately obvious that you can scan documents with Notes (one of the apps that comes with the iPad), but, once learned, the process is both quick and easy. The scans can be uploaded to your iCloud drive, then downloaded to your Mac or PC.

(My iPad is running iOS 12.3.1.)

1. Open the Notes app.

2. Tap the ‘pen on paper’ icon at the top right. This will open a new note and the keyboard appears.

3. Dismiss the keyboard.

4. Tap the plus sign at bottom right.

5. A dialog appears. Tap ‘Scan Documents’.

6. The rear camera is activated. Position your document so that it fills as much of the screen as possible, whether in portrait or landscape view.

7. Four icons are visible on the right of the screen. (Notice that they switch position if you change from portrait to landscape view and vice versa. If you are using landscape view, position the iPad with the home button on the right so that the camera lens is not obstructed by your hand.) The large, white circle is the ‘shutter release’; the smaller icon above it (three overlapping circles) lets you choose whether to optimise for colour printing, greyscale, monochrome, or a photograph. Optimisation of a scan can also be done later (see Step 12). ‘Auto’ allows the shutter to operate by itself when it thinks it’s got the edges right. The iPad will try to determine the edges of the document for you; this can be assisted if your document is placed on a black, or at least a strongly contrasting, background.

8. A yellow rectangle indicates the area the iPad thinks you want to scan. Even if it is mistaken, press the shutter release icon. A pale rectangle now appears with a small circle at each corner. If necessary, drag these circles to the corners of your scan.

9. If you’re not happy with the result, tap ‘Retake’ at the bottom left; or ‘Keep Scan’ at the bottom right.

10. Now you can scan another document, up to a total of about 15 if you wish to create a single PDF (e.g. a year’s bank statements). Once you have made all the scans in the series, tap ‘Save’.

11. A new view opens showing you your notes. If necessary, scroll to ‘Scanned Documents’ and tap on it.

12. Four icons appear at the top right. The first lets you adjust and crop the scan; the second activates the optimiser (see Step 7); the third lets you rotate the scan anticlockwise in steps of 90º; the fourth lets you share or save the scan. If you tap the fourth, a self-explanatory dialog appears. Scroll the lower half of this to see the ‘Save to Files’ icon.

13. Tapping this icon lets you save the scan to your iPad or to a selected folder on your iCloud drive.

An iPad cannot replace a dedicated flatbed scanner if you need to make high-quality image files or run OCR software, but it is very handy for processing documents such as bank or credit card statements, receipts, etc., that you would rather have in digital form. One advantage of using an iPad for scanning is that it can cope with odd paper sizes such as foolscap, which is too big to fit ordinary consumer-grade scanners, most of which are limited to A4 size.

1 July 2019

Phoebe Rising


I have at last finished writing this novel. It is the longest and one of the most ambitious I have ever attempted. The process began with only a vague idea (of a girl arriving on the ferry from France) and grew from there, so it qualifies as what they call a ‘pantser’, plotted by the seat of the author’s pants rather than from a synopsis.

The period is the early 1960s, a rather simpler time and one to which the very English flavour of the piece is suited. The setting is Kent, on the archetypal white cliffs around Dover, but the village of Pelling-on-Sea is imaginary, combining elements of a number of English seaside resorts.

The central story is about the struggle a sensitive little English girl, Phoebe, undergoes to recover from a disastrous upbringing among the super-wealthy in the South of France. Her mother dies when she is seventeen and Phoebe returns to England to meet, and live with, the father she has not seen or heard from for nearly nine years.

The extent is 141,000 words, and you can read the first chapter here.