Am I Just My Brain by Sharon Dirckx

I was listening to an online debate which considered the topic of panpsychism (The idea that everything is conscious to some degree) when I heard about this book. As it seemed to consider that perennial, but vital, problem for philosophy of the “mind-brain” problem I decided to give it a try.

It is quite clearly a book of two parts. The first part considers the problem that are encountered when we try to take a simple materialistic viewpoint of the mind and the limitations that still exist when we adopt any of the dualist positions. These arguments are well described and the strengths and weakness of each position well delineated. In particular the problems we encounter with the issues of free will and personhood, when we adopt a unitary materialistic (You are your brain) position, are well made. This is a useful counterpoint to much of the current media which feels that this issue has been solved.

I can remember working through this period when the advances in the neurosciences seemed to leave little room for the mind. There seemed to be little need to consider the psyche as we could now explain everything by looking at the brain. Certainly this approach played great dividends in my specialised area (dementia) but it never seem to offer any hope of help to those poor souls troubled by purely turmoil in the mind. Indeed the only real change was that psychiatry seemed to change from being ‘brainless’ to become simply ‘mindless’.

The first part of the book is successful but the second half is, unfortunately, less so. The latter portion of the book takes the stance that, if there is evidence that consciousness is best looked in a non-material way (qualitatively rather than quantitatively), then we can take this as proof for the Christian beliefs. I found this much harder to take for two reasons. Firstly the arguments were less well laid out and argued and secondly I felt she presumed faith on the reader’s part. I think someone who is already a believer would find the statements convincing. However, a reader who does not already have religious faith (especially if this is not Christian) will find this half of the book heavy with statements lacking convincing support.

Overall, an interesting read, brief but engaging, initially at least.

Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

This is the most unusual election I can remember. It has been brought about by parliament’s inability to come to a decision on Brexit and most people think it will be an instrument to register their opinions of Brexit. The main parties have gone into official and unofficial pacts about Brexit. The Unite to Remain pact of the Liberals, Greens and Plaid Cymru is the most obvious pact, but other remain alliances are being forged in Ireland and Scotland. Although no clear pact has been formally announced, the Conservatives and The Brexit Party are making non-hostility arrangements to try and solidify the leave vote. So, in essence, the Parties are making sure that the only way we can vote is either with a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ candidate. It is very clearly an election caused by, and about, Brexit.

Unfortunately this poses a problem for the two major parties. The smaller parties are all in the clear as they all have a consistent and unambiguous Brexit policy : to remain in the EU from the Lib-dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens or to leave the EU from the Brexit Party and UKIP (remember them ?). But despite all the prevarication and word-play the two major parties remain split on the Brexit issue. Labour wants to appear a leaver party in its old northern heartlands but to appear to be a remain party in the metropolitan areas. The conservatives, similarly, want to appear to be leave party to appease its right wing members while, at the same time, wishing to try and peddle a partial remain treaty (BRINO – Brexit in name only) to placate its more centrist majority.

The end result of this is that both Labour and the Conservatives want to talk about anything other than Brexit in this very Brexit Election. This has had a predictable effect. Both parties now want to shower us with gifts. They seem to be saying “Forget all that about Brexit, we’ll deal with that, but look at this huge amount of money we have found to fix the real things that worry you“. Both parties are now promising huge spending increases for the NHS, Police Force, Infrastructure projects ; you name it they will put money towards it at the moment. The only difference between the two parties at the moment seems to be whether you measure their largesse in billions or trillions of pounds.

Now it is quite possible that this is the correct time for some spending on infrastructure to give a boost to the economy. After all lending rates are low at present and borrowing is cheap. Further, a long period of uncertainty has dampened activity and an improvement in infrastructure could help boost productivity which has remained stubbornly low in the U.K.. But we have to remain careful if we are to use this type of stimulus that it has the effect that we want and that any loosening of the pursestrings doesn’t lead to waste or increased inefficiency in public spending.

So while I’ll not lose much sleep over more money being spent on hospitals, transport, police or education I do have some concerns about some aspects. I am concerned about the policy to give free broadband to everyone in the U.K.. Why on earth would I want to look this gift horse in the mouth ? Free broadband – what’s not to like ? Surely this is a clear vote winner, nearly as good as a policy of “A free iPad if you vote for us!” which must surely be next.

My main concerns are that internet penetration in the UK is already 92% (Only Japan and the UAE are higher). At present at least 80% of households have personal internet and 90% of these have some form of fast broadband. The problem that exists is largely one of needing to deal with the urban-rural divide. There are still areas, in the countryside, which are badly served by current broadband providers and here is the rub – this provider is Openreach. Openreach has an essential monopoly on providing the infrastructure for broadband internet. It has never been properly separated from BT and has never been exposed to healthy competition. Our ongoing problems in the rural areas might have been dealt with some time ago were we able to call on more than one provider.

Labour’s plan for free broadband will require nationalisation of openreach and also of divisions of Virgin, EE, Sky and Vodaphone. This will reduce competition and slow development in this area. I am old enough to be able to remember the BT monopoly and the wait to get a phone line installed, or indeed to gat any type of service from them. People are obviously happy to pay for their broadband at the moment and this has helped develop services; it would be foolish to stop this. It also makes little sense to single out this communications tool – why not free mobile phones or free instant messaging ?

But while I fear nationalisation will slow the spread out of broadband internet to remote and rural areas (which is the main infrastructure problem) this is perhaps my smaller worry. Just imagine if the state did have a monopoly of internet provision. If the state ran all the DNS servers and knew every ISP address you visited, hosted all of your email communications, knew all your social messaging opinions and knew every online search you had made – would this make you feel happy ? Looking at the opinions, as far as they can be heard, in China it seems that this is a very bad move. This could be the first step to serious loss of liberties.

It has been a common theme in the world of high tech. People come and promise lots of nice things for free while at the same time taking away a lot of our data without us noticing. Google helps us know millions of facts but in return we supply Google with gigabytes of personal data about ourselves. Facebook help us keep in contact with friends but they cost is that they now know all our interests and social networks. Amazon makes shopping easier but in return they know our wants and desires as well as our finances. These sweeteners are nice but we need to look in the horse’s mouth and check what we are getting ‘for free’. Free broadband might be the most expensive gift, if we are silly enough to accept it, if it means the loss of our privacy, our rights to free expression and free association. This policy might just look like a bribe but it is much more dangerous than that.

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky

If you decide to read this book, and I suggest that you do, then prepare to become quite annoying. This book is so packed full of interesting facts that it is likely that on every second page you will be nudging your partner and saying “Did you know that dogs .. .. ?” The facts will range from their skills smelling and seeing, through their social behaviour and cognitive structures, to their morals and their very genetic makeup. This is a wide ranging scientific book which attempts, and largely succeeds, in giving a potted summary what we know about ‘the dog’. Despite the scientific slant this is, however, a very easy book to read and at times can be quite humorous.

It is surprising that there are not more books on this subject. This symbiotic relationship between two different species is quite unusual and very special. The length of time that our species have cohabited is stunning and it appears that both ourselves, and the dogs, evolved together and we both influenced the development of the others evolution. The fossil evidence for dogs dates back around 14000 years; a burial site in Israel (Ein Mallaha) which was dated at around 12000 years ago shows that man and dog are well acquainted from the start. The burial site contained the remains of an elderly man, curled up, with his hand resting on the skull of a young puppy.

Not only is our relationship with the dog one of our earliest relationships it is also part of a very small and select group. Of the thousands of animals and birds which have inhabited the earth alongside us only about a dozen species have entered into a domestic relationship with man. It is probably fair to say, though a few weird cat people might disagree, that the relationship mankind has with the dog is of a magnitude greater than with any other animal.

It is not that there are not a lot of books about dogs, there are. But these are often ‘how to’ books (“How to train your Alsatian“), encomia to various breeds (“For the love of Spaniels“) or pop-psychology about the dogs’ mental state or yours (“What your dog is saying to you” or “How to live as an alpha male; being a wolf in a man’s world“). This book is not like these, it is a measured review of our current scientific knowledge and it tends to puncture quite a few commonly held myths about dogs especially in the area of language and dog psychology. However, as someone who has always lived with dogs, and whose dogs grace this page, I found this more hard-nosed approach all the more interesting.

The book tackles the idea of domestication, the idea that we tamed wolf pups to become dogs, and reveals that this is very unlikely to have been the case. We, as a species, did not domesticate the dog; the dog, as a scavenger, learnt how to carve a niche for itself and moved into our society. We may later have promoted different breeds by determined mating but prior to this there is no evidence that we created the dog by breeding from its forbearer the wolf.

The cognitive styles and communication of the dog are also considered and it is shown that it is not helpful to try and shoe-horn the dogs’ actions into explanations based on human cognition or conversation. It is very rarely appropriate and very commonly leads us to errors of judgement. Dogs are not partially developed humans and is best not to think of them in these terms. It may be occasionally helpful to think of them as a form frust of wolves. But,in any event, it is better to be aware of the research that has been done and use this exciting and interesting data to understand our friends. This would stop us making the many mistakes that other books anthropomorphism lead us to (Or worse, the mistakes when we analyse our behaviour on the basis of our behaviour being related to those of the dog or wolf pack).

There is so much information in this book it keeps the reader actively engaged. Readers who live with dogs will especially find items of interest and surprise on just about every page. Those readers will also end with a much better understanding of the dog than when they started. Those readers who are not fortunate enough to live with a dog will also find it enjoyable and may help them understand why their neighbours spend time picking up 2 millions tons of dog faeces annually in the United States or why they pay $5billion a year to feed these parasites who have moved in with them.

This is a book that explains dogs as dogs, not as some reflection of ourselves. It is important to remember this as, as the author notes, “If dogs truly were human, they would be jerks. As dogs, they are wonderful”

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

I anticipated I would enjoy this book. It has been widely lauded as an inspirational and warming story of an older couple facing and coping with adversity. It has won plaudits and awards and garnered five star reviews in newspapers and magazines. It is a memoir often described as life affirming and as being in touch with the land’s and nature’s beauty. I did indeed enjoy it, but perhaps a bit less than I had thought I might. It was a pleasant read but not a book I will recollect years from now nor one I will try and encourage people to seek out. A solid 3 stars out of 5, neither more nor less.

The story is a simple tale simply told. It concerns a couple who loose their home due to financial trickery and then are hit by the dreadful news that the husband has a slow, but ultimately terminal, neurodegenerative illness. With nowhere to live and nothing to do they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path, wild camping and living on the meagre social security benefits they had. During this time they rediscover what is important to them, rediscover each other and find that a different and better future is possible for them.

The writing is easy-going and, at times, evocative of the landscape around them. However, a lot of the times though the description may be factually accurate it falls flat and fails to convey any of the emotional impact of the surroundings. Chance encounters are described and are sometimes humorous but important events and details are entirely missed. (It seems implausible that their children, who rarely figure, would have such little contact given their parents’ homelessness and awful diagnosis). Occasional passages read like direct cut and paste insertions after a google search on the problems on homelessness and a number of the characters are too much like stereotypes to be believable. Particularly towards the end of the book there are a number of coincidences that truly strain the readers credulity.

I enjoyed the book and am happy that, on their summer trek, this couple did find a way out of their dire situation. It was heart warming to know that it ended well for them but ultimately I don’t think their story tells lessons from which we all can learn. The homilies don’t reveal much new. Other readers have obviously seen much more in the book that I was able to, so it is quite possible you may enjoy it more than I did.

Night Visitors

I have noticed that over the past few years we have been missing a previously regular visitor. In the past we would frequently meet hedgehogs when out at night walking the dogs for the last time. We now rarely do and I don’t think I have met one in the last two years. Indeed, I think the only hedgehog I have seen was dead on the verge of the main road.

This is a serious problem. The number of sighting of hedgehogs in rural Britain has fallen by half in the past twenty years. On a longer scale the figures are even more alarming. I was estimated there were 30,000,000 hedgehogs in the 1950’s now it is estimated only 1,000,000 survive. There are many factors behind this change including increased intensification of agriculture, loss of hedgerows, fragmentation of their habitat and also, sadly, road deaths.

However, a factor in our wood which might play a significant local part is a growth in the badger population. The badger is the hedgehogs’ main natural predator and in areas where there are high badger populations there are smaller populations of hedghogs as a consequence.

We had noted that the sets up high in our wood had grown and yesterday we looked on the night cam and confirmed that they are active. I will have to seriously consider what our next step is as I don’t want to intervene when the outcome is difficult to predict and the badgers cause us little other problem. It is nice to see the badgers but, I hate to say it, it was nicer to see the hedgehogs.

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

This is a book about ‘whiteness’, what it is to be white in our curent society, what it may be like to be white in the future, but it is a book with a difference. The difference, which feels taboo breaking, is that he looks at the issue of the major ethnographic changes and includes the viewpoint of those that are white. It looks at the fears that they may have for their future and how these may be driving current populist politics.

White Shift by Eric Kaufmann

The book attempts, and largely succeeds, to look at this issue from a dispassionate viewpoint. It is not a book which looks at whiteness in order to clarify some other issue, and although issues such as empire, racism, slavery, and inequality rightly are addressed they are not the sole lens though which this analysis is made.

This attempt at objectivity, while it is the root of the book’s success is also its achilles heel and its ultimate failure. Many reviewers have commented on the magisterial and mammoth amount of data collection that the book contains. No statement is made without reams of data to support and buttress it. While this does make it possible to accept many of his observations and conclusions it also means that this is extremely heavy reading. This reads like a heavy reference tome not like a political book. So while I can say I found this book interesting I can not say I found an easy or pleasant read.

An important strand of the book is the current failure to look at these changes in an impartial way. The inability of most commentators to understand that people may be upset or anxious about the changes they see to their communities brought about by demographic change. The dismissal of these concerns, and the lazy assumption that these worries simple reflect racism, is shown to be a potent driver of support for populist political groups.

The book makes a good case that the future should not be bleak. All evidence suggests we accomodate to change and further manage to create better societies a consequence. But, if we ignore this change, or mishadle or responces to it, as we are currently doing, we may stoke the very problems we seek to avoid.

So in summary, a worthwhile and valuable read, if not a very enjoyable one. Perhaps one for the reference shelves.

First Glove

They say you remember your first time. I am not so sure. I don’t think that in a few months I’ll be able to look back and remember the date of this morning. But this was, in fact, the first morning that I felt I needed to wear gloves on the walk round the circuit.

Although it is still autumn, and the trees are still wearing their brown and orange, today was the first time that there was a feel of winter. We had a mild frost but even as the sun came out and cast its long shadows the temperature stubbornly started below zero. The cold kept the clouds from rising up into the sky where they usually belong, leaving them down in the valleys hiding the hedge and roads.

We are promised a colder few days to come and hopefully this is a sign that we may get a proper winter this year. While we wait, the dogs and I will just enjoy our crisp and beautiful starts to the day.

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A place in the sun.

A place in the sun.

Day time television has always looked like a punishment for the unemployed. It is as if this diet of crude pap is put on during the day because it might push those out of work back into the labour market just to avoid the constant reruns of failed programmes. Or perhaps this dross is ladled out because the channel heads don’t care about this audience, thinking they are old or disabled, and knowing they don’t have enough disposable income to warrant expensive advertising. Hence the cheapest programmes are gather together and broadcast to fill airspace.

Unfortunately when I break my working day I stop for a cup of tea and a biscuit and to relax sometimes make the mistake of turning on the TV. I tend to avoid the news channels during the day, as they steal to much of my time, and hence make the mistake of watching the mainstream channels. This has lead me to see the interminable repeats of house renovation programmes, countless Judges remonstrating about the morals the modern world, and far too many tales of neighbours or landlords from hell. But the worst of these, by far, are the repeats of “A Place in the Sun” and related second home shows.

I feel these are the worst because they tend to draw me in. They show wonderful locations and interesting houses which capture my attention, before I know it I have spent half an hour watching a couple buying a second home. But why is this so terrible ?

If you have been fortunate to have avoided these programmes I will explain the format. An elderly, often just retired, couple with a large amount of money decide that they would like a holiday home. They try and appear nonchalant and unassuming while the presenters show them a number of properties which will really suit “you guys“. Usually they see four houses in their chosen location and the presenter try and whip up enthusiasm to purchase within the couples’ usual budget of £250,000.

This is the issue. I am watching a programme in which a rich person is thinking how they will spend a quarter of a million pounds. If the programme followed a man trying to decide between the Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Ferrari we would know instinctively this is the rich buying toys but we tend not to notice it when it is a second home. However, this is buying a home to occasionally live in for fun, perhaps 2 to 4 weeks of the year – this is a toy, not a house.

Had they been buying expensive cars the situation might not have been quite so bad. If you spend £330,000 pounds on a Ferrari Dino GT it does say a lot about you. It says you have more money than sense, little awareness about the plight of the poor, an ignorance of the inequality in our society, and probably also a small set of genitals.

When people buy there holiday home they are also going to have to double a lot of running costs. In days when we are meant to worry about climate change buying something that requires either a long-haul flight or long-distance drive to use seem very unwise. These houses are normally bought in areas much poorer than the area the purchaser comes from, thus they parade their wealth amongst people much less well off than them. This is extreme conspicuous consumption; consumption made all the more conspicuous by being broadcast on television.

Despite the buyers wish to immerse themselves in the culture of the new area they will never be anything other than wealthy tourists. If they want to experience the culture then they could learn the language and take a job working as a cleaner in the town. In many of these areas the second home market is the very thing that is destroying the local culture and turning what were fishing towns, or farming villages, into ghost towns. This market prices houses out of reach for the locals, there is no real need for schools or factories when the population is largely elderly, and off-season these towns are deserted with a large section of the houses empty and shuttered.

Now I am aware that this is ‘their money’ and the people on this show have the right to do with it as they wish. But all of us, as members of our communities, have a responsibility to think of how others may see our actions. If I was to spend a large sum (on the show often 10 times the median family disposable income) purely for my own pleasure I think I would be rather shamefaced. I think the reason the couples on the show look so unassuming and diffident is because they know this. They know it is unbecoming to display your wealth and that there are many ways to gain pleasure from your position of privilege that are not as self-centred or ecologically damaging. I feel a little sorry for them, but I feel angrier at myself for having watched this drivel.

However, this and similar programmes do show the degree to which our society is unjust and unequal and it is a sense of moral injustice that underpins many revolutionary changes. The French were horrified when it was suggested that Marie-Antoinette said “ let them eat cake” on hearing of the peasants starving, the excesses of the Russian royal family helped prompt the Soviet revolution and, more recently, the decadence of the Shah in Iran lit the fuse that exploded the Islamic Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. So, looking on the bright side, perhaps these shows with their bouncy presenters and wealthy participants revealing their wealth and ignorance to the populace might help build the sense of moral injustice we need to force a change. Hopefully.