Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: miscellany


Next regular posting scheduled 16-8-2018


The Editor writes   Many years ago when I was teaching at the University of Toronto a nice young woman came into my office and remarked that she was prepared to do anything to get an ‘A’ on the course I was teaching as this would help her to get enrolled in medical school.  Fortunately, I think, for all concerned (including perhaps future patients) no plan of action linked to her remark ever emerged.  But this was merely an atypical example of experiences which on the whole left me with a quite genuine respect for the thoroughness and determination with which the inhabitants of that particular academic community pursue their goals and enquiries.  Another reached me not long ago.  All too often teams that get their university or institute into the news media  (winning a free ‘Community Outreach’ mug – normally sold in the campus shop at €5-90 – from their V-C) get their reports placed on inside pages headed ‘Science’ or ‘Technology’ and giving in 100 obscure words such sharply chiselled facts as ‘Link between hair loss and number of friends among men over 60’ or ‘Cats prefer Beethoven’.   The recently arrived report summarised the outcome for operations performed during a period of eight years by more than three thousand surgeons, with conditions of operation scrupulously matched, all performed at the same hospital.  The death rate for patients following surgery was low, but interestingly 12% lower when performed by a female surgeon than with a male doctor operating.  (With current standards of literacy and political spinning being what they are ‘spokespeople’ for ministries of health are requested not to put this as ‘after a woman has operated the patient may be 12% less dead.’)  Some have taken this as proof that women are better surgeons than men.  The Toronto team went on, as proper investigators should and as far too few do, to speculate on why this might be.  Here, though, if the report as filtered through popular journalism was exact (which is highly questionable – journalism is journalism after all) the team took the higher female excellence level as a given premiss.  This may be justified but, starting from a situation where the surgeons are exactly equally competent,  male surgeons (almost certainly on average more senior) may try to insist on taking more prestigious cases, or in some instances – see again the first sentence of this piece – may actively try to give more straightforward cases to female colleagues.  (Factors like that may also weigh when acknowledging that women doctors are less often struck off.)  It is quite reasonable to accept women’s superiority in surgery; there is plenty of evidence for instance that women are better at observation of small details; but for the sake of future patients, there should be full investigation with no more risk of influence from assumptions based on gender and occupation and unchecked tradition than there is in recruitment to coalmining or plinths in Trafalgar Square (or the presidency of the United States?)  For goodness’ sake doesn’t modern technology bring us at last to a better prospect of taking individual people as they individually are, not as representatives of a group – or a quota.


We are reviving a series we used to run, solving problems of society free of charge

Easy solution (1)  Received from a reader: ‘A report I have seen says that the polls show about 84%of the population, who have no ready-made way to fill in the gaps when they are not using social media (for example pauses between dreams when asleep) are asking for more sport on television.  But about the same proportion find that sport on television interferes with their surfing on the billows of social media, and so they are asking for a ban on sport on television, if possible supported by a detox programme for addicts.  How can this be, and who is right?’

            When questions like this are thrown in our direction we feel (‘we’ includes Simon at present as his computer has developed stress symptoms surpassing his own and even those on my foul object, and he’s been round here most evenings blubbing about not seeing Louise) we feel, as I was saying, irritation verging on fury, principally because of the disgusting lack of clarity in the formulation of the issue, and the absence of any indication about the kind of response expected.  ‘How can this be?’ you ask.  Unaided by any clarification on your part, Max D, I neither can, nor wish to, come to any conclusion about what you may be trying ask.  I do fear, though, that with the flabby naiveté typical of so many in your country you thought that the results of an opinion poll exploring support for contradictory views should add up to 100%.  Great heavens man (or boy, or whatever you are), this was a poll of social attitudes and therefore has no obligation to produce results that make any sense in any way at all, and equally little likelihood of doing so.  Normal intelligent adults consider in any case that the notion of exploring social attitudes by making enquiries of unsophisticated members of the public is itself a senseless enterprise.  Enough said!   As for your ‘Who is right?’ I must point out that an answer would depend on many things, evidently far more than you realise, but in particular on a clear notion of what counts as ‘sport’.   Until a decade or so ago, most of us here at the time naturally assumed that ‘sport’ meant ‘sport’, for instance, fencing, riding to hounds, amateur boxing, rowing, polo and all the rest of the familiar gallimaufry.  Increasing amounts of evidence arrive, however, suggesting that there has been a mysterious change in the population’s attitudes, with many now attaching ludicrous proportions of interest to such activities as football and ‘golf’.  The former was indeed once a sport but has bizarrely metamorphosed into a strange ugly twin of what nowadays is called the ‘entertainment industry’.  Following a suggestion of Simon’s I went to a local bar to view what was said to be a programme with ‘all the news about sport’[sic] .  It consisted of, first, interviews with middle-aged men sitting behind desks uttering a puzzling mixture of platitudes, meaningless slogans, implausible predictions and comments about various financial matters, with occasional 2-second-long glimpses of men leaping around on a grass field.  There followed a series of ‘clips’ of men dressed in ordinary clothes strolling  through some unnaturally smooth countryside, and playing with little white balls as they went, evidently trying to knock them into holes in the grass, while crowds of apparently normal people watched and applauded.  Of this I could and can make no sense, but in your own case, Max, given your weak grasp on how to attempt enquiries aimed at greater understanding, I recommend that you abandon the attempt and maintain your subscription to the Daily Telegraph.


Trump and captivity  (Regrettably this is not a report on the appalling treatment of children and their mothers and fathers at the American frontier, on the orders of the American president.  We do not have enough detailed information to give it even half the treatment it deserves.)  Trump declared Germany a captive of Russia, on the grounds that the country was buying 50% of its energy needs from Russia.  Three points: (1) what matters is not how much a country depends on foreign sources for its needs, but how far it depends on sources that are not easily replaceable.  (2) The figure is wrong; gas from Russia represents about one fifth of German energy needs.  (3) By Trump’s own metric there appears a considerable possibility that he is himself captive, in respect of political resources, on the tiny layer of ultra-wealthy Ameican business.  (Fn) Is it not still true that unlike previous American presidents he has not allowed public view of his tax returns?


Easy solution (2) (This solution provided by Berthold via electronic messaging.)  The problem is global warming, now accepted as real by more than 40% even among those with a Trump quotient of 8 or more on the ЯFN4U scale.  Some have realised that it brings a serious threat to the life prospects of large numbers already born as well as to the viability of coastal cities all round the world.  The most important factor in the whole business (after political inertia and rampant short-termism of human administrations of course) is methane.  Curiously carbon dioxide seems to have grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines (having cut a special deal with Murdoch perhaps?) but methane is much the more deadly menace for two reasons.  Volume for volume it is not just more effective at producing the warming; it is thirty times more effective.  The second factor is that in the northern parts of the planet there are vast areas where gigantic deposits of methane lie in the soil.  Until recently they were largely ignored and regarded as locked out of geophysical calculations, being frozen hard.  However, as climatic warming proceeds it will release the southern fringes of the methane deposits which will then join all the other factors contributing to global warming, which will therefore proceed at a slightly faster rate, thus releasing more of the methane from the southern margins of the deposits, thereby accelerating… and so on.  For quite a long time it was claimed that kangaroos could rescue the planet.  It was said that emissions from the tooth-free end of animals (not excluding human beings) contributed somewhere between 14% and 18% to the effect of climatic warming, but that the contributions of different species were extraordinarily different by factors as large as 1 to 180, and, promisingly, a kangaroo’s annual production of the stuff was 1/600th of what emerged from a milch cow.  So all could be more or less hunky-dory.  All the human race needed to do to slow global warming down dramatically was to farm kangaroos instead of cows?  Actually that last figure of 1/600th turned out to be nonsense.  However the middle part was in fact soundly based – (11  relatively harmless pigs) x methane  =  approx. (1 atmospherically devastating cow) x methane .  And the first part is agreed to be in the right range.  (Australian annual air pollution via animals’ digestive tracts slightly exceeeds pollution via backsides of vehicles.)  So on condition we abolish the cow, a surly animal whatever animal ethologists would have you believe (and anyway homo sapiens  has shown itself easily capable of wiping out species, in some cases without even noticing) there ought to be some hope that oncoming catastrophe (‘D Day’ for ‘Disaster Day’?) will hold off for a few decades.  Or more exactly there would be some hope of respite (Editor: make damned sure any millennials reading pronounce it right – [réss pit not ri-spite]) – if, of course, the planet was inhabited by an intelligent species.


What is real education worth?

Next regular posting for 31-10-2017; but nb supplementary post 3-10-2017


Editorial notes: (1) Urgent need of an intern continues.  (See ad in previous posting).  May have to warn Lady W and Chinese friends of risk of journal suspending publication.  Cannot expect a man of my seniority to do all my own office business.  (2) In the short term, glad to welcome another piece from tried-and-trusted Berthold, as well as an unexpected gift (unfortunately useless so far) from Simon’s mother, returned from trip to Belgium.  She had bought a device, advertised as a ‘boorebot’ said to automatically produce ‘Thoughts of the Day’ by the yard (or in her case by the metre).  The package explicitly claimed a link to our hugely respected patroness Lady W who was of course the founder of Old Boore’s Almanac© (and is still a sea-swimmer in her nineties) though I have yet to learn if they had been authorised to do so.  In the instructions it said all you have to do is set it up as if you want it to produce ‘tweets’.  I did that with the help of Kevin from the police station (who moonlights as a computer repair man), and it’s obvious to me something is not working as it should even if Kevin swears what it extrudes could be taken as perfectly normal ‘tweets’.  As a possible guide to anyone contemplating purchase of such engines, here are five ‘Thoughts’ which I got from a recent run, once I’d switched it from French to English.  To me they’re not unpleasant  enough to be tweets though they do suggest mental derangement (attempted poetry?).  But actually I’m not sure they’re any worse than some of the stuff in the mainstream press (which admittedly sets the bar about ankle-high)

In Arcady where lies the autumn crocodile

Celestial infancies dream indefatigable tangents

Friends of the semicolon unite

Tyre treads smirk at Fiona’s thimble

Whence the rosy footprints on my cake?

The marvels coming at us from the cutting edge of high tech progress are indeed things of wonder.  GPS implants in your very own body, free!  Free government tracking services ‘in case you get lost’ (but legal action or well placed friends may be necessary to get access to the data yourself).  In the UK, free portrait of you in a natural setting, courtesy of the police service.  Refrigerators which order fresh supplies of food and drink whether you want them or not.  Driverless cars which can convey you without effort to a place of their choice.  True, most stuff like that could be achieved by any housemaid with a couple of weeks of the right training after flying in from eastern Europe.)  But the results of tech wizardry don’t stop there – e.g. free information on 38 new video games similar to the one you bought your least favourite nephew three weeks ago.  Current contact details and helpful reminders of your passport data distributed to all your friends and others with need to know, free of charge, by a whole variety of organisations working with the internet. Privacy protocols so efficiently enforced they can lock you out of your own account.  As for the things you can find out by searching on the net, the mind boggles, wondering (a) who else might be finding them (b) whether anyone else knows that you are finding them, and (c) whether the programme to delete your search history really works.  

 These musings were prompted partly by Berthold’s piece (below) but mainly by a tear-stained letter received the day before through the cleft-stick post from one of our occasional correspondents, Rosa Tweedell fn.  That letter together with various other notes gathered over the years have been put together into a one-off supplementary posting on computerspeak, to appear 3-10-2017, which also gives a proposal for naming this journal.


 fn currently living at 3, The Old Paddock, Toraha Creek (population 3 adults 5 children) Kevin told me when I happened to mention our need of an intern.  Aged  49, divorced, two children, currently employed on temporary contract, no right to remain in Australia after 31-12-2018, passport number PQZ 67068N992, Health Security number W428559/O/67, member of Trotskyite group 1987-89, no other criminal record.  Facsimile of her signature held at QIRS3 Canberra.


Berthold Featherstone-Haugh Cheems writes:

Yet another ‘curriculum event’ at the Institute last Thursday to Sunday.  Just another, I suppose, in the ‘outreach’ category; that is, institutions reaching out to see if they can touch the wallets of the gullible masses who believe that going into a building with a high ceiling and uniformed porters, then listening to a man with horn-rimmed glasses and glossolalia who is introduced as a ‘leading expert on’ (almost anything), and finally buying a copy of his book on the way out will add a few microns to their intellectual stature.  I went up the outside fire escape to avoid any risk of being swept into the auditorium by the educational tide, but as I struggled past the lifts I heard this closely argued exchange, verbatim: “Every kid should learn how computers work.”  “Yeah, every kid should learn how computers work”.

  Why, for goodness’ sake?  The answer to the question, cut back to the bare essence, is invariably along the lines of “Well, there’s a lot of computer stuff about”  (though the answer is almost always expressed at much greater length, and almost never with as much naked clarity as that.).  This is an even feebler piece of reasoning, if we can call it reasoning, than post hoc ergo propter hoc.  Its disastrous prevalence in modern life is such that it needs a name.  (How about Proof by social media?)  The distortions of society in which it plays a part – electoral democracy is but one – are so serious it is a wonder to see it considered to have any relevance to school curricula: ‘There’s a lot of ‘X’ about’ so we should thrust courses about ‘X’ into anyone who can be ordered or tricked into receiving them’?  Bunkum.  Would you like to try it out with other subjects?  ‘There’s a lot of pornography about’.  If heads of school take that approach how are they going to deal with the mobs of parents howling for morality (however incongruously in many cases) at the gates.  (Anyway as my mother used to tell me, you don’t need courses on pornography if your imagination is in good working order, and if it isn’t, merely puttering along like an electric bicycle, why let anyone stir up trouble for you?)  ‘There’s a lot of weather about’.  Are we going to have courses on meteorology for Third Year students?  “Aha!” the professional objector will say, “That’s different.  There’s nothing much we could do about the weather even if every schoolchild learned all about it, so there’s no point having the courses.”  Actually I think one of the premises may have collapsed there (foundations washed away by a storm surge perhaps).  The word coming out of good class meteorology centres round the world is that we have been doing a great deal to modify the weather over the past 40 years, and the sooner victims of the recent hurricanes get some top-class American lawyers writing letters to various governments demanding compensation in trillions, the better for a great many of the unconsidered ‘little people’.  But I don’t intend to be dogmatic about this.  In some subject areas the right course of the right length presented in the right way could do some good, and that could include courses about girls – there are after all a lot of girls about – presented in such boys-only schools as still blot the educational landscape.  What is obvious to all except those who put on mental blinkers with their underpants in the morning is that the overlap between what is currently taught intentionally in schools and what most students want to learn may be small but it is still far larger than the overlap between either of those great areas of human confusion and the sort of learning which for all but 2% or 3% of them will actually be useful to themselves or society at large if they make it through to adult life (maybe even to paid employment).  This more or less completely rules out of the curriculum courses about how computers work, just as it rules out courses on how cars and their engines work.  What a curriculum could reasonably offer in those fields would be courses on how you can, cannot and should or should not use those devices if or when they do work.  (To lob up an easy one, which a few schools might actually keep out of their wicket: how many students are challenged to get a car out of deep mud on a moor in a rainstorm?)  But these subjects will of course only take a small fraction of the time allowed to schooling.  Specialists will learn their special skills in the best possible place, on the job.  For all the rest, let there be a realistic reappraisal discarding government-sponsored idealism, and genuinely helping them deal with the lives they may face in years to come.  I borrow, with full permission and minor adaptations, the suggestions of an excellent friend of mine fn:  ‘What is needed is a curriculum which will see you armed for situations in life which could cause real physical, psychological, or financial harm, not mere cut fingers or e-mails lacking musical animation or gender-based embarrassment.  School should teach what to do faced with an aggressive drunk or a resistant tax inspector, how to recognise a plain clothes policeman, what records to keep and what records to burn, judging the best reaction when your car is hijacked, how to make one’s excuses and leave (if caught in that kind of situation), recognition of rabies in dogs, cats, bats and travelling salesmen, how to identify oneself as harmless to soldiers of a foreign army temporarily occupying your country to restore democracy, and how to retain one’s dignity, and legal advantage, on finding one’s  spouse in bed with a stranger.’


fn  (Les Cousins, writing in 2008)


Gone but not forgotten

A former leader on the European political scene, Muammar Qadhafi, speaking in Rome on migration 30th August 2010  “We do not know what the reaction of white christian Europeans will be, faced with this flood of hungry, uneducated Africans.”  Well we have a much clearer idea now.


Note from Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems I see I used the word ‘hurricane’ in my little article.  I should like to point out to those whose ‘modern’ schooling has left them trying to work out pronunciations from the spelling that the proper pronunciation of this word is ‘hurrikun’, not ‘hurri-cane’.  And by the way my name – please note – is properly pronounced ‘Fanshaw-Cheems’.


Challenge of the week. Which country was recently described by a delegate at the UN General Assembly as the most heavily armed kindergarten on the planet?


A small far away country of which they know little?  A recent UN report (and they’re supposed to be the ones with high moral standards) said that the Saudi bombing campaign to restore democracty in Yemen was having little effect on the ground; it also included the estimate that 10,000 civilians had been killed.


North Korea vs Donald Trump  It would be wiser not to place bets on the imminent demise of either leader in this argument.  See Berthold’s piece on the Express Exit tactic, the ‘XX play’, posted 8-5-2016