December 30, 2009

It used to be common for people to keep “commonplace books”, or collections of quotes garnered from books they had read. I’ve been doing this on and off for a while, and have collected some great quotes. Some are funny, some serious, but all are pithy and worth reading. Here is a selection of the best.

She’s like a woman, hard to manoeuvre, beautiful to behold, proud to be of service, but impossible to dominate.

Toward the end of minute five I searched my spiritual inbox for new messages and found only a feeling of faint surprise that looking at a picture can make one seasick.
Mary Wakefield

‘pestilent with English — a parcel of staring boobies, who go about gaping and wishing to be both cheap and magnificent. A man is a fool now who travels in France or Italy, till this tribe of wretches is swept home again.’

The condition of the free man is that he does not live for the benefit of others

I’m looking forward to a forthcoming Outreach Alignment Conference, where I intend to fully leverage all my synergies in a generally empowering way, retaining focus all the while as I interface (never talk) with colleagues in this strategic capacity-building programme.
Justin Marozzi

Last Christmas you were kind enough to carry an article in which I opined that reports of a massive Aids pandemic in Africa appeared to be exaggerated. I have since been accused of incest, homosexual tendencies, sexual perversion, incompetence, murder, ‘carbuncular’ practices, a secret alliance with President Thabo Mbeki, drinking too much, taking drugs and smelling bad.
Riaan Malan

We desire many things which it is not in our power to achieve: that we should be universally popular and admired, that our work should be the wonder of the age, and that the universe should be so ordered as to bring ultimate happiness to all, though not to our enemies until they have repented and been purified by suffering.
Bertrand Russell (Analysis of Mind)

There is nothing evil or degrading in believing oneself a teapot, but it argues a certain inaccuracy of the thought processes.
P. G. Wodehouse (The Coming of Bill)

The only point of interest is the men’s 100-metre final, a race between eight drug addicts to decide who has the best apothecary.
Lloyd Evans

I know a bit about dogs. It’s a single boast that lends relief to an otherwise unremitting inferiority complex.
Jeremy Clark

O men of infinite resource and sagacity, verily is it a cold day when you get left behind. Forge ahead.
P. G. Wodehouse (The Gold Bat)

A retired Scottish schoolmaster sends me his learned contribution to the debate in this column about the use of ‘may’ and ‘might’. Using the example cited by Philip Pullman of the difference between ‘Napoleon may have had homosexual tendencies’ and ‘Wellington might have avoided the Battle of Waterloo’, he writes that the difference ‘is, in effect what we Classicists call the principal clause (apodosis) of an unfulfilled past conditional sentence, with the omission/ suppression of the If clause (called the protasis)’. I think this should be the last word on the subject.
Charles Moore

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities — but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.
Winston Churchill The River War, p. 248-50, (1899)

What is the true and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule? It is the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man … the Kaffir is to be declared the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights.
Winston Churchill London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900)

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Thomas Edison

…nature requires that we should be able, not only to work well, but use leisure well; for, as I must repeat once again, the first principle of all action is leisure, but leisure is better than work and is its end.
Aristotle. Politics. Book VIII, 3

Give a man fire, and he’ll be warm for a day; set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he next comes to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.
Thomas De Quincey (1785 – 1859)

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
Yogi Berra

A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.
Thomas Jefferson

There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.
John von Neumann

Jesus saves. Buddha makes incremental backups.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
H L Mencken

Atheist’s wager: Instead, my wager is that if there is a god, and it is a just god, then living a just and moral life will be acknowledged regardless of ones beliefs. If there exists an unjust or immoral god, then I could never satisfy both my conscience and such a god. My wager is that if the christians are right about god being just and all-knowing and all-loving, I will be rewarded if I act in morally sound, justified ways.
I don’t have any evidence that there is a god. To me, the idea of a god, or even of an afterlife pales in importance to what we experience everyday. Life. Life is the only thing that I “know” I have and when that is gone, I doubt I’ll be around to care, however, others will. I must live my life as I please, and since I believe I will only ever get one chance at it, I want to live it in the best manner that I can and help others do the same.

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
Thomas Jefferson

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it – even if I have said it – unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
Albert Einstein

I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.
Thomas Edison

It sounds odd to hear scholars and statesmen say the world is flat; but it is a fact that three Boers favored by the opinion of President Kruger prepared a work to support that contention. While I was at Durban they came from Pretoria to obtain data from me, and they seemed annoyed when I told them that they could not prove it by my experience. With the advice to call up some ghost of the dark ages for research, I went ashore, and left these three wise men poring over the Spray’s track on a chart of the world, which, however, proved nothing to them, for it was on Mercator’s projection, and behold, it was “flat.” The next morning I met one of the party in a clergyman’s garb, carrying a large Bible, not different from the one I had read. He tackled me, saying, “If you respect the Word of God, you must admit that the world is flat.” “If the Word of God stands on a flat world–” I began. “What!” cried he, losing himself in a passion, and making as if he would run me through with an assagai. “What!” he shouted in astonishment and rage, while I jumped aside to dodge the imaginary weapon. Had this good but misguided fanatic been armed with a real weapon, the crew of the Spray would have died a martyr there and then. The next day, seeing him across the street, I bowed and made curves with my hands. He responded with a level, swimming movement of his hands, meaning “the world is flat.” A pamphlet by these Transvaal geographers, made up of arguments from sources high and low to prove their theory, was mailed to me before I sailed from Africa on my last stretch around the globe.
Joshua Slocum

Do y’all have different books of the Bible than I do? Are y’all Gideons? Who are the ******’ Gideons? Ever met one? NO! Ever seen one? NO! But they’re all over the ******’ world puttin’ Bibles in hotel rooms. Every hotel room- “This Bible was placed here by a Gideon” When?! I been here all day. I ain’t seen ****! I saw the housekeeper come and go. I saw the minibar guy come and go. I never laid eyes on a ******’ Gideon. What are they- ninjas? Where are they? Where’re they from? Gidea? What the **** are these people?

I’m gonna capture a Gideon. I’m gonna make that my hobby. I’m gonna call the front desk one day. “Yeah. I don’t seem to have a Bible in my room.”
Bill Hicks

You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.
L. Ron Hubbard, 1948

All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.
Robert Owen

“Never, never marry, my dear fellow! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing–or all that is good and noble in you will be lost. It will all be wasted on trifles. Yes! Yes! Yes! Don’t look at me with such surprise. If you marry expecting anything from yourself in the future, you will feel at every step that for you all is ended, all is closed except the drawing room, where you will be ranged side by side with a court lackey and an idiot!… But what’s the good?…”
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

…old rope labeled as Multi-Threaded Redundantly-Bonded Fully-Flexible Linear Load Bearing Facilitator.
Natehoy, Slashdot comment #30285772

there are only two sources of human vice–idleness and superstition, and only two virtues–activity and intelligence.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Sir, I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms. Having read your warning about the prurient nature of Nordic current affairs publications, I at once proceeded to their World Wide Web site. I am disappointed – nay, dismayed – to note that I in fact had to look quite hard before I could find any “tits and ass”, and in fact, the tits I did find were covered with an (opaque) brassiere. I demand that you retract your position at once. I further demand some hyperlinks meeting the promising description previously offered.
Yours, Henry Arthur George James Smitherington-Smitherington-Smitherington-Smitherington-Smitherington-Smitherington-Smitherington-Smitherington-Smythe (Mrs).
u38cg, Slashdot comment #30380202

Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.
W. Wriston, former Citibank CEO

When played with skill and grace, the game of soccer is like poetry in motion. Which explains all the bored-stiff people just pretending to follow along.
The Onion Horoscope

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Hot Air

December 4, 2009

I am not a scientist. In fact I have no degrees of any kind (except the Ph.D. I downloaded from the internet and which looks lovely on my office wall next to Dufus’s rabies vaccination certificate). I therefore have to trust what scientists tell me about their research. I have been following the research into climate change in general, and anthropogenic global warming (hereinafter referred to as AGW) with keen interest.

When AGW was first suggested I was, properly, sceptical. The evidence that atmospheric CO2 levels were increasing was incontrovertible; it was and is an objective fact, but the controversy lay in the effect increasing CO2 levels would have on global climate. Some scientists hypothesised that the increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would act like a blanket and increase atmospheric temperatures globally. The political left seized on AGW as a convenient club with which to lambast the things they despise: Big Business and the Nasty Capitalist West. Since then it has become increasingly difficult to separate the political from the scientific.

As time went by it seemed that the AGW proponents were winning the debate; the science seemed solid even though they invited suspicion by always prefacing their arguments with a claim that the debate was over, and that all sane people agreed with them. Writers like Lomborg in The Sceptical Environmentalist disagreed, and I could not believe the vituperative passion with which his arguments were met–real scientists do not froth at the mouth and wax hysterical when someone disagrees with them. A holder of a minority opinion is not necessarily a crackpot.

Of course there were ridiculous arguments from the other side as well. The usual army of nut jobs and conspiracy theorists crawled out of the woodwork to claim, bizarrely, that AGW was dreamed up by the oil companies to ensure that they received funding for research into alternative energy sources that would allow their survival after the oil ran out, or that it was a US government conspiracy to save the power grids from failing due to excessive electricity consumption. And so on.

The real problem with AGW theory is that there is only one experiment that can reliably test whether or not its predictions are true, and that is the real-time one in which we are all taking part. By the time the results are known, it is too late to take remedial steps if the theory is vindicated. Other experiments take place in model environments which are acknowledged, even by their architects, to be deeply flawed. Not enough is known about atmospheric dynamics to construct accurate models, and we don’t have sufficiently powerful computers to run the models even if we could construct them.

And now this. Emails and other data retrieved by a hacker from servers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia show that some of the leading climate researchers have systematically “massaged” data to fit their theories, perverted the peer review process to silence criticism, and failed to release the raw data for review by claiming copyright over it. You may think, as I did, that the University of East Anglia is hardly a Harvard, or Oxford, or University of Cape Town, and that this is therefore a storm in a teacup, but the truth is that the UEA Climate Research Unit is a major supplier of data to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that is responsible for the climate circus playing out in Copenhagen, and before that in Kyoto and Johannesburg.

So where do we go from here? Just because some scientists have, perhaps, used unethical practices does not prove them wrong, just as an invalid argument can have a true conclusion. Even if they are wrong there are still compelling reasons to pretend that they are right and cut down on the pollution we pump daily into our atmosphere and water. What sane person would prefer to breathe dirty air over clean, or have toxins in his drinking water? But what will cleaning up our act cost? We cannot sustain our population without mechanized, industrial agriculture which relies on fossil fuels; fertilizers require oil for their manufacture; food must be transported in bulk to the cities where people live, which is impossible without trucks, ships and trains, all of which rely on fossil fuels and pump CO2 into the atmosphere; the people in the cities must work in order to pay for food, which requires power in the form of electricity which is mostly generated by the burning of fossil fuels. In short, our species will suffer a population collapse (with attendent misery and violence as people fight each other for dwindling resources) if it were suddenly deprived of the energy sources provided by fossil fuels. Alternative sources such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar can only provide, with current technology, a fraction of our needs.

Another consequence of this scandal is that the man in the street will lose faith in the integrity of science. Once he thinks scientists have been guilty of crying wolf and playing fast and loose with the facts, he will take everything they say in future with a pinch of salt. He will accord them the same (or less) credibility than his priest or sangoma, which would be disastrous. We must come clean now. I call on the CRU to release the raw climate data and the source code of their climate models immediately, so their conclusions can be independently verified.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.