One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Genuine Sainsburys photo, from the blog that brought you this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Going back a bit

As ever...I'll fix the html shortly.
A short while ago I read, and immensely enjoyed 'The Time Traveller's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger. Others I know have rated it highly too. I'm not necessary claiming that it's great literature - but the convoluted time strand was an enjoyable head fuck. (The film was universally panned, though.)

So I was surprised when two people whose opinions I respect, at least one of whom had read it ( ;-) )1 responded...somewhat negatively. It wasn't just that they didn't like it as a book - there seemed to be a bit more revulsion going on2. It seems the source of the distaste is the ('vile') Wife of the title who ('selfishly') goes all out to conceive a child even though she knows it may suffer by having the same time travelling condition as her husband.

The first thing I have to say is my only thought about the Wife is that she is a little mimsy. (Hiffenegger comes over that way in interviews too). It simply didn't register with me that she was doing something dreadful by having a child, and nobody else I've spoken too commented on that. I don't get the impression that it was a theme or issue for Hiffenegger, either. The having-a-child plot element wasn't, I don't think, in the book for the purposes of either raising a dilemma or showing the Wife in a bad light.

So why the repugnance on one side and blank puzzlement on the other? Is it different worldviews over whether it's acceptable to bring a sick child into the world? Or perhaps its that some of us (like me) have simply demonstrated ethical laxity and failed to pick up an obvious monstrosity. That's what I'd like to explore. I'm not saying that one side is wrong and the other right. It's my view that ethics is (are?) a slippery bugger: many's the time that we can't say for sure what's right and have to accept that others simply disagree. Still - talking about the disagreements can be enlightening.

So here we go...

I want to start with the specific - the book - and then move on to the general - real life.

In the book, The Wife has an overpowering desire for a child (many women do) and suffers multiple miscarriages in her attempts to carry one to term. It gets to the point where The Time Traveller can't bear to see her so distressed and has a vasectomy. Her distress continues until she conceives and bears a child by an earlier, un-vasectomised3 version of The Time Traveller.

Now...if I recall correctly, the Wife's desperation for a child is driven by something more than biology. She knows that she will lose The Time Traveller and wants something to remember him by. So one could take the view that her determination might override other concerns. Such as the concern that the time travelling gene could be passed on to her child. She sometimes sees her husband suffering injuries as a result of his time travel, so she's (arguably, selfishly) weighing up her neediness against a child's suffering.

Except...that's not what it says in the book.

Firstly, note that The Time Traveller seems to have no problem with the possibility of conceiving - or not on the grounds of a child's suffering, anyway. Is he being morally lax? Or is he making a valid decision that a life that contains the same type of suffering as his might nonetheless be worth living. After all there are compensations, like getting to see cool punk bands that you missed the first time around or having al fresco sex with an eighteen year old when you're in your forties.

Secondly (and hear it occurs to me that Hiffenegger might have been addressing the suffering issue after all)...most of The Time Traveller's sufferings are due either to his getting into scrapes because he suddenly turns up somewhere naked or because of the complications of not being able to explain his 'now' circumstances. Plus he can't take any dental work with him when he time jumps. But Hiffenegger fixes that for the daughter, doesn't she? By the time she's ten her condition is widely enough known about to have a name. OK, so it might still be dangerous for a woman to turn up somewhere naked, and maybe she'll get frostbite like her dad - but the risks are reduced. It might mean multiple trips to the dentist, but at least the dentist would understand why. (Although maybe in the US there'd be the insurance issue.4)

And so on to the general.

First I want to deal with the issue of maternal yearnings. The urge to procreate differs from woman to woman (and, indeed, man to man), but on the whole, having offspring is what lifeforms do. We have to accept (surely?) that it's a legitimate urge. I wouldn't call it a 'Right' - after all, some people simply can't have children - but it has to be up somewhere in that territory.

(And note that we don't have to exercise our Rights or right-ish things: some have little compulsion to be part of a well-regulated militia, etc. etc.)

Consequently, on the whole, we don't believe in intefering in peoples' reproductive rights, do we? That's reflected in Articles 12 and 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As a guiding rule, the decisions of others whether or not to have children are none of our damn business. That's not to say, of course, that we always think people are doing the wise thing by reproducing. Is it wise for a woman who makes her living scavenging on a Lagos rubbish dump to bring a child into poverty, filth and disease? Probably not. But breeding is what people do, and if there's any fault its the wider world for not creating satisfactory conditions for her and her child. Or we might be exasperated at the stereotypical woman on a sink estate who, in a dysfunctional search for meaning and identity, has multiple children who will be brought up in less-than-ideal socio-economic conditions. Or the the Pope-fearing woman who, unlike the majority of European Catholics, follows church teaching and end up with a pew's worth. We don't (do we?) despise these women but understand that they are the victims of circumstance. If their lives were better, they'd tend to have fewer children anyway, but what they're doing isn't usually regarded as immoral.

One small caveat: I realise there is one way in which we think it's reasonable to restrict reproduction. Given the scarcity of planetary resources, I assume we all wholeheartedly approve of China's 'One Child per Family' policy and - modest proposal - would approve of its extension and rigid enforcement in those nations which consume the most resources per capita. (I'll leave that one hanging. It's a whole can of worms and worth a thread of its own.)

Where was ? So far, I think I've been trying to establish that people breed and, in the case of healthy children at least, nobody bats an eye. So are unhealthy children as special case? Is it reasonable to give birth to a child knowing that it will suffer? depends what you mean by 'suffer'. And how much. And whether the sufferer might nevertheless come to find life bearable despite. As Gautama said 'Suffering is inevitable.' But most of us don't take Schopenhauer's5 view that it is 'better never to have been born at all'. On the other hand, most (but not all!) of us would accept that it would be example to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds that an ultrasound scan showed the foetus to be microcephalic. And then there's a middle ground. What if a scan shows conjoined twins? Or a hole in the heart? Or if amniocentesis shows a high chance of Downs Syndrome? All those (potential) children will suffer through their conditions. Interesting questions: Are we compelled to terminate? Are we compelled to have the ultrasound and amnio so we can spot problems before it's too late? I promise you I'm completely, utterly Pro-Choice. I'm the son of an abortionist, after all (my mum was a family planning nurse who provided contraceptive and termination services in Bootle, a deprived, largely Catholic area of Liverpool in the 1970s-80s). On the other hand...we turned down amnio for our own children: we wouldn't have aborted.

So maybe it's a judgement call on how much suffering we're prepared to allow. I'll buy that. But who decides? Is Downs Syndrome bad enough? Is it better or worse than random time travelling? Search me. Shouldn't these issues be judged on a case-by-case basis? Shouldn't the default position be that its the parents who decide?6

Another caveat: parents can get judgements about their children dreadfully, dreadfully wrong and at such time it is reasonable to intervene in defence of the child. (The Univeral Declaration on the Rights of the Child7 has precedence over the UDHR). There have been various cases where, for example, parents and medical staff have disagreed over whether treatment should be withdrawn and the child allowed to die. The point about these differences of opinion is neither side is right. They have to be referred to a Higher Authority, and that's what judges are trained for8. In fact, even if both sides were inclined to agree, in difficult cases, doctors would be ethically negligent not to go to court.

But so far I've only dealt with the 'Shit Happens' cases. The ethical decisions we make when dealing with the happenstances of life are in a different category to our deliberate moral choices. Like when a Time Traveller's Wife deliberately chooses to conceive a child who will likely suffer a medical condition.

Or are they?

Let's allow that The Wife is (selfishly/vilely) privileging her desire for a child over the child's suffering. However, I've tried to establish (to my satisfaction at least - feel free to argue) in the default case where children are likely, as most are, to be born healthy that women are entitled to their own reproductive decisions. Further - even if we could see inside others' minds - their motives for reproduction remain theirs alone. (As a starting point at least. We might have qualms about someone planning to have a child for organ harvesting, sexual gratification, a tasty snack9...). I've also tried to establish that it's damn difficult to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable suffering: at very least there's room for legitimate disagreement. (Hold that phrase: legitimate disagreement. It's OK to disagree ethically - it's inevitable, even.). So if we have a woman who's making a reproductive choice for unknowable reasons but which is hers and hers alone to make, and the acceptability of that choice in terms of the suffering to the child is unquantifiable but is hers and hers alone to judge...well...I guess you can see where I'm going. For myself, I'd have to be pretty certain before I labelled such a decision as vile - there would have to be some pretty obvious extremes. But mainly, these matters demand tolerance - unless one's prepared to be more ethically certain than I ever am.

Let's take a real world example (-ish. I'll not go researching links). There have been cases where congenitally deaf couples have had children knowing that they, too, would be deaf - in fact, some have even advocated positively for their deafness. Are they right? OK - I'm starting to get uneasy myself with this one...but I don't know. (Is deafness more disadvantageous than time travel?). Sure - I'm entitled to my gut feelings...but maybe, just maybe I should get over myself. For example, if I were to discover later that the deaf child turned out to be perfectly happy...could we not say that my gut feelings had been a bit silly?

Time to get philosophical on your asses.

I'm not a big fan of Deontological Ethics which say10 that 'good' is definable by fixed principles, on the obvious grounds that if there are Rules, how the hell do we decide what they're meant to be? Even Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires us to make, I think, quite arbitrary judgements about what is right. I’m not necessarily saying that’s wrong – so long as you’re heart’s in the right place – but we shouldn’t pretend we’re accessing universal principles by so doing. Essentially the Categorical Imperative boils down to Rabbi Hilel’sGolden Rule’ – do as you would be done to. But there’s a big problem with this: What if I don’t want to be treated the same way as you? (“Curse this time travelling! I wish I’d never been born!” ...“Actually – I find its worth all the pain and inconvenience”)

A variant of this has become popular: Scientific or Naturalistic Ethics, the notion that we are all imbued with an ethical sense by nature of our biology. Some, such as Peter Singer and Sam Harris, hold that Morality can be derived scientifically. Singer, for example cites experiments where subjects are example of a train speeding down a track towards a set of points. Down one branch of the track there is someone on the track. On the other there are five. Subjects universally agree that it’s morally legitimate – imperative, even – to operate the points so that the train kills one instead of five. So we’ve established a universal principle. Except…I can see how easily such principles might be overridden. (“What if the five people are Jews?!”) I suggest that all we’ve established is that we make moral judgements, not what they should be.

The suggest that a basic mistake that many people make, not just 'ordinary' people but Deontological Ethicists make is to categorise decisions or actions as 'Right' or 'Wrong'. I don't just mean that people classify various things incorrectly, but that the categories themselves are insufficient. Much of our thinking seems to rest on Aristotelian logic. But maybe on matters of Ethics we need to take a leaf out of the book of Islamic philosophers such as al-Ghazali (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who categorised the world more subtly - in line with Islamic theology which (contrary to popular belief) doesn't simply categorise behaviour into forbidden/allowed but has various gradations ('ahkam'). Plus, it's probably no coincidence that Fuzzy Logic was invented by an Iranian11.

Then there's Dialectic. Now, obviously as a good Marxist I'm a Dialectical Materialist. But as a way of looking at the world, it's only a means to an end - a way of simplifying problems to the level at which they're tractable. Just so long we realise that the real world is complicated, though, and problems are multivariate. Kierkegård preferred to look at it differently. Complexity is irreducible and the truth is not in the decision one reaches, but in the process of grasping towards it. (There is a good Radio 4 'In Our Time' on this. Highly recommended.). Thus some decisions are to be approached with 'Fear and Trembling.' Plus, see my quote at the end of this post.

Except we do, ultimately, come down on one side or another, both as societies and individuals. As societies we derive laws and societal norms which provide us with an ethical framework so that we don't have to think everything through from first principles every damn time. But note that codification does not confer 'Rightness' on ethical principles. Nor, even in democratic societies does it mean that, having reached an agreement, everyone must nuckle down and agree. All that we mean by a 'Law' is something enforced by power - whether the power of a majority or of a priveleged minority with control over truncheons than anyone else. But so what? What I'm trying to say is that we shouldn't expect an ethical consensus stable enough to provide the basis of custom or law. It follows, then, that there will always be people who dissent from some laws, 'agreed' ethical positions or norms of behaviour. If they carry their dissent into action, we should remember that they are not necessarily breaking a moral code, and when we punish them...all we are in fact doing is exercising our superior power to enforce our norms. In fact arguably society needs dissent - including plain, old criminal nastiness - to remind us what we think.12 However...we should always be aware: We may be wrong.

Getting back to individuals. Yes, of course we all have our opinions of what is Good/Bad, Vile/OK, What I'd do/I'd never do a thing like that, etc. I guess my plea is that we choose carefully the occasions when we elevate what may be mere matters of personal taste to the status of morality.

Or am I wrong? Am I weak-willed hyper-liberal moral relativist with no ethical underpinning? Discuss.

However...we're only talking about a piece of Chick Lit, and one's entitled not to like the characters in books. (I don't like anyone in 'The Lord of the Rings', after all ;-) )

I've rambled enough. I'm a rambling man. I shall leave you with some examples, though. Which of these hereditary conditions would you judge sufficiently serious to avoid passing on to a child?

  • Heart disease
  • Huntingdon's Disease
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Being born in a socially deprived area
  • Dark skin pigmentation (face it - it causes genuine hardship!)

Unleash the footnotes...

1 In fairness, the other person cast it aside as Chick Lit...although I still say they should have read on and not been swayed.

2 "This is not a book that can be tossed aside lightly. It must be thrown with great force." Dorothy Parker. Hmm. I'm currently ploughing through 'The Kindly Ones' by Jonathan Littell. At 980-odd pages, it can't be tossed aside lightly. Even if you did, it would land with an almighty thud.

3 Is 'un-vasectomised' a real word? Never mind - it doesn't make a vas deferens.

4 Yeah, dentistry is costly in the UK too now - although one would expect Time Travellers to get NHS treatment. I've saved a fortune by managing to get on an NHS dentist's list and cancelling my insurance.

5 I'm fairly sure it was Schopenhauer. Could've been Nietzsche. I'm 99.999% sure it wasn't Kierkegård.

6 And, for various reasons, I think ultimately the mother, but I'll leave that subtlety for now.

7 I always use the Plain English version of this. It's lovely!

8 "I could have been a judge if only I had the Latin...the Latin that you need for the strenuous judging exams." - EL Whisty.

9 "Eight pounds and four ounces...Good size for a baby...Damn small turkey, but." Line from a Roddy Doyle book - can't recall which one.

10 Says? Can I have a ruling please on whether Ethics are singular or plural? Or a county in the South East of England?

11 "What have the Muslims given us lately?" "Camcorders and Anti-Lock Braking Systems, Mr Kilroy-Silk."

12 I think there's a criminological theory along these lines, but I'll have to consult the local expert. It sounds like a Jean Genet, Deviance kind of thing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lies my father told me

We have various pieces of lore in my household:
  • The object to the right is a bear's egg. Yup. An egg. From a bear.
  • The best course of action when pursued by a rhinoceros is to grab hold of its horn, very tight, with both hands and don't let go!
  • Special precautions need to be taken when eating custard creams. They are the most dangerous type of biscuit and should only be eaten under close supervision. 1
  • The way to tell the difference between a rabbit and hare is that one says 'bounce, bounce, bounce...' as it hops along wheras the other says 'boing, boing, boing...'
  • Babies fly around the room when nobody is looking.
  • There are three species of bird: chickens, ducks and pigeons. Flamingos, for example, are a tall kind of chicken.
It is, after all, important for children to learn not to trust their parents.

1 FACT: More biscuit related injuries are caused by custard creams than other types of biscuit!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


(Bear with me - I'll try and fix the formatting. Blogger has its own ideas)

I'm making Parkin.

For non-UKanians...parkin is a heavy, moist cake containing oats and treacle (= molasses, approximately) that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I don't know why, but it's associated with Catholic Burning Night. So are jacket potatoes, which I can at least understand - you can bake a potato in the embers of a bonfire. Then there's treacle toffee. I don't get this whole treacle/pyrotechnics connection.
Parkin originates from Yorkshire, and they'll doubtless insist that only Yorkshirefolk can make it properly.

The recipe I'm (loosely) following is:
1/4 lb/125g self raising flour
1/2 lb/250g porridge oats
1 tsp. bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
Some finely grated ginger (don't know how much. 'To taste'.) Or you can use ground ginger
1/2 lb/250g soft brown sugar (or I doubt anyone will notice if you use white)
1/2 lb. butter or margarine
1/2 lb/250g treacle, warmed so that you can pour it out of the tin. (stand the tin in some hot water)
1 egg (optional)
Milk to mix into a thick pouring consistency

Sieve the flour and bicarb together. Add other dry incredients and mix. Warm the butter with the grated ginger and mix in. Add the treacle and (finally) the beaten egg. Add as much milk as it needs (it should still be fairly stiff). Pour/spoon into a well greased, shallow baking tin. Bake at 175C/350F for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Turn out. Cool. Best eaten the next day and keeps for ages in an airtight tin
This is all dreadfully approximate, I know, but we're not talking precision baking here.

Probably Yorkshirefolk will complain that it's not proper parkin unless it's made with lard. And gravel.

Etymololgy Corner

Just go go off on a tangent (moi?)...Parkin gives us an opportunity to discuss a couple of etymological factoids. 'Parkin' and its variant 'Perkin' are diminuitives of 'Peter.' (As in Perkin Warbeck, The Bastard Pretender, pictured.

Now, Treacle...that's an interesting one. Originally it derives from θηριακή (thēriakē, “antidote”), feminine form of θηριακός (thēriakos, “concerning venomous beasts”) - i.e. an andidote to snake bites. This morphed into Latin, triaca and Old French, triacle and its meaning became generalised to mean a general potion to ward off diseases or spells (which were more-or-less the same thing). Now. Where do you go to gather the ingredients for potions? Into the woods. And what else do you find in the woods? Honey! And what's a bit like honey? Treacle!

And that's why fire engines are red.

Fascinating, Eh?

So while we're at it, let's do fascinating. When a Roman boy reached puberty, he would be presented with an amulet consisting of a small leather pouch called a bulla to wear around his neck. In the bulla was a fascinum, a small model of his erect penis. Fascinum became generalised to mean any kind of charm. 'To charm' is synonymous with 'to transfix' which is synonymous with 'to fascinate'. And I notice a revival of the word 'fascinator' , which fell out of use but has now bounced back re-defined.

Funny old thing, langwidge.

Monday, November 01, 2010

No sun, no fun, November

(I think the title was originally Chesterton. Not sure.)

I've just taken delivery of one of these things, in an effort to beat the winter gloom.

I've long been prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which has always hit me most in November, just as soon as the clocks go back, and mid-January to February. Presumably Christmas distracts me in between. Fuck knows why I migrated northwards! I'm cleary more the Mediterranean type.

SAD used to be regarded sceptically - one of those things diagnosed by American psychiatrists* - but it seems there's some pretty sound physiology behind it:
...the cause may be related to melatonin which is produced in dim light and darkness by the pineal gland, since there are direct connections, via the retinohypothalamic tract and the suprachiasmatic nucleus, between the retina and the pineal gland.
(from Wikipedia)
There is also well documented evidence that its incidence increases moving towards the poles, and of a relationship with bipolar disorder.

Light boxes have come shooting down in price. I got mine for £50 from Amazon. There are all sorts availabe. What you don't want is one of those alarm clocks designed to simulate dawn breaking. (They may work - but they're not the same). You want 10,000 lx of full spectrum light output. Blue lights are available (eg from Philips) , but there's no reason/evidence for them - athough there is some evidence for yellow-green at lower lux, since the human eye is most sensitive in that region.

Experience so far.'s a bit wierd. The first thing you notice is that they make the room seem dimmer, because all the surrounding shadows look more shadowy. Plus the full spectrum light is a little cold looking. My model has a little perceptible flicker at the ends of the tubes, which is not a good thing (could give headaches). Maybe more expensive models are better for that. As for use - to get a sufficient dose you're meant to sit 20cm in front of it for half an hour. That's never going to fit in with my daily routine. Maybe I could manage 10cm for seven and a half minutes (note to non-scientists: inverse square law), but that seems a bit extreme. So I guess I'll have to schlep it in to work where I can sit with it further away for longer. Tcha. It can be a conversation piece.

Apparently I should have started it a few weeks earlier, before the nights really drew in, but better late than never. It's too early to notice results, but I'll keep you posted.

Btw - I once knew of a couple who ended up splitting up over SAD. He was a petrochemical engineer and his work took him to Alaska. But she couldn't get on with the climate and so she moved down to Florida.

She just couldn't stand his lattitude.


End with a song:

* Everyone knows, for example, that American psychiatrists over-diagnose things like ADHD. Oh? Why do we think that? Mightn't it be that over here we underdiagnose?

The knives are out

Regular readers will know about my annual charidee pumpkin-a-thon. See previous examples. Nowadays we do them for Unicef.*

Anyway - here's some of this year's crop. Mwwwwu-wa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa...

Halloween is A Big Thing around here - something I wasn't used to growing up in England (or has it changed there now?). The Scottish variant on 'Trick or Treat' is that the children have to sing a song or (more usually) tell a joke. The adults' job is to try to look amused as they are bombarded with often garbled versions of humour. (This is especially the case with my daughter's Algerian friend. Her English has come on stupendously from a standing start in the year-odd that she's been in the country...but she hasn't quite mastered the intricacies of the inane pun yet. Bless!). We did get a heart-meltingly cute version of 'Hickory Dickory Dock' from a Power Ranger, though. our experience, children will practice their jokes on their parents for about three weeks beforehand. Repeatedly. Endlessly. So imagine our surprise when this year...

...we got a Paki joke.

From an eight year old.

I is one meant to react?

My costume? Sink Plunger. Egg whisk. Head torch........Dalek!

* Speaking of which...this demented eejit is planning to run up and down Ben Lomond 100 times during 2011, hopefully raising some money for Unicef along the way. Please visit his Just Giving page: "In general, it takes about an hour to get to the summit, and 30 minutes back down." !!!!!!! (I should point out that this is someone who runs up and down the Himalayas).