Monday, 28 June 2010

Established Views and Science

Every so often something bugs me and the latest one is Man. Or rather what we claim to know of the history of Mankind. Basically, it goes like this; our oldest ancestors were in Africa (which is considered sound as Africa would have been a benign environment), who then trekked Eastward through Southern Arabia and towards Asia, looping back and ending up in Europe. Inconveniently there are people on every continent, so elaborate theories are constructed for the journeys these people took. I like it, this story. It sounds highly plausible, fits with what we know (but then it would, I'll come back to that) and is romantic. A heroic struggle of people, barely above animals themselves, solving problems and overcoming hardships as they went. It is some story and it seems to meet a human need, not to explain and understand, but to be important. This is where I start to have a problem. Why for instance East? It is speculated that this was just the successful branch, which is what we do with history, we examine the answer and suppose the question. Now, we don't have too many options it is true, but we seem too cavalier with accepting a popular theory. Science is not supposed to be prone to fashion, but it most certainly is, as are far too many global ideas these days.

To go back to the question why East? Did they sit down and ask those who had travelled furthest what the going was like? It is not necessarily the easiest route. We also seem to rather fix the Earth as it is today. Were they driven by environment, a desire to travel, curiosity or war? Why do we have a need for trekking humans anyway? If humans just bred and spread, that would be a lot more likely but very slightly boring. This is why I struggle with the romantic, brave humans narrative, it just seems too grasping, too self-important and if you look at the way nature treats us, how it swots us aside when it feels like it, you realise that in the grand scheme of things, we really aren't that important.

Then there are the dinosaurs. Successful on a pretty heroic scale for millions of years, they seem to have, relatively quickly, died out. As most people now know I think, it was a meteorite what done it. Massive explosion, loads of dust blanking out the sun, cold, lack of plant food etc etc. But how did some survive, like mammals and some fish and some dinosaur like creatures like crocodiles. We don't know, it must have been something special. So, to me the theory isn't proven, but there it is. It's the best we have they say. Well, if it doesn't answer the questions, its probably not right, don't ya think? Why do we have this arrogant need to impose partial ideas as fact?

England Dumped

Well that is England dumped on its arse. Seems you can't go to the World Cup and play indifferently. Or, to quote Fabio, they played well, so the stupendous loss at 4-1 to Germany must be a complete mystery. I guess that alone, that comment by the England Manager is enough reason to let him go. To my mind, there has been no discernible difference between Fabio and Sven, so the fact that the outcomes have been the same doesn't strike me as being unforeseeable. I used to be completely confused by the constant references to Rio Ferdinand as 'world class', when clearly he is inept. Now however I think I understand. Rio is not world class in the context of world players, just the small pool acceptable as English internationals. And that points clearly to the problem.

If there is one overriding aspect of the players in an England squad it is complacency (something that becomes painfully clear by watching other teams). That complacency comes from knowing they are there, wearing the England shirt, before the team is 'picked'. Take Rooney. His last contribution in a major tournament was in June 2004. How long exactly do we leave a drought like that before we stop claiming him as our star striker? Fabio was forming his team around him for goodness sake, and Rooney proved that lack of input was no mere six year blip. Hullooo? I wrote to a live Telegraph blog before the 'crucial' Germany game and raised this point. The typical, glib answer was that Rooney is a talisman and that he is the key man in the team. Anyway, the twerp went on, who would you play instead? Yes indeed. Having not taken any on form, goal scoring strikers there was a problem at that point, but perhaps a little more critical thought beforehand? And that is the point; the papers, who are always accused of building players up and knocking them down actually do something much worse. They get caught up in a hysteria about certain players and objectivity goes out the window. Rooney was beyond criticism, despite playing like your granny. He is easily dispossessed, often off-side and petulant which makes him a one trick pony; he can run at defences and blast a shot in. (I'm not contradicting myself, when he has a head of steam up he can clear a defence, but if he is static, just received a ball he has no guile to rely on).

Mexico may have lost to Argentina but they were very good nonetheless and clearly had England been up against the likes of Messi they would have treated us like cones on a training pitch. Mexico had the likes of Dos Santos, who played out of his skin with not a little skill, but he could never get into an England side, because he plays in the 'wrong' league. This fixation with playing Premiership players fuels the complacency (but still doesn't mean the best players get picked, but mainly those in a special clique) and limits England's options, literally. Going back to Rio Ferdinand again, here was a player who is massively overrated and even accepting the blindness in this respect had only played 8 games for his club due to fitness issues (which I don't believe), yet was still picked to play in the World Cup! And then he broke before the games started, which kind of proves for me the level of stupidity involved in player selection.

England undoubtedly has world class players and some of them were in South Africa, but they don't play well in the national side. It strikes me that the most important job an England Coach has is melding a team, quickly out of a disparate group of players, who don't know each other, but do know how good they are (and without exaggeration sometimes). Part of that has to the selection of skills combined with a team ethic and always with a critical eye. The Coach has to live in the real world and see how these 'stars' play for him, how they play in their own teams and where the faults lie. Pundits have to tell the truth and stop saying people played well when they didn't, but rather criticise mistakes. The provision of £100,000 a week should be enough of a cushion for the poor loves (or maybe a more resolute partner, not one whose contribution is looks). A Coach needs to be sympathetic to the needs of a skillful player, but balanced against the ability of the team to provide that. Defoe is an expensive player, because until he receives spot-on delivery he cannot perform, so he needs two good players behind him. If we have those in place, Defoe is an option, without them he is not. By concerning yourself with who delivers to Gerrard as well as who Gerrard then serves you not only make a better, more cohesive team, but Gerrard feels looked after and plays better (not least, in all probability because he respects the Coach more too). These things seem self evident and not that difficult, but a million miles from the thinking of those 'in charge' of our national side. I think the pundits in the papers and on television have a lot to answer for in this respect too. Let's play to win in future.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Slovenia 0, England 1

Obviously the last two games were a disgrace, but we really couldn't afford a repeat today. Amazingly, the pampered twerps actually seemed to get that too and started the game in lively fashion. Interest, passion, a will to keep moving forward, chasing free balls and tackles and passing well. They worked for each other and it showed. The after game punditry did its usual and lauded Rooney for being an icon for England and a pivotal player, which is odd really considering what actually went on, on the pitch. Initially Rooney couldn't get into the game, then he got close, but still is far too easily dispossessed (and by any level of player apparently) and only once got into a dangerous position. Then, one on one with the keeper, he scuffed it. It was even a bad choice of kick, but thinking about it, he probably only has one way of shooting. Guile and thoughtful football is beyond him. He did seem to come alive and do some useful stuff, but was soon injured and subbed. We clearly don't need him, he is more mascot than icon.
Gerrard was busy, busy, busy. Constantly scurrying about and crossing good balls, tackling and generally causing mayhem for the Slovenes. Upson did some useful work but generally was a bit poor. Glenn Johnson clearly has some skill and was trying hard, but he seems out of his depth at this level. John Terry, whom I think is past it and a liability more likely to foul than tackle, was his old solid, dependable self. So well done him, too.

Overall, a good performance that did the job, but the question remains, why can't we score? At times we made the Slovenes look as stupid as England have to date, but we only managed to score once. The spirit may be back, but perhaps an edge is still needed. Maybe this result will bring it and from here the team will settle into playing the games the individuals it is composed of, are capable of.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A Revolution In My Head

What we believe and what we think is coloured by our perspective, the point from which we view. I remember reading of a philosopher in conversation with a student agreeing that the ancients must have been stupid to believe the Sun went around the Earth. He then added, 'but I wonder what it would look like if it did'. Politicians and particularly those of the Left have long understood the power of influencing children's as yet unformed views, but today it has been refined for adults. A twin approach of firstly creating a 'nanny state' where everything is done for you so people stop actively thinking for themselves and the creation of the 'narrative'. This of course is the 'logical' result of the belief that there is no absolute truth; your truth is different from my truth. Whilst sounding plausible this is, of course, a lie. Kick a rock, see if it hurts. So we had New Labour telling us what to do at every turn and interpreting things for us with a narrative; crime is going down, educational standards are sky-rocketing etc.

In fact the phrase 'political science' makes me laugh and can be summed up nicely in a snippet a colleague, years ago once said, 'do you want the truth or can I lie'. But it is interesting what our viewpoint does to our reason. Anthropogenic Global Warming sounds entirely plausible if you don't have too much information (which is why the original data is held by a small group of true believers), but as soon as you see the full picture you begin to wonder how we ever believed otherwise. I have this with Evolution too. Notwithstanding figures like Dawkins, who seem keen on replacing not deleting God, I do not think that when we have a theory we like, science stands still. In fact this is a very modern concept ('modern' in the same context that Blair used to use it, meaning backward, without utility). In a nutshell, Darwin's Theory of Evolution says that offspring are not identical copies of their parents and by mixing two sets of genes and with the odd mutation, every so often a beneficial change occurs in a species and that more successful trait survives. Tigers have stripes to enable them to hide in undergrowth, which enables them to get close to their prey, all the better for their chances of catching and killing them. The same applies, naturally to the spots on leopards and the absence of both on lions. Presumably earlier tigers existed, fully equipped with teeth and claws but missing the vital ingredient of stripes. It is all accidental you see, happenchance. Happy happenchance even. It seems plausible and obviously did so to Charles Darwin, who in less certain, less arrogant times perhaps, recorded his ideas as his opinion and every child knows it as the Theory of Evolution, because it is just that, a theory. Today and particularly in certain hands it cannot be opposed, not just so its supporters are right, but because they feel the only other option is to believe in God and they fervently oppose that. So in their opinion it is Evolution or Intelligent Design, nothing else. But what about science? There might be no God (or Dawkins favoured option, life created here by aliens) but the Theory of Evolution could still be wrong.

I mean, think about it (and be in danger of adopting a different viewpoint from the one pushed on you). How many rubbish mutations must there have been, that added nothing useful before we got the killing machine that is the cheetah, including its stretchy spine that enables it to run faster. all provided just by chance. As different creatures eat the lower vegetation, taller creatures with longer necks eat the higher vegetation; it becomes their niche. And so little by little the neck gets longer until we have the giraffe (accidentally don't forget, this is not planned). How fantastically unlikely is that? What are the odds? And if eating vegetation at higher levels was an imperative forced on them by competition lower down, how come they could survive long enough for all the lucky mutations to come along? Or did some unlucky mother of a more mundane creature one day give birth to a baby with 9 foot legs and a 20 foot neck? The mutations thing isn't impossible, but it is just so staggeringly unlikely that I can't believe we not only have never come up with anything better, but supposedly clever people are now saying we shouldn't try.

Darwin referred to some finches that he saw that were similar but had different beaks and ate different food. He speculated that perhaps those with the more robust beak, that ate nuts did so because the competition for fruit or berries (I'm paraphrasing, but the essence is there!) meant there was not enough to support an ever larger population. At some point a bird was born with a slightly stronger beak that tried and succeeded in eating nuts. The offspring carried this on until, hey presto finches with bigger beaks eating nuts, larger population able to be sustained, nature will find a way, survival of the fittest and no God anywhere. Perfect. But I don't understand why it couldn't just be simpler. When I pick up weights to exercise and build up my muscles (if you know me, you know I'm paraphrasing again!) I actually damage those muscles. My body then goes into repair mode, but usefully and without conscious thought, rebuilds them stronger. I am facing challenges to my body, so I need to be stronger, fitter to meet those challenges. Would it also affect my DNA? If I spent my time body building, would my progeny have a genetic disposition to greater body bulk, or to acquire it more quickly? Why not? Why can my muscles respond in this way, without a plan, but nothing else?

We accept that DNA can contain a schematic to make a whole human being, using the same cells at the outset to become completely different things later. We accept this, not least I would guess because it is a physical thing. So what on earth is instinct? A baby kangaroo is not born in the pouch, but that is where the teats and safety are. On being born (enough of a trauma you would have thought) the Joey has to cling on and then move up to where the pouch is and climb inside. Whilst its eyes are still closed. So, it not only has to be born with sufficiently strong muscles to hold on and move, it also has 'know' that it has to move and exactly where it needs to go. That is some dataset to transfer, or do they just make it through luck, happenchance?

All of the above suggests to me that there has to be some kind of feedback loop. Consider the finches. Life is getting tough for the little fellahs because there isn't enough fruit to go around. So, some of them try the nuts, but they struggle because of the shape of their beak. This 'information' feeds back into their genetic make up, because it is really important to these birds only just getting by, scraping the edges of nuts. Their offspring are subsequently born with slightly stronger beaks and do that bit better. It isn't 'intelligent design' (otherwise they might have opted for nutcrackers) but it isn't random chance either. It has been said that evolution seems to experience sudden rushes when things change rapidly and no-one knows why. Well have a think then. I really do despair of junk science. The AGW promoters are actually dangerous rather than deluded (that honour falls to their congregation) but it probably started that way, as a delusion. Like the recent space news. Having estimated the gravitational force of the universe and the mass it contains a whopping great discrepancy was found. Now, unlike schoolkids who are struggling to divide their sweets up correctly because their maths is crap, they didn't decide they must have got something wrong, no they invented 'dark matter'. It had to exist, otherwise they would be wrong about something, which doesn't seem to be a comfortable idea for scientists these days. It was dark, because you couldn't see it. But, like an invisible friend, now the thinking is that it doesn't exist. Yes, because science doesn't revolve around inventing answers. Theories are fine and await final proof, but when the theory itself, relies on 'well it has to exist' we are back to God again. What would Dawkins say to that!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Big Business

There is an association between big business and government that is both lazy and self-serving. It is lazy because, when a Minister wants to find out about an industry sector, he asks the big players who strangely seem to think government policy should be framed around their needs. The small guy not only doesn't get a chance to have a say but also is a likely target of the big guys. It is self-serving because these grateful companies then assist the politicians in word and deed. The most extreme example of this of course, is the banks. If there were two things banks were known for before the Crash it was the appallingly low level of 'customer service' and the size of their profits. Now of course we can add incompetence. They could survive, indeed do well despite the negative aspects because of the friendliness of the inhabitants of the big house, with the big clock down the road. I think in some ways we are seeing a rerun of an agricultural revolution, but in other industries though just as devastating. Enclosure was the result of technical changes to the way farming worked in Britain. It meant fewer very large farms at the expense of the little farmer. Everything was geared for scale and a few people grew exceedingly rich. Compare this with the tactics employed by say, Tesco today. They 'enclose' everything in a giant store and drive the small businesses out. Similarly, energy and utility companies take large profits (and offer poor service) because their product is 'enclosed' with near monopoly. Naturally the government is complicit in this anti-consumer activity. These very large companies seek to distort the market and use government influence to achieve it. Banks famously distorted the market, by making themselves so important that we couldn't allow them to fail. The EU is an even worse offender for asking big business how they would like things arranged. Not that they would be so crass as to couch it in such terms. And, to ensure no conviction politician rises up and carries a flaming torch on behalf of the people, political parties have enclosed their MP's, so that they are neutered and act collectively. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but it is probably just a train coming the other way. We need to get out of this damned tunnel!