For the best part of fifty years I have been trying, and failing, to understand (and remember) some philosophy. I have numerous books on the subject, from Philosophy Made Easy, to Bertrand Russell’s formidable History of Western Philosophy. In a weak moment I recently purchased Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations; translated from the German, it might just as well have been rendered in Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the sense it makes to me.
Occasionally I find a gem; one such is Cathcart and Klein’s Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar. Subtitled Understanding philosophy through jokes, it uses American (usually Jewish) humour to illustrate philosophical points.
However, the best book I have come across is undoubtedly Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason; the book charts the history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Gottlieb, sometime editor of The Economist, writes in the most accessible journalistic style. One guesses that he has a permanent twinkle in his eye, since every now and then he delights in chronicling the amusing, bizarre and sometimes downright bawdy. On Francis Bacon:
Bacon … frequently did not know what he was talking about and had the remarkable ability for looking the wrong way when something interesting was going on.
[Aristotle said that] men naturally have more teeth than women. Some people have wondered why he never asked Mrs Aristotle to open her mouth so that he could check…
On Epicurus, Gottlieb related what a former member of Epicurus’ inner circle had said about the man:
… for years he could not get out of his chair; but … nevertheless enjoyed close relations with four women in the commune who were known by the nicknames of Hedeia (‘Sweety-Pie’), Erotion (‘Lovie’), Nikidion (‘Little Victory’) and Mammarion (‘Big Tits’) …
Epicurus, Gottlieb insists, got an ill-deserved bad press. The Romans called him "The Pig".
If, when you're struggling to understand an obscure and subtle philosophical point, you enjoy the occasional chuckle, or indeed belly-laugh, particularly when you can’t see it coming, Gottlieb’s book is definitely for you.
Modified 21 January
It is quite possible that the greater part of the planet has fallen victim to the largest and most expensive confidence trick in all of history. Infinitely worse than any Ponzi scheme or the Enron scandal, the cost to all of us makes the liability of the banking crash of 2008 pale into insignificance; it affects virtually everyone in the so-called civilized word, and certainly every person reading this blog.
I refer of course to the scandal of Personal Computers. Consider the following: you purchase a new car in which to drive to work every day. Most of the time, the car works well and you are pleased with its performance. Now and then, it will not start and the AA have to be called out to get it going. Every few weeks or so, while driving the route you follow every day, the car just stops, or the brakes fail, or the windscreen wipers don’t work, or the radio becomes impossible to tune. How quickly I wonder, would you return the car to the dealer who sold it to you and demand a replacement or your money back? Clearly such a vehicle would not be fit for purpose.
And yet all of us who use PCs – here I refer to what used to be known as IBM PCs, not Apple Macs of which I have no experience – are apparently content to use a product which behaves exactly like the car described above, not once or twice, but over and over again. Before listing my grievances, I should say that computers confer an enormous benefit when they work. The internet and Google have virtually become the Encyclopaedia Galactica of science fiction. A greater part of human knowledge is available to anyone with a functioning PC and an internet connection; questions typed in simple English will nearly always provide the answer needed. The research for my three books and many articles would have been impossible – not difficult or time-consuming – but impossible, without the resources available on the internet. My actual writing would have been very much more difficult without word processing packages like Word. If I had had Excel when I was doing the number-crunching for my thesis, I could have finished it all in an afternoon – and displayed the results beautifully. Instead I spent weeks and weeks either crouched over a teletype connected to a primitive PDP11 computer somewhere in the bowels of the university. For the simpler stuff, I used my brand-new HP pocket calculator (cost, the equivalent of a week’s wages), complete with red LED display and Reverse Polish Logic (remember that?) My wife recalls the relentless thump, thump, thump, thump, as I inputted data hour after hour, day after day, to process the results. With my printer I can produce beautifully printed full-colour documents (when it works), and PowerPoint has revolutionized the quality of the slide-shows I present for talks or my WEA teaching.
But it all comes at a price, and I am seriously wondering whether it is a price worth continuing to pay. I estimate that I have spent many months of my life trying to make PCs and their peripherals – printers, scanners and routers – do just what it says on the tin. Here are some examples from my own experience:
Item: This appears elsewhere on the blog, but I repeat it here for completeness. Some months ago I enabled the free upgrade on my desktop PC – the one I use for all of my work – to Windows 10. Initially all seemed well although there were no obvious benefits other than a few ‘nice to have’ tweaks. Then, the start menu just stopped working; this meant that many of the programmes and tools on the computer were unavailable. I Googled the problem to discover that it was endemic. A number of fixed were suggested; none worked. Eventually via another user account created on the computer by a helpful man from Microsoft, I was able to enable an update and this cured the problem. For a time. Within that time, I decided to upgrade my laptop to Windows 10. Then the start menu on the desktop failed again, and remains failed as I write this. Then the start menu on the laptop failed. Fortunately, the laptop was within the 30 days’ grace period, and I was able to revert to Windows 7.
And it is not just the start menu that does not work. When I connect my iPad to download pictures, it is not recognized. Then the ultimate insult: I upgraded my Microsoft Office 365 to the new version, and the process deleted the links pinned to the task bar. Now I can only open Word by double clicking an existing Word file; ditto Excel and PowerPoint, and I can only load Outlook by right-clicking the start button – which function fortunately does still work – and typing ‘run outlook’. (‘Run’ word does not work...) Naturally all of these programmes, Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, refuse to allow themselves to be pinned to the task bar.
Item: A few years ago I purchased an HP colour laser printer which also copies and scans. Connection is via WiFi, Ethernet or USB cable. About six months ago, the scanner facility stopped working. Reinstalling the printer made the scanner work for about 24 – 48 hours, and then it failed again. I have tried connecting the printer up all three ways, and have reinstalled it probably a dozen times. The HP forum made some helpful suggestions but none of them work. It will not scan although it prints and copies normally.
Item: I just purchased a NAS unit (Network Access Server) to separate the storage of my precious data from any particular computer – stimulated by the on-going Windows 10 problem. Within two days it stopped working – possibly finger trouble on my part – but despite several suggestions from the manufacturer, it continues not to work.
Item: We are now on our fourth router in eight or so years. They run ok and then just stop working for no apparent reason. When I pressed our ISP about this – I use Technicolor routers, the type they recommend – the engineer said “Yes they do that; they use cheap components and fail within one or two years.”
Item: I used Google Chrome on my desktop computer for several years. It seemed to work well and I liked the functionality. Then, some months ago, it just stopped working. It works fine on my laptop and my wife’s PC – virtually the same model as mine – but after several reinstalls it just would not work. I installed Mozilla Firefox, and so far it seems to be ok. (And the only programme that has ever crashed on my iPad - several times now - is Google Chrome...)
Item: Three or four years ago I decided to invest in a new desktop computer. I went to PC World and chose a well-known make, it was ACER or something similar. I got it home, plugged it in and it failed to boot. I took it back; they replaced it with an identical model and the same thing happened. I took it back and selected an HP. All was well for a few days, and then it failed to boot… I returned it and got my money back.
I could add to all of this the countless hours I have spent trying to get printers to print, and of course, the good old days when a PC would just freeze or crash for no apparent reason. Also, the hours, days and weeks I have spent reinstalling programmes because something has become corrupted.
The problem, the real problem, is best illustrated by two anecdotes. First from banking: If you owe your bank manager a million pounds, he has you by the balls; if you owe him a hundred million, then you have him by the balls…
And Richard Nixon, sometime President of the USA, in the context of some policy observed: “When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”
So there you have it. We in the developed world, and I suspect in much of the developing world also, have invested so much money, time and effort into the various so-called ‘benefits’ that PCs confer on us, that we have no alternative. We can’t go back, and just to stay operational, we have to put up with whatever the whizz-kids at Microsoft, Google and all the others throw at us. More and more though, I find myself sympathising with the Luddites and the Swing Rioters. How much more, I wonder, will it take to push all of us over the edge?
Well now, here is a conundrum: Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, says “The EU is disastrous for the UK…” John Major, sometime Prime Minister of this country, says that we should be in the EU in an increasingly dangerous world.
One hears the arguments played out in the TV and radio studios: politician A says we would save enormous amounts of money, not be subject to European integration and still be able to trade just as effectively with the EU if we left. Politician B says no, that’s nonsense; the cost of trading would be virtually the same, and we’re far better off in than out.
Clearly there are emotional issues; some people ‘feel’ close to the Europeans and want to be ‘in’; others feel exactly the opposite. This is a fair and understandable position. But the financial argument surely must be subject to a relatively simple analysis. Is it cheaper in or out? Tell us that, then each one of us can weigh the emotional argument against the financial one and make a decision.
What is infuriating, is that the ‘stays’ insist that we will save no money if we leave; the ‘leavers’ insist that we will. Both propositions cannot be correct. We need an objective assessment where both sides agree to the validity of the analysis, so that we, the voters, are able to make an informed decision on what must be one of the most important votes this country has ever had to make.
Here is the text of an email I sent to my MP, Sir Simon Burns, yesterday; Sir Simon is a sometime minister of health.
Dear Sir Simon,
You may already be aware of the notice I have attached to this email concerning the resignation of the senior team at Sutherland Lodge Surgery in Chelmsford.
Doctors there have been looking after me and my family for the 35 years that we have lived here. I am absolutely staggered, that with our new city status, at a time of an aging population – with a number of new sheltered housing projects being built in Chelmsford right now and with new housing appearing almost anywhere that there is a place to build, that a successful practice should lose a third of its current funding.
Would you please, as a matter of extreme urgency, investigate what on earth is going on and let me know, if this is not a joke in very bad taste, just how my wife and I will continue to get the general medical care we will need in the future.
Yours sincerely etc.
The note should be self-explanatory; the four senior GPs, all of whom at one time or another have treated me and my family over at least the last 25 years or so, have resigned en masse with effect from June 2016 as a result of the catastrophic reduction in funding.
I am almost at a loss for words at what has happened. Is this another triumph for the Minister of Health, Jeremy Hunt? I await an explanation with extreme interest and will reproduce any relevant facts here.
Update 13th January:
A rather positive reply received yesterday
Dear Dr Maggs,
Thank you for your email about the Sutherland Lodge GP Practice and I am as concerned as you are about the situation.
The situation has arisen as a result of the Government phasing out the Minimum Practice Income Guarantee, which was announced two years ago. The purpose of this change in funding is to eliminate a problem that arose as a result of the 2004 GP Contract.
I am attaching a letter I received from the then Minister at the time and paragraphs 2 and 3 outline the situation. Notwithstanding this, I am extremely concerned about the impact that this is having on Sutherland Lodge and as a matter of urgency, I have written to the Secretary of State for Health and NHS England to see if anything can be done to alleviate the impact that this is going to have on what is a first rate GP Practice in Chelmsford.
I have had an opportunity to speak to the Health Minister responsible for GP services and explained to him my deep concerns about the impact this policy is having on GP Practices. He has promised to look into this as a matter of urgency and will get back to me. I hope that as a result of this intervention something can be done to rectify what I believe is an inadvertent consequence of changes to the funding of GP Practices.
The Rt. Hon. Sir Simon Burns MP
Member of Parliament for Chelmsford
My first band started playing around the dancehalls in 1961. In those days there was no standard power socket, and consequently providing electricity for our guitar amplifiers was always a bit of a challenge. There was two-pin round, three-pin round (small), three-pin round (large) and very occasionally three-pin square (the modern standard). If all else failed, we could plug into a light socket with a bayonet plug.
By default, I was the electrician. Even our own amplifiers had different plugs on them, and no-one thought of standardising or using a distribution board. The usual procedure therefore was to take the plugs off all the power leads, twist the lives (red) and the neutrals (black) together with a separate length of cable, bare the wires at the other end of the cable, and poke them into whatever socket was available using matchsticks to keep them there. The junction point, where all the wires came together, was put under a carpet or mat for insulation…
Amazingly we never had a fire, and although I did receive a number of shocks myself, we never managed to kill anyone.
But guitar amplifiers could be dangerous; even later on, earthing was frequently not present, and it was not unusual for a microphone or the guitar pickups to float up to mains voltage. All was well provided nothing that was earthed was touched, but I saw a bass-guitarist from another band once get a shock from a microphone, sufficiently violent that he broke his guitar strap and the guitar crashed to the floor. He was unhurt but very shaken.
There were lighter moments though. In the early days we played at a dancehall in a hotel, long since demolished, on the seafront at Dovercourt in Essex. They had their own PA system with expensive moving-coil microphones, and some engineering genius had fitted the microphone leads with small, three-pin round plugs, identical to mains plugs, for plugging into the PA amplifier system. Amazingly, the hall had the same mains sockets for power. One of us, who shall remain nameless, decided to help me set things up. He saw the microphone plug, plugged it into the mains socket and switched the latter on. I was standing near the microphone. There was no sound, but an exquisite, tiny, ring-shaped puff of smoke exited from the microphone as its fine moving coil, having been connected across the national grid, was reduced to its constituent atoms.
Quietly, without alerting the hall manager, I unplugged the microphone and moved it to the side of the stage; we had to make do with just one microphone that night.
Ever the optimist, I upgraded my laptop to Windows 10 a week or so before the start menu on my desktop failed for the second time. And you’ll never guess, the start menu on my laptop has just stopped working.
I might be within the 30 days to revert back to Windows 7, I really can’t remember; of course an initial attempt fails because to get to ‘settings’ to do the reversion, it is necessary to have a start menu… The irony would be delicious if it wasn’t so maddening.
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they drive them mad…”
Update added 7th January... Oh joy! Oh rapture! I found the keyboard route to Settings, and after dire warnings from Microsoft about passwords being needed for Windows 7, my laptop is now back in the land of the Windows 7 living.
It may be, in fact it MUST be, that further updates to Windows 10 will fix my desktop computer in the fullness of time. And it is not just the start menu that is not working; all sorts of other, more subtle things do not work. For example, I plug in my iPad to transfer some pictures, and the computer fails to recognize it as a drive, even though iTunes comes up.
Meanwhile, to anyone with Windows 7 or 8.1 being inundated with messages telling them how good Windows 10 is and to upgrade now, my advice is wait! You have until around August 2016 to do it. Even Microsoft must be able to sort out the problems by then. And if you doubt that there are problems, just Google 'Windows 10 problems'.
From one who has spent 10s of hours trying to sort out this issue, you have been warned!
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs