Sunday, 3 December 2017

Changeling Children and Poisoned Milk

Each night, I read Michael Rosen's 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' aloud to my son, Finn Jr. It's one of the few children's books that meet his exacting standards. I no longer need the book to prompt the words as I can quote each verse verbatim, which is good because I get to look at Helen Oxenbury's whimsical illustrations.

In anticipation of a future where night time stories have a little more psychological depth, I have begun to research Faerie stories. These are the stories of the otherworld that mirrors our own and is peopled by immortal creatures who look human, but envy our youth and promise and our ability to change. The stories are told from the mountainous Himalayas to the craggy coasts of Ireland. Ancient versions of the myths are recorded on clay tablets in Sumerian (the written language common to Babylon and Nineveh in the 3rd Millennium BCE). Modern versions can be found in the writings of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clark. As with all folklore, there is no urtext and the stories vary by time and location. But all inform our common humanity. 

Take the story of Lilitu - alluded to in poems associated with the Gilgamesh cycle and later appearing as the succubus Lilith in Jewish mythology - this Babylonian Faerie lives in the otherworld and cannot raise children of her own because of her venomous breastmilk. She longs for a child and so steals into the world of humans at night and suckles human infants. Those babies that are suckled by Lilitu take their fill of poisoned milk at night, refuse to suckle at their mother's breast by day and inevitably die. 

You can see how this works as a supernatural explanation of high infant mortality - a death rate that was most likely due to the crowded conditions and poor sanitation in your average Mesopotamian city. Blame the elves not the city governors. Although there is an underlying theme of demonisation of the childless woman. 

The myth of the 'Changeling' is another story that features heavily in Faerie folklore. Here a human child is swapped for an immortal Faerie that has been enchanted to look like the stolen baby. The Faeries raise the child in the otherworld. The parents lose out on the youth and promise that a new life represents.

If you are concerned that your baby might be a Changeling, the traditional way to prove it is to boil water in an eggshell. Human babies cannot speak, but changelings can. The Changeling child will be so intrigued by your peculiar eggshell water boiling actions that he will ask what you are doing. The dark side of all this is that Changelings could be abandoned in the forest. The myth may hint at a darker reality of infanticide in times of famine and the stories humans tell themselves to justify
their most evil actions.

As interesting as all this research has proved, I don't think I'm going to be reading Finn Jr any of these stories anytime soon. For the time being, I think we'll stick with hunting bears.

" shiny wet nose, two big furry ears..."

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Things My Son Knows That I Don't

For part of my degree in linguistics, I had to do a course in phonetics. The phonetics professor, Ken, was a friendly chap with a good sense of humour. For two hours a week, he had to stand at the front of a class full of linguistics undergraduates sounding a selection of the 600 or so linguistic noises that are used in human languages. We had to write down the symbol and description of the sound he was making. This went on for a whole term. His wife died the year I studied with him, but he kept coming in: chanting his noises while we students frantically tried to listen for whether this particular non-velar alveolar fricative was voiced or unvoiced.

I've been thinking about Ken a lot in the last few weeks as I listen to my son, Finn Jr, produce a variety of pre-linguistic sounds - he's particularly good at uvular rolls.

There's a particular fact about first language acquisition that most linguists take for granted, but other parents look at you like you're mad if you mention it: every child is born knowing all the possible human linguistic sounds, but they forget the ones that they don't hear used around them. My four-and-a-half-month-old son currently has knowledge of all 600 or so phonemes - just like my old phonetics professor! But, over the next year, he will forget all but the 40 or so that are used in English.

The international phonetic alphabet. These symbols can be combined to transcribe the phonetics of any language.

You also probably think that I am barking mad - ascribing such knowledge to a babe in arms who can't sit up without the aid of a Bumbo - so here's a brief rundown of the argument.

Parents have insufficient knowledge to teach a baby how to make linguistic sounds. (This is the point where other parents of babies can get a bit offended).

The average parent may say "[m],[m]" to their child and be ecstatic when the infant says "mama" back. But at what point did the parent pass on knowledge of when to open and close the velum and whether or not to sound the vocal cords? The complexity of the child's linguistic behaviour is far beyond the ability of the parent to impart.   

I spent a term of my University education trying to learn the human linguistic sounds and I only just about managed to master the consonants (except the clicks) and I never learned to tell the difference between a rounded unvoiced vowel and an unrounded unvoiced vowel without looking at the shape of the lips. And I was being taught by an expert, remember. 

Despite how tricky the whole subject of phonetics is to learn: any baby can learn any language. That is to say, if you kidnapped Finn Jr (please don't, his mother would kill me) and had him raised by a Japanese-speaking or Swahili-speaking family: he would grow up speaking that language.

The nativist claim that infants are born with the knowledge of all phonemes and forget the ones that they don't hear is less fantastical than the belief that parents are somehow able to pass on knowledge that they don't possess.

But you try bringing up Ockham's Razor with the other mums and dads at messy play... 

Finn Jr voicing some of the 600 linguistic sounds he knows.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Shelf Indulgence

Soon after we moved, I decided to put up some bookshelves in our new house. I spent a pleasant afternoon sanding and painting some second-hand shelving units, nailing them to the walls and smugly posting pictures of them on social media.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot Deborah the Giraffe subtly placed where I don't have to look at her from my spot on  the sofa

(If you're nosy enough to have zoomed in, you are probably wondering why the Myths and Legends of the British Isles isn't next to Lady Gregory's Irish Myths and Legends. Truth is: the shelving project is a work in progress and I haven't bothered sorting them all properly yet.)

It was a lovely sunny day, so we took Finn Jr out for a walk. I bought myself a bottle of wine that I planned to drink as a well-deserved reward for the hour of DIY that I had put in. 

Upon our return, I discovered that every single electrical socket in the house had mysteriously stopped working. Because of the subtle foreshadowing ("...nailing...walls...") that I included in the introductory paragraph, you may guess where this is leading but, at the time, this was a total mystery. 

Charlie questioned whether my putting up of pictures and shelves could be the root of the problem, but I explained that I had carefully examined the region and convinced myself that any wiring was running in some trunking that I had spotted to the right of where I wanted to position my shelves. You can see it for yourself in the picture above (next to Deborah the Giraffe).

We had the problem examined, first by my pal Raul and then by an electrician. Everyone was stumped. The electrician couldn't work out why there was a fault on two neutral circuits and was getting ready to rewire the entire house. In passing, I mentioned Charlie's theory that my DIY efforts might be responsible. There was a moment of stunned silence as Raul and the electrician tried to work out why I hadn't brought this up earlier. I explained about my observation that the wire went into some trunking. 

Turns out a fuse box has more than one wire coming out of it. If you're ever planning to put up some shelves. Remember: there are loads of wires buried in the wall - especially directly above the fuse box. By a million to one chance, I had nailed directly through two different neutral wires on the same circuit.

To fix the problem, the electrician had to remove floorboards in the upper floor of the house. And that's how we discovered that we've got asbestos in the ceiling...

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Parental Leave

Full-time salaried work is the hallmark of a badly organised society. If society were better organised, there would be zero unemployment and a lot more holidays. I love a bit of paid time off and the arrival of my first-born son was rewarded by the UK government with a blissful work-free fortnight. 

I'd heard that that neonates slept for like 18 hours a day, so thought I'd use my parental leave to catch up on a bit of reading. What I'd failed to realise was that I would be spending those 18 hours panicking about whether or not this small human that I had suddenly assumed joint responsibility for was still breathing. A month in and I'm a bit more casual. I can update this blog from the sofa while he is on the floor asleep on a cushion*. The breathing checks are now every thirty seconds or so rather than constant like in the early days.

Rudyard Kipling says in the first of the Jungle Books that "...there is nothing so unlucky as to compliment children to their faces." I'm not sure about unlucky, but it is unsettling when people say in the same breath how cute a baby is and then how much he looks like his father (he's ginger and has my snub nose, the hair on his forehead is growing in - mine is going the other way). 

Perhaps I had the Kipling maxim somewhere in my subconscious when I mentioned to Charlie that I thought Finn Jr (alias - before anyone accuses me of unimaginatively naming my son after my blog which is named after my imaginary childhood friend) looks a bit like a Slitheen - the ludicrous farting aliens that appeared in the first couple of seasons of the relaunched Dr Who. This is now on my list of things that with hindsight I wish I hadn't mentioned. 

Here's a selfie I took in the hospital just after Finn Jr was born. We had to go into the surgery for the final stages of labour. They gave me my own set of scrubs. They are labelled 'dad' just in case anyone noticed my calm air of competence and mistook me for a consultant anaesthetist or something.  I'm sure you'd all rather see cute baby pics than me in my scrubs - but it feels slightly unethical to use these precious images just to garner a few extra hits on my blog.

Baby's waking up now. Next week: Why Kant's "On Education" should be required reading for all new parents.

*Please don't fill the comments section with chastisement about the cushion thing. It is a specially designed baby-safe cushion. 

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Not Hume's Problem: 10 Words I've Learned in the Last 9 Months

My wife and I have been manufacturing a human. To be honest, she is doing most of the hard work. I've been busying myself reading the instruction manuals. Here are some of the new words that I have learned:

  • Fundal (adj.) Relating to the fundus.
  • Fundus (n.) Height upwards round the belly. [Out of curiosity, as this is not a service provided by my tailor, I used the paper tape measure provided for fundal height measurements to measure upwards around my own belly - the result was 'taller' than I wanted to admit, so I pulled the tape measure tighter and it snapped and after that Charlie said I wasn't allowed to look at her maternity folder unless she was in the room.]
  • Induction (n.) In this obliquely technical usage, 'induction' is a way of encouraging a small human who has got used to his current surroundings to make his way into surroundings that will take considerably longer to get used to. [Like me, you probably immediately think of 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume when you see this word. But, in the topsy-turvy world of midwifery, 'induction' has nothing to do with the problem of inferring that "instances of which we have no experience resemble those of which we have had experience." (as Hume memorably put it.)]
  • Mucus Plug (n.) Like a normal plug - this plug stops waters from draining away, but it is made of mucus.
  • Multigravid (adj.) (Trans. from L. - author's own) Having experienced more than one heaviness (c.f. primagravid).
  • Occipito Anterior/Occipito Posterior (adj.) These Harry Potter spells make a muggle's head face the other way.
  • Primagravid (adj.) (Trans. from L. - author's own) Of or pertaining to the first heaviness (c.f. multigravid).
  • Show (n.) External manifestation of the mucus plug.
  • Sweep (n.) Intimate procedure that (uncharacteristically tactless) midwives have named after a glove puppet.
Bedside Reading

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Manifestos Manifest

Regular readers will know that I recently quit bartending and now I improve the quality of writing in little read corners of the internet for a living. As research for one of these projects, I read the Labour and Conservative manifesto proposals on Energy Policy. Anyhow, the article as I would have liked it to have gone out went unpublished - but reason will not be silenced! Here's what I found out.

Conservative Party Energy Policy

  • Cheaper Energy Bills for Homes and Businesses (p.22). That sounds good, doesn't it. My energy bills are expensive, how are they going to do it? The Tories are promising to put infrastructure in place to help large businesses improve their energy efficiency. Quite how giving large amounts of money to big business is going to reduce my energy bills is not further explained. 
  • A Diverse Energy Mix (p.22f). This section makes it clear that a Conservative government post-Brexit would form policy based on supply not generation. No mention of the fact that we can currently buy tariff-free energy from the EU or what their negotiating position on this will be. They say that they will stick to global commitments on Climate Change, but then go on to support...
  • Shale Gas Extraction (P.23). Don't let the language fool you. It is impossible to extract gas from shale without hydraulic fracturing. this is an explicit promise to allow fracking. Earth-tremor-causing, water-poisoning, mountain-eroding fracking. The Conservative Party propose to bribe communities with a proposed Shale Wealth Fund - this proposal includes a provision to pay individuals (read: landowners) and communities to allow fracking in their village. If global temperature rises are to be kept below 2 degrees, the majority of oil and gas deposits must be left in the ground.

Labour Party Energy Policy

(n.b. The pages aren't numbered on the online version of the manifesto - the relevant page is Sustainable Energy at the end of the section Creating an Economy that Works for All.)

  • Three Principles. Ensuring security of energy supply, reducing costs for consumers, transitioning to a low carbon economy
  • Cheaper Energy Prices for Homes and Businesses. Heard this one before. But here the plan is the opposite of the Tories' plan 'A' of handing taxpayer's money over to big business and hoping nobody notices. The Labour Party propose a cap on the price businesses can charge for energy and the setting up of locally-accountable, publicly-owned rivals to the big energy companies. Infrastructure will be put in place to assist with the insulation of 4 million homes - interest free loans for homeowners upgrading their insulation and rewards for landlords who improve the insulation in their tenanted properties. 
  • Ban Fracking. The Labour Party plan to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in line with recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change. As you'd expect - fracking is opposed as part of this commitment.
There's significantly more on energy policy in the Labour Party Manifesto than the Conservative Manifesto. I've covered the entire Tory energy policy and restricted myself to showing how Labour differ on these points. That's letting the Tories set the agenda, I suppose - but what can I say? I'm lazy. Perhaps you can cover other areas (not just energy policy) on your blogs and between us we can build up a picture of where the parties stand on key issues? 

To keep things light, here's a picture of a statuette of Apollo that I found in a charity shop and Charlie told me was an unsuitable gift for friends who were hosting us for dinner (we got them a potted helleborus instead).

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Let's All Vote for More Paid Time Off

One of the benefits of my recent career change is that I now get Bank Holidays - paid time off. Workers getting paid time off is an unusual phenomenon. Bank Holidays and holiday pay and sick pay and maternity leave are rights that workers have fought and campaigned hard to win for themselves. 

Anyone working in the hospitality sector knows not to take these rights for granted. In large swathes of the sector, sick pay is non-existent - you either come to work sick or you don't get paid; maternity benefits seldom exceed minimum government requirements - anecdotally, they are sometimes ignored altogether; those on zero-hours contracts do not accrue holiday. Bank Holidays are irrelevant to hospitality workers.

For most of my working life, Bank Holidays meant nothing to me. In the very earliest days of my bartending career, the pub I worked in paid time-and-a-half on Bank Holidays - most pubs did, because it was recognised that you were working when everyone else was off. The industry bosses eventually reasoned that it was stupid to pay extra for a quiet shift (Bank Holiday Mondays are notoriously quiet because everyone has overspent at the weekend). The un-unionised bartending workforce was powerless to fight back. The custom seemed to disappear sometime around the turn of the Century.

The Labour Party has announced plans for four more bank holidays. This is entirely consistent with the Labour Party's historical agenda to improve conditions for working people. More time off makes people healthier, happier and more productive when they get back to work. They get a chance to rest and spend time with their friends and family and generally do more of the things that people tend to regret not doing more of on their deathbed.

We are an exceptionally wealthy nation (albeit that the wealth is poorly distributed). We can afford to pay people to have time off. Let's all vote for more paid time off when we go to the ballot box on June 8th and lets also make sure that those people serving us in the pubs whilst we are enjoying the paid time off are fairly remunerated for their hours. (Or at least buy them a pint when you are getting your round in).

Never let it be said that my Labour Party membership makes me uncritical of their policies. Four extra bank holidays is a great idea, but placing them on the Patron Saints' days of the four home nations is dumb. Our Bank Holidays are already too Spring heavy with Easter and the two May Bank Holidays. Adding two in March and one each in April and November is silly. Let's have some time off in the summer!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Notes on Democracy

Those of you who know your Herodotus won't need reminding of the history of Cleisthenes of Athens - the politician who accidentally invented democracy. He extended voting rights to landless citizens (the plethos) not out of philosophical principle, but to increase his power in government. Like Alec Salmond giving 16 year-old voters a say in the 2014 Scottish Referendum, Cleisthenes was relying on the principle that the newly enfranchised would back their enfranchiser.  

Cleisthenes - not to be confused with his uncle the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon

The Athenians loved their new found power and went on to win the battle of Salamis using the novel tactic of ramming the Persians' boats. Both boats would sink, but only the Persian sailors would drown because (unlike the Greeks) they couldn't swim. 

For the next two-and-a-half thousand years or so democracy kept bubbling up in Europe and being squashed again. The most important step was when it occurred to a few enlightened individuals that possession of ovaries shouldn't necessarily debar people from the right to choose who represents them in government. This idea was hugely unpopular - especially with people whose reproductive equipment pointed downwards most of the time. However, after a long struggle, women over the age of 21 won the right to vote in 1928 - that's not that long ago. I own books that are older than universal suffrage!

I'm a big fan of democracy. Even though I seem consistently to back the losing side. Regular readers will remember:

My firstborn is due the same week as the UK election. Two thoughts occur:
  1.  Let's use this opportunity to make our small island a fairer place.
  2.  I wonder if Charlie likes the name Cleisthenes...  

Monday, 27 March 2017

Early Riser

You may not have noticed because you're used to it but, in the morning, all the shadows point the wrong way. Obviously, I knew this was the case on a conceptual level. But being suddenly exposed to the horrific reality of this phenomenon five days a week is quite the shock. I suppose, in time, I will get used to it, too. Such is the way of things. With every new day that passes, the new becomes the everyday.  

My new job is a 45 minute commute on foot from my home. Everybody I tell this too says, "Get a bike!" But I'm not in that much of a hurry and it has long been an ambition of mine to listen to all 700 episodes of In Our Time that are available to download for free from the BBC website.

In Our Time is a radio programme about the history of ideas, so quite why it is called In Our Time, I have no idea. The premise is simple: Each week, Melvyn Bragg (memorably described by the comedian Hugh Dennis as "the man everyone wants on their pub quiz team") discusses a different topic with three academics. I figure I've got a couple of years worth of commutes covered.

Early mornings are okay provided you go to bed early. My Nana always told me that "Hours [of sleep] before midnight are worth double." It just goes to show how wise Nanas are.

The streets are surprisingly crowded at 8am. And I'm starting to recognise people that I pass at the same time every weekday. The coffee shop owner who always seems to be arranging pastries on the counter when I pass. The girl who vapes her way up Prince of Wales Road trailing the smell of blueberries. The secretary of Norwich Celtic Supporters Club who I know from the pub, but has yet to recognise me in my new disguise as an office commuter - cropped hair, tucked in shirt, sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones.

I'll leave you with that anthem to early risers everywhere...


Friday, 24 February 2017

Threads and Bins

For the last twenty years, most of my wardrobe has consisted of promotional T-shirts that I get free from breweries. I have a couple of pairs of jeans or shorts in circulation depending on the season and for bar work I generally wore walking boots all year round. I also own a suit for christenings, weddings and funerals.

Basically, I have no clothes of the sort of mid-level formality I associate with the modern office worker. 

I am practising getting up early this week, so I went into the city in the morning to buy some clothes. Having not bought any clothes for the last couple of decades, I didn't really know where to go. I know that Primark is the cheapest, but I'm sure I read that all their shirts are made by children in Bangladeshi sweatshops, so I wandered into a shop called 'H and M' (The sign didn't seem to say what the letters stand for - Haberdashery and Something?)  and bought two shirts - one in olive green and one in burgundy. 

Clearly, I have an eye for colour. But I've been a bit worried about some of the other functions of my eyes - so while I was in the city, I nipped into Specsavers to have them tested.

I don't know when you last had your eyes tested, but there's a bit during the health check part when they shine the light in your eyes to check for tumours or something. Whilst this was happening I experienced a vision of the interior of my own eye - a coloured veiny web in green and red - the whole thing was a bit trippy. I said as much to the optometrist.

"That's perfectly normal that is exactly what I can see," he said.

My point was that it is not normal for me to have a vision of what the person next to me is looking at. I wanted some kind of explanation of the perceptual phenomenon - what was causing me to see the inside of my eye projected across my field of vision? But he didn't seem interested in explaining this to me. 

To be honest, he seemed a bit cross with me - apparently I kept giving contradictory answers about how blurry things were through various lenses. Also, when he was testing my right (bad) eye, he asked me if I could tell him what the letters were in the bottom of three rows. I told him I could tell him exactly what they were because he had just tested me on the same letters with my left (good) eye and I had committed them to memory. N O A H Z. I asked if I could have a new sequence of letters and he said no. 

All in all a successful morning. I own a pair of shirts and I will soon own a pair of glasses. I let the lady in the shop choose the frames, she seemed to know what she was talking about.


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Time at the Bar, Thank You

I suppose you are all familiar with the old Westcountry saying: "Nobody goes to a bartender's funeral." I figure that it can be read in one of three ways.

  •  Bartenders are immortal. Much as we may want this to be true, it is not. If it were true - I imagine a lot more people would consider bartending as a career.
  •  Bartenders are unloved. Demonstrably false (or people are very good liars).
  •  Bartending is a job generally filled by younger persons who in most cases move on before they die.
I quit my bar job. This may seem like an odd thing for a philosopher poet bartender to do. There are some things I'll miss, I suppose:

  • Never having to start work before midday.
  • The comradery of tackling a particularly tricky cryptic crossword.
  • Having a cheeky pint towards the end of a shift.
  • Ringing a bell and shouting (only bartenders, town criers and lepers get to do this).
  • Reading the newspaper at work.
  • Chatting to randoms who are in town only briefly but are your best friend after five pints.
  • Getting Tommy to watch the bar while I go for a smoke.
  • Stealing the ham and Tuna sandwiches on pool night.

Other things, I'll be glad to see the back of:

  • 2am finishes.
  • Finding someone has already done the crossword before my shift starts.
  • The smell of the glasswasher.
  • People who say "How much?" and pretend that they are not going to pay when you tell them the price of their pint. This happens at least twice an hour and these people make the same joke every time they order a drink! And their friends always think it is the funniest joke they've ever heard. 
  • Sport - I am the Chinese Room of sports conversation. I just repeat things I don't understand that other people have said. If you accidentally find yourself watching the Six Nations on Saturday, try saying: "England have got nothing after the third phase."
  • Making the ham and tuna sandwiches on pool night.  

Finnginn - philosopher poet bartender. I developed this blog as an outlet for these three facets of my personality. I suppose the question is: does Finnginn still serve a purpose now that he no longer serves a pint? 

I'm not much of a one for existential crises. I think we'll just keep the Finnginn nom-de-plume going on the flimsy premise that I can still think like a bartender even if I'm not actually being paid minimum wage to act like one anymore.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Mr Popper's Pensées

It may seem, at first glance, that Margaret Thatcher and I have little in common - what with her being a deceased former Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom widely held responsible for the demolition of the Welfare State and me being a part-time bartender with anarcho-syndicalist sympathies who talks to his cactus - however, I was alarmed to discover recently that Maggie and I have the same favourite philosopher: step forward, Karl Popper.

I've written about Popper here before - you probably read the account of how I used Conjecture and Refutation to find the cause of a mysterious noise in my flat back in 2013 and thought that I had exhausted my Popper material. But I have a couple more things to say.

Karl Popper is held up as one of the great defenders of Liberal Democracy. This is chiefly the legacy of a book he wrote in New Zealand during the Second World War (he was an Austrian of some Jewish descent, so continental Europe was not a place that he could stick around in at that time). The Open Society and its Enemies is a pretty zippy title for a work of political philosophy. No wonder it has sold better than its sequel, The Poverty of Historicism.

The citizens of open societies are permitted (even encouraged) to ask questions about the best way of doing things in a kind of rolling debate that prioritises pragmatism over dogmatism. Closed societies, by contrast, limit the questions that may be asked. Primitive closed societies achieve this by Taboo. The governments of advanced closed societies enact policies based on the dogma of their particular utopian vision and debate and criticism is discouraged or even punished.

Popper's big contribution to the philosophy of science is his Principle of Falsification. He offers a solution to the problem of demarcation - how do you differentiate science from pseudoscience? - by defining science as a process that:

  1.  Offers up theories that can be falsified.
  2.  Vigorously attempts to falsify those theories.
  3.  Abandons those theories that are found to be false. 

My copy of The Open Society and Its Enemies is on Kindle,
so here's a picture of The Logic of Scientific Discovery

There is a link between Popper's political philosophy and his work in the philosophy of science. An open society should approach a problem like a scientist. If an approach is found not to work, it should be abandoned in favour of a different one.

The problem with this is what to use as your benchmark of success or failure of a policy. In a truly open society, this is up for discussion as well. Obviously, here in the UK - from Thatcher, through the New Labour years to the present Brexit fiasco - the benchmark for policy adjustment has been and will be set by neoliberal ideology not open discussion. More's the pity.

A major critic of Karl Popper's work in the Philosophy of Science was Thomas Kuhn. In his slim and eminently readable The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn pointed out accurately that the work that scientists do bears little relation to science as Popper defines it. I have never understood why this is considered a criticism of Popper and not of scientists. In my view, Popper's major theses in his scientific and political work could be considered normatively - he can be read as describing how things should be not how things are.

The United States inaugurates its new President on Friday. By Popper's standards, the USA is a pretty open society. The american people can question its government's decisions and protest its actions. The press is independent of government and can be critical of power (except corporate power, obviously, you don't bite the hand that feeds you). Let's hope that the open nature of American society will enable its people to keep tabs on their new leader and mitigate some potential disasters that might ensue from his team's environmental and nuclear policies.      

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Limoncello Reminiscences

One of the first times I got drunk was on limoncello - the liqueur that Italians make from their annual glut of lemons - I was on a school trip to Italy, age 14, and we discovered that the Italian shopkeepers had no qualms about selling souvenir bottles of the strong (about 20% ABV) sweet alcoholic drink to teenagers. We smuggled the bottles back to the hotel room.

On that trip, we climbed Mount Vesuvius and explored the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we saw the Colosseum and took a tour of the Catacombs of Rome, we took a ferry across the bay of Naples and visited the island of Capri. But if you asked me what I remember most, twenty years later, it would be the taste of limoncello, the boldness that drinking it engendered and the hedgehog notepaper on which Sarah-who-sat-behind-me-in-Science replied politely and negatively to my bold and poetic request for a date.

Limoncello has crept into my life once or twice since then. Notably, on a trip to the Peak District in 2013, where five friends and I depleted the entire limoncello stock of a small Derbyshire village pub. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the following day, I felt too ill to embark on a tour of the world's largest Blue John mine which I had been rather looking forward to. 

It occurred to me (as these whims sometimes do - see also the time I made some face-powder for my Sister-in-Law) that it might be a good idea to make some Limoncello for my Mother-in-Law for Xmas. Limoncello is made by soaking lemon peel in ethanol for months then adding a tonne of sugar to make it palatable.

I wanted to use Trump Vodka as my base spirit but, would you believe it? The President-Elect's brand was discontinued in 2011. Luckily, I was able to source a bottle of Putinoff.

Premium vodka.
I was in a hurry (it was the week before Xmas) and I didn't have months to soak the lemon peel. Pro tip: if you ever need to make vodka taste of lemons in a hurry, you can just soak some wedges of lemon in the vodka in your fridge for a couple of days.

Job done.
The final step is to make a sugar syrup and mix everything together with some lemon zest.

The zest of one lemon.
Just make sure the jar or bottle you use is properly sealed, because you wouldn't want your limoncello to, for example, leak all over everybody else's Secret Santa presents. That would be bad. Your wife would probably tell you off or something.