Category Archives: In the media

What exactly is ‘science’?

I used to think science was the practice of the scientific method; i.e. you propose a hypothesis, you develop a test of the hypothesis, execute it and prove the hypothesis.

That worked for me until the end of high school.

At university, I was a true nerd. I read all my textbooks cover to cover (mainly because as I was too shy for girls and too poor for booze). During this time, the definition above started to fail. So much of the science was maths, statistics, observation, pattern recognition, logic and quite a bit of rote learning. Not all of it fitted into my definition of science. I became a fan of a new definition: science is the study of the nature of reality .

But then I did post-grad, and I realised that not much in science is ‘proven’ (I guess this is the point of post grad study). Evolution, for example, is not proven. That the sun revolves around the earth is not ‘proven’. I discovered that the only things that could be proven were ‘ideas’ about ‘other ideas’. Bear with me on this one.

Let us say we define the number system – this is an ‘idea’ or conceptual construction. Within this construction we can ‘prove’ that one and one is two. Because we ‘made’ the system, with rules, then we can make factual and true statements about it. We can’t do this about the real world – we cannot say anything with absolute certainly because we rely on flaky inputs like our own highly fallible perception.

It’s like that old chestnut: how can you be sure you are not living in a giant simulation? Of course you can argue that it is pretty unlikely and I would agree, and right there we have a clue to a better definition of science.

It turns out that much of modern science deals in ‘likelihood’ and ‘probability’ rather than proof and certainty. For example, we can say that the theory of evolution is very likely to be more-or-less right, as there is a lot of corroborating evidence. Science cannot be run like a law court – where the prosecution only need to reach a threshold of reasonable doubt to ‘prove’ someone guilty.

Aside for nerds: Science says you can use logic to prove things absolutely, but logic only works with ideas, and there is a breakdown between ideas and reality, so one can never prove things in reality. So it is thoroughly wrong for a court to say that someone has been proven guilty. The courts use this language as a convenience, to “draw a line under” a case as they have not found a moral way to dole out punishments based on probabilities. Imagine a world in which a murder suspect gets a 5 year sentence because the was a 20% chance he was guilty! Sports referees often operate in this decisive way, perhaps because it saves a lot of arguing!

Anyway, good science cannot just give up and say once there is consensus something passes from theory to fact. This is sloppy. We have to keep our options open – forever.

Think for example of Newton’s Laws of Motion. They are called ‘Laws’ because the scientific community had so much faith in them they passed from theory (or a proposed model) to accepted fact. But they were then found wrong. Strange that we persist in calling them laws!

It took Einstein’s courage (and open mindedness) to try out theories that dispensed with a key plank of the laws – that time was utterly inflexible and completely constant and reliable.

So it is that the canon of scientific knowledge has become a complex web of evidence and theories that attempt to ‘best fit’ the evidence.

Alas, there are still many propositions that many so-called scientists would claim are fact or at least ‘above reproach’. Evolution is attacked (rather pathetically), but the defenders would do well to take care before they call it ‘fact’. It is not fact, it is a superbly good explanation for the evidence, which has yet to fail a test of its predictions. So it is very very likely to be right, but it cannot be said to be fact.

This is not just a point of pedantry (though I am a bit of a pedant) – it is critical to keep this in mind as it is the key to improving our model.

Two great examples of models people forget are still in flux…

1) The big bang theory

2) Quantum theory

I will not go into global warming here though it is tempting. That is one where it doesn’t even matter if it is fact, because game theory tells you that either way, we better stop making CO2 urgently.

Back to the big bang.

I heard on the Skeptic’s Guide podcast today about an NSF questionnaire that quizzed people about whether they believed the universe was started with a massive explosion, and they tried to paint the picture that if you didn’t believe that, then you were ignorant of science. This annoyed me, because the big bang theory is now too often spoken of as if it were fact. Yes, the theory contributes viable explanations for red-shifted pulsars, background radiation, etc, etc, but people are quick to forget that it is an extrapolation relying on a fairly tall pile of suppositions.

I am not saying it is wrong, all I am saying is that it would be crazy to stop exploring other possibilities at this point.

You get a feeling for the sort of doubts you should have from the following thought experiment:

Imagine you are a photon born in the big bang. You have no mass, so you cannot help but travel at ‘light speed’. But being an obedient photon, you obey the contractions in the Lorentz equations to the letter, and time thus cannot pass for you. However, you are minding your own business one day when suddenly you zoom down toward planet earth and head straight into a big radiotelescope. Scientists analyse you and declare that you are background radiation dating from the big bang and that you have been travelling for over 13 billion years (they know this because they can backtrack the expansion of the universe). Only trouble is, that for you, no time has passed, so for you, the universe is still new. Who is right? What about a particle that was travelling at 0.999 x the speed of light since the big bang? For it, the universe is some other intermediate age. So how old is the universe, really?

This reminds us of the fundamental proposition of relatively – time is like a gooey compressible stretchable mess, and so is space, so the distance across the universe may be 13.5 billion light years, or it might be a micron (how it felt to the photon). It all depends on your perspective. It is much like the statement that the sun does not revolve around the earth and that it is the other way around. No! The sun does revolve a round the earth. You can see it clearly does. From our perspective at least.

Now, quantum theory.

Where do I start? String theory? Entanglement? Please.

The study of forces, particles, EM radiation and the like is the most exciting part of science. But being so complex, so mysterious, so weird and counter intuitive, it is super vulnerable to abuse.

Most people have no idea how to judge the merits of quantum theories. Physicists are so deep in there, they have little time (or desire or capability) to explain themselves. They also love the mystique.

I do not want to ingratiate myself with physicists, so I will add that the vast majority have complete integrity. They do want to understand and then share. However, I have been working in the field for long enough to know that there are weaknesses, holes and downright contradictions in the modern theory that are often underplayed. In fact these weaknesses are what make the field so attractive to people like me, but is also a dirty little secret.

The fact is that the three forces (weak nuclear, strong nuclear and magnetic) have not been explained anything like as well as gravity has (by relativity). And don’t get me started on quantum gravity.


Anyway, thinking about all these issues, I concluded that science was (definition #3) the grand (platonic) model we are building of reality, ever evolving to best fit our observations.

My man, Plato

That works well for me. However, I recently came across a totally different definition for science:

# 4) “Science is a tool to help make the subjective objective.”

OK I paraphrased it to make it more snappy. It was really a discussion about how science was developed to overcome the fallibility of the human mind. Examples of weaknesses it needs to overcome are:

  1. The way our perception is filtered by preconceptions
  2. How we see pattern where there is none
  3. How we select evidence to match our opinion (confirmation bias)
  4. How we  read too much into anecdotal evidence
  5. etc etc.

I could go on. So ‘science’ is the collection of tricks we use to overcome our weaknesses.

I like this definition. We are all going about, and in our heads we are building our model of the world… and its time for an audit!

The Apple Mac: It’s a religion…

It has been explained by writers better than I how our minds are wired in a way that makes them vulnerable to religion.

Whether it is our desire to feel secure or have simple and complete explanations for natural phenomena or simply because we enjoy the social scene at church, there is no doubting the power of the effect. Even in modern times, entire lives, indeed entire civilizations are devoted to the superstitious concept of supernatural Gods.

Although L. Ron Hubbard may have started a religion while knowing it was all a sham, most religions did not need such deliberate action. Our innate need to have faith in things has allowed religious concepts to emerge and evolve freely in our communities as far back as records go.

So why do I bring that up?

It occurred to me today while pondering why people are so defensive about Apple Mac computers – I realised that their behaviour had much in common with religious ‘zeal’.

Then it occurred to me how much the success of Apple relies on perception and conception. If it was just about getting the fastest computer, you would not buy a Mac. If it was about buying something that has wide compatibility, you would not buy a Mac. If it was about cost, you certainly would not buy a Mac.

Some might argue that Macs are more intuitive and ‘easy to use’. These are people whose idea of computing is buying a shiny box, plugging it in and doing exactly what they are expected to do. They are people who just accept it when they are told they need to buy a new printer. Or worse, they blame the printer – what a crappy printer, not compatible! These are people who do not need to set up a complex network, or run a database server.

Anyone who has a Powerbook G4 that cost several grand and is not actually compatible with the latest OSX release, yet needs that OSX release in order to actually work, and still hugs and caresses the machine as it it were a newborn baby while defending its honour and wanting to spend another several grand on a newer shinier one, is, in my opinion, dabbling in a cult.

OK, before you write me off as some sort of anti-mac fanatic, I will admit they are beautiful.

Moving swiftly on, I think it is worth analysing Apple’s success.

How does a company that controls the details of their products so completely compete with a product (the PC) that is made by hundreds of companies all constantly competing, innovating, coming and going, rising and falling? The modular design of the PC allows almost anyone to buy all the bits and assemble the machine themselves; with so many companies making monitors and keyboards and hard drives, some will make bad (fatal) decisions and die, some will make good decisions and thrive and if there are enough upstarts to keep up the supply, the consumer will only ever see the winners, even if their victory was a flook, it was a victory none the less.

You could say that PC is the computer you get from natural selection (survival of the fittest), the Mac is the the computer you get when you try to control the evolution (unnatural selection).

Now a company that tries to make everything itself can capture the value chain, sure, but as it is only one company, it cannot make even one fatal decision, and thus needs to be a little more cautious. This means it is doomed to always lag slightly on the performance vs value curve – so what does it do?

Easy, get the consumer to accept poor value. Make up for performance by buying in high quality technologies (lcd screens, hard disks, etc), and make the customer pay the premium. Then focus on marketing.

Marketing is the art of making people want something. It is unnecessary for products people need.

So what happened at Apple?

Apple, perhaps by good luck, became perceived as a David vs the Goliaths of IBM and Microsoft. For some reason (was it deliberate?) Apple computers gained traction in music recording and graphic design, and gained a sort of bohemian chic that is rather impressive considering that it is essentially “Big Business” and, like most companies, designed to make money.

Clever partnerships, and particularly the inspired partnership with Adobe (think Acrobat PDF’s, think PhotoShop) strengthened their position with journalists, publishers and illustrators establishing the Mac as the creative profession’s computer of choice.

This turned out to be a good thing, as the naughties have been the most art friendly decade yet, as popular culture has come to resent things like ‘work’ and ‘industry’, and a certain sections of society have come to view activities like sport as trivial and meaningless when compared to the value and depth in culture, poetry, good food, yoga, spiritualism and so on.

In other words, the artists have moved up in the world.

Some of the more switched on folk will realise that brands like Gucci/Armani/Christian Dior or Ferrari/Porche/Aston Martin  or Rolex/Michel Herbelin/Patek Philippe are based entirely on massaging the egos of their customers, and in the last case, they probably don’t even keep better time than a black plastic Casio.

But not many of the arty crowd have realised that Apple is using their independent nature against them. The Mac user seems to be infected with the idea that in using a Mac they are somehow being beneficent to the world, will somehow be more creative, they they are part of some loving brotherhood that has exclusive access to the truth and the light.

This is because, by accident or design, the Apple brand has been developed to find that part of our mind that wants to believe and wants to belong, and is easily dazzled; the brand is acting like a religion.


Apple’s alliance with artists continues with U2 and the Black Eyes Peas, both highly credible symbols of free-thinking modernism. But I want you to ask yourself: what is free thinking about this computer company? I’m not sure, but I suspect the only free-thinking thing about Apple is its association with icons of the free-thinking world. It is just an electronics company for Pete’s sake. Like Sony, like Samsung, like Nokia.

If you believe there is any more to it than that, then you are welcome to pay for it.


PS: Besides the defunct G4 in the drawer, there is also an iPod classic in my home. I like it. I like to hold it. Mmm.

Climate change solutions: mass behaviour simulation

Saving our planet from catastrophic climate change might require an unprecedented mass co-ordination of all the people on our lonely little planet.

However, it requires co-ordinated sacrifice, the west are living unsustainably, the east have not had their fair share yet, Africa is unmanageable… how will we pull it off?

Pondering this issue, I am sure none of the experts will have any good prediction of how people will behave – when will the zeitgeist be strong enough to allow governments take the massive steps required? When will china be satisfied that they have pulled up their living standards enough such that it would be fair for them to sacrifice too?

With such imponderables, it seems to me, we might gain some insight if we can create on on-line simulation, a ‘game’ if you like, with a large number of participants, each with their own minds, their own priorities, their own feeling of what constitutes justice.

In this game, some would be wealthy, those that had benefited from the industrial revolution, the slave trade, etc, etc, and fiercely protective of their way of life, many more would represent the 3rd world, the developing nations, the disenfranchised, the war-torn…

These people would thus all live in a 2nd-life style world in which carbon emissions are sure to cause catastrophe (no-one knows when!) but carbon emissions are associated with the luxuries used by the people. Will people be able to co-ordinate themselves to reduce overall emissions? Or will they each take the ‘every man for himself’ route, ensuring that the fit survive, but perhaps with a lower total survival rate?

Could such a game be set up?

It would require a committed community of computer experts (which exist) and a committed community of environmentalists (which also exist) – but do they overlap?

How could we go about trying to make this happen?

Unproven medicine : an alternative name for alternative medicine

“Alternative and complimentary therapies”. They sound so nice. So warm and fuzzy. Surely they augment the cold clinical scientific approach to regular medicine, and have a more holistic approach catering to the soul and spirit as well as the flesh?

I argue not. Hear out my logic…

Any treatment that has proven to provide reliable benefit, is automatically added to the canon of ‘western’ medicine. Therefore the only treatments left available for ‘alternative’ to claim, are those that are unproven, or worse, treatments known to be actively harmful.

Promoters of alternative medicine will argue that western medicine is still woefully weak, and not tuned into holistic and spiritual matters and that such things defy proof. This is clearly claptrap. If you do a well designed double-blind, placebo-controlled test of an ‘alternative therapy’ and the outcomes are no better than for the placebo, then the participants who got the treatment are no better off, spirit or no spirit.

I personally prefer the sort of benefits that can be detected!

How did this situation come to pass, where unproven medications have such a grip?

I think there are three main ingredients:

  1. People make money from other people’s fear (in both western and alternative medicine) and that causes folks on both sides to hide or twist the facts – and also erodes the public’s trust.
  2. The fact that complimentary medicines do actually offer benefits – the well-known benefit of care and attention and also the benefit of the placebo effect – muddies the waters.
  3. It is however the human weakness of putting far too much value on anecdotal evidence that assures the future of unproven medicine.

I think that people who understand this do a disservice to our communities by giving this bad medicine the label ‘alternative’ or ‘complimentary’, so I would like to propose the term ‘unproven medicine’. I would however welcome some more lyrical suggestions!

Evil: a baseless construct

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s “Though for the day”, the Right Reverend James Jones claimed “Evil triumphs when the imagination is inebriated with evil”.

So as a logician I would like to know what exactly “evil” is. Can it be measured (like energy)? Or detected by our (5) senses? Does it conform to the known laws (models) of physics?

For something so darn vague it is amazing how much we use it day to day. We blame so much on it, and justify so much in its name.

But in a strange dichotomy, if you pay close attention the the professions (medicine, law, engineering, etc) you will find scant mention of this concept – it does not help in the treatment of criminals or the mentally ill it does not explain earthquakes or building collapses – it seems has no use in the real world, but is used by politicians and preachers like a moral blank-cheque.

I therefore suggest that the concept of evil is a relic from a mystical past in which gods were invoked to explain thunder and demons to explain crop failure.

Surely all talk of someone being ‘evil’ or an act being ‘evil’ has no place in our secular world?

Extrapolating your way

There is a very powerful scientific reasoning tool that I use, that, it occurs to me, I wasn’t actually taught… the simple art of extrapolation.

Most people have a pretty good idea of what extrapolating is – its where you look at a trend and predict what will happen if that trend persists. 

For example, if I said it took me 6 months to save £500, I can use extrapolation to predict how long it will take me to save £2000; its something we do all the time – yesterday I was driving down from Bristol, I could count off the the miles, and knowing the distance, I could predict if I would make it for dinner (I didn’t).

Scientists use this too. A good example is the way we can calculate the temperature of “absolute zero” by looking at the volume of a balloon as you heat it up. If you had a balloon at 25C, and you heat it to about 55C its volume would increase by about 10%. What does that tell us? It tells if we cooled it, it would eventually have no volume – and that this would happen at around -275C (-273.15C actually) – absolute zero.

Of course, the method relies upon assumptions – usually the assumption that the trend will continue in the same way (people often use the term “linear” to represent relationships that form straight lines when plotted on a graph).

What if the relationship is non-linear? For example, if little James is 5 feet tall when he is 10, how tall will he be when he is 20? Clearly he won’t be 10ft tall – that is because the relationship between height and age is “non-linear”.

Most of us are smart enough to extrapolate without knowing the jargon, but when the relationships get complicated a bit of maths and jargon can help.

For example, if we want to examine the population of bacteria in a petri dish, or the spread of a virus (or a rumour) through a population, our mental arithmetic is not always up to it. Luckily, some scientists have realised even these complex affairs have some predictability and although “non-linear”, they can still be modelled – graphs can be plotted and extrapolations made.

If this interests you, I refer you to books on epidemiology; I will move onto another sort of extrapolation – one used to check people’s theories by identifying ‘impossible’ extrapolations.

Let’s say, for example, that the want to predict  how the obesity epidemic will progress in the coming decades. If the media says obesity in a certain group increased from 14-24% between 1994 and 2004, and then goes on to predict that obesity will therefore reach 34% by 2014, does this withstand scrutiny?

Never mind that the definition of obesity may be faulty (BMI), never mind that they are extrapoliting from 2 data points – let’s rather ask if the linear trend is justifiable. This can be done by extrapolating the prediction to try to break it. 

If the model is right, obesity will go on increasing and soon enough 100% (or more!) of the population will be obese. This is clearly wrong – obesity is not likely to get everyone – vast swaths of the population are likely to be immunised to some extent against obesity due to active lifestyles and good dietary educations, or perhaps its in their genes, the lucky things. 

The truth will of course be more complex – the first group to become obese will be the most vulnerable, so an increase from 14-24% may incorporate that group, but each successively 10% will be harder fought.  All this is enough to suggest the predictions made for 2014 are doubtful, and those that go further are downright shameless. But it doesn’t stop them

I am sure you can think of other suspicious trend-based predictions, like those for peak-oil or global warming. They could do with some improvements, so get to it!


How to jump higher

Have you ever noticed that in order to jump your highest, you need a few preparatory steps and a preparatory hop? Have you ever wondered why?

Well, perhaps sadly, I have. I was wondering if this was mere mental preparation – because surely your ability to jump high is going to be dictated by a) the power in your legs on the one hand, and b) your weight on the other hand?

Turns out it’s not.

But why not? And what do the preparatory leg movements do?

If you think the steps are “warming you muscles up” in preparation for the jump you are, in some sense, right – right that you are preparing, but its not the muscles you are preparing but the tendons…

But what are tendons, and what do they do? Good question.

I used to think that tendons were there to help glue the muscles to the skeleton, like the ropes on sailboats glue the sail to the mast and boom. I later realised that they also help make the body more ergonomic by allowing the muscles to be positioned ‘out-of-the-way’ as is the case for your hands; if all the muscles used for your fingers were actually in your fingers they would be rather fat, and not particularly dexterous.

Likewise, if you had to carry your calf muscles in your feet, it would make your feet somewhat heavier and mean you would have to swing lots of weight back-and-forth, up-and-down when you walk and run. Although the calves and thighs still have to move a bit, tendons have allowed the movement to be reduced substantially by connecting these muscle groups to the feet from safer havens further up the leg. 

Interestingly (to me anyway), this also explains why some people can’t bend their little finger independently of the second (ring) finger – they are sharing tendons that go right up the forearm!

Ah, but none of that explains why we need to hop before we can jump.  True enough – there is another property or function of the tendon that had never occurred to me – until I read “The new science of strong materials” by J.E. Gordon (which I must recommend to scientists of all disciplines, it s a lovely book, I wish I had written it).

So what does a book on material science have to do with tendons? Well, it points out that tendon is unique among materials for its capacity to stretch and in doing so, to store energy. In other words, tendons make remarkably good springs (and explains why animal tendons have been used to make crossbows for thousands of years). 

Springs can be thought of as batteries, you put a bit of effort into stretching them now, and the effort is stored there for later use – to shoot an arrow for example.

So,  it’s simple really, your legs are like a pair of crossbows: if you pre-stretch the tendons before the jump, and then co-ordinate the energy release to coincide with the power stroke of your muscles, you will jump higher.

And finally, it turns out that a rather good way to pre-stretch the tendons is to hop before we jump. So there you are!


You will probably have noticed that good basket-ballers and high jumpers have taken this further (whether understanding it or not). They run along horizontally at a fair speed (gaining kinetic energy), and then thump down their leg at an angle, transferring all that kinetic energy into their tendons, and then re-cooping it in a vertical jumping burst. I have not done the maths, but I am willing to bet the tendons do much more work than the muscles in the crucial powering phase of the jump.


Something to try:

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do 20 jumps in a row rather than 10 jumps with pauses between each one? This is because the pauses between jumps force you to dissipate the energy in your tendons, and so every jump is pure muscle work.

It is also worth noting that even the task of dissipating the energy stored in tendons is tiring for your body – the muscles actually work against the tendons to turn the energy into heat, which is similar to the work your muscles have to do when you walk down stairs.


Final word…

The really nerdy readers (those after my own heart) will have further noted that this all goes a long way to explain why PE teachers seem to be so obsessed with stretching. You thought it was just to prevent injury? Think again – while it is essential to warm up and down carefully and stretching once warm does reduce the risk of injury, this is largely because stretching improves the condition of your tendons.

So don’t rush through the stretching next time you go to the gym; stretching and flexing your tendons may well do more to improve your athletic performance than muscle work.  Tendons deserve a part in any workout, please don’t neglect them – they are, after all, the forgotten workhorse of the body.

Skepticism: religion’s cancer

Religion has been described as a virus. This is not because it’s ‘bad for you’ necessarily, but rather due to the way it spreads.

It’s not hard to see the parallel: like viruses (and bacteria), religions exist within a population and spread from person to person.

But what about atheism? Is it a viral idea (meme) too?

I will argue that it isn’t. Perhaps it’s more like a cancer, a ‘mutation’ that kills off religious infections.

Cancers are sneaky, because they can occur spontaneously, almost by chance, and are therefore a very statistical phenomenon: your chance of getting cancer is affected by a), your exposure (to carcinogens causing mutation events), and b), your predisposition (genes affecting your ability to cope with the these mutations). 

Your chance of becoming an atheist is likewise affected by a), your exposure (to information about how the world works) and b), your predisposition (intelligence, or ability to apply logic to the information).

I.e. atheism differs from religion in the same way that carcinogens differ from viruses.

Can we develop this idea? I think so.

Let’s look at how you ‘get’ atheism…

Picture it: you’ve been brought up in a good god-fearing, church-going family. You went to Sunday school, you know which of Cain and Abel was the baddy and you can explain to people about how there is good evidence for The Flood. You also have a healthy fear of  sex and the other sins.

But you go to school and you learn about plate tectonics and see how well South America slots into Africa, and then you learn how European bees are not quite the same as African ones, just like Toyota Corollas aren’t, and one day, while looking at the grille of your step-mother’s 1.3GL, and daydreaming about the A-team, a thought strikes you, like a shot of cancer-causing sunshine on that patch of skin on the back of your right shoulder, that cars evolve differently in different counties and maybe that explains all the animals and perhaps God didn’t make a women out of Adam’s rib after all, cos’ that never did make much sense, because a rib is a pretty silly thing to make a women out of anyway.

Catching a dose of Christianity on the other hand, does not come from inside, as the result of reasoning, it comes from outside, from other people.

Most often you will be born into a house absolutely soaked in the infection, you will be infected soon enough, prayers will be said at mealtimes, the church is so big and grand, and the hymns are so catchy, and then they wheel out Christmas and baby Jesus (or baby ‘cheeses’ as my son says)…

But even if you’re not so lucky, there’s hope. You can drop in at a church any time (though Sundays are best I’m told) and the chances are, even if you are down on your luck, short of friends, and even if you aren’t very nice, the sweet people there are quite likely to help you. That feeling of family, of unquestioning acceptance – brings a special warmth to the cockles of the heart.

Once you’re in the door, religion, having evolved pretty niftily, can now play you like a violin. Your emotions, developed to help promote clan solidarity, are hi-jacked and kick in nicely. Did you know, that if you really listen to what these folks say, and really try to feel God’s love, you will indeed feel something! Now that’s a clever infection…

A house price prediction…

House prices, like the stock market, are tricky to predict. 

As with the stock market, there are two classes of parameters that affect the prices – the so-called ‘fundamentals’, like supply and demand, the price-to-earnings ratio on the one hand, and the more transient effects like the economic climate and the ever-slippery ‘confidence’.

There has been feverish speculation for years in the UK, and the prices rose for 15 consecutive years, and are at last dropping.

So why did the prices get so high? Many economists would argue it was a classic “bubble”, a self-perpetuating cycle of confidence building more confidence; in other words the fundamentals were being ignored.

Of course, the people found fundamentals they claimed justified the prices; in particular increased demand. Folks living longer, divorce, folks marrying later, immigration, and the breakdown of the family unit; all these things mean we need more houses.

But if these fundamentals were the whole reason, the prices wouldn’t be dropping as they are now. OK, so now most will admit it got out of hand and this is a correction. But how far has it got to correct?

The bubble, it seems to be agreed, was really helped by two factors:

Firstly there was a throttle on the supply – planning permission is notoriously hard to get and the government probably knew it and were happy with prices rising, it made everyone feel prosperous. On a more sinister front, housing developers may have sitting on prime real estate to deliberately keep prices high.

Secondly, there was easy credit – anyone and their dog could get the cash so people who really shouldn’t have been in the game got in and are now out of their league.

But there is a third factor I’ve not seem discussed in the media: the baby-boom generation.

Hasn’t this bubble coincided with the baby-boomer’s ‘rich’ phase – the age from 45-60 when the kids are off and 25 years of mortgage payments have built up the asset list? Surely this is the age-group that is most likely to own big houses, or multiple houses for that matter?

So what will happen now? The bubble has burst, the correction is in full swing, but what will happen in the next 10 years as the baby boomers start retiring, downsizing, and dying? Will this coincide with the next bubble-burst? Will the industry and government look at the population age profile during planning?

I personally hope this is why the market is cock-eyed – why it is that a professional engineer in his mid-thirties with a internationally comparable salary can’t afford more than a mid-terrace house with a 5×5-metre garden…

So I predict (well pray really, if that’s possible for athiests) that we will get into an oversupply situation and that house prices should correct from this ‘second-order’ bubble.

Of course, even if I am right, it may be that the prices are kept up by nasty developers identifying whole towns to ‘let go to ruin’ just to keep the prices high in the next town along…

Celebrity Dynamics

Celebrity Dynamics. 

The list of people we all ‘know’ isn’t that long, yes, it probably thousands – politicians, actors, singers, historical figures, sports stars – but in a country like the UK, it is still a remarkably small fraction of the populace.

Of course, there are ‘spheres’ – people interested in politics know more politicians, sports fans have more sporting heroes – we here in Cornwall have our local ‘Cornish’ celebrities.

However, if we remembered every celebrity, we would soon run out of space in the public ‘memory’, so we have to be selective.

The media know this – they constantly face choices of which story to follow, and the decisions will often be arbitrary; two minor celebrities did two things today, and we only have 45 seconds of time to fill in our variety news programme – which shall we choose?

This decision process is simple – the editor will pick the celebrity who has more recent ‘hits’ in the news.

Why? Because they know that the audience is more likely to recognise the name – and they know that if the audience hear that name twice it reinforces the memory.

This simple logic creates a very interesting system in which the rise to fame becomes ‘autocatalytic’ – a self-perpetuating, accelerating process. All you need to do is pass some ‘critical point’ of news coverage and you may be in for a ride!

However, we can only hold so many names in the list, so anyone who is out of the news for a time drops off the radar pretty fast, even if they did once enjoy high exposure.

If you are like me, you’ll be thinking of exceptions – folks who just stay famous regardless – do they buck this logic? I don’t think so.

Such people most likely still get exposure, even if its not them in the news – perhaps we see their CD on our shelf, or we talk about their ‘field’ (Thatcherism, Darwinism, Keynesian economics,), and this may be accentuated if their field gets in the news – as has recently been the case for Keynes.

So what value does this theory have?

I think it explains:

  • why so many great deeds don’t lead to fame
  • why often only one person from a high achieving team is ‘selected’ for fame
  • why there’s no such thing as bad publicity
  • local fame does not easily turn to national fame

It also suggests that if you want to be famous, you should:

  • a series of newsworthy events in succession is probably better than a single highly newsworthy achievement
  • if you are in a group/team/band, you need to be the leader or public face of the group
  • you should associate yourself with a newsworthy field, ideally become the posterboy/girl for the field, always dragged out when the field is in the news

And if you want to stay famous once you are you should keep in the public eye:

  • associate yourself with newsworthy events
  • differentiate yourself from other celebrities in your ‘space’ or
  • gang together with other celebrities to create newsworthy events
  • become the posterboy/girl for a newsworthy field/subject, the one dragged out when the field is in the news

Aside:  There seems to be another way to maintain fame:- create mystique, the image of privilege, of some higher plain of existence away from the mundanity of everyday life. People say they like down-to-earth celebrities – that’s because they are very rare – you have to be ‘proper’ famous to stay famous without this tactic! 

Of course, this all assumes you want to be famous! You can equally use the theory to keep a low profile 😉

Good luck either way!