Monday, 31 January 2011

Barry Gray and John Barry.

Barry Gray wrote the theme tune to my childhood. Unfortunately I get him muddled up with John Barry, who wrote many of the Bond themes , so this morning I though Barry Gray had died (if you see what I mean). Actually Gray died in 1984. What a twit...

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Very Short Introduction to Humanism published

My Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction to Humanism was published on Thursday.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Double dip?

Recovery taking place under Labour. Tories get in, cut 50% as much again as Labour planned, and, as was widely predicted would be the result, we slide sharply back into recession (not a snow-driven blip, either, as this graph makes clear, though George, being an expert PR man has done a very effective job today of blaming it all on the weather).

Maybe it's too soon to judge, but middle of this year it may well be clear that "lightweight" Osbourne will go down in history as the man who fucked Britain.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Events at Oxford Literary Festival

Here are the CFI Events I have arranged at Oxford Literary Festival


Grayling, one of Britain’s most prominent intellectuals, launches his latest book in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre. Grayling has created a secular bible. Designed to be read as narrative and also to be dipped into for inspiration, encouragement and consolation, The Good Book offers a thoughtful, non-religious alternative to the many people who do not follow one of the world's great religions. Instead, going back to traditions older than Christianity, and far richer and more various, including the non-theistic philosophical and literary schools of the great civilisations of both West and East, from the Greek philosophy of classical antiquity and its contemporaneous Confucian, Mencian and Mohist schools in China, down through classical Rome, the flourishing of Indian and Arab worlds, the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, the worldwide scientific discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present, Grayling collects, edits, rearranges and organises the collective secular wisdom of the world in one highly readable volume.


Nathan Penlington is a magician, poet, writer and skeptic who performs at Festivals across UK, Europe and the USA. His shows fuse magic, comedy and story-telling This presentation is based on his much praised show Uri and Me, about Uri Geller. Famed magician and debunker of paranormal claims James Randi says about Penlington: “Nathan Penlington encourages us to think twice before accepting the ridiculous claims of mystical pretenders.” Geller says,

“Wow, I just discovered Nathan Penlington! He is skilled, talented, mastering a tangible force of visionary mind power. His latest show is simply supernatural! and Nathan delivers it with mystical sensitivity.. I highly recommend it!”

Simply supernatural? Decide for yourself!

Penlington is the author of Almost Nearly, a collection of graphic poems and Roadkill on the Digital Highway, which was shortlisted for the Eric Gregory Prize.


Justin Barrett, Prof. of Psychology at University of Oxford and author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God? explains why he believes we have an innate tendency to religious belief. Barrett told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, "The preponderance of scientific evidence for the past 10 years or so has shown that a lot more seems to be built into the natural development of children's minds than we once thought, including a predisposition to see the natural world as designed and purposeful and that some kind of intelligent being is behind that purpose. If we threw a handful on an island and they raised themselves I think they would believe in God.” Come and find out about the experimental evidence on which these extraordinary and controversial claims are based.


Alister McGrath and Stephen Law

CFI UK Provost Stephen Law (philosopher at Heythrop Colleg, University of London, and author of books including Very Short Introduction to Humanism, The Philosophy Gym) debates the existence of God with Prof Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology, Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King's College, London, and author of books including both The Dawkins Delusion and A Fine-Tuned Universe – The Quest For God in Science and Theology.) McGrath believes the universe points suggestively in the direction of God. Law, by contrast, insists that the empirical evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that there is no God. Is belief in God entirely a faith position, beyond the ability of science and or reason to settle? Or might observation of the world around us give us fairly good grounds for supposing that there is, or isn’t, any such being?


John Cornwell and David Ranan

The Catholic Church, according to its critics, sided with the most pernicious right-wing leaders of the 20th Century. During World War II, moreover, the wartime Pope, Pius XII, failed to speak out against the Holocaust despite detailed knowledge of it from 1942. Does history, from the perspective of the 21st century, and recent access to appropriate Vatican archives, endorse or repudiate these criticisms? John Cornwell and David Ranan debate the evidence concerning the relationship between the Church, the Papacy and Holocaust. Cornwell is Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge. His books on Catholicism include Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, Breaking Faith: the Fate and Future of the Catholic Church and A Thief in the Night: The Mysterious Death of John Paul I. David Ranan is a social critic and author of the books Double Cross: The Code of The Catholic Church, and God Bless America – A Visitor’s Diary.


John Cornwell

“This present work has ruffled feathers among conservative Catholics, but it's an achievement ... [it] avoids hagiography and is squarely aimed at agnostics as well as admirers.” The Evening Standard

John Cornwell is a Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of what Anthony Kenny has praised as a “heroically written biography” of the Oxford-based Cardinal John Henry Newman. A problematic campaign to canonise Newman started fifty years ago. After many delays John Paul II declared Newman a 'Venerable'. Then Pope Benedict XVI, a keen student of Newman s works, pressed for his beatification. But was Newman a 'Saint'? In Newman's Unquiet Grave, Cornwell (author of A Thief in the Night and Hitler s Pope) tells the story of the chequered attempts to establish Newman's sanctity against the background of major developments within Catholicism. His life was marked by personal feuds, self-absorption, accusations of professional and artistic narcissism, hypochondria, and same-sex friendships that at times bordered on the apparent homo-erotic. Cornwell investigates the process of Newman's elevation to sainthood, presenting a highly original and controversial new portrait of the great man's life and genius for a new generation of religious and non-religious readers alike.


Sunday 3rd April, 12pm.
Sunday 3rd April 10am. Venue TBA.
4pm Wed. April 6th.
Thursday 7th April, 6.30pm Venue TBA.
Friday 8th April 2pm
10.00am Friday 8th

Saturday, 15 January 2011

"Thinking the unthinkable"

Over the last half century, a number of political and economic sacred cows have come to reside in the UK. Perhaps the biggest is "private good, public bad": things always go better when in the hands of private individuals and companies. We all know that, don't we? Why? Well competition is introduced, which drives down costs and encourages innovation, etc. etc.

But of course, for some industries, that "competition" looks largely notional. In the case of the railways and power companies, for example. And we all know that the government puts much more into running the railways now than it did when it was nationalized. And it had to step in when Railtrack went bust. The service remains an expensive disaster for consumers. So much for efficiency. etc.

When this ongoing disaster is pointed out, private ownership is defended on the grounds that the privatizations was mishandled, or done in the wrong sort of way, or the companies run badly, whatever. When publicly run industries don't fare well, on the other hand, well that's just because they are publicly, run, isn't it, rather than run in the wrong sort of way? That must be true, mustn't it? Because as we all know, "private good, public bad".

My question is, why has it become the case that even to raise the suggestion that, say, the railways should renationalized is now unthinkable for most people? Why, when people consider how the problems might be fixed, does that option never even get considered? Is it really because the arguments and evidence for private ownership are so very good? (if so, why are so many other successful railways either state run or primarily state owned?)

I can't see that the arguments and evidence do favour private ownership particularly (though I admit I am no expert). Yet, even within the ranks of the Labour party, renationalizing rail would typically be considered a joke. This, I suspect, has little to do with evidence and argument, and everything to do with the zeitgeist having been hijacked by those well-placed to make money out of privatization, ongoing private ownership and provision, etc.

A decade or two ago we used to be encouraged to "think the unthinkable", politically (Frank Field was asked to go away and do it, famously). Politicians were encouraged to "think outside the box", challenge the orthodoxies, etc. Invariably, this meant thinking of ways of privatizing or semi-privatizing provision of services, etc. Which was always recommended as being "more efficient" by consultancy companies.

Seems to me that so successful have free-market types been in shaping the zeitgeist that many of us self-censor when it comes to airing certain thoughts, much as we do when it comes to airing certain thoughts or questions about, say, religion (for fear of causing offence), or other cultures (because of political correctness). We bite our lips for fear of the eye-rolling ridicule and/or opprobrium we suppose will come our way: "You think the railways should nationalized? What are you, a political dinosaur? That's so ridiculous and behind the times! Everyone knows that doesn't work, for goodness sake! Public bad, private good! You twit."

I think we need to encourage a similar culture of "thinking the unthinkable" now, only in the other direction. I mean, why not nationalize the railways, actually? And the gas and electricity companies, come to that? Why is this not even worth considering as a possibility?

Any other suggestions re thinking the unthinkable? I am not necessarily saying we should nationalize these things, btw. I am just saying this: Let's ensure these ideas are at least allowed back into the public sphere. Let's not allow those with vested interests to push them out of public discourse. The only way that will happen is if individuals are brave enough to raise them.

If you suspect the Emperor might not be wearing any clothes, don't allow yourself to be pressured into not saying so.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Huge banking bonus due to five year-old girl "rainmaker" Tia?

There have been a number of cases in which people with no financial expertise have been pitted against financial investment experts, to see how well they fare on the stock exchange.

Here's one example from 2002 (scroll down - it's the only one I could find on basis of a quick search). Of course this, by itself, is merely anecdotal evidence that the supposed skills of stock market gurus are largely mythical.

In this example, a financial analyst, using his expertise and computer analysis, lost 46.2%, over the year while five year old Tia's portfolio, picked at random, jumped 5.8%. Even the astrologer investing on the basis of planetary movements did significantly better than the supposed financial expert.

Be interested to hear of more examples (can't find any at the moment, though I've certainly stumbled upon a few in the past) or of any evidence to the contrary. Does anyone have more information or examples?

What's really interesting about this case is that were five year old Tia actually working for a big bank, she would have been awarded several million in bonuses for her amazing abilities in 2002. Moreover, other banks would be looking to poach her, offering even more lucrative contracts and bonuses (and why shouldn't they take that risk, given a few million quid is peanuts to them if she can outperform their other traders by even 1%?)

Most importantly of all, Tia would now become what's known as a "rainmaker", attracting wealthy investors. And her increasingly large investments might now tend to outperform others. Why? Because other investors would now tend to follow her lead, thus causing her randomly generated guesses as to what stock will rise to actually come true. So Tia's predictions might tend to become more accurate. And yet she's a five year old girl with no financial skill whatsoever.

So how much of what goes on on trading floors is dumbass trader sheep following round the lucky Tias? Here's the news report:

Five-year-old girl beats experts in stock market challenge

A five-year-old girl is still beating the stock market and financial experts after randomly picking shares.

Tia Roberts took part in an experiment last year to compare different ways of predicting the stock market.

Five-year-old Tia Roberts, who's still sitting pretty a year after choosing her winning portfolio of FTSE 100 stocks (PA)

The experiment pitted Tia against financial astrologer Christeen Skinner and independent analyst Mark Goodson.

Each invested a virtual £5,000 in a fantasy portfolio during National Science Week 2001, with Christeen choosing stocks based on the movement of the planets and Mark using his expertise and computer analysis.

Tia, who picked her stocks at random by grabbing numbered notes representing each company in the FTSE 100 Index, won last year's competition as her shares performed best during National Science Week.

The test of time shows Tia is still a winner, with her portfolio the only one to gain value a year later.

Tia's portfolio is up 5.8% one year on; while Christeen's is down 6.2%; and Mark's selections have fallen by 46.2%. During the year, the FTSE 100 Index has dropped 16%.
Continues at ananova.

Post Script: also just found the following opinion, for what it's worth. I wonder what studies are being referred to? I have often heard it said, but have not really looked into it before: "The reality is that luck and not skill explains outperformance by fund managers. Many studies conclusively demonstrate this fact. Neither Ms. Ralbovsky nor anyone else can help you find the next lucky quant fund manager." Go to "The Myth of The Stock Market Guru" by Dan Solin here.