Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Alan Hutchinson
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This is about beauty and pleasure. Feel free to jump straight in at Chapter 1.
If you have leisure, you may care to note that in 1882 Samuel Butler wrote
It is a pity there is no mental microscope to show us our likes and dislikes …I once began an essay on “The Art of Knowing what gives One Pleasure,” but soon found myself out of the diatonic with it, in all manner of strange keys, amid a maze of metaphysical accidentals and double and treble flats, so I left it alone …But in few cases can we get at our permanent liking without at least as much experience as a fishmonger must have had before …
(see reference [73, Chapter 2 page 9]). This is an entirely tenable point of view. Even so, without meaning any disrespect to Butler who is also worth reading for his knowledge of the Alps, one can achieve a bit more.
My excuse for the first eleven chapters is that (I hope) they establish a common experience of beauty, so we can all agree on some aspects of it. Also, I hope you like them. They are not just about beauty. They describe aspects of health and how to take care of oneself, and Chapter 10 contains notes on risk. Its conclusion is that Alpine walking is not unusually risky. Chapter 11 is a bit different. If I have a favourite chapter, this is probably it. It relates how people sometimes behave both in the mountains and further afield, and while talking rather than walking.
The next four chapters describe a form of beauty which not all of us appreciate. For instance, they explain why the wind blows and how bacteria swim. I hope you like these chapters too. By the time you have read them, if you don’t already, perhaps you will agree that fact is stranger than fiction. In any case, I hope you will agree that the notions of beauty and pleasure span more than simple intuition may suggest.
Chapter 16 explores the topics:
The concepts involved are not particularly subtle or novel. Researchers into the development of mental processes will not be surprised by them.
Chapter 17 is an investigation of
There is a big contrast between nerds, who like to be rational, and empathizers who like to form consensus in a group of like minded associates. The two types, empathy and nerdiness, are not exclusive – one can be an empathizing nerd – but they pull in different directions. Nerds often reach wise conclusions but some tend to be socially gauche. Empathizers are prone to jump impulsively to conclusions and be led astray in their efforts to agree, but they are usually more skilled at having their ideas accepted. There is a third class of decision makers, narcissists, who like to be admired and followed. A narcissist thinks himself superior, and so may believe that he is rational and convivial whether he is or not. These three groups differ in their senses of pleasure.
One reader said that this chapter is like a firework display, full of illuminations and episodic bangs.
Writing all this has turned into an education for me. Thirty years ago, by chance, I fell in with a group of computational linguists (people who understand how to write programs like the natural language user interface for the Siri utility on Apple computers). Linguistics is a profound subject. Only recently did someone else mention the ideas of Benjamin Whorf to me. The two clicked. Similarly, just by chance, there was a copy of Simon Baron-Cohen’s latest book in an attractive little shop in Grasmere. That was a good find. Both these experiences were exciting and totally unexpected.
The cover photograph and some others are from the Pyrénées, not the Alps. It is a truism that pictures are better for including people. They add interest and a sense of scale. For instance Figure 5.6 includes three.
For technical reasons, the photographs in the main text are limited to 670 by 503 pixels. Full size versions of all photos can be seen on the web site http://mewila.co.uk . You may save them for personal use subject to the copyright notice above. Viewing them over the Internet costs money, so please save any you may want to look at again on your PC or reader, and don’t view a photo directly from the web site more than twice. If you find yourself in sympathy with what follows, please add a link from your web site, Facebook page or whatever to this site.
The sketches in Chapter 15 are mouse-drawn copies of illustrations in the cited works. All other illustrations except Figure 9.6 are by the author. Figures 4.2 and 2.2 are included by kind permission of the people involved.
Of course, you are free to disagree with me on any aspect, and it is quite likely you sometimes will. Before you do in public, though, please study the notes at the end of the chapter and the references cited there.
Many references were discovered by searching the Internet. Some of them have links to the sources. As happens on line, such links sometimes change or disappear. If you find such a one, please use the Smashwords “Review” mechanism to report it.
Alpine walking would be altogether a different experience, and much harder, without the consistent good work of the national Alpine Clubs. Their volunteers provide most of the huts and also a rescue service. I have never had to call it, but I am still grateful for it.
The whole enterprise of going to the Alps, and learning about them and everything else, and writing this book has depended on computing and the Internet. I am indebted to John Postel who designed the original major Internet protocols and who set up the public system for extending them, and to Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds and many more who provided all the software involved, and to Jimmy Wales and everyone else involved in Wikipedia. They have changed the World. Please donate to Wikipedia, and keep its servers running.
Friends have kindly read drafts of this book and made helpful suggestions. Some snippets of details of foreign parts are due to them. I have tried to follow most of what they said and I am grateful for their interest and encouragement. In particular I am obliged to Dr John Pusey and Mr Bruce Purvis. John, who knows much more about botany than I ever shall, identified flowers. Bruce lent me a computer running a Microsoft operating system, which I needed because a publisher has not yet distributed a full set of its development tools for Linux. Of course, all incoherence and general muddle, and all remaining mistakes, ranging from assertions and opinions to grammar and spelling, are entirely mine.
This is about what may happen if you walk for a few days in the zone between 1000 metres and 3000 metres above sea level in mountains such as the Italian Alps.
Much lower, things are not very different from ordinary city or country life. Higher, and you are in nearly sterile deserted territory where there are few paths and those that exist are not all designed for normal walking on two feet. In between, the Alpine summer climate is warm, the air smells good, the vegetation is varied and fresh, the springs are clean and lovely to drink from. Marmots whistle. Orchids and gentians stun the eye. Ibex wander away round corners. The sky is vast. On August nights the Milky Way spans it, and the sun often shines for days on end. Even the occasional thunder storms are worth the experience. If you choose to push yourself, your body may endure agonising ordeals, but you can go at you own pace. Life is made easy by an unobtrusive but well organised infrastructure of paths and hostels and other services.
About a century ago my mother’s Uncle John crossed from Switzerland into Italy. As they started out in the morning, the guide seemed to be going unnecessarily slowly and John wanted to go faster; but at the day’s end he was exhausted. He did not regret it, though. The experience was one of the best in his long life.
Nowadays it is easier. Guides don’t bother with that kind of work nearly so much. Paths are better marked, and probably better underfoot. There are more high refuges. If something goes wrong, the rescue services are better equipped. Maps are for sale more widely. You can go: just find a map or two and a rucksack and a few things to put in it, and maybe a companion, and a ticket.
Why not do it? Of course, you could just stay at home. It takes time, money, initiative, energy, and maybe courage. If you are satisfied with your health and the stimulus which your lifestyle provides, and if you agree with Good King George when he said
I don’t like abroad. I’ve been there.
then you can stay seated and just giggle at the silly things the rest of us get up to. Try skipping to Chapter 11 or Chapter 6.
My first taste of moutain walking was in the Lake District when I was maybe eight years old. We got to the top of Coniston Old Man and looked across at Scafell Pike. My second was in Andorra, on the way back from a family camping holiday on the Costa Brava, when I was about thirteen. We first climbed Casmaña, which was not too hard. Then we tackled Coma Pedrosa. I suppose we must have had some sort of map, but I have since discovered that some Spanish maps have no separate symbol for a cliff. They just draw the contour lines very close together. Anyway, we got to the end of the road. Rather than follow the path, Father suggested we might try climbing to the top of a bluff directly in front of us, just to get our bearings. Quite a long way up it, but with no sign of the top, I began to panic.
Why do it? A quarter of us Britons are heading for obesity and for any one or more of heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, dementia and goodness knows what else. A healthy diet and a bit of exercise will do most of us quite a lot of good.
On a more positive note, mountain walking is a great experience. The views are tremendous. The flowers are sometimes everything they are said to be. The sun is glorious, if you don’t get too much of it. The air is unusually clean for this densely populated continent. More often than not, the people you will meet up there are healthy, confident, competent, and well disposed to companions and strangers alike.
Last but not least is the effect a mountain holiday will have on the holidaymaker, me or maybe you. For those of us who are not already perfectly relaxed, self possessed and wise, this is good. Once, at about 2000 metres, a nice old couple asked me if the way I had come was easy. I answered yes but then, since it was a bit steep in places, I added without much thought that one must think, always think. At every stage, such a journey involves lots of significant little choices. When one comes back, one knows oneself a bit better, which is usually pleasant. A mountain walking holiday is not the only way to gain these benefits, but it is one of the best.
On health: I am past 60. Unless you are even older, the two most common debilitating conditions which might stop you going are hypochondria and laziness. If you are in doubt about strength, then try taking a two mile walk in the local neighbourhood and see how you feel after that. If it makes you more foot sore from walking on flat concrete than seriously tired, then you can go. If you don’t trust your sense balance, you could try just standing on each foot in turn on a flat floor, not holding on to anything, for five or ten seconds. If you can do this much, you will probably get on fine. If you want a more stringent test then find a rucksack, put 10 or 15 kg of anything handy into it, put it on, and then try standing on each foot in turn and hopping so that you rotate through a complete circle. I have never done this. If you can do it then your balance is probably excellent.
On courage: they say in Italy
Sbagliando s’impara – one learns from one’s mistakes.
More than thirty years ago, on one of my first trips of this sort, one evening I stayed in a bar cum hotel just south of Monte Rosa which appeared to be run almost entirely by a girl of maybe 13. There were adults in a back room but they never intervened. She did an excellent job. She showed me what was on offer and negotiated the stay. After dinner, when I went to bed, she was running the bar which was full. Next morning she accepted payment.
In England all this would be illegal, but she appeared to be content and satisfied and more attuned to coping with adult life than most girls of similar age back home. We English were then, and maybe are even more now, too nervous of perceived risks. Children are three times more likely to hurt themselves falling out of bed than by falling out of a tree. We are too rarely aware of the risk that, when we come face to face with a novel risk, we shall not have adequate experience to cope. Oscar Wilde wrote
Mark Zuckerberg wrote
The riskiest thing is to take no risks
but I confess I put wire mesh over the wife’s garden pond when the children got close to it.
It is good to make some mistakes. Going to a foreign country, using one’s body in novel ways, and living for a short while among people who behave ever so subtly differently from people back here, provide an excellent way to make a few. Don’t worry about them. Have fun.
On having fun: on a rather different kind of holiday, I walked from Millau to Le Vigan and back. It was around Easter and the beech woods south of L’Espérou had a touch of brilliant clean snow. In Le Vigan there was a smart little restaurant staffed by a rather older girl. During a tranquil moment, a seemingly local man walked in. He was lean, self possessed, and dressed rather scruffily. He said nothing. He summed up the situation, then ambled behind the counter and mimed the sort of behaviour which only a free thinking country bred republican Frenchman would ever dare to consider doing in such a situation. She turned round, saw him, shrieked “Mais non!”, and then said no more.
Getting about in the nearly sterile zone above 3000 metres, and similar rough terrains, is the subject of most of Alan Blackshaw’s book .
At the time of writing, the Lancet has just published an issue on obesity . Medical doctors are following this up . For more on the political and social background, see . If this does not persuade you to lead a healthy life then you will be lucky if you escape your natural fate.
In fact, changing one’s body shape is a complex process. It depends on epigenetics – subtle changes to how your genes are interpreted in each cell of your body , [67, Chapter 4]. Early diet, and a mother’s diet before birth, affect a child’s immune system: folate and vitamins are helpful and even necessary though too much folate may perhaps do harm, all because of epigenetic effects [236, 122] (but keep on taking fish oil). It is suggested that Audrey Hepburn’s figure developed because her epigenetics were changed when she was starved as a teenager; and, at Overkalix in north Sweden, over-eating by one generation has led to diabetes two generations later . Still, that is no excuse for not taking care of oneself.
The people one meets on the high passes really are, by and large, a good lot. Among Facebook users, those who “like” climbing or camping or similar activities are usually conscientious and agreeable and calm and relaxed [261, 262, 263, 197].
Thinking is not just a duty. It is a pleasure. Randy Thornhill  wrote
Intellectual beauty is the most noble goal of academic pursuit, and is a sublime reward of the pursuit.
You don’t have to be called an “academic” to enjoy it.
The statistic about the risk of falling out of trees is in a report from the chief executive of the National Trust . (Please don’t ask anyone on Tim Harford’s excellent programme More Or Less about it. It may be biased. If you are unsure about statistics in general, try the book by Charles Wheelan .) She is one of many who argue that children should be allowed and encouraged to take more risks and spend more time out of doors: see also [51, 174, 126] and [260, pages 33-4] and [272, pages 31-3] and  and [285, Chapter 14] and [378, page 76].
The quotation from Oscar Wilde is well known, but it usually comes in its second form. That other form appears in many variants, such as
Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes
Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
I think the original was
Experience is the name all men give to their mistakes.
Maybe the reference to “men” has been made gender neutral for the sake of political correctness. If so, this would be ironic since Wilde’s words come from a play which is all about the distress which male prejudices inflict on women. Please excuse me for sometimes using “he” for either gender in what follows. To do otherwise would be laborious.
The Spanish Pyrénées in parts of Aragon, near Torla, are limestone. They have potholes. On a very quiet country dirt track, there was a small group who evidently were potholers. All but one of them were young men, dressed in nothing notable. The other was a young woman in the most dramatic mottled orange bikini I have seen in a long time.
People who walk above ground are constrained rather more than potholers because conditions above ground are less predictable than in potholes. Whatever we above ground wear should protect us from excess heat, cold, sun, wind, rain, invertebrates, vegetation, and opprobium. Our feet should be secure on the ground. Above all, whatever we wear should be comfortable. That is about all there is to it, really.
The usual mistake I make is carrying too much. I forget how much warmer the Mediterranean climate is than that in southern England. On the last evening of a recent visit there, in Turin, sitting on a bench at sunset opposite the Porta Susa railway station and eating a rather good ice cream, I could see an electronic display which alternated between a clock, a calendar and a thermometer. The thermometer started at 32∘. After about five minutes, it changed to 33∘. A few minutes later, it read 34∘. It was not obvious why the temperature was rising as dusk settled in, but anyway it was about that warm. Earlier that same day, in Milan Central Station, it was quite a lot hotter. Therefore it would seem that a walker’s clothes should consist of not much. Perhaps this will do:
Cotton or other natural fibre is better than artificial fibre because it is a much better shield against ultraviolet light. Note that this list is a suggestion only, and is meant to include what you wear on the journey as well as what you put in your rucksack. Remember to include whatever you will sleep in. For sleeping at heights where there may be a frost, extra thick socks may be a good idea.
Trousers with lots of zip pockets may be a good idea too, as long as they are comfortable for walking, for two reasons:
If you find walking with bulky pockets half way down your calves is easy then this may be a good ploy. However, the most important thing is to be comfortable. If full trouser pockets make walking less comfortable then forget this idea.
A lot of strong views are expressed about footwear. Alan Blackshaw devotes more than seven pages to boots, and at one point he recommends climbing in socks. In Scotland someone once advised me to buy boots with stitched in waterproof tongues, useful when wading through damp places, and soles which each had a bar of steel running through them from toe to heel. This was so that the boot could be pushed into a crack in a rock face and so provide a secure hard footrest. At least, I think that was the idea.
I have worn boots, and they have served me well, but that was a long time ago. Maybe my feet have changed shape. Anyway, nowadays it seems there aren’t any that fit me comfortably, so I wear open sandals with velcro straps. This may shock some mountaineers. If it does then maybe we are discussing different sorts of mountaineering. One local supermarket has been selling a design with decent soles which are flexible enough, and strong, and they work well. (The similar product from another supermarket has stiff brittle soles which crack across the middle.) I take a spare pair in case one set breaks, but that has not happened yet. For the kind of trip envisaged here, the only situation where boots might be better is when walking over a little snow. Sandals leak, of course, and they don’t have the toecaps which are helpful if one wants to kick a foothold in snow, but that has not been a limitation.
Your jacket can play a second role as a bright thing which attracts attention if you need help. In shops round here, it is hard to find brightly coloured outdoor wear intended for walking. One chain of such shops is called “Blacks” and sells gear of that shade. It is now in the process of going broke, which would appear to be its natural fate.
This seems a good place to discuss rucksacks. One wears a rucksack, so it can be regarded as a piece of clothing too. A good rucksack should
Karrimor and Lowe and Berghaus, and probably other firms too, have good reputations as manufacturers of rucksacks.
Shoulder straps can make shoulders sore. One trick is to put a pad of soft foam plastic on the inside of each strap, between it and your shoulder. I did this, and it made a holiday better. My rucksack happens to have an extra loop of elastic round each shoulder strap just where it helps to hold the pad.
The tight strap round the hips may carry the rucksack’s entire weight (though the shoulder straps are still needed to hold it close to your back). If shoulders get sore, then this is a good thing. It may be unwise to expect a growing child to wear such a tight strap, though, lest the stress of it distorts the child’s growing bone structure. Note that stress is not a reason to stop children from walking and climbing. Quite the opposite: some stress on legs and spine due to normal walking is good for a growing body. Bone is piezoelectric, and the small voltages created by natural stresses in it encourage it to grow strong where strength is needed.
Alan Blackshaw earned obituaries including one in the Guardian  which mentions that he successfully sued the Telegraph for libel, and one in the Telegraph  which doesn’t. His book  is celebrated. His views on climbing in socks appear there on page 163.
The piezoelectric property of bone has been known of for a long time [166, 435]. It is one of those facts which are key to making us what we are, but which not many of us hear about.
After climbing a thousand metres, you will inevitably realise that your legs and lungs and heart, and maybe your shoulders, have been very well exercised. That is not all the good which Alpine walking does for the body, though.
A few years ago I set off from Courmayeur up the shoulder on the south side of Val Ferret facing the Grandes Jorasses, had lunch at Rifugio Bertone, then crossed the alpine meadows and spent the first night at the Refuge Walter-Bonatti. Next day I crossed the Col Malatra, and decided I don’t want to do that again, then went down nearly 2000 metres past a brilliant array of orchids, put my leg into a hole in some newly laid concrete, and for the first time ever found the way under the main road by the passage which leads to St Leonardo and the camp site just below St Oyen. I felt exhausted and miserable until the woman there very kindly put some slices of salami in front of me. The people there recognised me from a visit the family made there some years earlier. The next day I was lazy and wrote postcards. On the fourth day, in mediocre weather, I walked down through Etroubles, Allein and Doùes to Valpelline. Some years earlier two of us could not find the path beyond Doùes, but now it is clear. At a café in the middle of Valpelline, the weather was still damp and drizzly, and showed little prospect of improving, so I decided to change plan and go to Emilia-Romagna. A bus to Aosta was due in about an hour. While sitting waiting for it, suddenly my eyes came into focus. The mountainside opposite is covered by a myriad conifers. One moment I was just vaguely aware that they existed. The next, it was as if every branch was clearly distinguishable from every other. It was a revelation.
Without a decent body, nobody can get very far, so it pays to take care of it. The stresses put upon it during an Alpine walk include almost all those considered while listing suitable clothes, and a few more.
If the refuge is still a long way away or the path is difficult then head down off the mountain by an easy route.
Although in Chapter 1 readers were encouraged not to worry about health, most city dwellers will not be particularly fit when they arrive on holiday. Added to that, the journey can be quite taxing. If you feel so inclined on the first day, then don’t feel inhibited about setting off up a steep path; but it will make sense to spend 24 or 48 hours in one locality, sleeping there two or three nights, before venturing with a full rucksack to the higher refuges. On a recent trip, with an urge to repeat past triumphs, I was rash and set off the first day by a route which involved climbing 2000 metres. I reached the refuge at dusk, just in time for supper, going too slow and feeling weak. The next morning I felt well, but fellow diners told me I was white when I walked in. Know yourself.
Lastly, don’t forget the sun cream. The objective of your holiday is to see the Alps and to stimulate and exercise your whole system, not to get a tan. Sunlight is the single most plentiful natural source of vitamin D, which is the key to a multitude of aspects of good health, but exposure of arms and legs to sunlight for between 5 and 30 minutes between 10.00 am and 3.00 pm twice a week should be enough. Much more, and one risks skin tumours which are not recommended. Choose a cream which protects against both UVA and UVB, and which has a large protection factor - say 30 or more. This means that if you spread it over all your exposed skin carefully then you can go out in the full sun for 300 minutes, five hours, and receive a dose of sunlight like what you would get if you went out for just 10 minutes with no cream on. When the sun is blazing, it is well worth doing. If your hair is fair and maybe a bit thin, and your hat is not dark either, it might help to spread sun cream over it too.
Desirable levels of exposure to sunlight are discussed in reference .
The remark about the Sun was quoted by a passing stranger on a cloudless day in an almost deserted french ski resort. Neither Google nor Bing nor Fireball, the German search engine, can find it.
The Alps were and perhaps still are being formed by the collision of tectonic plates in the north Mediterranean with the land mass of west central Europe. The geology is complicated. The plates themselves may be rotating, and there is a debate about whether one of them is going clockwise or anticlockwise.
Currently, the Alps are not considered a high risk area for earthquakes. Central Italy and Greece and Bulgaria, and especially central Romania, are much more active. The British Geological Survey once published a map showing where earthquakes have occurred throughout Europe, and there have been some in the region round Mont Blanc; but that map is no longer obvious in their catalogue, and anyway the buildings of central Aosta have survived whatever has been going on there for quite a while. The most notable recent events in that area were half a dozen quakes of magnitudes 3.0 and less in 2008. The biggest recorded by “Earthquake Track” anywhere near there was at Gemona, a little way north east of Venice, in 1976. That one was of magnitude 6.5.
In all events, one result is a sequence of huge walls of mountain facing south. These include the Grandes Jorasses on the south east flank of Mont Blanc, the south face of the Matterhorn, also known as Monte Cervino, and the north ends of the valleys running up towards Monte Rosa at Alagna and Macugnaga. To east and west of these three summits lie more moutains which rise to over 4000 metres, including Gran Paradiso to the south west and Bernina to the east. Beyond them are other icy summits, such as the Zuckerhütl in the Stubaier Alpen, and the Grande Motte in the French Parc National de la Vanoise, rising to between 3000 and 4000 metres. Good walking is to be found in the valleys and on the ridges around them all, and also over the lesser ridges in the spaces between them.
My first such holiday was a tour round Mont Blanc, run by the French Auberges de Jeunesse from Chamonix. It was a gentle affair. A truck drove out from Chamonix every day with our lunches. We took a bus for much of the way through Switzerland. Our guide, who was a fully qualified mountain guide for whom this was a minor exercise, told us the earlier the better as far as Alpine holidays are concerned: more snow, more flowers, and more intelligent people. I am not quite sure about that last bit, which seems rather unfair on parents and teachers tied by school terms. Anyway, he was right about the snow. Not only is there more of it but fresh snow is much more attractive than old dirty snow.
Snow is the thing which places a restriction on how early or late a holiday may be. The refuges where most hikers sleep do not open until most of it has melted, and they close before the big snowfalls of winter arrive. Thus the season for mountain walking is generally restricted to June, July, August and September. Details of the opening dates of each refuge can often be found on the Internet.
At high quiet refuges, one sometimes finds oneself in conversations with strangers on unusually personal matters. In one such, a middle aged man and I discussed how our parents died, and our own prospects. He was engrossed and anxious. I felt rather more phlegmatic and fatalistic. In another, a local lad related how his father was rejuvenated when a new child arrived in their family. On a third occasion, in front of a fire in a gite in l’Espérou with snow falling outside, a big strong young man from the university in Montpellier told how he rode in a gondola under a balloon over tree tops full of big intelligent birds in equatorial rain forests.
One essential for planning a successful holiday is a good map. In fact, two different maps may be needed. Large scale maps show details of each squiggle of each path. Small scale maps show the public infrastructure at the ends of paths. When choosing where to go, it is a good idea to look at both. Large scale maps show whether there will be a satisfactory network of paths for the holiday itself. The small scale ones show how one can plan transport there and home again.
Precisely where you choose to go will depend on how you intend to get there. A car can go to almost any town up to 1000 metres. (Some higher resorts, including Zermatt and Saas-Fee, insist that cars must be parked below the town.) The issues with travelling by car are that one needs a car; one must be willing to drive it all the way to the Alps and back again, unless there is a convenient train which can carry it; it must remain in a car park while the walking takes place, where it is vulnerable; and the walking holiday has to end where it started, back at the car. A holiday is more interesting if it ends far from where it began.
Theft of and from cars is a significant issue in some places. For instance, if one parks in or below Chamonix and then walks round Mont Blanc, one is warned not to say to anyone en route where your car is. If one does then a thief may seek it out, knowing that nobody is likely to take an interest in it for a few days. For that reason, it may be considered tactless to ask how another hiker made the journey to the mountain.
I thought I did not not know anyone who has walked or cycled from Britain to the Alps and back in order to have a walking holiday there, but Stone Elworthy, an acquaintance of many years ago, has done it.
The alternatives are train and bus, or bus, or plane and bus. It is usually easiest to finish the journey in a local bus. Only a few trains, such as the ones to Chamonix and Zermatt, and the spectacular one between Pontresina in the Engadine and Poschiavo, can reach 1000 metres. You can start walking at 200 metres if you like, but walking out of a large town is hard work, and there are often no good paths up the lower slopes of valleys. By the way, if you take the Pontresina-Poschiavo train, maybe avoid the “Bernina Express” which will take you too fast past the great panoramas. Better ride in the open carriages at the back of the slow train, despite its dreadfully squeaky wheels.
Planes may sometimes be the quick and cheap way to get there. With luck, an airline may run flights from an airport near you to Turin or Bergamo, whence the Alps are a few hours’ ride on a train. Getting from a town centre to the mountains is often almost as quick and easy as getting from an airport into the town.
A long distance coach may be the cheapest way, but such journeys are hard. That is not usually a good way to start or end an enjoyable trip. I like trains. In the old days, there was a Channel ferry to Oostende, and then a sleeper train direct from the quayside all the way through Switzerland to Domodossola, which is a good starting point for hikers. I used it often enough to become somewhat familiar with the food stalls outside the customs shed at Oostende. Thomas Cook’s train timetable for Europe listed every train on every route. The whole project could be planned in the local public library. Nowadays, the Internet has put that old timetable out of business, and the Channel Tunnel’s convenience persuades me to make most of my continental train journeys through Paris.
Of course, one doesn’t have to go to the Alps. Variety is the spice of life, and travelling by train to all sorts of places is a good way to find it.
In 1991, soon after the partition of Europe between West and East collapsed, I ventured to Brašov in Romania and walked to and over the Carpathians for a few days. On the way there, in a small compartment on a train from Budapest, there were just me and a woman who initially was lying on her back, awake but silent and still. After a few minutes she sat up and told me unprompted in very good English that she had just visited a friend who had left Romania for the West a while earlier, with permission. The friend was assimilated into Western living, but the woman opposite me was amazed and confused by it. She said that the friend had had to explain to her, for instance, about all the different forms of detergent: soap for washing hands, shampoo for hair, liquid for dishes, powder for clothes. In old Romania, there was just soap. She was of a good intellectual family – she told me her father’s profession, which involved assessing the quality of skill and imagination shown by others – but, throughout her life up to then, nobody had ever suggested to her that anyone might conceive of such a variety of forms of soap. The regime had concealed from her and the entire Romanian population the very idea that there might be all these possibilities. She was angry.
Train tunnels through the Alps are listed on Wikipedia. It may help to find a map of the area and mark them all on it, just to help understand the outline of the whole area. Weather on the south side of a tunnel is sometimes dramatically brighter and warmer and drier than on the north. I learned this from a sodden night camping in Uri followed by a fine day in Ticino.
The centre of Domodossola is a classic medieval old stone town built near where the river Bogno meets the Ossola. It is now surrounded by quiet roads of apartment blocks. The railway follows the river along a flat plain, so the station is at the bottom of the town. A few yards to the north of its entrance, there are the post office and a useful self service store. Directly in front, a broad avenue leads up to the old town centre where the buildings and roads were clearly designed for people, not cars. Instead of footpaths bounded by kerbs, there are sheltered stone arcades. As it got dark one evening, before catching a train out, I spent half an hour or so at a café whose clientele could have come out of one of the less affluent quarters of 19th century Paris, except for the motor bikes. On another occasion, a Saturday, when I got there the centre was full of a sort of farmers’ market. The wares on sale included fruit, honey, sun glasses, and a stall of weird African wood carvings.
The Bogno valley is short and steep. Its bottom is a gorge, not glaciated. Its upper reaches make for hard scrambling and occasional scary strides across high steep slopes, but its middle regions are beautiful country and it leads to a smooth col, the Passo di Monscera, into Switzerland.
Further down the Ossola valley are the ends of other valleys running up to the Swiss frontier. The first is Antrona, running up from Villadossola. It has two branches which meet at the little town of Antronapiana. The passes into Switzerland from the smaller northern branch are quite high and steep, though maybe worth visiting for the views across them to the 4000 grim grey metres of the Weissmies which is not walking country. There is a high pass from Cheggio to the Bogno which was easier to follow in the 1980s before trees grew high on the Bogno side. I may have been the first foreign visitor to sleep in the reconstructed Rifugio Andolla near the top of this branch.
Below Andolla, in a bar at Cheggio, a man with a black beard invited a small group up to his hut above the reservoir. It was a bare building with stone walls and an earth floor, nice and cool at that time of year. He said it was about 200 years old. Once there, everyone else lay outside in the sun. I explored up to the frontier above, and found a well maintained sign post with arms pointing in various directions including one roughly north into what appeared to be little more than thin air. There was something resembling a path down that side, but it looked distinctly adventurous.
The Antrona valley’s southern branch is bigger and broader and lower until it ends at one of the spectacular thousand metre high walls which make one realise that mountains really are geographically and politically significant. There is a pass over it to the Saastal but it is beyond the scope of normal walking. Something somebody once said suggested that he may have smuggled cigarettes that way long ago.
West and south of the Antrona valley is Macugnaga in Valle Anzasca, and beyond that are Alagna in Valle della Sesia, the two Gressoney towns in their own valley, and Champoluc and the hamlet San Giacomo in Valle d’Avas. There is no easy pass that way out of Val d’Antrona above the town of Antronapiana, but just below it is the Passo del Mottone. I once spent a day trying to find the way up it but, despite the excellent Swiss map No. 284 which marked every kink in the path, I never made it. The recommended route has been changed since.
From Macugnaga westwards there is a sequence of passes: Turlo, Olen, Pinter, and Colle Superiore delle Cime Bianche or one of the others just south of it which lead to Valtournenche and Cervinia below Monte Cervino. All the intervening ridges run up into the Monte Rosa massif. It was somewhere near the Colle d’Olen, in cloud which left visibility at about 100 metres, that there was a little click. It was the noise made by the horns of two bull ibexes fighting for domination of their herd. They let me watch the slow progress of their battle for several minutes. Ibexes rarely do anything very fast.
From Valtournenche, there are further paths leading eventually to Valpelline, north of Aosta. I went through this area just once, from west to east. It took two days and involved crossing various cols, and a long stride over a brisk stream just above a steep cascade, and a gentle hike through a broad flat valley populated with a few tourists and rather more cows with maybe the occasional bull. The path took me about twenty yards from one such. It stood all alone, looking bored and maybe somewhat irritated, staring at me. It was black with large horns. Otherwise the whole region was quiet, with just a few other hikers, and one neat but empty corrugated iron shelter with bunks and a stove but no toilet, and three policemen sunning themselves, and the very welcome Rifugio Oratorio di Cunéy.
West from Valpelline, the next direct objective might be Val Ferret and Courmayeur. The direct route is via the Col Malatra which is difficult, not suitable for walking, although the orchids below its east side are brilliant and in season the flowers on the upper south side of Val Ferret aren’t at all bad either. There may be a path further north over the Grand St Bernard, or some neighbouring pass, but I have not explored there. Alternatively, from Valpelline, one can head north over the Fenêtre de Durand into Switzerland. There are trains out from Pré Saint-Didier and Aosta to the south, and Santhià and Novara a long way south, and from Martigny to the north.
This is just one portion of the great sweep of the Italian Alps, and of course the mountains extend north and east and west of Italy. There are good trains to Bourg St Maurice in Val d’Isère, and to Modane. Between them is the Parc de la Vanoise, centred around Pralognan where a pharmacist sold me snow glasses. He said they were designed for an Everest expedition, and through them one can look directly at the Sun.
Further east, there is a pretty little railway running from Domodossola to Locarno, “Il Trenino delle Centovalli”. This goes through the Swiss canton of Ticino which is lower than the foothills of Monte Rosa, but still congenial and sometimes demanding. Like the slow Pontresina-Poschiavo train, its slower form has squeaky wheels but probably gives better chances to see the views.
Notable features of this region include the chance to stare into a rather dark uninviting little tunnel under a col a few miles north east of Domodossola out of Italy into a bit more of Italy; and the first few steps over the precipice on the way from Fusio to Faido; and the eastern side of the path over the Pass Giumela from Biasca to Rossa in Val Calanca. Does it exist? Some of these passes and valleys are very quiet.
Further east again, beyond the great lakes Maggiore and Lugano and Como, is the massif of Monte Bernina. On its south side are three valleys, of which Val Màzino is the narrowest. It has a reputation for rock climbing.
There is a substantial town called Chiesa in the middle of Val Malenco but there are large high tranquil areas around it. The proprietor of a camp site in Poschiavo once told me how he went to work in Australia and then returned when he had made his fortune. He described the valley’s history, including the reception given there to emissaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who came demanding taxes. They never came to Poschiavo again. He also said that the ibex prefer high ridges of one particular kind of rock, limestone I think, and avoid others.
There are passes between these three valleys, and from Val Malenco and Poschiavo northwards to the Engadine. At the foot of each valley is a town: Morbegno below Màzino, Sondrio below Malenco, and Tirano below Poschiavo. All three are on a railway line to Milan. In the centre of old Morbegno is a shop with a large cheese cellar.
Throughout the area, there is an old and continuing tradition of large ornate and sometimes dramatic murals. They show a wide range of artistic styles, and also a very wide range of topics. In the centres of the large valley towns, some prominent ones show baroque scenes with flowing robes and fancy decorations.
Higher up, they are less formal. One shows a happy climber being helped up a cliff by an angel, and another includes an inscription saying
Only the children in this picture may pick the flowers.
I have visited this area several times and still do not know it all. The first occasion was as part of a long hike from east to west which went via the train to Poschiavo, where I camped; up past a large gushing mountain spring of fresh water and over the Passo d’Ur to sleep at the Rifugio Zoia in Val Malenco; down with a kind motorist to Chiesa, and up the opposite side for the next night at the Rifugio Bosio; then past the now defunct Rifugio Desio and down into Val Màzino. A friendly group of local teenagers let me sleep in their hostel somewhere in or near Cataeggio. Then, rather than leave the obvious way by Mazino and Morbegno, I went nearly to the bottom and then up a side branch. Another kind motorist gave me a lift up the first bit, but that still left a climb of 2000 metres lasting six hours to a deserted icy col, with no clear path, over into a relatively small steep valley above the top end of the Como valley. Three local women were sitting there outside a little stone house. The oldest of them took charge and promised me somewhere to eat and sleep. Then she and her dog led the way faster than I cared to go down to her home, an old farm centred around a large room with large fireplace and ceiling supported by large dark old beams. There she presided at dinner over her large family. It was a long hard day. To cap it all, my meagre spoken Italian was almost useless because, as one of her children or grandchildren explained, they talked in an ancient dialect which I still know nothing of. It was a strange experience. One of the weirdest things happened just before the col: a big yellow helicopter suddenly flew over it from the other side, very low, and disappeared down the slope. That was the only life up there.
In the far north east of Italy, north of the more famous Dolomites, there are several passes over the frontier with Austria. The Val Senales, or Schnalstal, has two which lead into the the valley of the Gurgl. One of them, the Similaun Pass, is known for “Similaun Man”, sometimes called “Ötzi”, a prehistoric man whose body was found preserved in a nearby glacier. There are trains to Naturno, at the foot of the valley, from Bolzano via Merano. There is fine scenery here, and around the nearby Texelgrüppe, and on the Austrian side among the Stubaier Alpen which can be reached by bus from Innsbruck and by train at Steinach just north of the Brenner Pass. Note that some paths in this area lead to so-called “via ferrata” – a path where steel cables are fixed to the rock for people to hang on to, in case they slip. They should be avoided unless you are very sure you know what you are doing.
All these areas can be reached by train, perhaps with a short bus ride at the end. The natural approach to the west end is by TGV from Paris through the Fréjus tunnel to Turin or Milan. The Gotthard tunnel leads from central Switzerland into Ticino, down to Lugano, Como and Milan. The Simplon tunnel also leads from Switzerland to Milan, crossing the frontier further west near Domodossola. The other two useful north-south train routes are the Brenner tunnel in the far east, and the one over the Bernina pass from the Engadine to Poschiavo and Tirano. This last is the ultimate mountain holiday ride for geriatrics and hikers who feel they have done enough.
The tectonic plates which influence Alpine geology are discussed in [375, page 4]. The web sites [139, 479] show regions of high earthquake risk, and [66, 477] list recent individual earthquakes. Publications of the British Geological Survey are listed in their catalogue .
I have found just one reference  which mentions medieval history of Alpine valleys, but an enthusiastic referee  mentions “the stupendous mass of scholarly material” on that period in more general German history so further search may be worthwhile.
Stone Elworthy, who cycled to the Alps and back, is mentioned in [15, 367] for different reasons.
Wikipedia, one of the great creations of our age, lists train tunnels through the Alps  and a great deal more of use when planning a holiday.
The photograph of the stall with African carvings is included here by kind permission of its proprietor: Mr Saliou Gueye, via Roma 12, 28802 Mergozzo, Vb, Italy. tel: 0039 339 6206782.
Spanish ibex are found on limestone .
Similaun Man [501, 318] was originally stored and examined in Innsbruck. His body is now in a museum in Bolzano.
A walker needs a path. Walking through any kind of terrain without a path is very hard work, and not recommended.
There was a group holiday about a quarter of a century ago, based at Sixt. Towards the end, most the group trekked across the Col d’Anterne to Chamonix the straightforward way, but two of us decided to make a detour over a mountain called Le Buet.
The evening before, after the usual good supper in the valley, we went up to the refuge above Sixt for the night. Next morning, we were on the shoulder above it while the valleys were full of mist. As it cleared and the air got warmer, we looked down on a helicopter, laden with bits of a new electricity pylon, which was trying to climb to our height and could not because the air was too thin to support its weight. The way was a rough scramble but not hard until we reached a col on the main ridge to the summit. Beyond and far down was the upper Chamonix valley. We stopped. If the final approach to the summit was not a via ferrata, it should have been. While we considered it, he slipped off the col and was only saved from a long fall down the far side by a flimsy snow cornice.
We turned back and decided to follow the route taken by the rest of the group. This meant descending, past the overnight refuge, to the altitude we began at the evening before, and then doing a normal full day’s hike. We made it. The sun was setting as we reached the Col d’Anterne, and disappeared soon afterwards. Mont Blanc loomed in front of us, ghostly blue-white in the starlight. Otherwise, almost everything was black. It was all silent. Neither of us had been on that mountainside before. The refuge was not far off, and he caught a glimps of its lights, but we were guessing the way to it.
It was then that I did something I have not done before and rarely if ever since, and which I did not know could be done. I felt the way down the path by its texture under my feet. Luckily, it was a good path on open ground, and its nearly level pebble surface was quite different from the rough scrub and stones on either side. We reached the refuge, where his wife hugged him and everyone stopped eating the long sought supper for a few minutes and agreed it was a good thing they did not have to call out the mountain rescue.
Some Alpine paths are very old. Hannibal led his elephants from France on such a path, over the Col de la Seigne, into Italy in Val Veni at the west end of Val Ferret. It is said that Swiss libraries have medieval records of paths, dating from times when trade between Mediterranean lands and the tribes of Germany was difficult and lucrative for the few who knew the passes. Sometimes, it is also said, the paths were designed deliberately so that they did not lead directly up to the high passes, but instead crossed extra valleys and subsidiary passes so that the essential high pass was hard to find.
A path not only makes walking easier. It is a guide. It weaves a route for the walker between individual bogs and boulders, and on the grand scale through valleys and up to the tops of ridges and the passes over them. Beware, though: this guide can be treacherous. From the refuge at the Col de la Vanoise there are three routes down. The simplest heads gently north and then west to Pralognan. The southeastern route heads into a lonely wilderness, then divides into a northern branch which leads under the Grande Casse and the Grande Motte towards Tignes, and a southern branch where I once saw a large herd of ibex. The southwest path is the quick steep way down to Pralognan, but it is only quick if you look where you are going and remember to take a left turn off a minor col. Large numbers of tourists don’t do this. They, and I, are often careless and just head straight on up to a little knoll which provides a good view of the way ahead but no chance of getting there. We all have to go back to the turning again. The result is that this little detour gets nearly twice the wear and tear of the correct route, so it appears bigger, so it attracts yet more gullible tourists. They say, you can’t fool all the people all the time. This path fools a lot.
A mountainside may be strewn with a mass of big and little paths, going in all sorts of directions, made by goats and people and marmots and maybe other creatures too. Just a few of them are adopted and marked by officially recognised organisations. Sometimes a junction or col on a major path is given a sign post.
Most of the way, a major path will be marked by paint or by piles of stones called “cairns” unless it is as wide and obvious as a road. It is not always easy to see the marks. The next few illustrations all show one. Can you find them?
Some kinds of painted marks are controlled by law. It is an offence to paint anything resembling such a mark without proper authorization. This is a good thing: if a mark is placed in a misleading position, it may confuse walkers and lead them into danger.
The principal mark consists of a short horizontal white bar above a similar short horizontal red bar. This is the most severely controlled mark. It appears right across the Alps and the Pyrénées, in all countries. It is used for major paths where any walker should be confident, whatever his or her level of experience. These marks save us from getting lost. Don’t risk touching them. The paint could easily be rubbed off.
Note that the white-red marks may not be distributed along a path evenly. The hardworking people who maintain them can’t be expected to spend much time where the path is obvious and there is no risk of getting lost. Also, one sometimes finds that a path is marked well up to a certain point - perhaps the easy side of a col - and then marks are sparser on the other side where most tourists are not expected to venture.
There are variants of this basic mark. A short vertical white bar with two similar red bars, one on either side, is sometimes used to show that you are on the right track without indicating which direction it goes in. This red-white-red mark is also used on official signposts, such as those found on a col where several paths converge from different directions. You may also see a bent mark, indicating a corner in the path.
In Italy, there was a time when the equivalent of local parish boundaries were marked by a long white line with an adjacent long red line. This could be confusing, and a distinct nuisance, as parish boundaries sometimes run through exceptionally dense patches of wild roses and raspberry bushes, and over the occasional minor cliff. Before I understood this, I spent a difficult morning following the parish boundary on the slope south of Pré-Saint-Didier.
Local institutions also mark paths with their own symbols and in other colours. Often they use yellow or red, or sometimes blue.
At the bottom of the scale of authority, but not necessarily of value, are cairns. Cairns come in all styles from neatly laid pillars to exotica to rough piles, and all sizes from a hundred or so stones to a solitary one balanced on a boulder. Although they may not be protected by law like the red-white marks, they are still important waymarks. That time when the fighting ibexes let me watch them under low cloud, afterwards it was easy to find a route down off the mountain by following a line of little cairns. Without them, in the cloud, the way would have been much harder.
Whatever you do, don’t risk upsetting a single stone of a cairn even though it seems sometimes people build cairns for fun. There is no other clear reason for all the fancy examples on the Passo del Muretto between Valmalenco and Maloja in the Engadine.
Before setting off from home, it will be worth making up your mind: how much navigating and exploring do you intend to do? The easiest option is to choose a well known well maintained trail, buy a good guide book for that trail, and do what it says. The other extreme, not advised on your first visit, would be to buy a train ticket, get off where the train and connecting bus leave you, and head off upwards. The mid course consists of
This is my preferred approach.
For walking in unknown mountains, the scale of 1:50,000 often used for hiking in Britain is a bit too small. Also, the supposedly popular tourist maps with pretty wavy contour lines spaced at 100 metre intervals only give a rough idea of what to expect (and very occasionally the heights written on them are wrong).
The right maps for exploring on foot are those published by government cartographic agencies on a scale of 1:25,000 or thereabouts. The most suitable tourist maps will show paths and the names of passes and the names of refuges. The French maps also show the names or numbers of some paths, particularly the Grandes Randonnées. For instance the path which starts on the frontier with Luxembourg and extends down the whole western Alpine chain to the Mediterranean at Nice is called GR5. Most of them have alternative routes and detours which are numbered GR51, GR52 etc. By the way, if you follow a GR, it is best to check it on a recent map or web site. Their positions sometimes change.
I don’t see any point in ski poles or a walking stick. Legs serve perfectly well, and a stick will add weight and hamper your hands which are sometimes useful on steep bits.
Some Englishmen don’t understand moutain paths. Once in the French Pyrénées, three uncouth English youths came hurtling down towards me on bikes, out of control. Then again, I once met an Englishman who was struggling to push his laden bike up the Colle del Turlo. He went to some lengths to explain that this was mountain biking. More recently I have met Germans and local Italians doing much the same. One Italian had an expensive looking bike with only half a front fork: its front wheel was on an axle which was only supported at one end. This seemed a very flimsy construction, most unsuitable for riding up and down rough terrain far from assistance in case of breakage. The right approach to a mountain path is on two feet.
The guide on the Tour of Mont Blanc gave us several pieces of good advice. One of them was
The reason is simple: it saves energy. Following this maxim involves care. It is often not a good idea to stride up, putting each foot in turn on top of the next big rock in the bed of the path, because unless the path is steep the top of that rock will be higher than all the smaller rocks just beyond it. Better put a foot down on some adjacent lower rock, and leave a little ascent left for the next stride.
Another way to save energy is
Making a stone move requires effort. This has a second virtue: moving a stone on a steep slope may cause it to fall, and maybe start a small avalanche, and hurt a climber below.
Saving energy matters most while going up. When going down, there are different priorities. One is speed. Sometimes there are good reasons for getting off a moutain promptly, for instance if it is getting dark or the weather is breaking. Running is not a good idea, but nor is plodding. The medium strategy is a steady brisk stride. This calls for a particular special technique: one is always looking a pace or two ahead of the stone which one is about to step on. The human brain has several different forms of memory. It seems that one of them is able to retain a subconscious image of what one saw perhaps two seconds earlier. It is sufficient to guide a foot accurately onto a chosen stone even while one’s conscious perception is concentrated on potential footrests a metre or so further down the path.
Unless you know by experience that you can do this, it takes a little courage to march thus down an uneven path. Don’t attempt it if you are tired. It involves concentration and being alert. Under reasonably good conditions, I have found that I can keep up this mode of descent steadily for a hundred metres or so at a stretch. I have also found that, when I stumble, I am good at giving way and falling, rather than trying to keep upright. This saves my ankle from what might otherwise be a bad twist. You may react differently. See the remark on parachute jumping in Chapter 10.
Of course, don’t count on sunshine all the time. When humidity is high and the morning is clear, expect convection clouds to develop in the afternoon. They may turn into a thunder shower. Even when there is no rain, cloud at any level makes walking harder. I have seen a banner cloud being sucked up behind a cliff on the lee of a high ridge. I have also seen two layers of cloud converging on the side of a mountain, one descending from above and the other rising from below, until they met and visibility over the whole mountainside fell to fifty metres. At such times, your skill at finding the path will be tested. Just stay alert, and remember, those who built it intended that people like us should be able to find it.
Walks can be quite long. It is common to start from a town at about 1000 metres, say Chamonix or Valpelline or Chiesa, and climb to a refuge at 2000 metres. This will probably take three hours if you are fit, or more at the start of a holiday. Then of course you have to go down again, unless you carried sleeping gear on the climb up. (On the first day of a holiday, it might be wise to go up and down just 200 metres or so without a heavy load.) There is no point in starting fast and exhausting oneself in the first few hundred metres. A short rest every twenty or thirty minutes is reasonable on a typical moderate climb.
On steep slopes, the path will probably bend back on itself often, so it follows a zigzag course. One often finds that impatient people leave the path before a bend and go straight down, or even straight up, making a shorter route. This makes a mess of the terrain and sometimes damages the edge of the proper path, so is usually not encouraged, but so many people do it that nobody makes much effort to stop them. Cutting off corners may not be a very good idea. On the way up, it leaves most people puffing and obliges them to take more rests, which ultimately makes them slower. On the way down, steep short cuts may lead to a fall. On a mountain, most accidents happen on the way down.
Vegetation varies abruptly with altitude. At the bottom, the dominant form is conifer woods. These change to deciduous bushes, then the upper slopes are often short grass, sometimes with flowers, but may be large beds of thick azaleas which are very tough going without the path. Much above 2500 metres, there is little vegetation, though what there is often consists of flowers.
The path varies simlarly. At one extreme, some paths consist of well laid large slabs of stone. The one over the Colle del Turlo is classic. Its upper stages were built by the Italian army to keep themselves busy while they waited for the Second World War. It is a fine achievement. At the other, the path may be just a narrow rut in the sod. In some places, what one hopes will be a single clear path may split into a scattering of cow tracks. When this happens, don’t be alarmed. It is often easy to stray a few metres. If the path really has disappeared, try standing still for a few seconds and look round carefully for a white-red mark or a cairn. If there are none visible in front then turn round and look behind you. On a hillside where marks and cairns are scarce, sometimes a path appears as a barely visible straight line, an unnatural edge in the turf, running nearly horizontally across the slope above you.
Paths near cols have their own special features. If the col is shaped like the back of a horse, smooth at the top with a gentle gradient down from it, then the path will also be gentle. Some cols are not like that. Instead, the last few metres up to it are the steepest. On this section, the path will zigzag frantically. Although it may be well formed, and not particularly hard, seeing it may be difficult because it will consist of just an irregular track of small compact stones, interrupted occasionally by a few relatively large ones, which appear very like all the other stones on either side. The best tactic in this situation is to keep one’s eyes wide open and look carefully for every suggestion of another two metres somewhere nearby without large stones on it. Some such paths over steep cols are marked with minute cairns. A single small stone sitting on top of a naturally placed big stone is probably a cairn.
Beware of anything called a “fenêtre” on the map. It will probably be an extreme example of a col of this form. The Fenêtre de Durand is all right, though.
There is one other kind of terrain worth mentioning: snow. A patch of snow often occurs on a path. There is nothing unusual about it. The only things which make it special are that it is white, and it may be slippery, and you can put your foot through it.
Because it is extraordinarily white, looking at snow in bright sunlight is almost like looking at the sun itself. It dazzles, and too much can damage the eyes. If one is going onto snow for more than a minute or so then good glasses which block almost all ultraviolet light are recommended. Even for just half a minute, in bright sun, the eyes will be better guarded if you keep the lids almost closed and just look through narrow slits between them at the surface in front of you.
Because it is slippery, if one is going to walk across steep snow slopes then special footwear is needed to grip the top layer. Furthermore, one should only walk across a steep slope if that top layer can be relied on to grip the layer underneath. If either layer is thawing then no footwear will help. Therefore, one of the rules about climbing on sloping snow is: don’t do it after midday. After midday, the snow will be thawing and that top layer will not be secure, so nor will you. Normal marked paths do not cross steep snow slopes, though there are some exceptions such as the east side of the Col Malatra.
Because you can put your foot through it, don’t run over it. There may be a hole underneath the surface which can’t be seen. Anybody running, and putting his or her leg through such a hole, may find that leg caught between two boulders, and the leg may break. For a similar reason, don’t walk over a snow field if there is a stream running under it. Not just a leg but a whole body may go through and disappear into a tunnel of water underneath.
I assume you won’t be doing any of these things. Just walking steadily over a nearly flat patch of snow with no lakes or streams nearby, and being aware that a foot may disappear unexpectedly and so being ready to stop and pull it out again, is not a significant risk. Alpine paths cross such patches routinely.
Slippery surfaces occur on grass and on wet mud and on dry loose grit and dust. If the path crosses any of them, such as steep smooth dusty rock on the approach to a col, then there will be a significant chance of slipping.
Away from the Alps proper, in Emilia-Romagna, the central Italian ridge runs up to 2000 metres and more. The hardest part of the eastern approach, from Fornovo di Taro, is walking along the roads. That is not to say it is easy: some of those roads go round blind bends on mountainsides where there is not much between the tarmac designed for car wheels and either a cliff face or a cliff edge.
The west side, from Pontremoli, is quite different. It starts with a winding hike along roads which may skirt into Tuscany. These lead on to dirt tracks towards the very steep west side of the ridge. Once, by luck as much as judgement or navigation, I found a little path up it. This led past a pretty shelter beside its own spring amongst trees, then out onto open high grass. Luckily, although the grass hid the path, it continued all the way to the top of the ridge, so there was no need to step onto the deep steep smooth wavy slippery grass.
At such times, it is very tempting to walk on all fours, using hands as extra feet. This can be a useful tactic. There is, however, one situation when use of hands is definitely unwise. One example of it occurs on the last bit of the climb up the south side of the Similaun Pass, from the val Senales in Italy over into Austria. If you find yourself on a path cut into the side of a cliff, and the surface of the path slopes, then the risk of slipping is increased if you lay a hand against the cliff. Chapter 12 explains why.
The Similaun Pass is very fine and well worth the effort of the climb to its top, but it is not entirely straightforward. Its south side culminates at the somewhat dusty slippery slope just mentioned. Its approach from the north is gentler, but when I crossed it in the 1980s it was a traverse across a sheet of ice, also slippery after the sun had been out for an hour or so. However, Google satellite photos show that the northern approach is now clear of ice. This looks like a case of global warming.
There is another spectacular pass nearby, the Hochjoch or Giogo Alto between the head of val Senales and Vent in Austria. Its north side is also gentle. It may perhaps be a bit easier than the Similaun, but the hike up the Val Senales to its south side is a little longer, and it lacks the clear view south towards Ortles, and the top end of the south approach is an awesome circuit around the head of a great glaciated cwm.
If you do decide you are lost, and your path has petered out into a soft wet mossy patch, and you have climbed 800 metres and feel this is not really the kind of holiday you originally intended it to be, then here are a few suggestions.
Don’t be ashamed to have a Mars bar. The calories will do you good.
This is not just because it looks nice. Compare the closest two or three ridges and valleys with the map, and decide whether they match. If they don’t then look at another bit of the map. If you can see any electricity pylons or the top of a ski lift, look for them on the map too.
It may be apparent that this list is compiled from substantial experience. Getting slightly lost is normal.
The French cartographic agency is called Institut Géographique National, or IGN . The Swiss agency is swisstopo . It has another name which it publishes in all four Swiss official national languages and which are not worth the trouble to reproduce here. The products of both are excellent, and are widely sold. Some IGN maps are on sale widely in Britain. The Italian cartographic service has a web site  which offers on line maps. It must be good because swisstopo has acknowledged that the portions of their maps covering parts of Italy are or were based on Italian data, but they don’t seem to issue their own paper maps. If you can’t find a suitable map from one of these agencies then there are usually others from private firms which will probably be adequate. Details of the French Grandes Randonnées can be found at [185, 186].
If you are about to make your first Alpine expedition then a guide book for your route will help. For instance, if you choose part of the GTA, which is a long path running all the way between the Mediterranean and Monte Rosa, you might try reading . Note though that the Mediterranean coast is dry and rocky and hot in summer. You won’t find anything like a green Alpine meadow near it.
If you prefer to explore and not commit yourself in advance to one route, but you would still like more guidance than a simple map provides, then the Lonely Planet guide  contains a wealth of detail. For somewhat less adventurous explorers,  and its later edition  provide details of a wide range of routes, mostly day trips which you are expected to reach by car. Note that their selection spans a very wide range of difficulties: at the east end of the Stubaier Alpen Glacier Traverse, a sign says
NUR FÜR GEÜBTE
I leave you to work out what this means, preferably not by trial and error. Spring and Edwards describe part of this path as “nerve wracking”. It is a via ferrata.
There is a photo of the sort of path where it is not wise to put a hand on a cliff face in [454, page 207], on a route called Dolomiti di Brenta.
If you are set on the sort of snow adventure which may lead to being buried in an avalanche then The US Army manual  and Jamie Andrew’s book  will give you an idea of what you face.
If things do go wrong, it really helps to be optimistic, to want and hope to get out alive. Your body works better that way [67, Chapter 6].
The area around Torla in the Pyrénées has large gorges in the limestone, as well as potholes. At a nearby campsite was a geographer specializing in topography who went off exploring these gorges for several days at a time, beyond any area served by shops and restaurants or even by refuges. He had a broad brimmed soft hat and a strong north American accent. When I asked him what he ate, he said he carried lots of high calorie foods, such as some exotic kind of bread. It sounded rather dull fare. What he was consuming back in the campsite was a bottle of strong alcohol.
The human alimentary canal is surrounded by about one hundred million nerve cells. They form what is called the enteric nervous system. Someone once said that if all these cells could be extracted and rolled up between the palms of your two hands then they would form a ball the size of a brain capable of independent thought. Furthermore, it seems this second brain is not independent, but it can tell the larger human brain what it wants, and the main brain finds it very difficult to resist.
I am not very good at organising food. For my only trip to Romania, in 1991 after the Soviet bloc opened up to the West, I carefully prepared for the journey by cooking and mashing a large quantity of potato with prawns. This was carried on the Channel ferry and trains through Vienna as far as Budapest, by which time I had eaten very little of it. Then I threw it away. It was good nourishing food, but not what was wanted, and it was heavy and the prawns were going off.
Before then, on the first trip round Mont Blanc, I set off better prepared with respect to food, which was a packet of digestive biscuits. Again, they were not eaten on the journey to the mountains, but they weighed a lot less. They were kept intact until the fifth day out, by which time the party had crossed the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and the Col de la Seigne and the Grand Col Ferret, out of France and through Italy into Switzerland down to La Dranse de Ferret. By that time our guide felt he had done enough and we could look after ourselves for half an hour while he chatted with old friends in a cabin. The party was made up of six nationalities. Digestive biscuits were good for international diplomatic relations, which were good anyway.
More than a decade earlier still, during a great circular tour round almost the whole Alpine range, I ate a lot of chocolate and was thoroughly constipated as a result. One afternoon, for a change, I decided to buy an egg. Later that evening, it dawned on me that I couldn’t cook it, so I ate it raw with bread. At least, raw egg cured the constipation very effectively.
Medical researchers are still discovering more about what makes a healthy diet. Long term health, and even the health of our children and grandchildren, is affected by what we eat. One recent article suggests that cabbage, grapes, tomatoes, tofu, parsley, garlic, turmeric, broccoli and green tea all help. In particular, the immune system depends on a supply of sulphur in suitable form in the diet. Isothiocyanates are good for you. Brassicas, such as cabbage and broccoli and radishes and water cress, are good sources. It has been reported that sheep have fewer tummy upsets when fed on fresh raw turnips, and that the isothiocyanate in turnip may be the reason. However, cooking broccoli on a moutainside is not practical. If you are worried about this, try carrying a small bottle of strong mustard and eating a little daily.
The obvious principle, when choosing what to take, is to take what you like to eat. The first problem is deciding what that is. For instance, salami is something which would never occur to me but for that experience in the camp site at St Oyen where it was just right. It is also a suitable food for hiking: it is nourishing and robust and dense. Three hundred grams of it will go a long way, in the sense of feeding a hiker. Choosing a diet for a walking holiday involves careful introspection. Here is an attempt at a guide.
On a ten day trip spent mostly in the Spanish Pyrénées, a pair of genteel English girls and I followed approximately the same route for a while without realising it. When we did, we were at a refuge where they cooked their supper. One of them carried hers past in an aluminium pot of the sort often advertised for campers. I told her that aluminium is a nerve poison. She dropped her head sharply, said “I know”, and hurried on. We met again a few days later in the next valley, and her companion was very open and forthcoming, but she did not want to look at me. It was not the most successful social gambit.
If you really want to take tins then maybe it is better to get a very simple tin-opener, not a big bulky heavy one made from chrome plate or stainless steel with black plastic handles. Better than that, there is a little one consisting of two hinged pieces of metal. One of the pieces has a blade with a sharp point. The other has a notch and a flat bit to press on and twist. The point on the blade is used to pierce the top of the tin. The notch hooks under the tin’s top lip, so that the tin-opener can be twisted and the blade tears the metal of the tin’s top around its edge. You do this repeatedly, moving the notch around the edge in small steps until the lid can be lifted up. The result is a hole in the top of the tin, and a disk of metal with some nasty sharp spikes on it. Afterwards, however the tin was opened, it is your duty to carry both empty tin and lid down the mountain and dispose of them in a proper rubbish bin.
A group of dieticians at Colorado State University write that the first reserve of energy which an athlete uses is the glycogen which is stored in muscle. When that is exhausted, then the athlete may start burning either carbohydrates or fat. Of these, carbohydrates yield more energy per unit of oxygen, and the effort of breathing in oxygen is a limiting factor when one is struggling up a hill. Besides that, the body needs water in order to digest fat. Water is heavy and, as you know from Chapter 3, it is not always wise to drink much while climbing. It seems therefore that carbohydrate is the best source of energy. On the other hand, if you want to lose fat then the obvious way is to climb a mountain with very little food, other than a bit of salt, and lots of water. I don’t recommend that.
Mountain walking is perhaps not quite as strenuous as athletics, but it goes on for at least as as long, so it seems reasonable to suppose that an athlete’s diet should suit a walker. The Colorado athlete’s diet includes toast, jelly, fruit juice, spaghetti, strawberries and ice cream. Otherwise it seems suitable. While walking, the nearest I have seen to this diet was what the French AJ at Chamonix produced for their daily lunches (Chapter 4).
The authors of the Colorado diet write that athletes benefit from eating extra carbohydrate for two or three days before the great event. For a relatively casual holidaymaker who is not intent on dashing up as fast as possible, there is no obvious reason to do that. They also write that it takes about 30 minutes for sugar to enter the blood stream, and it has some bad effects: dehydration, higher insulin level. Maybe this is true of sugar, but my personal experience at about 2500 metres on Coma Pedrosa, Andorra, was that a Mars bar can change me from a whimpering liability to a vigorous enthusiast much quicker than that. This was a good thing. Maybe it was due to caffeine or something else in chocolate. Chocolate is good stuff, taken in moderation.
Note that manufacturers blend chocolate to suit the climate. In summer, chocolate bars sold in Britain may have a cooler melting point than that of bars sold in central or southern Europe. It may be best to buy locally.
Note also that sugar, on its own or in sweets or drinks or chocolate, is a nutritional disaster. Refined sugar contains essentially nothing but calories, and the modern Western diet already provides quite enough of those. Any more of them damage health. If you really want sugar while at home, try molasses or black treacle, since that may perhaps still hold some of the goodness of sugar cane. Life in the mountains is a bit different because there one expends more calories and is more exposed to unpredictable cold winds, so the body can cope with some sugar and it may do good at a critical moment.
The latest research I have heard of suggests that a bit of starvation is a good idea every now and then, say twice a week. Not only does it reduce any flab, which would be a good idea for a lot of us, but also it resembles the natural cave man’s diet which our ancestors evolved to benefit from. In particular, it seems, a little weekly starvation causes growth of new brain cells. Presumably, this is to improve intelligence so that the starving caveman is better at finding food. A first Alpine hiking holiday will probably be quite stressful enough without this, though.
You will probably often eat twice a day in refuges. In between the set meals, a refuge may lay on a basic food and drink service, particularly if it is in or on the edge of the high nearly sterile zone. This service is an important part of the refuge’s original and major function: to be a refuge for anyone caught out on the mountain, cold or lost or hurt or just exhausted, and be able to provide shelter and all that is necessary to survive and regain enough strength to go down to safety.
Always be courteous to the refuge staff. I was once unfortunate, and approached the service hatch after two brash young men had irritated the woman in charge. She took me for someone like them, although I tried to approached her civilly, and I got no joy there. She even refused to believe that my native language wasn’t the same as theirs.
If you discover a pair of refuges close together, you are in luck because they compete for custom and the food is likely to be a key aspect of the competition. Up the northeast branch of Valmalenco, the refuges Musella and Mitta Cesare form such a pair. On the way up to them, a cheerful young woman strongly recommended the one she called “MOOsella”, and it proved good. The other is probably good too.
Refuges are reasonably priced, but they are not cheap. In the valleys, sometimes of course it is natural to treat oneself to a full meal in a restaurant, but one also buys a lot of food in groceries. This can be nerve wracking for the grocer because a hiker may march in with a large pack on his back and forget he is wearing it. I have never brought down a shelf full of jars, and I don’t want to. It is better to leave your rucksack near the door, after asking the shopkeeper’s permission and ensuring essential papers are on your person.
Local groceries can cause surprises. For instance, foreign biscuits taste unlike anything on sale at home. They seem to contain some sort of flavouring which is never used in Britain.
There is a particular kind of sweet dark moist bread, almost a cake, which can sometimes be found in north Italy. It contains sultanas and maybe dried dates and other forms of dried fruit, as well as chopped nuts, perhaps walnuts. It comes in various sizes and at various prices, wrapped in transparent plastic. It looks as if it is baked locally, as a sort of cottage industry. It can be bitten off and chewed easily, so eating a helping of it causes not much delay while walking. One large chunk of it is a very good basis for an expedition.
Water is found in bottles, in taps, in public fountains, in public standpipes, in rivers, wells, streams and lakes, as rain and as snow or ice, and as springs. It is important to understand which of these many sources are potable and which are not.
Bottled water always struck me as silly. Tap water is perfectly good. In Britain, anyway, if one wants a bottled drink then milk is often cheaper. No doubt to the horror of the entire Swiss nation, the tap water in Zermatt was found in the 1960s to be infected with typhoid, but that case was probably unique in Europe.
Don’t drink from fountains. Some fountains may recycle their water from the basin, where it collects after being sprayed into the air, back through the jet. It is not hygenic.
There is an ancient tradition (maybe a law?) that every community should have a public source of clean water, freely accessible to everyone. This usually takes the form of a pipe poking out of a wall in a mildly ornate stone frame, from which the water flows continuously into an open concrete tank and then runs away into a drain. The water is potable from the moment it leaves the pipe until it meets the tank. From that point on, it is not.
Such sources exist in every old town or village from the cities of the Po valley upwards. The place to seek them is a quiet sheltered little alcove or square, not usually by a main road. They are sometimes social centres. The tank itself is often home to ferns and mosses and other life. In Aosta I once watched two ants, one small and the other larger, wandering along the edge of such a tank. Both were relaxed until they touched; then the big one spun round towards the little one, which fled.
In France, the locals sometimes say they are not confident that this water is safe to drink, but it always seems to be so in my experience. The founder of modern hygiene was the Frenchman Louis Pasteur, and his countrymen take his teaching very seriously.
Sometimes the water from such a source pours into a large trough, and from then into another trough. The lower trough is or was where the local women folk washed clothes with soap, and the upper one of cleaner water was where the clothes were rinsed. There will be broad gently sloping concrete slabs where the clothes can be laid out for scrubbing. If you are a man then doing your washing thus may improve the attitude of the local women to you.
Wells are rare in the moutains. There has never been any need to dig them because fresh water ran steadily down the mountainsides. At least, that is how it used to be. Nowadays one is warned to beware of water in a stream, however clean it may seem. At the very least, one can never be sure whether an animal, domestic or wild, has polluted it. If there is any human activity higher up then one must assume it is polluted.
Snow and ice are also suspect. Snow, and rain too, collect dust as they form and fall. Years ago, there were unexpected cases of tropical diseases such as cholera in western Europe. Someone noticed that they were most frequent under the flight paths of high flying aircraft from other continents. It seemed that water from hand basins in such aircraft was released into the high atmosphere where it froze immediately. Germs in it were preserved and fell to earth, sometimes as snow which was compacted into glaciers. All water derived from them could contain such living germs.
In Alpine country, the best source of water is the spring. Water which emerges directly out of the earth has soaked through the earth, and earth is an excellent filter. It catches any germs. Wherever you see a spring, as long as it really is a fresh spring and not a bit of a stream which went underground for a few metres and then popped up again, you can be sure you can drink it.
Unless you know the mountain, don’t count on finding any water. Some mountainsides have no springs at all. Carry a bottle and keep some water in it.
In 1966, when I was just about 18 years old, I spent a few days at a refuge near Guillestre in the lower French Alps. The warden arranged a group expedition up a nearby mountain which involved spending a night in a furnished barn. I was the only member of the group who changed into pyjamas.
I like sleeping. It is an important aspect of life. There are five commonly used sleeping situations during an Alpine holiday: while moving on the journey there and back, at an overnight stop on the journey, in a mountain hotel, in a refuge, and camping.
On a train, it is sometimes possible to sleep in a seat, but not usually easy. A couchette is much more comfortable, and also more interesting. For a start, carriages with couchettes usually have windows which open, so one can smell the night air as one starts the journey south from the Gare de Lyon or Bercy or Austerlitz into the land of lavender and wild rosemary, before settling down for the night.
Once I wanted to get to sleep on the train journey home in a couchette compartment containing just me and a talkative Frenchwoman. She was even more talkative after the ticket inspector came in and she discovered I was English, until I asked her what does “alors” mean.
Couchettes are bunks, six in each small compartment, stacked in two tiers on either side of a narrow asile between the compartment’s door and the window. The middle and upper ones are each supported by two strong straps which hold up its outer edge, and which also act as a rather unreliable guard against rolling out. The couchette is usually booked with the train ticket. One has no privacy and absolutely no control over choice of one’s fellow passengers but, humanity being what it is, this is rarely a problem. The only time I can remember any was in a compartment with a middle aged lady and several younger ones, all English speakers with a twang, who insisted they had booked a couchette without any men in it, which was evidently not true. The senior lady began talking about their tourist agent. I said something about phoning him in Philadelphia or wherever. She said they were Australian. I apologised immediately, and added that my wife is Australian. A brief expression of joy and glee flashed over her face, she told the younger ones to look after me, and there was no more trouble.
The main stations in Turin are all north of the Po, while the youth hostel is up a hillside south of it, in an old house with a large central staircase and sometimes a table tennis table in the small dusty courtyard outside. It is clean and well run. I once stayed there, maybe around 2005 or 2006, on an evening when there was a big firework display over the river to celebrate the new millennium. It is possible on the Internet to find a relatively cheap comfortable hotel in Turin much closer to Porta Susa, but the architecture on the flat north plain is less varied and homely. However, the north side has at least one exotic feature, the Mole, which is worth a visit. Among other things, including a good show of old ciné films, it has a lift with glass walls and a glass floor which rises for 85 metres through thin air to a narrow exposed stone parapet overlooking the whole city.
It is also often possible to find good hotels in the bottoms of valleys. Most such appear to be new or newly furnished. The few times I have stayed in one, the quality of provisions and service have been high, and they are not always expensive. I have twice stayed at one in St-Oyen, at the south side of the Grand St Bernard pass. It makes a good resting place. The nearby camp site is also good and friendly, and cheaper, but sometimes I succumb to the luxury of a hotel or bed & breakfast. Showers are much nicer there, with towels and reliable hot water.
There is another kind of hotel which I have not stayed at, though as a family we have lunched in one. The table was set beautifully in a room to match. I am particularly grateful to another, close to the very high waterfall beyond Gavarnie, at the foot of great cliffs on the north side of the highest point of the Pyrénées. I took my son to Gavarnie, camping, when he was just four years old and very happy and confident. We visited the foot of the waterfall, and on the way there he urgently needed a toilet. The hotel was most obliging.
These hotels are old multi-storey palaces, built far from commercial centres at the ends of roads where a valley ceases to be a valley and becomes the bottom of a cirque or cwm. They appear to be constructed to provide total comfort throughout the full harshness of the Alpine climate. Each is approached across a broad paved terrace which may be surrounded by a low wall with ornate stonework. Inside, one finds very smart staff. It is easy to imagine that they were constructed in an age when manual labour was plentiful and regular reliable bus services and grocery deliveries were not. They are monuments to a past age, and it is tempting to surmise that their clientèle date from that age too, but given my experience of them that would be unfair.
Refuges are not hotels. The accommodation is in dormitories of various sizes, usually mixed, unheated since most refuges are only open in the warm months. Some are rather like railway couchettes with a bit more space: the beds are bunks, though only stacked two high. In some old refuges, though, they are even more close packed than a couchette. The “beds” are matresses laid out side by side, close together, over a broad array of planks. Nothing separates you from the next visitor except your sleeping bag (if you have one) and the two blankets which the refuge provides. I spent a night at one such in the Parc de la Vanoise among a large party of teenagers who were set on ensuring they were mixed as thoroughly as possible, whatever their group leader intended; but usually the company is very sober and adult. In fact, some of these teenagers were mature. One played a guitar. He had talent.
That particular refuge seemed, at any rate in the 1980s, to attract school parties. On another occasion the children were much younger and very well disciplined. It was the teachers who caused problems. One of them saw my water bottle and took it, assuming one of her charges had fogotten it. I had to stand in front of them all and ask who had it.
Nowadays, most washrooms in refuges have showers. Hot water is usually from a machine which takes a token which you buy from the warden. One token keeps the machine running for perhaps three minutes. Modern clever machines have a switch which lets you stop the clock, so you have a full three minutes’ worth of hot water even if you turn off the tap for long periods half way through the shower. It is advisable to find out how this switch works before putting in the token.
Some refuges are privately owned and run, but in many areas the majority are constructed by the Alpine clubs: Club Alpin Français (CAF), Club Alpino Italiano (CAI), Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV), Österreichischer Alpenverein (OAV), Schweitzer Alpen-Club or similar (SAC or CAS), and others. It is not usually the club as a whole which builds them. Each refuge is created by the local branch of the club, and the branch takes pride in it, providing all staffing and maintenance. As I approached the Rifugio Andolla the women came out and danced a sort of impromptu can-can to celebrate their first guest. Some are grand, particularly in France. Most are substantial structures built to withstand hard weather. Some remote refuges have an isolated room with one exterior door which is never locked, so if a climber arrives cold and wet when the refuge is otherwise closed, he will at least find some shelter.
A few decades ago there was a basic timber refuge beside a remote reservoir, in the near sterile zone somewhere in the high valleys near Luchon in the French Pyrénées, consisting of a single long narrow room full of strong jovial climbers, and a toilet. The toilet was a small drafty detached wooden structure, with cracks between the planks, built on and beyond the edge of an overhang. This refuge has since been replaced.
Once I came across a café which was marked on the map and on signs as a “refuge”. It was near the top of a ski lift, and was closing just as I arrived looking forward to food and a bunk. Such occurrences are very rare.
In fact, that event caused no great problem: someone directed me to a cowherd’s hut nearby, and the family there put me up. Their cows were relaxed. They fed me their own cheese for supper, and the husband was churning a fresh batch the next morning in a large machine. In the evening, which was warm, I sat outside under the stars and the wife sent her daughter out to talk with me. She not only talked, but also sang a beautiful song which I have heard occasionally before. She asked about England, and was surprised when I said that their view of the stars, half way up the side of a mountain somewhere near Ortles, was better than at home. The stars there were very fine.
On another occasion, in the middle of the dry plateau east of Millau, I walked for hours up to something which appeared on the map as a “gite d’étape”, a hikers’ hostel, but turned out to be full of teenagers under the conscientious protection of a teacher of some sort. They were decent and let me eat there, since the surrounding country was empty, though they insisted I camped some way off. That was actually no hardship: a wild stag woke me with its grunts at dawn.
Camping is likely to be either a lovely way to travel or a complete fiasco. If you can make a go of it then it is worth the effort of carrying a light tent. Once you own the tent (and good tents cost a few hundred pounds), it is the cheapest way. Finding a site may take some effort, as large camp sites seem to have lost favour with municipal authorities, but if there is one where you want to stay then bureaucracy is minimal and they rarely fill up. Beyond all that, hiking with a tent is sometimes looked on as the way to go. You are likely to be well received.
Please note: you do not have to camp. Most alpine hikers plan their routes from hotel or refuge to refuge. This makes for much lighter load, which is good. On the other hand, it costs much more and it often commits you to a particular fixed timetable and route, and the choice of route is constrained. A tent gives you much more freedom.
In most places, camping outside properly run camp sites is illegal. A few refuges permit camping nearby, so campers can use the refuge’s toilets and also buy meals there. This should be arranged in advance. For true independence and romance, not much matches a single tent above the tree line on a still night.
The weather need not be good. A loyal companion once followed me to an exposed shoulder at about 2500 metres, just west of the Col Malatra, where we camped in a thunderstorm, and had a decent night all the same. The next day we crossed the col which was obstructed by two hefty youths with cooking utensils swinging in bad style from the backs of their rucksacks. After the precipitous descent down snow on the east side, we were then caught in another thunderstorm. We spent that night in the hotel at St Oyen.
My tent is of the old style, good for its age but not now recommended. It requires at least 19 pegs for complete erection. It has two aluminium poles, one at each end, pointing upwards, whose tops look like lightning conductors. This has made me nervous, and once I went outside with a couple of apples and pushed one onto each pole end after ensuring that the apple stalks were pulled off. The idea was to blunt the pole spikes, and so reduce the chance of a lightning strike. It seemed to work.
Most camp sites are in valley bottoms. They are much like camp sites anywhere else, except for the local climate and the views. However, the climate and scenery can be very different indeed. In addition, the social atmosphere of a camp site is not like that of a hotel, and that in a camp site among mountains usually differs from that in a low meadow. At two sites near Torla, the nearby tents included some occupied by young adults from central Europe who seemed more adventurous than most holidaymakers. Some were walking the whole length of the Spanish Pyrénées, a notoriously difficult path. Others had travelled to Britain and worked there, and spoke of the experience as a good time. Talking with them offered an unusual perspective on home. One night, before starting the journey home flushed with holiday achievements, the next tent belonged to a young woman who had just completed a solo traverse of the fearsome slopes above the cliffs which form the north side of the Ordesa gorge. She was elated. I was scared at the thought of what she did.
Some authorities do not mind campers who pitch tents above 2000 metres, as there is not usually any farming or habitation or water collection that high. The few times I have tried it, it has worked well, though finding soft earth which will take pegs is difficult. The stars are at their best. One morning, after a night of hard frost in a rather thin sleeping bag, I got out and was sitting a few yards from the tent, doing very little, when a weasel or something similar came up and ran all around the tent, exploring it thoroughly, until it came to my boots. It sniffed them once and bolted.
Sleeping outdoors in just a bag or a blanket, without a tent, is something I know almost nothing about. It is done.
The most exotic tent I have seen belonged to an acquaintance of long standing, a scholar, who erected it at a site on the shore of Lake Zürich while attending a conference there. It appeared more suitable for sentry duty or for someone preparing to enter the lists in a medieval jousting tournament than for sleeping.
A tent which won’t keep you tolerably snug is worse than useless. Therefore it is only worth considering tents with two layers: an outer flysheet, which keeps out the rain and most of the wind, and an inner tent with zipped entry doors and a sewn in waterproof groundsheet. The inner tent is not expected to be waterproof but the flysheet should give it nearly complete shelter from wind and rain. The two layers together should give enough shelter to allow a good night’s sleep in a wet gale.
Assuming this much, the remaining important questions to ask about a tent are
For walking, if the tent is just for you then it should weigh less than 2 kg. If it is to sleep two then it should be less than 3 kg, and may be less than 2 kg.
Remember that your rucksack needs protection, and often it is convenient and comforting to be able to get at it in the middle of the night. My little old tent can sleep two people – it has done so more than once. When it holds just me then the rucksack substitutes for a companion. If the rucksack is left outside the inner tent then don’t be surprised if wildlife investigates it. Once a fox stole our bread. We saw its silhouette on the inner tent wall.
It is a good idea to prevent the surfaces of the tent from flapping a lot. If they flap then the available sheltered volume inside is reduced by the volume prone to be flapped into. A taut curved surface is less likely to flap than a flat surface. Oldfashioned tents suspended from straight poles are prone to flapping. Modern designs in which the fabric is pulled over flexible curved poles are much less so.
From the point of view of not being blown away, the more tent pegs the better. It probably helps to have a few guyropes strung from near the tent’s top to secure pegs some distance away. If such ropes are not fitted, and you want them, make sure you can add them.
Pegs were once wooden but nowadays the ones I see are all metal. Steel pegs are strong and thin but heavy. Aluminium pegs are light but, if round, likely to bend. The most effective pegs seem to be of a light alloy, made of a sheet a bit more than a millimetre thick and bent down the middle. The bend adds strength, so they are not as prone to bend as round pegs.
There is an old tradition that pegs are “hammered” in. Perhaps it dates from when pegs were made of wood. Hammering will almost certainly bend any metal peg. Metal pegs should be pushed in, perhaps with a small stone, held in the palm, and a flat or concave face in contact with the top of the peg.
Proof against wet gales is measured in “hydrostatic pressure”, measured in millimetres. “4000 mm” may mean, for instance, that the tent fabric could form the bottom of a tank filled with water to a depth of four metres, and the tank would not leak; but I may be wrong on this. There was a time when the supposedly best tents had some sort of plastic tape stuck over the stitched seams, lest they might otherwise leak through the stitching.
If you want your tent to be more nearly waterproof than it already is, you can buy any waterproof spray (maybe silicone or wax of some sort) and spray it liberally all over the flysheet on both sides. Please ensure that the spray propellant will not damage ozone. Remember that some propellants are flammable, and their vapour forms an explosive mixture with air. They may also make you sick if you breathe too much, but this won’t matter after the tent has had a chance to air in a warm breeze for a few minutes. The kind of spray advertised for proofing furniture against food spills will probably help, even when not advertised as water proofing.
Lastly, a note on sleeping bags: there is more warmth inside two light sleeping bags, one inside the other, than in a single heavy thick one.
There is a journal called simply “Gut”. It contains papers such as  which will tell you all you are ever likely to want to know about that subject.
The athletes’ diet compiled at Colorado State University appears in . The cabbage–turmeric–tea regime is recommended in . Sulphur is a key ingredient of antibodies in the immune system, also called immunoglobulins . Isothiocyanates are simple compounds containing three atoms, one each of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, linked in the form
Recent enthusiasm for starvation appeared in  and elsewhere, but don’t starve yourself in the first three months of pregnancy. Nessa Carey  explains why.
Toxicity of aluminium was reported in . Its connection with Alzheimer’s disease has been suspected for several decades. A recent survey  draws attention to evidence suggesting how aluminium may interfere with the proper formation of brain proteins. Alzheimer’s disease is also associated with midlife psychological stress  and hereditary factors affecting control of low density lipids . It is less likely if one stays involved in more activities, and stays more deeply involved in intellectual activities, as one reaches middle age . In short,
Don’t worry. Be happy and
Healthy mind in healthy body and
Use it or lose it.
As long as you really do enjoy them, pleasures such as exploring mountains are good for you.
Chocolate is good stuff [415, page 67] for the emotions, but not so good for bodily health .
Anita Loos  held opinions about Philadelphia. Philadelphia is said to have changed substantially since she wrote.
Details of the Turin Mole can be found in .
I assume this is where you will start. There are some strange people who take helicopters to the top, and then walk or ski down. Let us forget them.
Being lazy is a lot easier at the bottom, if only because there are more facilities. For instance one can buy postcards and stamps, and find letter boxes to put them in, and café tables to write them at, and then spend some of a day’s hottest hours doing not much else (and not always doing even that). Postcards, if densely written, make better mementos than photos. Once I bought some unusually large ones with particularly attractive pictures, and wrote detailed diaries of the past few days on them, and then took them to a post office in Chiesa to get stamps for them. The woman at the counter said what they would cost, and I paid her, but I never saw any stamps. She also told me to leave the cards with her to be stamped and delivered. Her English was amply good enough to read them.
Something similar happened in Macedonia, somewhere between Bitola and Ohrid, except that there I did at least stick the stamps on. More details of that trip appear in Chapter 11. What I needed then was a letter box. The three swarthy men whom I asked in a bar just said to give them the cards, and they would do the posting. They kept their word: the cards arrived, but the delivery service seemed very slow. Their English was not so good. Perhaps that was why.
Maybe the locals have a right to find out what a visitor has been up to, and what he has seen, and what he thinks of it. There is no reason to be surprised or offended.
The bottom of a valley is usually occupied at the very least by a road, and may be filled by a substantial town. Towns are useful because they supply shelter and food and other services, but you did not come to the Alps to stay around in towns, nor to explore roads. There will be occasions, though, when you find yourself in a pretty town. Right across central Europe, households hang large baskets of flowers outside their windows and balconies. They are often brilliant. They also often grow vines and figs. Another common feature is the campanile, a freestanding thin tower with one or a few bells hung in an open space near the top where they are struck to sound the hours and rung for events. Unlike English bells, there is nothing to shield them from the outside, so they are loud. There is an old convention that each hour is rung twice, lest a listener mis-counts the blows and gets the time wrong. Incidentally, earthquakes cannot be that common in the Alps because so many old campaniles are still standing.
Another kind of public clock, the sundial, is also more common in sunnier climates. Some are configured to take account of the changes in solar time with respect to clockwork time: for each hour, the dial has a figure-of-eight path instead of a straight line. Each position on the figure-of-eight is where the sundial arm’s shadow will be at that hour at a particular time of year. There are some such on the walls of the small but smart railway station at Santa Maria Maggiore, on the route of the Trenino delle Centovalli. The geometry which explains the shape of each hour’s annual path on the dial’s face is quite elaborate, and is not commonly taught in English schools. In this country I know of only one such sundial, and it only marks midday, not the other hours. It is in Oxford where geometry is well taught.
Walking along a road is not a good way to spend the first hour or so of a holiday, but while you are on a road it may deserve some attention. Italians appear to love stone. When they can’t get hold of stone, they use concrete lavishly, but stone is better. It is blasted out of mountainsides. You can often see the holes drilled into it where the blasters inserted explosives. When a road is built into the side of a hill, both sides of it are constructed from huge boulders carefully trimmed and stacked together. The neat little cracks between them provide homes for flowers and lizards.
At the opposite extreme, some zebra crossings are not painted onto tarmac as in England. They are laid carefully with neatly trimmed cobbles. The white ones look like quartz.
Having said that, you will probably prefer to avoid roads. This is an art. There is a good chance there will be easy pretty paths nearby, and they may even be signed, but any such signs will be much smaller than motorists’ road signs and what is written on them may be cryptic. Here are some tips in no particular order.
Asking the way can reveal a lot about the local culture and how it differs from that of England. The first and only time I crossed the Colle Pinter, on the road on its east side, trying to find the start of a path up it, an erudite looking man came out of a nearby gate and I asked him. He took his responsibility seriously and asked if I was a good climber. As far as I can remember, the Colle Pinter is not difficult, but he was careful. It is wise not to encourage inexperienced strangers to venture up mountains they don’t know. I could have told him about the passes I had already climbed that year, but being English I did not want to seem to brag, so I thought for a moment and then said I had good boots, which was true. He thought about this for a while, looked me up and down, seemed to decide what he saw was good enough, and gave me directions in good English.
More recently, I asked the way while wearing sandals and lots of sun cream. At or near the bottom, unless you have a deep tan and are wearing strong boots, it may be assumed that you are an ignorant city dweller and in need of all the advice and guidance that local residents can muster. This time, the person I asked was harvesting hay with her husband, and the main reason for asking was as a courtesy for permission to follow the path across her field. She answered me in fluent Italian which I had difficulty following. She then called her husband over and asked him to corroborate the details, which presumably she was repeating (though I couldn’t be sure) while he sometimes grunted. This went on for a few minutes until a young man arrived. He was evidently a local authority, so he was invited (not by me) to contribute. He did so willingly and at length, in more fluent Italian. I should have said that I did not understand.
Don’t be worried if you in your turn appear comical to the locals. Occasionally I discover what seems to be the meaning of a word. One such was “sviluppo”. I first noticed it on a web site describing economic and social features in and around Aosta. From the context it seemed to be a noun meaning “growth” or “development” so, many months later, I tried it while explaining to a cheerful woman at the enquiry desk in a bus station that I wanted to develop my Italian. Whatever it was that I actually said, she became even more cheerful. Both the Italian pocket dictionaries to hand say that “sviluppo” does indeed mean “development”. It remains a bit of a mystery.
Of course, everything is much simpler if someone else speaks English. There is nothing to be ashamed about in letting a local do the work of speaking a foreign language if he wants to. He probably enjoys practising his skill. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if you are faced with quite the opposite. Once in Italy I was trying to find a common language with an Italian. I listed all the ones I had any knowledge of. He responded
He looked cross, but at that stage I did not understand why as I did not know what “basta” meant. What he said made sense long after, when a mother in a shop got cross with her little girl and shouted at her “È basta”. Her meaning was clear.
Restaurant staff sometimes speak very good English. I wish my children took foreign languages seriously enough to gain the proficiency which some continental teenagers have. Recently on a quiet balcony at the back of a pizza restaurant, the lean healthy relaxed young proprietor said he spent much of his working life in China designing ski resorts. His English was excellent. He did not say how good his spoken Chinese is.
By contrast, on a school trip to Appenzell more than forty years ago, some boys who were being taught German back at home started talking with an old local man who told them that he could not follow their German because it was too good for him. They were talking Hochdeutsch, he said, and Appenzeller Deutsch is rather different. Maybe he was being polite.
On page 62 of  there is a picture of the Oxford sundial with a figure-of-eight path to show where the sun will be at midday.
From Steinach station I went west via a range of huts and an unnecessary via ferrata adventure, around the Zuckerhütl to the Siegerland Hütte, where some English climbers told how they had been on a ridge of the mountain above us in thick cloud which might easily have turned into a thunder storm. One of them had seen what looked like the glow of a neon tube light over the head of the person in front. They all came down safely. Next day I crossed the frontier and walked through classic alps round a high lake of clear water to a very well kept hotel on the main road, and phoned home. The balcony was crowded that evening. There was a strange contrast between the loud chatter and gross purposeful movements of the human visitors and the random delicate but seemingly meaningless dancing of insects around the lamps. That was one of two nights spent in the valley, before the climb up to the Planferner (or Zwickauer) Hütte, at almost 3000 metres, close to the frontier overlooking Obergurgl. Unduly early the next morning, someone woke me. I followed him outside into the cold dawn. Across the invisible precipitous dark valley, three or four summits of the Texelgrüppe loomed sheer up through pearly pink mist.
In this sense, “top” does not usually mean the top of a mountain. Most Alpine summits are above the range of a typical hiker. By “top” I mean the highest point on your chosen route. This will usually be a refuge, or a col, or a lake, or a particularly attractive meadow with a fine view. The case of greatest interest is a col.
By the end of your holiday, if you have been crossing them daily for a week (and you don’t have to), it is quite likely that you will begin to feel a bit blasé about cols. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a sign of success. However, the fact remains that cols matter.
There is a refuge which I visited twice in one trip, once before setting off over a few cols and then again after returning the same way. On the first visit, there was a strong confident young man there, a native of that valley. He was also nearby when I returned. He surprised me by asking if there were lakes beyond the first col, which he had never crossed. It was strange that I from a far off land with no high mountains should consider it natural to cross it and more, but he, a local man familiar with such country, did not.
It has happened that a warden of one refuge has asked me to convey his greeting to the warden of the next. The locals crossed that way rarely, it seems, and a complete stranger was the only available messenger.
At a col, everything is prone to change abruptly. Alpine rock strata are not usually flat. Often, on one side of a col, the ground is the top of a stratum of hard rock. If it slopes gently then the path on this side is easy. The col occurs where that stratum is broken, exposing softer layers underneath it. The softer layers crumble, so the col’s other side is a steep slope of shale or even a cliff. This is what makes the south sides of cols between Italy and Austria so dramatic.
Weather can change in a very short distance across a col. From the top of Coma Pedrosa, the one time I have been there, there was a view of the watershed running away north and east. On the south side, where we were, the sky was a fantastic dark indigo blue, so full of light that it was too dazzling to gaze into. On the other side of the watershed, though, was a mass of still white cloud whose flat top was just high enough for it to slip gently over and down from France into Andorra, where it immediately dissolved.
The air is sometimes stable above some altitude, and somewhat turbulent below it. One of the very few times I walked out of Aosta up towards Valpelline, the air in and around the town was dusty, then at a certain altitude there was a marked transition. The very faint smog in the valley rose up to that height but did not pass above it. It felt good to climb up out of the lower region into the air above, where views of the distant peaks were so much clearer.
Lakes come in two varieties: deep and shallow. The great lakes of north Italy are predominantly deep. Lugano is nearly a kilometre deep near its north east end. This is a measure of the depth of ice in the glacier which long ago cut out the rock where this lake now lies. The high mountain lakes are mostly shallow, and are usually gently silting up, turning into marshes which will eventually become flat meadows.
Streams are also of two sorts: those carrying glacial silt and those of clear spring water. They look very different. The silty ones are opaque, and grey or grey-green. The fast rivers in low valleys are mostly this colour. The other sort are clear and dark. Above Gavarnie in the high valley leading up to the col on the frontier with Spain, there is one stream of each sort. They meet. For some distance below the junction, the water on one side of the river is grey and the other half is dark.
On the lower slopes, perhaps up to about 1200 metres, if there is enough soil and water then vegetation is lush. You are likely to find wild raspberry bushes and tiny wild strawberries a centimetre or less in diameter (though please don’t eat them. If all visitors did then there would not be any left and the species might disappear). This zone blends into another where the trees are large conifers beneath which ants build nests up to a metre high. The most common obstacle on the path is a tree root.
In the Parc de la Vanoise I once met two other hikers: a very competent man and a very incompetent woman. We greeted each other. A little further down, there was a particularly fine large ants’ nest, its surface seething with the horde of its inhabitants. Somewhat below that, I took a detour and the other two didn’t, and we met again. I asked if they had seen the nest. She, who was having a severe problem scrambling down a trivial little slope, said no. I said she had better climb back up again to see it. She shrieked.
As one proceeds up, the conifers become smaller and sparser, and among them are patches of light thin deciduous trees and shrubs. The path shows more naked stones and is more obviously affected by the geology of the mountain. In this zone, on the way out from Steinach, I was watching a brilliantly coloured spider in the middle of her web when a smaller spider approached her cautiously, then in an instant ran in and mated with her. Both then fled in terror.
There may also be large areas covered with myrtles or azaleas. Azaleas are not a natural European species. They have pretty flowers for a short period, but walking through their thick stems is difficult. Myrtles, on the other hand, have tasty berries. In the Apennines, local women harvest them by pushing hand-held shovels with suitable prongs through the bushes.
The transitions between the different zones of flora are often sharp. In particular, on most mountainsides, there is a narrow interval of perhaps 100 vertical metres below which trees are dense and above which there are none. This is called “the tree line”.
Spread more broadly both below and above the tree line are the sloping meadows known as “alps” from which the mountain range takes its name. Just as on the chalk downs of southern England, the scenery has been moulded by cultivation. In this case, cultivation means grazing cattle, or sometimes sheep or goats. Where there are no such herded animals, the grass may grow long and there are sometimes many brilliant flowers.
On my only trip to the Carpathians, in Romania, I tried to walk westward from Brašov without a suitable map. I did not get seriously lost until the third day, on rolling hilltops in patchy puffy white cloud. At one point I crossed a slope, hoping it would lead to a ridge which would go somewhere promising, but it didn’t so I went back again. On the way out, the slope was full of little low flowers. On the way back, I found that a large flock of sheep had been over it behind me and had eaten them.
Sheep have hidden depths of character. In the Apennines, a shepherd once led (note, led) his flock around me while I was resting and sunning myself. The sheep scrambled and bounded after him until they found me and made more inquisitive company than I was prepared for. Then the shepherd whistled to them, and most of them ran straight off after him again. There was also a day in the Austrian Stubaier Alpen when I seem to remember dozing until I noticed that one of a group of three quiet cautious sheep had taken my hat, and I had to throw a pebble at it to get the hat back; but maybe that was a dream.
Italian moutain sheep are much larger than any sheep commonly found in England. They have great trust in their shepherds. Once a broad but high mountain path was almost blocked by lazy sheep, lounging all over it, just shorn or waiting to be shorn. Their shepherd was working hard and not looking very happy as he cut the fleece off one sheep in the doorway of his hut. It seemed that all the others knew what was coming, and were not in the least concerned.
If you want to make friends with a sheep, offer it a little salt. They love it.
A long time ago on the radio, someone said he was studying the sizes of brains in animals with both a wild and a domesticated variety - cats, dogs, goats, pigs, and whatever. In all cases, he said, the wild variety has a larger brain than the domesticated one. This prompts two thoughts: Italian sheep seem to have kept their brain capacity since domestication rather better than most English sheep; and: what about people? Is city life causing our brains to shrink? If so, and if the mountains have the same effect on people as they do on sheep, and if you like your brain, then go to the mountains.
This is the land of cowbells. Their sound carries far, which is of course why the cowherds use them. In the Alps, cattle are often enclosed by light electric fences, but not always; and in the Spanish Pyrénées large herds of cows with the occasional bull roam free and peaceably through miles of open valley.
Bulls are misrepresented. There was an occasion in the Val d’Isère when I walked through a gate into a field containing five playful young bulls who romped around me, occasionally banging their horns into each other through simple joie de vivre; but generally they are docile tranquil creatures unless they are given reason to be otherwise. Scores of Spanish tourists walk past them every summer day. The most realistic depiction of a bull that I know of is The Story of Ferdinand, which has been described as pacifist. On a bus which left Calgary before dawn for a ski resort beyond Banff, the driver told someone else that the wild animal which causes most casualties in the Rockies is a cow moose. If a hiker steps by accident between her and her calf, she will go for him. Bull mooses are less aggressive.
The largest wild fauna in the Alps are chamois and ibex. Both are naturally shy, though a large herd of ibex has been known to tolerate a few people nearby. When approached, ibex usually drift away round a corner and onto a cliff face where no predator can follow. An ibex was seen to walk onto the nearly vertical face of a dam, treading in the cracks between the stones it was built from, seemingly for fun, one night above the Val d’Antrona. It walked off again. Ibex go by an odd variety of names: Steinbock in Germany, bouquetin in France, stambecco in Italy.
There is a high pass with ski lifts up both sides, each with its own café eager for custom. On the summit just above is a clear silhouette of an ibex. Ibex often stand very still, but this one did not move for about a quarter of an hour. I bought a bun in one café, and while I ate it this ibex seemed to turn round into its original position again. It put me in mind of the concrete cows near Milton Keynes. I told the bar man this, and added that I am writing these notes and might mention it, and he looked distressed. I then promised him I would not mention which col the ibex stands by, and he looked much happier.
The chamois’ defence stategy is the opposite, but with the same result. A chamois chooses to live above a cliff face. When alarmed, it will run fast over the edge of the cliff in the confidence that it is the only creature with the agility to do this and survive.
Once a chamois saw me and did not do this. It and I were alone together, about thirty yards apart, in the far north east corner of Italy on a relatively obscure small mountain which seemed steep to me but a gentle stroll for it. Instead of running down, it made a few hoarse barks at me and ambled up.
The novel mammal which you are most likely to see is the marmot. This is a charming creature. It looks like a little beaver with a fluffy tail, lives like a rabbit, and sings like nothing else on Earth. Its call is a piercing high whistle which echoes between crags for hundreds of metres around. This is the alarm call. It may have other songs but that is all I have heard from it. It must be strong because it digs burrows into the rocky earth just below the near sterile zone, where soil is at a premium.
Marmots appear to have strong family bonds. On the first day out from Chamonix on the Tour of Mont Blanc, we saw an adult with a group of young together. There was another occasion in the Pyrénées when two adults were scrapping vigorously near a third. When one had run off, the victor turned to his partner and they almost fell into each other’s arms. It was a touching sight.
Just once in the mountains, I saw a fox. It did not want to be seen, and there was only a short glimpse of its hind quarters and tail. The warden of the refuge where I stayed that evening said that he had never seen one in maybe seven years up there. Foxes are suspected of carrying rabies, though I have never heard any report of such a case. Beware them if they appear friendly.
Rarely, with luck, you may come across a fossil. There is a stone path in the Pyrénées in which one of the constituent rocks is a mass of fossils, all of the same species. It looks like a marine bed of them. There are similar rocks elsewhere. It is up to you to go and find them.
Such rocks are most easily found where there is not much vegetation to hide them, high up the mountain. In this zone, what vegetation there is includes a high proportion of flowers. One of my favourites is the trumpet gentian.
This is a few centimetres long, and a brilliant deep blue. Like edelweiss, also called stella alpina, trumpet gentians are associated with the high mountains, and I think they are prettier.
The Story of Ferdinand was published in 1936 and has gone through many editions: see . It has its own page on Wikipedia.
There are many varieties of trumpet gentians . The distinguishing marks of each variety form an arcane discipline. They are usually only found above 2000 metres, but they have also been spotted lower where the microclimate is suitable .
In the east branch of Valmalenco, don’t walk through Lanzada and Tornadri by road unless you really want to. There is a much quieter path by the stream. It goes through meadows until they end, where it leads onto the road which climbs round a few hairpin bends. That much is easy if you keep your wits as cars go by. You can leave the road again at the third left bend. (The first is a gentle loop. The second and third are hairpins.) The path continues up past a shrine and an old talc mine and reaches the road again on a short stretch between two tunnels.
Don’t try to walk through a tunnel. Instead, cross the road. Motorists will probably be engrossed in the bends and tunnels and other cars, and will not expect to come across a hiker just here, so crossing needs care.
On the other side the path is steep, and in places it is crumbling away. It is not very clearly marked. Climbing would be hard without it, and is not that easy with it, but it is very quiet and pretty. This was where I caught a glimpse of a fox.
The way leads to a little chapel and the top of the road network. If one goes down, one arrives at Franscia, a strange little place consisting of among other things a car park, a hotel called “Edelweiss” with a bar, a trinket market, a bus stop, and no clear way back except through a tunnel. Don’t expect a bus there any time soon. If instead one turns up, the way passes some holiday chalets, then it divides into a choice of paths over various little cols. I got slightly lost in this area, despite plenty of signposts and waymarks. My intended route follows a path leading approximately northward into a high quiet valley lined with steep slopes of conifers around a large stream in a broad bed of light grey oval stones of all sizes, and over the stream by an obscure little footbridge. By this stage I was feeling distinctly tired and there is little choice but to struggle up the opposite slope to the Refuges Mitta Cesare and Musella, just below the tree line. The total ascent is about 1250 metres, plus an extra hundred metres or so for the detour to the trinket market and a bit more for getting lost.
After the cheerful young woman’s recommendation, I went straight to Musella. It is an impressive old building of three storeys. The outside walls are painted white. It has a terrace with plenty of tables and benches for new arrivals to collapse on and recover their composure before venturing inside. Indoors, there is a large dining room with windows looking out and down over the stream and valley I had just climbed out of, but there were just a few small groups of guests that evening and the meal was served in a cosier room by the kitchen. Upstairs, the structure of the building is evident. It is all of old timber with slight idiosyncratic bumps and bends in it. The climb up there was well worth that last effort.
The sides of Alpine valleys are often covered by great forests, mostly of conifers. Inside they are quiet and shady. One would not usually consider arranging a picnic in one because they are rather dark and the ground is steep and covered with pine needles. Ants build large nests in them, and where a tree has fallen there may be raspberry thickets.
In principle, children should adore alpine holidays. Sometimes they do. When their enthusiasm is excited, they can usually outpace their parents up any path. When they are tired of climbing, there is nothing to compare with a mountain stream for building dams and exploring with toes and perhaps butterflies and a little fresh water zoology.
Once the whole family, with ages ranging from about 3 to mine, tried camping by a village at a bit above 1000 metres in France. We adults both speak french better than any other foreign language, and the journey there should be shorter and simpler than anything further. We did it, although the trip back was disrupted by a fire at an electric substation somewhere on the railway line, and the journey out was eventful too even though it went to plan.
We chose a spot in the far upper valley of a river which ran through a few gorges. There is bungee jumping in one of them. We steered clear of that. The trip there was by train most of the way, followed by a bus. One of us is often sick on long bus rides, and this time was no exception. The bus in question was the standard large single decker coach which one finds throughout the Alps, so the driver faced the usual associated issues. This particular route involved several tunnels including a pair of especially narrow ones in quick succession. The bus could not get through them if a car had already entered the further one, and of course at the critical moment a car did just that. We were sitting near the front, with a good view. My eldest child said very clearly, in tones comprehensibe to most well educated Frenchmen, that he thought the driver was slow and could go faster.
The drivers of these buses are the princes of the road. They deserve their status. I once asked one the length and width of his vehicle, and he replied at once: 12 metres long and 2.55 metres wide, and he gave me the height too. Besides tunnels, the roads they follow have hairpin bends. As a random example, the road above Lanzada in Valmalenco has more than a dozen of them. At such a bend, the driver may sound his horn. This can sound melodious if heard from half a mile away. If the bus is on the inside of the bend, the driver will turn his front wheels across the centre of road and then back again so that the bus will swing until its main axis is at right angles to the mountainside, and its front and back are very close to the cliff at one end and the parapet (if there is one) at the other. If there is a car coming the other way, it will reverse. There is no question about this.
Any parapet, by the way, is typically made of large stone blocks full of glistening quartz or mica and bonded with cement or mortar. The rocks look hard. The stuff between them looks hard too, but the bonding it offers between the rocks may be weak. It might stop a car but not a heavier vehicle. Beyond where there might be a parapet, there is a lot of thin air.
The only vehicle I have seen which went through a parapet was a truck, not a bus, and it happened outside the European Community.
Despite all such excitements, the children did indeed enjoy playing in the stream below our camp site and exploring up nearby paths, where we found large creamy coloured snails which may perhaps have been edible.
At the end of that family holiday, we chose to leave by a bus in a neighbouring valley. The journey over to it was by taxi. By then, I had been back down the original route in a bus with a different driver who would have satisfied my firstborn child. The taxi driver discussed the personalities of the two drivers who were both well known locally. The one we met first was commonly regarded as cautious and safe, but he only drove as a summer job. For the rest of the year, the local community experienced the second.
Please don’t be put off buses by such tales. Public transport is a better way to start a holiday than travelling by car. You, the passenger, leave the vehicle with a different attitude when you know that it will vanish soon and you will be left standing on your own feet. Several decades ago, a survey of visitors to the New Forest in Hampshire found that those coming by car often never moved more than a very few metres from it. When a bus has dropped you and driven away, you have an incentive to move.
The country around provides another incentive. Lower valleys are a natural home for oaks, hazel, beech, and other light green deciduous trees. Walking among them in sunshine is a delight. Where it is warm, houses may be draped with vines or perhaps a fig tree.
The roof reveals a lot about a building. Its quality suggests how old it is and how long it is expected to last. The traditional material is stone, both for walls and roofs. The old hut above Cheggio is built entirely of stone.
Some of the southern Alpine valleys are very long. Valle Anzasca is about 25 km long, and Valsesia is about 40 km down to Varallo where the country is still far from flat. They are also often steep. With luck, there will be an old path or cart track which lets you avoid walking up the road, but old tracks sometimes fade away into wild vegetation, so don’t be surprised if you follow one for quite a long way and then have to retrace your steps. The Alpine clubs and municipal authorities don’t usually expect tourists to walk in low valleys, and they give such paths low priority. In the East branch of Valpelline, two or three kilometers below Oyace, it appears that a perfectly good marked path up the valley floor has been bulldozed away to make a seemingly unnecessary new bit of road. When you do find a complete through path, it may still provide as much exercise and excitement as the ones a thousand metres higher, what with sharp ascents and descents up and down the valley side, and dives in and out of side arms, to circumvent cliffs and cataracts. The path up the north side of the Bogno valley from Domodossola to Valpiana and Fonti is a good example.
It is thought that the valleys were occupied in or about the 13th century by people from the North called Walser. They remained largely isolated for centuries. A page in Wikipedia is given over to pre-Christian gods and mythical beasts which were celebrated in parts of the Alps.
Once on a tour of a palace in Austria, the cynical English guide pointed out how one cloister was shaped with conical aisles designed to appear longer than they really were, and that the pillars which looked like pink marble were actually soapstone. He said that maybe in the 17th or 18th century the Catholic church made efforts to dominate the area. Part of its programme involved restoring and decorating churches. I don’t know if this is why, but anyway there is at least one old church in a valley somewhere on the south side of Monte Rosa which is painted inside with lots of gold and purples, in contrast with the natural colours outside.
The roads themselves are a phenomenon. Perhaps lowland motorway networks and the Channel Tunnel will be more celebrated, and of course they are great achievements, but motorways are nearly level and the Channel Tunnel was dug through some kind of soft clay. The Alpine valley roads alternate between tunnels through hard rock, sometimes crystalline, and stretches which cling to mountainsides on slopes of 45∘ or more. Their construction and the changes they have brought about on the upper valleys are some of the more significant events in the history of the twentieth century. A man who runs a bar near the top of one such valley, and who once worked in London, said the whole way of life there has changed in the past fifty years. Some time around 1980, I took a bus up another valley at lunchtime. All the local passengers were men trying to sleep. They commuted down to the town around dawn, worked in some factory, and then went back home thus. A generation earlier, their fathers might have been farmers on the mountainsides.
Though high Alpine valleys may enchant us lowlanders, some locals choose to go elsewhere. A Swiss woman who once studied in Edinburgh told me she craved low horizons and wide open skies. Another time, at a high village, I spent an hour eating and writing postcards in the local bar cum restaurant, then left before they needed space to serve evening diners. Later I went back for oranges and to get small change, and the barmaid offered me oranges for free with wide black eyes and no smile. I think what she saw was the prospect of adventure beyond that valley.
Despite the coming of roads, buses, electricity and cars full of tourists, some important things have not yet changed much. In the Mediterranean climate, more happens outside in public view than in cooler temperate regions. One such is eating. The large family supper is still a common event. The largest one I can remember, and the only one I have been part of, was the meal at the end of the day walking out of Val Mazino. Others occur often in settings ranging from fine restaurants in lowland cities to unpretentious bars in villages above 1000 metres, with half a dozen or more people and three generations. Much study has gone into the Mediterranean lifestyle because those who enjoy it seem to live longer than most of us. Emphasis has been put on diet, fish and olives, but it seems what matters may not be what they eat so much as how they eat it. The regular evening family meal appears to produce a sense of stability and security, unlike the stress felt by denizens and migrants in fragmented social settings. Long may it continue.
There are photographs and more details of Rifugio Musella on the World Wide Web. A search engine finds them easily. Its altitude is just above 2000 metres. There are many fine refuges in beautiful settings at about this height. The official notices suggest walking to it from Franscia, but I prefer approaching it directly from the main valley floor. That way gives a better perspective of its setting and the contrast between it and the world below it.
To find the path from Domodossola up the Bogno valley, walk out of town along the road towards Fonti and S Lorenzo, the via Giuseppe di Vittorio. On the edge of the town there is a right turn over a bridge across the river, leading to Mocogna and Cisore. Take it, and after crossing the bridge follow any suitable looking road or little green path which heads upward and westward.
The page in Wikipedia on pre-Christian Alpine traditions  may appeal to a few readers.
The building of some individual high roads in the Alps has been celebrated in references such as , but all the construction work opening up the less famous valleys seems to have gone unsung.
There are fears that the Alps are becoming depopulated . The International Commisson for the Protection of the Alps has proposed that there might be a macro-region strategy for the Alps as a whole .
We started from a very low refuge, the sort with a car park, at les Houches. There was low cloud and I at least felt unfit, but the first day, walking up through les Contamines, went well. That evening we camped at Notre Dame de la Gorge. There was light rain and it was distinctly cool.
Luckily, the next morning was nearly dry, and a mobile café was parked exactly where we might have wished for it and sold us hot dogs. The way up to the Col du Bonhomme and then the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme was perfect, with sunshine and cowbells. Although they are not unusually high, the cols gave spectacular views with peaks of rock and ice extending into the distance among white clouds. We found the refuge beyond the second col and ate omelettes. The vistas through its huge glass windows left me feeling more insecure than the paths over the cols themselves. Then we went down the steep slope to les Chapieux, which turned out to be rather steeper than it should have been because I missed the path. There we treated ourselves to the luxury of a proper French dinner and decent beds. At dinner, the man at the next table appeared to be an able healthy walker, but his wife would eat nothing for no clear reason. He was worried.
The third day, we went on up the road from Bourg St Maurice and reached les Mottets in good form, and set off up to the Col de la Seigne. The weather was dry but not sunny, and we climbed up into cloud. That path must be one of the most frequented in all the Alps. In fact, it is not a single path but a widely distributed collection of deep ruts in the peat. I had been over that way and back again several times and was unworried but, when we passed onto a crust of snow and then into cloud, one of the group panicked, saw some footprints leading left, and began following them against all advice. They led towards the Petite Aguille des Glaciers. Order was only restored when a solitary stranger loomed out of the mist from the Italian side and confirmed that his path was the way.
We reached the Rifugio Elizabetta in good order, though tired, hoping to stay; but they were full. Furthermore, they were not serving significant food. We had no choice but to set off again. It began to rain. We continued. It rained steadily harder. By the time we reached the Rifugio Monte Bianco, we were totally sodden. However, by some lucky quirk, at the end of the day morale was high. Furthermore this blessed refuge earned its name.
The next day we headed south as fast as possible. A couple of nights later, we were camping in Tuscany among small wild oak trees and fireflies.
Here is a list of things it seems wise to take. Some of them you will need. Some you will hope never to need, and you may be lucky, but better not count on it.
A few times I have taken a small knife. The French “Opinel” folding knives are convenient, as long as the loop of metal which is rotated to hold the blade open does not get stuck. However, I don’t do this any more for two reasons:
12-14 Long Acre
The stock at the Bristol Stanfords shop was too small to be very useful when I last visited it, but it may improve.
With all valuable papers, remember to
This applies particularly to passports, bank cards and insurance details.
If you or one of your party is injured, bear in mind that you will probably survive. Even when accidents occur beyond the scope of rescue in much more difficult terrain, casualties sometimes climb again, as did Joe Simpson and Simon Yates after their accident on Siula Grande in 1985, though some do not and sometimes both occur together. I assume you will not attempt that sort of holiday.
One of the best approaches to finding help is to let help find you. To achieve this, the recommended procedure is
This does not sound much fun. It is more likely to be successful if you can contact number 118 on a mobile phone, or if a companion can go on or back or down to a road and call a rescue service.
Don’t expect the rescue service to bother to look for you if you can walk. Don’t expect them to show you any sympathy if you call them out for a “casualty” who can walk.
Mobile phones work normally in inhabited valleys, but don’t depend on network coverage in the mountains. Reception on a mobile phone depends on the incoming signal strength, which you may be able to improve by moving about a bit, and the physical structure of the aerial within your phone, and the electronics within your phone. To communicate, your phone must emit an adequate signal too, of course, but in an unsuitable location no mobile phone will work.
Throughout Europe, the standardised telephone number for emergency services is
This will usually obtain the police, who will probably not speak English. Mountain rescue services are more likely to speak English.
In some regions, there are other numbers for calling moutain rescue, including helicopter rescue services. These vary from region to region. The best information I can find is as follows:
A hiker’s compass consists of
I have very rarely if ever used a compass in earnest, and not often seen it done. One such time was when we, a crowd of 15 year old schoolboys, were on the top of Fairfield in the Lake District, and the cloud came down. We wandered hither and thither, waiting to be told what to do. Suddenly a stranger appeared out of the mist. He was holding a compass so that it was level, and he was looking at nothing else. He walked straight through the lot of us as if we were not there, and disappeared off into the cloud again. Many years later, someone showed me what he was doing.
A compass has other simpler uses. Suppose you are high up in cloud, near a ridge which runs North-South, and you want to get to a refuge which is south of your current point and on the east side of the ridge. If you are already on its east side then you turn so that the slope goes up on your right hand side, and down to your left, and then you walk forwards. However, if you are on the ridge’s west side, this plan will lead into trouble. A compass will quickly show which side you are on.
A family once kindly invited me to join them for a holiday on Skye. Most of the experience is another story. The particular relevant point is that we all set off to visit the Talisker whisky distillery but, while my host and I were walking with just a foot or so between us, he stumbled on something uneven in the grass and cracked his leg. Essentially, that was the end of the holiday.
At other times, one close relative has cracked a leg on the edge of a trampoline, and another has cracked an arm while running around under a teacher’s supervision at school.
Thanks to good medical treatment, all these three are now fine. The first rides a bicycle, the second goes cross country skiing up mountains and has climbed high up the side of a volcano in South America, and the third practices ballet.
I have twice cracked a bone. The first was a rib, broken by coughing too hard. It hurt. The other occasion happened while walking in green countryside a couple of miles from home, when I trod on a pebble or something and had a “march fracture” in that foot. That hurt too. On a third occasion, while playing squash, the opponent played a good shot past me on the side I was not expecting. I leaned clumsily to try to reach it and tore ligaments round an ankle.
All these three experiences happened when I was not thinking properly. When coughing, I was feeling generally ill and sorry for myself. When the pebble cracked my foot, I was physiologically fine but was deeply involved over the unjust and callous behaviour of someone with more power over me than he was fit to wield. During that game of squash, I was just tired.
By contrast, last winter I fell off my bicycle on a patch of ice on a hard road surface, and suffered nothing. A sympathetic pedestrian asked if I was all right, and I really was. The difference was almost certainly that, when falling, I was ready for the impact and let myself roll with it.
Neither I nor anyone with me has been hurt while Alpine walking. Maybe the act of exploring such scenery stimulates us so that we are alert enough to cope with potential accidents. In all events, the experience persuades me that there is a skill and art in falling. It is not the sort of skill which one would want to learn by deliberate practice but, all the same, to some extend it can be learned. Parachute jumpers are taught how to meet the ground and roll so that they land relatively safely. It may help to be aware of their art, and to be ready to apply it whenever one slips or stumbles on a moutain path.
Recall what may happen when one asks about the path. In warm countries, it seems, anyone who is asked for information feels obliged to supply an answer. Saying something is more important than being helpful and accurate. I once asked a village barman what the codes on a bus timetable meant, and one detail he told me was plain wrong. He meant well.
Over dinner in a refuge, a German woman said that in Italy she makes a habit of always asking for guidance five times before reaching a decision. After collecting five answers, she usually finds that a fairly reliable consensus can be discerned.
This section could be omitted, but there are a few things in it which might be of some interest, so here it is.
Just about the only place where one can practice “civilised” hygiene while high in the Alps is in a refuge. Nowadays the great majority have clean tidy latrines, though some unmanned huts don’t have any. Many have hot showers. Still, it is best to use some common sense. The only time I have been seriously ill while high was one night at a refuge, and the following day, after I swam in a small lake just below it. The lake was very cold and, more significantly, rather murky. That night I was sick. The next morning I set off out of the mountains and got all the way down to an attractive town with a railway station without mishap, but then my alimentary canal went wild for a minute or so.
It is often possible to plan one’s internal events so that they can all be coped with in refuges. If this is not the case then the best course of action is usually to find a secluded spot, and there find a large stone in the ground which can be lifted. Lift it out, do whatever needs to be done in the space underneath, and put it back again. Then walk away and try not to look guilty. If there is some form of life visible in the earth below the stone, comfort yourself with the thought that you have provided it with long term nourishment.
After any experience such as the sort just discussed, it is wise to check one’s pockets. A disturbance of clothing may cause something to fall out onto the ground. Once there, it is very hard to find again.
Much the same happens when camping. A cardinal rule when striking camp is, last of all, wander round the site staring hard at the ground, looking for anything small. Tent pegs are easily lost. They may be left stuck into the earth.
When I have lost things, it has usually happened when starting to move. I used to lose my little bottle of shampoo regularly. I forgot to pick it up as I walked out of a shower which I had never been in before, probably feeling rather cold in a high refuge. Something like that seems to have happened at the hut at the top of the Hochjoch, the Schöne Aussicht Hütte or Rifugio Bella Vista, the only time I have stayed there. After that occasion, I became particularly conscious of the issue, and have rarely lost shampoo since.
Losses, and other accidents, also happen with rucksacks. Obviously it pays to zip up all pockets. I am alarmed by companions who don’t follow this simple rule.
It also can pay to do up all buckles and straps. I was once on a chair lift, wearing a rucksack, and had not done up the waist strap. It got caught in the chair. I discovered this when I tried to get off, and was dragged after the moving chair. I flung up my hand. The chair was oldfashioned, made of wooden slats, and my wrist got wedged between two slats. The chair then moved off the dismounting platform and I was hanging by one wrist over a high drop with heavy boots and skis on my feet. Thank goodness, the girl in the control shed was alert and pressed the right button. She and another staff member got the chair back and lifted me off it. I was unhurt.
In all my Alpine experiences, the greatest and most disturbing loss was that of my hat. This did not occur in the mountains, but at the railway station in Novara at the end of a holiday. Perhaps I was too relaxed and off guard, as all the essential planning and execution of plans was complete. In addition, it followed a long ride in buses from Domodossola because the railway line was being repaired. The vibration of the bus engines left me muzzed. Anyway, I spent a while gazing at a magazine and dozing in the waiting room, and then jumped up too hastily when the time came to go. I think that is what happened. I hope the hat found a good home with someone else.
While staying at Sixt, our guide led us up a mountainside in sunshine and, as we rested, spoke of someone on an earlier party who made the same climb and then collapsed and died on the spot. Everone else seemed to think this was dreadful. It did not seem so to me. It was a wonderful way to go. It was reminiscent of a case which a medically trained bell ringer once spoke of. He was a visitor in a tower where the band rang a well struck touch, and rested, and then someone called for people to stand in for another. One old man who rang the first time was invited, but declined, saying he preferred to sit out and listen. They rang it, and then looked round to find he had just died peacefully.
There is a lake in Emilia-Romagna called “Lago Santo”. In fact, lakes called “Lago Santo” seem to be dotted around much of Italy, but by this particular one is the Rifugio Mariotti. It is in a beautiful peaceful setting, a few hundred metres down the east side of the central Appenine ridge. I have been there twice. The first time I walked for two days from Fornovo di Taro, near the railway between Milan and Bologna, mostly up roads. The second time I approached from Pontremoli on the other side. That involved camping for a night on a heath near a small herd of free horses, and then finding and climbing obscure tracks up the very steep west face of the ridge.
The second visit was in midweek and the refuge was nearly empty. There were perhaps just five of us sitting down to dinner. It was run by a housewife from the valley who said that her husband had a daughter to look after him, and that she took her holidays somewhere on the coast near Naples.
The first time was very different. It was a weekend and the place was full. In the crush, a big gentle man with children introduced himself and two companions, and we spent much of the evening together. At one point they were, naturally, asking me where I had been and what sort of climbing I did. At random, and feeling a bit arrogant, I listed some of the cols I had crossed. One of them was the Fenêtre de Tir, or Tei. At its mention, one of the three sitting directly opposite me crumpled and said no more. Nobody asked why.
In Oxfordshire where I lived around 1980, the RAF held an air show. The day before it, near Sunningwell a bit north of Abingdon, eight jets in the colours of the Red Arrows flew gently towards a point maybe a couple of hundred feet above a green pasture. When they were very close, they all simultaneously rotated and dived straight downwards. I watched from a quiet lane across a hedge. Their wing tips were no more than a wing length apart, perhaps closer. When they were maybe fifty feet from the ground, they levelled out and flew apart again. One of them was heading for a nearby cottage. As it approached, it rose a little over the roof and then dipped down below the far side out of sight.
ignorance is bliss.
If you want to feel at ease about possible global warming, maybe better not pay any attention to it.
The British Ministry Of Defence is supposed to keep us safe but, in the 1950s and early 1960s, they scattered about 4,600 kg of zinc cadmium sulphide dust over large areas, including Salisbury, Cardington and Norwich, as a “mock” chemical or biological attack. The MOD thought it was harmless. It is now thought to cause cancer. They also scattered large quantities of bacteria called Bacillus globigii in London tube trains, and Venzuelan Equine Encephalitis virus around the Bahamas, and experimental nerve gas in southern Nigeria.
The very notion of safety is based on ignorance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “safe” as meaning “not exposed to danger”. Only an ignoramus can believe there is such a thing. On a routine train journey to work, I once sat opposite a nice old man called Martin Church. He is an authority on allergy, and has written a book with that title. On this occasion, he was preparing a talk, and he took time to tell me a lot about it. Among other snippets, he said that in each of us, during a normal lifespan, there are about 100,000,000,000,000 biochemical events which could potentially lead to cancer. Most of us don’t get cancer, or at any rate not for many years, because we are born with a superb multi-layered system to catch and eliminate possible tumours. We are all at risk of getting cancer, but very few of us bother to think much about it.
Safety might be better defined as a state in which, according to common sense, risk is not worth any attention. It is a subjective notion.
Any activity one cares to think of involves some risk. Butter, cars, fossil fuels, sugar, sunshine and superglue are all dangerous in their various ways, but it is also dangerous to do without at least food and sunshine. When things go wrong, hope is good but it is still wise to be aware of the other possibility.
In Britain, according to RoSPA, about 2,700,000 people are injured in accidents at home each year of whom 4000 die. RoSPA also reports that 208,648 people were killed or injured on the roads in 2010. In a typical town of about 100,000 people such as the one where I live, that amounts to nearly one road injury per day. It is very hard to live without a home, but it is quite easy to live without a car, so let us just consider road casualties.
Worldwide in 2010, road crashes killed at least 1.3 million people and injured 50 million: someone is killed in a road crash on average once every 25 seconds. In the UK, on average seven children are hit and killed or seriously hurt thus every day. Excepting deaths from illness, four out of five deaths of 10-19 year olds are in road crashes. Penelope Leach wrote, a propos safety of young children,
Curiously, the most statistically probable accident - getting hit by a vehicle - is seldom mentioned.
From this point of view, Britain appears to be one of the safest countries. Even so, in the three weeks immediately after a recent Alpine holiday I witnessed two dangerous incidents with cars in which, by luck, nobody was hurt, and a friend was significantly hurt in a third incident while driving.
For ordinary healthy people who can choose where and how to live, most of these can be considered “voluntary”: they happen because of the choices of life style which ordinary people make of their free will. A lot of people seem to find cars beautiful, and take pleasure in driving cars on roads designed for them. Some seem to regard their freedom to do so as a right. Their views on beauty and pleasure cannot be questioned: if some motorists find such behaviour so, then it is so. Some others take pleasure in whatever freedom they have to travel safely by other means. When two views of pleasure conflict, as these do, then we enter the subject of ethics.
However nice and goodnatured they may be, and some car drivers are scrupulously careful and courteous, car drivers are selfish. Many are also foolish. I have known three bright goodnatured wives who ate more calories than they expended, got fat, and whose hearts stopped while they were of ages in the range from about 50 to 70. They tried to take exercise, but not enough. I see the same characteristics in a close neighbour now, but have not yet had the courage to tell her of her likely fate. I have known men who did likewise. One, when young, was very healthy. He played table tennis and rode a bicycle across England and back, but then he bought a sequence of cars and got steadily fatter. When his doctor told him he had diabetes and what to do about it, he changed his doctor. He might well have lived a decade longer, but his toes went black and then he died of a stroke.
It seems that most car drivers prefer the lives they lead, along with all the risks which they create for both themselves and others, rather than put in a little more effort to get their conveniences and pleasures. Furthermore, these driving risks are not educative. Taking risks with cars does not extend a driver’s capacity to cope with other possible future risks, so these are not like the risks considered in Chapter 1. Any risks associated with Alpine walking should be seen in this context.
There are such risks. I once came down from a high pass and stopped at a bar. In passing, the barman said he was in the local mountain rescue team. I thanked him for being that sort of person.
On the side of the chapel in Valtournenche, almost within sight of the third highest summit in the Alps, is an array of plaques commemorating guides, members of the CAI. One of them died while trying to save other climbers. He showed heroism. It is quite likely that he depended on a car, but his deed proves at least that he valued the lives of others.
Nobody could grow up in that country and not understand the risks of climbing. He was not ignorant. The contrast between that courageous guide and the sort of person who voluntarily and carelessly chooses a life style which commits him to running the risks associated with routine car use is stark. Alpine walking is not particularly dangerous.
Accounts of serious accidents while climbing are now plentiful. Some of the most celebrated are [436, 200, 15]. These three exhibit all varieties of survival and otherwise. However, these references all describe events far above the altitudes occupied by walkers.
A thorough list of rescue services and contacts is published by IKAR-CISA . Some extra details can be found from Wikipedia: Alpine distress signal . See  for local French numbers.
It should be quite easy to compile data on sensitivities of mobile phones. One such study  has been published but it only contains some small photographs of the phones used, and it is obsolete. Its author wrote “We can at present not publish the phone manufacturers”. See also [353, 354, 54]. Motorola phones were once said to be particularly sensitive .
There is a detailed account of the subtleties of the notion of risk in The Norm Chronicles  by Blastland and Spiegelhalter. One risk they don’t discuss is due to confusion which may arise from the back cover note and their Figure 22, page 210: the Hiroshima bomb spread a lot more radiation, in dust, beside what it produced in its brief flash. If you want to learn what it can do, try searching for desert news toxic utah with Google.
Global warming is due in part to burning fossil fuels for heat and power and transport. It may affect Britain by raising sea levels, and causing changes in agriculture, and by a return of endemic malaria. Greenland lost 54 km3 (about 50,000,000,000 tonnes) of ice in 2005. The Antarctic ice sheet is shrinking at about 200 km3 per year. On a global scale, these amounts are miniscule. However Greenland lost only 21 km3 of ice in 1996, and the overall rate of ice loss of Antarctica increased by 75% in the past 10 years [511, 512]. It seems that the North Pole may one day be free of ice in mid summer, perhaps in just a couple of decades: see . When that happens, the rate of warming in summer is likely to increase a bit because, when there is no cloud, dark sea water absorbs more sunlight than does ice. The World’s climate may be unstable. Many factors may affect the speed and extent of global warming, e.g. . Predicting it is very difficult.
There is a book called Sustainable Energy - without the hot air by David MacKay . It contains very clear plain estimates which show how we use energy and how our consumption compares with what might be obtained by renewable means. The biggest way we consume energy is by buying “stuff” - things in shops, often made of plastic or metal and made by factories in far away lands. Making “stuff” takes a lot of energy. Travelling by car is the second biggest. (Emissions per car mile are falling . The number of vehicle miles driven per year rose steadily, in the USA, until 2008, since when it has fallen slightly . Falls seem to correlate with economic recessions.) MacKay’s book can be downloaded for free. It is well worth a look.
Evidence of the MOD’s experiments was unearthed by Ulf Schmidt  and reported by David Keys .
Statistics on accidents are found from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents  and the International Transport Forum  and the road charity Brake [64, 117]. Collecting reliable statistics is not easy. In 2000 the Government said that it wanted the annual number of serious road casualties to fall. According to police records, it did; but according to hospital casualty records, it didn’t. One of the likely reasons for the difference, which included increased use of speed cameras, is the fact that the police were set a political target to reduce casualties which they may have met by changing their criteria for e.g. “serious” shock . They may just have decided to record fewer incidents. Police and hospital records for fatalities have always been in close agreement. It is harder to not record a death.
The quotation from Penelope Leach comes from [272, page 32]. One driver has written and told [95, 94] how she killed a pedestrian by exceeding the speed limit, and wanted to tell the truth about it, but was persuaded twice by Australian police to commit and maintain perjury and so avoid a sentence. It seems that the police were following an agreed policy to suppress evidence of all such crimes. Her family, too, refused to mention the affair.
Some good things happen with cars: see e.g. experiences of hitchiking at the end of Chapter 11. Here are some more details of problems they cause.
and they also mentioned the pollutants
In short, for anyone healthy and able who does not live and work on a remote farm, earning his living by making food or something of similar obvious value in such a place, routine car use is immoral. Business salesmen have been convicted of corrupt bribery in an attempt to sell leaded petrol and sabotage trials of a safer alternative [143, 21]. By contrast
Cities where residents are physically active have a big advantage over their more sedentary rivals, with better economic productivity, higher property values and improved school performance, as well as a healthier population
Crime drops 74% when a street goes car-free on weekends
Public transportation produces 95% less carbon monoxide than cars
$70M investment in a river greenway yielded a $2.5B in private investment
England is a funny place. Among some mothers at the local Primary school, an acceptable answer to the question
How are you?
I’m fine. How is your horse?
I told a very nice prosperous neighbour with a family and a huge black lump of a car about the lead levels in garden plants, and he said
I didn’t think of that.
Not thinking is quite common.
I hope that perhaps the generation after next will look on car use much as this generation looks on tobacco smoking: the distasteful activity of an unfortunate addicted minority who damage their own health and wellbeing as well as that of others. Nothing much is likely to change before then. The addiction rate is too high.
Car use is built into our national way of life by government policy. It has been associated with corruption e.g. of Ernest Marples. Chris Mullin, retired MP and respected diarist of the workings of Westminster government, would phase out the private motor car if he could . I would too, though care would be needed to sustain for instance all the old people who would become housebound and isolated if their cars were lost abruptly.
Sometimes it is necessary to go down to towns in the low valleys. On one such trip, after what had to be done was done, there was a long wait for a bus back up, so I set off on foot and got to a slightly higher village around lunchtime, and sat down in the small square to eat. An old man ambled out of his front door and pointed out the village water source, and showed me a communal tablet of soap by it for washing hands. I thanked him, he went in again, and I used some soap and ate. When that was done, he came out again and invited me in for coffee. It was both civil and pleasant to accept his very kind invitation.
His living room was dark and nearly bare. We sat together while his wife prepared the coffee. Conversation was not very easy because neither of us spoke the other’s language at all well. He talked about his son. I tried to explain my holiday.
After a while, he got up and came back with three family possessions. They were extraordinary. The first was an old metal spoon which he said was Roman. I have no way of recognising whether or not an old spoon is Roman, but it was interesting. The other two were books. The larger was a medicinal herbal with woodcut illustrations of the plants it described. It was printed in the 17th century. The other was a bible, also illustrated. It was printed in 1574, I think. Never in my life before or since has anyone offered me the opportunity to handle such ancient books.
He lent me a pencil and I copied out their frontispieces. At the time I was working for the Regional Health Authority in Oxford, and later, back there, I asked at the university library for details of the books. After trapesing around between a couple of different libraries for an hour or so, the details turned up. While I looked at them, a friendly middle aged scholar appeared too, and said that the bible was printed in southern France. He had visited the printing works just that summer. If I remember correctly, he had seen the wood blocks which that bible was printed from.
I wrote to the old man about what the library told me of his books. It was necessary to send the letter in Italian which I could not write, so I commissioned a professional translation. The translator was so taken with it that he declined payment. The old man received it and replied.
People like it when one makes an attempt to communicate with them, particularly in their own language. Even when you make a bit of a mess of it, or perhaps especially when you do, they are likely to warm to you. One of my first independent trips to the Alps was into the val d’Antrona. In Antrona village, I wanted to find a path which I remembered only vaguely, so I summoned up my very best Italian and asked a man
Per favore, dove il vecchio sentiero a Cheggio?
He at once appreciated not only that this effort taxed me greatly but that any attempt to understand a verbal answer would leave me floundering helplessly. He beamed at me, said nothing at all, and beckoned to follow him.
At this stage in life, it is too easy for me to look back and imagine that foreign travel is really quite simple. My first unaccompanied journey abroad was to a family who were very friendly and kind and generally supportive, and it was in Franceafter I had passed an examination in the French language. Yet I was more frightened than perhaps even I realised.
Fear is a good reason for not attempting something. I have seen a robust confident young Englishman set off for a period beyond Europe to a land where he knew nothing of the language or the culture. When he came back, he had shrunk. He had not been able to master either, and he suffered for it.
All the same, if fear can be overcome then usually it should be overcome, and whatever venture that entails will be rewarding. I have also seen three people, on separate occasions, come back from periods overseas in so-called “developing” countries, who all had good times and were stronger for it.
My sixth birthday was spent in California, and my seventh in or near Yugoslavia. My parents gave their children an unusually easy and thorough introduction to foreign travel. Despite that, even when I was approaching middle age, it has not always been simple.
My schooling in French was lengthy and quite good by English standards. After it was over, the school offered a one-year crash course in German. It was taught by an Eng Lit master with no teaching qualification in German and a deaf hearing aid. He was a good teacher, though, and he got some of his class through an exam in it. His course left me with a sense that I knew a few words, enough to get myself into trouble but maybe not enough to get out of it again. What follows is an account of how I learned the truth.
That first trip to Yugoslavia was in the time when many roads there were unpaved and petrol stations were far apart. Water was obtained by lowering a can on a piece of string into the wells we found by the road. There were wild tortoises on the hillsides. Whenever the car broke down, my younger brother found a bit of wire in the dust by the road, suitable for repairing it. We drove and camped as far as and beyond Dubrovnik, to a beautiful inlet where one morning my parents taught me to swim and that afternoon I taught my brother. Then we went across the country to Belgrade where my Father was invited to help build some electronics, and back through Ljubljana. We made a second holiday there, to Šibenik, six or seven years later, by which time travel was considerably easier.
My third visit was in the 1980s, a train trip to Skopje and beyond. My Serbo-Croat was negligible. I fancied climbing the mountain south of Skopje, Solunska Glava. Nowadays there are lots of web pages about it but, then, nobody in Skopje was encouraging. At last a kind waiter in the hotel suggested taking the train round to the other side of the mountain, to a small town called Bogomila. Above Bogomila there is a village called Ceples and a mountain hut where, he said, I might meet real men who could tell me how to do it.
The train arrived from Belgrade late, and left even later. It was full. The door at the back of the last coach was left wide open. There was a robust friendly young man on it who had recently come back from working in London, and who explained that this was how things were done. He pointed out various villages, and explained which were Muslim and which were Christian. It was an interesting trip.
Bogomila was pleasantly quiet. I started washing my hair under a tap, and then another train came in and lots of its passengers took an interest in my shampoo which seemed a novelty to them.
When they had gone and I was not sure what to do, a man in a smart white suit appeared. We tried and failed to communicate clearly, so he beckoned me to follow him. Somehow, I forget how, it was clear that he was a policeman. Perhaps he had a gun on his belt, as do most police outside Britain.
We went into a cool plain dusty room in the police station with a table and a desk with an open drawer containing a pair of handcuffs. After a bit of difficulty, he and a second policeman discovered that I had a little German, and found someone in civilian clothes whose German was good. It was soon evident that if he was a civilian then the distinction between the police and the general population was hardly worth making. He spoke with authority, and the uniformed police did not have to do more than listen. The one who brought me there went out and came back with a plum which he gave me.
The German speaker asked who I was, why was I there, and what did I want to do. All that was easy. I was an academic teacher on holiday who liked walking in mountains. Did I have a camera? No. They pondered. Then he explained.
They accepted that I did not have a camera. They would not search me, and they would allow me to go up to the hut. However, on the summit was a secret military post. I must not go beyond the limits set at the Ceples hut. Furthermore there were military patrols on the mountain. If one of the patrols found me then they would not ask me anything. They would just search me, and if they found a camera…He said nothing, but just banged the undersides of his wrists together. I said “Das geht.” He started, and looked at me hard.
That explained why the people in Skopje were not all helpful. It also taught me that I can speak and understand some German.
By the way, the trip up to the Ceples hut was good. A large swallowtail butterfly flew up and down the broad shady stream out of the mountain. After the climb up to the village, one of several teenagers sitting on a railing saw my hot state and said “Three hours” (more climbing). A little higher, in fields, a delicate little white donkey staggered down under the weight of a very fat man who beamed at me. At the hut, someone gave me lovely sweet tea made with fresh herbs. They spoke good English, and they allowed me to go somewhat higher unaccompanied to where there were star gentians and pristine wild beds of unfamiliar orange flowers. They also explained something about themselves. For instance, they were speaking a language or dialect (some linguists say that a language is a dialect with an army) which had survived uninterrupted suppression for two thousand years, since the Roman occupation. They were only free to speak it since they won their freedom in the Second World War.
There was a weekend public holiday while I was up there, and for a day the hut was full of locals. They questioned me more severely than did the policemen. The distinction between the police and the general population really was hardly worth making.
Do nations differ? Many people think so. A British diplomat remarked that, at receptions in Arab countries, after a while all the Western diplomats have their backs to the wall while the Arabs face them. The reason is personal space, the region around each person which that person regards a his or hers and which others may not usually enter. This is a social convention. In the West, the radius of personal space is typically about 30 or 40 centimetres; in Arabia, it is rather less. At such a reception, an Arab will come to about 20 centimetres from a Westener who then backs away to 35 centimetres. The process is repeated until the Westener meets a wall.
In Aragon, an old man who may have been Catalan grumbled about the neer-do-wells in Andalucia who do the Spanish economy such harm; when a rowing boat full of soldiers nearly bumped into me while my brother and I swam with local girls in Šibenik harbour as teenagers, the coxwain looked over the transome and asked “Deutsch?”, to which I said “No, English”, and he grunted as if satisfied; and a student visiting London from the University of Torino said she chose Torino to get as far from her native Sicily as possible. Countries, and regions within countries, really do differ. On the other hand, an old Italian once asked me “Tedesco?”, and again I said “No, Ingles” to which he said something which I think meant “they’re all the same” and grinned at me.
A particularly clear example occurred on TV on a winter evening in the Dolomites, where a friend once invited me skiing. I don’t particularly recommend skiing. One is cold, and often wet, and the boots hurt, and the proportion of time spent actually skiing is very small. The sensation of riding a bicycle is not very different from that of skiing, and cycling is much simpler and cheaper and safer and generally more rewarding: it actually takes you somewhere. Having written that, I should admit that I have skied in six resorts over a period of nearly half a century, and sometimes enjoyed it. Anyway, this TV in the Dolomites could receive programmes broadcast from both Italy and Austria. That evening, both had shows for children. The Austrian one was about a (mixed) group of frightened but heroic characters who had to escape the evil schemes of a wicked king. The Italian one involved a cartoon showing a free mobile (male?) mouse who danced and sang with a chorus of three immobile (female?) flowers firmly embedded in pots, all very cheerful. The contrast of cultures separated by a few kilometres of mountain was dramatic.
These examples are not typical of human behaviour. All the world over, it is very nearly constant. Take, for instance, modern youth. As someone said,
What a wonderful thing Youth is, and what a pity it is wasted on the Young.
At home, my children all have very attractive bicycles but they seem to prefer playing for hours on silly little handheld game machines, even when outside it is sunny. In the southern Alps, the jeunesse dorée are seen more often around café tables than in refuges. Someone said that the ones who staff refuges are more often recruited from Milan. Everywhere, they fail to value what they have. Familiarity breeds contempt.
How might the small but noticeable different national traits arise? It seems, from analyses of the genetic codes of people in various parts of the World, that those of us not descended from recent inhabitants of Africa are the descendants of at least two groups who crossed out of Africa. However, there are steady gradients of genetic variation across and between continents, not abrupt changes. The genetic variations within each racial group (mongoloid, caucasian, negroid) are greater than those between groups. Human populations share most of their genetic variation. Therefore it seems that national characteristics are not due to genetics. There must be other pressures which produce them.
Sir Crispin Tickell has written about how variations of climate with time bear on economics and politics. I guess that variations in climate with space, and perhaps other influences, also cause social variations, and that some such variations are at more basic levels than governance and economics.
Climate varies with latitude and altitude, which affect temperature, and with proximity to the oceans, which affects rainfall. Humans can survive most easily where it very rarely freezes and where there is enough water for edible plants to grow naturally. In such places, human life is easy without social structures.
Elsewhere, life depends on technology and trade and education and the institutions which foster them. Therefore, one would expect such institutions and culture to be strong where life is hard, and weak where it is easy. Indeed, this is so. For the past half millennium, law and technology and scholarship have prospered very well in northern Europe where it freezes hard in winter. (They also prosper where there is a long tradition of peace, as in Britain and Switzerland, and where rich institutions deliberately encourage them, as in the great ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the territories governed by medieval Islam and the mercantile city states of renaissance Italy; so climate is not the only factor.) By contrast, until the nature of such culture was understood by communities such as Singapore, and education and technology were deliberately imported there, no such culture blossomed in the tropics.
The gradient in culture is not just transcontinental. It can be seen on a fairly small scale. Twice, in the valleys south of Monte Rosa, tourists from further north have remarked that life there is more relaxed than at home. One described all the washing and being tidy at home as a neurosis, and then went off to get tidy for supper. Another time, a couple across the table at dinner giggled with pleasure at the local lax attitudes while explaining that that was what they were doing. Of course, climate is not the only factor. Wealth is another. I was in the presence of mixed groups while the Swiss Franc was rising against the Euro in August 2011. During my one and only evening at a hostel in the Engadine, all the Swiss appeared very cheerful while other nationalities were stressed.
This gradient is evident as one travels south from Milan, where the law is widely accepted, down Italy to Naples, Palermo and Catania, where law enforcement is difficult. (Garibaldi is still quoted as saying that Naples is not part of Italy.) It is also evident in the old Yugoslavia, where services run smoothly in Slovenia but are more haphazard in Macedonia. I met residents of Macedonia who regretted returning to their family homes from the prosperous north.
Thus, it seems, variation of climate with space, not just time, affects large scale social structure. Does it also affect social behaviour on the small scale, between individuals? I speculate that it does.
Suppose two people start an argument which gets serious. Social and perhaps even physical well being may require that one party leaves. That is, he must go outside the place where they are arguing. In a mild climate, this is not serious. He can go and sleep under a bush, and will still be alive next morning. In a harsh climate, though, a night outside is likely to mean freezing to death. Therefore one would expect that, in a harsh climate, social conventions would inhibit the sort of social interaction which may lead to arguments, but there will be much less such inhibition where survival is easy. A cold climate may even inhibit all interaction with strangers.
Indeed, it is so. I spent eight weeks in 1969 working for a cheerful able man who recounted how he once lived in Sweden. Each working day there, he passed a shop where he bought his lunch. Being the sort of person he was, he would say “Hello” when he entered, and “Bye” when he left. The local Swedes, born and bred in a cold climate, were all much more withdrawn and taciturn. As a result, the little old ladies who ran the shop all fell for him. They would lean out and wave to him as he went by.
There is a report of a Greek who experienced an even more striking case when she visited the Arctic circle in Norway. Nobody there made eye contact. She found it unnerving.
I experienced the reverse situation on my one trip to the Caribbean. I went for a walk by myself across a shoulder of one of the islands, Bequia, and passed a group of three or four local men. I, from a colder northern climate, was a bit shy and unsure of myself, and kept my head down. They told me bluntly that this was not the done thing. People there were expected to greet each other. Anything less was rudeness.
Within the parts of Europe I know anything of, this attitude seems most evident in Spain. At the end of a trip into the Picos de Europa and out again, there was a free day when I set off wandering without any very helpful map. Nearly lost at a farmstead, I asked a man how many kilometres away was a certain village. He took my arm gently and urged me on, saying “Dos, dos”. I don’t think he was answering my question. He seemed to be just encouraging me to continue my quest. He was expressing an opinion that, whoever I was and whatever I might be trying to achieve, my choice of objective was worthy and I could do it.
On another occasion, in a small town in hills north west of Madrid, two other Englishmen and I ate in the same restaurant and then sat outside in the dusk. One of them pointed out a little man at the bar, and said this man was very poor – he had just enough to buy himself one drink each evening – but he would not accept any slight. It is in the nature of any Spaniard to have self respect. My own experience suggests that any Spaniard expects not only to be respected but also to offer respect too. I don’t know any other place like this.
(Winters in central Spain can be harsh, so maybe this does not support my ideas about climate and social interaction very well.)
Please do not interpret this idea as a blanket assertion that all northerners are dour. They aren’t. I have spent two periods living in Strathclyde where it freezes hard. The second time began just before the winter of 1981-2. A water main froze solid and burst under a steep hill which I had to walk down daily to work and back up again each evening. The road was covered with hard ice. Some of the locals were dour, but by no means all. The exception who comes to mind was a drunk at a Glasgow bus stop one dark night who is the only person I can think of who has ever told me to my face that I am a gentleman. There were plenty more.
It is impossible to be sure, but it has sometimes seemed to me that the way people approach a newcomer is different on the two sides of the frontier surrounding north Italy. It may be just that the sun shines a little more brightly on the south side; but then, that is my point.
At Kiruna, north Sweden, it is conventional for guests to leave a party without farewells. The host simply ignores anyone leaving. The reason is that, although they now live in houses and stay in one or a few places for most of their lives, traditionally the Sami and others of north Sweden were nomads, so people were meeting and parting continually. Parting is not fun, and became normal, so they stopped celebrating it.
On Tuesday 1st November 2011 there was an odd coincidence. The Guardian carried a piece about research by Dr Sascha Becker of Warwick University on the contrast between Protestant and Roman Catholic attitudes to education and work, and what seem to be resultant differences in incomes from the 16th century to this time. The day before, the Financial Times had a report of a similar study which was carried out at the European Central Bank.
As to the researchers’ reports themselves, Becker and his collaborator Ludger Wössmann find that Protestantism led to considerably more time put into education, which led to jobs with higher incomes. This contrasts with the Catholic Parisian, of whom it was written in the 19th century
Perpetual business, perpetual labor, is a thing of which he seems to have no idea.
The ECB researchers, Basten and Betz, conclude that Protestantism leads people to put less store by leisure time and to prefer less intervention by government, and that income inequality is greater in Protestant communities, at least in Switzerland. This is significant since a fair distribution of wealth is known to be a major contributor to national wellbeing, and maybe to economic prosperity and democracy too.
The obvious factor which influences all people, but perhaps influences different nations differently, is language. Professor Bernd Heine argues that culture influences the grammatical structure of language. Is the same true in reverse? Does language influence culture?
In Meghalaya, north east India, women are largely excluded from the political decision making process, but the local Khasi women are dominant and the men are demoralised, prone to alcoholism and drug abuse. Contributing factors may include matrimony (wealth passes from mother to daughter rather than father to son) and the fact that most men leave school early to help their fathers in the fields, but the big factor may be language. Many things have masculine names until they become useful, whereupon they become feminine. Thus a tree is masculine but wood is feminine. Men feel useless.
It is reported that anyone who speaks a language in which future events are described using verbs in the present tense (German, Mandarin) is probably more careful at looking after himself. He is more likely to take exercise and avoid being over weight, and not smoke, and save for old age than someone who speaks a language with a distinct future tense (English, French, Italian). This effect is not just cultural. It is found between neighbours who speak different languages in multi-lingual countries (Belgium, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Estonia, DR Congo, Nigeria, Malaysia, Singapore, and Switzerland). Perhaps “languages that grammatically associate the future and the present foster future-oriented behavior”.
In the 1930s, Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote at length on similar ideas. In one of his papers, he opens with a paragraph which ends
It is …in its constant ways of arranging data and its most ordinary everyday analysis of phenomena that we need to recognize the influence [which language] has on other activities, cultural and personal.
Alford made a summary of how his work was received in the 1950s, according to which Whorf’s detractors wrote e.g. that
[Edward Sapir and B. L. Whorf] offer as a paradigm example the alleged total semantic arbitrariness of the lexical coding of color
when in fact Whorf did not. Rather, Whorf might agree with Cole and Scribner, who wrote
It may very well be that the “filtering effect” of language is greatest in respect to domains of phenomena that are definable, not in terms of physical properties, but in terms of attributes that are culturally specified… consider the area of ideology or theoretical work in general, where concepts largely acquire their meanings through their being embedded in explanatory verbal networks. It is here that language may play the greatest role in shaping the person’s view of reality, in influencing his memory and thinking processes, and in contributing to his understanding and misunderstandings of other cultures.
As an example, consider what a mother might say to her 5 year old child when the child is fiddling with something and the mother wants to make progress with household affairs. In English, she would say
Eat your breakfast.
From a simple rational viewpoint, she might equally well say
From ad hoc conversations, it appears that the first form is used in English, German, Spanish, Swahili, Tswana and Zulu, while the second is used in colloquial Hindi and related languages such as Marathi, the Hokkien form of Chinese, Malay, and Polish. This may be important. English and Zulu children are taught at breakfast every morning that even a bowlful of cereal belongs to somebody; everything is owned or possessed; it is not natural for anything to be common property, or nobody’s property. By contrast, in Marathi, a host will say
Please visit our house
even when the house is his personal property. Everything is explicitly shared. Is this true more widely in South East Asia? What is the common form of language in other Slav countries? Might it affect Slav attitudes to property? What about Greece, where a mother may say either, and there is a long tradition of political conflict between believers in private and public ownership? Was baby talk a contributing factor to the Russian revolution?
I may have misled the reader on two counts. The first, or perhaps the second, is that I have an irreconcilable aversion to cars. Well, I do, but I sometimes compromise. The second or whatever is that getting out of the mountains at the end of a holiday is easy. Well, sometimes it is, but don’t depend on it.
The truth is that at critical moments I hitch-hike. This habit started when I was almost exactly eighteen years old. For obscure reasons, I found myself in Nice without anywhere obvious to stay for the next few weeks. I bought a floppy soft rucksack unsuited to mountaineering, and a heavy oldfashioned canvas tent, and boots that were too small, and set off north, thumbing lifts in a big balloon-shaped route which went round Lake Geneva, then from somewhere near the Rhône Glacier to Chur on the back of a little scooter without a crash helmet, through Liechtenstein and Innsbruck to somewhere near Lofer where the flowers were lovely, over the Brenner pass and past Longarone which was then a barren expanse of grey pebbles after the dam above destroyed it, very fast across north Italy in a little Volkswagen Beetle, back into France through the Mont Blanc tunnel, and down to somewhere near Le Puy for a couple of nights in a congenial hostel with another young Englishman who had just been let go by Oxford, then back to Nice with a whisky priest who drove too fast on a windy mountain road until we came to the site of a crash, where he considered it his duty to stay and comfort the young ladies. That trip made my mediocre ordinary grade school French fluent. It was useful. It did also involve climbing to the top of a mountain, something I have not often done. That happened while staying at a friendly refuge near Guillestre.
Hitch-hiking is an intimate experience. Occasionally a family will offer a lift, but much more often it is just you, the passenger, and the driver. Four years later, I made a journey thus back to Nice. That time, the kind people who gave me lifts included a sad man with a beautiful little boy; an economist who explained to me in excellent English that things were not going to be so bad as newspapers made out; and a subdued businessman who was almost silent until we passed a road works team who were usingwalkie talkies. This was long before mobile phones. I broke the silence by saying I would like to play with a radio like that. He brightened up, and took trouble to deposit me at a camp site.
Hitch-hiking is sometimes the only practical way to get out of a long valley to a train, for instance if you have missed a bus or if there are no buses at all for a few days. Occasionally there is no safe alternative, as when for instance there is no separate footpath and the road goes through long black tunnels where drivers roar through looking at nothing but the tail lights of the car in front.
As a guest, a hitch-hiker is under some sort of obligation to be good company. A useful first gambit is to describe oneself and one’s holiday. I am not always very good at this, though. The trip down out of the mountains to a town and the start of a long journey back to humdrum life at home may not feel like a time to celebrate. This was the case at the end of a holiday in the early 1980s when I had just been over a risky pass between the Val d’Isère and Italy, and then on an extended tour which finished with a couple of similar passes around the Val di Rhêmes, and back again to Sainte Foy Tarentaise. There, the bus went by in front of me. An alert vivacious young woman picked me up in her little Renault and we bounced and swayed down towards Bourg St Maurice while she chattered about her recent trip abroad, and the job interview she was going to that afternoon in Annecy, and would I like to join her and see the town? Another suitable train would leave later from there. I was most ungracious, and said towns are all the same. By the time we stopped, she was probably feeling somewhat deflated. She was sweet, and deserved better, so on the spur of the moment I took a risk of a different sort and kissed her hand. It was all right.
Evidence for evolution and migration of the human race out of Africa and around the World can be found in [470, 430, 324, 243].
Sir Crispin Tickell presented his ideas on climate and its social consequences in .
The two articles in the Guardian and the Financial Times on effects of Protestantism are [20, 23] and the work at the European Central Bank appeared in . The on line readers’ comments to the FT’s report included detailed arguments as to whether All Saints Day is respected in Frankfurt. The opinion of Parisians is that of William Cullen Bryant , editor of the New York Evening Post, who toured through France and Italy.
The social consequences of unequal distribution of wealth are reported thoroughly and carefully by Professors Wilkinson and Pickett  and by Danny Dorling . More recently, James K Galbraith has written a study of its effect on economics and democracy .
Among the very little of Professor Heine’s work which I looked at, the item most relevant to culture and grammar is . The plight of Khasi men was reported by Timothy Allen . Keith Chen [82, 58] studied correlations of social behaviour with how language represents future events. His work involves many more languages than are mentioned here. The quotation from Whorf comes from  and the others about his work are from .
Recently, someone else has said I am a gentleman, but that was due to a misunderstanding.
Some 200 years ago there lived a great mathematician called Carl Friedrich Gauss. Relatively recently, maybe around 1972 at a meeting of the British Mathematical Colloquium, another mathematician talked about some ideas relevant to something Gauss once wrote, and read part of Gauss’s paper to his audience, but he skipped the maths bit. What he read was full of words such as “bellissimus” and “pulchrissimus” (Gauss wrote in latin). It went on thus for perhaps a page.
Perhaps at the same meeting there was another talk about some things which could not be constructed. The speaker left me feeling confused, so I did what a novice student is trained to do and asked if he could give an example. The audience roared with laughter. Someone later congratulated me on the question. I was still confused.
In earlier chapters, the examples of beauty and pleasure all involve very natural human actions and senses: movement, seeing and feeling and eating and sleeping, and talking and listening and learning and exploring, and bodily wellbeing. The next few will be different. They involve things which mostly can’t be sensed, or perhaps only with a subtle tool such as a microscope, or which can be sensed directly but which don’t obviously fit into the natural set of conceptions which we all grow up with. Here is a very simple case.
Suppose for simplicity that you have one foot on the path and one hand against the cliff: see the left figure below.
There are then three forces acting on your body:
Each of these three forces can be represented by a line: see the right figure above. For instance, force number 1 can be thought of as a line through your hand, pointing directly away from the cliff. Force number 3, gravity, is represented by a line pointing straight down through your middle (technically, through the centre of gravity of you and your rucksack). The magnitude of the force is represented by the length of the line. There are two basic facts about these three lines.
Also, suppose that the tail of arrow number 2 on paper lies on top of the head of
arrow number 1 on paper, and the tail of arrow number 3 lies on top of the head
of arrow number 2. Then, on the paper, the tail of arrow number 1 lies on top of
the head of arrow number 3!
Reason: because otherwise you would start to move up or down or sideways, depending on the length and direction of an arrow drawn on the paper from the tail of arrow number 1 to the head of arrow number 3.
From this figure, it is clear that the force between your foot and the path is least when there is no force on your hand. Also, if there is no force on your hand then the force on your foot is vertical, so there is nothing pushing your foot sideways. If the path itself is flat then you won’t slip. As soon as there is any horizontal force on your hand then there will be a matching opposite horizontal component in the force on your foot, and this will give your foot a tendency to slip. Slipping on a mountain path is not recommended.
If all the notions in this example – the magnitude and direction of a force; your centre of gravity – make sense to you, then you are on the way to being well educated. To be a valuable prosperous member of a modern society, your education has to extend far beyond such basic notions, but you have the right grounding. You understand much more than a prehistoric cave man would. A cave man could appreciate everything said so far about mountain walking, when he could understand English, but he would have difficulty with this example.
Here is a list of a few more simple phenomena which a cave man would find mysterious. Some of them involve aspects of light, or geometry, or basic biology, which are better not explained here. These are included to titillate you. The one we shall concentrate on is the last.
All these observations suggest that there is some sort of pattern or system underlying the world we live in, but which we are almost never aware of.
Curiosity is an urge to seek explanations and order for all that we see around us. Indeed this order exists, but people could not fathom it until they had new technologies. These technologies included
Once one has a grasp of them, then much more of nature becomes comprehensible too. Where a stone age man would look around and see grass and streams and rocks and singing birds, a modern educated person may see biological reproduction and evolution, and thermodynamics, and geological transformations, and social structure and behaviour. Here we shall just outline one little part of all this understanding: the theory of atoms and molecules.
In the Science Museum in South Kensington, some time back in the 1950s, there was an exhibit showing Brownian motion. It consisted of a glass hemisphere above a little bottle of some clear liquid, perhaps water, containing a little dust, maybe pollen, and a bright light behind it. It was that simple.
The explanation for the jiggling of the dust is that the liquid is made of molecules which are bouncing around randomly, and fast – maybe at about a kilometre per second. Each dust grain is being continually bumped by molecules. Once every few seconds, at random, a grain collides with an exceptionally fast molecule and receives a bigger kick which makes it move so far that the motion can be seen through the glass lens.
That exhibit in the Science Museum was the best evidence I have ever seen, and ever hope to see, that matter is made of tiny molecules. The atomic and molecular theory of matter explains it perfectly. This theory has other attractive aspects: it also explains crystal structure, and all the measurements which chemists were making in the early 19th century, and many other simple physical measurements too. It is so overwhelmingly satisfactory that I shall assume it henceforth. I hope that you find it convincing too, but if you don’t then please do not feel greatly distressed, and please read on. You are not alone.
The summer of 1976, before ever I went walking in the Alps, was very hot. On the Saturday of Wimbledon week, maybe the hottest day of the year, I cycled from Streatley in the Thames valley to my mother’s home on the west edge of Southampton. I lost count of how many pints of orange squash I drank on the way. Somewhere in the upper valley of the river Test, I stopped and went down towards the water, and sat on a wooden footbridge in shade and quiet. After a minute or so a little flat head, perhaps two centimetres across, came out of a hole maybe two feet away and looked straight at me. It was evidently some sort of very small rodent, and it seemed not to understand what I was. I sat still. After another minute or so hesitating, it ventured out, and summoned up courage to take a closer look. With several bouts of increasing boldness, at last it actually ran right up to me, took the shortest possible sniff of my trousers, and shot straight back down its hole.
One and a half decades later, a psychologist told me that all mammals are curious. It is probably safe to assume that curiosity in humans takes more forms than in small rodents. The next job is to consider how some of us find beauty and fulfilment through curiosity. This is maybe best done by describing the pathos of someone whose curiosity was frustrated.
General Albert Stubblebine III, once the US Army’s chief of intelligence, is described in various sources, particularly the book The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson (now a well known film). Poor General Stubblebine has heard or read a very little bit about atomic theory. In particular, he has come to believe that he is made of atoms, and his office wall is made of atoms, and that any atom is almost completely empty space. He concludes that he and his office wall should be able to pass straight through each other. The rest is obvious and inevitable and sad.
In fact, General Stubblebine has misunderstood the current theory of atoms and the elementary particles which they are made of. To grasp it, he would need certain intellectual talents including some understanding of
These are the modern equivalents of the technologies
which are needed to explain the phenomena listed above. There must be tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people who are competent and happy with these six new intellectual technologies, but General Stubblebine is not one of them. It seems that he has grown up in a culture in which things are described in terms of such notions as
These three concepts are just a selection from the list of ideas which almost everyone uses almost all the time. They are perfectly good for talking about what interests almost everyone, things such as the immediately obvious aspects of noses and walls. It just so happens that they are inadequate when one wants to explain some obscure phenomena which a few people discovered a bit over 100 years ago.
It is easy to imagine that General Stubblebine might be a total invention; but Jon Ronson begins his book with the words
This is true.
Just to make sure, I sent an email to the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command, asking whether he was there. Their historian kindly replied that Maj. Gen. Albert N Stubblebine III was indeed the commander of INSCOM from 7 May 1981 to 27 June 1984.
Perhaps General Stubblebine could not grasp the necessary abstractions, or perhaps he was just unlucky and nobody ever told him about them. At least, he seems to have wanted to grasp something related to them. If you have that sort of curiosity, and I hope you do because it is the great driving force behind our culture and civilisation as well as a great source of emotional fulfilment, then the next two chapters will probably appeal to you.
The reasons given for the two “Facts” about slipping are particular examples of the principles of the theory known as Newtonian mechanics, developed from the seminal ideas of Sir Isaac Newton .
Kepler’s treatise  and the web pages [278, 499] are about snowflakes. Pond life is essential to the plot of The Eye of Allah , a short story by Rudyard Kipling.
There are more odd facts, and details of how they were understood and the joys and traumas of those who understood them, in  by George Johnson. I particularly like the Michelson-Morley experiment. This is especially mysterious because it is a null experiment, and Michelson expected it to be not null: Michelson was looking for something which he expected to find, and which was not there. In passing, Johnson also outlines Thomas Young’s explanation of diffraction spectra and the strange dark bands in light from sodium street lamps.
General Stubblebine is described at the start of ; see also [392, 494].
It was fine on the way up to Rifugio Scotti, which was a good thing because we followed the old way up the east side of the gorge. Despite occasional white and red waymarks, it was grossly overgrown. Peter was heavy, as always. The other children climbed well. We lacked local knowledge, and walked through the tunnel which was totally black inside between the bends. At the refuge, someone produced a basket full of fungi which she had just picked in the woods. She was confident that they were edible, but some of them looked distinctly dangerous. The night there went well. Next morning we walked down, back through the tunnel, and decided to stay on the road on the west side. A driver with an open truck very kindly picked us up, and left us a couple of hundred metres above the valley floor, so the way was not too hard on the feet. Then it rained, and more. One lightning flash went straight down in front of us, right into the valley below.
In the moutains, weather is very important. Before setting off upwards, it is wise to look at a weather map or perhaps a satellite photograph, and ensure you are not walking into trouble. It is also helpful to be able to understand how the weather is changing as it swirls around you. For both these tasks, an understanding of a bit of meteorology is useful.
There are three things which matter about the air around us:
These three attributes are all intimately involved with each other, but let us approach them one at a time in a different order.
Air is made up of many gases. About four fifths of dry air is nitrogen. About one fifth is oxygen, which we need to stay alive. All the nitrogen is actually very useful because it acts as a fire retardant. If it was not there, then any spark would be much more likely to start a blaze. All this nitrogen carries away most of the heat of any spark, and so prevents great destructive fires. In air, there are also traces of many other gases. The best known is carbon dioxide. All green plants need carbon dioxide in order to grow, so although less than a thousandth of air is carbon dioxide, it is still vital.
Air also contains water vapour. The proportion of it in the air varies greatly. Over any equatorial rain forest, the proportion of water vapour is very high, whereas over central Antarctica it is very low. The two key properties of any patch of air which affect the weather are the proportion of water vapour in it, and its temperature.
The pressure of a gas on a wall (or anything else) is due to the force of the gas’s molecules bouncing against each square centimetre of the wall again and again. The pressure will be higher if the molecules move faster or if there are more of them. When they move faster, we say the gas is hotter. When there are more of them in each litre of the gas’s volume then we say the gas is denser. Thus a gas’s pressure rises if we heat it or if we squeeze it into a smaller volume, for instance if it is trapped in a bicycle pump and we push hard on the pump handle.
It is an interesting fact that all the constituent gases in air have the same temperature and move the same way, so there is only one wind, but when it comes to pressure they behave independently. The sum of the pressures on the wall in these three pictures
is the pressure on the wall in this picture:
The pressure of the air as a whole is the sum of the pressure due to all the nitrogen and the pressure due to all the oxygen and all the other pressures exerted by the other components of the air.
Whether or not the water vapour in air will turn to liquid water depends on the pressure of the water vapour and its temperature. You could take away all the nitrogen, say, and whether or not the water vapour condenses will still only depend on the temperature and pressure of the water vapour. In an equatorial rain forest, the pressure of water vapour is high. That is why there is a lot of rain over a rain forest. The water vapour’s pressure at the South Pole is very low, so it hardly ever rains or snows there.
Water is a simple substance, but extremely useful. Among other things, it is key to the behaviour of the whole atmosphere, as we shall soon see.
Water has three forms: ice, liquid water, and water vapour. I think geologists regard ice as a rock. Liquid water is the form which we are most familiar with. Water vapour is a gas.
Ice can change into liquid water, and liquid water can change into water vapour. Ice can also change directly into water vapour. All these changes can be reversed: liquid water can change into ice, and water vapour can change into either liquid water or ice.
These transitions can be altered by squeezing. If ice at 0∘ is squeezed then it melts, and it must be cooled to a rather lower temperature if it is to freeze while being squeezed. This is why wet ice is so very slippery: if you stand on it then the weight of your shoes on the ice makes it melt, so there is a layer of liquid water under your shoe. This acts as a lubricant. Furthermore, your shoe’s pressure is hardest where there are any little bumps on the ice, so all such bumps are under more pressure and melt first. Thus, just by standing on the ice, you make it extra smooth under your feet.
Similarly, if water vapour is squeezed enough then it will condense to liquid water. For any given pressure there is a temperature at which liquid water and water vapour can co-exist without changing. At ordinary atmospheric pressure, this temperature is 100∘. If the temperature is increased while the pressure doesn’t change then all the liquid water will evaporate; whereas if the temperature is reduced while the pressure doesn’t change then the water vapour will all collapse to liquid water.
These six transitions between the three states of water are important for weather because they involve heat. Heat is needed to melt ice, and heat is released and must be taken away from liquid water when it freezes and becomes ice. Similarly, heat is needed to convert liquid water to water vapour, and is released again when water vapour condenses back to liquid water. It is heat which makes the atmosphere go round.
Weather is sometimes spectacular. If just a small fraction of the energy of the wind, and of the waves which are created and driven by wind, and all the energy which lifts water out of the sea into clouds, could be harnessed by mankind, then we would be rich. The air gains some of it by blowing over warm lands. The heat of the earth warms it. However, much of it enters a different way.
If you put a pan full of water on a stove, it will start to boil in a minute or so. If it is not touched then it will go on boiling for many minutes. All that time, heat is pouring out of the stove into the pan and its contents. Before the water in the pan starts boiling, this heat is raising the pan’s temperature. Once it starts boiling, its temperature stays almost constant at 100∘ until almost all the water has evaporated and the pan is almost dry.
Where does all that heat go? It still exists. It can be recovered by waving a cold spoon in the vapour above the boiling pan. The spoon will change in two ways: it will become wet, and it will become warmer. The wetness comes from water vapour which rises out of the pan and which condenses back to liquid water when it touches the cold spoon. The heat which makes the spoon warmer comes out of the water vapour as it condenses.
Thus, heat is put into water vapour as it is created from liquid water, and it comes back out of the water vapour as it condenses back into liquid water. This heat which is hidden in the water vapour is called its latent heat of evaporation or of condensation, depending on which way it is changing.
It takes an awful lot of heat to boil a whole panful of water all away into water vapour - much more than it would take to heat that same panful up to boiling point, even if it started as ice anywhere near absolute zero, colder than liquid helium. Thus, evaporating and condensing water is a very effective way of transferring heat. This is how great quantities of heat enter the atmosphere: winds blow over the warm sea, and some of the seawater evaporates into the winds. The winds feel moister rather than hotter, but they still gain a lot of heat.
Sometimes there is a clear sunny morning after rain or dew. On such a day, when I go out to do the shopping or whatever, if I pass in the shadow of a fence, wisps of mist catch the light as they drift up from the warm other side.
Heat is the constant jiggling of molecules. In any substance, be it air, or water, or ice, or treacle tart, if it is cold then its molecules are not jiggling very fast whereas if it is hotter then the molecules are jiggling faster. Of course, they don’t all move at the same speed. In any water droplet there will always be a few slow molecules and some very fast ones. If a fast one hits a slow one, the slow one will be bounced away faster and the one which was fast will be left somewhat slower. The droplet’s temperature is a measure of the average speed among its molecules. In a cool droplet there are plenty of slower molecules and rather fewer fast ones. In a warm droplet, there are fewer slow molecules and more fast ones.
Water molecules are somewhat sticky. It takes energy to detach a molecule in a droplet from its neighbours. At the surface, there will always be a few droplets moving fast enough (and in the right direction) to burst out and become water vapour. The warmer the droplet, the more frequently this will happen and the droplet will evaporate faster.
The reverse process, condensation, also depends on temperature to some extent: if a fast molecule in the vapour above the droplet hits the surface, it may have enough energy to bounce off again without getting stuck. Slow molecules will almost always stick to other molecules in the liquid. If the vapour is cool then there will be more slow molecules and so they will condense quicker. However, the rate of condensation also depends on the density of the vapour: the denser it is, the more often molecules of all speeds will bump the droplet’s surface and so the more often one of them will become stuck to the liquid. Thus condensation depends to a limited extent on temperature, but perhaps rather more on the gaseous water vapour’s pressure. High pressure makes the water vapour denser, so increases the rate of condensation.
Evaporation and condensation both go on all the time on the droplet’s surface. We can’t see either of these two processes. We can only see the net result of them together. If evaporation happens faster than condensation then the droplet shrinks, and will eventually disappear completely. If condensation happens faster then the droplet swells.
What we see is the result of a dynamic equilibrium. Almost always, there is an almost perfect balance: molecules in the water burst out into the vapour at almost exactly the same rate as molecules in the vapour stick to those in the water. The droplet’s surface seems to stay still, and the droplet neither swells nor shrinks.
The equilibrium will be upset if either the pressure or the temperature changes. If, for instance, everything warms up then there will be more fast molecules in the liquid, and fewer slow ones in the vapour, so the rate of evaporation will increase and the rate of condensation will decrease. The droplet will be seen to shrink. Equilibrium is restored again quickly because the evaporating molecules carry energy from the liquid, so the liquid cools. (They don’t warm the vapour much because, as they escape through the surface and wrench themselves free, they lose speed.) This cooling happens so fast that any disturbance of the equilibrium disappears almost at once.
Conversely, if everything cools a bit then fewer molecules leave the liquid. There will be not much drop in the rate at which vapour molecules stick to the liquid, though, and each time one does stick, it will receive a little tug from the liquid’s molecules. This will make it move faster once it is inside the droplet. Its extra speed contributes to the liquid’s temperature. The droplet gets a bit warmer.
Any sample of air can be cooled until the water vapour in it will start to condense, and so any water droplets in it will start to swell. This temperature at which droplets just begin to form and swell is called the air’s dew point.
All air contains tiny bits of stuff, dust, which water molecules tend to stick to: salt crystals and specks of dead plancton thrown up in spray from the sea, and particles of smoke from the land, and whatever. If air is only just warmer than its dew point, and then it is cooled, then droplets will form on these particles of dust. They form clouds.
So clouds form when warm moist air is cooled. How may it be cooled?
The obvious way is that the warm moist air moves into contact with a cool surface. This happens, for instance, when it moves onto cold water. The result is fog, which is a hazard for shipping. However, this is not the most common way of making air cooler.
All air has pressure. It is held under pressure by whatever surrounds it. If you are thinking about the air inside a balloon which you have just blown up, then the air was squeezed inside your lungs, then it was pushed into the balloon and now it is held in by the plastic or rubber of the balloon. If instead you are thinking about the air immediately in front of your face, which you cannot see and which you probably can’t feel either, then it is held in on one side by your face and on all other sides, and above and below, by adjacent portions of air.
Whenever a portion of air is compressed, the things surrounding it are moving inwards and pressing it into a smaller volume. These things, your lungs or your face or the other surrounding portions of air, have to do a bit of work against it as they push. This work is energy. Energy cannot be created, nor can it ever be lost or destroyed. This is perhaps the most important lesson which physicists have ever learned. It is an absolute law of Nature. So where does this energy go?
Think about what is happening on a very small scale. The portion of air which is being compressed consists of lots of bouncing molecules. As it is compressed, some of these molecules are bouncing against the surface which is moving inwards. You can think of each air molecule as like a tennis ball, and the moving surface as like a tennis racket or cricket bat. If the racket or bat is not moving then the ball (molecule) will bounce off it with the same speed which it approached at, but back the way it came. (Tennis balls don’t do this. They bounce back a little slower - they are not perfectly elastic - but molecules at room temperature do.) However, if the racket or bat is moving towards the ball then the ball will bounce back slightly faster than its speed before the bounce. If the racket is wielded by a Wimbledon champion then the ball or molecule will return quite a lot faster.
This is what happens when your portion of air is compressed. As it is compressed, its molecules keep being bounced from its surface back inwards faster and faster. The extra speed carries energy which is very quickly transferred by more internal bouncing to all the other molecules of the portion of air, so they all jiggle faster. They get a little hotter. Thus, when air is compressed, the work done to compress it warms it up.
Conversely, when a portion of air expands, the molecules on its outer surfaces are bouncing against surfaces which are retreating away from it. Each such molecule bounces back into the middle of the portion of air a bit slower than its speed before the bounce. Thus the jiggling among the molecules in the portion of air slows down a little. It cools.
(All this is written as if the surfaces bounding the portion of air are solid. They don’t have to be. They can be imaginary planes between adjacent portions of air. The same ideas work, although the portions on either side of each plane will become mixed a bit.)
You can feel these changes in temperature. When you pump up the tyres of your bicycle (you do have a bicycle, I trust) the air in the pump is compressed again and again into one end. That end will get quite hot if you pump really hard and fast. When you feel this, you are feeling the temperature of the air which you have been compressing.
Conversely, suppose you hold a thumb hard against the hole at the end of the pump, and then push in the pump’s plunger so that the air inside is compressed hard against your thumb. Try doing this quite slowly, so that most of the extra warmth in the compressed air is lost to the sides of the pump, and it remains nearly at the same temperature as the air outside. Now, while holding the plunger hard in, put your cheek just beside your thumb, and let a little jet of highly compressed air squirt out of the end of the pump against your cheek or lips. It will feel cold. This is because it is cold. As it shoots out of the pump, it is expanding, and it cools.
Now we apply all the ideas of the last section.
Any portion of air is held down by the weight of the air above it. If ever a portion of air rises then there is less air above it, so it is held down under less pressure. Therefore, as it rises, the pressure on it is reduced, so it will expand. Therefore it will become cooler. If it is moist then, as it cools, some of the moisture will condense into clouds. This is how almost all clouds form. The two exceptions are fog and banner clouds (see below).
All motion of air depends, directly or indirectly, on the fact that warm air floats up over cold air. Some clouds arise directly from such rising by floating. Some depend on wind, which we shall discuss soon.
Occasionally, when this happens, the wind just above the top of the mountain is expanded and so cooled enough to form a little cap of cloud.
As the wind descends down the lee side, it is compressed and warmed again, and this warming is just enough to make the cloud evaporate. Thus the wind blows continuously past the mountain but, as it passes, there is always a little cap of cloud sitting directly over the mountain’s summit.
On rare occasions, the air immediately in contact with the mountain does not rise high enough to form condensation, but the air just above does. Then, what one sees is a little belt of seemingly stationary cloud above the mountain’s summit, with a thin zone of clear air between the summit and the cloud. This can look pretty. Occasionally, a rising mass of another cloud can create its own cap cloud similarly.
When the air is moist and the wind is strong, ths decompression can be enough to cool the air so that a cloud forms behind the summit. Just as for a cap cloud, this banner cloud dissolves some way behind the summit.
If the ground is warmer than the air above it then, just above the ground, a layer of warmer air will form. To start with, if the ground is flat then this layer will be flat too, but it is unstable: if any little bulge begins to form in it, that bulge will start to float up through the colder air above it. As soon as it is a little higher than the surrounding warm air, it will speed up and rise faster.
If the air is moist, a little cloud will form in the top of each such rising bulge. This is a cumulus cloud. On any warm still sunny morning in moist green countryside, this happens. The sun rises and warms the ground; moisture in the ground evaporates into the air just above it, and warms it a little; the lower layer of warmer air bulges up into rising columns; and in the top of each such column, a cloud forms.
Quite recently, while I was out shopping from home, such a column of cumulus congestus rose into a sky which would have been largely clear blue but for it and some similar columns, and for a few whisps above them. It must have pushed up into a different layer of air because a pretty little cap cloud appeared over its top.
It often happens that two large masses of air touch each other, and one is warmer than the other. The colder mass will slide under the warmer mass, so the warmer mass will be pushed upwards. Clouds form in the warm mass as it rises. The plane where the masses touch will meet the ground or sea along a line. This line is called a front.
The kind of cloud which forms along a front depends on how the masses of air are moving. If the warm mass is moving into the space occupied initially by the cold mass then the front is called a warm front.
When the front is “warm”, the plane of contact between the air masses usually slopes very gently. This picture exaggerates the slope.
If the cold mass at a front is moving into the space occupied initially by the warm mass then the front is called a cold front.
When the front is “cold”, the plane of contact between the air masses is steeper than at a warm front, though much less steep than this picture suggests. Cold fronts tend to move faster than warm fronts, so a cold front often passes overhead quickly.
Recall that we say warm air rises over cold air. This is because warm air is less dense than cold air. That is not quite the whole story. It may happen that air near the ground is very slightly warmer than the air immediately above it, but if they changed places then the lower air would expand as it is raised, since it is under less pressure, and as it expands it cools, and after the two portions of air have swapped places then the portion of air which was near the ground and has been raised becomes cooler than the top portion was at the start. In that case, the two portions of air won’t swap positions. The air is said to be “stable”.
Air is stable if each portion of air, if raised a little, would become denser than the portion of air which was originally above it. If this is so then there won’t be any portion of air which will float up above the air originally above it.
Sometimes, if one rides up through the air under a large balloon, the temperature will actually rise (and the humidity stay constant). In this case, the air is certainly stable. More often, as the balloon goes up, the air gets chillier the higher one goes, even though it is stable. This continues as the balloon continues up for usually between 7 and 20 kilometres. (Don’t try riding up that high.) After that, the air temperature starts to rise again.
The troposphere is the part of the atmosphere below this altitude where the temperature starts to rise. All the weather which matters to us occurs in the troposphere.
If you look at the daily sequence of satellite photos shown on the Met Office web site, particularly the infrared photos, you can see the clouds moving hour by hour. There are high clouds which appear white in these pictures, indicating that they are cold, and soft grey ones which are less high, so less cold.
Sometimes the sequence of photos shows that the high (white) clouds are moving one way while the low (grey) clouds are moving a different way. This means that the wind is blowing in different directions at different altitudes. This usually happens at a front. The air above the front and the air below it move in different ways. We shall now investigate why.
The hottest region on Earth is where the sun is directly overhead, at or near the Equator. This is where the air is warmest, so here it rises. It descends again some way from the Equator, around the latitudes 30∘ North and South, whence it is sucked back towards the Equator again. These two zones of circulating air are called the “Hadley cells”. There is one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere. Each has the form of a flattened ring doughnut encircling the earth.
Similarly, the coldest places on Earth are at the North and South Poles. Here the air is coldest, so it descends and spreads out, southwards from the North Pole and northwards from the South Pole. By the time it reaches latitude 60∘ or so, it has warmed up somewhat by interactions with the Earth’s land and oceans, and it rises and is sucked back northwards again. These two circulating doughnut zones, one around each pole, are called the “Polar cells”.
Thus, around latitude 30∘, the Hadley cell pulls air downward, and around latitude 60∘ the Polar cell drags air up. In between these two, in the ranges of latitude from about 30∘ to about 60∘ in each hemisphere, there is another circulating region called a “Ferrel cell”. This is different from the Hadley and Polar cells. For a start, each Ferrel cell rotates in the opposite sense to the Hadley cell and the Polar cell on either side of it. It is less stable than the other cells, and the weather at its bottom is less predictable.
Anyone living in Britain knows that the pleasantest warm Spring weather comes from the South West, and the coldest raw winter winds come from the North East. Here is why.
At the bottom of the Polar cell, air moves radially away from the North Pole, travelling due south. It continues southward until it reaches the zone where it rises again.
The Earth’s North Pole is generally regarded as being stationary. However the Earth spins from West to East, rotating once every 24 hours. That is quite fast. At the equator, it is travelling Eastward at about 1,000 miles per hour. At latitude 60∘, its surface is moving less fast but it is still travelling at about 500 miles per hour. If the air were not dragged by the Earth’s surface then anybody standing up at latitude 65∘ would face a blast of air moving a few miles per hour southward and, from his point of view, at nearly 500 miles per hour westward.
In fact, the Earth’s surface puts a substantial drag on the winds. By the time they reach latitude 55∘, this drag has given their motion an eastward component (though this easterly component is still not as fast as the 500 miles per hour at which the ground is spinning) so the winds from the Pole which we experience arrive a lot slower and from a more nearly North Easterly direction.
Similarly, winds moving northward at the bottom of the Ferrel cell start their progress at lower latitudes where the Earth rotates faster. As they move towards latitude 60∘, anyone standing in them perceives them to be coming from the West, since this person is moving eastward less fast than the wind.
Where the Polar cell and the Ferrel cell meet, there is a front. At ground level, cold air approaches it from the North East, and warm air approaches it from the South West.
As at any front, the warm air rises gently above the cold air and the cold air pushes under the warm air. However, this front is more complex than that simple description suggests, because the two air masses are moving along the line of the front in opposite directions: the cold air mass moves westward, and the warm air moves eastward. They chafe against each other. Vortexes form on the front between them. The front itself gets bent and twisted.
Along the part of the front which spans the North Atlantic, each such vortex is called a “North Atlantic depression”. From above, a depression appears much like the water in a bath as it goes down the plug hole, swirling anticlockwise round the centre of the hole. Since it is spinning, the air in it is at lower pressure in the middle. Each such depression drifts north and east. Depressions often dominate the weather of western Europe.
For an obvious reason, most of us are preoccupied by the weather down here at ground level. Higher up, where the pressure is a third of what it is down here, the circulation is different.
Air rises mainly around the equator and descends mainly near the poles. At the equator, it spins from west to east at about the speed of the Earth under it, 1000 miles per hour. As it moves northward, it is slowed down a bit by the drag of the air beneath it, but this is less than the drag which the Earth puts on the bottom of the atmosphere because there is nothing much up there to get in its way – no trees or houses. So, when it reaches higher latitudes, it often appears to anyone who can measure it as a roaring tempest driving eastwards. This is a “jet stream”. The zone of these strong winds forms a wobbly broken ring around the whole northern hemisphere ranging from somewhere near latitude 30∘ to about latitude 70∘.
A jet stream affects weather down here at the bottom of the troposphere because it draws North Atlantic depressions behind it. They drift from West to East in its wake. Occasionally, a depression may become caught in a neck where the jet stream narrows and accelerates. This can change the depression’s structure into what is called a “Shapiro-Keyser cyclone” and cause damaging squalls at ground level.
The ice over the North Pole has been melting. The Pole is warming. As it warms, one can expect that the circulation in the North polar cell will slacken, and so will the jet stream. It will lose its strength and become more erratic. The circulation which flows northwards will lose strength, and the path of the jet stream may not be forced so far northwards, so the depressions which it drags beneath it will range further southwards. The rain which typically fell over Western Scotland will be dumped on Southern England instead.
It seems that all this is happening.
Weather and climate are the subject of  and . Both provide attractive introductions, at  and . There is a nice little book  on clouds, with lots of photographs, which you may like to study for its own sake. Blackshaw also has a photograph of a cap cloud [47, page 390].  has more details of weather fronts. What goes on inside cumulonimbus clouds, including electric phenomena, is explained in [68, 287, 296, 450, 522]. At the time of writing, the latest chart issued by the California Regional Weather Server  shows a jet stream travelling at 150 knots, about 172 miles per hour, off the south coast of Japan. The structure of Shapiro-Keyser cyclones is described in e.g. 
There is a magnificent theory which puts the ideas underlying meteorology on a much more carefully formed basis, and which enables us to put numbers into it all. For instance, when one knows a bit about the shapes and weights of the molecules of the various gases which make up air, this theory lets us work out precisely how hot a bicycle pump full of air will become when you push the handle in, and how quickly clouds will form into rolling waves when one layer of air moves across another. The man who completed it was James Clerk Maxwell. This theory is just one of his great insights. If Nobel prizes had existed when he was working, he would have deserved at least one, maybe two. If you wish, you can read his original papers .
Like the weather, osmosis is a very simple idea and yet it is essential for all life. Also, like the weather, it can be explained by describing what individual molecules do.
A “membrane” is a thin sheet of something. Think of cling wrap foil. A membrane is “semi-permeable” if it will let some substances pass through it, but not others. Different materials can be used to make membranes with different properties. The simplest ones allow water molecules to pass through but not larger molecules such as molecules of sugar.
If a semi-permeable membrane has two different liquids on its two sides, say pure water on one side and strong syrup solution on the other, and if the two liquids are at the same pressure, then water will slowly pass through the membrane from the pure water into the syrup.
If the side containing the syrup is held inside a sealed container then the membrane will start to bulge towards the pure water as the volume of the syrup solution increases and the volume of pure water decreases. The pressure of the syrup on the membrane will increase.
The pressure which builds up on the syrup side of the membrane is called “osmotic pressure”. It can be very strong. If the membrane is just an unsupported thin sheet and nothing is done to save it, the osmotic pressure on it will burst it.
The pure water liquid consists of lots and lots of water molecules jiggling about. The ones next to the membrane bump into it again and again, and a small proportion of them jiggle into very small holes in the membrane which lead through to the syrupy side. Thus, there is a constant drift of water through the membrane from the pure water side to the syrupy side. The rate at which water molecules pass through is proportional to the rate at which they bump into the membrane.
There is a similar drift of water molecules through the other way too, from the syrup side to the pure water side. On the syrupy side, the molecules of syrup mixture also jiggle, and also bump into the membrane. These molecules are of two sorts: water and sugar.
Some of the water molecules in the syrup pass through the membrane into the pure water, just like those which pass the other way; but there are not as many passing through from syrup to pure water as the other way because, on the syrup side, quite a high proportion of molecules bumping into the membrane are not water, but sugar, which can’t get through. These sugar molecules take up space on the membrane, so the rate at which water molecules bump the membrane on the syrupy side is lower than the rate on the pure water side.
In principle, all you need to do is
Very slowly, the level of the syrup in the tube will rise.
There are a couple of improvements which can be made to this experiment:
These adaptations will make it much easier to see the increase in volume of the syrup. Its height will rise faster because it is rising up the thin tube of the funnel, not up the broad simple tube; and it will be easier to see where the liquid has risen to when it is coloured. Also, the rubber band will fit very neatly around the neck at the top of the thistle funnel. This will make the cellophane much less likely to slide off the end of the tube.
This film has no support, so very soon it bursts. When that happens, a little bit of copper sulphate solution comes out and mixes with the solution of sodium silicate outside. Because copper silicate is so insoluble, this mixture immediately forms a new little cap of solid copper silicate over the broken portion of the film. This happens over and over again. Thus the film gradually grows out from the crystal.
This too is a slow process. It may take weeks for the film of copper silicate to grow to a substantial size. Don’t make the solution of sodium silicate too strong. If you do, the rate at which water molecules bump into the copper silicate film from the outside will be no faster than the rate they bump it on the inside, and there won’t be any net flow of water in towards the copper sulphate.
If you can obtain other coloured crystals of metal salts, such as cobalt chloride which is pink, then you can drop one of these in beside the copper sulphate crystal and watch the two coloured silicate films grow side by side. They form funny irregular shapes.
The hardest part of this experiment may be finding anyone who is willing to sell you any sodium silicate or copper sulphate, even just one crystal. This may be to save you from poisoning yourself. I don’t think either copper sulphate or sodium silicate is particularly poisonous, and I can’t think of anything very nasty that could be made from them and which can’t be obtained anyway in a local hardware shop. Sodium silicate solution was once on sale in hardware shops. It was called “water glass”, and was used to preserve eggs. A housewife would put her eggs into some diluted water glass, and the calcium carbonate of the eggshell would be covered in a film of calcium silicate which kept the egg inside fresh.
Osmosis is also very useful within living creatures because it is the mechanism which lets them push liquids around within their tissues. For instance, it is osmosis which pushes the sap of a tree from its roots up to its highest branches.
The last example works on the same principle: there is a membrane which lets some things diffuse through it but not others. However, it does not involve any simple physical pressure, the sort exerted by molecules bouncing into each other. Instead, the rôle of pressure is repaced by an electrostatic force.
The chemical on one side behaves like an acid which readily produces lots of hydrogen ions. The chemical on the other side behaves like an alkali which absorbs and neutralises hydrogen ions. There are thus a lot of hydrogen ions on one side of the membrane and very few on the other side, so there is a net flow of hydrogen ions across the membrane because more ions bump into it on one side than on the other.
The “pressure” which stops this flow is the cell’s voltage. When quite a lot of ions have gone through the membrane, then there is an excess positive charge on the alkaline side where many extra hydrogen ions have been neutralised. This charge pushes any other ions back, so they stop flowing through the membrane. If the cell is put into an electric circuit which lets charge flow between the two chemicals by a route outside the cell, then this voltage drops, and more ions drift through the membrane.
That is how the cell makes an electric current flow. The thing which makes the current flow is a sort of osmotic “pressure”, but in this case the “pressure” is made by an electric force, not by the bumping of water molecules.
As a subject, osmosis falls between stools. It is rightly an aspect of physics, particularly thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. It is indeed mentioned in books such as , but only as a side issue after the theory of perfect gases. The people who are really interested in it are biologists, but my favourite book on biochemistry  does not mention it. The most obviously relevant reference I can find is  which was written more than a century ago. I have only just glanced at its page of contents and the first few lines of the preface. This little suggests that it may still be worth reading.
Electric fuel cells are described in .
This tale is a piece of history dating back perhaps a thousand million years.
When you look down a microscope at pond life, as did the medieval monks in Kipling’s story, you will see some of it wriggling and moving. With a very good microscope, one can see that the wriggling cells have hairs, and with an electron microscope one can see individual protein structures within each hair. Each hair is called a flagellum or cilium. These hairs waggle, and their waggling pulls the cell along. Similar hairs may also shift bits of the cell around internally. With extraordinary skill, very hard working clever people have discovered two mechanisms which make hairs waggle.
The simpler mechanism does not involve anything like a wheel. It lies within the hair itself. A single hair contains maybe nine pairs of strands running lengthways along it. Each such pair of strands has one smooth side. On the other side there are hooks sticking out, pointing towards the smooth side of the next pair. The diagram below is copied from an electron microscope picture of a cross section of a hair.
Each hook is made of a protein called dynein. When provided with energy in the form of a chemical called ATP, the dynein can pull the strand of which it is part along the next strand. This causes the hair to bend. If the action of all the dynein hooks on each strand is switched on and off in a suitable sequence then the hair will waggle.
The other mechanism does not make hairs waggle from side to side. Rather, each hair twists round and round. Somebody succeeded in sticking a little fluorescent plastic ball on the end of a hair, and then watched the ball waving round in circles as the hair span. There are helical grooves and ridges carved into the sides of each hair, so that it acts like a sort of very long thin propeller.
The really clever bit is at the other end of the hair, the end which is embedded in the cell wall. Fixed onto this end is a piece of protein shaped rather like the rotor in an electric motor or the turbine in a jet engine in a modern aircraft. It is made of a sequence of disks, all aligned with their centres on an axis. It is broadest at the end which is deepest inside the cell, and progressively thinner towards the cell’s outside surface.
This rotor-like piece of protein is free to spin, and there are other protein structures around it in the cell wall which make it spin as hydrogen ions or sodium ions are pushed past it. The power pushing the hydrogen or sodium ions comes from osmotic pressure or from a difference in the electric voltages inside and outside the cell, or both. As the rotor spins, it twists the hair round and round.
The ingenuity of nature does not stop there. A bacterium would find life easier if it could swim towards food, or something else which suits it, whichever direction that might lie in. Indeed it can: in coliforms and salmonella, the torque generating units surrounding the rotor can be switched so they can run the rotor either way round. The bacterium can swim forwards or backwards. Perhaps someone has tested to see whether a bacterium can turn round when food lies sideways to it – I don’t know.
Sometimes I am humbled. The afternoon when someone told me of these bacterial motors was such an occasion. It happened at the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Society, in July 2012. I am very lucky, for a whole range of reasons: my health is not at all bad, and I have a good home and enough to live on. In particular, thanks to various teachers and circumstances, I have enjoyed one of the best educations obtainable anywhere. There would be no point in reeling off all the events and institutions which taught me. Despite all that, my ignorance of Nature is still overwhelming. I knew nothing of these bacterial motors until someone at that Exhibition explained them to me. Again and again, there is news of a new discovery which reveals more of the spectacular subtlety of life. Nature is wonderful. Fact is stranger than fiction.
Gwen Childs  describes the first movement mechanism. The diagram showing a section through a hair is my approximate copy of a more detailed figure in her web page. The chemical process which drives it was studied by Vale, Soll and Gibbons .
The display at the Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition was put on by a research group led by Richard Berry, from whose paper  I copied the sketch of the motor. Much hard work over several decades has gone into studying the torque generating units, e.g. [538, 159, 472]. Figure 4 in  is a particularly fine electron migrograph of rotor sections of flagella in salmonella. Each rotor is about two millionths of a centimeter wide.
Randy Thornhill  wrote
Any significant scientific discovery may generate the effect of beauty in the mind of the discoverer and the minds of scientists in general.
You don’t have to be called a “scientist” to feel it.
When Sviatoslav Richter first came to London he played Debussy. Someone I knew recorded that concert. The recording was amateur and, over the decades since, it was copied across a range of media, so now the copy which came down to me is a poor reproduction of the original sound; but it is still one of my most treasured possessions. If anything, the wobbling pitch induced by old tape recorders makes some passages more vivid.
Nobody else I know of, and I have searched, has approached Richter’s performance. Another famous pianist said of his playing: “It really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Then at some point I noticed my eyes growing moist: tears began rolling down my cheeks”. His technique is wonderful, of course; but beyond that, when Richter plays, the piece of music appears as a single entity. There are separate phrases to be contrasted, but the contrasts between them are never so forced as to detract from the whole structure. Richter thought through each piece, understanding how every phrase leads into the one following it, always balancing emphases so that the flow never stops.
There are simpler forms of beauty, such as sunlight on a Hampshire trout stream, or a faint white cap cloud lifted over the top of an even whiter rising column of cumulus.
In the Southern Alps, in New Zealand, there is a ski resort called Cardrona. I have been there just once. That time, in August 2010, the sky was blue and the snow was white and the views from the top were clear for many miles. The main chair lift passed above the usual assortment of downhill ski runs. It also gave a view of a large smooth trench which was cut in the snow. This trench was perhaps fifteen metres deep and about the same distance from side to side. Its bottom was a smooth U shape and the sides looked like sheer vertical walls all the way up to the surface of the main snow pack. It was designed for snowboarding: skiing with a single short broad ski to which both the rider’s boots are firmly fixed. The snowboarder steers by twisting his body one way, so that the snowboard is rotated the other way. A few snowboarders were riding this trench. Each would tip himself over the edge, fall into the bottom, and rise to the top of the opposite side where he would twist through 180∘ and fall back again. With very little effort, they repeated this movement over and over again. At the tops of the sides, they often rose clear above the trench and twisted right round in mid-air before falling back for the next swoop down and up. They were in total elegant relaxed control, with perfect timing over the rise and the turn and the reconnection with the snow wall.
One objective of this chapter is to persuade you that, although sunlit water and music and the art of snowboarding and an appreciation of the atomic and molecular theory of matter and Alpine walking don’t obviously have very much to do with each other, they are all aspects of the process which has made us humans what we are.
Beauty, whatever it may be, is one of those notions which each person can sense, but no two people can compare their senses of it. It is what philosophers call a “quale”. The sensation associated with it cannot be described. Each newborn person can only learn the meaning of the word “beauty” from the contexts in which other people use it, and his own sensations.
It is a bit like the word “yellow”: we are all, except the few who are colour blind, agreed about which things are yellow and which are purple; but you and I cannot ever discover whether the sensation which I have when I see a yellow thing is the same as your sensation.
All the sensations described by the word “beauty” have these aspects in common:
I shall use the word “beauty” to cover any such sensation. The English language has other words for some of them, and the word “beauty” may imply serenity which some such sensations don’t lead to. Please allow this extension of its use.
There are some unusual cases. A person may think that he or she is beautiful, so in that case the beautiful object is not entirely external. It is occasionally said that someone has a beautiful mind. In both these cases, although the beautiful thing is part of a person, perhaps even part of the person who thinks that it is beautiful, the sensation of beauty arises through observation of the thing, not through possessing or experiencing it.
Also, an activity or process or mechanism can be beautiful, even to the people involved in it. For instance a dance may be beautiful for the dancers, as well as for onlookers. Contrast this with the act of dancing, which is a pleasure.
I shall sometimes use the word “beauty” to describe the sensation aroused in some people by aspects and activities which they are involved in, even when this is not the usual way to describe it.
Much the same could be said of pleasure: it is a complex notion, and I shall use the word “pleasure” to cover more than what is often understood by it. In particular, I shall not try to distinguish between simple pleasure and desire, even though desire may occur without pleasure.
There are many features of the environment which a living creature is likely to find helpful in its struggle to survive and reproduce. One would expect that any creature which notices and has a preference for such features will find survival and reproduction easier than one which doesn’t. Thus, genetic evolution should favour development of creatures which do notice and prefer such helpful features.
Beauty is an aspect which may be part of any mental state. Some mental states include the sensation of beauty, and others don’t. I suggest that it will be part of the creature’s mental state if the creature is observing something which is of a sort which is likely to be beneficial. It causes a preference in the creature, or perhaps it is a preference, for that sort of beneficial thing. Beauty is a basic primitive reaction to observations of beneficial things in the external environment.
That is the straightforward part of the proposal. Pleasure is a bit more subtle. It is another aspect which may be in some mental states. It is like beauty but, rather than being a reaction to external potential benefits, it is a reaction to the creature’s own mental state. (The mental state includes aspects reflecting the creature’s physiological state, so its physiological state can be pleasant.) Some mental states are likely in most circumstances to lead to an improvement in the creature’s wellbeing and chance to reproduce. I suggest that pleasure recognises such mental states. It causes, or is, a preference for such states.
Nikolaas Tinbergen suggested that there are four kinds of question which should be asked (and answered) of any evolutionary theory:
I am not competent to answer any of them. I can only suggest reasons why it seems likely that
Psychologists have, by and large, agreed on five major character “traits”: extraversion, neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness, and affection. Broadly speaking, these traits provide a guide to how an individual is likely to react to his or her experiences as a whole. They do not make distinctions between the individual’s reactions to different kinds of experience. Openness, for instance, is about readiness to be interested in novel experiences and ideas, but it does not tell us whether someone is more or less likely to be curious about plants than insects. Knowledge of his or her senses of beauty and pleasure fills that gap.
The notion of the “pleasure principle” is credited to Sigmund Freud. Evolution of various cognitive processes has been discussed or assumed by e.g. Baldwin and Lorenz and by Pani and Gessa and Heyes and by Charles Darwin himself. Greenberg and Orians and Thornhill and Welsch and Petrov and Nadal and their co-authors have all described how aesthetic senses may have evolved. Greenberg gives a particularly neat summary.
The writer whose ideas seem to have caught most public interest seems to be Denis Dutton. He only discussed evolution of an artistic sense. He emphasised that artistic talent is useless and expensive, and that these features are precisely what a female looks for in a promising mate, just as a peahen looks for a mate with a huge tail precisely because this tail is a real handicap to survival. Any peacock who can survive with such a handicap must be fit and healthy, so is likely to beget healthy children. However, Greenberg outlines a long string of likely effects of art which could give anyone an evolutionary advantage; and the peacock process does not explain why there is artistic talent among women.
Joseph Carroll lists several other authors who have suggested that evolution has given rise to social attributes. He also writes that Dutton did not appeal in his book to the peacock tail form of evolution.
It might be interesting to hear what Dutton and Carroll would say if they saw a picture which hangs on an unattractive concrete wall surrounding the entrance to an underground garage behind a private house in a village in north Italy. All around are flowers and trees and sky and sunshine. This picture, which I almost walked straight past without noticing, has none of them. Its setting is a bit grim. However, the picture itself is a reproduction of a painting of seven happy women, clothed in light muslins, dancing in a ring while an eighth plays twin reed pipes. The scene is placed in a glade in quiet woodland. It is skilfully done. The muslins have the same translucent quality as the priest’s muslin smock in El Greco’s “Burial of the Count of Orgaz”. Which would the philosophers of art find more attractive: the painting, or the land around it?
I guess that the peacock process is not the usual mechanism for evolution of senses of beauty and pleasure. It seems much simpler to assume that most of the forms of beauty and pleasure which have evolved are likely to make life easier for anyone who has them. Brian Boyd takes this view. He regards art as a kind of play:
Art … offers … a rush of the kinds of patterned information that our minds particularly crave. Because neural connections establish themselves piecemeal through experience, and because we find art self-rewarding, because we engage in it eagerly and repeatedly, art can over time fine-tune our minds for rapid response in the information modes that matter most to us.
This may be more true of some varietes than others but, to me anyway, it makes sense for some kinds of art.
According to two reviewers, Stephen Davies and Stephanie Ross, Parsons and Carlson develop the idea that anything’s beauty depends on its fitness for its “proper function”. This, they argue, is true of art, everyday features, animals and organic nature, natural environments and inorganic nature, and artifacts. This idea would make sense if one accepts that any beautiful thing may have a particular “proper” function, but that is not obvious. Parsons and Carlson aim to identify any thing’s “proper function” by how the thing came to be: if it evolved from other things with a similar function, and if this function increased the chance that this thing would be created, then this function is “proper”. This does not seem likely: fertile valleys don’t evolve from other fertile valleys, but they are beautiful, and if the term “proper function” means anything for fertile valleys then, whatever a valley’s “proper function” might be, it should depend on fertility. Parsons and Carlson try to explain beauty as an evolved feature, but as a feature of what is beheld rather than of the beholder.
Davies seems to accept that beauty can lie in the eye of the beholder, and that beholders evolve as suggested above. He writes
Consider our interest in human physical beauty. According to evolutionary psychologists, beauty correlates with features such as symmetry, which is an honest indicator of fitness because it signals immunity from disease, a history of good health, and the like. Yet an interest in beauty is not utilitarian; it is rarely narrowly sexual, nor does it come into play only where mate selection is at issue. Rather, as with food, sleep, exercise, and the attractiveness of babies, nature wisely leads us to attach intrinsic value to what is evolutionarily useful for us
if it is part of our deepest human nature to view animals aesthetically, this will go back to relations holding between them and our ancient forebears, back to their roles in our ancestors’ lives as food, companions, helpers, vermin, predators, and so on
Instead of regarding ethics as a kind of superego arising culturally and thereby separately from a crude biological human nature conceived as the selfish id, it is more plausible to see our ethical behaviors and values as products of our evolution …
Davies seems to conjecture that not just beauty but even ethics is an evolved sense.
The evolution considered here is just genetic. There are good arguments suggesting that social conventions have evolved too, but that is an entirely different process with different consequences. There are two remaining issues:
Here are possible answers.
Observations and actions are high level events in the hierarchy of mental activities. Since mirror neurons exist, it does not seem far fetched to guess that there might be other neurons which respond to other high level mental events, such as representations of observations of things which might be beautiful or states which might be pleasant. The proposal could conceivably be embodied in such neural structures. Mitchell and Greening discuss a similar issue.
Fruit flies have preferences. Furthermore, some fruit flies’ preferences can be altered by experience. Does this mean that fruit flies have a sense of beauty or pleasure? Are they conscious?
I hope and expect that the proposal can be understood and tested without discussing consciousness.
Tinbergen and Lorenz advocated an approach to interpreting behaviour which involves assuming that the observed creature has mental states which influence the behaviour. This was controversial because mental states cannot be observed directly. Jamieson and Bekoff argued that it is hard to explain some behaviours, such as how dogs play, without this assumption. Similar arguments apply to emotions such as beauty and pleasure. As far as one can tell from neurophysiology, states of mind are states of the brain, and brains consists of just neurones and supporting structures.
Primitive theories of science suggest that, in order to be called “scientific”, an idea should let one make testable predictions in new situations. E M Forster wrote
…the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.
Science is about plots from which we can extrapolate.
Sometimes this approach works, but sometimes it is barely practical. For instance, a theory cannot be so tested if it is about a unique thing which can’t be reconfigured into novel situations, such as the Earth or the Universe. In that case, one can get round the problem by arguing that the theory is developed from observations of a limited set of samples from parts of the thing, e.g. the sky, and it can be tested by seeing if it makes accurate predictions about observations of other bits of the sky.
There are other theories which don’t meet this criterion because, although a theory may make predictions, for some technical reason the predictions can’t be tested.
The above proposal is close to falling into this second class. In the case of beauty, sometimes it is easy to recognise how the beautiful feature might help, but sometimes it isn’t. For instance, flowers are beautiful, but do they help us? The answer may be yes, as explained below, but it is not easy to test. It is not immediately obvious how flowers could alter our circumstances in any way at all.
The case of pleasure is even worse because the thing which the sensation of pleasure is a reaction to is a mental state, not something in the external environment. Experimenting on a mental state of a sentient creature is usually difficult and sometimes unethical.
There is a way round these problems. Rather than use the proposal to make predictions about particular features or mental states, it can be used to conjecture the existence of kinds of features and mental states, and perhaps to classify them. If such a classification can be found, and if it seems to be consistent with other observations, then the proposal will have support. It can be regarded as “scientific” because, by Occam’s razor, it predicts indirectly that such features and mental states exist and have observed properties.
For instance, one could try to make a comprehensive list of beneficial effects which the environment might have, and another list of beautiful features. The proposal will let us make a prediction that for every beautiful feature there should be a benefit from this feature since, according to the proposal, senses of beauty only arise by evolution in order to attract us to benefits. If some beautiful feature doesn’t match a benefit in the first list, but on reflection we can discover a new benefit which it does match, and which we had not thought of before, then the proposal will have support.
This last approach has the advantage that it doesn’t involve mental states at all, except when we decide what is beautiful. We shall try to follow it.
Here is a list of effects which a stone age hunter-gatherer environment might have on a creature and which are likely to help the creature. Modern social environments may be too complex and varied to be neatly analysed, and our ancestors have not been subject to them for long enough for us to be confident that human emotions have yet evolved to match them properly.
This is actually the list which I first thought of. It is incomplete, and the list of beautiful features which we shall see soon will suggest some missing effects. Can you spot what is missing now, without reading further?
This particular list is meant to be the list of benefits appropriate for one of our ancestors in the epoch in which most of our instincts evolved (if that is what happened). This was probably before the invention of any subtle technology or large scale social structure. This list does not include anything to do with tools. If you think that well made tools are intrinsically beautiful then please add something about tools to this list.
The list for a wild wolf, say, might be similar except it omits most skills. The list for a mouse would omit most skills and all mention of a tribe. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is similar too. The differences are that Maslow included employment, and he expanded some entries. His list is appropriate for a human in a large complex society.
Now let us list lots of beautiful features, and see how the two lists match.
These two are beautiful benefits. The correlation for them is excellent.
All these features might appeal to a wide range of species. Here are some examples of features which are likely to appeal specifically to humans.
Love and affection are essential for any baby primate. If baby rats are handled daily for short periods then they become less sensitive to psychological stress, but if they are deprived of maternal care for a whole day then they become more sensitive. A culture of carrying human babies can greatly reduce violence and homicide, and breast feeding for two and a half years or more can almost eliminate suicide. If a human mother does not cuddle and talk to her baby and smile at him or her, then such a child is prone to become unsociable and disruptive. A few years later, the mother is likely to end up weeping in front of the child’s teacher.
Cooperation and altruism might seem like a waste of effort for each individual, but cooperation helps an individual to survive by supporting a community. In particular, altruism can help a community to survive in harsh conditions. This last is shown by a simple experiment devised by Uri Wilensky which can be run on any personal computer: a community of blobs on the screen dies out if conditions are harsh and each blob is selfish, but if the strong ones give resources to weak ones then they sometimes survive and prosper. One would expect to find human altruism in harsh circumstances, and indeed one sometimes does.
In competitive circumstances, cooperation with quick retaliation and forgiveness is often a very effective strategy.
Here are some more abstract examples:
More generally, beauty may appear in abstract features. The following are the kinds of beauty (curiosity, fulfilment) associated with Chapters 12, 13, 14 and 15.
I hope that most of these forms of beauty, and the associations given between them and possible benefits, suggest that there is likely to be genetic evolutionary pressure for the sensation of beauty.
There are a few conspicuous gaps in the argument: the very simplest forms of beauty, flowers and colours, don’t fit easily with any clear benefit. Wisdom can appear very appealing in someone else, even though it may not make the person who observes it wise. Leadership does not obviously benefit any one person, so the above explanation of it is weak. These discrepances can be solved by extending the list of beneficial effects.
The benefit described before as
is really two:
When a leader is useful, it may be because he can rouse the second of these two skills. Similarly, a wise person may share his or her wisdom, and so help many in a tribe. Thus the single description
is really short for two:
That leaves the simplest forms of beauty: flowers and colours. Consider what happens to you when you see a flower or a colour. You will probably pay attention to it. By so doing, if you were not alert before, you quickly become alert.
Someone suggested that our stone age ancestors became depressed in winter for a reason: in winter, searching for food is dangerous. It involves risking getting cold and wet and tired and hungry, and so dying of hypothermia and starvation. It is better to curl up and do nothing until the sun shines again. Depression is a mood which discourages going out and looking for food. Depressed people tended to survive winter better, so being depressed in winter was an evolutionary advantage. Come springtime, food is available again and depression was a disadvantage. The sight of flowers stimulated cavemen to shake off their winter blues and go out to look for food.
A fuller list of beneficial effects of beauty is therefore
By searching for a correspondence between beautiful features and their beneficial effects, we have discovered new key benefits.
The benefit of alertness is particularly striking. Being alert helps when food first appears, both in finding food and in escaping from predators while concentrating on food, and flowers appear at just the right time. I would like to claim that this is strong evidence in support of the proposal. It would be if flowers and other colourful things always had this effect. However, as far as I can tell, in many mammals there is no such known effect. It seems that sheep like eating flowers, but that may be different. If seeing beauty in flowers were a key benefit then one would expect that it would have evolved very early, and have spread much more broadly through the mammalian kingdom. (Jackdaws and bowerbirds collect coloured objects, but these may be examples of the peacock tail process.)
Assertions about mental processes in non-human species are notoriously unreliable. When I was about six years old, someone gave me a book which stated firmly that dogs can’t see colour; but once I went walking in the New Forest in a shocking pink plastic smock, and a black labrador came face to face with me and fled. That said, though, the subject of animal behaviour is now well founded. In some aspects, it seems that very similar learning processes are used throughout the whole animal kingdom. Many forms of learning appear to be by similar associative mechanisms in humans and tortoises and octopuses and damselfly larvae. Big differences in learning abilities are probably due to the different senses that these species have, and memory capacity and complexity, not to the internal learning process itself. Also, it seems, in any one animal, the same learning mechanism is used for different kinds of learning. The differences between us and other species are not so great.
Are humans more prone to doze off than most other mammals, and so need to be stimulated more often? Maybe. Or is human survival more dependent on intelligence and anticipation than in almost any other species? This seems more likely: we people have very weak bodily defences, and most of our prey can run away much faster than we can chase them. We survive by observing and understanding and predicting. For our prehistoric ancestors, being alert was vital.
Please feel free to write down your own comprehensive list of pleasures, and then discuss it with friends if you want to.
All the obvious activities which were likely in prehistoric times to benefit the species are pleasant. The proposal suggests that sensations of pleasure evolved to stimulate beneficial activities, not to encourage us to enjoy the benefits already obtained. Recall Robert Louis Stevenson’s remark:
To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.
This is in striking contrast to the illustrations in Wikipedia’s entry for “Pleasure” (as of 11th December 2011) which suggest that prototypical forms of pleasure are theatre, sitting with company reading in sunshine, and music and alcohol. Sunshine is healthy; theatre and reading may perhaps enhance social skills; music is related to song and patterns. These may all perhaps lead to improvements in wellbeing. Alcohol is a drug which disturbs some basic mental functions, including the pleasure sensation, so it doesn’t count. Here are some more examples.
Once on a hillside in Spain, I was sitting quietly when, close by, five or six crows flew languidly down the slope in close formation. They all went roughly horizontally for a few feet, then one of them gave a little croak and they all turned and dropped almost straight down before levelling out again. They did this a few times in succession. Then they flew back up the hillside and did it again. Were they practicing the social art of collaboration?
Stress involves the release of corticosteroids such as cortisol into the body, and these can cause harm. A mammal may avoid such harm if it learns to recognise quickly whenever a seeming cause of distress can be ignored. A sense of humour is just such a mechanism for recognising harmlessness in situations which might otherwise be tense.
It has been suggested several times over many years that humour which does not involve malice helps to lower levels of cortisol, but the subject is not simple and careful research has been lacking. In some cases, humour is associated with lower cortisol, but in some, such as watching a Monty Python film, cortisol levels have risen. Perhaps there is a fine balance between the effect of fear or embarassment, which might raise stress, and the realisation that it doesn’t matter, which lowers it again.
Gluttony and war are no longer beneficial because nowadays they are taken to excess.
The authors of [105, 77, 120, 233, 360, 209, 432] will probably not think that these ideas on development of the sensations of beauty and pleasure are at all surprising.
Recent work [442, 264] has shown that pleasure and desire involve different mechanisms within the brain. The view outlined here is over-simple. Also, pleasure should not be confused with happiness: see .
Tinbergen’s four questions appeared in . Jamieson and Bekoff’s argument is in .
The five major character traits were found through a consensus of many psychologists including McCrae and Costa . Pleasure as a basic motivator is considered in  and . For evolution of cognition, see e.g. [30, page 542] and  and  and . Evolution of the aesthetic senses is discussed by Greenberg , Orians , Thornhill , Welsch , Petrov and others  and Nadal . Dissanayake  may also make jolly reading for anyone not concerned about reframing or discarding the Marxian interpretation of history, Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, and perhaps structuralist mythographies.
Denis Dutton described his ideas on evolution of the artistic sense in a book  and a lecture . They are explored in . The quotation by Brian Boyd is from his long book [59, page 94] on evolution of various intellectual attributes. I have not seen a copy of the book by Parsons and Carlson  but the reviews of it by Stephen Davies  and Stephanie Ross  seems to explain it clearly. For possible evolution of social conventions, see the reviews  and  of [356, 385, 429].
Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s. Rizzolatti and Arbib  describe mirror neurons for visual observations and physical actions. More recently there has been a report  of a seemingly similar neuronal mechanism which relates a sound to a memory of another sound, and more is understood about their involvement in higher brain functions [221, 164]. Their evolution has been explained in terms of Hebbian learning .
Mitchell and Greening  duscuss the difficult areas of consciousness and emotion. Fruit flies’ abilites to learn, and to associate what they have learned with beneficial objectives, have been demonstrated in various different ways [193, 231, 388]. Different fruit flies have different preferences, and hence it has been suggested that perhaps fruit flies have personality [67, page 40].
Forster’s celebrated dictum appeared in [157, page 87]. Lorenz suggested his novel approach to research in [283, page 8]. Philosophy of science is described more generally in [351, 106]. There are many accounts of Maslow’s hierarchy, such as .
The attraction of defensible territory has been recognised by architects for a long time: the idea is credited to Jane Jacobs , and explained in some detail in [313, pages 55-56].
Lack of love and affection causes stress which damages brain structure [56, 57, 244, 33]. The effects of good and bad care are reported in  for baby rats, and in [380, 381] for human babies.
The case for altruism in a community is argued by , reviewed in . Studying altruism is hard because it is hard to measure altruism, but McFarland, Webb, and Brown seem to have solved this problem [302, 303, 234]. Anholt and Govers maintain an index  of “Good Countries” which appears to be a measure of international altruism between nations, mixed with some obvious self interest. See also . Wilensky’s computer experiment can be downloaded from . For practical examples of altruism in harsh conditions, see for instance  and . The merit of quick retaliation is shown by the success of the tit-for-tat algorithm [24, 493, 25].
A study of birdsong, as a case of the peacock process, is presented in .
Heyes  argues that learning mechanisms are similar in a very wide range of species and for many different learning tasks. Alan Baddeley wrote a beautiful book  about human memory which describes some simple experiments which you can perform on yourself.
For the chemical effects of success and power in the brain, see [404, 405, 175]. Current thinking is that the key players are testosterone and dopamine, which correlate with success and purpose and single mindedness, and noradrenaline which is associated with caution and readiness to notice unforseen events. Absolute power floods the brain with dopamine which, like coccaine, can be addictive. It reduces empathy.
Psychologists have a name for the pleasure of being an anonymous member of an excited crowd. They call it deindividuation. The term was invented by Festinger, Pepitone and Newcombe in 1952, and developed by Zimbardo [180, Table 1, page 113]. In this state, one loses sef-awareness and self-regulation, and one ceases to form long-range plans. Behaviour is emotional, impulsive, irrational and regressive. Such a crowd can become a destructive mob. Deindividuation may exacerbate violence , but there is evidence that violent mob leaders are typically not in this state .
Some advantages of the pleasure of play, from an evolutionary point of view, can be found at [378, page 73] and . Very clear evidence that the prospect of war really is a pleasure, for whatever reason, is provided by . Erasmus  thought that war is a pleasure until one actually gets too close to it. Evidence for the harm caused by corticosteroids is given in  and [33, pages 59-60]. Adrenalin, noradrenalin and prolactin have similar effects [67, page 137]. Rod Martin  notes the lack of careful research on humour.
At home, there are some who think that washing up and putting away the dishes is important. There are others who believe that there are other higher priorities in life and, anyway, using a dish several times is more labour efficient than obsessive tidyness. This contrast leads to occasional discord.
When I was at school they taught us woodwork. One day a teacher told me to cut a piece of wood to a certain length, ten inches (about 25.4 centimetres), and as he said it he quickly marked the wood with his pencil, guessing the length. He went off, and I measured as carefully as I could where the mark should have been. He had got it almost exactly right. His mark was out by about 2 millimetres. His error was less than 2%. I told him, and he was happy. Most people would have missed the mark by a centimetre or more. Very few of us could hope to be so precise. Practising such a skill is pleasing, especially if one knows it is special.
People differ in their abilities to perceive and to enjoy. It seems likely that most babies are born with two distinct ways of understanding. One works for inanimate objects, things you can touch, and the other for living sentient beings. In many of us there is a slight preference to concentrate on one of these rather than the other. There may well be other such distinctions which one might draw between different people. In all events, the mental abilites and tendencies which characterise anyone often manifest themselves as preferences, modes of thought and behaviour in him or her which create sensations of pleasure. In this chapter we shall explore consequences of such variations in abilities and preferences to perceive and think and enjoy.
Pleasure is the ultimate reward. It is immensely powerful. Epicurus understood that. Senses of pleasure control our notion of value. Any two individuals with different senses of pleasure are likely to have different ultimate objectives. Any sense of pleasure might be used to show this effect.
In this attempt to discover and describe such differences, I have probably over simplified and over emphasized them. If so, please understand and excuse me. Despite appearances, I do know that there are many great able kind people with very broad appreciation both of their own preferences and those of others. I am also well aware that humanity is good and we must have faith in each other, in ourselves as a species. That is all we have.
At the same time, we as individuals are flawed. There really are recognizable human traits which can be explained by different preferences for ways of thinking, which lead to different kinds of mistakes. In our integrated world, mistakes matter more than ever. Anything which helps us to know ourselves is important. Faith in humanity must be qualified.
This is written in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008. The subject matter is influenced by it. Why did it happen? Why did it happen where it happened? Will things improve, or was that crash just the preliminary before something bigger? It is also written in the aftermath of my career, during which I have seen much achieved and also much effort wasted. Where should human effort and resources be invested? Who should direct effort and investment? It is also written as my children struggle through their educations, and I am in suspense wondering how well they will cope with what schools do to them. These are big issues. They depend on human character.
In the lanes and tracks a few miles away, I have twice passed a group of maybe a score bikes. The riders probably came from a local college. On each occasion, all but one were youths who rode silently, concentrating on the acts of riding and following the group. In each case the exception was a young woman. Neither of them looked happy. One was looking round, trying to find anyone who would make eye contact and appear sociable. The other was talking, and she did not sound pleased with her companions.
These appeared to be classic cases of behavioural traits which might be inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Hunting, I suppose, was principally a male activity, and was done in silent groups. Success, which was sometimes critical to survival of the tribe, depended on a unity of purpose which was understood by all. There was no need to talk about it. Women were more often gatherers of roots and fruit, and they brought up the babies. In both cases, chatter was helpful. It was likely to frighten off wild animals, and avoid loss of contact with family in the bush. It also taught the skill of speech to the children.
In Walt Disney’s original film of Peter Pan, as Wendy stitches Peter’s shadow back onto his shoes, she chatters. Peter just says
Girls talk too much.
Wendy agrees gaily, and then understands him. Wendy is the prototypical woman. Peter, leader of the Lost Boys, is the prototypical man: one of a loyal gang with a common enemy, Captain Hook and the Pirates, or sometimes the Red Indians. Many men are happy not to talk for long periods. The Indians caught the Lost Boys because the Boys sang while the Indians were silent.
This difference affects public affairs. The British Conservative Party took a bold step a few years ago. They allowed a constituency party to choose their candidate by popular caucus. The caucus chose Dr Sarah Wollaston. On the face of it, she appears to have been a good choice. She won the seat and is now an MP; but she is not always behaving like a natural Conservative. She says what she thinks, whether or not it conforms to Party policy. She refused a post as parliamentary private secretary to a health minister because PPSs can’t criticise Government attitudes. She voted against her Party leader in the debate on Syria in August 2013. All told, she does not seem to fit naturally into the pack of Conservative MPs. The Party has not chosen any more candidates by caucus.
Women sometimes complain of a “glass ceiling” which bars their progress in a career. They commonly put it down to a supposed male view that men are more intelligent. (What I have heard say is that, on average, men and women are equally intelligent but men’s intelligence varies more than women’s: there are more very bright men, and also more very stupid men, than women. Let us not go further into that subject.) Perhaps any glass ceiling is instead due to an unstated desire in any man choosing between candidates. He wants to build a gang or pack. He wants companions who will understand his objectives without having them stated, and who will collaborate with him and each other as a matter of tribal instinct. Women are less likely to have that instinct, and he instinctively knows it.
Everyone makes them. They come in all shapes and sizes, from big and little ones which affect just one person, through simple ones which each individually have negligible impact but which are cumulative, to the massive ones. Jane Austen made a career by describing nearly disastrous mistakes due to immaturity and lack of self-knowledge. To those causes one can add weakness under pressure – stress – and simple laziness. A high proportion of mine have been of this sort. (I think I have also done some good. Sometimes people laugh at what I say for the right reasons, and on three occasions I may perhaps have helped to save human life.)
This chapter is mostly about different ways to take decisions which affect others. We all take many decisions quickly, impulsively, without much conscious thought. This process depends on fast pattern matching and associations. If a decision maker has learned irrelevant or misleading patterns and associations then his decisions will be unreliable.
In important situations, a conscientious decision maker will check and test any such first impulse. (A less conscientious person will try to justify his first impulse.) It is at this checking stage that different decision makers’ preferences vary. There are (at least) three approaches: choose to do what you and your associates agree should be done; or choose to do what careful rational consideration of all available relevant evidence suggests should be done; or choose to do what you, the one making the decision, like – be selfish. The main suggestions offered here are
I think the manner of making decisions depends largely on the decision maker’s senses of pleasure. Whose decisions should be trusted?
One of the most frequent sources of mistakes is plain ignorance. Many are due to simple misunderstandings – ignorance of another person’s intention. Perhaps the most insidious form is ignorance of the state of one’s own ignorance. Here are two examples.
I once heard of a mother, by no means poor or unsuccessful, who brought her child late one day to a playgroup. By way of apology, she explained that they were going away soon and she did not want her child to risk catching any bacteria before the trip. She was worried that there were bacteria on the toys and the food and everything there. Of course, in one sense she was right: there are bacteria all over the place, but she was totally wrong about the risk. Her child had been attending that playgroup for a while without catching anything, and the children there were generally very healthy. It seemed she knew nothing about human immune systems, and that it is good for a child to be exposed to other children with bacteria as otherwise her child’s immune system would not be challenged and would not develop natural immunity to all the usual minor coughs and colds.
That was an example on the small scale. It involved maybe just two individuals, though the effects may be severe. The other is much larger.
There seems to be a general conception, in England at any rate, that the current war in Afghanistan has something to do with letting girls go to school. This seems somehow implausible. Most wars are presented to the nations which have to fight them as in some way virtuous, but fighting a war which causes hundreds or thousands of deaths of innocent people half way round the planet for the rights of the sisters and daughters of those poor casualties seems implausible. There is another factor which might perhaps also be influential. Afghanistan has very large deposits of ores of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium, and also deposits of lead, zinc, chromium and maybe a range of other valuable metals. In 2010, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said
There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.
This fact is very rarely mentioned in the British press. When I tell well educated friends of it, the reaction is often: how dare I suggest that our soldiers are fighting for such a disreputable objective? Over the past few centuries, many colonial wars have been fought for similar economic prizes.
Ignorance is rife. One might think that we should become less prone to mistakes as we learn more, but
In his book The Long Summer, Brian Fagan wrote
Survival is often a matter of scale … [by building larger cities and larger flood prevention systems] we have not erased our vulnerability but merely traded up in scale. … This book is about this rising vulnerability.
Many aspects of the social fabric are vulnerable. For instance, the crisis of 2008 only happened because almost all banks traded together as a herd, and the entire Western economic system depends on them. Two centuries earlier, a joint crash of all banks was perhaps less likely because the individual banks were less dependent on each other; and even if they had all crashed in 1808, much economic activity would have gone on anyway. As banks grew big, and economies more integrated, they became exposed to much bigger mistakes. Since 2008, we are reluctant to dismantle banks which are “too big to fail”, even when greedy irresponsible top bank managers are notorious.
We are unwilling to learn.
Pleasures such as being led, and gluttony, and war, and power can all lead us astray and cause trouble. Current senses of beauty and pleasure cannot be relied on to preserve and foster beneficial social structures and life styles. That being so, it would be natural for these senses to be still evolving. That in turn suggests that they may now vary quite a lot. How do they vary?
Here we shall concentrate on pleasurable senses which influence how we prefer to reach attitudes and opinions and decisions. However, we shall not start from a study of such pleasures. Instead we shall investigate how human thought processes have already been classified.
Recall the state of General Stubblebine. The matter of concern here is not what happens when people bump into walls, nor modern theory of elementary particles, nor the new intellectual concepts which are needed to grasp this modern theory. The points of interest are
They were strong in Sir Isaac Newton, and in James Clerk Maxwell (who founded both the kinetic theory of gases, which is essential for a full quantitative explanation of meteorology, and the classical theory of electromagnetism which underlies every electric gadget you have ever seen), and good old Albert of course, and Werner Karl Heisenberg and Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger and others who set up the original quantum theory, and Paul Dirac who refined the Heisenberg-Schrödinger theory so that it fits in with Einstein’s great ideas and with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, and many more. For them, exploration of such concepts can be a life’s work, and that life is fulfilled. If asked what good is their concept, they are prone to say
What good is a newborn baby?
This capacity and urge are very weak in a substantial proportion of the population, recognisable because numbers and geometry and probability and obscure natural phenomena do not interest them. Such people are weak in at least one of
Some people without these abilities and drives, such as General Stubblebine, find science confusing. A few even find it distasteful. Others who have them find science beautiful, and they feel fulfilled when they can extend science. The science which attracts them may be elementary particle physics, or meteorology, or neurophysiology; the attitude is the same.
We each set great store by the skills we possess, and it is all too easy to fail to appreciate those we lack. Sometimes people with different skills do not understand each other, even when they think they do.
Long ago, I had the pleasure of attending a course of lectures by Paul Dirac. Someone once suggested that the rate of speech in a conversation should be measured in “diracs” where a “dirac” is one word per hour.
Here is an example of the other extreme. Maryanne Wolf opens her preface to Proust and the Squid thus:
I have lived my life in the sevice of words …there has also never been a time when the complex beauty of the reading process stood more revealed …To truly understand what we do when we read would be …the acme of a psychologist’s achievements …
On pages 6-7 she quotes 236 words from a translation of Proust, and then writes another383 words beginning
Consider first what you were thinking while reading this passage…
If you are like me, …the thrilling sensations elicited by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Mark Twain …It was said that Machiavelli would sometimes prepare to read by dressing up in the period of the writer he was reading and then setting a table for the two of them …While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person …
An expanding sense of “other” changes who we are, and, most importantly for children, what we imagine we can be.
It is probably safe to say that, in some respects at least, I am not like her. Jane Austen’s works, though beautiful and sometimes enthralling, are not thrilling. Like most boys, I never read Charlotte Brontë, though I did once have a go at Wuthering Heights. Thrills are better sought by reading Jack London or R L Stevenson, or watching Walt Disney films such as Pinoccio and Toy Story and Pirates Of The Caribbean, or by climbing trees and mountains. Machiavelli was a bit strange. Above all, it is unwise to imagine that we might be able to “pass over into the consciousness of another person”. A vivid description can stimulate imagination, which is good, but the reader is always restricted by his or her own conceptions. To believe otherwise is self-deception.
That said, her book is well worth study. Wolf is a scholar, interested in neuronal development (the “squid” aspect) as well as in words. Her account of brain structure and how a young brain matures is revealing.
Linguistic fluency is no bar to technical prowess. Helen Czerski can talk fluently for three quarters of an hour about her pet subject, bubbles. Bubbles are pretty. When a bubble forms in water, it makes a note which describes how big it is. Bubbles smooth the passage of penguins as they accelerate before jumping out of the sea, and they may one day smooth the passage of huge ships. The surface of a bubble in the sea collects gunge, the organic chemical remnants of dead plancton. If it is swept deep, it is compressed and some of the air in it dissolves into the water. This makes it shrink, and the gunge forms a stiff layer round it which lets it keep its volume, so little bubbles last longer than might be expected. Experts in champagne are particularly interested in bubbles because they collect molecules of scent as they rise through the champagne, and then scatter the scent when they burst at the top of the glass. Most bubbles in air burst quickly, but some biologists kept a refrigerator full of bubbles for several months, by which time they were crinkly. Dolphins and whales use bubbles to entrap shoals of small fish. Mummy dolphins blow bubbles to amuse and perhaps educate their children. Helen Czerski said that a shorthand expert told her she talks at about 180 words per minute after he discovered he could not keep up with her. Others describe her as a nerd, and she agrees with that description.
Lastly, here is an example showing how such differences can lead to significant misunderstandings.
There was a time, not so long ago, when each Saturday evening there was a radio programme in which three people discussed books. One, a diplomatic lady with a pleasant voice, was the compere. The other two were guests, with different guests chosen each week. Each of the three in turn advocated a book which all three then discussed.
One such evening, one guest’s chosen book was an account of an aspect of life as perceived by someone who might be described as a nerd, full of lots of observations with occasional notes on consequences of and relationships between whatever the nerd was interested in, and a somewhat detached analytic approach to emotional interaction with other people, though the writer clearly had some substantial emotional interactions.
The compere was sympathetic and took an interest, but the other guest was not. She was perhaps not impressed with the actual content of the writer’s life, which was not altogether orthodox or successful in a conventional sense, quite as much as his attitude. In all events, she declared bluntly that she found the life described in the book not interesting and generally unattractive.
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the second guest is sincere, and very able, and thoroughly conscientions and well intentioned, and by all generally accepted standards well educated, and well integrated into society, and altogether an admirable person. How is it, then, that she could not just fail to appreciate what it is like to be a different sort of person, but even reject the possibility that such a different sort of person might live an unconventional but rewarding and fulfilling life?
The obvious answer is that she was almost completely insensitive to the notions of beauty and pleasure which appeal to nerds.
The term “nerd” is used often but it is not well defined. Someone has made his fortune by writing silly stories in which NERDS is short for “National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society”. There seem to be three or four more sensible interpretations of it. For a start, there is a supposedly popular idea that nerds have something to do with computers. This does not seem to be very helpful. There is also a notion that nerds are introvert, but some nerds seem not to be and there are plenty of introverts who are far from nerdy.
Temple Grandin, who is now a noted academic although she has substantial autism, says of herself
many social doors opened after I made scenery for the college talent show. I was still considered a nerd, but now I was a “neat” nerd. People respect talent even if they think you are “weird.”
There is a spectrum of human states, studied and described and extended by various researchers, between those who empathize easily at one end and those with autism or Asperger syndrome at the other. (Asperger syndrome and pure autism are distinct, so this spectrum is not just a simple line. The empathizing end might be extended to include Williams syndrome, but authorities in the field don’t seem inclined to go that far.)
The major differences between people at opposite ends seem to be that those at the autism end are obsessed by patterns and repetition. They lack an innate skill for “mentalizing”, constructing a “theory of mind”, forming a mental representation of someone else’s emotional state. Some such people develop this skill, but only by conscious effort and at a late stage of development. Those with extreme autism may become distressed by changes in routine. By contrast, extreme empathizers often do not notice patterns, and they become seriously distressed if they are isolated. They have the skill to mentalize from a very young age, maybe birth, and it is at least partly subconscious. They feel the emotions which they observe in others. Extreme empathizers seem unable to suppress the urge to mentalize.
Simon Baron-Cohen has suggested that the empathizing side may be associated with typical female brain structure and the other end with typical male brains. He has found no difficulty tracing instances of the autism end, but he wrote
A … contender for who might have the extreme female brain would be a wonderfully caring person who can rapidly make you feel fully understood … However, the contender for the extreme female brain would also need to be someone who was virtually technically diabled. Someone for whom maths, or computers, or political schisms, or DIY, held no interest … it is likely that they do not find their way into clinics, except perhaps as staff in the caring professions.
There is no shortage whatsoever of technically disabled people. They can be heard every morning and evening on chatty radio programmes, where they include some very glib men. On the other hand, I have come across some women with superb technical skills. Women are no doubt often “wonderfully caring” of their children, but maybe their reputation of caring for other social groups is a bit over done.
Researchers in the field seem to prefer to avoid the term “nerd”. However Uta Frith wrote
I feel the pull of two opposites: my incurably romantic side that is longing for anything miniature, childlike and playful, and my totally nerdy side that craves collecting, dissecting, and exploring.
Nerds are often socially fluent, though some are gauche, perhaps enjoying one-to-one company but not good at fostering much more. If there is any justification for associating nerdiness with any position on this spectrum, then nerds would lie firmly on the autistic side. In view of this and of instances such as Dr Grandin, some people do make this association though some nerds resent the idea that they might be classified as cases of Asperger’s. There may be an overlap, but there are nerds who show empathy and who seek variety in life. Helen Czerski has spent time on teams in Cambridge, Southampton, Los Alamos, Hawaii and the Arctic. Paul Dirac loved to travel too. He worked in Bristol and Cambridge, toured universities in North America, climbed on Mt Elbrus in the Caucasus, and spent his old age in Florida. While lecture touring, it is said he got on so well with his driver that they swapped positions and the driver gave his lecture flawlessly at the University of Michigan. He married, and had two children and adopted his wife’s other two. He had social problems, but it seems at least part of that issue was due to his authoritarian father. It has been suggested that Dirac had Asperger syndrome. If so, then life with it doesn’t sound too bad.
The fourth possible attitude to nerds is related to how people make decisions. In the human brain, and perhaps in the brains of some other animals such as New Caledonian crows, there are two mechanisms for this task. Daniel Kahneman called them “System 1” and “System 2”. System 1 is fast, subconscious, and driven by memory and a few basic heuristic rules. It is what we all use most of the time. It is usually very effective and reliable, but it sometimes leads to non-random errors. System 2 is slow, conscious, and difficult. It involves deliberate reasoning. System 1 is no use for solving problems which involve statistics. For those, one needs System 2. (By the way, statistics really do reveal strange and unexpected facts. They were used, for instance, to discover traits among Facebook users who like camping and climbing: see the Notes after Chapter 1.)
Let us invent a new spectrum with those who like System 1, who don’t enjoy using System 2, at one end, and those who take pleasure in using System 2 at the other.
This spectrum will have a lot in common with the empathy-autism spectrum. Their empathizing ends may be indistinguishable. Their other ends, the autistic/Asperger end of the first spectrum and the systemizing end of this new one, will also have a lot in common since a high proportion of people with autism like repetition, as in patterns, and fine detail of observations such as precise numbers.
If there is any difference between these two spectra, it may just be that the first is defined by subjects’ abilities, particularly the abilities to be rational and to “mentalize”, whereas the new one is defined by subjects’ preferences.
Anyone on either spectrum who likes to empathize will probably readily form theories of mind, although occasionally such theories are not reliable. Anyone who prefers to systemize may or may not be inclined to form theories of mind; but if he does then he is likely to supplement any such theory with conscious observations of its subject. Anyone with autism won’t readily mentalize, at least until near adulthood. I guess that, if the word “nerd” means anything at all, then nerds are typically at the systemizing end of this second spectrum.
There is plenty of evidence that people are irrational. Books are written saying just that. The strange aspect is, as far as I can tell, very little is written by psychologists suggesting that an inclination to be rational might be a trait: that some of us have it strongly, and others lack it almost totally. For instance, in his vivid book called simply Irrationality, Stuart Sutherland wrote on page 3
My purpose is to demonstrate that people are very much less rational than is commonly thought … Nobody … is exempt
and then on page 180
It is … difficult to make allowance for the sheer daftness … of people.
That is fine. Nobody will argue with it, at least, not after reading the rest of his book. The strange feature is, he seems to think the entire human race are all equally silly. Right at the end, he hints that rationality can perhaps be learned and taught. Otherwise he does not even suggest that some of us might perhaps be naturally rather more irrational than others. It appears, to me anyway, that
From this simple premiss, much follows. Sutherland has chapters devoted to human flaws in understanding and decision making, of course, but he also has several on social structure and relationships. These chapters do not apply to nerds. Nerds are sometimes social misfits. Rationality is not always socially acceptable.
The most careful study of nerds seems to be the ethnographic fieldwork by Mary Bucholtz. She studied the behaviour of US American teenage girls. (I don’t know of a similar study of boys.) They appeared to be articulate and to show no particular sign of introversion. Bucholtz followed the classification of High School students developed by earlier researchers who described two major social groups:
Bucholtz’s contribution is an account of
(Someone said that this chapter contains undefined terms. “cool” is one. I don’t know what it means. The nearest teenager says he thinks it means something like being well integrated into the social community, but he is not sure either.) Bucholtz writes that these nerds had particular tendencies to
Nerd girls’ conscious opposition to this ideology [of hegemonic femininity] is evident in every aspect of their lives, from language to hexis to other aspects of self-presentation. Where cool girls aim for either cuteness or sophistication in their personal style, nerd girls aim for silliness. Cool girls play soccer or basketball; nerd girls play badminton. Cool girls read fashion magazines; nerd girls read novels. Cool girls wear tight T-shirts, and either very tight or very baggy jeans; nerd girls wear shirts and jeans that are neither tight nor extremely baggy. Cool girls wear pastels or dark tones; nerd girls wear bright primary colors. But these practices are specific to individuals; they are engaged in by particular nerd girls, not all of them.
The nerds whom she observed formed a club:
Random Reigns Supreme is more properly described as an anti-club, which is in keeping with the counter-hegemonic orientation of nerd identity. … Members emphasise the “randomness” of the club’s structure. It is not organised around shared preferences; instead, any individual’s preferences can be part of the club’s de facto charter, and all six members are co-presidents. This structure contrasts with the corporate focus and hierarchical structure of most school clubs, which bring together people who are otherwise unconnected to perform a shared activity.
Bucholtz’s form of nerd is not gauche. Perhaps, though, it is a female variant of the Asperger variety. Bucholtz’s nerds and systemizers have in common that such people do not conform to fashions in either personal presentation or behaviour or thought, and they do think: they do tend to be bright. If there is a big difference, maybe it is that Bucholtz’s nerds are female whereas Asperger nerds are typically male, and Bucholtz’s nerds choose not to conform whereas it seems that Asperger nerds fail to conform through lack of social sensitivity.
In all events, one key attribute of any nerd seems to be that nerds prefer to understand. They don’t just use symbols when that is the accepted approach. They are rational and logical because they like to be so. There are many very capable individuals who use symbols and systems competently and often, but who may not be called nerds because they do so as an aspect of a recipe of some sort. Nerds only willingly follow recipes when they are confident that the recipe will work. That requires rationality.
In August 2014 at the annual celebration of Wikimedia, where the technical sessions were very cheerful, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger said
People dislike data.
Nerds are the exception. They are valuable people because they are rational. They like facts. Ben Goldacre enthused about them:
a small army of amateurs are doing a better job of collecting and disseminating political data than the state …Until the StraightChoice project was set up by idealistic nerds, nobody kept a record of the election materials distributed to the public across the country …They want a system where copies of every leaflet are formally sent to the Electoral Commission, as with copyright libraries, and [they want] regulations which are enforced to forbid graphs which mislead tactical voters …Data is the fabric of our lives, and everywhere around us; but to be analysed, so it can generate knowledge and understanding, it must be coralled. In an ideal world, these empty frameworks would be built by national institutions: until they wake up, we have our nerds.
They have popular support: the Pirate Party (which as far as I know does not advocate theft or violence) wins seats in elections and is reaching a position where they may be able to influence policy. Uta Frith likes statistics.
Where nerds use logic, empathizers use common sense and System 1. Some people set great store by common sense, but others distrust it and some despise it. According to Duncan Watts
common sense turns out to suffer from a number of errors that systematically mislead us. Yet … the failings of commonsense reasoning are rarely apparent to us. …The paradox of common sense, therefore, is that even as it helps us make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it.
In a review of the memoirs of a politician, John Gray wrote
An integral part of conventional wisdom is the conviction that all reasonable people subscribe to it.
In an account of the discovery of the nature of electrons, Frank Wilczek wrote
So Dirac was quite fearless about outraging common sense.
A propos nothing in particular, Albert Einstein is quoted as saying
Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
In other words, common sense consists of your local version of conventional wisdom, and anyone who disagrees with you, such as Paul Dirac, is unreasonable. (In practice, not many people dare say Paul Dirac was unreasonable, probably because not very many people have heard of him, even fewer can make sense of what he said, and to cap it all it appears he was right.)
Jon Ronson makes a career by writing sympathetically about people who don’t meet the usual criteria for showing conventional common sense. Most of them have made blunders, through ignorance of some sort, but a few seem to be potential leading visionaries. For instance there is a knowledgeable old man called Victor Deeb who realised that the linings of some drink cans contain Bisphenol A which alters the effects of sex growth hormones. He worked in his home cellar to find a replacement. By chance the fire service discovered the cellar, full of chemicals, and the local authorities destroyed the lot along with all his notes. He said
I spent an enormous amount of time with the authorities, trying to explain what I was working on, but they had no perception. No concept.
These people with power but no perception ruined twenty years’ public spirited hard work through their arrogance and ignorance and carelessness. Bethany Halford wrote
Stories like Deeb’s worry the small community of hobby chemists …Having a lab in the basement, garage, or backyard shed was once a rite of passage for scientifically minded kids …Now, between the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the …crackdown on homemade fireworks …home science is increasingly coming under attack.
For other instances of this attack, recall the British official attitude to camping knives and water glass. Less than a third of English primary schools have a teacher with any science qualification.
The cases highlighted by Goldacre and Ronson are exemplars of a general issue. Nerds and those with common sense do not just differ in their attitudes to chemistry and public information. They have entirely different approaches to thinking. Those with nerdy talents perceive patterns leading to truths which devotees of common sense don’t observe and don’t easily grasp. The same is true in reverse too – those with strong communicative senses understand phenomena which nerds don’t perceive – but the whole history of science confirms that the universe, including even life, obeys rules based on patterns. The perceptions of nerds are often valuable.
It sometimes happens that a nerdy idea enters conventional wisdom. One such is that the Earth is round, not flat. No credit is due to conventional wisdom for adopting it, though. The enlightened proponents of such ideas sometimes have to struggle for generations before their understanding is accepted.
Common sense is based on shared assumptions and conventions which by their nature are communcated rather than discovered. At the risk of falling into one of the basic traps set by common sense and described by Duncan Watts, I conjecture: both because it depends so much on communication and because of nerds’ taste for rationality, common sense is much more readily established among those at the communicative empathizing end of the spectrum.
Too much common sense does harm. Technically competent public spirited people such as Mr Deeb are thwarted by it. Electorates and governments are misled by it.
Is there really a clear conflict between empathizers and nerds? I think there are two parts to the answer.
The first part is: there may be a conflict at the extremes, but the extremes are exceptional and over-emphasised. Experimental psychologists explain carefully that the autism/Asperger spectrum is continuous. It seems likely that the empathizing-systemizing spectrum is too. There are some individuals on one end, and there are some at the other, and there are quite a lot around the middle, that is to say they are tolerably competent at both empathy and rationality, and there are some unfortunates who are barely capable of either, and there are rare wonderful people who are masters of both. I count myself very lucky to know a few of them.
The second part is: yes, there is a conflict because modern society forces the distinction on almost all of us in several ways. This is more complicated.
Such a conflict may arise whenever two individuals interact. It may happen particularly when one can constrain the other. For instance, it can happen when anyone has authority to regulate behaviour, as in Victor Deeb’s case, or whenever two people marry, or whenever someone works to earn a living. Below are sections on some such differences of attitude which lead to big mistakes.
Any successful adult either finds or else falls into a few social roles. The most common of these is being a mother. Another very common role is being a shop worker of some sort. Every so-called “profession” is a role.
Some professions involve both sides of the spectrum. Obvious examples are personal doctor (“general practitioner”); salesman of aircraft or software, or of any high technology product to customers with subtly differing needs, such as perhaps agricultural supplies to farmers; the sort of manager who has to plan and then organise the development of an enterprise; the sort of statistician who is involved in selecting suitable samples from a population, and then planning how each member will be studied and then how the accumulated results will be analysed; the sort of advertising agent who studies potential buyers of some product, and how to alter their behaviour; the sort of engineer who discusses and plans with a customer what a proposed pruduct might do for him, and who then designs and creates it; the sort of banker or investor who appraises the prospects of a high technology firm when it asks for funds. Anyone in any of these fields needs both rationality and tact. For anyone who is happy with the work itself, and personally I don’t think I would enjoy being a GP, these are the really interesting plum jobs.
Perhaps the best exemplar of a man with a lovely career is David Attenborough. Through merit, he made a niche for himself travelling the World with help from skilled assistants, seeing and understanding wonderful phenomena, discussing them with other scholars and explaining them to a fascinated audience, and then choosing what to do next.
It is good to encourage a belief that anyone may do whatever he or she is capable of, unless most people can’t. The Austrian government sponsors training which is designed to ensure that they can do almost anything. The benefits of a can-do attitude are sometimes very simple. In Australia, the brake fluid boiled in a car as two of us drove down a steep mountain road. We reached the bottom safely and a local mechanic came out into the bush and mended it. He did the job on the spot with no fuss. In England, I would be surprised to find a car mechanic who expected to do that. An even simpler case happened on a ferry from Denmark to Sweden. I wanted breakfast. There were two large healthy young men at the bar with food. One of them asked if I had the expected token. I had never heard of such a token. The other young man lent over and gave me one.
Most of us, even many from among the very able, fall into or are put into a role with tighter constraints. These may include the kind of specialist medical surgeon who treats similar cases day after day; the sort of software programmer who writes programs to order from detailed specifications; the sort of general manager whose job is to keep a small part of an enterprise running smoothly; minor politician who has to vote as he is told, and who has no significant influence; academic researcher in a narrow technical subject. Some of these occupations demand deep technical understanding and skill but only limited tact, while others involve great tact and sensitivity but negligible abstract reasoning. None of them is likely to be totally fulfilling for an able person.
Constraints on the roles in this second group are not all natural or necessary. They can be stifling and lead to mistakes. A programmer may misunderstand a specification, and write the wrong program, if he never meets the customer it is intended for. A politician may be more helpful to his constituents if he understands detailed technical needs of firms in his constituency, and how social statistics are calculated, but his prime job is to win elections. Most electors don’t first think of such skills when they choose who to vote for.
The dichotomy really does exist, and sometimes it is deliberately reinforced. Anyone with an inclination to one end of the spectrum is likely to find a role related to that end. Managers sometimes prefer their workers to be classified by tight job descriptions. The classic case is the worker on a production line who does the same routine operation hundreds of times, day after day, but the same attitude can be seen elsewhere. One entrepreneur manager, himself seemingly well endowed with a broad range of talents, wrote on his blog
If the UK Government is serious about improving UK Technology’s image abroad, one thing they might try is to bring together two fantastic British traditions: lone eccentric inventors (men in sheds) and the stage (men who talk for a business and practice in the bathroom). …
Preparation - OK, whatever product, innovation or business you’re pitching, sit down and think about how many hours of work went into developing this product or business. Now estimate how much time has gone into this presentation that you’re about to deliver? What is that second number as a percentage of the first? If it’s not in double figures you need to do some more work. I’ve spent most of my working life around creative scientists and engineers and I know that they have a deep profound distrust of marketing and presentation - that they are somehow dishonest professions. As a result of this I have seen many supposed marketing presentations in which tens if not hundreds of person years of work is explained using a presentation which has not had ten hours of thought. It’s a crying shame, it’s, literally, a waste of human lives, it needs to be stopped.
Businesses need the talented extremes, nerds at one end to invent and empathizers at the other to explain. The rare employee with both abilites is likely to be overlooked or regarded as a misfit by a bureaucracy designed to make the best of more limited staff. This entrepreneur manager is clearly keen to find that rare staff member, though it seems his search is often frustrated. Let us hope that his effort is soon rewarded, and also that soon all personnel departments will be equally enlightened.
Elizabeth Wordsworth was a very able successful academic. She was involved in the founding of two Oxford colleges. She wrote
If all the good people were clever,
And all clever people were good,
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought that it possibly could.
But somehow ’tis seldom or never
The two hit it off as they should,
The good are so harsh to the clever,
The clever, so rude to the good!
So friends, let it be our endeavour
To make each by each understood;
For few can be good, like the clever,
Or clever, so well as the good.
I am not sure what the last two lines mean. They seem ambiguous. The rest makes a lot of sense, though the clever are likely to resent her suggestion that they are not good. Perhaps that is one reason why they are sometimes rude. Also, it is misleading to suggest that good people are not clever. Elizabeth Wordsworth herself seems to have been a firm empathizer. She is a clear believer in a dichotomy of some sort, and so too is Lord Hennessy. I hope the last stanza is an appeal to soften it.
Conventional ignorance complements conventional wisdom. Both are conveyed and instilled by empathy and shared attitudes. The contrast between them is that conventional wisdom is about what one is expected to know and believe, while conventional ignorance is about what one is expected not to know or understand. Examples are not hard to find.
In all such cases, anyone who has more than the generally expected level of knowledge is likely to be thought at best somewhat strange, and perhaps even undesirable.
This came home to me when I tried to find out what goes into some rather attractive buns on sale in the local supermarket. The list of ingredients included “diphosphates”. Sodium aluminium phosphate (E541) is a permitted food additive in the European Union. This seemed a bad idea, so I asked the shop which diphosphates they use. The shop directed me to a telephone enquiry line. The nice goodnatured woman who answered it was as helpful as she could be, but unfortunately that was not much. She just told me that diphosphates are used in baking as raising agents. I knew that. I explained again that I wanted to know which metals occurred in them, and I told her why. At that point she became agitated and said that that was “specialized knowledge”. I still don’t know which phosphates they use, so I don’t eat their buns. Customers are not supposed to ask such questions.
The issue here is not ignorance. It is an implicit belief that ignorance is the proper natural state, and that it is not proper to try to seek out more knowledge; that anyone with more knowledge is abnormal, and not to be regarded as a natural reliable normal person.
It is so nice when someone reveals an unorthodox view, and it is well received. Occasionally this happens.
A bus passenger:
I was waiting to go out into a nearby road. A bus stopped just there and a bright cheerful little woman stepped off, chatting to the driver. That side of the road was full of parked cars which prevented the bus drawing in, so it blocked the road for other vehicles, and she had to walk from it between the cars to the footpath. As she passed me, she said something goodnatured but a bit cross about them, which seemed normal. Then she swore “Damn cars” quietly, and went off. That startled me.
Last summer I made a short camping trip through Somerset. The first and second nights, I ate what I carried. On the third, I ate in a pub where someone at the bar was holding forth about rebels who had just shot down a passenger jet over Ukraine. His views mirrored standard British press reports. I was moved to remark that the Westerners did something very similar during the Gulf war a few decades ago. Both incidents were mistakes. A man sitting quietly nearby spoke up and added details. Afterwards the publican, a woman, spoke to me warmly. I went outside to eat. A bit later, someone else with a trace of a Lancashire accent sat down and invited me to camp on his garden lawn, which was by a stream at the bottom of a beautiful gorge lined with beech woods.
Probably through all this Alpine walking, I collected a few skin tumours which were treated at a nearby hospital. Two of them involved simple surgery under local anaesthetic, though the procedure was not quite straightforward because one of them was just a few millimetres from the jugular vein. The surgeon, a chatty woman, was anxious that my head stayed low so that, if she cut into the vein, lots of blood might flow out but no air bubbles would go in. She said air bubbles which get into the heart are fatal. This was an interesting idea, and I kept my head low. Conversation continued about my work, computing, which led to encryption and a visit she had made to Bletchley Park. She encouraged me to go and see what went on there. I declined. She asked why. I said the place was run by the military, and I wanted nothing to do with them. The whole theatre, including us two and a student surgeon and three assistants, suddenly went quiet. Afterwards, when I was back on my feet outside, one of the nurses shook my hand warmly.
Such experiences are comforting. They confirm that a substantial proportion of the populace don’t take attitudes in press reports at face value. People remember, and draw their own conclusions. That is good.
In normal circumstances, conventional wisdom and conventional ignorance often make life simpler and smoother. They usually lead to decisions which are easily understood and uncontroversial.
All the same, when conventional wisdom is wrong, and conventional ignorance makes it hard to recognise that it is wrong, then whole communities and societies are prone to make mistakes. Unorthodox views are important, and they are not always expressed. When they are spoken, there may be a short silence while listeners decide how to react. Uttering them involves a social risk. A socially sensitive person will not want to face possible ostracism for unacceptable opinions.
It is hard to conceive of any substantial decision which would not benefit from reliable factual evidence and from technical skill for its understanding. One would think, therefore, that nerds would be prized. In practice, they are prized but they are not often given power, so their value is not realised. This section presents an example:
and in the next we shall consider
The first example concerns economics. Peter Jay outlined a three-step sequence, a “waltz”, of economic progress. In brief, each cycle of the waltz goes thus:
The modern ideal of a shareholder economy is the result of one such waltz. The first step was the construction of systems which let entrepreneurs set up enterprises with borrowed money. The price they pay is a permanent stream of a share of any profit from such enterprises to the money lenders. The second phase arose when the enterprises and the markets for their products became too complex for most people to understand, and ignorant gullible lenders could be persuaded to buy the unreliable future profit streams of weak enterprises. In this case, the predators are salesmen who trade in shares of enterprises. In the third phase, the profession of accountancy was introduced. Nowadays, every enterprise is examined regularly by an accountant who should publish a reliable report of the enterprise’s state.
It seems we are now in another waltz cycle. This shareholder economy has become distorted and unstable by three changes: the lenders are now themselves enterprises called banks, and they have grown enormous, and they are out of control.
A bank lends money, and maybe also uses money for short term gambling. It obtains money to lend and gamble with in three ways: by collecting profits, so-called “interest”, on its loans; and by selling shares in itself; and by borrowing at low interest rates. Profits are useful but don’t supply much money. A cautious bank sells lots of shares and does not borrow much, and only lends to sound borrowers. A rash bank sells few shares and borrows lots and lends to anyone. Rash banks also trade in strange commodities such as rights to repayment for loans made by other banks. These sometimes turn out to be worthless, if the borrower can’t repay. Some trade in weird gambles which depend on whether a loan is repaid.
Banks have strong incentives to be rash. If they sell few shares then their profits are distributed between just those few; and unreliable borrowers pay high rates of interest; and if a bank fails then all the little people who lent to it, by putting their income and savings in it, will suffer enormously, so governments dare not let them fail. In practice these huge lenders are run by cliques who have only their own self interest to serve. They are the new parasites. We await the third phase of this latest waltz.
Where nerds might appear in this last incomplete waltz, I don’t know. However they do have a natural role in the previous one. They are the natural original sources of new technologies which can be developed into new enterprises.
Britain has a long celebrated tradition for invention. It also has a much lamented failure rate for exploiting British inventions commercially. This is not entirely justified.
However, the record is not one of complete success.
An engineer told me that, whenever he wants money to do something, he has to convince an accountant that his project will return a profit within eighteen months. Otherwise his idea is lost.
There seems to be a profound mismatch between most engineers and most accountants and bankers about the notion of wealth. To a banker or accountant, wealth means money and perhaps property of any sort which can easily be converted into money. An engineer’s notion of wealth includes money but it is likely to be much broader. It is likely to cover the crude necessities for staying alive (food, shelter); resources to make or obtain them (land to grow food, materials to build houses, tools); power for heat and to cause tools to work (electricity, gas, oil); sources of knowledge, and healthy educated confident people who can create and use such resources; the infrastructure to support these useful people; and so on. All these can be regarded as forms of wealth.
This difference in understanding stems from different ways of thinking. The notion that money is a universal and adequate measure of wealth has been fostered within the community of bankers, and others in financial services, since money is their tool and their business. An engineeer’s business is to invent ways to fulfil needs. That requires an engineer to appreciate a substantial range of human needs, and how they might be fulfilled. The word “engineer” is derived from the same root as “ingenuity”, not from “engine”. An engineer learns from other engineers techniques for constructing solutions which fulfil needs, but discovering those needs, and conceiving of key elements of solutions, are steps which an engineer typically attempts alone.
It would be foolish to claim that engineers are rational systemizers and that bankers depend just on common sense. A banker’s job involves lending money to engineers, and a good banker understands what such an engineer intends to do with any money. Contrariwise, an engineer cannot complete a substantial project alone, so he needs to assemble a team and lead them sympathetically, so he needs some skill at empathizing. That said, though, engineers must be rational and they must understand systems, and the most successful engineers are likely to search for problems, and invent solutions for them, sometimes alone; whereas bankers don’t have to be original, or much more rational than average, or solitary. A banker must assess a borrower, so must have skill at assessing human qualities.
Therefore, one would expect to find that engineers tend to be systemizers, while bankers tend to be empathizers. (When this is the case, systemizers sometimes get the upper hand, but the systemizers in question are not engineers. They are advertising agents. Advertising is now a carefully developed science; and furthermore, when an advertising firm bids for a contract, they know who they are selling to. One conspicuous recent case was the campaign run by Lloyds TSB depicting blissful doll-like figures romping unawares into ever deeper debt. This is an image of the bank’s ideal customer, and no doubt it appealed to the people who ran Lloyds TSB. It did not appeal quite so much to a thinking customer, though. The bank has now changed the image: its new advertisements show a cautious wise owl.)
In Britain, for a long time, banks have held sway over wealth creation. Leeds and Edinburgh, banking centres, have been richer than Sheffield and Glasgow, manufacturing centres.
The influence of bankers over engineers is not limited to lending money. Bankers, and the politicians seemingly in awe of them, try to maintain the value of money to suit big banks and their shareholders. This means keeping the value of our currency high in relation to other currencies. Engineers who make things and want to sell them abroad would generally prefer it to be low. There are thus two reasons why banking hampers the process of wealth creation by innovation. There is a third reason: top bankers get paid more than most top engineers, so banks find it easier than engineering firms to recruit able staff.
Engineering is necessary for a healthy banking industry. In Germany, there are banks called Sparkassen. Their parent institution, the Deutscher Sparkassen- und Giroverband, writes on its web site
Social and regional commitment are fundamental components of the identity of the Savings Banks Finance Group’s institutions. They are central elements of their self-image. As local civic institutions, they play an active role in shaping the social and economic lives of citizens.
Sparkassen are expected to be benevolent. Japanese zaibatsu were
large family-controlled vertical monopolies consisting of a holding company on top, with a wholly owned banking subsidiary providing finance, and several industrial subsidiaries dominating specific sectors of a market … Zaibatsu as a whole were widely considered to be beneficial to the Japanese economy and government.
There is no suggestion in this definition of any benevolence or civic sense, but the prosperity of a zaibatsu bank depended on that of its associated industries. The size and economic position of a zaibatsu suggest that it would have an interest in long term wellbeing of the Japanese nation as a whole.
The German and Japanese economies have been more successful than the British economy for decades: their currencies were stronger. A key difference between banks in these two nations and Anglo-Saxon banks seems to be that German and Japanese bankers are much more inclined to take a long term interest in industries which create wealth. British bankers and politicians seem not to understand this. To adapt Mr Deeb’s words: many bankers seem to have no perception. No concept.
It is not fair to suggest that government is riddled with mistakes. I don’t really know if it is or not. A newspaper once published estimates of the efficiency of Government Departments, and they vary a lot. The one which handles overseas aid came out particularly well. Lately, press reports have been emphasising what a difficult job it is to allocate welfare here at home, and to decide when and when not to intervene in family affairs. I don’t envy the public servants who have to do that, particularly when they also have no choice but to cope with the whims and fantasies of now dominant politicians.
I do know that some civil servants are very good able people. Some politicians are too. Both groups are supposed to do good of some sort. Doing good is always more difficult than doing harm, so maybe we should not be surprised when they don’t succeed. Added to that, both groups are open to much more public scrutiny than staff of private companies, so their mistakes are more obvious. Be that as it may, there are enough failures to arouse at least passing interest. However, the mistakes which are reported in the press may not be the most significant. There may sometimes be a common underlying mistake, a mistake in the choice of organisational structure.
In British central government, technical skill is provided by “Chief Scientific Advisers” who are typically eminent professors. The classic exemplar is Bob May. After the first half of a stunning academic career spanning chemical engineering and physics and theoretical ecology and climate change at the Universities of Sydney, Harvard, Princeton, ICST and Oxford, he was appointed chief among CSAs from 1996 to 2000 under Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. He is exceptional. His wife said that he is the only person she knows of who plays with the dog competitively (to which he responds that the dog was competitive too). Any nerdiness he might ever have had would soon be overwhelmed by his fluency and speed and coherence of thought. In an interview, he answered one prompt with 409 words in 6 sentences. One sentence alone consisted of 142 words. Most CSAs would not be thought of as nerds because they are fluent and not at all gauche, but they can be relied on to be rational and numerate. They are not just good at sums. They know which sums should be done.
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee wrote a report, issued on 29 February 2012, which says that some CSAs meet obstacles when they try to influence policy. It emphasises several procedures which should be followed, and gives some examples when they were not. Good use of CSAs is distinctly patchy. What sort of politician or senior civil servant would choose not to involve his CSA in big decisions?
The civil servant I see most often has a doctorate in Iberian cinematography, I think. The currently dominant class of politicians includes a very high proportion of graduates in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). I don’t know any politicians. In the 1970s I knew a couple of mathematicians who seem to have disappeared into the upper regions of the Civil Service, but they are few and neither was particularly nerdy.
There is a good case for staffing Government with empathizers. In a democracy, a government will fail if it is insensitive to the wishes of the governed, and empathizers could be forgiven for believing that they are best attuned to understanding the governed. In addition, to succeed, government (and any form of group management) should be formed of teams who empathize and gel among themselves.
The problem with this is that, in such a government, governance is sometimes mediocre. Empathizers are naturally inclined to form social groups, such as committees. The traditions of the Civil Service – devotion to a social purpose, organised in hierarchies of managerial responsibility and subject to officially enforced secrecy – might easily drive any such group into the form of a clique. Stuart Sutherland was scathing about public sector committees. In his prize winning play Albert’s Bridge, Tom Stoppard depicted a committee with just one exasperated member who understood the folly of the others. The others ignored him, and the bridge fell down.
There is not necessarily any malice involved in cliques. It is just that empathizers like to operate that way, and anyone who doesn’t will find that gaining support among them is harder. A nerd is not likely to win promotion and, whether he is promoted or not, he is not likely to be listened to when decisions are being taken except in restricted cases when any non-nerd would be obviously incompetent. It often seems that we are ruled by common sense.
This is a tale, part of which relates very good work and part doesn’t. There is a summary of how things could improve, called “Building Evidence into Education”, by Ben Goldacre. It offers a way to remedy some of the less good. It is recommended reading for anyone concerned about teaching.
Near here there is a group of very young children who are taken once a week for a morning in a nearby wood. The trip there involves walking a bit less than a mile. It took them a full hour, on a morning not long ago, because they all wanted to jump into the ice on puddles. A few weeks earlier, when they assembled for warm drinks round a fire, one child reappeared out of bushes and looked up at an adult with big eyes and said
We saw deer.
What makes for learning is a complex subject. It involves the age and gender and inherited nature of the child, as well as the environment which should foster happiness. It once seemed appropriate to say to a teacher, all one could ask of a school is that its charges should be happy and confident and ambitious. She was taken with the idea, and quoted it to a parents’ meeting a few months later. I was going to add a bit more, maybe that the confidence and ambition should be justified and realistic, but she shushed me and said the original was just right. As far as I can tell, her school is achieving that.
If a child is happy then he (or she) will learn, though he may not concentrate on what an adult wants him to learn; if stressed and unhappy, he will learn only how to avoid stress. Stress, if sustained, will stunt the developing brain. The prime job of a school is to ensure that all the children are sufficiently happy. That must mean, a good governor or teacher should not just be familiar with the content of the references in the Notes to Chapter 1 and below. He should also ensure that the school will provide all its children with what those children regard as beauty and pleasure.
The key to good teaching is
That is the conclusion which John Hattie reached from a synthesis of more than 800 meta analyses of educational research covering more than 80 million school-aged pupils across the English-speaking world. A good teacher will convince each pupil that the pupil will learn, maybe more than even the pupil believes is possible. Beyond that, nothing matters much.
Education is an issue. Martin Wolf wrote
Why do so many FT readers have trouble with arithmetic?
Martin Rees wrote
We need, too, to enliven what is taught. Newton, when young, made model windmills and clocks – the hi-tech artefacts of his time. Darwin collected fossils and beetles. The young Einstein was fascinated by the electric motors and dynamos in his father’s factory. Fifty years ago inquisitive children could take apart a clock, radio set or motorbike, figure out how it worked, and even put it together again.
But it’s different today. … The gadgets that now pervade young people’s lives, iPhones and suchlike, are baffling “black boxes” … The extreme sophistication of modern technology – wonderful though its benefits are – is, ironically, an impediment to engaging young people with basics: with learning how things work. Likewise, town dwellers are more distanced from the natural world than earlier generations were. Crucial to science education is hands-on involvement …
My children are past the age at which my parents taught me how to take a clock apart, and build a radio set, and put crystals of coloured salts into dilute water glass and watch them grow. They have not learned to enjoy these experiences. On the way to school, maybe five years ago, my oldest was daydreaming about a fantasy game of some sort. I asked him if we might pay attention to an aspect of reality. He said “Do we really have to?”. He has since begun to appreciate reality quite well, but just a little water glass might have made a difference.
My oldest is now taller than me, and his voice is a sort of gravelly croak. He enjoys science lessons. In the latest, he tried extracting chlorophyll and other juices from grass with acetone, and then separating the chlorophyll from the rest by chromatography. This is something I never did. He will see the result in two days’ time.
Recently we went together to discuss his progress at school. It just so happened that the meeting with his Science teacher was last. Up to that point, we were wafted through an experience full of words like delightful and fantastic as we discussed English and German and Maths. The Science teacher paused.
In front of him was a sheet with letters A, then B, then C, then D, and then a solitary E down the right hand side. The oldest’s line was among the Ds. It took me a while to understand why.
That sheet showed results of a practice test, preparing for a pending exam. The teacher has since kindly given me a copy of the regulations governing it. As well as columns for each student’s name and grade, there were eight headed:
In order to get full marks, a budding young scientist has to
The first test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity was completed by Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse in 1919. It was reported in a telegram which is now slightly torn. The remaining fragment reads
three pairs australia tahiti eclipse plates measured by campb…
trumpler sixty two to eighty four stars each five of six
measurements completely calculated give einstein deflection
between one point fifty nine and one point eighty six seconds
arc mean value one point seventy four seconds = campbell .+
It would seem, Professor Sir Arthur Eddington (or his chosen assistant) would have failed GCSE Science.
Science is only introduced quite late in the school syllabus. Flaws in the education system also occur at the most basic level, and in subjects totally unlike science.
From the age of three, when they are placed in playgroups, English children are controlled by regulators – teachers, headmasters and headmistresses, school governors and inspectors, government administrators, politicians. The powers in Government chose to ignore The Cambridge Primary Review and opted instead for a review by Sir Jim Rose, a former director of inspection at Ofsted. His report was used to justify teaching phonics.
Phonics is an approach to learning to read. It is based on the ideas that
In its purest form, “synthetic” phonics, that is all. Impure forms of phonics allow a child other clues about a word.
In her book, Maryanne Wolf lists five distinct aspects of learning to read:
Chapter 5 of her book is about how a child may progress towards mastery of all these aspects and become an expert reader. There is no unique way.
In England, the move to teaching by phonics was largely political. The then Government undertook to improve standards of literacy at certain ages in the school population. Phonics was the approach they settled on. It is now the principal approach named in Government documents.
Since then, the next Government has adopted the same approach in an even fiercer form. According to the principles of synthetic phonics, a child should learn to interpret a sequence of letters into a word even if there is no such word: to read “non-words”. It has been decreed that all children in State supported schools must be tested for their skill at reading nonsense at the age of seven, or in some cases six. This means they have to start being taught how to do it somewhat earlier. It is affecting what is taught in pre-school playgroups to children aged 4 or even 3 years old.
Associations between sounds and visual symbols take place in a part of the brain called the angular gyrus. Nerves don’t work well until they are coated with a shielding substance called myelin. The angular gyrus may not work properly in many children until they are at least five and maybe seven years old because, until then, the nerves in it are not fully coated. Much before that age, such children will be unable to quickly associate a sound with a sequence of letters. Maryanne Wolf describes why, and she mentions research demonstrating that early attempts to teach reading can do harm.
Experimental studies of children who speak English, French, Italian, Greek or Turkish show in all cases that they can count how many syllables are in a word before they can count phonemes, even in very short words of one syllable. This was known in 2006. Learning to read depends on matching a unit of sound with a string of letters. Many normal children aged 4 or 5 are likely to find this difficult with phonemes because they can’t recognise individual phonemes. If reading is to be taught at that age, then they might find it easier if they were taught to match whole syllables.
It seems that the science of child development was not the Government’s primary guiding principle.
Sir Jim Rose is an affable man whose first ambition was to follow a career in horticulture. It is said that he drifted towards teaching, vaguely hoping he might combine the two. According to one view, he has integrity and a pragmatic sense of what’s going to work; while according to another he is worldly wise. Although he now seems weary at the very mention of phonics, in the 1980s when he was head of primary inspection in HMI there was a joke that, if a PE lesson was to get a good rating, it should include phonics.
What were politicians and civil servants looking for when they chose him? Did they get what they wanted? If they did then, in view of published research, it seems that either what they wanted was not the best for children or else they were in a muddle.
Please ponder for a moment: what must life be like for a child, happy to wander and observe and fiddle with things in his own haphazard way, but not much interested in the obscure subtleties of “magic e”, in a school run by socially skilled fluent self-confident successful adults, following a syllabus invented by similar officials who refuse to follow the best advice because they believe in their vanity that they understand him?
An organisation called the “Institute for Government” has published a study of six British Government policies which have been successful. They infer that success involves seven common factors:
Of these, the second and third and fifth are most relevant: can those who make policy understand evidence? and do personal relationships and leadership among them increase or reduce openness?
In November 2011 the Public Administration Committee of the House Of Commons asked three eminent professors about the division of responsibilities at the top of the Civil Service. Professor Colin Talbot said
You have a Cabinet Secretary who is purely going to do policy; it is quite clear from the way it is described that the role is all about co-ordinating policy across the heart of Government … the Cabinet Secretary is no longer going to have any real responsibility for implementation. That is going to be hived off as a separate responsibility … Certainly in the job description of the Head of the Civil Service role, all of the objectives are about change, managing change across the Civil Service and implementation. That person is going to be outside of the core of Whitehall … there is a real danger that they will be the person who takes the opprobrium when things go wrong with implementation, rather than the Cabinet Secretary, who has no responsibility for it.
Policy makers have all the fun, and implementers have the hard work. Later on, he said
there is no such thing as an implementation problem in policy; there is just bad policy. A policy that has not been thought through in terms of the details of how you can actually make it happen, in terms of people, resources, capabilities in the Civil Service and the rest of the public service, clearly has not been thought through properly. … part of [the mix] also has to be people who have skill at recognising the difficulties of actually implementing things. They need not just say “No, Minister” or “No, Prime Minister” in constitutional terms but also “No, Minister” or “No, Prime Minister, in practical terms that simply is not going to work.”
In other words, when implementation of policy goes wrong, blame the policy makers for giving the implementers a job they were not able to do.
Lord Peter Hennessy gave evidence at that meeting too, and then again before the same committee when they considered the Civil Service Reform Plan in January 2013. He said
The easiest target for ministers who either aren’t up to it or are exhausted or feel immensely got at by everybody is to blame the servants. I used to say in the old days, in the Thatcher years actually when we had a version of this although it was different from the version we are now looking at, that the First Division Association should put in a bid for extra pay, the National Scapegoating Premium, because they are always blamed by Ministers first. It usually happens half way into a parliament. It was almost on cue this time, two to two and a half years in. The first people you blame are the Press Office because the message is terrific, it’s just you tossers are no good at putting it out, and then the second group of people you blame are the career civil service as a whole, so the Coalition has been absolutely on cue, but it is scratchier than it has usually been in the past …
This [Reform Plan] … gives me the the feel of being written at relative speed and in a high degree of frustration and anger, which is not the best way to approach these problems. This is a hissy fit, this document ….
The two trades attract different sorts of people. … the Civil Service attracts people who are amazingly evidence driven and believe in process almost to the level of fusspottery, and [politicians] don’t rise to the top … by the careful use of evidence …
It was an entertaining two minutes, and everything he said rings true. All the same, to the extent that I am a fusspotting pedant myself, I would perhaps like to know just what kind of civil servant he is considering. Is he only interested in members of the First Division Association? Do the lesser mortals who carry out policy deserve consideration? Also, what kind of evidence do these fusspots like? Are they competent statisticians? Would they regard Lord Hennessy’s fluent and well researched and sometimes colourful speech as evidence?
Those in Whitehall seem to appreciate such questions. Perhaps half in jest, or cynicism, a
civil servant compiled the following list of kinds of evidence in descending order of value put
on them by policy makers.
Most of the officials interviewed were familiar with a range of sources and types of evidence … but were less clear on … how the information was either collected or analysed. … The interviews demonstrated a clear need for policy officials to better understand the relative merits of different types of evidence …
That makes sense. The opening page of another goes
The Analytical Community
There is an analytical community within government to support those involved in strategy, policy and delivery to develop and use an evidence base. Government analysts contribute to all stages of policy development and implementation though (sic) helping to:
As well as using their own knowledge and skills, government analysts draw on appropriate external expertise, from the academic and broader research community …
which, in view of the facts, does not.
In the final draft of a report by the IPCC, the opening paragraph of the Executive Summary states
there is a growing recognition that decision makers often rely on intuitive thinking processes rather than undertaking a systematic analysis of options in a deliberative fashion. It is appropriate that climate change risk management strategies take into account both forms of thinking when considering policy choices where there is uncertainty and risk.
In other words, the future of the planet hangs on the whims of people who use Kahneman’s System 1. They should be using System 2.
Some sort of mistake occurred in the U.K. Department for Transport in 2012. Three staff were suspended, and the atmosphere in one part of the Civil Service was described as “poisonous”, after a scandal about commercial bids for a railway contract.
The Department may have been faced with a choice between on one hand a well run project and, on the other, obedience to overarching rules or other “guidance” on contract tendering. First, the Treasury may impose rules on budgets. Second, a high authority, perhaps Brussels, may impose rules on contracting. Third, the Civil Service itself may have a general attitude to separation of policy and implementation which caused a disruptive division of responsibility. It sounds rather like what Professor Talbot criticized in his evidence to a House Of Commons committee.
Technical risks were involved. Until 2011 the CSA to the Department for Transport (and also to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) was Professor Brian Collins. He described how only involving CSAs at later stages in decision processes risked their input being
too late to have a significant influence on the outcome of policy decisions
and he expressed concern over the
lack of … a formal process in policy creation that the CSA shall be involved ….
These brief phrases suggest that he was not altogether satisfied with the attitude in at least some parts of the Civil Service towards technical expertise.
In addition, civil servants were criticized for not taking advice: advice from lawyers, and from investigators into previous mistakes, and from their CSA. It appears that behaviour in the Department was consistent with two hypotheses:
There is not much doubt that big mistakes are made in both aspects, implementation and policy too. The Department of Energy and Climate Change threw whole industries into confusion, as they dithered over which ways of generating power they should subsidise, but that seemed to be due to argument and muddled thinking among Government Ministers including some outside that Department. The Department for Environment chose for its CSA a professor who “went native” and excited public wrath by advocating distinctly un-scientific tactics. John Reid, then Home Secretary, said some parts of the Home Office were not fit for purpose (and has since said he was quoting a civil servant). Someone with responsibility for Health, maybe a Minister, dismissed the wise man who told him the truth about addictive drugs. The departments and politicians responsible for the economy seem to have made some slips, as demonstrated by the events of 2008 and since. Those responsible for diplomacy and war do not appear to have done very well either, in view of the consequences over the following thirty years of the Bloody Sunday event in 1972, and the wrecking of Iraq after its invasion in 2003, and continuing attempts to go on playing what Arthur Conolly and Rudyard Kipling called “The Great Game” in Afghanistan, and the poor record of purchasing and financial accounting by the military.
There was a recent broadcast discussion called Decision Time about the Civil Service. It included Lord Falconer and Lord Reid and Lord O’Donnell and Nick Herbert MP, all Government insiders, and a journalist. Nick Herbert said he resigned his job as a Minister partly because he could only get the advice his civil servants wanted to give him. The programme lasted nearly three quarters of an hour. In all that time the word “academic” occurred once or twice, and the word “professor” occurred maybe four or five times. Lord Reid seemed particularly keen on one particular Prof. There was plenty of talk about “evidence based” decisions, but I don’t think they mentioned CSAs at all. The people who are most likely to understand what matters don’t have influence.
Both inside and outside government, when things go wrong, the problem often seems to be that there are very few people with influence who understand both the objective and how to achieve it. Outside government, power lies with bankers, and bankers understand banking. In the Western economic system, where banks rake in cash most quickly and simply by gambling, top bankers have little short term incentive to understand much more. Inside government, there is a mechanism for supplying such wisdom but the people with power sometimes choose to ignore it.
The solution must be to base decisions on evidence, and to give authority – power – to those who understand evidence. In this sense, a consensus of opinions of senior people in the City or Westminster is not evidence. It is common sense.
The people who understand evidence are the nerds. Such people can run great enterprises: Glaxo Smith Kline, ICI (the precursor of AstraZeneca), Rolls Royce, Intel, Google, Facebook and more have all prospered under leaders with systemizing talents, some of whom were or are undoubtedly nerds. Nerds can be ambitious. They can also be angry, so it would seem that there are probably plenty keen to take responsibility.
The present Government has shown good intentions. They have set up a Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office with a brief to study policy options rigorously. The Education Secretary has asked Ben Goldacre to suggest how to get more evidence-based practice into education. This is good if it is more than a fig leaf. Will the nerds’ suggestions and recommendations be adopted? Will these steps become a trend?
The problem lies in the differences between the natures of nerds and the natures of empathizers who hold power now. These two kinds of people have profoundly different senses of pleasure. They have different notions of value, different basic objectives, different notions of what is good. It may be hard for an empathizer and a systemizer to have confidence in each other.
Over the past decade two celebrated books, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and The Confidence Trap by David Runciman, have appeared. Both describe our social progress. Their common thread is that we shall survive and prosper because, as a community, we shall make mistakes, but because of our diversity of knowledge and ideas we shall overcome them.
This is good news. The other news is the message carried by Brian Fagan. Fagan takes the argument half way: increase in scale enlarges the problems. The other half is that by amalgamating societies into larger states and more homogeneous cultures, we may lose some intellectual diversity.
Certainly, social diversity of some kinds is being lost. For instance, the Encyclopædia Britannica has a substantial paragraph on languages and dialects in Italy. It states
many local dialects had no written form, obliging Italians to learn Italian in order to write to their relatives. The eventual supremacy of the standard language also owes much to the advent of television …
The general tone suggests that it is surprising how long they have survived. The same is likely to be true of conventional wisdom and conventional ignorance: local forms of them will give way to a national standard.
The hazard is the ignorance due to the last of the six causes of mistakes. Each dominant culture (which in practice tends to mean each large nation state) has its own set of popular outlets for news and opinion. Here in England, they are the BBC, the other national television channels and large Internet service providers, and the national newspaper groups. There are about a dozen of them. That would seem to be enough to offer a healthy range of views, and they often do, but not always. Here are three examples.
The first concerns democracy and elections. The voting systems most likely to produce results reflecting the electors’ wishes seem to be Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote.
The Alternative Vote is used for some national elections in Australia, Fiji and the Republic of Ireland, and in numerous local elections in the USA. The Single Transferable Vote is an extension of Alternative Vote designed for multi-member constituencies. It is or has been used in Denmark, Australia, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the upper house of India’s federal Parliament, Malta, New Zealand, the Church of England, and elsewhere. Both these systems have been shown to work well.
The electoral systems actually used in national elections in the USA and Britain and Italy and France and Germany all include some form of First Past The Post. This is a primitive old system. It almost never leads to election of anyone who is not sponsored by an established political party. Established political parties like this.
As a result, most electors can either waste their votes idealistically on no-hopers, or vote “tactically” for the least bad candidate with a chance of being elected, or not bother to vote at all. Elections are won by pandering to a very few voters in key constituencies. According to the Electoral Reform Society, it is
the very worst system for electing a representative government
and they explain why.
In 2011 the British electorate had a chance to change the system to Alternative Vote. They didn’t. It seems, most voters were persuaded that Alternative Vote is confusing, or likely to elect weird candidates, or expensive, or so slow that elections would lose their excitement, or perhaps that the existing system has been providing good government for all their lives and there is no point in changing.
Anyone who knows anything about it will grasp that this was the wrong choice. The electorate simply did not know the facts about government and voting.
The three major TV news channels each carried one snippet (just one, it seems) about AV and FPTP, with varying detail. All three touched on the two systems’ merits and flaws. The Telegraph had two short notes on AV. A fortnight before the poll the Sun carried the headline
”You’ll AV to vote..by law”
above a story beginning
ELECTION turnouts could fall so low under AV that NOT voting may be made illegal, Tory chairman Baroness Warsi warned yesterday.
which makes no sense. On the very day of the poll the Guardian had a substantial article which will have been too late for many of its readers. The Government handed out a leaflet explaining the mechanism of AV. As to the pros and cons, it just said
What are the arguments?
Campaigners in the referendum will explain why they think you should vote ‘yes’ (to use the ‘alternative vote’ system) or ‘no’ (to continue using the ‘first past the post’ system). Look out for information from them.
I don’t remember meeting a “campaigner”. It seems, a novice voter would have had to look quite hard. That seems to have been about all.
These outlets are controlled by a very few people: the BBC is subject to a board of 12 governors who are chosen by the Government. Each newspaper has a similar board or, in some cases, is owned by a very rich individual or private family. Whether or not they like each other, these governors and owners usually know each other. For instance, the Guardian’s governors are chaired by Liz Forgan who has also held high offices in Channel 4 TV and in the BBC. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, rode a horse provided by Rebekah Brooks, until recently chief executive officer of News International which controls the Sun and the Times newspapers and Sky TV. If they had wanted to inform the public about merits of electoral systems, they could have done it.
The second example is about the economy. In Britain, the Queen asked
Why did no one see the crisis coming?
Of course a few did. Perhaps rather more have since understood what should be done. The banks are immensely powerful and out of control, and they should be brought under control. In this case, there is rather more diversity of public views, but nothing much has changed and there is no clear prospect of change. The banking clique is overwhelmingly powerful.
The last example is about xenophobia. As he left office, President Eisenhower said
we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Fifty years later, after spending time on a US military base in a southern state giving seminars to officers, Simon Kuper seems to have discovered that the US military is
idyllic, intellectual and safe … much like life in Sweden (unless you’re off in Afghanistan spreading democracy) … the US military believes in life-long learning … also provides socialised healthcare, subsidised childcare, early pensions etc. I’ve never seen a socialist paradise like it …
and, unlike much of the civilian population, is inclined to
Ban guns … Believe in science … Fight racism … Make love not war … Ditch macho patriotic posturing … Cut military spending … Embrace big government …
at a cost in one year, 2012, of more than $2,000 for every American. The state of the industrial side of the complex may be found from accounts of the companies involved, if one can discover them. I have not tried.
The USA has allies to north and south, and great oceans to east and west with allies beyond them. It is as secure as any great nation can possibly be. The only significant threat to it is through technologies which the USA itself invented: nuclear bombs, easy intercontinental transport ranging from jumbo jets to rockets, and spying and disruption through the Internet. In most cases, what threats there are to the USA are responses to its own behaviour. Yet this myth of the external threat still pervades its culture. The military-industrial complex has overwhelmed all its rivals.
The same is true in Britain. Just very occasionally, a voice creeps through in dissent. I once saw an opinion piece in the paper I usually read suggesting that the British Ministry of Defence should be disbanded. For the moment, it does not matter greatly whether you or I agree with such an unusual view. The point is, did you see it? Have you ever heard anyone suggest the idea? I suspect not. When it comes to such topics, to all intents and purposes, in the popular culture there is not a full range of views.
It would be no surprise to find a small campaign trying to argue that the MoD is useless. The natural way to discover one would be to search for a pacifist newspaper. There is probably a group who publish one somewhere but I don’t know where. When set against the prevailing power of the military-industrial clique, any such little group is almost certainly insignificant.
There are exceptions, priesthoods and secret societies and oligarchies and such, but usually an in-group likes to expand. The pleasure of agreeing ecourages its members to seek out like thinkers. Even when the group itself prefers to be small, in most cases it accrues influence. When money is involved, the urge to expand and gain influence at the expense of rival opinions is very strong.
What matters is that the optimism of Surowiecki and Runciman is only justified if all views are heard. Otherwise the crowds will lack diversity and will not be equipped to discover wisdom. Evelyn Beatrice Hall suggested that Voltaire thought
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
The sentiment is good because it leads to good governance. Without uninhibited diversity of views, any wisdom of crowds can’t be relied on.
In the 1950s and early 60s there was more obvious diversity. Much was made of a few so-called “angry young men”. The reaction to them was captured by Michael Flanders, a bright goodnatured character but by no means a rebel, when he asserted in 1963
The purpose of Satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth – and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.
Satire still exists here, fifty years later, but it is looked on as entertainment. It is treated as light relief.
I would like to be an optimist like Surowiecki and Runciman. Where there is democracy and freedom of expression and the chance to be heard, so that electors can easily discover the key facts and can form well founded views and can then vote for a candidate who holds the same views, there is hope. In the great nation states that I am familiar with, that is not the current position.
There is a general presumption that someone who is cheerful and fluent and seemingly goodnatured may perhaps be reliable, and anyone else is probably rather less so. That is natural, and probably a good rough guide. Such people are perceived to have a certain kind of beauty.
It is not entirely accurate, though. Impressions are misleading. There are undoubtedly some who should not be trusted. One such class will be considered below, and some of them have just such beauty.
There is a myth, a gross libel, fostered largely by irrational novelists and such like, suggesting that there are “mad scientists”. There aren’t. Well, actually, perhaps there may be, but I have never met one. As far as I can remember, almost every picnic I have ever been on was arranged by physicists, with perhaps one or two organised by the occasional biochemist.
Empathizers have a tendency to suggest that systemizers are in some way not quite human. Very rarely, I have heard it said that full consciousness necessarily involves the use of language. This appears to be another myth. It is an extension of the seeming fallacy that all living creatures other than us humans are not fully conscious and sentient.
A rational thinker can explain quite easily how this assertion arises: for those who believe it, it is true. There are many people who live to chatter. It seems that their brains are dominated by the components, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area and the angular gyrus, which handle construction and perception and understanding of language. These components are all in the brain’s left hemisphere, and such people are usually right handed as one would expect since the left side of the brain is linked to the right side of the body. Systemizers, typically heterosexual men such as Paul Dirac, talk somewhat less or less fast. In their brains, the right hemisphere is usually slightly larger than the left hemisphere. They tend to take what is said literally, and miss metaphors and innuendos which are grasped by chatterers. Conversely, those who live to chatter sometimes can’t understand those who don’t, partly because chatterers are prone to find communication difficult with those who don’t chatter, and partly because, even if the two sorts could communicate easily, a fully developed chatterer has a smaller right hemisphere and so lacks the capacity to appreciate the mental processes enjoyed by a systemizer. This is perhaps why men sometimes regard women as tending to be silly and women such as J K Rowling sometimes regard men as having the emotional depth of a teaspoon (and why J K Rowling, a woman, could express herself so neatly). If there is one thing wrong with Harry Potter, it is he talks too much. Boys are taciturn.
Empathizers and systemizers do sometimes disagree publicly both about basic decisions and about how to make them. A prime case is the controversy over The Spirit Level, a book which makes much use of statistics. Its authors argue cogently that fairness is good for very nearly everyone, even those who are well off. Maybe some of its critics are not empathizers but those with vested interests.
There are many decisions which empathizers are likely to make better than nerds. Any decision on a matter of general interest is likely to be better if an empathizer contributes, as such a person often has a good sense of common emotional needs. He can help to form overall objectives, though empathy alone is an inaccurate guide.
Political planning requires empathy. A classic case was the triumph of Nancy Pelosi who drove through health reform for the USA when those around her thought it could not be done. Her talent let her assess the moods of a few key swing voters in the Congress and Senate.
Usually, empathizers are also valuable when making a decision about a single individual. They can be expected to appreciate most aspects of any one person more quickly and often more accurately than a systemizer using System 2. The exceptions are the aspects which an empathizer can’t easily appreciate and may not realise that he can’t appreciate. Otherwise, for all such decisions, it is wise to involve a natural empathizer.
That does not mean to say that systemizers shouldn’t be involved too.
James Surowiecki describes experiments by Solomon Asch. According to Asch, group members can often be persuaded to state that what they know is false, because doing so is easier than resisting the pressure to conform. Surowiecki also wrote
Groups benefit from members talking to and learning from each other, but too much communication, paradoxically, can actually make the group as a whole less intelligent. … Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.
You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you won’t make the group any dumber.
The only thing wrong with these assertions is, there is nothing paradoxical about them.
A systemizer is more likely than an empathiser to be independent and rational and, one might hope, more likely to understand his own limitations. Perhaps the most telling reason for listening to nerds is
Faith in the wisdom of cliques will never do this.
There are just two problems with all this. The first is
That seems to be the current state of the most common form of human nature. The other is
If someone bounces up and announces his nerdy credentials, should he be believed? The best people to decide will be the true nerds, but the reaction of a true nerd in such a situation may be to slouch away in silent disgust. Beware this phenomenon.
At the beginning of this chapter, there was a short outline of three ways to take decisions. We now come to the third: do what you like.
This is not as silly as it sounds. As teenagers, two of us once approached a doorway and each started bowing and waving the other through first. While this went on, someone else went between us and straight through the door. Sometimes courtesy is a waste of time.
Narcissism is close to the antithesis of altruism. Briefly put, a narcissist is someone who believes himself to be exceptional, for whom other people are servants or tools whose opinions and wishes don’t matter. A psychopath is someone for whom anyone else’s distress doesn’t matter. Signs of these emotions in others have no emotional impact on them. A psychopath may be incapable of understanding his own past or approaching distress too. Such people lack fear. Most of us like to see others happy, and we like to know that our opinions match those of our companions. A narcissist or psychopath has little or no yearning for what most of us would call moral values, perhaps because morality is reinforced by the opinions and desires of others about which narcissists and psychopaths don’t care.
A narcissist may understand the principles of ethics on a theoretical level. He may want to be ethical, and on that level he may believe that he is scrupulous and well intentioned even while he is in fact selfish. Some mild narcissists can be useful socially responsible members of society. It may be unhelpful to denounce a narcissist. If such a person is doing good, then naming and shaming him might leave him feeling bitter, and cause him to succumb to base instincts and stop bothering to do good any more.
Supposedly great leaders are often narcissists, and sometimes psychopaths, and narcissism often manifests itself as an inclination to lead. Narcissism and psychopathy are two of a small group of associated traits. The others are “borderline personality disorder” and histrionic behaviour. Histrionic narcissists are inclined to promote themselves, and they are good at it. Normal people listening to them are often impressed by their ideas, but this seems to be largely due to presentation of the ideas, not their quality, except when two narcissists compete for attention. The pleasure of inspiring leadership is dangerous: see the examples of being led. Successful inspiring leaders are all too often just the sort of dangerous characters who should most certainly not be entrusted with any kind of authority.
In this case, there are three forms of pleasure, or its absence, at issue.
These two social emotions could perhaps cause most of us to develop senses of sympathy and goodwill. The third is
All this matters because narcissists do gain power. They like it. They compete for it, and the competition is not friendly. Winston Churchill loathed Charles de Gaulle. It is said that two thirds of managers are narcissists and a substantial proportion are psychopaths. Once installed, they maintain their positions by using that power. A narcissist is most dangerous when he feels insecure.
Once in power, they control money and resources, and workloads, and information, and administrative process. I have seen it all. They appoint and promote others like themselves where normal people might not. They use gagging clauses in contracts. I was once invited to sign one. Such contracts are tempting – they offer big bribes – and they are effective – anyone who signs and then breaks the contract must repay the bribe, and perhaps more. One clause in such a contract forbids whoever signs it from revealing its existence. I did not sign, but I have seen a good man go to pieces after he was tempted into management. I don’t know for certain why, but I do know that he was unable to divulge some other information and I guess he signed a more comprehensive gagging contract than the simple one offered to me.
According to hearsay, gagging clauses are used routinely in many universities. By the nature of such clauses, hearsay is the best evidence one is ever likely to find: the clauses themselves prevent anything more. Such conduct is bad. It damages universities. If a so-called university deserves that title then it should be a place where mature civilised people are free to discuss any topic, subject only to normal conventions of courtesy and discretion. This is the foundation of our culture. This is why our universities are precious. A gagging clause destroys that freedom.
Gagging clauses are also in use by management of the UK National Health Service and the BBC. Perhaps they are excusable in commercial companies without great public responsibility, but in state services there is no good reason for them.
The notion of psychopathy is not totally cut and dried. Life with some aspects of such a trait can be fun. Eroll Flynn found a piece of fat and some string, and tied one end of the string round the fat, and then fed the fat to a goose. The point is that a lump of fat goes through a goose’s alimentary canal fast, so quite soon the lump came out of the goose’s back end still tied to the string. He then fed it, still on the same string, to another goose.
Eroll Flynn was cast (typecast?) as a swashbuckling pirate. Another such classic was Walt Dysney’s Captain Hook, in his film of Peter Pan which I love. He and Peter made a fine pair of competing narcissists. Hook shot his own crew on a whim, and he manipulated Tinkerbell, so could he be seen as a psychopath? Might Peter himself have been that sort of person too? He was impulsive and pitiless, at least as far as poor Captain Hook was concerned, and fearless; in fact Hook showed more fear (of the crocodile) than Peter, so perhaps Peter is the closer to a portrayal of psychopathy. But then, he feared for Tinkerbell.
Occasionally I have met people who aspire to management and who seem to cultivate an air of ruthless aggression, but who show normal human sympathy when off guard and relaxed. It seems they recognise the ruthless traits in some successful managers, and try to copy them. One such, a woman who I worked for long ago, learned management methods in a corporation not noted for its warmth and sympathy. When she tried to bully me, I told her I was sorry for her and explained why. Her unpleasant mood collapsed and from then on we were on good terms.
I have written before about the tendency of managers to show unpleasant traits. Not surprisingly, managers don’t seem to enjoy reading about such ideas. Several very longstanding acquaintances who now regard themselves as managers don’t speak to me any more. This is a pity. I like these people.
I think the point is this. Our species is in transition. For most of the past few hundred thousand years, our ancestors lived among trees and rocks, under sun and clouds, in small family groups, watching and listening to wild animals and birds and occasionally each other. Then, about ten thousand years ago, everything changed when agriculture was invented. In very few generations diet changed, lifestyle changed, population density changed, social structure changed. Even health changed, as diets perhaps became more reliable but lost the variety enjoyed by hunter-gatherers. This process of change has not stopped yet. Lifestyles change for each new generation.
While all this radical social upheaval is going on, our human instincts are changing under Darwinian evolutionary pressure. Anyone with a trace of social aptitude is likely to be more successful than the socially incompetent, and anyone with a preference for open space and greenery suffers and doesn’t achieve his best in a metropolis. At the same time, introvert mildly obsessive people who are good with patterns thrive because they have a new niche as software programmers, and narcissists thrive because they are adept at rising through hierarchies of managers until
those jockeying to be captain of the ship can afford to spend their entire time backstabbing, stealing credit from rivals and waging turf wars … politics overshadows everything … personal career is all that matters. The individual’s priorities are the only agenda …
Just in the past hundred years or less, social structures have changed, and as a result they favour different kinds of human character.
Epigenetic features can change fast, but they have limited scope. The main genome evolves more slowly (though Marlene Zuk says it evolves faster than is often supposed). The genetics of inherited preferences can’t adapt fast enough to keep up. Very few of us are anywhere near optimally adapted to modern life. Almost all of us have a lot of attitudes suited to hunter-gathering stone age life, and perhaps some preferences for precision and truth and understanding, and maybe some others suited to life in a huge confused dense social whirl. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the inheritable preferences which are optimal for an individual to prosper socially are also those best suited to foster the society as a whole. We are a very mixed bunch.
In his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, Steven Pinker argues that the human race is less violent now than ever before. The “better angels” of his title are empathy and self-control and the moral sense and reason.
Self-control is a function of the higher brain. It depends on suppressing immediate desires in the expectation of later rewards.
Without much evidence, it seems that there can be different sources of a moral sense. It may be due to direct Hebbian learning: good behaviour is rewarded with smiles and bad behaviour is punished with frowns or withdrawal. It may be a development of empathy: good behaviour brings its own reward through empathy with a beneficiary of the behaviour. It may be due to rationality: evidence and logic suggest that everyone benefits from a moral ethos. Humans are social creatures, and every individual depends on this ethos. It may be learned either by direct involvement or through detached observation. Babies show signs of a moral preference while watching kind and unkind acts in cartoon films.
Empathy encourages kindness, and discourages violence, directly too. However, this does not seem to be a plausible reason for less violence. Empathy depends a lot on shared attributes. It works best within cliques and social classes and tribes. It does little to reduce inter tribal conflict, either between nations or between neighbouring social groups.
Reason is the only cause of this change which is likely to work at a distance, either between different social strata or between individuals of different tribes and classes and widely separated nations. Peter Singer reviewed Pinker’s book, and wrote
To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and its tendency to denigrate the role reason plays in human behavior, the most striking aspect of Pinker’s account is that the last of his “better angels” is reason. Here he draws on a metaphor I used in my 1981 book “The Expanding Circle.” To indicate that reason can take us to places that we might not expect to reach, I wrote of an “escalator of reason” that can take us to a vantage point from which we see that our own interests are similar to, and from the point of view of the universe do not matter more than, the interests of others. Pinker quotes this passage, and then goes on to develop the argument much more thoroughly than I ever did. (Disclosure: Pinker wrote an endorsement for a recent reissue of “The Expanding Circle.”)
Pinker’s claim that reason is an important factor in the trends he has described relies in part on the “Flynn effect” – the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that ever since I.Q. tests were first administered, the scores achieved by those taking the test have been rising. The average I.Q. is, by definition, 100; but to achieve that result, raw test scores have to be standardized. If the average teenager today could go back in time and take an I.Q. test from 1910, he or she would have an I.Q. of 130, which would be better than 98 percent of those taking the test then. Nor is it easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen most do not require a good vocabulary or even mathematical ability, but instead test powers of abstract reasoning. One theory is that we have gotten better at I.Q. tests because we live in a more symbol-rich environment. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role. …
For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them.
Perhaps Elizabeth Wordsworth did not understand that it helps to be clever if one wants to be good.
There has been a trend for societies and nations to amalgamate. The legal systems of England and Wales were united by acts in 1535 and 1542 under King Henry VIII, and Ireland was joined at about the same time. Scotland joined in 1706 or 1707. The USA started with eleven states in 1787 and has been growing steadily since. The state or Kingdom of Italy has been founded repeatedly: by the Romans maybe, and by the Ostrogoths in 493, by the Lombards in 568, by Napoleon in the early 19th century, and by Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia in 1861. Germany was unified in 1871 under Wilhelm of Prussia and Otto von Bismarck. In Japan, around the start of the 8th century, Prince Shōtoku established a centralized government based on seventeen principles, the first of which can be roughly translated as
Some of these states have shrunk somewhat since, and most empires disintegrate completely, but the tendency continues.
In a social setting, one of the effects of scaling up in the manner described by Brian Fagan is that power becomes concentrated. Decisions become more significant and entail greater risks.
According to the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, the three nations perceived to be least corrupt are Denmark and Finland and New Zealand. In the Harmony Index for 27 countries, which does not cover Denmark, the top three for “Harmony in the country” are Finland, Switzerland and New Zealand. They are all small. I guess this is not a coincidence. In small nations, there is not much chance for anyone to dominate excessively because there is not much to be dominated, and if anybody tried then everyone would soon know about it. Large states provide more opportunities to collect and hide and abuse power.
There are exceptions. For instance, the reputation for straightforward dealing in the Irish Republic is not very good. Perhaps this is due to recent Irish history. The Irish won independence from England less than a century ago, and maybe they still suffer the effects of young institutions and an old tradition of extremes of wealth and poverty: see below.
Another common feature of those three most civilised states is they all have cold winters (except the North Island of New Zealand). Such weather encourages good social systems because if things aren’t well run then deep snow entails deep trouble.
I know of five ways to reduce this risk of concentrated power. The most obvious is to avoid creating large states. Large states are typically built by leaders with grandiose ambitions: histrionic narcissists. If possible, they should not be given high office. This is hard. The pleasure of being led creates desires to follow just such dangerous leaders, and narcissists are skilled at exploiting them.
The second is to break up large states into small states: devolution and independence. This is not favoured by narcissists in power. (By the way, don’t be put off this idea by chatter about economics and whatnot. Schumacher, an economist, wrote eloquently in favour of small states. Switzerland and Denmark and Luxembourg and Liechtenstein are all doing quite nicely, thank you.)
Another consists of stable institutions which ensure fair law and trusted trade mechanisms and reliable news media. When they exist, they dilute and constrain power.
Another lies in the fair distribution of wealth. Wealth and poverty provide the wealthy with power over the poor. One way to constrain power is to prevent excessive accumulation of wealth, and provide adequate social security. When there is no reason to fear poverty then power itself becomes weaker. Again, most of those in power are not keen on this. Jos Mujica, President of Uruguay, is a noted exception.
The last lies in the level of general education, including conventional science and technology, and social geography and modern languages, and psychology, particularly human character. The sciences enable the coming generation to make the best of the places we live in. It offers the poor a chance to improve their lot. Geography and languages let us understand how other nations solve their problems, and how they view us, so they give us a perspective on our home systems. As to psychology, I hope you are already persuaded of its value.
Our planet has never before been host to such an extraordinary species as us. Very few other species have a mental capacity for knowledge and rationality approaching ours, and those which have it lack attributes such as hands and language. We have unique power.
We are often irrational and ignorant, and sometimes weak. Beauty and pleasure appear to be mental guides which help us cope with our ignorance and irrationality. They evolved in us over a very long period, for most of which our ancestors’ lives and powers were very different from ours. From the point of view of survival and prospering, there are circumstances when they are useless or worse.
We do not understand ourselves very well. Very rarely do we appreciate our own dependence on our instincts and subconscious mental processes.
We do not all understand each other very well. Some do much better than others, but some of those who think they understand others in fact don’t understand as well as they think they do. We are immensely varied.
Although many of us exhibit curiosity, most of us are only curious about what we can perceive and understand. We each have mental representations of the world we live in, and it is normal to be afraid of any evidence that this mental model is inaccurate. We are more willing to accept experiences which reinforce what we expect. Ignorance is bliss. We often prefer to remain ignorant, and in particular we prefer to be ignorant of our ignorance.
How are we to cope with ourselves? There are some big conflicts between different human urges and needs. Here are three examples.
These are two pleasures. Both are needed before one can be creative and experimental, but one person’s freedom may violate someone else’s security.
Profit is the usual incentive which encourages initiative, but in many cases profit from one individual’s initiative only arises by making use of the labour of others. How should the profit of labour be divided? There will be little incentive for initiative without a significant share of profit, but we are social creatures, and we prosper best in fair societies. Talents for initiative and creativity are not confined to just a few. In an unfair society, most talent is wasted.
Constraints on freedom, and fair distribution of profits, require social rules. How should they be enforced? The simple approach would be something like the tit-for-tat algorithm: be kind until someone else is unkind, and then retaliate once immediately. In a complex society, this won’t work. For a start, to be fair, one has to be sure that a rule has been broken and that the rule itself is fair. Beyond that, it leaves no room for mistakes. If every mistake is punished, punishments will become unjust. Punishment will undermine the rules. A saint is someone who pardons wrongs which he suffers, lest they are mistakes. We need a little saintliness.
We cannot survive without beauty and pleasure. They are the joy in life. We also need them as practical guides through life, but they only work adequately in a largely ordered world which we can understand intuitively. The world is not always like that, and we are most at risk when we imagine it is. Our best chance is to try to be kind and tolerant, to support justice; and knowledgeable, as far as we can be, so that we can keep our corner of the world more ordered and avoid basic mistakes; and rational, to overcome our inevitable ignorance.
Epicureanism was discussed by Melvyn Bragg and guests . There have been many experiments on rats, cats, monkeys and humans demonstrating the power of pleasure. Pleasure can be caused by weak electric currents which stimulate very small regions in their brains: see e.g. . In one case, the rat involved wanted nothing else. Even butterflies and fruit flies, insects barely a millimetre long, have preferences [434, 290].
Sarah Wollaston described and explained her experiences as an MP to Decca Aitkenhead .
The causes of the crash in 2008 were quite simple. The short and medium term issues have been neatly summarised by Martin Wolf in his regular articles in the Financial Times. The long term problem is unbalanced distribution of wealth.
The direct cause was debt [307, 306, 461], especially house mortgages. I moved into my first home in 1976, and into my current home in 2003. This one cost about 33 times what the first cost. It is bigger, and all prices have risen, but that ratio is too big.
Banks lent big mortgages to house buyers. This hurt the buyers because it inflated house prices, since there was more money available to spend on them, so buyers had to borrow even more. It hurt them again when the bubble burst and house prices fell: many buyers were insolvent. It hurt the banks, which were left with bad debts. It hurt all trading industries because their main ultimate customers, ordinary householders, had no spare cash to spend.
Banks entered into the mess at three points.
Note that there are (at least) four quite different classes of debtors:
Money lubricates an economy. There is a school of thought that, when all other borrowers are so indebted that they can’t borrow and spend any more, then Governments should borrow lots and then spend lots, just to get money flowing again. This is one of very few ways by which the firms which make paraphernalia can start selling anything again. Only the Government can find the money to buy their goods.
There is another school of thought which believes that Governments should avoid debt, just like the rest of us. Selling bonds leaves a Government with long term debts which cost the nation interest until they are repaid. The question is, when is it best to avoid further national debt, and when is it best to take on some more debt in order to invest in and lubricate everything else?
Avoiding more national debt may be a good long term idea, but in a recession it may be counter productive: a Government needs money to pay pensions, teach children, fight wars etc., and it gets some of it by taxing trade and incomes. In a recession there is less trade and less personal income, so the Government collects less tax. It may have to make up the sortfall by borrowing more, anyway.
This sometimes happens [255, 130]. In the Daily Telegraph, Mehreen Khan reported
Income tax receipts have fallen 0.8pc against a full-year forecast of a 6.5pc rise, according to the OBR’s figures.
With the British economy creating plenty of new low-paid jobs, more people are subject to the new tax-free personal threshold of £10,000. Meanwhile, weak wage growth has also meant that more of the population is being pulled back into lower income tax brackets, hurting the Exchequer.
Martin Wolf and Dirk Bezemer [526, 46] between them could probably sort out the banks satisfactorily. Ha-Joon Chang (see ) wrote celebrated notes on the general economic background . Matt Ridley makes a useful comment [401, page 9], maybe following [447, 446]: markets in goods and services are almost invariably stable, but markets in assets and capital are almost invariably unstable. They develop bubbles which crash. Either many bankers have not understood this or they don’t care [473, 398].
Since the crash, the British Parliament passed a banking reform bill which appears to be helpful but insufficient . Martin Wolf wrote 
in essence, today’s financial system is the same as before. Worse, it is yet more dominated by a small number of thinly capitalised, complex, global behemoths.
David Blanchflower wrote 
No previous macroeconomic policies for three centuries have been so disastrous.
The long term issue is rather different: what caused all the debt?
In part, it arose because people are living longer (see the third set of explanations in ). Those in employment, almost all no older than 65 years, somehow have to pay more to support their parents and grandparents. The costs are often hidden: the old have pensions, but these pensions have to be funded by “profits from investments”, which often means profits of firms which have to make more money by employing fewer staff or paying their staff less. However, it seems this is not the only issue.
From the end of the second world war until the mid or late 1970s, an increasing share of created wealth was paid to the general population who created it [371, 372, 48, 357, 358, 418]. They spent it on goods and services, so money circulated through shops and businesses, and the economy prospered. The very rich, who spend a much smaller proportion of their income in shops, took a steadily smaller share. Around 1973, at the minimum of their greed in the USA, the richest 1% took about 7.75% of all income. In the UK there was a similar minimum of greed around 1978. Since then, the very few very rich have kept more and more for themselves, and the rest of us have had relatively less. In 2007 in the USA, the richest 1% took 18.33%. The less well off have only been able to go on spending by borrowing. Since about 1980 the economy has been funded by increasing debt. In 2008, borrowers went bankrupt, some banks faced bankruptcy too, and for a short while it seemed that everything might stop.
Palley concludes that this change in distribution of wealth was bad economically; Wilkinson and Pickett  and Dorling argue that it is damaging socially; three researchers at the International Monetary Fund  agree with Palley’s case that moderate wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor increases wealth creation; and Piketty writes that these views are supported by data from tax returns and records of death duties over past centuries .
Debt is not the only consequence of the rich becoming very rich. In addition, the very rich lose any incentive to invest their riches into ways to create more wealth. If the growth rate of production is small, much less than the rate of return on investments of all sorts, then the rich get richer quicker by buying up and holding existing investments rather than building new ones . The result is economic stagnation which is very difficult to escape .
Perhaps it is worth mentioning other views. Ridley [401, page 19] regards this transfer of wealth to the rich as a local side effect of economic liberal trends with immense worldwide benefits, and according to Hayek it will be a temporary phase anyway. I don’t know what the others think of Hayek. Meanwhile the so-called precariat remain in their state [395, 433]:
Some three million [British] households live on a financial knife-edge, when just a small drop in income or an extra cost could put them at risk of losing their home.
Big Government blunders have been due to very simple ignorance [257, 516]. Of course, that still leaves open the question: what was the ignorance of such large cohorts of supposedly intelligent well educated Ministers and Civil Servants due to?
The World Bank has described deposits of iron and copper ores in Afghanistan as “world-class” [301, 535, 402]. Anyone who thinks that news media give fair coverage might like to compare those references and [376, 423, 424] with prominent British press reports around the times of the associated events.
Brian Fagan wrote a celebrated book  describing how climate has affected human civilisation. His account of the effects of agriculture is on pages 91–96. His thesis that risks grow as societies integrate applies not just to banks. The risk to them has been recognised, and there are software systems designed to estimate that risk. One of the biggest and most admired such systems, “Aladdin”, is owned by a company called BlackRock Inc. who let other investor firms use it. According to The Economist magazine 
it has $4.1 trillion in assets under management, making it bigger than any bank, insurance company, government fund or rival asset-management firm. It single-handedly manages almost as much money as all the world’s private-equity and hedge funds.
Furthermore, many very big investors use Aladdin to guide their decisions.
BlackRock’s success means that more and more of the market is thinking the same way. … In a panic, this could increase the risk of all of them wanting to jump the same way, making things worse. … Mr Fink [BlackRock’s founder] concedes the theoretical possibility of a herd mentality taking hold among users of Aladdin …
The quotation about the value of babies is attributed to Michael Faraday . Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac is one of my heroes. He mastered the theories of physics which were current in the early 20th century, and made up his mind what was wrong with them and what characteristics a synthesis of them should have, and then went away and invented such a synthesis. The result is a masterpiece, and furthermore it really does depict what goes on in the real World. To learn more about him, see [502, 111, 194]. There is a very succinct explanation of how his ideas fit with Einstein’s in [220, bottom of page 8].
Helen Czerski  spends time on ships in various parts of the oceans, scuba diving and trailing buoys with apparatus to detect and measure bubbles. She does somewhat more mundane things on dry land, such as writing learned papers and making TV programmes.
Proust and the Squid  “is an inspiring celebration of the science of reading” .
Temple Grandin has written several books on her experience of autism: see . The quotation is from .
Simon Baron-Cohen hesitated to make his ideas about typical male and female brains public for fear of being misunderstood, but when he did, they were well received. The quotation about his view of extreme female brains is from [31, pages 173-174], where he also explains why he thinks Williams’ syndrome is not part of it. He makes clear [32, pages 21-30] that the autism spectrum is an evolving concept with several subdivisions, and he describes Asperger syndrome further in [33, Chapter 4].
Uta Frith’s admission of nerdiness is in . During a radio interview, she said she was attracted to psychology partly because a course about it taught statistics . She has written a reminiscence , with many references, on how understanding of autism has developed over the past half century. Studies of crows  are not yet so far advanced, but the birds show promise. Recently, it has been found  that human thought is more rational when not conducted in one’s native language. I am not going to try to explain what rationality is.
Definitions of the notion of a nerd include
a person who is intellectually knowledgeable or bright, but socially inept
an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person
a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person
though some are kinder:
an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit
one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.
Stephen Bain wrote 
The torment and ostracism of intellectuals is so prevalent that American culture captures it in a stereotype: the nerd. American society often depicts the intellectual as the physically weak, ugly, and clumsy, socially awkward or shy, and romantically hopeless victim of the American teenage ideal.
Daniel Kahneman described the quick process of decision making which uses patterns and associations [247, 464]. He contrasted it with the rational approach preferred by nerds.
Psychologists sometimes speak of in-groups and out-groups. Stuart Sutherland devotes a chapter to them. It seems that nerds form the ultimate out-group. Bearing in mind their preference for rationality and Sutherland’s account of experiments by Muzifer Sherif, the nerds may well prefer it that way.
Sutherland’s book  is not as famous as Kahneman’s work but it is celebrated. Ben Goldacre includes it in the short section of Further reading and acknowledgements in his book Bad Science . Nicholas Lezard  wrote
You must buy this book, for every home should have it. In fact, the advance of civilisation and the cultivation of the collective mind would be improved if … this book … were placed in the bedside cabinets of crappy hotels throughout the world.
A few charge it with inaccuracies, but I did not notice any and I don’t think they are significant.
Bucholtz’s account of teenage girl nerds appeared in [70, 71].
The Pirate Party increased its share of votes in several recent elections , and gained seats in the parliament in Schleswig-Holstein where they are now on a par with the FPD . Ben Goldacre’s views of nerds are taken from one of his excellent weekly notes  in the Guardian, which were often about data and statistical information. Peter Wilby  is also concerned that abuse of statistics misleads voters and harms democracy. Duncan Watts’ new book  probably deserves more attention than I have yet made time for. He is quoted  as saying
Everybody thinks they know what common sense is, and nobody agrees on a definition
so I hope he will not be upset if my notion of common sense differs somewhat from his. His thesis is supported by the research of Kahneman and Tversky  on fast subconscious thinking guided by fallible heuristics. The politician whose memoirs were reviewed by John Gray  was Chris Patten. Frank Wilczek’s account of Dirac’s account of electrons is in .
There is much more to being a nerd than a grasp of statistics – many nerds are not greatly interested in them – but if you are not one and are curious about nerds then one starting point might be the new book by Charles Wheelan . It is recommended for understanding what statistics can and can’t do. If you really want to do something with statistics, whether you are a nerd or not, try Frances Clegg’s lovely old little book . Reading and using that will call for a bit of hard work, but it is worth it.
The predicament of science, and more generally all forms of rigorous thought, under the immense weight of conventional wisdom or whatever it might be called, is serious. The quotations about Victor Deeb’s suffering come from  and . Mark Henderson [205, 206] presents examples.
Anthony King and Ivor Crewe have written another such collection  which I only know of from reviews [242, 382, 456, 517, 292]. These two authors show no signs of nerdiness. Philip Johnston  writes of them
But knowing the “what” is one thing; it is the “why” that intrigues and which the authors find perplexing.
They mention “cultural disconnect”, which may mean ignorance due to social class structure. However Brian R. Martin  writes
There was also “group think”, where only a closed group of people with a similar political outlook considered a proposal, and no attempt was made to include anyone who might challenge its assumptions.
This is exactly what one would expect to find in a clique of natural empathizers. Stuart Sutherland explains this phenomenon in detail.
In October 2010, the British Government was persuaded to change its research funding policy by a popular demonstration , though the organiser Jenny Rohn believed “We should be wary, not pleased”. It seems that whole national financial systems are being driven in dangerous directions by some forms of common sense: see e.g. .
There is an organisation in Austria, called fit2work, which arranges for unemployed people to have short term employment which will train them to be employable anywhere. They publish a leaflet  which says
Als Ergebnis der Betreuung könnte z.B. Ihr aktueller Arbeitsplatz so angepasst werden, dass Sie ohne gesundheitliche Einschränkung weiterarbeiten können …
Mark Stringer, cofounder of Agile Lab, is the entrepreneur manager who wrote the blog  about poor presentations of good technology. Paul Krugman derides what he calls the
near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive
in the U.S. Republican Party .
David Attenborough’s lament about the interests and stamina of TV controllers and audiences appeared in the Radio Times. It has been reported widely, e.g. . The link between cleanliness and allergies should now be common knowledge . I concocted a display of numbers, showing their prime factors . It may appeal to teachers.
David Jukes keeps a list of all codes of food additives approved by the European Union . Diphosphates have code E450. For phosphate additives in the USA, see . Sodium Aluminium Phosphate has code SALP (21CFR182.1781) in the USA and E541 in Europe. It is advertised for sale as a raising agent in quantities up to 10000 metric tons per year from Jiangsu, China . Food-Info in the Netherlands  and MBM in Australia  provide details of specific diphosphates. None of the ones they mention contain aluminium, but several other aluminium compounds have been approved as food additives in the past . It would seem from this that the supermarket buns contain nothing more dangerous than sugar.
Since this was first drafted, our youngest has brought home from his school an advertisement headed “Mad SCIENCE Summer Camps”. I won’t give a reference, lest the camp gains more custom. Even more recently, a silly person on the most public possible medium  said “Frankenstein is about science” which is simply wrong. John Wyndham used to say that the letters SF should stand for Social Fantasy, but not many seem to have listened to him.
The parts of the brain concerned with language have long been topics of much interest: see [78, 533]. Asymmetry in human brains  has also been studied for at least two decades. The authors of The Spirit Level continue to defend their work vigorously . Nancy Pelosi’s effort and success were celebrated by Rachel Morris .
Peter Jay  was careful to emphasise that his “waltz” is just a pattern which can be seen recurring in economic history. It is not a rigid law. Martin Wolf wrote a useful outline  of why banking is risky. Nothing much seems to have come of a recent bill on regulation of banks .
Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov isolated graphene  at Manchester University in 2003. Their first work was published in 2004. In 2007 a spin-out company, Graphene Industries , was formed in Manchester “to capitalise on the advances made by Professor Andre Geim’s research group at Manchester University”. Professors Geim and Novoselov received the Nobel Prize in 2010. In 2011 the Government granted £50 million for research into graphene. In December 2012 they granted another £21.5 million for more research and commercial development, to be divided between six universities. Eight companies, of which four are native to Britain, will between them add another £12 million. [342, 38, 440] Metalgrass software  provided the survey of companies involved with graphene. The numbers of patents are from .
Mariana Mazzucato [298, 528] argues that any research project aimed at inventing a genuine new technology is likely to take so long, and cost so much, and is so likely to fail, that no commercial organisation would ever fund it. Almost all new engineering ideas depend on state sponsorship. What customers see as new technology, such as the beautiful gadgets sold by Apple, is really formed by putting together the results of “seven decades of state-supported innovation”. Forty years ago, Ernst Schumacher made essentially the same point in a broader context [428, Chapter 19]:
under private ownership every bit of wealth, as it arises, is immediately and automatically privately appropriated … large amounts of public funds have been and are being spent on what is generally called the ‘infrastructure’, and the benefits go largely to private enterprise free of charge.
New technology, and other intellectual property, is part of the infrastructure. It is created by those who practice the STEM subjects, science and technology and engineering and mathematics. Much of the appropriating is done by banks.
Geim and Novoselov came to England from Russia. Mazzucato was born in Rome. Schumacher was born in Bonn. We English are very lucky, that we can attract such eminent talent. We depend for our prosperity on such as them. We need to foster a welcoming culture where STEM experts, and others, thrive.
The difference in outlooks of engineers and bankers is hampering British efforts to develop graphene . There may be other differences in character between bankers and engineers. For instance, as far as I know, no engineer has ever been compared to a rutting chimpanzee: [393, 9].
Perhaps nowadays it is not considered polite to emphasise the rivalry between Sheffield and Leeds , but it certainly did once exist. The statement of objectives of Sparkassen, which appears in , is simple and unqualified. Note, though, there is a view that Germany is no longer as relatively prosperous as it was  because of its more general financial and social policies. Wikipedia  provided the quotation about zaibatsu. Of course, entrepreneurs face other problems. Andre Geim , one of the discoverers of graphene, describes one of them: the matter of patents.
There are at least two interviews [289, 5] available on line with Professor Robert May, Baron May of Oxford, OM, AC, past President of the Royal Society. The relevant bit of the report of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is [341, Chapter 3, pages 30-36]. Note, though, that not every academic subject is always guided by reliable authorities. Peter Woit  argues that theoretical physics has been led astray, and Thomas Palley and Ha-Joon Chang say much the same for economics [359, 373]. Tom Stoppard’s play Albert’s Bridge  was written for radio. In 1968 it won the Prix Italia for literary or dramatic programmes with or without music.
References on the age [149, page 21], , [533, page 95] and gender [533, page 95] and inherited nature [533, part III] and happiness  of children, and what they may choose to learn , describe necessities for a successful teaching environment.
John Hattie’s work has been cebrated widely. For details see e.g. [202, 312].
Martin Wolf released his justified frustration in . Martin Rees, past President of the Royal Society, wrote an appeal [397, 396] for better science teaching including recruitment of the top 10% of graduates into teaching as in Finland. The current “Science” GCSE examination regulations  are said to be an improvement on the previous ones. There is a picture of the telegram reporting Eddington’s results in [140, page 4].
According to usually reliable sources, recent policy mistakes over the British economy and the Health Sevice were both due to senior ministers, not their civil servants [84, 101].
The Cambridge Primary Review is published as , and  outlines its reception. Children are able to count syllables before they can count phonemes [540, Table 1, page 5]. This is true for Turkish and Italian and Greek and French and English. For all these languages except Turkish, which has unusual features which depend on individual phonemes, children in Kindergarten (aged maybe 4 or 5) find that recognising phonemes is hard, whereas in all languages except perhaps French it is easy by the time they are in “First grade” (aged 6 or 7).
Rita Carter [78, pages 14-17] gives an overview of brain structure. In most children, language processing goes on mostly in and around the left temporal lobe. The angular gyrus is in the parietal lobe, just above it. The function of the angular gyrus is summarised in [78, page 153] and [533, pages 30-31], and its myelinization is mentioned in [533, page 95]. See also .
The account of Sir Jim Rose comes from . The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage  is now the Law of England for 3 year olds by an order under the Childcare Act 2006. An explicit case against phonics was published  as early as 1999. (Reference  says the paper runs through pages 150-155. There is also a British Library entry which says it runs through pages 150-157.) More has appeared since [533, page 96].
The Institute for Government’s study is reported in [155, 417]. The quotations of Professor Talbot appear in , and extracts from Professor Lord Hennessy’s remarks were broadcast . The list of kinds of evidence appreciated by poicy makers appears in [338, page 16]. The first quotation on evidence in Whitehall is from . The second is from .
The carefully phrased comment by members of the IPCC about woolly thinking by decision makers appears in . They develop the subject later in some detail [267, Section 2.4.2, page 13], citing Kahneman and several other references dating back to 1878. From reviews, it seems that the sort of careful thinking the IPCC is looking for can be found in .
After the collapse of the contracting process for railways, which cost at least £ 40 million, The Independent  ran a front page headline:
THE WRONG KIND OF CIVIL SERVANT
which may be unfair on the individuals even if it is true of the system. Staff at the Department for Transport may have failed to estimate passenger numbers, or effects of inflation, or other financial risks [230, 227, 486], and they are also accused of failures of management . Professor Collins is quoted in . He has published papers  on reliability of radio antennas and on hazards caused by them (to people) and to them (by lightning).
Other branches of government obliged the Department of Energy and Climate Change to make changes to their subsidies for electricity generation  and delay introduction of new methods of generation . The matter was partly ended, if not solved, by political choices . The industry is still in confusion .
The CSA in the Department for Environment, Professor Ian Boyd, is quoted  as saying
“There is no imperative for science to be included within policy-making … Scientists involved in any particular issue need to understand the ramifications of their views for quite unrelated areas of policy. … Policy-making is a messy, sometimes chaotic, process because it needs to include social, electoral, ethical, cultural, practical, legal and economic considerations in addition to scientific evidence. … The scientific community needs to build a strong sense about how it fits in to this complex mixture to ensure that its contribution to future decisions can be maximised. This means sticking to the evidence and describing clearly what it does and does not say; expressing the balance of risk associated with one or other policy option and avoiding suggesting that policies are either right or wrong; and being willing to make the voice of science heard by engaging with the mechanisms already available through science advisory committees, by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena.”
The last sentence attracted attention  because dissent and personal attitudes, as well as reason, are natural parts of the process by which the common body of knowledge evolves . Restricting them damages the scientific process. Beyond that, Professor Boyd seems to have fallen for the policy process.
The Department for Environment seems to have chosen a CSA who fits their preferred mode of operation.
John le Carré wrote of the Foreign Office or MI6 
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold … asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves 50 years later: how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief … had no doubt of the answer: “I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?” Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them.
Their allies in the USA seem to have a similar attitude [145, 297, 321, 158, 125]. In a sketch of le Carré , Philippe Sands wrote
The secret world offered space for the larcenous side of his character, and satisfied the desire for a sense of commitment. He has long disabused me of the sense that his family background might have been an impediment to joining the British intelligence services. The attraction of someone with a semi-criminal background was irresistible to the spooks, he says. They were looking for recruits with a broad sense of morality, individuals who were unanchored and wayward, who hankered for discipline (“his father’s a bit bent, we could use a bit of that”). If the secret service produced so many bad eggs, he tells me, it’s because they looked for them.
See also . Jon Ronson, who is trained in diagnosis of psychopathy, tells 
I was interviewing a former spy and … so I asked him – I’m paraphrasing – “Did you ever hurt anyone in a schoolyard fight?” “Oh yes, … I’d hurt them very badly!” he said. “How did that make you feel?” I asked. “Good!” he said. “It was their fault for being bullies.” “And how do you feel now, looking back on it?” I asked. He paused. “Still good,” he said. “So are you the sort of person who doesn’t feel empathy?” I asked. “Ah,” he said. “You’ve pinpointed what a crank I am. I get very upset when dogs I’ve loved have died. But people I’ve hurt?” He screwed up his face. “Pft,” he said.
Such are some of the employees of the agencies which claim to protect and represent our nation. Sir Mansfield Cumming , first head of Britain’s “secret intelligence service”,
was said to test potential recruits to MI6 by stabbing his wooden leg through his trousers with a paper-knife. If the applicant winced, Cumming told them: “I’m afraid you won’t do.”
David Lea wrote [271, 462]
It so happens that I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park – we were colleagues from opposite sides of the Lords – a few months before she died in March 2010. She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ she replied, ‘I organised it.’
John Kane was a special operations serviceman with the RAF, then a senior radio operator at GCHQ [250, page 12].
In 1973 he held a ‘muster’ at his posting of Little Sai Wan, Hong Kong, to discover what had happened to more than 200 missing documents. He frowned at widespread fiddling of expenses, episodes of drunkenness and failure to keep watch on Chinese cleaners who could pass discarded items on to unfriendly agents. CGHQ operatives’ behaviour, he believed, made them vulnerable to blackmail. World In Action [a British investigative current affairs programme made by Granada Television from 1963 until 1998] sent its reporter, the future film director Paul Greengrass, to Hong Kong, where, the programme alleged, a local hotel had a brothel that corruptly obtained its business from visiting GCHQ employees.
GCHQ told the Foreign Office that Kane’s complaints had been addressed, and “action taken where necessary”, but one critic called the establishment “an unaccountable state within a state”.
Kane was a witness in a spy trial. After he retired he wrote two books, GCHQ: The Negative Asset and The Hidden Depths of Treachery. Both were suppressed.
Since it has been able to sustain this mode of operation uninterrupted for half a century or more, this ministry may deem itself a success. Otherwise morale in the Civil Service is low [326, 147, 468]. The Public Accounts Committee of MPs thinks that a big military contract for aircraft carriers is not fit for purpose, and the Ministry of Defence has little control over technical risks and costs for the jets to fly from them [53, 52, 334]. The National Audit Office reviewed £19.5 billion worth of Ministry of Defence stock, and found that a third of it was either unused or over-ordered [39, 216]. The Army sends its troops into battle with inadequate kit .
Michael’s death was completely preventable and was caused by more than human error. It was caused through complete incompetence
said the mother of one soldier killed by friendly fire.
Decision Time  was one of a series of programmes on the BBC presented by Nick Robinson. There is some enthusiasm in the British Government for evidence based decision making [11, 325]. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has shown interest [179, 177]. The Cabinet Office has set up a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) [347, 483, 199] intended
to find innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting people to make better choices for themselves.
It uses randomized controlled trials . It employs staff who are described as nerds. From the BIT Blog, it seems that it is employed to discover how best to tweak implementations of existing policies and to persuade the public to do the right thing. The Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin, said 
Behavioural insights will not replace existing forms of policy making …
The BIT is a valuable innovation. It is improving the implementation of important policies. However, so far, it seems the BIT has not had much influence on what those policies are. No doubt the BIT team would like to persuade Government Ministers and top civil servants to make better choices too, but there is no sign from their web site that this is happening yet. While such attitudes remain, the BIT is not likely to solve the issue of big policy mistakes.
Surowiecki  and Runciman  wrote about decision making and problem solving by general compromise, such as an average, or some more insensitive approach such as a majority vote.
The Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote systems are described by the Electoral Reform Society . The three major television channels covered AV in their various ways: the BBC  had a summary of possible consequences of adopting it. Sky News  said that AV was supported by
actor Colin Firth, comedian and Labour party supporter Eddie Izzard, Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley and broadcaster Stephen Fry.
Channel 4  gave a short sober summary. Among national newspapers, the Guardian carried a
thorough but very late account of the issues . The only other articles I found were in the
Sun and two in the Telegraph. Of the Telegraph’s pieces, one  had a shorter summary of
issues. The other  lacked detail. The Sun  mentions Australian voting, where
compulsory enrolment for federal elections was introduced in 1912  and AV was
introduced in 1918 for the House of Representatives  and compulsory voting at federal
elections was introduced in 1924. Turnouts and outcomes over that period were [90, 513]
1901: 56.68% (Government: Protectionist Party)
1903: 50.27% (Government: Protectionist Party)
1906: 51.48% (Government: Protectionist Party then Labour then P+C coalition)
1910: 62.80% (Government: Labour)
1913: 73.49% (Government: Commonwealth Liberals)
1914: 73.53% (Government: Labour splits over conscription; National)
1917: 78.30% (Government: Nationalists)
1919: 71.59% (Government: Nationalists)
1922: 59.38% (Government: Coalition - Nationalists + Country Party)
A quick glance suggests that turnouts rose when there was a topic worth voting about, and fell when politics were dull. See  for a list of some national Australian events. Somehow the Sun seems to have concluded that
ELECTION turnouts could fall so low under AV that NOT voting may be made illegal, Tory chairman Baroness Warsi warned yesterday. When the Alternative Vote system was brought in by Australia, turnout dropped 19 …
The Sun, along with many other news media, is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Harold Evans wrote [142, 141]
The coup that transformed the relationship between British politics and journalism began at a quiet Sunday lunch at Chequers, the official country retreat of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. She was trailing in the polls, caught in a recession she had inherited, eager for an assured cheerleader at a difficult time. Her guest had an agenda too. He was Rupert Murdoch, eager to secure her help in acquiring control of nearly 40% of the British press.
Both parties got what they wanted.
The fact that they met at all, on 4 January 1981, was vehemently denied for 30 years. Since their lie was revealed, it has been possible to uncover how the greatest extension of monopoly power in modern press history was planned and executed with such furtive brilliance.
All the wretches in the subsequent hacking sagas – the predators in the red-tops, the scavengers and sleaze merchants, the blackmailers and bribers, the liars, the bullies, the cowed politicians and the bent coppers – were but the detritus of a collapse of integrity in British journalism and political life. At the root of the cruelties and extortions exposed in the recent criminal trials at the Old Bailey, was Margaret Thatcher’s reckless engorgement of the media power of her guest that January Sunday. The simple genesis of the hacking outrages is that Murdoch’s News International came to think it was above the law, because it was.
It seems other papers such as the Financial Times expect their readers either to know all about democracy already, or else not be interested in it.
The Government’s leaflet can still be found on line . Its text is impartial but its cover illustration is not. It shows silhouettes of people, mostly standing. The most conspicuous, substantially broader and seeming stronger than all the rest, is blue (the Conservative Party colour). Beside him is a thin figure leaning a bit unsteadily leftwards. He is pink (closest to the Labour Party colour). The only figure not standing is in a wheel chair, resembling an invalid. This one is a rather pale yellow-brown, closest of all the figures to yellow (associated with the Liberal Party).
Robert Skidelsky quoted Her Magesty the Queen . In the twelve months to March 2010, financial services companies paid 11.2% of all taxes collected by the UK Exchequer .
Eisenhower’s full address at the end of his presidency is in . See e.g.  for how it affects the kind of open discussion needed to sustain the wisdom of crowds. Simon Kuper’s account of his revelation with the US Army appeared in . Such problems tend to occur in all states with large military forces. Srinath Raghavan described some which occurred when politicians tried to constrain the military in India . Since first writing this, I have come across a British pacifist newspaper . Hall’s biography of Voltaire  almost put words into his mouth. Michael Flanders  was a very civilised wit.
Language processing is performed mostly in the left brain hemisphere by most people, but there are exceptions: see [533, pages 183-188] and . Surowiecki’s account of Asch’s experiments are in [463, end of Chapter 2]. The quotations about risks of too much communication are from his Introduction, section 4, and the first section of Chapter 3.
A certain Professor Fallon discovered that he inherited a tendency to commit murder, though it has not been manifested in him. I have not found an account of him when six months old. His strange experience has been reported widely, e.g.in .
The group consisting of narcissism, psychopathy, borderline personality disorder, and histrionic behaviour appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV Personality disorder Cluster B (dramatic, emotional or erratic disorders). The DSM has been criticized on the grounds that almost anything can be regarded as a disorder. For instance, Cluster A includes “Schizotypal personality disorder”, which according to Wikipedia is characterised by odd behavior or thinking, which could mean almost anything. However, Cluster B seems to be generally accepted as meaningful.
Churchill’s attitude to de Gaulle is well documented [45, 443], and [113, page 212]
Like Churchill, Truman was worried about deteriorating relations with Russia, but he placed at least some of the blame on the Englishman. Viewed through the eyes of the man from Missouri, Churchill was a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist who became as “mad as a wet hen” when he failed to get his way.
Narcissism is a serious issue. It has affected me both at and outside work. It was on a train journey, under complete anonymity, that a complete stranger gave me a simple character test which I recognised as such, and then told me that two thirds of managers are narcissists. Others have since confirmed this figure or accepted it without blinking. Callous management causes harm to a company’s customers  as well as internally. John Gapper’s piece  on white-collar criminals relates how narcissism affects wealth and the conduct of bankers. The behaviour of competing narcissists has been reported in .
Since I started taking an interest in the topic, the Wikipedia page on narcissism has been through at least three very different phases. There may have been other phases which I missed. During the first, it was simple and clear: narcissists are not nice. The second made out that most cases of narcissism are benign, and should be distinguished from a relatively uncommon unpleasant form. In the current version (January 2013) there are summaries of many different forms of so-called narcissists ranging from those with inflated, grandiose self-perception to “closet” narcissists with what appears to be an inferiority complex. The grandiose type seems to resemble the original idea most closely.
Wikipedia has another page  on narcissistic leadership. This is shorter and clearer, though it still suggests that there are some so-called “healthy” narcissists who have “real concern for others and their ideas” and do “not exploit or devalue others”. The narcissists we all dread will no doubt find all this confusion helpful and comforting.
It may be possible to teach some narcissists to empathise , but some experts are sceptical.
There is published evidence of use of gagging clauses in the NHS  and in the BBC [161, 295]. The large payoffs to BBC managers had all the trappings of gags [36, 214].
Hare [198, 26] extended the early study of psychopathy by Hervey Cleckley. See also . A new book by Kevin Dutton  on a similar topic has had good reviews, though Hare wrote a guarded comment:
Some of his ideas will generate debate and controversy, but he clearly has provided a thought-provoking book …
The only significant differences discovered by psychological methods between successful psychopaths and unsuccessful ones, those in gaol, are that the successful ones lack the impulsivity and negligence characteristic of the failures, and they are responsible and conscientious. Stephanie N. Mullins-Sweatt and collaborators [320, 61] ran a survey which suggests that a lot of professionals find themselves working with a successful psychopath at some stage of their careers. Lilienfeld and his students Smith and Watts  ask if it is right to regard psychopathy as a disorder if those with it are so successful? They mention the suggested existence of two ‘faces’ of psychopathy. Jon Ronson described his personal experience of the people who study and treat psychopaths as well as their subjects. I have not read his book , but the first forty pages are said to be funny and maybe I shall.
Physiological and genetic approaches may reveal finer gradations between these traits and their subclasses [33, Table 1, pages 107, 108]. Much seems to depend on empathy of two different sorts: cognitive empathy, sensitivity to attitudes, and affective empathy which is sensitivity to emotions. Psychopaths possess cognitive empathy but lack affective empathy, whereas narcissists possess affective empathy. It has been suggested that there may be other forms of empathy.
The quotation about what senior managers spend their time on is from Luke Johnson  who is well placed to know what he is talking about. A recent book  by Oliver James, and its reviews including one  by Sam Leith, may also be worth reading. Luke Johnson also wrote 
Being phoney for a living is corrosive and I’m sure it is bad for one’s health – and takes up lots of time that could be used productively. Unfortunately, it is a prima facie requirement for ambitious executives … institutional boardrooms tend to attract quite a few of those who indulge in pretence and intrigue … independent views are discouraged … Groupthink is the fatal disease that leads to the demise of big companies. … Pride, vanity, the visceral need for control, and the ability to wield it – can be a dangerous cocktail. … Lord Acton [said] “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Lucy Kellaway  prefers to describe the situation thus:
flattery is only one of many skills required to do well. Others include diplomacy, hard work, conviviality, deviousness, ambition, ruthlessness and talent.
Lucy Kellaway’s husband agrees with Mr. Johnson. She knew he would.
Marlene Zuk has written a book about modern human evolution . It has had many favourable reviews, e.g. , but not everyone agrees with all of it . Records of births in Finland suggest that evolutionary pressure still exists in modern human society [55, 96].
Steven Pinker’s argument in “The Better Angels of Our Nature”  stimulated a lot of discussion, both sympathetic and otherwise . Peter Singer’s review  is of the first sort.
The Index  published by Transparency International is revealing. Britain’s status in it has not been too bad, though just one issue of one newspaper recently carried three reports of immoral mis-allocation of wealth [18, 100, 170] (in Britain) which are only legal because the law and public administration are unfair (e.g. ), and consequent harm to public services , and what can be done about it  (in India). Simon Hoggart  thinks we should call our current State a kleptocracy or maybe something ruder. A new Harmony Index [41, 40] has been developed at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and is designed to reflect East Asian attitudes, as opposed to individualistic Western priorities such as freedom and fairness. Ridding us of corruption is hard: the life of a whistleblower is not always easy .
As mentioned in Chapter 11, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett  and James Galbraith  and Danny Dorling argue for the benefits of fairness. Martin Wolf cites sources in Standard & Poor’s and Morgan Stanley who agree that inequality has damaging effects on the US economy . Jamie Martin  outlines a broad setting for inequality and its effects in his review of  and . He mentions others who conclude that inequality leads to poverty, and to financial bubbles and crashes, and that
inequality doesn’t stimulate growth, it slows it down.
He also quotes yet others with different views such as John Moore, secretary of state for social security under Margaret Thatcher:
However rich a society, it will drag the incubus of relative poverty with it up the income scale. The poverty lobby would in their definition find poverty in Paradise.
Martin is more concerned with absolute poverty:
Since the 1970s … the real wages of most American workers have stayed put or, in some cases, actually fallen
while inequality has increased a lot. The very rich have got much richer. He lists several useful courses of action, but he is not optimistic:
finding lasting solutions will require political transformations in the relationship between capital and labour, the role money plays in politics, and the duties of the state in governing national economic life. … Inequality has joined climate change on the list of apocalyptic problems we know how to fix but may not be able to.
Advocates of fairness do not argue that we should all be raised to the level of affluence of the upper classes. Their attitude is supported by the life of José Mujica, who suggests that the poorest president is the one who needs most, not the one who has least . He may not be awarded the stature of Ghandi – he was involved in armed robbery – or Mandela – he only spent 14 years in jail – but he may well be remembered.
It seems that most healthy human babies are born with two distinct views of the world: one physical, obeying rules of kinematics, and the other a world of animate beings with emotions and intentions. They have some well developed elaborate senses, including perhaps two different senses of discrete quantity. Six month old babies can appreciate both acts of kindness and unkind acts which don’t involve them. They may have the beginnings of a moral sense [228, 537]; but it also seems that some people develop a moral sense from a purely rational viewpoint [33, Chapter 4, page 67].
At one point I mis-spelled Professor Thomas Piketty’s name.
Earlier versions contained rough translations of some of Prince Shōtoku’s other principles, at least one of which was wrong.
Chapter 12, section Why winds dont just go north-south: if my rough explanation is nearly right then the wind is likely to be strongest westward at latitudes around 65∘, not 55∘.
Uncle John : Beauty
Coma Pedrosa Bluff : Children, Navigate, Terrain
Always Think : Learn, Risk, Social
Alagna Bar : Children, Risk, Social
Pond Mesh : Children, Risk
le Vigan : Language, Smut, Social
Bikini : Smut, Social, Terrain
Turin Heat : Food and Drink, Social, Travel, Weather
Boots : Terrain, Weather
Mont Blanc Rucksack : Risk, Travel
Courmayeur to Valpelline : Beauty, Botany, Camp, Food and Drink, Health, Learn, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain, Weather
Flea : Animal, Health
TLC : Children, Health, Social
Rescues : Health, Risk, Terrain
Altitude Sickness : Health
Hard First Day : Health, Learn, Refuge, Risk
Mont Blanc Tour : Beauty, Learn, Social
Refuge Talk : Animal, Health, Learn, Refuge, Social, Travel, Weather
Elworthy : Learn, Travel
Oostende : Food and Drink, Learn, Navigate, Terrain, Travel
Train Talk : Language, Learn, Social, Travel
Domodossola : Food and Drink, Social
Andolla1 : Refuge
Cheggio Old Hut : Beauty, Navigate, Risk, Social, Terrain, Weather
Smuggle Cigarettes : Learn, Social, Terrain
Passo del Mottone : Navigate, Terrain
Ibex Fight : Animal, Learn, Weather
Rifugio Cuney : Animal, Navigate, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain
Snow Glasses : Health, Weather
Poschiavo : Animal, Camp, Learn, Social, Terrain
Mazino Murals : Beauty, Botany, Children, Social
Long Trek : Camp, Language, Navigate, Refuge, Social, Terrain
le Buet : Food and Drink, Learn, Navigate, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain, Weather
Misleading Paths : Animal, Navigate, Refuge, Terrain
Cairns : Navigate, Terrain, Weather
Passo Muretto : Learn, Terrain
Mountain Bikes : Social, Terrain
How to Walk: Step Up : Learn, Terrain
How to Walk: Move a Stone : Learn
Pontremoli : Botany, Navigate, Refuge, Terrain
Similaun : Beauty, Risk, Terrain, Weather
Wet ice : Terrain, Weather
Hochjoch : Terrain
Boozy Geographer : Camp, Food and Drink, Health, Learn, Social, Terrain
Prawns : Food and Drink, Travel
Digestive Biscuits : Food and Drink, Social, Terrain, Travel
Chocolate and Raw Egg : Food and Drink, Health, Learn, Travel
Milk : Animal, Food and Drink, Health, Social
Aluminium Toxic : Camp, Food and Drink, Health, Refuge, Social
Mont Blanc Tour Lunch Diet : Food and Drink
Coma Pedrosa Mars Bar : Children, Food and Drink, Health, Learn, Terrain
Refuge Offend : Food and Drink, Language, Refuge, Social
Refuge Food Competition : Food and Drink, Refuge
Zermatt : Food and Drink, Health
Ants : Animal, Food and Drink
Pyjamas : Learn, Refuge, Social
Alors : Language, Social, Travel
Mixed Couchette : Social, Travel
Sleeping in Turin : Beauty, Social, Travel
Gavarnie Hotel : Children, Health, Social, Terrain, Travel
Vanoise Col: Teenagers : Children, Refuge, Smut, Social
Vanoise Col: Water Bottle : Children, Food and Drink, Refuge, Social
Andolla2 : Refuge, Social
External Loo : Learn, Refuge, Social, Terrain
Café/Refuge : Refuge
Stars near Ortles : Beauty, Children, Food and Drink, Social
Mis-labelled Gite : Animal, Beauty, Camp, Children, Food and Drink, Refuge, Terrain
Col Malatra Camp : Camp, Risk, Terrain, Weather
Camping and Lightning : Camp, Food and Drink, Risk, Weather
Ordesa Camp : Camp, Learn, Risk, Social, Terrain, Travel
Weasel at High Camp : Animal, Camp, Terrain, Weather
Camp by Lake Zürich : Camp, Social, Terrain
Fox Got Bread : Animal, Camp, Food and Drink
Postcards : Language, Learn, Social, Travel
Colle Pinter : Language, Navigate, Social, Terrain
Meadow Path : Language, Navigate, Social
sviluppo : Language, Social
basta : Children, Language, Learn, Social
China Ski : Food and Drink, Language, Learn, Social
Appenzeller German : Children, Language, Social
Texelgrüppe : Beauty, Learn, Navigate, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain, Weather
Not crossing cols : Social, Terrain
Coma Pedrosa View : Beauty, Learn, Terrain, Weather
Aosta Haze : Beauty, Learn, Weather
Gavarnie Waters Meet : Terrain
Ants’ Nest : Animal, Social
Mating Spiders : Animal, Beauty
Sheep Eat Flowers : Animal, Beauty, Botany, Learn, Navigate, Terrain, Weather
Sheep Follow Shepherd : Animal, Learn, Social, Terrain, Weather
Sheep and my Hat : Animal
Sheep Shear : Animal, Learn
Bulls Play : Animal
Moose : Animal, Risk, Travel, Weather
Ibex on Dam : Animal, Learn, Terrain
Concrete ibex? : Animal, Food and Drink, Social
Chamois Bark : Animal, Learn, Terrain
Marmots : Animal, Beauty, Learn, Social, Terrain
Fox : Animal, Health, Risk
Fossil : Animal, Learn, Terrain
Bus at tunnels : Children, Social, Travel
Bus length : Learn, Travel
Road parapet : Risk, Travel
Bus drivers : Risk, Social, Travel
Catholic church : Social
Sleeping bus riders : Social, Travel
Valley Bar Maid : Beauty, Food and Drink, Social
Rain : Animal, Beauty, Botany, Camp, Food and Drink, Health, Navigate, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain, Weather
Camping Knife : Learn, Social, Travel
Book Train Ticket : Social, Travel
How to use a Compass : Children, Learn, Navigate, Social, Terrain, Weather
Cracked Leg : Botany, Health, Social, Terrain
Cracked Bones : Health, Learn, Terrain, Weather
The Five Answers rule : Learn, Navigate, Refuge, Social
Swim in Suspect Lake : Health, Learn, Refuge
Losing Shampoo : Camp, Refuge
Loss of Hat : Social, Travel
How to Go : Beauty, Health, Risk, Social, Terrain, Weather
Rifugio Mariotti : Animal, Beauty, Botany, Camp, Children, Food and Drink, Navigate, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain
Air display : Beauty, Risk
Risk of tumours : Health, Risk, Travel
Car Hazard : Children, Health, Learn, Risk, Travel
Diabetes : Food and Drink, Health, Risk, Travel
CAI Guides : Health, Risk, Terrain
Old Books : Beauty, Botany, Children, Food and Drink, Language, Learn, Social
Antrona Path : Language, Navigate, Social
Visit to France : Language, Social, Travel
Fear : Health, Language, Social, Travel
Travelling when Young : Children, Learn
Learning German : Language, Learn, Social
Dubrovnik : Animal, Beauty, Camp, Children, Learn, Social, Terrain, Travel
Macedonia : Animal, Beauty, Botany, Children, Food and Drink, Language, Learn, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain, Travel
Neer-do-wells of Andalucia : Learn, Social
Sibenik Swim : Children, Language, Learn, Social
Sicily : Learn, Social
All The Same : Learn, Social
TV in the Dolomites : Children, Learn, Social
Gradients of Culture : Learn, Social
Naples Quote : Learn, Social
Yugoslav Culture : Social
Swedish Bakery : Food and Drink, Learn, Social, Weather
Bequia : Learn, Social, Weather
Dos, dos : Navigate, Social
A gentleman? : Learn, Social, Terrain, Weather
Hitch hike Tour : Beauty, Botany, Camp, Language, Learn, Refuge, Risk, Social, Terrain, Travel
Return to Nice : Beauty, Camp, Children, Language, Social, Travel
Down to Bourg St Maurice : Beauty, Risk, Smut, Social, Terrain, Travel
Gauss : Beauty
What can’t be constructed : Beauty
Brownian Motion : Beauty, Learn
Bold Mouse : Animal, Learn, Travel, Weather
Rifugio Scotti : Botany, Children, Food and Drink, Health, Navigate, Refuge, Risk, Terrain, Weather
Cap over Cumulus : Beauty, Weather
RS Exhibition : Animal, Health, Learn, Social
Cardrona : Beauty, Health, Terrain, Weather
Seven dancers : Beauty, Smut
Crows play : Animal, Learn
Washing dishes : Social
Carpentry : Children, Learn
Gangs of cyclists : Social
Paul Dirac : Beauty, Language
Can-Do attitude : Social, Terrain
Suspect buns : Food and Drink, Risk, Social
A bus passenger : Language, Social
Country pub : Beauty, Botany, Camp, Food and Drink, Social, Terrain
Hospital drama : Health, Risk, Social
We saw deer : Children, Food and Drink, Learn, Social, Weather
Happy, confident, ambitious : Children, Learn, Social
Reality : Children, Learn, Social
School science : Children, Learn, Social
Silly courtesy : Social
Aspirant psychopath : Social
Good managers : Social
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