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Sticky: A Sceptical Anthology

Some favourite sceptical quotations, accumulated over the years

Index of authors cited
Allen Anon Austen Baldwin Bierce Borrow Bradley Broad Butler Campbell Carroll Coward Crisp Critchley Dalai Lama Darwin Dawkins Deacon Dennett Dickens Dodds Ehrenreich Epicurus Feynman Fortey Frayn Goldstein Greaves Grimwood Hawkes Hobbes Holmes Hume Huxley Jefferson Johnson Jones Kaminer Laski Lawrence Lovelock Lucas MacNeice Magee McGinn Mencken Miller Montaigne Mornar Murdoch Oppenheimer Osmond Parfit Putin Ridley Russell Sagan Sapolsky Searle Schopenhauer Seneca Shakespeare Skinner Sontag Storr Stove Strawson Sutherland Swift Voltaire Warburton Wegner Woolf Xenophanes

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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
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Last modified on 2015-08-15 16:13

Firefox: enabling HTML5 for BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer is now moving away from Flash towards HTML5, which is excellent news. But in recent versions of Firefox (e.g. 49.0) I found nothing was happening when I tried to play programmes. The solution is quite simple.

Select New Tab and enter about:config (the warnings about this being dangerous no longer seem to appear; ignore them if they do).

In the search box, insert "media" (without the quotes). Look through the list that this produces and find:

media.autoplay.enabled: false

Toggle this to "true" by clicking on it. Now you can exit about:config and BBC programmes on iPlayer will work correctly.

Book review: Getting It Right, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Gavin Young is a 31-year-old women's hairdresser who works in a London salon and lives with his parents. He is sensitive and cultured, interested in literature, classical music, and art. Events are seen entirely through his eyes and we are privy to his thoughts, fantasies, and numerous anxieties, especially about women; outside the safe confines of the salon he finds them fascinating but also terrifying, and he has never had sex with anyone, male or female. This is a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age novel; the events it describes take place in a single week, in which Gavin's life takes a new direction. [More]

Libelling the Assassins

This morning on Today the eminent historian Antony Beevor was commenting on the recent revelation that Hitler was under the influence of drugs towards the end of the war. He mentioned other examples of the use of drugs in a military connection, including the mediaeval Iranian sect of the Assassins.

This was an off-the-cuff remark, of course, but it is based on a widespread misapprehension. The term hashishin, from which our word Assassin probably derives, was not used by members of the sect themselves but was a nickname applied by their enemies; even so, it was not in common use. The usual names for the Assassins were esotericists (batinis), Ismailis, or Nizaris. In any case, the idea that the members of the sect carried out their 'assassinations' under the influence of drugs hardly accords with their famed cunning, patience, knowledge of languages and so forth.

On all this, see MGS Hodgson, The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma'ilis Against the Islamic World (The Hague, 1955), and also my book The Assassins of Alamut.

Book review: Brown on Resolution, by C.S. Forester

The story opens on the (fictitious) volcanic island of Resolution in the Galápagos, where a wounded British sailor is dying of blood loss and thirst. The rest of the novel tells the story of how he came to be there.

Leading Seaman Albert Brown is the son of Agatha Brown, a middle-class religiously brought-up woman who conceives him as a result of a five-day fling in 1897 with a young naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Richard Saville-Samarez. Agatha is resourceful, and as she has her own income she is able to leave her disapproving family and take lodgings, where she represents herself as a widow. [More]

Book review: The Man in the Yellow Raft, by C.S. Forester

This collection of stories was published in 1969, three years after their author's death. All the stories concern the US navy during the second world war after Pearl Harbor and most relate in one way or another to the (fictional) destroyer Boon. Most of the stories are fairly short, but two, "Dr Blanke's First Command" and "Counterpunch", are longer. [More]

Book review: The Vital Question, by Nick Lane

Nick Lane is a biochemist at University College, London, where he leads the UCL Origins of Life Programme. In this book he recapitulates quite a lot of what he said in two previous books (Life Ascending" and Power, Sex, Suicide, but there is also a good deal that is new and the ideas are so important and so complex that I welcomed the chance to revisit them.

This is an extraordinarily rich book, whose implications stretch well beyond the strictly biological. The style is informal but there is no shirking of complex ideas, so one has to take one's time in reading. The vivid analogies help here and the effort the book demands is repaid amply. It is not necessary to have read Lane's previous books in order to understand the arguments in this one, although I think some readers may wish to go back at least to Power, Sex, Suicide if they have not previously read this. [More]

Book review: Marking Time, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The series of novels about the Cazalet family during and just after the second world war is probably the fiction for which Howard is best known today, since it was dramatised for both television and radio for the BBC. This book includes a foreword which summarises the main events of the first volume, The Light Years: there is also a list of the family members and their servants and a family tree, so new readers like me are able to pick up the threads and identify the characters pretty easily. [More]

Book review: Slipstream, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book was published in 2002, when its author was nearly eighty, so it spans most of her life. She gives her reasons for writing in a preface.

Why write about one's life? Because of the times one has lived through, the people met and known and loved? To show how interesting, virtuous, or entertaining one has been or become? Or to trace one's inward journey -- whatever kind of evolution there has been between the wrinkled howling baby and the wrinkled old crone?

She explains the choice of her title like this.

Speaking as a very slow learner, I feel I have lived most of my life in the slipstream of experience. Often I have had to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before I got the message. That is still happening. I do not write this book as a wise, mature, finished person who has learned all the answers, but rather as someone who even at this late stage of seventy-nine years is still trying to change, to find things out and do a bit better with them. [More]

Book review: Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

I don't remember hearing any mention of mitochondria in physiology lectures as a medical student in the 1950s. Although they are often in the news nowadays, Lane still describes mitochondria as a badly kept secret and an enigma. In this brilliant evolution-based account he shows why they are literally vital to life and have a central role in sex, ageing, and death. If they did not exist the world would be wholly populated by bacteria, and this may well be the case in almost all other planets on which life exists. In other words, the evolution of the eukaryotic cell (cell with a nucleus) was a one-off event that might easily never have happened. [More]

The history of the RCT

Many of us probably think of the randomised controlled trial (RCT) as a largely British invention dating from shortly after the second world war, but an interesting short paper in the NEJM shows that its antecedents go back much further (The Emergence of the Randomized, Controlled Trial: Laura E. Bothwell, Ph.D., and Scott H. Podolsky, M.D. N Engl J Med 2016; 375:501-504 August 11, 2016 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1604635).

RCTs thus represent the most recent outgrowth of a long history of attempts to adjudicate therapeutic efficacy. Their immediate ancestor, alternate-allocation trials, emerged as part of a trend toward empiricism and systematization in medicine and in response to the need for more rigorous assessment of a rapidly expanding array of experimental treatments. Alternate allocation represented a significant advancement for addressing clinical research bias -- but one that had limitations as long as it allowed foreknowledge of treatment allocation. Concealed random allocation merged s the solution to these limitations, and RCTs were soon supported by crucial public funding and scientific regulatory nfrastructures.

This open-access paper is well worth reading.

Review revision: We Are for the Dark

I don't normally revise my book reviews after publication, except for typo corrections and the like, but I've made an exception for We Are for the Dark. by Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman, because since writing the first version I've been able to discover information about how the collaboration worked which I think needs to be included.