Welcome to the Psychosphere

May 30, 2008

BEN Well, you said you were fighting. He slapped you around because you were rebelling against his authority. There may have been some unresolved Oedipal conflict.

VITTI English! English!

BEN Oedipus was a Greek king who killed his father and married his mother.

VITTI Fuckin’ Greeks.

BEN It’s an instinctual developmental drive. The young boy wants to replace his father so he can totally possess his mother.

VITTI What are you saying? That I wanted to fuck my mother?

BEN It’s a primal fantasy…..

VITTI Have you ever seen my mother? Are you out of your fucking mind?

BEN It’s Freud.

VITTI Well, then Freud’s a sick fuck, and you are too for bringing it up.

BEN It’s………

From  the film Analyse This.


This week I listened to the BBC programme Case Study about the one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous cases, Little Hans. For those of you who are not familiar with this case, Little Hans was a boy who had a horse phobia. When he was younger, he had seen a horse die in the street. A logical conclusion would have been that this had traumatised the young boy. But of course that was far too easy for Freud. The horse was in fact incidental. According to Freud, Hans feared horses because horses move. And movement in the unconscious represents copulation. When Hans thought about horses moving, he was really thinking about his whole set of Oedipal desires and castration fears, and that’s why he developed his phobia.

            While these days Freud’s ideas have little scientific credibility, they have become an insidious presence in our society. We can see this in a number of ways. There is all that meaningless psychobabble that has become part of our language – issues, baggage, dysfunctional, closure, empowerment and low self-esteem.

Another worrying phenomenon is that of victimhood. There seems to be no area of human behaviour that cannot be blamed on some form of addiction – Internet,  consumer debt, sex, and junk food. Personally, I like former psychologist Tana Dineen’s rather cynical formula:


But it’s not just the counsellors who are jumping on the bandwagon. Politicians and compensation lawyers are also there. They seem to be saying that humans are powerless to make decisions. At least with religion when people sin, they do penance. Now they get sympathy and therapy because they are not the ones to blame. It’s society or the fast food restaurant the credit card company.

We must also consider some of the damaging effects caused by the application of some very half-baked ideas over the last century or so. A number of areas spring to mind. The case of mothers with autistic children who were said to have caused this disorder by being too cold. Or what about the idea proclaimed in the fifties and sixties that psychoanalysis couldcure even schizophrenia simply by talking? Finally we have what known as repressed memory therapy (RMT). This is a type of psychotherapy which assumes that problems such as bulimia, depression, insomnia and excessive anxiety are due to unconsciously repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. For its adherents a healthy psychological state can only be restored by retrieving and ultimately confronting these repressed memories of sexual abuse. These ideas have proved influential in Hollywood but in the real world parents have been sent to prison for allegedly abusing their children. I think you will also be a bit sceptical when you hear that these dubious techniques have also proved to be very effective in getting patients to “remember” alien abductions and satanic rituals, which these patients had been unaware of before going to therapy.

            I know life is complicated and there are many people who are genuinely suffering from mental distress. But I really feel that that this kind of nonsense adds absolutely nothing to our welfare and the sooner we jettison them the better off we will be.

My favourite Links #8

May 30, 2008

The Philosopher’s Magazine has an excellent section of interactive philosophical games. You can play online and you get feedback. Tests include: The Philosophical Health Check, Do-It-Yourself Deity and Taboo



A Collection of Euphemisms

May 30, 2008


Action movies. (=violent movies)

Air support.  (=bombing)

Ambient replenishment opportunity  (=A shelf-stacking job)

At her Majesty’s pleasure (=in prison)

Corporate entertainment.  (=prostitutes)

He has been asked to leave the country due to involvement with activities. incompatible with his diplomatic duties here. (=spying)

Inexpensive dresses for mature women with the fuller figure. (=Cheap frocks for fat, old women)

It fell off the back of a lorry. (=It was stolen)

John Holmes, actor in a niche market.(=porn actor)

Stress and duress tactics. (=torture)

The estate agent says the house needs some attention.  (=It’s falling down)

The Minister looked tired and emotional. (=He was drunk)

The negotiations were very frank. (=The two sides were about to start a fight)

The patient is in a stable condition. (=In a coma)

The Prime Minister was economical with the truth.  (=lied)

The property is in easy reach of good communications. (= It’s next to a motorway or airport)

The terrorists were neutralised.  (=killed)

There was a negative patient care outcome. (=The patient died)

We had our dog put to sleep. (=killed)

Where can I wash my hands? (=Where’s the toilet?)



Advertising Slogans Quiz

May 30, 2008

Which companies were responsible for these famous advertusing slogans?

1.       Because I’m worth it.

2.       The best a man can get

3.       The world’s favourite airline

4.       Connecting people

5.       I’m lovin’ it

6.       Hello boys.

7.       Finger lickin’ good!

8.       WASSSSSUP?!

9.       Vorsprung durch Technik

10.   The World’s Local Bank

11.   It Gives You Wiiings

12.   It’s the real thing

13.   Just do it.

14.   Life’s Good 

15.   Once you pop the fun don’t stop.

16.   Power is nothing without control

17.   Where do you want to go today? 

18.   Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach

19.   Put a tiger in your tank

20.   A diamond is forever.

21.   Pure genius

22.   Don’t Leave Home Without It 

23.   Impossible is nothing.

24.   Probably the best lager in the world

25.   The make-up of make-up artists.

My Media Week 31/05/08

May 30, 2008

In Our Time. The wonderful Melvyn Bragg show has a programme about probability. There are of course a lot of references to gambling, which was fundamental in the development of probability theory. (PODCAST)
Here is a link to the show’s archive.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_archive_home.shtml The

The Telegraph has an article on romance and train travel. (ARTICLE)

The Independent had a piece about Ted Hagee, a rather frightening Christian Zionist. (ARTICLE)

The Onion has an article about women’s career choices. (ARTICLE)

The Cato Institute has an interview with Anna J. Schwartz, an economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York City. Schwartz, who was born in 1915, is perhaps most famous for her work with Milton Friedman. Here she looks at the banking crisis and the role of the Fed. (PODCASTS)

Confessions of a Half-baked Libertarian

May 25, 2008


A fellow teacher at the Bank of Spain described me as a half-baked libertarian. Now if you look up half-baked in the dictionary you will find the following definition:


§  poorly planned: not well thought out and likely to fail

§  unintelligent: lacking the ability to act with reason and common sense


       That doesn’t sound too positive, does it? But I quite like it anyway. I certainly prefer my ideas to some more “fully-baked” ideas that have been applied throughout history. I realise that no ideology is perfect and that utopia is not an option. I have some libertarian tendencies but I don’t buy into the ideology lock, stock and barrel. This is for two reasons.


1.  I disagree with some of the points they make.

2.  I realise that some of them are just not practical.


       What I do believe in is limited government intervention whether it be in the economy or in moral questions. I tend to judge politicians by the results they achieve and not by the intentions they proclaim. Having said that politics is complicated and there are no universal panaceas. The political process is about compromise and about exerting influence on politicians. Businessmen are very adept at using this process. There is an idea that what they want is deregulation to be allowed to get on with what they want. This has a lot of truth to it. But they are also perfectly happy to receive subsidies, see tariffs imposed on foreign competitors and to benefit from antitrust regulation which protects them from more successful rivals. The case of subsidies is a fascinating one. Many groups are very good at conflating their interests with the interests of the general public. They are of course highly motivated to do so because their benefits are extremely concentrated; while the costs are spread over a lot more people who are thus less motivated to protest. I would like to see a drastic reduction in agricultural subsidies but I won’t be holding my breath until it happens.


       Of course the free market will not create a land of milk and honey where everything is available in abundance. But I think our experience of government action should make us very wary of what happens when governments intervene.


My Media Week 25/05/08

May 25, 2008


Laura María Agustín’s new book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, is undobtedly provacative. It tries to explode several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims, and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.’ (ARTICLE)



Alan Meltzer of Carnegie Mellon University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about what the Fed really does and the political pressures facing the Chair of the Fed. He describes and analyzes some fascinating episodes in U.S. monetary history, discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the gold standard and ends the conversation with some insights into recent Fed moves to intervene with investment banks. (PODCAST)



This week the BBC had a programme about how the financial crisis is affecting central bankers. It includes words of wisdom from Jean-Claude Trichet. (PODCAST)



Julian Baggini looks at free will and how it relates to the application of justice. (ARTICLE)



The polyglot linguist, Alexandra Aikhenvald, describes linguistic typology: classifying how languages are structured and comparing them to ascertain recurrent patterns and variations. (PODCAST)



Professor Niall Ferguson’s analyses the world finacial system drawing on the ideas of the French Naturalist Jean Bapiste de Lamarck, who argued that organisms alter and adapt in response to a changing environment. He applies this framework to our current, uneasy financial climate and asks: are we on the brink of a great dying? (PODCAST)



Donald Boudreaux critically analyses some green initiatives. (ARTICLE)



My Favourite Links #7

May 25, 2008

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan”

“But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College.”

I am sure you are all familiar with these quotes. You can hear these quotes and many more at The History Channel website. It is also possible to search the archives for your favourites.


You may also want to check out American Rhetoric. Here you have audio and text of famous speeches and movie monologues.


Book Review #1

May 25, 2008

The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 by David Edgerton


Edgerton’s book challenges the received wisdom about the inexorable march of new technology. We read about new inventions appearing now that will revolutionise our lives. We are told that the only constant in today’s world is change. In this revisionist work Edgerton states that this all-too-familiar account is hugely misleading. Edgerton sets out to provide us with a history of technology in use. We need to know what people really use. I do like books which make you think about everyday things in new ways. He shows us how much old  technology is still around us. We just don’t see it because it gets absorbed into the way we think

This innovation-centric account ignores the importance of the old technologies. We easily fall victim to the overhyping of the new. The simple soldier’s rifle – Lee-Enfield or AK-47 – was massively more important in 20th century warfare than the V2 missile or the atomic bomb. More people were killed actually making the V2 than its intended victims. This may be right but we need to go beyond the body count – these weapons inspired psychological terror. I find it difficult to accept to accept his assertion that the atomic bomb prolonged WW2.

I suppose the message is that technological progress is much messier in real life. We are in a state of constant flux as the old and the new interact. A lot of inventions just fail and even those which are successful take time to really be used. The process is also much slower than we imagine. We need to see the importance of gradual incremental progress and not just the big, bad inventions. The paperless office, domestic robots and flying cars may all come about but at the moment they are pipe dreams. Superplanes such as Concorde have failed to pass the test of time but planes today are much better constructed than they were 50 years ago. In terms of pharmaceuticals what we are seeing is gradual progress in pharmaceuticals, rather than the invention of new wonder-drugs.

An example of the importance of seemingly trivial inventions came in the TV series The 1900 House. The Bowler Family spent three months living in a Victorian house carefully restored to recreate the conditions and atmosphere in London at the turn of the century. The one thing they couldn’t do without was shampoo and they actually sneaked out of the house and bought some, thus breaking the rules of the competition.

I want to conclude with a wonderful piece written around 70 years ago by an American cultural anthropologist, Ralph Linton, describing a day in the life of The 100% American. It really illustrates how technology comes from all over the world.

Our solid American citizen awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East but which was modified in Northern Europe before it was transmitted to America. He throws back his covers made of cotton (domesticated in India), linen (domesticated in the Near East) or silk (discovered in China). All of these materials have been spun and woven by processes invented in the Near East. He puts on his slippers (adapted from moccasins invented by Indians in the Eastern woodlands) and goes to his bathroom, whose fixtures are a mixture of European and American inventions, both of recent date. He takes off his pyjamas (a garment invented in India) and washes with soap (invented by the ancient Gauls).

He puts on garments whose form was derived originally from the skin clothing of the nomads of the Asiatic steppes. His shoes are made from skins tanned by a process invented in ancient Egypt and cut into a pattern derived from classical civilizations of the Mediterranean. He ties a strip of brightly coloured cloth around his neck, which is a survival from the shoulder shawls worn by 17th-century Croatians. Before going out to breakfast, he glances through his window (made of glass invented in Egypt). If it is raining, he puts on overshoes (made of rubber discovered by the Central American Indians) and takes an umbrella (invented in south-eastern Asia). On his head, he puts a hat made of felt (a material invented in the Asiatic steppes).

On his way to breakfast, he stops to buy a paper, paying for it with coins (an ancient Lydian invention). At the restaurant, a whole new series of borrowed elements confronts him. His plate is made from a type of pottery invented in China. His knife is of steel (an alloy first made in southern India). His fork is a medieval Italian invention, and his spoon is a derivative of Roman original. He begins his breakfast with an orange (originally from the eastern Mediterranean), a cantaloupe (from Persia), or perhaps a piece of African watermelon. With this, he has coffee (from an Abyssinian plant) with cream and sugar. (Both the domestication of cows and the idea of milking them originated in the Near East, while sugar was first made in India.) After his fruit and first coffee, he goes on to waffles (cakes made by a Scandinavian technique from wheat domesticated first in Asia Minor). Over these he pours maple syrup (invented by Indians of the eastern woodlands). As a side dish, he may have an egg (from a species of bird first domesticated in Indo-China) or thin strips of bacon (flesh of an animal domesticated in Eastern Asia which has been salted and smoked by a process developed in Northern Europe).

When our friend has finished eating, he settles back to smoke (an American Indian habit). Tobacco was domesticated in Brazil. Indians from Virginia smoked it in a pipe, while the cigarette was derived from Mexico. The cigar was transmitted to us from the Antilles by way of Spain. While smoking, he reads the news of the day (printed in characters invented by ancient Semites on material invented in China by a process invented in Germany). As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles, he will (if he is a good conservative citizen) thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is “100% American.”



Further reading


Here are a couple of reviews of the book:





Safety First?

May 18, 2008




Look before you leap

Better safe than sorry


These two expressions sum up a kind of popular folk wisdom that seems pretty reasonable. In the last few years, however, a new dogma – the Precautionary Principle – has emerged. It states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.  It is believed to come from an expression coined by German lawyers in the 1970s -Vorsorgeprinzip (foresight principle). It can be applied to medicines, the environment. GM foods, nanotechnology and unfortunately it can be taken to ridiculous lengths.


The Precautionary Principle is not be a basis for rational decision-making: it wants to replace traditional cost–benefit analyses with a more vague calculation that focuses on potential negative effects. The problem is that seems to be a charter for pessimism. There is a kind of hysteria about the negative effects and a tendency  to ignore the benefits. There are these annoying things called trade-offs. If you delay introducing a medicine for twenty years, you can guarantee that no one will suffer side effects from that medicine. What you will not see is all those people who have died because that medicine was available. Many times in life we are not choosing between taking a risk and playing safe but between one or other risk. 


A classic example was the  MMR scare. The irresponsible media coverage about the the alleged links with autism led many parents to not give their child the vaccine. They merely substituted one risk for another. If they gave their children no vaccine there was an increased risk of infection. Even if their children had separate vaccinations, the gaps between each jab left longer windows of opportunity for infection anyway.


In another area GMOs (genetically modified organisms) we can see similar attitudes. In 1999 Lord Melchett appeared before a House of Lords Select Committee investigating GM crops. The exchange is very illuminating about the mindset of these people.

Question: Your oposition to the release of GMOs, that is an absolute and definite opposition …. Not one that is dependent on further scientific research?

Answer. It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition.


In his article Precautionary Tale  Ronald Bailey shows the fallacy of the Precautionary Principle

    The result: Anything new is guilty until proven innocent. It’s like demanding that a newborn baby prove that it will never grow up to be a serial killer, or even just a schoolyard bully, before the baby is allowed to leave the hospital. Under this corollary, inventors, scientists, and manufacturers would have to prove that their creations wouldn’t cause harm–ever–to the environment or human health before they would be allowed to offer them to the public. This is asking them to prove a negative. How can someone prove that a new plastic will never, ever interact with any metabolic pathway in any plant, animal, microbe, or person? There is simply no way to test for all possible effects given the millions of different species living on the earth.


            I’m just glad that the people who espoused these ideas were not around when humans discovered fire.. For me this is a denial of what makes humans special. Maybe one day we will leap too far but what a series of jumps it’s been.



Further Reading


Precautionary Tale  Ronald Bailey



Check out this Wikipedia entry on the Rachel Carson book denouncing DDT. The restrictions placed on it have caused needless deaths from malaria.