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Announcement: Why I'm starting a new blog

I started this blog on Serendipity in March 2004, which was only a couple of years after Serendipity first became available. I was replacing an earlier blog on WordPress, which had destroyed my database. I've been pretty happy with Serendipity over the years, but now I've decided to start a new blog—once more, ironically, using WordPress. So why?

Although Serendipity is still available I get the impression, I hope wrongly, that development is slowing at present, particularly as regards themes and plugins. It has a small team of developers and I think a small user base as well. It receives little attention on the Net these days, probably because the way in which blogging works is now different from how it was fifteen years ago, as I found when I started to look into alternatives.

In fact, Serendipity seems to be just about the last man standing when it comes to self-hosted purely blogging platforms. WordPress was one of these in 2004 but now it has become something more ambitious, a Content Management System (CMS), which includes blogging as one of its components, though admittedly an important one. The same is true of other blogging platforms such as Joomla!.

I wasn't enthusiastic about going down the CMS route at first and was particularly suspicious of WordPress in view of my previous experience, but after about two weeks' experimentation with other possibilities I've come to the conclusion that WordPress is the best solution for me. So my new blog is now on line. If you can't beat 'em...

That doesn't mean my Serendipity blog will disappear. It's difficult or impossible to migrate material from Serendipity to WordPress so I shall keep my previous blog available here indefinitely (it gets a number of hits every day). You can still comment on these posts, but new posts will only appear on the new blog.

Book review: Almost Like a Whale, by Steve Jones

Note: I started to review this book without realising that I had already done so almost twenty years ago. Unusually, I've decided to update the review. What I write here isn't a radical revision of what I wrote previously but I think it's a better reflection of what I think about it today.

Hardly any biology students today read The Origin of Species; it is mostly students of literature who do this, which suggests that many people regard it as mainly of historical interest. Steve Jones has set himself the ambitious and possibly eccentric task of correcting this misapprehension by updating Darwin's book for the twenty-first century. The principal difficulty faced by Darwin was the lack of a satisfactory explanation of the mechanism of inheritance; Jones, as Professor of Genetics at University College, London, was in an excellent position to supply the deficiency. So naturally genetics figures prominently in the book. The constantly evolving AIDS virus provides a useful example of how this works, and it figures prominently in the book, like a spectre at the feast (treatment was not as advanced when Jones was writing as it is now).

Genetics is important in the story but Jones ranges much more widely, to adduce an astonishingly large volume of biological information to illustrate Darwin's thesis. No doubt every fact he mentions will be known to one specialist or another, but there can be few who know all of them. It was mainly this that kept me reading, but the problem with Jones's method is that the relentless flow of information can become overwhelming; one feels the need to surface and get one's breath back. Jones seems to have felt this himself; his explanations are sometimes compressed to the point that they become difficult to understand. Probably that is why I found this book less enjoyable than most of those by this author.

As a rule Jones is a lively writer with a light touch and plenty of humorous asides, and these do figure here, such as the comment on the life cycle of the sea squirt which, "after an active life, settles on the sea floor and, like a professor given tenure, absorbs its brain". And, as in his other books, he can come up with a fine elegiac passage as he contemplates the ephemeral nature of human existence.

Sixty billion people have lived, he says, since modern humans first appeared, but only a tiny number of these have left any fossil traces.

The lost armies of the dead have a moral for evolution. They are a reminder that the geological record is a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines.…The history of ancient Egypt, of the present century—and of the existence of our own species—will soon be gone for ever.

The book is written as a homage to Darwin, and this extends even to its literary style. It uses Darwin's chapter titles and concludes each chapter with a summary in Darwin's own words; the whole final chapter is taken directly from The Origin. None of this produces a sense of discontinuity. Darwin's phrases sometimes find their way into the text; in further echoes of the past, Jones quotes measurements in feet rather than metres and flouts political correctness by constantly using "Man" and "he" to refer to the human species.

Taken as a celebration of Darwin's opus the book certainly succeeds, but beyond that I'm not sure who its audience is likely to be. Probably few readers will be impelled to go back to Darwin's own work, if that was Jones's intention. At least in part he appears to be hoping to counter the arguments of critics who claim that Darwin's thesis is "just a theory" which is contradicted by numerous facts. Jones presents plenty of evidence to contradict such views, but I doubt that any advocates of "Intelligent Design" will be among his readers. So the book is likely to appeal mainly to those who are already convinced of the truth of evolution by natural selection and sexual selection.

Readers in the last category may find useful information to use in arguments with friends and acquaintances, although they will need to keep in mind that today (2019) it is twenty years since the book appeared and much new information has come out since then. For example, Jones states that the human genome contains 75,000 to 100,000 genes, but these numbers have now been reduced to about 20,000 and this is probably still falling. And the "interlude" at that makes up the penultimate chapter, which looks at human evolution, has been overtaken by events. Advances in genetics mean we now know much more about the Neanderthals, including the fact that they (and the Denisovans, unknown when Jones was writing) interbred with humans outside Africa.

None of this is Jones's fault, of course; it was inevitable. And probably he would not be too perturbed by the flood of new informatio on human origins and the speculation that has accompanied it. "With so little from the past, anthropology is one of the few sciences in which it is possible to be famous for having an opinion, and until more facts emerge such speculation is bound to emerge." All the same, I was surprised to find Homo erectus\ described as "a large-brained ape that looked rather like a man".

The index has been prepared with less care than I would expect.

The Brexit fiasco

Statesman are not called upon to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.
Winston S. Churchill: Vol I: The Gathering Storm

Gmail - Using Canned responses (templates)

I should say at the outset that I don't like Gmail and avoid it whenever possible (I use Mutt), but my wife uses Gmail all the time and needs the facility to have templates (which Gmail calls Canned responses). Some time ago I researched how to set this up for her but recently I found it didn't work any more. Apparently Gmail has "improved" its method of doing this. I searched the Web and discovered plenty of instructions, mostly out of date. The best site I came across was by Heinz Tschabitscher (21 Nov 2018), but even that has one or two inaccuracis due no doubt to subsequent changes in Gmail; also, I think, the author doesn't suffiently draw attention to the peculiarities of the Gmail menu system. Here I offer an outline of the steps I use at present (15 Feb 2919).

A. Preliminary: enable canned responses (if not already done)
1. Start Gmail
2. Click cogwheel symbol (Settings) at top right
3. In the menu, click Settings
4. Click Advanced (towards right-hand end of top line)
5. Enable Canned responses (templates)
6. Click Save changes

B. Composing a Canned response (template)
1. Click Compose
2. Write the text you want to use as a template (don't fill in To: or Subject: at this stage)
3. Click More options (three vertical dots at the bottom right)
4. Choose Canned responses
5. In the Canned responses menu, click New canned response
6. You'll be prompted for a name for the new template; type in something to identify it
7. Click OK to save the template

C. Using a Canned response (template) in an email
1. Click Compose
2. Fill in To: and Subject:
3. Click More options (three dots. at bottom)
4. Choose Canned responses
5. In the menu, choose a template FROM THOSE AT THE UPPER PART OF THE MENU! (ignore duplicate entries for the same template that appear further down - see Note 1 below)
6. The template text will appear in Compose, where you can edit it if necessary
7. Click Send

1. The Canned responses menu is confusing. It has greyed-out entries for Insert, Save, and Delete. Usually greying-out means that a button is inactive for some reason and I assumed that this was the case here. In fact, these are section headings. You will see every template listed under each section - three times in all. If you click on a template that appears under Delete you get the option to delete it. If you click on the same template under Save it will be replaced with whatever you have in Compose (if there is nothing there you will get a blank template). Clicking a template under Insert will paste the template into Compose ; this is what you want most of the time.

2. If you change your mind and want to use a different template in your email you must delete the draft and start afresh (click the X at top right of Compose or the symbol like a little house at bottom right)

Getting away with it: Jimmy Savile, Laurens van der Post, and Eric Gill

The current furore over the unmasking of the late Jimmy Savile as a paedophile reminds me of two other once-revered figures who also 'got away with it' by dying before their misdemeanours came to light.

One was Sir Laurens van der Post (1906-96). Storyteller, J.D.F. Jones's biography of this erstwhile guru, informs us that his numerous sexual liasons were conducted with little apparent regard for the feelings of the women concerned. More than once, it seems, an unwanted pregnancy was the signal for Laurens to decamp hurriedly and disappear. But the most startling episode of the kind occurred when, at the age of 43, he seduced and made pregnant a 14-year-old South African girl who had been placed in his care. This event, which would have ruined Laurens if it had become known in his lifetime, was not revealed until after his death.

The other figure was Eric Gill (1882-1940). He was a renowned sculptor and designer, a group of whose sculptures can be seen on the front of BBC Broadcasting House in London. Like Savile, he was a Roman Catholic. He was deeply religious but his personal diaries recount repeated episodes, not merely of paedophilia, but of incest. As his entry in Wikipedia states, 'Gill sexually abused his own children, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and performed sexual acts on his dog. This aspect of Gill's life was little known until publication of the 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy. The earlier biography by Robert Speaight mentioned none of it.'

The Tibetans, it is said, hold that you should not expect a guru to be a guru all the time. Instead, you should recognise that all gurus are flawed and should try to catch the guru when he is being a guru. This may be true, but these three individuals do seem to have taken matters to extremes.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

The death of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi marks the end of an era for me -- though it had really ended many years earlier. He had a lot of effect on my life in the 1960s and early 1970s. There is an account of this in my book, Totalilty Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, available in both printed and electronic forms. See also Meditation, Spirituality, Enlightenment?