Monday 27 November 2023

Is 'cisgender' a word?


Even the great Julius Caesar, when interrogated by the Senate, famously could not tell the difference between Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. 

As I recall, the opening line of his history book Gender Wars reads thus: “Omnia genera in tres partes divisa est. Genus masculinum, genus femininum, et genus quodcumque aliquis male se esse credit.”

Friday 24 November 2023

Happy Medium

In my teaching career, I had two colleagues who embodied opposite viewpoints on education: one would reproach me for using words that pupils did not know, saying "How can they learn if they don’t understand you?"; the other would dissent, arguing, "How can they learn anything if they’re never exposed to things they don’t already understand?"

One of the best compliments I ever received was when one of a group of former pupils wrote to me from university, saying that their economics lecturer was unintelligible, but after every lecture they would get together and ask themselves, “How would Mr Hall have explained this?”

I was reassured, reckoning I must have come close to an Aristotelian happy medium.

Friday 17 November 2023

The Good, The Bad, and ....

I have been fascinated by recent comments on Quora, which have, knowingly or not, rehearsed Catharism (two gods) and Leibniz (the problem of evil), without ever mentioning Tom Paine and the arguments put forward in his book “The Age of Reason”.

I do believe that, to a considerable extent, we are all products of our upbringing. Had it not been so, I would not have reached the age of sixty before becoming aware of the fact that so many of the questions I was left with had been asked, and answered, two hundred years ago. I considered myself an educated man, but all that meant was I had absorbed the things that western society wants us to think and not ventured into the Index of prohibited thought.

Having at long last become aware of my own shortcomings, I can hardly blame others who have accepted what society tells them, at face value, without adequate questioning.

When I did begin to think for myself, I decided that the existence of evil in the world was actually logical. A god who was perfect would be good, and capable of all types of goodness, except moral goodness.

Moral goodness is necessarily the prerogative of imperfect beings who are able, as a result of free will, to choose between good and evil.

A perfect being, by definition, cannot choose evil. An imperfect being, by contrast, can show moral goodness by choosing the right when he was able to choose the wrong.

A perfect (and omnipotent) god, seeking to maximise goodness, would therefore be obliged to create imperfect beings in order to allow moral goodness to exist.

An unfortunate side effect is that he also must allow moral badness to exist.

However, the total amount of goodness resulting, including moral goodness, minus the amount of moral badness, must exceed the amount of all goodness except moral goodness otherwise existing.

That’s my twopenn’orth.

My regards to Herr Leibniz.

Also, thank you, Tom. I couldn’t have got here without you.

And I have my tin hat on.

Sunday 12 November 2023

Is there any evidence that the word “God” means anything at all? (Quora)

I was asked this in a Quora comments column, in my capacity as a former teacher of philosophy. In that same capacity, I tried to answer it. Please note, I always made it my policy to try to teach students how to think, not what to think. 

There is evidence that theists use the term to refer to something, even if they are not able fully to describe what that something is. 

There is evidence that atheists use the term to refer to something, even if they consider that something to be non-existent. 

 We all use words to describe things of which we have no direct perceptual experience. Included amongst these are things that we do believe to exist and things that we do not believe to exist. For example, I have no direct experience of albatrosses, but I have no reason to suppose that people who claim such experience are lying. I also have no direct experience of wyverns, and yet I doubt the testimony of those who have claimed such experience, even though I am unable to prove the non-existence of wyverns. 

This is probably accounted for simply by my having been brought up in a “civilised” society disposed to accept the former but not the latter. My understanding is conditioned by my upbringing. Likewise, my education has enabled me to understand technicalities in my field which are deeper than common understanding, and that is why I considered myself able to teach. In other fields, I have no understanding beyond the fact that people who claim to know say that something exists. I choose to believe them or not based on a predisposition which is just part of my way of looking at things, nothing more. 

 In other words, the word ‘god’ has a meaning, just as the word ‘wyvern’ has a meaning. Both mean different things to different people, and some people will believe the word does not refer to an extant being while others will believe that it does, but there is sufficient mutual understanding of the thing referred to that we can use the word to communicate with each other.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

How can you begin a short story without knowing how it ends? (Quora)

There is a long-standing division of practice between the planners (or plotters) and the pantsters (or improvisers) of the writing world.

The plotters are probably better placed to provide standard submissions to publishers who like specific types of story, written in ways that they know their customers are happy with. In other words, plotters can write consistent work to a consistent pattern which they know is going to sell. They are good at commercial writing.

I belong to the second group, which means I usually begin a story with no real idea of how it is going to end. Indeed, one of my main motivations to keep going is to find out how it ends. Sometimes I need to go back and adjust earlier bits of the story so as to foreshadow the end that I arrived at rather than the one I may have once thought I was working towards.

Not all original work is good. Sometimes different is worse. But every now and again, a pantster will come up with something innovatory, original, and good. And it won’t sell.

All too rarely, an original work will get past the publishers’ submissions filter system known as slush readers (or assistant editors), who are usually schooled in conformity and tend to reject submissions that don’t fit their employers’ known preferences.

If a pantster story reaches an editor who is willing to take risks, it has a chance of publication. That editor may even flag your work to ensure that future submissions also get through to him.

And very, very rarely, one of these stories will become so popular that it makes your name and a star is born.

In other words, if you shoot for the stars you probably won’t hit them, but you’ll have fun trying. If you need your writing to pay the bills, you should probably write what you already know is going to sell.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

On Good Advice

There was once a King of England called Ethelred, who is today known as Ethelred the Unready. Our assumption is that the king was always ill-prepared for crises. In fact the king was not unready at all, but frequently rushed into ill-considered actions which made his problems worse rather than better. The actual Anglo-Saxon word used to describe him was “unrǣd” or “unrede” which meant ill-advised, or lacking good counsel.

I think it stands to reason that the further a decision-maker is removed from the problems he is seeking to solve, the less well-informed his decisions will be. It is no good him seeking advice only from his friends, or his placemen who are closer to the action. His friends will tell him he is not at fault, because they naturally do not want to hurt his feelings; his placemen will tell him that they think he wants to hear because they want to keep their places. The longer this goes on, the more detached from reality the decision-maker will become, until in the worst case scenario the mistakes become disastrous.

The first requirement of good decision-making is good data. Ethelred should have got rid of his bad advisers and chosen others who were willing and able to tell him the truth. They would, however, have needed to speak the truth dispassionately. You can’t shout abuse at the king and expect him to listen.

Ethelred should also have delegated tactical decisions to those who were close enough to know the details of what was going on, reserving only strategic choices for himself.

Had he done so, England might never have had a Danish king.

Sunday 1 October 2023

Far Out Politics

As used in political discourse, the term “far” (left or right) means extremist.

In practice however, people tend to measure distance from their own point of view, rather than from an accepted central point, which means the term “far” is nowadays used increasingly loosely. This relativism devalues the language by describing quite moderate views as extremist, hence leaving no unique words to describe real extremism when need arises.

Broadly speaking, a centrist is a believer in moderate political policies. This should involve rational discussion, respecting the rights of others to think differently, and being pragmatic about potentially helpful proposals from whatever political origin.

A characteristic of both far left and far right beliefs is a complete certainty that one’s own view is correct and an intolerance of dissent. This orthodoxy can sometimes be ruthlessly enforced.

Unfortunately, today, intolerance is permeating traditionally centrist democracies. The term “liberal”, particularly in The USA but sadly also in the UK, has come to be associated with an intransigence that is the antithesis of classical liberalism. Freedom of speech is being severely undermined, and holding any viewpoint other than fashionable orthodoxy invites popular opprobrium. This tendency is exacerbated by social media and its associated “echo chambers”.

As a result, we are already seeing the erosion of democracy and an increasing reluctance to accept democratic decisions that differ from a person’s own view.

To some extent therefore, the term “far” as applied to politics is becoming meaningless, and a great many people across the political spectrum could be described as extremist.

Wednesday 2 August 2023


Young people who have not studied recent European history will probably not know the name of this town in Northern Croatia. Older people, like me, still feel it best to tread softly and with respect around the streets and the bridge that were hardly ever out of the news between August and November 1991. The place is still not what it once was; the people may never be.

There are two diametrically opposed points of view, and we heard both on our tour of the Balkans. The Serb-Croat War may have been thirty years ago, but people still argue their case as though it were yesterday.

(Left: the waterfront).
The besiegers shot down the Croatian flag from the water tower on a daily basis. Every night, two defenders made the increasingly dangerous climb up the damaged structure and put the flag back.

The old bridge (right)  divided the Serb and Croat quarters, but in the old days nobody cared. The memorial to J-M Nicolier, a French volunteer, ensures that today nobody forgets.

Trpinja Road, remembered as the Tank Graveyard, and the memorial to its defending commander, Blago Zadro.

The lesson, still as relevant today, seems to me to be that if you must destroy a town and expel its people to prove that it's yours, then even if you win, nobody but you will ever believe that it's yours.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

A Most Unusual Proposal

To be published in Story Unlikely's June issue (first week of June).

Not only is this story "A Most Unusual Proposal", but it's a most unusual genre for Philip Brian Hall - an Edwardian comedy of manners. A sort of Saki / P G Wodehouse style of tale. 

There are no spaceships. There are no magicians. The only battle involved is the battle of the sexes.

Worth reading for the novelty value alone!

Anyone can read it by signing up for free:

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Saturday 13 May 2023

The Ultimate Irish American

An appeal to my US friends. If there is anything you can do to prevent Joe Biden ever visiting Northern Ireland / Ireland again, please do it.
Bull, meet china shop. Whoops, I probably shouldn't have said that.

I don't suppose there's anything anyone can do to stop him saying the sort of things he's just said back in the USA about how he had to go there to stop the Brits reneging on their agreements, but it went over like a lead balloon with the people whose agreement is still needed to get the Stormont parliament back up and running.

The theory is, American intervention is needed to hold the centre ground between two groups that can still barely talk to each other.
It is not all that helpful to endorse one side and shout "Hoorah!"

No, really, not even a little bit.

If at all possible, and in full awareness that foreign relations is not really at the top of US priorities, could you not find someone a tiny bit more worldly-wise?

Pretty please.

Friday 5 May 2023

Mr Keynes’ Revolution – E J Barnes

I should declare an interest since, in her youth, the author was my pupil. Yet if ever there was a case of the teacher being taught by the student, this is surely it.

“Mr Keynes’ Revolution” introduced me to Maynard Keynes the man, as opposed to Maynard Keynes the ground-breaking economist. In the aftermath of The First World War, the tectonic plates of economics had begun moving as surely as those of politics, but hardly anyone realised the earthquake was coming. The illusory safety of a return to the status quo antebellum appealed strongly to upper middle class financiers and public figures, who thought once they’d got over the inevitable punishment of the wicked Germans, the whole world could get back to normal and life could go on as if nothing had happened. Why was Keynes almost alone in perceiving that not only was the old way gone for ever, but that every great step aimed at reviving it, from The Treaty of Versailles to the return to The Gold Standard, was digging it an even deeper grave?

E J Barnes brings vividly to life Keynes’ transition from member of The Bloomsbury Set, a commune of artists and intellectuals, inhabiting their own world, and relying on other people to provide for their basic needs, to a campaigning newspaper owner fearlessly speaking truth to power, very much a man of the real world, and defiant of the ostracism that came his way because of his perceived treachery to his class. In particular, she focuses on the seminal importance of his remarkable love story, as the academic economic genius encounters an exiled Russian ballerina, also a star in her own firmament, but one only too well aware of the fragility of both her art and of civilisation itself.

In those social divisions of the 1920s, I see a parallel with recent years. We, too, are experiencing a ruinous European war and a near universal desire for the aggressor to be punished. We, too, have a country divided between a middle class who thought the EU offered the way of life they desired and a working class who saw their wages depressed and their livelihoods threatened. Those who escape class divisions of the past find themselves mired in the artificially-contrived strife of identity politics just when we need society to pull together. We see a world economy devastated by Covid just as the last century had its postwar influenza. We have a ruling elite with the same incomprehension of the larger picture and the same resistance to radical change, and we are again staggering from one world financial crisis to another because, as yet, we have no Keynes to show us how the institutions of our century must be reformed to cope with it all.

I recommend this book. It conveys a powerful message in wonderfully evocative and very readable prose.

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Dragon Gems Spring 2023

Let your imagination bloom with these mind-opening tales

Featuring stories by Veronica L. Asay, Warren Benedetto, Jason P. Burnham, Michael D. Burnside, Laura J. Campbell, Arasibo Campeche, Jay Caselberg, Philip Brian Hall, Tom Howard, Tim Kane, Benjamin C. Kinney, Stephen McQuiggan, Mike Morgan, Sam Muller, Jason Restrick, and Elyse Russell.

My story is "Dead Man's Hand", in which a space shipwreck survivor, on the point of starving to death, is unexpectedly dealt the opportunity of a lifetime.

This is the first to be published of a series of stories I'm writing about "The Wreck of the Hesperus", in which I follow the scattered survivors to disparate parts of the universe and some adventures  I hope you'll find interesting.  Maybe someday a collection, but meanwhile, a start.

Saturday 25 March 2023

Trans Athletes

While society, for its purposes, may choose to distinguish between gender and biological sex, it seems illogical for sport in general to do the same without reservation.

The sex of the jockey may be of no significance to the horse in, say, racing or eventing, but it would certainly make a difference, to the point of being dangerous, in a female contact sport such as rugby.

Athletics falls between these two extremes. Physical danger is seldom present, but the advantages of male physique mean that even modest performers in male events can become champions in female events.

The result in the short run is to disappoint and discourage elite female-born athletes who have no hope of competing successfully against elite trans athletes. In the longer term, women would be likely to abandon such sports, and the loss of female role models would soon discourage recruitment of new female participants. In short, these sports would cease to be female sports.

A second issue arising is the admission of male-bodied athletes to female changing rooms, toilets etc.

In my judgement both these issues present female-born athletes with unnecessary, unfair and unacceptable challenges.

My understanding is that the athletics authorities are looking instead at introducing an open category alongside or instead of the male category. The obvious advantage here is that trans athletes would not be required to undertake testosterone reduction or other potentially harmful measures to gain admission. This looks like a more sensible way forward and doesn’t involve banning anyone from sports.