The memoirs of Jocelyne Wood (née Withycombe)

October 31, 2015

I now have three fairly extensive sets of memoirs from my ancestors: my grandfather’s, my great aunt Meta’s, and now my mother, Jocelyne Wood’s.

The negative value of money

February 24, 2014

If I were to be given £100,000 tomorrow, with no strings attached, I think this would not enhance my quality of life. My estimate of the value to me of this windfall is negative. I would be better off without it.

Would I accept this money if it were offered to me? Of course. I am a rational person … in the economic sense. More money is always better than less money.

Or is it? It’s a cliché that money does not make you happy, and the psychological  evidence shows that beyond a certain level of income this is true. Most of things that make life worth living, money cannot buy.

But … you may say, money can’t buy health and happiness, but it can buy the best treatments when your health suffers, and it can buy you a spot in a nice place where happiness is more likely. Ok, but … friends, good food and exercise are don’t need much money (at least in affluent countries), and are the best way of making health and happiness more likely. And in some areas – sex and organ donation for example – there are strong taboos against using money to get what you want.

But surely you can just ignore any excess money you may have, so it won’t do you active harm? Well, not necessarily for three rather different reasons.  First, you may have a spouse or partner, or children, or friends with whom you share your wealth. You might not want to spend your surplus half million pounds, but they might want to, and to prevent them would be mean at best. Second, the people after your money may not be your nearest and dearest; they may be beggars or thieves. Money may make you a target for crime. And third, and most insidiously, your own feelings that you should behave “rationally” may lead you to seek and spend more money than you know is really good for you. This idea of rationality is so deep is it may be difficult to ignore it. I think this is a big problem.

And if you do spend more than you want, it may do more than fail to make you happy. It could make you more miserable for a variety of reasons. The act of spending money is hard and stressful for people like me: I just don’t want the hassle. And often the more expensive item may be worse – for me, for example, a big house or a fast car or some posh clothes are not better: they take more upkeep and I have no interest in the advantages they supposedly deliver.

So, beyond a certain point, for some people in some situations, less money is better than more money.

This is not a trivial issue. The stress of over-consumption is wearing some people in the rich world down, and sucking badly needed resources from poorer countries and from poorer people in rich countries.

What should I as an individual do? Resist the temptation to do any paid work? Spend money sparingly? Give money away to deserving causes? Ignore the price of things, or perhaps even choose the most expensive option when I do make a purchase?

The second and third of these – spending sparingly, and giving – I think make good sense. But the pros and cons of the other two suggestions are more ambiguous. If, for example, highly skilled doctors refused to do any doctoring because they didn’t want the money, this would clearly not be in the general good. And buying the more expensive item might entail greater use of scarce resources that may be desperately needed elsewhere. Prices and wages do have a role as signals to encourage efficiency which it would be silly to ignore. (The arguments against any sort of resource allocation system using numerical signals are barmy, I think.)

What would happen if a substantial number of people started behaving as if money really does have a negative value? I’m not sure, but it’s likely that, in economic terms, both production and consumption would fall – which would have a variety of effects, some good and some bad.

What is wanted is an economic signalling system that is not subject to the flaws of the existing money system. And perhaps some sort of therapy to wean people off the assumption that more is always better. Not sure what the answer is, but I’m sure there are good ideas out there, and I intend to keep on thinking about it.

(Amended slightly on 11 November 2014 after watching “How rich are you?” on Channel 4 last night.)

Multi-tasking: if you have ten things you hate doing, try doing them all at once

February 24, 2014

Males, we are continually being told, can’t multi-task. Rubbish! At the right time, I love multi-tasking. I’ve started writing this now, but will soon switch task to sorting out the junk in my room. Serious amounts of stuff – my normal junk, plus the stuff I cleared out of my office at work, plus stuff from my parents’ house, even my grandparents’. I’ve been looking at it for six months – must get stuck in … put some stuff in recycling and moved some from one shelf to another. This is progress! But I need a change … There’s a couple of things I want to check on the web, and I’d better put the washing on and see if there’s any ironing, and I’ll take some photos of the junk. And then get back to trying to make sense of quantum mechanics…

If I have ten things, most of which I really don’t want to do, then I try and do them in parallel, a little bit of one, then switch to the next , and so on. Perhaps mixed up with some things I enjoy but which are a bit of an effort. That way I’m too flustered to notice how painful it is. If I do enough things at the same time so that I haven’t got any spare attentive capacity, I fail to feel the pain. Even used to work for marking exam scripts.

One of the tasks I’m juggling is trying to make sense of quantum mechanics. This seems to be a story of apparently mutually exclusive possibilities happening simultaneously. This is what I’m aiming at with my multi-tasking.

Dan Ariely, in his book “The upside of irrationality”, offers some advice on interrupting tasks. If you enjoy it, interrupt it, if you don’t keep going. The rationale for this is that we are amazingly good at getting used to whatever situation we find ourselves in, so if you keep going at something you enjoy you will get used to it so it will no longer feel special. Interrupt it, though, and every time you return to it, it feels wonderful. On the other hand, with something you don’t enjoy if you keep on interrupting it, you’ll feel the pain every time you return to it so it’s best to keep going and get used to the pain.

At first sight this is the opposite of my multi-tasking system. But I don’t think so because the pain of doing something I hate doing is not interrupted by switching to another task so I remain acclimatised to doing nasty jobs. With the added advantage that the variety adds a bit of creativity – coming back to a difficult task after a break often brings a new and useful perspective – and with all channels blazing I really haven’t any spare brainpower to remember how much I’m hating most of it.

Really does seem to work.

The memoirs of William Withycombe

November 25, 2012

William Withycombe was my grandfather. He wrote these memoirs about his early life, horses, polo and various other things.

Meta’s Memoirs

August 20, 2010

I found these memoirs about a year ago. They were written by my great aunt, Meta McKinnon Wood (1893 – late 1960s). They start by describing her childhood and the origins of her desire to be an explorer. Then she jumps a few years to her adventures in the Mombasa and Voi River valley area of Kenya in the early 1930s. The final part is about an expedition to Peru which culminated in the deaths of two of her companions in a canoeing accident on the Urubamba river. We think one of the people killed was the geologist John Walter Gregory, and accident was on 2 June 1932 – see There are obviously a few gaps in these memoirs: these are either lost or were never written.

 Michael Wood, .

 Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8 

Chapter 9 

Chapter 10 

The Google Journal

January 29, 2010

Google wants to make the world’s knowledge readily available to everyone. They are trying to put all books that have ever been published into a freely available, searchable digital library. Google Earth is trying to capture as many details of our physical surroundings as possible. And so on.

But what about new knowledge: new discoveries by scientists and new theories created by academics in the world’s universities? Traditionally these are published in academic journals which then sit in university libraries for other academics to read, criticize or build on, and may eventually find their way into text books, courses and popular books, and so to a wider audience.

The academic journal system is far from ideal in many ways. The journals are usually expensive to consult for those outside the academic system, which means in practice they are only easily available to those working in universities. (It is true that there are a growing number of open access journals which are open to all, but these are still the exception rather than the rule.) There is typically a longish delay between submitting an article and getting it published, particularly if, as is often the case, the author has to submit to a number of journals one after the other – simultaneous submissions not being allowed. The system for trying to ensure that only good paper are published – so called peer review – is fraught with problems such as unreliability, the possibility that an author’s pet theories might be pinched by anonymous peer reviewers, and the hostility to new ideas likely with editors and peers being steeped in the prejudices of their discipline. And the multiplicity of different journals, each with their own format and outlet, makes life complicated for both authors and readers. And mistakes are made – things are published which probably shouldn’t be, and vice versa.

This scenario is almost begging for Google to move in. It wouldn’t, of course, need to be Google. But it needs to be an organization that can think big and bold, and I will use the name Google for such an organization.

What could Google do? They could simply create the Google Journal for publishing academic and scientific papers. Then authors could submit their papers, and after a few checks to ensure that the paper are in an acceptable format, they would be published in the GJ. This is a similar system to that used in various repositories of papers such as the Arxiv at Cornell University ( and the Social Science Research Network ( However, these are all subject specific, and often require authors to specify whether their offering is physics or philosophy or paleontology.

But what about peer review and quality control? How can readers be sure that what they read has been vetted by the gatekeepers of academia?

Google could encourage third parties to take this on. Take the Bungee Jumping Science Association. At the moment they publish the respected Annals of Bungee Jumping, but this is expensive. Furthermore libraries are increasingly unwilling to pay the subscription, and prospective authors and readers often stray to rival publications (Suicide Studies and The Rubber Review). All they would have to do is to transfer the allegiance of writers and readers to the Google Journal, and set up their own Journal Quality Certification Scheme. Authors would submit their papers to the GJ, and then apply to have them certified. If as usually happens, the BJSA insists on revisions to the original article before awarding their stamp, the certified paper would be a new entry in the GJ – linked to the original so that interested readers can see the impact of the BJSA certification process on the original paper. Then readers go to the GJ and search for papers with the BJSA quality stamp.

But why bother? Isn’t the result just like before? Well … yes and no. If the BJSA applies the same peer review procedures as before, and the revised versions of the papers incorporating improvements suggested by their referees are put in the GJ, then things could work as before.

Except that there would be advantages. Big advantages. The GJ would be open access and the BJSA would only have the costs associated with the reviewing and certification process – they could cover this by charging readers for the certification list, or authors for the privilege of being certified, or from their membership charges. From the perspective of the BJSA it would be cheaper and easier.

From the perspective of readers it would mean that everything – the BJSA papers, the papers certified by Suicide Studies and the Rubber Review would all be in one place and one format making it easier to find the latest and best work. This is exactly the principle that makes the web such a useful source of information about anything.

Authors would also like the new system. No more searching to find the best journal that is likely to accept their work. And then having to reformat it when the first journal turns it down and they try another. They put it on the Google Journal and apply to a number of quality certifiers. Multiple stamps of approval would be no problem, although how the system might evolve is difficult to predict.

One possibility is that the peer review approval stamp might be a little more specific than current peer review practices. If an article is in a peer reviewed journal we don’t know if it’s been checked for the quality of the writing, the accuracy of the citations to other work,  the correctness of the statistical analysis, or simply consistency with the editor’s prejudices. With the new system, there might, for example, be a statistical stamp of approval, and readers would be able to see if research on climate change or the MMR vaccine lacked such statistical certification. On the other hand, articles exploring possibilities, as yet unproven, might be subject to different, perhaps less stringent, criteria.

From the perspective of encouraging the growth and dissemination of knowledge there would also be advantages. The new system should be quicker, and opening up the possibility of multiple quality certifiers should help to encourage new ideas, and enhance the diversity of the offerings available. In the language of economics, costs to producers and consumers should be reduced and the market for ideas would become more flexible, competitive and efficient. Competition between different definitions of “good” research would be easier than under the present system. One possibility might be a certificate based on review by non-peers, or outsiders from other disciplines, as a way of countering the introspective, and often increasingly bizarre, evaluation criteria used by some academic disciplines