Monday, December 29, 2008

Damn you Taleb

Bearing in mind Nassim Nicholas Taleb's admonitions to stop reading newspapers, I have been making an effort to avoid doing so.

The problem is I am finding it extremely difficult. I can just about avoid watching TV, but I spend so much time online it become difficult to avoid looking at newssites. Even worse (when I do) reading articles like this:

Churnalism and all other forms of sponsored or assisted reporting are deplorably remote from Steer's ideal of the reporter as author of history's first draft. They are really little more than sordid compromises which famous newspapers and broadcasters feel forced to make in a plummeting market.

I believe that one day and somehow web-based news outlets will find a way to finance expensive, agenda-setting journalism. But that is a faith-based position, not an entirely rational one. The website does not yet exist that can afford to send correspondents on speculative foreign missions or to fund expensive long-term investigations.

As yet, despite the brilliance of sites such as this one, the best online journalism remains dependent on revenues earned by its paper and broadcast parents and upon journalists employed and paid primarily by old media outlets.

The problem with this is that I simply don't even buy newspapers. On the other hand I don't buy blogs, and there are some excellent weblogs that are completely free (The Yorkshire Ranter, Charlie's Diary, Stumbling and Mumbling etc).

The problem with blogs is that for every reasonable blog there are thousands of unreasonable ones. If people don't like what one blog says they can just go and find one that says stuff they like - I'm probably guilty of this myself in my blog selection.

This leads to what the one of the guests on Andrew Marr's Start the Week (in which he recaps some of the more profound biotechnological and computational stories of the past year) describes as counter knowledge.

Perhaps I should just go cold-turkey on all forms of media, including blogs and newspapers, TV news and so forth?

The problem is if I did that I wouldn't know what to think! I need to know more before I can make reasonable judgements, and the only way I can find out more is if I read more, and the only way I can read more educational stuff is if I read books (including textbooks).

One of the comments on this blog post on Overcoming Bias (another excellent blog) puts it rather well: the "opportunity cost" of reading newspapers is very high.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Validation in graphs

Confirming what I always suspected:

{{{"You're reading The Economist??? --- it's Christmas etc!}}}

[from the Economist]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Knowledge and newspapers

After thinking about my previous post further I've realised that newspapers are fairly entertaining. They also help fulfil the basic human need for gossip and discussion, which is good.

The problem is they just provide you with information, no deep knowledge. I read loads of newspapers and news websites every day and I know what's happening, but (to quote Elliot Carver) I don't know "why" things are happening.

I don't know enough about the world to come to analyse what happens independently of journalistic blowhards, disingenuous politicians, lawyers, scientists, and experts of every stripe.

Chris Dillow (a journalist who has written this book, and can therefore be considered an agent of deep knowledge) says of opinion:

Opinion is over-rated. Sure, I like a neat turn of phrase or a new perspective. On a good day I even like the occasional fact. But mere opinions are like arseholes - everyone's got one, and I don't want to hear any of them.

Because I possess relatively little deep knowledge it would be a good idea for me to go somewhere and read lots of books about a wide variety of important things (economics, management, accountancy, psychology, engineering, physics, maths, electronics, computer science, literature, philosophy, politics etc) and get "up to speed" on Life, the Universe, and Everything and then I'll be able to make my own judgements.

I also think that "not reading the daily newspapers" would be a good New Years Resolution, particularly bearing in mind (the opinion of) Thomas Jefferson:

Avertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.


I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.


The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
Quite right. An opinion, of course, but still.

So I guess I'll be reapplying to university...


Edited on the 27th of December, links and quotes added.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Black swans and newspapers

Currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Pretty good. One personal point hits home though: why the hell do I read so many newspapers? Why does anyone?

The stock answer is "to be informed" - which is a bunch of bull. Not only does Taleb show how reading newspapers actually makes you less knowledgeable about what goes on in the world he also points out that newspapers are so full of misery and negativity there is little value in them even as a form of entertainment.

Much better to read a good book - which I'm just off to do right now.

Thoughts on "The Black Swan"

Having read "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (his website is here) I have come to a few conclusions:

  1. I spend too much time reading newspapers and on trivial and timewasting exercising (writing this blog post does not qualify as it counts as practice in writing and helps me organise my thoughts).
  2. Much of what I believe about the world isn't based on any kind of objective reality, but rather a collection of superstitions, cognitive biases[link], and predjudices.
  3. In certain non-empirical fields there is little value in deferring to experts if your intention is to accomplish something (like building a bridge, or making money).
  4. The value in the "free market" has less to do with competition and more to do with the resultant levels of "stochastic tinkering" that have the potential to lead to hugely influential but unpredicted developments.

The Book Itself

Taleb is arrogant, irreverent and amusing - all qualities I value in anyone. He writes engagingly, occasionally dipping into anecdote (for illustrative purposes, not necessarily to support his argument).

The Black Swan

A Black Swan is an unpredicted event that has a huge impact. Human beings tend to ignore Black Swan events when making decisions about the future, despite the fact that Black Swans tend to have an overwhelming effect in history, science, business, finance, and individual lives.

Black Swan events are outliers, they have an extreme impact, and third human nature has the tendency to attempt to "explain" the Black Swan after the fact, making it seem predictable and obvious.

Extremistan and Mediocristan

Taleb defines two areas of human experience: in Mediocristan things tend to behave in a fairly orderly and predictable manner. The distributions of height in a large population, for example, remain relatively close to a normal Gaussian bell curve even if you were to add the world's tallest man to the population - because he is not 3 kilometres tall he does not effect the overall distribution.

In Extremistan, on the other hand, outliers have a disproportionately large effect. The distributions of personal net worth in a large population, for example, will be completely thrown out of whack if you add Bill Gates to the population.

Power Laws and Guassian Bell Curves

In Extremistan, power laws (Pareto's Principle, Zipf's Law) and fractal relationships are the norm. In Mediocristan Guassian bell curves are the norm.

Taleb believes the bell curve is misused in it's application in investing (I wasn't aware the bell curve was used extensively in finance).

Scalable and Non-Scalable Professions

Inequality tends to follow a power law. The richest 1% own 50% of all assets, whereas the poorest 10% own substantially less than 10% of all assets.

With regard to income some professions lend themselves to black swans and power laws, and others don't. Medical doctors and priests will tend to earn roughly a certain amount, which will fall somewhere on the bell curve of income for that particular profession.

Writers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and scientists, on the other hand, all occupy extremistan, or black swan territory. Some writers (like J.K. Rowling or Terry Pratchet) earn collossal amounts of money per hour worked whereas the vast majority will struggle to earn anything.

Empiricism and the Problem of Induction

How do we know that what happens in the past will continue to happen in the future? Taleb likes empirical philosophers like Francis Bacon and Karl Popper, and Sextus the Empirical. In trying to find knowledge about the world it is better to prove conclusively that something doesn't work than that it does - in fact you can't prove that something always works.

Knowledge, therefore, emerges from negatives. Disproving something adds to knowledge.

Platonism and Theories

Taleb rails against creating a theory and then selecting evidence to fit the theory. He dislikes the application of game theory to economics, and portfolio theory to investment. He describes the mistake of focusing on elegant, tractable mathematics at the expense of empirical knowledge as platonicity, and any knowledge divined from such abstract mathematical theorising is "nerd knowledge."

Cognitive Bias and the Narrative Fallacy

Correlation does not equal causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Terry Pratchett and Taleb

Pratchett comments extensively on the human desire to create stories (the Discworld is a world that runs on narrative, rather than physical laws) and on the fact that million-to-one chances occure nine times out of ten.

Also Pratchett's uber-politician Lord Vetinari is the embodiment of the knowledge that in an unpredictable world what people really, really want is for tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today.

Arthur Koestler and Taleb

Skimming through The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler (which I have read) I can see many parallels between Taleb's dislike of platonism and Koestler's similar criticism of excessive theorising in physics.

Taleb refers to Koestler's book in The Black Swan in the context of the inadvertant nature of much scientific discovery.

Koestler was also intensely critical of the dogmatic nature of theoretical physics (as he perceived it). Koestler's problem was that, unlike classical physics, quantum electrodynamics involved fields and quanta that could be one or the other or something else, depending on your perspective. I personally think the problem is more to do with the fact that QED is counter-intuitive. We humans have evolved in a quasi-classical environment and just aren't set up for thinking in terms of the quantum environment of the very small.

Hayek and Stochastic Tinkering

Taleb believes the value in free markets lies in their ability to generate new idea in a process of stochastic tinkering. This apparently is what Hayek thought.

Taleb is also a fan of Francis Bacon and Karl Popper. Does not like Platonism - mistaking the map for the territory and overextending the use of models.

Whither singularity?

Both Kurzweil and Taleb are obsessed with the fact that humans tend to have an "intuitive-linear perspective."

Taleb doesn't comment on the singularity directly. He does refer to the importance of power laws and such.


There is a lot of food for thought in this book, and I intend to read a lot more about the various topics that Taleb raises.

As ever at this stage in my education any new knowledge raises more questions and than it answers.

However as Taleb's central point is that the world is in many ways fundamentally unknowable and unpredictable perhaps this is a good thing.

The objective of learning is not simply to know a load of facts, but rather to become comfortable with the limits of your understanding. To transform unknown unknowns into known unknowns and to cope as best you can with those things that remain unknown unknowns.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The perfect job?

Jason Stoddard writes of the difficulties of being a science fiction writer in 2008 [via Futurismic] and describes what sounds to me to be pretty much my ideal job:

To write fully believable, near future science fiction today, you almost need to be voracious antisocial polymath, deeply conversant in half a dozen technical fields, as well as familiar with ongoing social, economic, and environmental change.


And that’s the burden of the modern science fiction writer. If you want to write believable near-future fiction, you can’t choose a single point of advancement. You need to have a good understanding of advances in many different fields, and you need to be able to imagine how these can come together, for good or for bad. And to be really believable, you’ll need to know more than you ever wanted to know about how the world works, economically and socially, as well as where the trends are heading.

This is actually pretty close to being my ideal career - a sort of polymath technocrat who spends half his time researching and half his time writing stories. Jeremiah Tolbert disagrees [again via Futurismic], saying that:

I take exception to is the notion that you need to be deeply conversant in anything. I think you just need to do research to the point where what you have to say doesn’t break the suspension of disbelief and I think that’s a long ways from being a polymath. You don’t need to be an expert on anything but people.

Well I agree with this as well. I wouldn't be adverse to doing the whole bleached-skin, eccentric-reclusive paranoiac thing (like Neo in the first Matrix movie or the oil rig dude in The Star Fraction) but I would like to get out sometime.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Discussion of ethics, capitalism, the environment, and what I should do with my life

I have been reading The Business by Iain Banks. It is an engaging read, despite the treacle-slow plot, and has plenty of the kind of feats of imagination that I like about Banks’ writing.

The main protagonist is a mid-to-high-level manager in “the business” – a generation-spanning organisation that supposedly bought the Roman Empire (but only for 66 days), owns several sets of crown jewels, and is as ubiquitous as it is unnoticed.

The internal set-up of the business is explored in some detail; it is vehemently rationalist, secular, meritocratic, and organised to avoid corruption, nepotism, and dynasty-building as these things are seen to get in the way of effective money-making.

As ever Banks’ imagination and prose add a great deal to the story, and his politics shines through as clearly as usual. Several pages are given over to debates about inequality, opportunity, capitalism, and the pros and cons of free markets and the state.

I am currently at 312/392 pages. I don’t know if there will be a twist at the end or not, but the book has already given me food for thought on a subject that has been worrying me for some time now.

I am currently 19 years old and in the very fortunate position of being able to choose how, where, and in what manner I wish to live my life. This is not a choice most people are offered. As such, I have been vacillating over the appropriate direction to take. Do I want to dedicate my life to the service of some greater good, or do I want to pursue my own aims and personal ambitions?

Reading A.C. Grayling’s The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty, and the Good Life in the 21st Century has helped a little. In the book Grayling argues that the idea that we have to choose whether to devote our lives to vice or virtue is a false one. At the same time H.J. Blackham’s Humanism suggests that I have a responsibility to myself, and a responsibility to everyone else by virtue of our common experience of humanity. Balancing the two is addressed by Grayling quite well in his book.

In any case the real cause of my concern over what path to take stems from the ideas explored in The Business. Is acquisitiveness good? Is greed good? Is it better to seek to grow and expand your wealth or persue other interests entirely?

Quite often this argument is subsumed by other arguments about capitalism vs. socialism; of free markets vs. state control; traditional morality vs. human nature; and arguments over the best way to raise people out of poverty and end tyranny and bloodshed.

These kind of political, economic and social arguments devolve to deciding whether or not our current system of liberal democratic capitalism (as typified by the USA, Japan, and the EU) is the best resource/scarcity-allocating system.

The definition of “best” is open for debate as well. Anyone asking for my beliefs on what is best should read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then read up on utilitarian philosophy and the golden rule. For the purposes of the rest of this essay I will assume “best” means that all resources are allocated in a manner which leads to an ending of human poverty ASAP, an ending to war, and provision for ensuring sustainable use of finite resources (read: avoiding anthropogenic climate change, preserving and enhancing biodiversity, repairing some of the damage we have already done to the environment and ensuring that in the long run human activity has a neutral effect on the environment).

This is a tall order for any prospective resource-allocation system, but I am confident it can be accomplished. The best book I’ve read on the subject of ensuring continuing and growing prosperity for all whilst maintaining the environment is The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future by James Martin. In the book Martin argues for something called “eco-affluence.” Martin believes that with a combination of freer markets, more education (especially for women), and advanced technologies (most notably extensive use of genetic engineering, nuclear power, and hydroponics) we will be able to simultaneously solve our environmental and humanitarian problems. He makes an excellent case for the fact that they are one and the same problem, and that attempting to solve one whilst disregarding the other will end up exacerbating both.

From an objective perspective it is clear that if a better resource/scarcity-allocating system than liberal democratic capitalism ever emerged then we should immediately adopt it. Some might point to China’s model of state capitalism as an alternative solution, but they miss the point that what matters is quality of life. Most evidence suggests dictatorships are simply institutionally incapable of behaving in a benign manner.

Can you do good simply by aiming to become rich? You create jobs, you increase public tax revenues and hence the amount of money spent on welfare, hospitals, schools, etc. If you do it properly you create an environmentally sustainable business that provides people with a good service. You will probably have a lot of fun once you acquire wealth and then you can give it all away before you die.

There are a couple of ways of looking at problems in the world. One argument would be to say that the problem is corporatism. Whenever the needs and desires of an abstract collective are put above the needs and desires of individuals you get problems. An example that springs to mind is that of environmentalism. Environmentalists have an unfortunate habit of treating people as “the problem” rather than the only reason it is worth solving the problem.

In The Business “the Business” is a mechanism for allowing the flourishing of individuals – or is it a controlling corporate regime?

John Marnard Keynes, the economist whose theories of fiscal stimulus are currently being implemented by our politicians saw capitalism as a means to an end, a multi-generational project for creating wealth, growth, and technological innovation. His concept of capitalism was that it is a necessary evil; a mechanism for creating a greater good.
In his essay The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren Keynes writes that:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
It could be said that Keynes is too utopian – and that he doesn’t realise that humanity is inherently acquisitive and irrational. Maybe markets emerge naturally in all human societies?

To return to Iain Banks – A Few Notes on the Culture is well worth reading on the subject of what (I hope) a post-scarcity civilisation looks like.

And also (via Ken MacLeod) this libertarian commentary on the idea of "success" from Brian Micklethwait.

And finally, because this is a blog after all, what about me? What should I do? Start a business? Go study bioinformatics? Go study economics? Go study systems engineering? Write novels?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Wikipedia visualisation tool

Interesting Wikipedia visualisation tool here called WikiDashboard from PARC [via Magical Nihilism]. It gives a real insight into who edits what when in Wikipedia:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Private loss, public gain?

Since the credit crunch began in earnest I've been swotting up on economics. It's a fascinating study, fully of feedback loops and intuitively peculiar realisations.

For example: at the moment the average citizen of the UK owes a lot of money on mortgages, personal loans, and credit cards.

Intuitively you would suppose that high levels of debt are a bad thing and, taken to extremes, they are.

However what if everyone were to suddenly start saving? Anatole Kaletsky says this would be bad as well:

The main reason comes down to a simple proposition that almost nobody in politics seems to understand: for every saver there has to be a borrower.

This means that whenever people feel like they have borrowed too much and want to increase their savings, somebody else in the economy must increase borrowing to match the extra savings, pound for pound. Because every pound of savings is a claim on a pound of somebody's wealth - and the only way to acquire such a claim is either to invest directly in a house, a factory or a business asset, or to lend money to someone else who will do this for you. Putting money in the bank is just another form of lending, in this case to the bankers.

From what I can gather economic theory suggests doing all things in moderation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ahem, what I was trying to say was...

In my last post the key epiphany I was trying to get across was that I should just study whatever the hell interests me.

I've always had this vague idea I should study something useful so I can do something important like cure cancer or invent a cold fusion reactor or something.

To this end I've studied sciences and started a chemical engineering course at Manchester University.

After I discovered I didn't enjoy it that much I dropped out and have since gone through a few jobs, and spent a lot of time working in my parents' bookshop.

I believe there is more than one way to make the world a better place, and more than one way to live the good life.

I need to just study what I'm interested in (economics, philosophy, computing, business, writing and reading science fiction, creating a graphic novel, history and politics at the moment), take life a little less seriously, and set out to enjoy myself and do good in the world.

Blessed are the engineers

For a long time I've been struggling to articulate something that ought to have been obvious to me all along.

I am not an engineer.

I respect engineers. A key component of human existence is concerned with shaping matter and the physical world in ways that suit our purposes. As the arbiters of this process engineers, inventors, hackers, and designers are owed a special place in our collective consciousness. It is sad that (in the UK at least) they are not afforded the level of respect of lawyers, doctors, accountants, teachers, and even businessmen.

I am fascinated by engineering, but it is a vicarious fascination. I would rather bask in the warm glow of effective, efficient design than actually attempt to design anything myself.

So where do my interests and proclivities lie?

I have always had a hunger for understanding, knowledge too, but specifically comprehension of the world and the way it works.

So what route am I to take in order to sate my thirst for understanding?

In the somewhat crude terms of conventional academic subjects my search will probably take me through some basic science, psychology, economics, politics, and philosophy.

Because computers are are key component of the universe I occupy some appreciation for them and their functioning must also be taken into account.

These are all areas I am interested in - but how will I go about the task of comprehension?

There is another element, beyond merely identifying academic subjects, that I believe to be necessary to attaining a comprehension of the world and how it works. In fact two elements.

Time and money.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

10, 000 hours

I am obsessed with talent, intelligence, achievement, and success.

Not, you must understand, in the sense that I am talented, or that I strive daily to succeed, but rather in the sense that I am obsessed with the lives, opinions, and achievements of those who are talented, intelligent, and successful.

I'm a sucker for books like How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis; I love reading the entrepreneur profiles in The FT; I know the top ten of the Sunday Times Rich List off by heart.

I am, in fact, a wealth nerd. I have an unhealthy obsession with the rich and filthy rich.

This isn't an aspect of my personality I'm particularly proud of - but it's there and it isn't going away.

In a broader sense I am interested in those who are successful in all areas, like science fiction writing or economics.

But my main concern is money: what is it about these people that allows them to acquire so much more of the stuff than everyone else?

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book Outliers: The Story of Success sets out to answer that question. I enjoyed Gladwell's previous book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking; but I did feel that it felt more like a collection of essays with a common theme than a cohesive argument (viz people analyse facts and make decisions very, very quickly - in the blink of an eye).

The Guardian has published an excerpt from Outliers that I advise you all go and read:

What we think of as talent is actually a complicated combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.


(((of a study by K Anders Ericsson of three groups of violin students)))

By the age of 20, the elite performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice over the course of their lives. The merely good students had totalled, by contrast, 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers just over 4,000 hours.

The curious thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals" - musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find "grinds", people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn't have what it takes to break into the top ranks.

Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. What's more, the people at the very top don't just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

This, to me, is an interesting and crucial observation. Gladwell isn't necessarily saying "everyone can do it" but rather only those capable (either by genetic predisposition, the manner in which they are raised, or the circumstances of their lives) of practicing the requisite 10, 000 hours in order to become an expert.

I look forward to reading the complete book, and of finding out if this is a universal component of success.

One of my bugbears is my mathematical ability. I have several friends who are simply better that I at maths (solving differential equations, set theory, number theory, discrete maths, integral equations, geometry etc).

However if I were to spend 10, 000 hours doing differential equations would I becomean expert? Probably. Would I ever achieve the intuitive brilliance of Newton or Einstein?

I doubt it.

Two Interviews, Two Perspectives

Just read a couple of interesting interviews, one with Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) and Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, and Outliers: The Story of Success).

I feel sorry for Zuckerberg: he sounds like he's being coached and handled. From my point of view becoming that wealthy that early on is pointless. You want to be young and wild before you become middle aged and rich.

From the interview:

Zuckerberg has expanded Facebook to the point where it is among the fastest-growing websites in the history of the internet, but he says the principal mission is the same: sharing.

(((the bait)))

In fact, he uses the word so many times that I wonder if I am talking to a machine. 'The idea was always, tell people, "share more information",' he tells me. 'And that way we could gain more understanding about what's going on with the people around you.'

(((the switch)))

Paul Carr, leading journalistic groupie of the Web2.0 business boom, comments on the nature of success in social networking in his recent book Bringing Nothing to the Party: The True Story of a New Media Whore.

Carr points out that Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Tom Anderson and the rest of the [successful] Web2.0 crowd are doomed to a life controlled by minders and advisors, where any and every casual remark could potentially lead to a lawsuit or cause the share price of their company to plummet.

I identify with Malcolm Gladwell quite a lot. Not just because he has a tight 'fro, but also because he is similarly obsessed with the idea of success, his relationship status, his interest in academia whilst not actually being of academia:

Meeting the limits of his own dedication had a formative effect on Gladwell. He has subsequently become preoccupied in his writing with people who would go to greater lengths even than he would to achieve something.


'I don't believe in character,' he says. 'I believe in the effect of the immediate impact of environment and situation on people's behaviour.'


He smiles. 'I have lived with people, though not formally,' he says. And: 'I'm just slow at getting around to things. I am aware of writing about parents' subjects - education and so on - without actually being a parent. I write a lot about kids. It allows me to make all kinds of pronouncements without being confused by actual experience. The other way to think about it is as a rehearsal. It is a way of sorting through those choices before you get there...'

It looks to be a good book. I will read it, and comment on it, then move on.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On writing

My basic problem as regards writing is that I don't have anything to write about.

I'm 19 years old, what experiences have I had to contribute to a book? What do I know about enough to write about.

Even this blog is problematic. I basically write about what I read, and ask questions about it.

I need to go out in the world and experience things. I need to start a business. In fact I need to do all the things Heinlein describes in that quote.

I've got to do all these things before I can write:

A human being should be able to:
change a diaper,
plan an invasion,
butcher a hog,
conn a ship,
design a building,
write a sonnet,
balance accounts,
build a wall,
set a bone,
comfort the dying,
take orders,
give orders,
act alone,
solve equations,
analyze a new problem,
pitch manure,
program a computer,
cook a tasty meal,
fight efficiently,
die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.

Robert Heinlein

Friday, November 14, 2008

Where is this going?

Unfinished, of me in office, bored

Monday, November 10, 2008

Who is Kayl Polanyi and what does he want?

I've been reading a lot about John Maynard Keynes recently (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is on the reading list) in the context of the recent global credit crisis and coming recession.

Another name that occasionally crops up is Karl Polanyi.

Polanyi was a Hungarian academic who fled fascism and ended up in Canada. He wrote a book called The Great Transformation (also on the reading list).

Anyway I suspect Adrian Pabst has got the wrong end of the stick in this article:

Crucially, Polanyi's vision for an alternative economy re-embedded in politics and social relations offers a refreshing alternative to the neo-liberalism of left and right.

(((I'm almost certain our current economy is embedded in politics.)))

In practice, an embedded model means that elected governments restrict the free flow of capital and create the civic space in which workers, businesses and communities can themselves regulate economic activity.

(((So I'd be helping regulate the economy? Cripes! But what if I'm not smart enough?)))

Instead of free-market self-interest or central state paternalism, it is the individual and corporate members of civil society who collectively determine the norms and institutions governing production and exchange.

(((So: Instead of building a system of free-market self-interest where people ask for stuff and other people supply that stuff, and instead of a system where we elect politicians who decide which stuff gets made and then gives that stuff to people we have a system where ---- what?

I just don't understand what he means by "individual and corporate members of civil society who collectively determine the norms and institutions governing production and exchange." It sounds pretty much the same as the system of liberal democracy combined with free, regulated markets that we already have.)))

I honestly don't know what to make of this article. I will have to read Karl Polanyi's book.

Madeleine Bunting also comments on Polanyi with reference to Friedrich von Hayek (author of The Road to Serfdom, also on the reading list)

Hayek became the founding father of a model of economic management which has brought us to the current crisis; Polanyi, with extraordinary prescience, warned that the crisis would come; he rejected the idea that the market is a "self-regulating" mechanism which can correct itself. There is no "invisible hand" such as the neoliberals maintain, so there is nothing inevitable or "natural" about the way markets work: they are always shaped by political decisions.
FWIW I feel like I've come late to the party vis a vis this particular argument.

I don't much care how general happiness is achieved, as long as it is achieved. I have yet to decide if globalisation works or not, or if it is even a meaningful question.

By way of a conclusion, I'd like to point to this fascinating article on Keynes the hippy in The Times:

For Keynes, economics was a dirty game, and the business of earning and spending was a sordid obligation that humanity should shrug off as soon as possible. In the 1930s he believed that until we had developed our economy and technology sufficiently to support our human material requirements “we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.”

But once we had got ourselves “out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight”, he predicted: “I see us free to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue - that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour and the love of money is detestable...We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well.” He thought that we would flourish in the arts, in culture, and even perfect the ultimate refinements of beauty and friendship.

Capitalism then, should be thought of as a multi-generational project (like the Enlightenment project) the sole aim of which is to develop humanity to an economic and technological level where wealth and prosperity are such that we can stop working and consuming and concentrate on the things that actually matter, like science, art, friendship, and all that good stuff.

The job we have now is to identify the systems of resource allocation (e.g. free markets, state-supervision) that will get us to the end game of collassal personal wealth for everyone and low growth rates (because of the finite resources at our disposal).

This state could be called "eco-affluence."

Friday, November 07, 2008

William James on Atheism

Probably one of the best and most nuanced articles on faith and atheism ever to appear of CiF from Andrew Brown:

The future may very well be more secular, but it won't be any more rational without a tremendous moral effort – and any collective moral effort will have much of the characteristics of a religion, including a tendency to objectify and later to personify the abstractions by which we orient ourselves in world.

(((FWIW: I think humanism, in the sense of H. J. Blackham's Humanism is the only philosophical system of ethics that is based as much as possible on what we can actually sense (we are alone and this life is all) and what we can reasonably assume (we are responsible for ourselves and for each other, by virtue of our common shared experience of humanity) )))

I still don't for a moment believe in petitionary prayer or an intervening God; as I have said earlier; I don't even think that the existence of God is a very interesting question. What has changed is what I believe about belief.

(((I concur. The issue isn't the belief in God, but rather our attitude to belief itself.)))

The trigger was two-fold. One was reading William James with real attention, but what had provoked that was rereading the Selfish Gene after a prolonged absence while I had been writing about religion. What that book said about biology seemed to me luminous and profound. What it said (in passing) about Christianity was palpable nonsense. I don't mean here the opinion of God. I mean the description of faith, and of the psychology of belief.

(((This is a genuinely interesting point. Society really needs to move away from tribalistic and unhelpful "atheism vs. religion" debates. )))

No matter how often is it repeated that religious faith is uniquely and by definition a matter of assent to propositions for which there is no evidence, this simply won't do as a description. Quite probably some or all forms of religion do involve assent to untrue propositions but so does any programme to change the world. So, for that matter, does belief in memes, or supposing that we, uniquely as a species, can overcome the tyranny of our selfish genes.

(((Not sure what he means here. Certainly there is no reason to suppose all people are inherently equal. We have decided to let it be the case in the eyes of the law for pragmatic and compassionate reasons. I certainly agree that the definition of religion promulgated by Dawkins et al needs some work...)))

The subtle melancholy of Williams James, drifting like a fog into the bright certainties of his Victorian audience and quietly rusting them with doubt, was – and remains – much more realistic. James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience addressed head-on the paradox apparent even 120 years ago, that some people need to have faith to live at all even while everything they know about science suggests it is misplaced or wrong.

(((And here is the core of the problem. I, personally, don't have any particular need to believe. I do know a few people for whom faith and belief in religion are extremely important. I have no place denying them their happiness or security, as long as they do me the same courtesey and don't attempt to force their viewpoint on me.)))

Quoting William James:

The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.
(((Mmm. The thing is that people generally get on with things, even if they do feel shitty. It's part of the human condition.)))

Now Andrew Brown quotes Conrad:

What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victim of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well – but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife – the tragedy begins. We can't return to nature since we can't change our place in it. Our refuge is in stupidity, in drunkenness of all kinds, in lies, in beliefs, in murder, thieving, reforming – in negation, in contempt – each man according to the promptings of his particular devil. There is no morality, no knowledge, and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror, is always but a vain and fleeing appearance.

Both these grim visions are better and more cheerful than the religious prospect of eternal damnation. (I really do not think that anyone sane can contemplate steadily the Calvinist doctrine of eternal conscious torment.) But they are hardly cheerful ones, and they certainly don't make one optimistic about a future of sunlit rationality.


I don't doubt that it is possible to extinguish any particular theology and almost any religious community. But when they are gone, what stands in their place are different mythologies. William James was probably the father of the naturalistic study of religion: the psychology of religious experience is studiedly neutral as to the reality of whatever provoked these psychological experiences.

But when the study of religion has been entirely naturalised, one of the things we can no longer do is to demonise believers. It may be that psychology tells us that we will continue to demonise our enemies whether or not we decently can: the trick has just proved too useful in the past. But in that case we will hardly have moved into a bright new world of rationality.

(((This is the basic problem. I have absolutely no objection to people holding religious beliefs as long as they don't inflict them or their conclusions on everyone else.

The question of "inflicting" religious faith on a child is a contentious one.

My belief is that as long as parents expose their children to dissenting opinions [allow them access to the local library/secular state school/non-religious neighbours and family members] then it doesn't count as abuse to teach them the existence of God etc.)))

(((Anyway it is fairly clear that religions emerge, and superstitions emerge, and are a natural part of being human. Rationality is always the aspiration, rather than the reality.)))

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Blood and treasure

Why do people use the phrase "blood and treasure" when discussing the war in Iraq?

I suspect the reason is it sounds much grander and more epic than "soldier's lives and money."

It has connotations of mythical battles and the kind of simple-minded loftiness of cheap fantasy novels.

It is a suspect phrase because it has connotations that distract from its actual meaning.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

...or were you looking at the Woman in the Red Dress?

Researchers have discovered that the colour red enhances men's attraction towards women:

the women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colors. When wearing red, the woman was also more likely to score an invitation to the prom and to be treated to a more expensive outing.

Apparently this will have implications for dating and product design, but I think that they've already been taken on board in these contexts.

Monday, October 27, 2008

New webcomics &c

A brilliant new webcomic Suburban Panic! here.

A nice mix of the humanist, atheist, rationalist, scientific, Epicurean, and general political whimsy.

Also a good use of the ComicPress WordPress theme.

I've tried said theme on XAMPP locally, and it works. I'm going to have to upgrade my hosting package but I think I'll wait until I'm comfortable with ComicPress and the general look'n'feel.

I mean it's OK at the moment, just a little web circa 2001 for my liking.

Cutting debt into little bits

Comprehending what caused the recent credit-crunch/liquidity-crisis is much easier after reading Tom Cunningham's explanation:

But wait, there's a loose end, what about all the risky leftover pieces of investment? Who's going to buy those?

This is the clever part. Suppose you're offered the chance to flip a coin, where you'll get £100 if it's heads, but nothing if it's tails. On average you get £50, but it's risky. Now instead say you pool your winnings with 100 other people who are in the same situation and you all share the proceeds. Again you'll get £50 on average, but it's now a much surer prospect.

This is the trick to deal with the risky parts of the investments: if one firm can buy up a huge number of these separate risky investments then the risks start to cancel out, and as a whole it becomes a fairly safe investment.

It all makes sense. Sort of.

Cutting up debt

The thing investors really don't like is uncertainty. And what the financial engineers in the city have been trying to do is "smooth out" risk. Risk remains, but it is well managed *in theory*.

The logical conclusion would have been one enormous world investment, stitched together from all of the billions of separate individual investments. But the financial engineers stumbled before they could construct that one.

Cunningham's conclusion is that "no one has found any fundamental problem with the principle of sharing risk."

This raises the interesting possibility that once the smoke has cleared financiers might start doing it right.

[image from SqueakyMarmot]

Friday, October 24, 2008

Steal from the best

Because I'm tired and thought this collection of quotations was fun:

A human being should be able to:
change a diaper,
plan an invasion,
butcher a hog,
conn a ship,
design a building,
write a sonnet,
balance accounts,
build a wall,
set a bone,
comfort the dying,
take orders,
give orders,
act alone,
solve equations,
analyze a new problem,
pitch manure,
program a computer,
cook a tasty meal,
fight efficiently,
die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.

Robert Heinlein

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I just had a thought

(It didn't hurt.)

I am capable of summoning resources that will enable me to travel to any densely populated location on Earth within hours, and many more remote places within days.

My life-expectancy is around 70 years, and is likely to rise due to advances in medical technology.

That life is nearly guaranteed to be free of the penury and hardship that characterises the lives of the vast majority of my fellow human beings on this planet at this time, and throughout history.

I can banish pain with ease.

I have direct access to a vast chunk of all human knowledge - I can find an answer to virtually any question.

I can communicate instantly with any and every person I know at a moments notice.

Truly these are good times to be alive.

Impatience with the IMP

It seems I'm in good company with my opinion that the government's IMP (Interception Modernisation Project) is a great big steaming pile of FAIL and that Geoff Hoon is a bit silly, from the The Independent's Open House:

In speaking out against the government's proposed database of telephone and internet records last night, Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald joined a remarkable cast of critics of Labour's most draconian instincts.

...the really startling chorus of opposition to the raft of illiberal policies that has characterised this government is that which has emerged from the security establishment.

It's former MI5 heads Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller speaking out against 42 days, and senior members of the Association of Chief Police Officers saying the same thing. It's former Prison Service director general (now Barnado’s Chief Executive) Martin Narey decrying the rate at which we incarcerate children, or Prison Governors Association president Paul Tidball on the government's decision to build Titan prisons 'in the face of unanimous opposition from professional and expert groups'. And it's Brian Gladman, a former director of strategic electronic communications at the Ministry of Defence and US government security consultant, saying that ID cards would be a disaster.

The list goes on. These people are not partisans. They're professionals. They're experts. If anyone is going to have sympathy with the impulse to 'go quite a long way' in undermining freedom to stop terrorism (another Hoonism) and crime and benefit fraud, it is surely them. And if even these people think the government has got it wrong, one has to ask: who on earth does the government consult when it formulates this stuff?

The appropriate message is that all of this is not "being tough on terrorism" it is giving in to terrorism.

Atheist bus

I blogged about Ariane Sherine's suggestion for an atheist bus advert back in June and it seems the plan has come close to fruition:

The Atheist Bus Campaign launches today thanks to Comment is free readers. Because of your enthusiastic response to the idea of a reassuring God-free advert being used to counter religious advertising, the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" could now become an ad campaign on London buses – and leading secularists have jumped on board to help us raise the money.
Their picture:

And here is my original mock up:

Mine is admittedly less positive and more definite - but whatayagonnado?

However since then I have come to the conclusion that there isn't anything inherently wrong with a belief in God, just as long as belief does not become the basis of any kind of temporal power or influence.

I can empathise with the faithful, even if I don't agree with them.

Still, I applaud this agenda of atheist expression.

{Money? What money? Give it to Amnesty I say!}

[images from the Graun and SideLong on flickr]

Monday, October 20, 2008

A-Holy smokes! H. J. Blackham is STILL ALIVE!

I've been re-reading Humanism by H.J. Blackham. A brilliant book - and much easier going the second time round (I think in the meantime some of the ideas have sunk in).

Anyway I searched the author and Harold John Blackham is still alive:

H. J. Blackham, born on 31 March 1903, has been a leading and widely respected British humanist for most of his life.


H. J. Blackham was a key organiser of the World Union of Freethinker's conference in London in 1938. When he tried to refound it after the war he decided a new organisation was needed and together with the Dutch philosopher Jaap van Prag started the International Humanist and Ethical Union, of which Julian Huxley was the first President. Blackham worked closely with Julian Huxley in many ways including helping him to revise Religion without Revelation.


He has enjoyed many years retirement in the Wye valley, reading, writing and growing vegetables. He lives the exemplary humanist life that of thought and action welded together.

105 years old!

It makes sense, after all. If you genuinely believe this life is everything that ever will be then you damn well make sure you get your fair share.

Bertrand Russell got a good innings as well [imagine being an adult in the Victorian era and living to see Nixon in the Whitehouse - what an epic journey!] at 97.

Anyway kudos to Blackham.

Oily Irony

Hilarious news from Cuba:

Mother nature, it emerged this week, appears to have blessed the island with enough oil reserves to vault it into the ranks of energy powers. The government announced there may be more than 20bn barrels of recoverable oil in offshore fields in Cuba's share of the Gulf of Mexico, more than twice the previous estimate.

If confirmed, it puts Cuba's reserves on par with those of the US and into the world's top 20. Drilling is expected to start next year by Cuba's state oil company Cubapetroleo, or Cupet.

And the American response:

"It would change their whole equation. The government would have more money and no longer be dependent on foreign oil," said Kirby Jones, founder of the Washington-based US-Cuba Trade Association. "It could join the club of oil exporting nations."

Cuba's unexpected arrival into the big oil league could increase pressure on the next administration to loosen the embargo to let US oil companies participate in the bonanza and reduce US dependency on the middle east, said Jones. "Up until now the embargo did not really impact on us in a substantive, strategic way. Oil is different. It's something we need and want."
Hah! Hilarious.

Where's my fusion reactor?

Best. Resignation Letter. Ever.

This has been floating around for a few days. Andrew Lahde, a Californian hedge fund manager who has made a Lot of Money betting on the sub prime debacle has decided to quit fund managing and live the High Life:

Dear Investor:

Today I write not to gloat. Given the pain that nearly everyone is experiencing, that would be entirely inappropriate. Nor am I writing to make further predictions, as most of my forecasts in previous letters have unfolded or are in the process of unfolding. Instead, I am writing to say goodbye.

Recently, on the front page of Section C of the Wall Street Journal, a hedge fund manager who was also closing up shop (a $300 million fund), was quoted as saying, “What I have learned about the hedge fund business is that I hate it.” I could not agree more with that statement. I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy, only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.

There are far too many people for me to sincerely thank for my success. However, I do not want to sound like a Hollywood actor accepting an award. The money was reward enough. Furthermore, the endless list those deserving thanks know who they are.

I will no longer manage money for other people or institutions. I have enough of my own wealth to manage. Some people, who think they have arrived at a reasonable estimate of my net worth, might be surprised that I would call it quits with such a small war chest. That is fine; I am content with my rewards. Moreover, I will let others try to amass nine, ten or eleven figure net worths. Meanwhile, their lives suck. Appointments back to back, booked solid for the next three months, they look forward to their two week vacation in January during which they will likely be glued to their Blackberries or other such devices. What is the point? They will all be forgotten in fifty years anyway. Steve Balmer, Steven Cohen, and Larry Ellison will all be forgotten. I do not understand the legacy thing. Nearly everyone will be forgotten. Give up on leaving your mark. Throw the Blackberry away and enjoy life.

So this is it. With all due respect, I am dropping out. Please do not expect any type of reply to emails or voicemails within normal time frames or at all. Andy Springer and his company will be handling the dissolution of the fund. And don’t worry about my employees, they were always employed by Mr. Springer’s company and only one (who has been well-rewarded) will lose his job.

I have no interest in any deals in which anyone would like me to participate. I truly do not have a strong opinion about any market right now, other than to say that things will continue to get worse for some time, probably years. I am content sitting on the sidelines and waiting. After all, sitting and waiting is how we made money from the subprime debacle. I now have time to repair my health, which was destroyed by the stress I layered onto myself over the past two years, as well as my entire life — where I had to compete for spaces in universities and graduate schools, jobs and assets under management — with those who had all the advantages (rich parents) that I did not. May meritocracy be part of a new form of government, which needs to be established.

On the issue of the U.S. Government, I would like to make a modest proposal. First, I point out the obvious flaws, whereby legislation was repeatedly brought forth to Congress over the past eight years, which would have reigned in the predatory lending practices of now mostly defunct institutions. These institutions regularly filled the coffers of both parties in return for voting down all of this legislation designed to protect the common citizen. This is an outrage, yet no one seems to know or care about it. Since Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith passed, I would argue that there has been a dearth of worthy philosophers in this country, at least ones focused on improving government. Capitalism worked for two hundred years, but times change, and systems become corrupt. George Soros, a man of staggering wealth, has stated that he would like to be remembered as a philosopher. My suggestion is that this great man start and sponsor a forum for great minds to come together to create a new system of government that truly represents the common man’s interest, while at the same time creating rewards great enough to attract the best and brightest minds to serve in government roles without having to rely on corruption to further their interests or lifestyles. This forum could be similar to the one used to create the operating system, Linux, which competes with Microsoft’s near monopoly. I believe there is an answer, but for now the system is clearly broken.

Lastly, while I still have an audience, I would like to bring attention to an alternative food and energy source. You won’t see it included in BP’s, “Feel good. We are working on sustainable solutions,” television commercials, nor is it mentioned in ADM’s similar commercials. But hemp has been used for at least 5,000 years for cloth and food, as well as just about everything that is produced from petroleum products. Hemp is not marijuana and vice versa. Hemp is the male plant and it grows like a weed, hence the slang term. The original American flag was made of hemp fiber and our Constitution was printed on paper made of hemp. It was used as recently as World War II by the U.S. Government, and then promptly made illegal after the war was won. At a time when rhetoric is flying about becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy, why is it illegal to grow this plant in this country? Ah, the female. The evil female plant — marijuana. It gets you high, it makes you laugh, it does not produce a hangover. Unlike alcohol, it does not result in bar fights or wife beating. So, why is this innocuous plant illegal? Is it a gateway drug? No, that would be alcohol, which is so heavily advertised in this country. My only conclusion as to why it is illegal, is that Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other additive drugs, than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers. This policy is ludicrous. It has surely contributed to our dependency on foreign energy sources. Our policies have other countries literally laughing at our stupidity, most notably Canada, as well as several European nations (both Eastern and Western). You would not know this by paying attention to U.S. media sources though, as they tend not to elaborate on who is laughing at the United States this week. Please people, let’s stop the rhetoric and start thinking about how we can truly become self-sufficient.

With that I say good-bye and good luck.

All the best,

Andrew Lahde”

Quoted in full because it's pretty good.

[from The Biog Picture, via the FT, Futurismic, Slashdot, Jon Taplin et al][images from striatic pink n girly gadl dawnzy58 The Consumerist dustpuppy wili_hydrid aforero on flickr]

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Great Depression: what really happened?

Jon Taplin points to a fascinating article on the Great Depression by James Livingston. As ever with this topic it raises as many questions as it answers, but it makes for interesting reading:

...the Great Depression was the consequence of a massive shift of income shares to profits, away from wages and thus consumption, at the very moment—the 1920s—that expanded production of consumer durables became the crucial condition of economic growth as such.

This shift produced a tidal wave of surplus capital that, in the absence of any need for increased investment in productive capacity (net investment declined steadily through the 1920s even as industrial productivity and output increased spectacularly), flowed inevitably into speculative channels, particularly the stock market bubble of the late 20s;

when the bubble burst—that is, when non-financial firms pulled out of the call loan market in October—demand for securities listed on the stock exchange evaporated, and the banks were left holding billions of dollars in “distressed assets.”

The credit freeze and the extraordinary deflation of the 1930s followed; not even the Reconstruction Finance Corporation could restore investor confidence and reflate the larger economy.
Livingston basically seems to be arguing that Milton Friedman's view of the Great Depression as being exacerbated by government intervention was incorrect.

Livingston also argues a fundamental idea of supply-side economics (as advocated by Reagan et al) is incorrect.

The idea is that if you cut taxes on the rich they will use the additional money to invest in new factories, research, job-creation and infrastructure.

It seems they don't, and in fact invest in speculative (often property-based) securities, and create a speculative bubble. According to James Livingston:

The “underlying cause” of the Great Depression was not a short-term credit contraction engineered by central bankers who, unlike Ferguson and Bernanke, hadn’t yet had the privilege of reading Milton Friedman’s big book. The underlying cause of that economic disaster was a fundamental shift of income shares away from wages/consumption to corporate profits that produced a tidal wave of surplus capital that could not be profitably invested in goods production—and, in fact, was not invested in good production.. In terms of classical, neoclassical, and supply-side theory this shift of income shares should have produced more investment and more jobs, but it didn’t.

Livingston claims that during the 1920s the growing demand for consumer durables meant that massive economic growth was created with almost no investment in factories or job-creation.

At the same time weaker trade-unions meant the owners of capital could increase their share of revenue at the expense of workers.

So profits went up, but wages didn't. As increasing the wages of consumers was the only practical way of growing consumption, this lead to problems.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The lunacy of the IMP

Listen to some of these justifications from transport secretary Geoff Hoon MP for the government's Interception Modernisation Programme:

He said the police and security services needed the powers to deal with "terrorists or criminals" using telephones connected to the internet, for "perfectly proper reasons, to protect our society".


"If they are going to use the internet to communicate with each other and we don't have the power to deal with that, then you are giving a licence to terrorists to kill people."

He added: "The biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist."
There is a very straightforward reason why the government shouldn't push forward with the IMP.

The government has shown again and again and again that it is incapable of storing the people's data securely and responsibly. And I'm talking about any government - the more information the state has, the more leaky the state becomes.

Incidentally this is Geoff Hoon MP speaking, who was appointed transport secretary in the recent cabinet reshuffle, the same reshuffle that saw Tom Harris MP sacked from his job as a transport minister, presumably because he committed the cardinal sin of pissing off the Daily Mail by asking why " everyone so bloody miserable?"

Geoff goes some way towards answering this question. Misery is an entirely understandable response if the people of Britain are constantly being told that they are under threat from terrorists and as a result have to have their every electronic communication recorded by an incompetent government.

Monday, October 13, 2008

That is a LOT of money - what about global warming?

I've been pondering something for the past few days: the British government can rustle up £37 billion at short notice to solve a banking crisis:

So what about global warming? What about energy security? Couldn't these issues be greatly improved by this cash?

I suspect the reason has to do with the fact that the situation around global warming is extremely uncertain: governments still aren't entirely sure if it will happen as advertised and if it does, will it be all bad?

Bjørn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson have both pointed out that there are potential upsides to global warming and climate change. Bjørn Lomborg claims:

According to the first complete peer-reviewed survey of climate change’s effects on health, global warming will save lives. By 2050, global warming will cause almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths each year – but 1.8m fewer people will die from cold.
And Freeman Dyson claims:

...if the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to continue, shall we arrive at a climate similar to the climate of six thousand years ago when the Sahara was wet?

Second, if we could choose between the climate of today with a dry Sahara and the climate of six thousand years ago with a wet Sahara, should we prefer the climate of today?

My second heresy answers yes to the first question and no to the second. It says that the warm climate of six thousand years ago with the wet Sahara is to be preferred, and that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help to bring it back.

I am not saying that this heresy is true. I am only saying that it will not do us any harm to think about it.
What I am certain of is that climate change lies in Taleb's fourth quadrant and is liable to be rife with black swans, and maybe a few white ones.

Then there is the misrepresentation of academics' views by the media.

There is also the obvious fact that no one is entirely sure what the best course of action is. Some advocate nuclear power, others advocate wind, tide, and solar power.

I am inclined to agree with the politicians: this is a complicated and unpredictable situation. By all means do something (at least only for reasons of energy security - a much more explicable problem, if no more tractable) but don't imagine we understand everything.

[image from the BBC NEWS]

Self evident truths

It's always nice to remind ourselves of what good people should strive for:

[via Boing Boing]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The future of capitalism and the EU

Some chap called David Marquand has written the most sensible article on the recent economic troubles I've seen so far:

It is not fashionable to say so at the moment, but that makes it all the more important to remind ourselves that globalisation has made it possible for the governments of India and China to lift millions out of the most appalling poverty - and that, as Churchill said of democracy, the capitalist market economy is the worst economic system ever invented, apart from all the others.

In truth, the fundamentalisms of right and left mirror each other. One says, "markets good, states bad". The other says, "states good, markets bad". The truth is that they are both good and bad - at the same time.

He goes on to say:

The need now is for clever regulation, on a global scale.

In the EU, there is an equal need for much stronger political institutions to complement the central bank. But the greatest need of all is for a new theory of the mixed economy, framed for the global marketplace of today, as the now-defunct Keynesian system was framed for the national post-war economies.

This reference to the EU is in line with my own thoughts: the EU can only be fit-for-purpose if it is made stronger, or it should be reduced in influence and importance. The situation we have now is a half-way house that benefits no one.