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