Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sharpening the memetic razors

If there's one thing slightly more annoying than blog posts the existences of which are due entirely to some minor irritation on the part of their creator it is post subtitles on CiF [1] that are laid out in the manner:

"We need a [insert your choice of damnfool idea here]"

The first thing that annoys me about this habit is the presumption of any journalist or blogger deciding that "we" need something. The audacity.

The second thing that annoys me about this habit is the wholly unintentional Royal Pronounity of the form. Like the author thinks they're the Queen. Damn their eyes etc.

Despite this Robert Sharp is excused, not so much because he didn't annoy me, but because he actually talks sense [2]:

Despite the robust nature of much of the debate online, I do perceive a sort of online Omerta, a Way of the Blogs. This states that if you have been offended or disrespected online, you can always fight your corner by setting up a counter-blog somewhere else. The idea is that you do not attempt to suppress the offensive material, legally or otherwise, but instead use the same medium to counter and debunk it.

More diverse memes and more aggressive selection pressure ensures that only optimal ideas are amplified and replicated.

And such is the power of liberal pluralism. If you can't stone them to death then join them.

[1] I know I promised to stop reading CiF after NNT advised that newspapers were full of tosh, but as CiF is theoretically a blog aggregate and as such a Public Forum I am entirely justified in finally dropping my ill-thought-out New Years Resolution.

[2] And in any case he is actually identifying a blogging phenomena rather than actually advocating one. I blame the copy editors for the silly (and blood-pressure-increasing) subtitle.

Monday, March 30, 2009

How much should MPs be paid?

After much consideration I've come to the conclusion that the answer to this question is either:

  • A lot (or more than they're paid at the moment)
  • Nothing at all

The rationale behind the first is that MPs need to be effectively unbribable by outside interests, either via the traditional envelope of used fivers or sinecures and stipends as "non-executive directors" after they leave office.

The rationale behind the second is that MPs must do what they do out of a sense of duty to their country, rather than the mere taste of silver.

There is an inherent conflict between these two extremes. Both purport to ensure that only people of integrity are elected to (or allowed to remain in) high office: but this objective is not served by the current mess of low salaries (and yes, for the job they do they are low) supplemented by perks and expenses.

My preference is for a situation where MPs are paid nothing, but must create some kind of external income to enable them to carry out their political duties.

This would ensure that MPs are canny, experienced, and entrepreneurial enough not be total dishrags in office, and (assuming that everything is declared in as open and honest way as possible) it would also allow us (the electorate) to see who works for who in as straightforward a fashion as possible.

Full price for porn? That dog won't hunt

What surprises me most about this recent snafu regarding Jacqui Smith's Other Half's wanking habits was that the silly old duffer actually paid for pornography.

What the heck is the point of spending thirty quid a week on a broadband connection if in addition you're going to spend money on pay-per-view?

In any case I have no particular moral objection to MPs expenses going on skin-vids. Contrasted with eminently stupid policies like continuing prohibition and national ID card registers it is small tuberous angiosperms (appropriately served, of course).

I also agree with Iain Dale: politicians in this country aren't generally corrupt and to assume so is a bit silly.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The End of Politics: a review

I stumbled across Chris Dillow's blog (entitled Stumbling and Mumbling) after reading repeated references to managerialism in The Yorkshire Ranter and DSquared Digest.

A brief read of Dillow's blog suggests he is clearly too clever by half and, which is more, he knows that intelligence is irrelevant if you don't pay attention to empirical observations, or further are incapable of making accurate empirical observations.

Which leads into The End of Politics - Dillow's book.

Dillow's thesis is that, contrary to the standard caricature of being "all spin and no substance", New Labour does have a distinctive ideology.

This ideology holds that it should be possible to combine equality and economic efficiency, and that there is no trade-off between these two goals. Any problems that emerge can be dealt with through effective management.

Dillow calls this ideology managerialism. Managerialists believe that the job of government is to behave like managers of a company. Managerialists do not perceive the inherent trade-offs and conflicts of interest that are endemic to politics, and are indeed the reason for the existence of politics. Managerialists believe conflicts of interest can be resolved with good leadership and appeals to a well-defined national interest.

Managerialism is distinct from the scientific management of Frederick Winslow Taylor, which was concerned with organising resources effectively. Rather managerialism is the belief that there exists an abstract concept of "good management" that can be applied to every situation, regardless of the underlying organisational substrate.

Managerialists are obsessed with the idea that the world is new and constantly changing, thus simultaneously justifying managerialist action and ensuring that it is impossible to objectively test the efficacy of a managerialist policy because by the time it is implemented things will have changed.

Dillow also draws a link between Old and New Labour, describing how they are defined by their desire to achieve equality and economics efficiency simultaneously.

Dillow argues that there are trade-offs in politics that can't be managed away.

Further he argues that notions of "economic efficiency" or "equality" or even "rationality" are ambiguous and incoherent in and of themselves. He cites Newcomb's Problem to identify areas where traditional conceptions of rationality are limited.

Dillow shows that the arguments that globalisation have changed everything are false, and that concern over globalised capital and labour is as old as Adam Smith.

Instead, globalisation is used to justify New Labour's managerialist schemes.

Globalisation isn't necessarily irreversible, as the existence or non-existence of tariffs or immigration controls are at the whim of politicians.

Dillow shows that the evidence as to whether the national minimum wage destroys jobs is inconclusive, but taken as a whole, the research generally seems to indicate that the national minimum wage does destroy jobs but this is difficult to detect in aggregate economic data.

The attempts by the Beveridge-report inspired postwar settlement to achieve full employment lead to worker militancy and increased inflation, as workers campaigned successfully for higher and higher price rises in response to increased inflationary pressures that were in fact being caused by inflationary pay rises.

Dillow's arguments are a recurrent theme in what I've been reading. The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker and now The End of Politics all have in common an empirically-supported belief that the powers of human rationality are more limited than we tend to assume. That centrally-planned projects often fail and that extensive government oversight of the economy is generally a bad thing.

So if the capacity of political leaders to manage things is inherently limited in all sorts of ways what is to be done?

The title The End of Politics is appropriate: Dillow pours flammable liquid over all the most cherished ideals of all politicians and sets everything alight.

Given the robust and thoroughly empirical nature of this book I am entirely persuaded by Dillow's arguments that most political projects are stillborn. There is never enough information for politicians to make good decisions, even if they were capable of doing so, or even had a clear idea about what qualifies as a "good" decision.

As an alternative to top-down managerialist politics Dillow argues in favour of the open society: that decision making should be as democratic as possible, simply because no centralised authority can possess all the necessary information to make good decisions.

Dillow believes hospitals should be run by doctors and nurses, and schools run by teachers, because no centralised manager in Whitehall can possibly predict "the facts on the ground."

He also suggests the intriguing idea of a citizens basic income as a way of partially solving the problem of welfare vs. working tax credits. It's an interesting idea, and one that appeals to the dilettante in me.

The basic lesson of The End of Politics is that in the complex world in which we live political and business leaders need to be more humble in the face of the inherent limitations of centrally directed institutions.

The best way to get anything done is to create the circumstances by which effective solutions can be evolved from the interactions and daily business of all the millions of people and machines in the world.

Nowadays, as professions become more and more specialised, it is important to hand control back to the professionals. Just as David Allen's Getting Things Done system was defined by Wired magazine as "Taylorism for the modern knowledge worker."

Just as the study of productivity has shifted emphasis from centrally-directed institutions to professional individuals Dillow argues that the response to increasing complexity in the world is to decentralise politics and business.

Both The End of Politics and The Origin of Wealth convey the message that economists and policy makers need to be more humble about the extent to which the economy can be controlled and that the best laid plans gang aft aglay.

Dillow advocates an open society and more genuinely democratic debate in which heterodox views and those who stand to lose out from policies are given a fair hearing. Political debate is likely to be fairer if things are done in the open.

My response to this book was initially fatalistic: if the world is so complex that we can never hope to control it, why bother attempting anything?

Dillow's answer is that government has a role in creating the circumstances in which innovation can take place. But it is not the role of government to attempt to change people or manipulate the economy, because it is incapable of doing so effectively.

In a broader context it is clear that our conception of human nature is changing and altering. We are coming to realise that we are not wholly rational, and even that rationalism itself is a canard.

Dillow has an excellent blog: Stumbling and Mumbling.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Against a Dark Background: not a review

I've finished reading Iain M. Banks' Against a Dark Background. Here are a few thoughts, bullet pointed, as this isn't a review:
  • This is a wonderfully indulgent piece of science fiction. The scope of imagination is huge and the cinematic expanse of Banks' imagination lends a sense of wonder to the story.
  • This is a profoundly humanist novel. The notion that people are truly alone and this life is all is explored through a variety of mechanisms and tropes. The Solipsists insistence that they are alone in their own universe, the finality of death and the transient nature of being are persistent themes. Also the nature of the System in which it the story is set.
  • This is a dark novel. Lots of death and failure and despair and general unpleasantness.
  • That being said Banks doesn't Pull the Nasty in the same way as he has done in The Algebraist and Consider Phlebas.
Well worth a read.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fiskal policy

It's not often you get the chance to say you're smarter than the shadow Cabinet Office Minister, from the BBC, we find Gordon Brown has cancelled his email account.

Francis Maude objects:

Mr Maude said: "Gordon Brown is spending taxpayers' money on the latest digital gimmicks, from Twitter to Flickr, but can't be bothered to give out a simple email address.

"The beleaguered Prime Minister is literally retreating to his Downing Street bunker, cutting himself off from an angry and disillusioned electorate.

"In the depths of a recession, it is a waste of taxpayers' cash to be hiring a £160,000 a year head of digital engagement and setting up an office in the virtual world of Second Life."

Now even I know that recessions are caused by falls in aggregate demand. Far and away the worst thing the government can do in a recession is to cut spending on anything.

And as for email I doubt very much it was of any use. I'm with Donald Knuth on this one.

The bill for freedom is eternal vigilance

I've signed the petition to support this here freedom bill.

I'm always a bit lairy of putting my name on political petitions, partly because that's how they getcha and partly because I don't want to end up being responsible for a pyramid of skulls.

But this bill seems entirely sensible. In fact I'm rather surprised the whole lot isn't already in law:

# Scrap ID cards for everyone, including foreign nationals.
# Ensure that there are no restrictions in the right to trial by jury for serious offences including fraud.
# Restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, at the heart of our democracy.
# Abolish the flawed control orders regime.
# Renegotiate the unfair extradition treaty with the United States.
# Restore the right to public assembly for more than two people.
# Scrap the ContactPoint database of all children in Britain.
# Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the Information Commissioner and reducing exemptions.
# Stop criminalising trespass.
# Restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers.
# Prevent allegations of ‘bad character’ from being used in court.
# Restore the right to silence when accused in court.
# Prevent bailiffs from using force.
# Restrict the use of surveillance powers to the investigation of serious crimes and stop councils snooping.
# Restore the principle of double jeopardy in UK law.
# Remove innocent people from the DNA database.
# Reduce the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 14 days.
# Scrap the ministerial veto which allowed the Government to block the release of Cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war.
# Require explicit parental consent for biometric information to be taken from children.
# Regulate CCTV following a Royal Commission on cameras.

Brought to this place by the inestimable People's Republic of Mortimer.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Build Your Own... political ideology

Your friendly guide to building your own political ideology.

First step: if you want to build your own political ideology you need to look hard at the Way Things Are and try and work out why they are the Way They Are.

Second step: carefully record your findings and then make careful ethical judgements about the Reasons for the Way Things Are that you have discovered. If you find there are some Reasons that are ethically questionable then make a note of these.

Third step: write a tract or essay describing the bad Reasons for the Way Things Are and your personal ideas for how we might go about Improving Matters.

Fourth, final, and most important step: toss the whole lot in the bin and walk away and do something useful and worthwhile. The world has enough ideologies and enough ideologues to be getting on with. :)

Why I am not a minarchist libertarian

I've been reading Charlotte Gore's wonderful weblog, having being directed there by the sublime People's Republic of Mortimer.

Gore describes herself as a "libertarian liberal democrat." This is fair enough, but she is also a minarchist (and especially here):

I used to think - that the alternative to what we had was Afghanistan or some African style government.

I've changed my tune on that. The most important part of any Government is the rule of law - the ability to enforce contracts, maintain a monopoly on force and be subject to the rule of law themselves.


I'm not an anarchist. I want a state - I just want one that acts as nothing more than a framework to make free and honest trade possible and otherwise keeps out of people's lives. Upholding the rule of law is more important than anything - consider Iraq with democracy but without rule of law, for example.

I want this because free trade is the key to creating wealth, which improves the quality of our lives, advances technology and makes things cleaner and more efficient.

Free trade, you see, makes everyone richer because when two people trade in their mutual self interest both are made wealthier as a result.

It is this the implicit assertion that the actions of the state (in addition the maintaining the rule of law) cannot add to the wealth1 of everyone that I intend to refute.

Consider the following two scenarios:

1. A person living in a minarchist, night-watchman state has a business idea. They know that if their business works they could change the world for the better; create hundreds of rewarding jobs; initiate a whole new industry; and make them famous and wealthy and respected for their inventiveness and brilliance.

But they're smart enough to realise that there is a risk their business could fail. They have a good job at the moment. They have a family to support. One of their children has a disease that, although manageable at the moment, could degenerate at any time into a much more serious condition that will require intensive, and expensive, medical care.

The prospective entrepreneur knows if they succeed they will get 95% of all the profits from their venture to keep for themselves, paying a small 5% tax on the gains to the night-watchman state.

2. A person living in a social democracy has a business idea. They know that if their business works they could change the world for the better; create hundreds of rewarding jobs; initiate a whole new industry; and make them famous and wealthy and respected for their inventiveness and brilliance.

But they're smart enough to realise that there is a risk their business could fail. They have a good job at the moment. They have a family to support. One of their children has a disease that, although manageable at the moment, could degenerate at any time into a much more serious condition that will require intensive, and expensive, medical care.

Taxation in this social democracy is high, to provide for the generous welfare payouts, state-funded R&D, high standards of education, and superbly generous national health service. The prospective entrepreneur knows he will have to pay at least 60% of all the profits he makes from his business to the state.

Now which of these two wannabe entrepreneurs d'you think is most likely to follow their dreams and set up their potentially wealth-creating business?

If you made your answer purely on the basis of their cost-benefit calculation then you probably agree with me that it would be the denizen of the social democratic state, but probably not for the same reason as I.

Do you think Steve Jobs is as rich as he is because he wanted to be a billionaire or because he loved making computers? Do you think Thomas Edison founded General Electric because he wanted some guy to take it over after he was dead and build the world's second largest company?

No! These geeks and misfits and entrepreneurs and Johnny Appleseeds did it for the love and adventure and sensawunda and because they couldn't help themselves.

Do you think Felix Dennis created Maxim magazine because he wanted a better skinmag for the sarky masses and also to make shedloads of moolah? Well yes, he probably did. But 60% of $240 million is $144 million more than 100% of nothing and a notebook full of good poetry.

A minarchist libertarian disputant would claim that I clearly know nothing of business: the individual entrepreneur may be doing it because they love it, but they need to get capital from somewhere. This will need to come from investors who want large returns to make up for the risky nature of business.

My answer to this is to be point out that in our hypothetical minarchist state where there is less propensity to start businesses there is less propensity to invest in the same. Why not stick it in a vault or buy land? Land isn't risky. Banks vaults are (no deposit insurance), but they're a damn sight less risky than investing in some nobody's idea for a business.

Further these libertarians might point out the bureaucratic monstrosity that social democracies inevitably end up as. The problem is that bureaucracy is not and has never been endemic to the public sector. Large corporations are as liable to it as anyone else.

At this point my hypothetical libertarian opponent might say that the only reason large companies are bureaucratic is because of state regulation. They might also throw in the point that bureaucratic companies will fail in the marketplace, as the costs of maintaining the bureaucracy lead to a lack of profitability.

To the first I say so be it. If bureaucracy is the price you pay for clean water and functioning aircraft then I'm fine with that. To the second I point out that if a company has to deal with particular regulations then so will all it's competitors.

At this point my assumptive adversary will presumably posit that the state is not accountable. Well, this is certainly true. But governments are (that's why they're called social democracies) and governments are nominally in control of the state. If bureaucracy really starts to irritate the people then they will elect a government that aims to put an end to it.

I'm all in favour of markets. They create wealth and foster innovation. And I'm all in favour of making markets as free as possible. But the notion that the state is always inimical to the creation and maintenance of free markets and innovative industry is nonsense. In many cases the state is necessary to foster industry in ways far beyond simply providing for the rule of law.

Look at South Korea in the last century. Look at industrial development in Britain during the Elizabethan period.

In both cases the state stepped in with tariffs and subsidy to protect industry at home2.

Look at what came of ARPANET and the World Wide Web. Look at what came of Global Positioning System and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The idea that the state is somehow "getting in the way" of economic growth is absurd.

The state needs to support economic growth through the provision of extensive civil amenities just as a poorly-educated, under-insured, and uncertain entrepreneur is likely to fail whereas a well-educated, healthy, well-informed entrepreneur is likely to succeed.

1: I get the free market, I do. My argument is not that the free market is a bad idea, just that it is wrong to think that there is more to the creation of human happiness than the creation of wealth and more to the creation of wealth than free markets.

2: I also get globalisation and maximum advantage. I won't go into that now as it would be a long and involved conversation that is orthogonal to my main point: a minarchist state is not a state that enhances economic growth OR human happiness.

Trivium and the MBA

It occurs to me that in a couple of centuries historians will look at the MBA in the same way contemporary historians look at the trivium - as something someone has to possess to be considered educated.

Insert obligatory Talebesque derision of MBAs here

Trolling my former self

Nearly three years ago I wrote a post entitled Things We Need to Do describing various bits of technological wotzitry I felt humanity needed to create:

Mature nanotechnology: as demonstrated by the RepRap, it is becoming clear that nanotechnology (coupled with another technology, see below) will sort out quite a few of our problems). Once material wealth can be “made” by a machine that itself only requires energy and raw mass (the most advanced post-nanotech replicators will presumably need only energy) then a significant proportion of the iniquities in life will be resolved and done away with.

Well first I really should point out that every machine ever made only needs "energy and mass" of one sort or another. And as for my earlier comment:

Fusion: in order to supply a crowded planet with sufficient energy whilst maintaining the integrity of the biosphere for future generations (and for ourselves, see below) it is necessary to create an elegant fusion reactor that produces significantly more energy than it consumes. This will remove any further material iniquity. We will have energy “too cheap to meter”, and the means of production will be owned by anyone and everyone. I suspect this will result in a sort of libertarianism.

Yowza. What was my younger self smoking? Bit of a cognitive leap from realisable fusion to communal ownership to libertarianism.

How much have I changed in the intervening years? Sadly not enough. I am prone to making vague statements and leaping from topic to topic without any clear rationale.

Further I still haven't made my mind up on all those ideological questions of capitalism vs. public ownership or free markets vs. command and control. The world is far more complicated than ideologues and ranters on both sides make out and neither side is as fully rational and empirical as they should aspire to be.

Friday, March 20, 2009

In praise of apathetic youth

Commenting on the undoubtedly cringe-inducing1 video interviewing Future Leaders of the Labour Party (produced by The Guardian) Alix from The People's Republic of Mortimer makes a rather interesting comment:

Actually, I always feel slightly sorry for youngish politicians when journalists ask them - as they invariably will - about political apathy amongst the young, because their responses are so hopelessly inadequate. And no wonder, because they (charmingly uncognisant of this as they may be) are the weirdos who did get interested. You might as well ask a zebra why it thinks more of the horse family don’t have stripes.

As I've commented before I think there are three rather distinct uses of the word "politics" in common usage. Two of these, one concerning political traditions, and the other concerning how things actually work I am fascinated by.

But the tedious, tribalistic, mudslinging nonsense that might well be fun if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing-but-I-don't that is reported on the news on a daily basis is not something I or any other non-nerd would ever be remotely interested in.

The problem is that whenever da yoof are exhorted to "engage in politics" it is this tedious bottom layer we are expected to "engage" with. No discussion of Adam Smith or Plato or Marx. No discussion of the global balance of power or how computer chips are made.

And not even anything useful, like giving everyone under 25 a free bus pass.

Just tedious distracting talking shops like the Youth Parliament2.

Y'see I'd say the reason otherwise quite engaged and well-informed young people such as myself (no really) aren't interested in this kind of politics is because it is boring. And also has very little relevance to how many of us live our lives.

Take, for example, the "90 day without charge" Terrorism Act later rehashed as the "42 days without charge" Counter-Terrorism Act. From an ideological standpoint it was an obvious attack on some fairly solid principles of freedom: namely you should not be imprisoned by the state without being told why you've been imprisoned ASAP and then given the opportunity to defend yourself.

But what did it actually accomplish? Sweet Fanny Adams is what. The chances of me dying in a terrorist attack are ridiculously minute in any case, but they haven't grown substantially smaller because the police can now hold suspects for a whole two weeks longer.

And even if that weren't the case what the hell is the point of being a liberal democracy if you let the bastards win by caving in to their terror tactics like this?

I keep an eye on what goes on in parliament. And if I see some way of making the world a better place by taking political action I will certainly do so. But I do not want to engage with this bunch of egotistical navel-gazing pishers3.

Political apathy amongst the young is probably a good thing as it will keep those with genuine talent out of career politics and place them in the real world where they might be able to do something useful.

1: Of course I haven't watched it and I have no intention of doing so. Partly for the reasons described above and partly because Alix does a wonderful job of summarising the Horror.

2: I suspect the Youth Parliament is a clever way of distracting and then proceeding to grind down anyone with even the remotest genuine interest in helping their fellow man. That or ensuring all the trouble-makers are kept in one place for easier observation /paranoia.

3: I can get enough of that online and in a more entertaining package.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What to do, what to do?

My basic problem is that although I have every confidence that if I put my mind to it I can accomplish a great deal I'm not sure at this stage exactly what I want to do.

Although there are numerous avenues that may lead to remarkable achievements and Good Times I'm never sure if I want to dedicate the time and effort necessary to achieve and enjoy.

I worry that the time I spend not really doing anything is detracting from my enjoyment of life and from the time I could spend doing something useful. If I had some clear goal perhaps it would be different but I really don't.

I'm fairly happy with how things are at the moment but there is always going to be room for improvement.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A woman

A perfectionist trapped in an indolent's body

~In which a deep conflict of personality within our hero is discussed~

I am a perfectionist.

Given the choice I would love to do pursue this blogging lark properly. I would love to lovingly craft a lovely blog in WordPress or MoveableType or some such. I would love to lavish countless hours on CSS templates and plugins. I want to worry and obsess over tiny details of compatibility and stick little "certified CSS" or "XML validated" stickers all over my prospective palace of a personal portal.

Unfortunately I don't have the time. Amazingly I have other things to do.

Now this presents something of a quandary.

I am an indolent1.

I believe that life is for living. I believe that civilization progresses by reducing the number of conscious operations required to accomplish a particular task. Laziness is a virtue that has catapulted a rather peculiar hairless ape into a position that is apparently unprecedented in the history of the known universe.

So on the one hand I have an obsessive desire to realise a given project, because craft is it's own reward.

And on the other hand I lack the inclination to dedicate my time and energy to something that doesn't appear to produce any clear reward beyond craft.

Therefore I am slowly coming to the conclusion that I need to shape up and show off. I need to become more actively self promotional and invest more time and energy in the content and quality of my blog postings.

Hopefully this will lead to a feedback loop in which feedback (hopefully constructive) leads to a greater desire on my part to invest time and energy in the enterprise of blogging.

~To be continued~

1: I'm aware this is an adjective but I am hereby coining it as a noun that refers to one who prefers efficient accomplishment over unproductive activity.

My reading list

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Rationale: I wasn't paying very close attention to Our Glorious Ally's Recent Imperial Adventures whilst it was happening. Partly this was because this sort of thing is difficult to piece together when you're reading it on a daily basis in the newspapers and partly because I was busy being a truculent teenager.

Anyway this seems to be the standard text on the subject and will hopefully give me a good grounding in What the Hell Happened.

The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin

Rationale: I enjoyed the discussion of theoretical physics in The Quark and the Jaguar by Murray Gell-Mann, which was published in the early nineties, and I also enjoyed The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler. I really want to find out what's happened since, and what the current state of play is as regards Big Science.

This book was recommended to me by one of my physics teachers a few years ago, and at the time was being serialised in The Times. I skimmed through it a while back in a bookshop and was impressed by the tone and content.

Introduction to Materials Science for Engineers by James F. Shackelford

Rationale: this is one of the set textbooks for the course I am (if everything works out) starting in September (there will be a few of these to come).

Manufacturing Engineering and Technology by Serope Kalpakjian and Steven Schmid

Rationale: Again another set text. I want to have a vague familiarity with the course materials well before the course actually starts. The reason for this is that I learn best when presented with a fairly long runway. I also like the opportunity to become comfortable with a particular textbook layout before using it in earnest.

The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism by Chris Dillow

Rationale: This book is much discussed by the likes of Alex Harrowell and Daniel Davis and Dillow's blog is quite superb. If his book is even half as interesting and engaging as his blog then this will be a worthwhile read.

The Hidden Family by Charles Stross

Rationale: I enjoyed the previous book in this series and since I finished it the sequence has been praised and commented on by Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman. Definitely not one to miss out on.

Foundations of Engineering by Mark T. Holtzapple

Rationale: Another set text!

Mathematics for Engineers: A Modern Interactive Approach by Anthony Croft

Rationale: And again.

Management for Engineers, Scientists and Technologists by John V. Chelsom

Rationale: Same again - nothing to see here.

Traders, Guns and Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives by Satyajit Das

Rationale: I've read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's books,The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, and enjoyed them immensely. However I would like a more in-depth and technical look at all the derivatives, investments, quantitative finance, mortgage-backed securities and other paraphernalia of the ongoing economic troubles.

This book seems to get high reviews and from the brief excerpt on Amazon seem to capture this particular facet of the Zeitgeist rather well.

The Accidental Pornographer: A Story About Having a Go - And Succeeding... in Failing by Gavin Griffiths

Rationale: After reading Paul Carr's enjoyable account of trying and sort of not-quite failing,Bringing Nothing To The Party , I sought out similarly themed books. This looks to be one such in which the eponymous pornographer protagonist tries and fails.

And as an additional bonus he apparently meets none other than my favourite business antihero Felix Dennis!

Against a Dark Background by Iain M Banks

Rationale: Well, I'm reading this at the moment so I've rather jumped the gun as far as rationale goes. It is a spectacularly florid book with titanic set pieces and more Big Dumb Objects than you can shake a space elevator at. Truth be told it could easily gain from content-trimming if you prefer tighter reads, but I've always enjoyed Banks' Banksishness so it's all puppy for the fat as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


My contribution

Opinions, in the wise words of Chris Dillow, are mere arseholes. Everyone has one but I don't want to hear them.

Now being as I have access to little special knowledge or empirical data not available to everyone else, and being as my thoughts are largely the opinions of other people this leaves me in something of a quandary.

What do I blog about? There are so many topics I need to learn more about before I am qualified to analyse the relevant data: what can I contribute?

The obvious answer is that I can simply ask questions.

Surprisingly few blogs concentrate on defining the terms of their own ignorance as opposed to ranting on about their opinions.

Therefore from now on I will concentrate on asking questions and attempting to come to conclusions.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Free flowing writing experiment #2

This is an experiment.

This is the second of what may eventually become a whole series of essays on the subject of writing, and specifically the writing process as perceived by one who writes.

I say "one who writes" as I am not ready to call myself a full writer, any more than I am ready to call myself a full blogger. Most of what I write down here is in the form of questions and idle wonderings. It is not opinion or comment or theorising. Inasmuch as it is an attempt to make sense of the world it is preliminary to all these.

I suspect the key part of the writing process I have yet to fully acquire is the process of refinement. I intend this series to be both an exploration and a trial, to see how I might develop this skill.

What do I mean by refinement?

Picture the raw input of any process. It could be labour or energy or earth or wood or clay. Now picture the process by which these commodities are converted into something more valuable.

In writing the valuable output is a well written piece. In writing the raw input is largely other writing, thoughts, ideas, experiences, other people, yourself, your beliefs and ponderings and habits and the minutiae of your daily life.

Inbetween the raw input and the valuable output there are several processes of refinement. I generally lack the patience or obsessive compulsion required to persue a writing project beyond a single iteration. This is a problem I am working on remedying.

This industrial process whereby the raw and unrefined output of my mind is distilled onto a page or screen is itself subdivided between drafts and even between the moment the words are instantiated in the real world and I travel back to the end of the sentance to remove them.

Someone, I think it was Terry Pratchett, said writing went something like that. You fill your mind with stuff and wait until it all bubbles over and you start writing. He then qualified it by pointing out that this didn't necessarily imply any kind of verbal diarrhea1 and that the process of refinement was equally important.

If this is correct then blogging might not be such a good idea: you venting valuable material and not bothering to refine it.

Or perhaps it is good practice.

In any case I need to stem and control the flood of half formed ideas, plucking the nuggets prose out of the flow of verbiage.

The intention here is to explore how my writing process works.

1:Impossible to spell first time correctly. Also a good name for a blog. Verbal Diarrhea. Doubly annoying as the spell checker doesn't immediately identify my mangled attempt at spelling it correctly. Wouldn't it be good to have a blog that was called something like Verbal Diarrhea but was purposefully spelt incorrectly.

Perhaps I should write a list of good qualities to have in a blog title, but that would be time consuming and frankly rather beside the point. I'm sure it's already been done and better elsewhere.

Free flowing writing experiment

OK. I'll attempt to direct some thought into something coherent.

Perhaps writing is like a process of refinement. Like panning for gold. You read lots and lots of stuff and let it incubate and digest and assimilate and then you attempt to construct something legible and interesting out of the result.

Someone, I think it was Terry Pratchett, said writing went something like that. You fill your mind with stuff and wait until it all bubbles over and you start writing. He then qualified it by pointing out that this didn't necessarily imply any kind of verbal diarrhea 1 and that the process of refinement was equally important.

So perhaps having a blog is a mistake. Sure it builds up writing ability, but in fact it's blurting out valuable writing ore whilst at the same time not providing for the essential process of refinement.

I mean when it comes to writing an essay or a computer program or something where meaning is important and purpose both necessary and good you need to plan everything out beforehand.

I've always had difficulty with this mode of writing. I can write essays and whatnot but I always need some central scaffold on which to assemble the main core of meaning of the text. What I'm doing now is attempting to give some kind of suggestion as to the unmediated flow of thoughts and sentences that comes out of my mind as I think about something.

I need to stem and control the flood, plucking the nuggets of metaphor out of the flow of simile. Y'see that last bit made no sense as an analogy but I'd need to work at it. Also I'm writing as you speak in long clauses without any meaningful sentence structure. I could go back over this and build it into some kind of structured essay but what would be the point?

The intention here is to explore how my writing process works. This isn't even the first draft. I'm not trying to write anything here. I'm doing that thing the kid does from that film where he sees dead people.

This isn't intentionally post modern. There is meaning in the medium or whatever but it's meaningful in the way the noises animals make is meaningul. This is also lazy. What am I doing here? Constructing fine words in a pleasing manner? Hardly. This keyboard is really appalling. So buy a new one.

1:Impossible to spell first time correctly. Also a good name for a blog. Verbal Diarrhea. Doubly annoying as the spell checker doesn't immediately identify my mangled attempt at spelling it correctly. Wouldn't it be good to have a blog that was called something like Verbal Diarrhea but was purposefully spelt incorrectly.

Perhaps I should write a list of good qualities to have in a blog title, but that would be time consuming and frankly rather beside the point. I'm sure it's already been done and better elsewhere.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Three kinds of politics

There are three layers of politics, from the top:

  1. Theoretical political philosophy: the teachings of Plato, Locke, Mill, Hayek, Smith, Berlin, Marx, and the rest occupy this topmost and most ideological stratum of political discourse.
  2. Administrative political reality: this layer contains politics as it is instantiated in the real world, and is often at odds with the ivory-tower teachings of the upper layer. It is studied by sociologists and political scientists.
  3. The office politics of the powerful: this is the layer most often discussed by journalists who are too close to the game to realise that inasmuch as the personalities involved are of any relevance to what actually goes on (see above) it is almost impossible to predict what effect they will have. Nick Robinson is particularly guilty of believing that this is the only layer of politics that matters.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Potentially lengthy blogging interregnum

Some guy called Daniel Davis has written a much better blog than I. This is dispiriting but also reassuring. It means I won't be the guy who says good things but I have less responsibility if those good things result in a pyramid of skulls.

In the meantime I got into Warwick University to study systems engineering. This is a pretty awesome fact.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nationalising religion

There's a brilliant post over on Overcoming Bias on the possibility that lower levels of religiosity in Europe relative to the USA is are due to the state-sanctioned nature of organised religion in much of Europe.

Hume, an agnostic if not an atheist, takes the position that religion is not a public good but its opposite — a public bad — and that government intervention will avert the pervasive negative externality of religious controversy, which clergy create and that threatens public safety.


The strongest argument for socialized medicine is the strongest argument for socialized religion, that government provision seems to reduce enthusiasm for and consumption of such things. Western Europe seems to have hit on the clever solution of loving both religion and medicine to death. Should we consider loving other cranks to death?

Imagine bureaus of palm reading, UFOS, conspiracy theories, etc. In a few decades they might be run by out-of-date boring bureaucrats following stacks of official protocols. If the best devotees were distracted seeking promotions in the ossified agency, they might inspire less public enthusiasm.

From an evolutionary standpoint an increase in diversity and competition caused by freedom of religion inevitably leads to selection of ever more compelling and virulent memesets (7th Day Adventists, Scientology etc). But by creating a benevolent state monopoly of the C of E the state has repressed diversity and hence the fitness of religion.

Certainly government endorsement immediately makes everything much more boring and unattractive (apparently use of cannabis actually decreased when it was relegated to a class C drug).

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thoughts on Feersum Endjinn and writing

This book has an immense span of imagination. Banks has an ability to create ideas that are just over the boundary of the absurd and yet implements them so that they seem almost homely and reasonable.

There is, in my limited experience of writing, a sort of mental crash-barrier between the familiar and comfortable and the strange and disturbing.

Great SF writers possess a kind of intellectual bravery in vaulting the barrier and hauling the strange into the familiar.

When writing I will pursue an idea as far as I can but there is always a part of me too willing to reject a plot or character or situation as too ridiculous for further exploration.

Feersum Endjinn starts superbly: with typical Banksian whimsy gradually revealing an immense canvas that (had I ever thought it) I would have immediately rejected.

There is a tendency towards dues ex machina in the plot: and the Bad Guys aren't as unpleasant as most Banks villains. However the story is compelling enough and the Good Guys interesting enough to follow through.

An excellent read.

Monday, March 02, 2009

These things I *could* believe

I don't subscribe fully to any coherent political ideology (if indeed any political ideology can be truly coherent), but following is a brief list of things I'm beginning to suspect are true:

The free market is a powerful evolutionary system for generating Good Ideas.

Important policy decisions should be made on the basis of empirical study and rational thought

The rule of law applied equally to all is a Good Thing

Freedom of speech for everyone is a Good Thing

Political representation is a Good Thing

Individual negative freedom is a Good Thing

Agonistic pluralism is a Good Thing

Democratic nation states are a reasonably effective way of getting certain necessary jobs done

What consenting adults do with their time is not the business of anyone else

Privacy is important

All healthy human beings are fairly smart but not infallible or perfectly rational

Wars are complicated and always morally ambiguous

A large majority of healthy human beings possess a basic sense of fairness and morality

There can probably be no such thing as a genuine meritocracy

Equality is a Good Thing

Education is a Good Thing

Equality in education is an especially Good Thing

I might go through each of these and explain exactly why I think each of them.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

In praise of failure

I disagree with the following part of In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell:

But, I shall be told, the case is quite different when savings are invested in industrial enterprises. When such enterprises succeed, and produce something useful, this may be conceded. In these days, however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail.

That means that a large amount of human labor, which might have been devoted to producing something that could be enjoyed, was expended on producing machines which, when produced, lay idle and did no good to anyone.

The man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as well as himself. If he spent his money, say, in giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope) would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom he spent money, such as the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger.

But if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down rails for surface card in some place where surface cars turn out not to be wanted, he has diverted a mass of labor into channels where it gives pleasure to no one.

Nevertheless, when he becomes poor through failure of his investment he will be regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune, whereas the gay spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically, will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person.

What Bertie is missing is the value of the deductive tinkering in any new business endeavour.

What reading The Origin of Wealth has taught me is that the value of free markets lies in their ability to generate many new and interesting ideas, then apply a selection process to them, and then amplify the successful ideas.

Innovation does not just emerge from one Big Man with a Plan but rather from the collective efforts of thousands of competing enterprises, businesses, startups, and university faculties, all deductively tinkering their way around idea space.

Laying out surface car tracks, as in Russell's example, may not end up being economically useful, but if the business were (for example) to develop a slightly more efficient way of laying down track then there would be a positive outcome for humanity, if not for the erstwhile entrepreneur 1.

The core lesson of The Origin of Wealth is that knowledge is value, and finding things out by trying and failing is a worthwhile activity, if not in the narrow rationally self-interested sense.

Update 02/03/2009:

Chris Dillow has a post up that has relevance to this point:

Labour is not just a cost, to minimized. It is - or can be - a form of satisfaction in itself - a way of asserting who we are.
It is on this point, of course, that Marxism starkly confronts neoclassical economics. Marx’s gripe with capitalism was that it transformed work from a means of expressing one’s nature into a force for oppressing and demeaning people. So great has been capitalism’s triumph that many of us don’t even appreciate the possibility that Marx could have been right. It’s just taken for granted that work must be alienated drudgery.

So not only is Russell missing the value of failure in business he also misses the fact that certain kinds of labour are enjoyable and that it is extremely difficult to determine beforehand what will make us happier and what will make us richer (in all senses of the word).

Hence trying and failing is good. Trying is good. And some kinds of work are good.

1. Unless he had the forsight to patent his improved track-laying process, then he could licence the method for profit. Humanity as a whole would still benefit from increased speed of track-laying and the innovation would become widely available after the patent expires.