Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stuart Rose on feminism

Guardianistas seem split over the question:

I'd be interested to see how that splits on gender lines.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A (very) short story

There are many of these now. Hollow spheres and cylinders, mostly. Some cylinders. A few rods. The occasional torus. An endless fecundity of green worlds.

In the old days before fittle they thought the only way to colonise the universe was by throwing gunk out into space forever. Fapping out an endless stream of phlegm into the face of God in the hope that at some then-unimaginably distant point in the future and at some absurdly remote location the biomatter might just evolve into something you could play poker with.

At least I think that is what they believed. Corruption and degradation are a constant in this entropic universe. So it is said.

Lost in the strata of history we might find the truth of it, there are billions of dead worlds down there. Trillions of corpses that lived full and happy lives and some more that did not. Perhaps with them lies the truth of it. Where we came from.

They might have been Giants, of course, as the legends say. They might have been Gods. Or giant robots. Or intelligent waves of probability and potential. We might even have developed through a process of blind native favouritism.

All we know is what is remembered. And what we remember most of all is the name that was given. Our name.

We are the diatoms.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sanctimony in the UK

I've been trying to determine exactly why I feel so uncomfortable with the condemnation of MPs over their expenses claims.

The answer is I have been revolted by the sanctimonious priggishness of the newspapers. Sanctimonious priggishness is only fun when it is me directing it at others: even seeing someone else direct it at a third party is unpleasant, possibly because of rays of sanctimonious priggishness being reflected in my direction.

Daniel Davis calls it right: the MP who said that he deserved his taxpayer-funded duck house is exactly the kind of guy I'd vote for. Honest, to-the-point, pro-duck. Too bad he was a Tory.


During my working day I am exposed to a lot of newspapers.

As such I end up reading a lot of front pages. I'd rather not, but it is an occupational hazard, just like putting up with idiots buying shitloads of crap they don't need and then objecting to paying one penny for a bag "on principle".

Newspaper headlines are full of bile and self-rightous indignation at the best of times, but the tabs, and The Telegraph, have outdone themselves with their inane rantings on the issue of MPs expenses.

My objection is not to the reporting of the facts of MPs expenses (they should of course be public knowledge as a matter of course), rather it is to the attitude of the reaction to the reporting.

There is my visceral dislike of the vox-pop faux-outrage of TGBP as they rant away at their elected representatives whilst ignoring the various ways they're being fucked over by businesses, the media, their bosses, popular culture, and 21st century life in general.

But there is more to my dislike of this story.

Let's step back a moment.

In a society there are a few problems that need to be solved. One is the problem of how you identify error in a complex society. Another is how that error is broadcast, such that a solution may be found.

In a civilized society (or, in the absence of a civilized society, a pluralistic liberal democracy such as wot we 'ave 'ere) if you identify a problem you broadcast it, it is debated, critically analysed, and many solutions are proferred.

A solution or group of solutions will be selected after various deliberations and debate and compromise, then you move on. At some indeterminate time in the future the solution is tested or re-evaluated.

The way our system of liberal democracy has developed has lead to an important part of this process (primarily the identification and broadcast components, or as I shall call it "I/B") being carried out as a worthwhile byproduct of the profit-seeking activities of a collection of businesses called newspapers.

Newspapers are run by humans, so as I/B systems newspapers are subject to all the usual cognitive biases, and are therefore prone to horrible failure modes.

I suspect in the phase space of all possible ways of solving the I/B problem newspapers occupy a local maxima. There may well be better ways of dealing with I/B (some kind of universal Panopticon and a million bored apes?).

But here the press has failed in that is has chosen to concentrate on a minor side-effect of the wider problem:

MPs were writing the rules for their own expenses. To whom are they accountable?

Half our legislature is unelected. This is a bad joke.

Our executive is more powerful than our legislature. This is a bad idea.

If there is a problem here it is bigger than the problem of MPs expenses, it is a problem with the way our legislature is set up and our government is elected.

So why are the newspapers focussing on the sneering, snide, grumpy, petty, priggish, holier-than-thou, expenses-obsession rather than the actual issues.

The British are possessed of the same peasant mentality as the Americans. Easily distracted by the threat of external foes but fundamentally incapable of addressing the real problems.

I agree with what Joan Smith writes in The Guardian

The British public – not all of them, but the smug guardians of morality who are enjoying this crisis so much – say they are disgusted by the behaviour of our elected representatives. Let me say that it works both ways: for the first time in my life, I am sick of my country. I am sick of the daily undermining of democracy, and sick of the sadistic pleasure people take in humiliating decent public servants. Even so, I will go on urging my friend not to give up her seat. She is a brilliant constituency MP, and I don't believe anyone should give in to bullies.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Accidental Pornographer: not actually a review

A brief summary of lessons learned from The Accidental Pornographer:
  1. Do not fall in love with the concept before you have scoped out opportunities for expansion. Griffiths discovers that the potential market for his product is smaller than he assumed only after he is well into it.
  2. Do not get hypnotised by the prestige of others. Griffiths uses M&C Saatchi for marketing, despite their high-cost.
  3. In planning your cash-flow always bear in mind the worst case scenario.
I've actually met the author, Gavin Griffiths, though I didn't know who he was at the time. I was working in our local branch of WH Smith and he came in to ask if we had this book in stock, as he had written it and wanted to know if it had hit the shelves yet.

My fleeting impression of him was of an earnest and unobjectionable individual. This is reinforced by his book and his blog.

The book is recommended for much the same reasons as Paul Carr's book Bringing Nothing to the Party. It is story of business failure, though neither Carr or Griffiths fail completely.

And you learn more from failure than you learn from success. Karl Popper teaches us this.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MPs expenses

I've been trying to articulate exactly why I don't care about the MPs expenses row. It could be because of the dry pointlessness of it all (as discussed here by Alex), it could be because of the po-faced hypocrisy (as identified here by Stephen Fry) of the public and media, or it could be that after having written to my MP about this I feel I've already done my civic duty and therefore have no need to be outraged.

But it mainly comes down to my belief that the purpose of a free press is to highlight error in as efficient manner as possible. Going on and on about this dishonorable behaviour on the part of some MPs distracts from more serious dishonour and dishonesty: when Jack Straw used executive privilegeto veto the publication of the Iraq war minutes, where were the days of outraged front-pages?

Parliamentary expenses should be public knowledge as a matter of course. And political error should be highlighted as a matter of course.

My problem with the "MPs expenses row" is that:

1) The media has taken years to respond to this issue.

2) The media does not respond as strongly to undisputably more serious problems.

Update 15/05/2009:

On second thoughts, I agree with Shuggy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Laughter as an error-correction mechanism

Some bloke called Carlo Strenger has written a superior article on enlightenment values:

...the Enlightenment has created an idea of immense importance: no human belief is above criticism, and no authority is infallible; no worldview can claim ultimate validity. Hence unbridled fanaticism is the ultimate human vice, responsible for more suffering than any other.
it applies to the ideas of the Enlightenment, too. They should not be above criticism, either. History shows that Enlightenment values can indeed be perverted into fanatical belief systems. Just think of the Dr Strangeloves of past US administrations who were willing to wipe humanity off the face of the earth in the name of freedom, and the – less dramatic but no less dismaying – tendency of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the GW Bush administration to trample human rights in the name of democracy.

As one of the commenters points out, the profound principle that both 20th century secular ideologues and religious authorities throughout history have ignored, is that of always bearing in mind the possibility you might be dead wrong.

The healthy human response to harmless error or misunderstanding is to have a laugh. Thus error is highlighted for all to see and forgiven by all parties.

A further mistake on the part of humorless fanatics everywhere is to assume that there can ever be one, insoluble, and eternal truth. It may be that such a thing exists, but it is likely to be beyond our capacity to discern its true form from the vague shadows on the walls of our epochal cave.

And so human beings are prone to error. There's no problem with this, as failure teaches us more than success.

This idea was only properly articulated by Karl Popper in the 20th century: it is the idea you can never conclusively prove that an idea is correct, but rather disprove false ideas.

And so human knowledge grows and the enterprise of civilization advances, one laughter-inducing blooper at a time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

John Sutherland: fool?

Just read this weird nonsense about Sir Jim Rose's report on primary school education by columnist John Sutherland.

I'll just highlight a few of the more ridiculous pronouncements:

In a library, you choose the book. Put another way, you control the book. I can't get over the feeling that, somehow, the computer controls the kid - he or she becomes nothing more than an information servo- mechanism. Or an empty file in which knowledge is not being discovered but (hateful word) downloaded. And computers, it seems to me, work best with what George Orwell called “Newspeak” - language stripped down to skeletal simplicity. Language, in fact, that is not language at all but code. Many skills have been enhanced by the computer but vocabulary, I suspect, has been shrunk, rigidified and deadened.

Deary me. Where to begin?

1) "You control the book" - no. As far as a child is concerned, the book is written, published, and printed by adults they have never met. The books they have access to are chosen by their school.

2) "the computer controls the kid" - no. With a computer connected to the Internet the child has the option of creating their own blog, editing Wikipedia, or interacting with their friends over social networking websites. If the child is particulary precocious they may even by able to write their own code, thereby truly taking control of the computer.

3) "computers, it seems to me, work best with what George Orwell called “Newspeak” - no. I don't see how anyone can make this claim without fundamentally misunderstanding what newspeak is. But wait...

4) "language stripped down to skeletal simplicity. Language, in fact, that is not language at all but code." - no. Although newspeak is "simplified English" the objective of the totalitarian governments of 1984 is to remove the capacity of the language to describe rebellion in terms anything other than negative. Newspeak is about control, not simplicity. It is about replacing ambiguity with certainty, and leaving no room for doubt.

Anyone who has read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language will know that Orwell decried the lazy use of metaphor, as it substituted rational thought with mindless sloganeering.

Precisely the kind of mindless sloganeering that Sutherland uses when he talks of language "that is not language at all but code." It is not clear if Sutherland is referring to actual computer code or to leet speak or to the asanine babbling of most high-profile blogs. And that is part of the point.

Sutherland is unconsciously shutting down debate by making unfounded cliched statements that he has heard others utter about computers.

Sutherland's basic point is that he agrees with the general conclusions of Jim Rose's report: that "play" is a necessary and valuable part of a child's education. This can be filed in the "no shit, Sherlock" cabinet.

On a more cheerful note this discussion allows me to reference the Monkey Dust sketch that summarises the problems of education in the UK far more succinctly than Prof. Sutherland manages.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Night Sessions: a few thoughts

I read this book over the weekend. A few thoughts:

1) Very good treatment of religion. Harsh criticism of faith-based brutality mediated by a genuine understanding of the nature of faith. There is a part near the end that captures the essence of what losing a strong religious faith is like perfectly:

He knew exactly what he now believed, because it was exactly what he had rejected until now. He'd stepped out of shattered armour not naked and shivering, but fully clothed. It was as if his new world-view had all along been inside the armour and being kept in, rather than outside and being kept out.

2) Very plausible treatment of sentient robots. Probably the best treatment I've seen in a while. The key point that MacLeod makes is that yer typical sentient robot is likely to have a superior theory of mind to yer typical sentient animal. Therefore robots are likely to be kinder, gentler, and more empathetic than humans.

The book is strongly recommended, being well-written, and the characters spend a lot of time talking in pubs. There is little and life that could not be improved by spending more time talking in pubs. Certainly Stephen Baxter's work would gain a lot.

[pic borrowed from here]