only what happens is possible, says K., the great, the sad, the wise one, who already knew from individual lives exactly what it would be like when criminal lunatics look upon the world rationally and the world in turn presents a rational aspect to them, that is to say, is obedient to them. And don’t tell me, I most probably said, that this explanation is just a tautological way of explaining the facts with facts, because yes, indeed, this explanation, hard as I know it may be for you to accept, that we are governed by commonplace felons—hard even when you already call them commonplace felons and know them as such— nevertheless as soon as a criminal lunatic ends up, not in a madhouse or penal institution, but in a chancellery or other government office you immediately begin to search for what is interesting, original, extraordinary, and (though you don’t dare to say so, except in secret, of course) yes, great in him, so you are not obliged to see yourselves as such dwarfs, and histories of the world as so absurd, I most probably said; yes, so that you may continue to look upon the world rationally and the world in its turn may present a rational aspect to you. And that is entirely understandable, even entirely commendable, even if your method is neither “scientific” nor “objective,” as you would like to believe, it is not; it is sheer lyricism and moralizing insofar as it seeks to restore a rational, or in other words endurable, world order, and those who have been banished from the world subsequently edge their way back into the world again through these back and front doors—anyone, that is, who is inclined to do so and who believes that the world will henceforth be a place fit for people, but then that is quite another matter, I most probably must have said, the only problem is that this is how legends are born, we can learn from these “objective” lyrical works, these scientific horror stories, say, that the great man had an outstanding tactical sense—right?—as if an outstanding tactical sense were not precisely the means by which every paranoid and manic madman misleads and befuddles those around him and his doctors, and then that social conditions were such-and-such, while international politics were such-and-such, and then some, once philosophy, music and other forms of artistic hocus-pocus had corrupted people’s capacity to think, but above all that, when it comes down to it, the great man, let’s not mince words, was a great man, he had about him something of the disarming, the fascinating, in short: something of the demonic, that’s it, a demonic streak that was quite simply irresistible, especially if we have no will to resist, seeing that we just happen to be hunting for a demon; a demon is just what we’ve been needing for a long, long time for our squalid affairs, to gratify our squalid desires, the sort of demon, of course, who can be persuaded to believe that he is the demon who will take all our own demoniacality on his shoulders, an Antichrist bearing the Iron Cross, and will not insolently slip through our fingers to string himself up before time, as Stavrogin did. Yes, you see and label them as common criminal lunatics, yet from the moment one lays his hands on the orb and scepter you immediately start to deify him, reviling him even as you deify him, listing the objective circumstances, reciting what, objectively, he was right about, but what, subjectively, he was not right about, what objectively can be understood, and what subjectively cannot, what sorts of hanky-panky were going on in the background, what sorts of interests played a part, and never running short of explanations just so that you can salvage your souls and whatever else is salvageable, just so that you can view commonplace robbery, murder and trafficking in souls in which we all, all of us sitting here, somehow play or have played a part, one way or another, in the grand opera-house limelight of world events, I most probably must have said, yes, just so that you may fish partial truths out of the great shipwreck in which everything whole has been smashed, yes, just so as not to see before you, behind you, underneath you and at every turn the yawning chasm, the nothingness, the void, or in other words, our true situation, what it is you are serving and the prevailing nature of the prevailing régime, a dominating power which is neither necessary nor unnecessary but simply a matter of decisions, decisions that are made or not made in individual lives, neither satanic nor unfathomably and spellbindingly intricate, nor something that majestically sweeps us up with it, no, it is just vulgar, mean, murderous, stupid, hypocritical, and even at the moments of its greatest achievements at best merely well organized
Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990, trans. Tim Wilkinson)
The UCU strike has shown how effective twitter can be. University staff from around the country have shared support, information and analysis . There has been a palpable feeling of collective intelligence at work. When the first negotiated agreement was released (at 7.15 on a Monday evening) my impression was that most people didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to make of it. Pensions are complex, and the headline feature – retention of a Defined Benefit scheme seemed positive. Overnight on twitter sentiment coalesced around the hashtag #NoCapitulation and at 10am on the Tuesday union members around the country held branch meetings – all 64 of which resoundingly rejected the agreement. The subsequent – substantially improved – offer suggests that this was the right thing for union members to do, and the speed and unanimity with which they did it wouldn’t have been possible without the twitter discussion that happened over night.
So why, on this occasion, does twitter work as a platform for collective intelligence? Often enough twitter seems to be a platform which supports idiocy, narcissism and partisan bickering. The case of UCU strike twitter contrasts with other high volume / high urgency discussions, such as the aftermath of disasters, where twitter is as likely to be used to spread fake news and political point scoring as it is for useful information and insightful analysis.
Collective intelligence: what helps, what hurts
There is a literature on collective decision making, which highlights a few things which need to hold for a group discussion to be more productive than individuals just making up their own mind.
Arguments must be exchanged . First off, and a factor which should hearten committed rationalist everywhere, the exchange of arguments – not just information – seems to be key to productive groups (“studies that have manipulated the amount of interaction or that have examined the content of interactions have found that the exchange of arguments is critical for these improvements to occur”, Mercier, 2016 ).
Agreed purpose . Productive groups need to have a shared idea of what they are trying to achieve. If, for example, half of a group like solving problems and half like having arguments, their contributions to the discussion will, sooner or later, push in different directions ( van Veelen & Ufkes, 2017 , Sperber & Mercier, 2017 )
Diversity, in viewpoints . The literature on the effect of diversity on collective intelligence is mixed. Too much diversity between participants may hinder group discussions ( Wooley et al, 2015 ) and demographic diversity alone certainly isn’t sufficient for the wisdom of crowds to emerge ( de Oliveira & Nisbett, 2018 ). Instead enough ‘ view point diversity ‘ to produce a cognitive division of labour without impairing group cohesion. A corollary is that the more group cohesion you have the higher your opportunity to harness group diversity.
Bang & Frith’s fantastic 2017 review on group decision making also highlights some traps which successful group decision must avoid:
Herding Herding is excessive agreement. This can happen when group members lack independent information or suffer overly similar viewpoints. It can also be caused by group members having the desire to align to the group for its own sake, or if they believe that others have better knowledge. The result is the same: an information cascade where a popular viewpoint attracts adherents because it is popular, and so appears more correct because it is popular, and on in a vicious circle.
Group decision biases One of these, according to Bang & Frith, is ‘shared information bias’ which is a bias to discuss the things everyone knows about rather than share information or discuss aspects of the decision which aren’t yet common to the group
Competing sub-goals As well as lacking shared a shared purpose in discussion, group decision making can be derailed by status issues(think showing off, excessive pride preventing admission of error, etc), accountability issues (such as people avoiding unpopular opinions if they will be punished if that position turns out to be in error) and ‘social loafing’ (this is the textbook phenomenon whereby people try less hard in larger groups, effectively free-riding on others’ contributions)
The #USSstrike discussion on twitter
Before trying to apply the factors identified from the literature on collective intelligence / group decision making to the #USSstrike, let’s throw up a quick list factors which seem plausible candidates for why twitter was the site of a productive conversation this time. Once we have a list of candidates, we can see how they map to the features identified in the literature as necessary conditions for useful group decision making.
So, the #USSstrike twitter conversation may have been productive because:
twitter discussion built on top of existing networks (academics have local connections to colleagues at their own institutions, as well as disciplinary connections at other institutions across the country.)
twitter discussion built on top of IRL discussions on picket lines (lots of opportunity to chat on picket lines).
common interest (participants in the conversation are invested in understanding the issue, and want to same thing – a positive outcome to the dispute – even if they don’t agree on what that actually means).
niche interest (most of the population is not that interested in academic pensions, which means fewer trolls, troublemakers and idle speculators).
participants have training in critically evaluating sources (i.e. hopefully have good filters for unreliable information, recognise important facts)
participants have experience discussing substantive issues in public, daily using twitter -as it is at its best – as a platform for information synthesis and recommendation
Combining these lists we get some traction on why academic twitter was suddenly able to transform into a vehicle for productive collective intelligence on pensions (and maybe how we can help keep it that way).
In short, our three criteria for productive group decisions were met:
Arguments were exchanged: arguments are the daily tools of academics, of course we exchanged arguments, not just information
Our purpose was agreed: the nature of the dispute did that for us. Those in the discussion had a common purpose to understand an issue with high stakes . Not only do we face the same pension cuts, but the logic of collective bargaining and action puts us all on the same side
Diverse viewpoints were represented: maybe it is less clear this criteria was met, but perhaps we can thank the fact that academics from all disciplines have been discussing the dispute for at least some boost in the diversity of backgrounds and assumptions that participants bring t the discussion.
The three decision traps – herding, bias and competing sub-goals – are all warnings for the future. We seem to have avoided them for the moment. but there are plenty of individual behaviours which can encourage them. Most of us, with notable exceptions, are guilty of some social loafing. Blindly following others (leading to herding) seems a particular risk given that the logic of collective action is an important part of Union identity. I also note that bad manners, such as abusing people who make mistakes or adopt alternative viewpoints, as well as being bad manners, also works to effectively punish viewpoint diversity, with a corresponding decrement in our capacity for collective intelligence.
As a student of decision making the dispute has been exhilarating to take part in and I’ll watch with interest the next rounds (and the corresponding twitter discussion).
My quick primer on the UCU strike action is here .
Bang, D., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups . Royal Society Open Science, 4 (8), 170193.
Mercier, H. (2016). The argumentative theory: Predictions and empirical evidence . Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (9), 689-700.
de Oliveira, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2018). Demographically diverse crowds are typically not much wiser than homogeneous crowds . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (9), 2066-2071.
Woolley, A. W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T. W. (2015). Collective intelligence and group performance . Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (6), 420-424.
Because our values have arisen in a process of debate, inference and generalisation, they are no longer even distant consequences of our basic needs. Our nature arises from choices that were not determined by our biological make-up. It is enabled, but not determined, by biology.
So writes Ronnie de Sousa in an essay for Aeon called ‘Natural-born existentialists‘
I accept that nature doesn’t tell us what we ought to desire. I also think that some of what feel like our most essential desires are social products. Here’s an extreme example of that: If I was born a viking warrior I would want to die in battle (or at least want to want that). Viking-me would recognise that desire as defining of my self, but from our modern standpoint we also recognise that it is entirely an accident of history. Those of us who want to die in battle, or to avenge their honour, we seek to rehabilitate, not encourage.
If some of our most strongly held desires are social products, and there is no divine or biological nature which tells us which desires are good or bad, how do we know which desires should be the foundation for our selves, and which we should disavow, and so strive to un-want?
Possibly related: moral dumbfounding. When we cannot explain our intuitions, when is this evidence that they are, or should be axiomatic, and when is it evidence that we have no sound basis for what we belief and we should abandon our beliefs?
Clues, perspectives, historical and empirical notes welcome!
Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature. Her book on Chernobyl (subtitled in the first translation ‘The oral history of a nuclear disaster’) has a 2005 translation and a 2016 translation. Here are two excerpts:
Voices from Chernobyl (2005, translation by Kieth Gessen):
“I was saved by my mother. She’d lived a long time and had lost everything more than once. The first time was in the 1930s, they took her cow, her horse, her house. The second time, there’d been a fire, the only thing she’d saved was me. Now she said, “We have to get through it. After all, we’re alive”
Chernobyl Prayer (2016 translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait):
“My mother was the saving of me. In the course of a long life, she had been deprived of her home and everything she had earned. The first time was when she was purged in the 1930s. They confiscated everything: her cow, her horse, her house. The second time it was a fire, and all she was able to save was me, her little daughter, plucked from the flames. ‘You just have to get through it,’ she comforted me. ‘The main thing is, we’re still alive.’
The 2016 translation is based on the revised (2013) version of the text, and is longer – containing whole sections of text not in the 2005 translations (as well, as this example suggests, being more verbose in a line-by-line comparison with the 2005 translation).
Reviewing my twitter feed for the year (as part of writing a review of the year), I found some links that I’d posted which didn’t receive the wild endorsement I thought they deserved, so I’m reposting them here.
- Pokemon Go is a mass demon summoning that’s destroying our reality. Occult readings of behaviour change are too rare IMO
- A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project. A social media art project! Philosophy performing itself!
- Dino Dana is 9 year old who loves dinosaurs and is generally awesome. Recommend (if you have kids)
- Do Credit Card Companies Screen for Behavioral Biases?. tl;dr you betcha they do!
- In which @clnichols6 argues that portraying reciprocal behavioural adaption is a compelling novelists’ trick
- The white flight of Derek Black incredible story of belief revision
- “The things I want to do are strange, simple, and unprofitable”. Paul Ford’s meditation on 20 years of blogging and the web that once was
Alex says “Google Reader took over web feeds, shutting that down was a crime and basically killed reading stuff on the web. The www has been so much poorer ever since, facebook and twitter suck so much in comparison to the real thing.”
M said “facebook is ending democracy”. It’s a common fear. But how, exactly, could this be happening? Let’s try and breakdown the possibilities:
Because facebook creates echo-chambers?. The evidence on this is ambiguous. One study found that people are more likely to connect with people with dissimilar views over facebook than offline.
Distraction? Social media as a cathartic substitute for political engagement? In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam blames television and commuting for a large part of a loss of trust and participation in social organisations. Is Facebook displacing valuable social and political actions, rather than catalysing them?
Related, does social media’s excellence at bite-sized information mean that context, nuance and argument are now disadvantaged in a way they weren’t before?
Misinformation? Fake news, propaganda, weaponised hoaxes, the whole boatload of lies and half-truths. But surely this is not new. Something about the lack of transparency, and the ability to insert misinformation so it is transmitted along our social networks, the same kind of currency as news of their pets and holiday photos, adds a terrifying velocity to misinformation.
False consensus – creating the impression that something is universally viewed at true or important, when it isn’t. See also filter bubbles. Distinguished from echo chambers, but algorithmically curated blindness to counterpoints.
Erosion of common ground – loss of common knowledge and frames of reference. If we don’t know why other people believe what they believe, how can we start to engage them
Monopoly powers – facebook has 2 billion+ monthly users. That’s too much power for a single media entity to have without a truckload of regulatory oversight or democracy control.
Any evidence bearing on the factors I list? Any factors I missed? Comments are open!
Quick thoughts about Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , a compelling, charming exploration of the ‘great renaissance of public shaming’, its mob psychology and the individual stories of the people involved:
– lots of the negative consequences of public shaming described in the book would be mitigated if it was harder for US corporations to fire people.
– i think part of what makes internet shaming hard to wrap your head around (and which I don’t think Ronson ever really deals with) is the scale – both how many people get involved, and the disproportion between the individual actions (the shameful tweet, the individual shaming responses) and how the consequences. People kill themselves, or get fired, but no single act is the cause (“no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche”). It is hard to make sense of the this world where unimportant actions generate massively important reactions.
– Is Ronson being a bit disingenuous when he says he is interested in shaming because he has been a perpetrator? Maybe he’s called someone out online, but I doubt he’s ever sent the kind of abuse he describes in book (death and rape threats etc).
– Who are those guys, anyway? I understand that he didn’t want to write a book about trolling, but they seem like an integral part of the story. I don’t meet anybody who speaks like that offline (and rarely online). Who are these people? And if they are us, why are they like this online?
– There wasn’t enough talk about specific platforms, and the choices they’ve made that enable the dynamics discussed. Let’s face it, when we talk about social media we mostly mean facebook and twitter. Both are really good at letting complex chains of speech/action be taken out of context, and at generating outrage around that. The internet doesn’t have to be this way. Why is it?
– Not enough about politics, and related moral tribalism. The outrages (memorably labelled in the book ‘a cathartic substitute for social justice’) are moral outrages, often with an explicit political agenda (e.g. anti-racism). Paging Jon Haidt
– I would love to hear more analysis of public pressure, and why specific actors feel the need to bow to it (or not). It seem that when one of the corporations in the book fires someone because of a badly worded tweet, they aren’t making a judgement about the truth of the claim that the person is sexist (or whatever), but rather that the truth of that claim has become irrelevant. The victim needs to be fired because everyone says they need to be fired. How do you get out of situations like that?
Guardian excerpt of the book: ‘Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone
When a researcher tells me their research topic is fascinating, I get a sinking feeling, like when someone announces they are going to tell me about the dream they had last night. Here’s something I’ve learnt in my time as a scholar: finding something fascinating isn’t a good guide to what actually is fascinating.
There are plenty of questions which I used to find fascinating. Topics which, for years, I would have said fascinated me, but which now I think are of little interest. That feeling that something was a deep question, that it promised – somehow – to help reveal the secrets of the universe, wasn’t to be trusted. With a bit more thought, or experience, my fascination in a topic turned out to be a dead end. Now I think those topics are not productive to research, they don’t promise to reveal anything. What appeared to be a mysterious contradiction was just a blunt fact, a universal symbol turned out to be boring particular.
I’m not going to give you an example, because I don’t want to focus on a specific case, but on that feeling of fascination which drives our curiosity, which must in some form be the foundation of a research programme.
Personal fascination is a poor guide to a good research topic, but it has also been the guide for the research I’ve done of which I’m most proud, and which I think makes the most important contributions.
The trick is to not to blindly trust your fascination, but to draw it out. Can you explain why something is so fascinating? Can you show the connections to wider topics? Can you show that suggested explanations are inadequate?
Without action all you have is a feeling, which has as much currency with other people as when you try and explain one of your dreams. You may feel deeply involved, but there’s no compelling reason for other people to be.
Fascination you can’t share is just self-indulgence.
(Obligatory reference to Davis’ 1971 paper on the sociology of being interesting in sociology: Davis M. S. (1971). That’s interesting! Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309-344.)
Facebook is a specific, known, threat to democracy, not a general unknown threat to our capacity for rationality
Zeynep Tufekci has a TED talk ‘We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads’. In it she talks about the power of Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ and she make several true, useful, points about why we should be worried about the influence of social media platforms, platforms which have as their raison-d’être the segmentation of audiences so they can be sold ads.
But there’s one thing I want to push back on. Tufeki’s argument draws some of its rhetorical power from a false model of how persuasion works. This is a model in which persuasion by technology or advertising somehow subverts normal rational processes, intervening on our free choice in some sinister way ‘without our permission’. I’m not saying she would explicitly endorse this model, but it seems latent in the way she describes Facebook, so I thought it worth bringing into the light, pausing just for a moment to look at what we really mean when we warn about persuasion by advertising.
Here’s Tufeki’s most worrying example: targeted Facebook ads aimed at mobilising, or demobilising voters, which are effective enough in changing voter turn out to swing an election. She reports an experiment which tested a fairly standard ‘social proof’ intervention, in which some people (the control group) saw a “get out and vote” message on Facebook, and others (the intervention group) saw the same message but with extra information about which of their friends had voted. People who saw this second message were likely to vote (0.4% more likely). Through the multiplier effect of the social networks they were embedded in, the researchers estimate that 340,000 extra people voted that otherwise wouldn’t have.
Now 340,000 votes is a lot, enough to swing an election, but it would be a mistake to think that these people were coerced or tricked into acting out of character by the advert. These were people who might have voted anyway, and the advert was a nudge.
Think of it like this. Imagine you offer someone an apple and they say yes. Did you trick them into desiring fruit? In what sense did you make them want an apple? If you offer apples to millions of people you may convert hundreds of thousands into apple-eaters, but you haven’t weaved any special magic. At one end, the people who really like apples will have one already. At the other, people who hate apples won’t ever say yes. For people who are in between something about your offer may speak to them and they’ll accept. A choice doesn’t have to originate entirely from within a person, completely without reference to the options presented to them, to be a reasonable, free, choice.
No model of human rationality is harmed by the offer of these apples.
Our choices are always codetermined by ourselves and our environment. Advertising is part of the environment, but it isn’t a privileged part — it doesn’t override our beliefs, habits or values. It affects them, but it no more so and in no different way than everything else which affects us. This is easy to see when it is offers of apples, but something about advertising obscures the issue.
Take the limit case — some political candidate figures out the perfect target audience for their message and converts 100% of that audience from non-voters into voters with a Facebook advert. Would we care? What would that advert — and those voters — look like? They would be people who might vote for the candidate anyway, and who could be persuaded to vote for someone else by all the normal methods of persuasion that we already admit into the marketplace of ideas / clubhouse of democracy. They wouldn’t vote for a candidate they didn’t sincerely believe in, and the advert wouldn’t mean that their vote couldn’t be changed at some later point, whether by another advert, by new information, by arguing with friend or whatever.
There are still plenty of reasons to worry about Facebook:
- Misinformation —how it can embed and lend velocity to lies.
- Lack of transparency — both in who is targeting, who is targeted and why.
- Lack of common knowledge —consensus politics is hard if we don’t all live in the same informational worlds.
Tufeki covers these factors. My position is that it hasn’t been shown that there is anything special about Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ beyond these. Yes, we should worry something with the size and influence of Facebook, but we already have frameworks for thinking about ‘persuasional harm’— falsehoods are not a legitimate basis for persuasion, for example, so we are particularly concerned to hunt down fake news; or, it is worrying when one interest group controls a particular media form, such as newspapers. Yes Facebook persuades, but it doesn’t do so in a way that is itself pernicious. Condemning it in general terms would be both misplaced, a harm to any coherent model of citizens as reasonable agents, and a distraction from the specific and novel threats that Facebook and related technologies constitute to democracy.
I take lots of photos on my phone, a daily record of the mundane and notable. These photos sit in folders, mostly unlooked at. Here’s one way to grok what you’ve been taking pictures of: make a video which shows them at a rate of 3 per second.
Cribbing from this:
superuser.com: How to transform all the images from the current directory to a video in FFmpeg?
superuser.com: Resizing videos with ffmpeg/avconv to fit into static sized player (comment)
The thing that makes this slightly more complex is that the photos are different sizes (some are portrait, some are landscape) and I want them to maintain their aspect ratio in the video, which means padding the portrait photos with some black space for the output.
In a terminal define output height and width variables (so, for photos from my phone):
ffmpeg -framerate 3 -pattern_type glob -i '*.jpg' -vf "scale=iw*min($width/iw\,$height/ih):ih*min($width/iw\,$height/ih), pad=$width:$height:($width-iw*min($width/iw\,$height/ih))/2:($height-ih*min($width/iw\,$height/ih))/2" video.mp4
Click here to get a breakdown of what this is doing via explainshell.com. People with longer attention spans may want to reduce the framerate (3 per second is nice if you have lots of photos of the same scene, but a bit quick for single photos).
Obviously I have assumed you are using linux and have ffmpeg installed
a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work… the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work
Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness
This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies.
From ‘Cognitive Democracy‘ by Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi (2012, ‘unpublished’ article in preparation)
Sheffield City Council have made a 25 year contract with Amey PLC, in which tax money pays Amey and Amey maintain the roads. Part of road maintenance is looking after roadside trees, of which there are many, and many which are mature trees of all the character and hazards that trees many many decades old have. Amey has made plans to begin its contract period by cutting down 18% of the trees, which hasn’t been wildly popular. Some have suggested that Amey are responding to the simple economic logic of considering 25 years of tree care costs (vs the one-off cost of just cutting down as many as possible in the first few years).
Part of the Council-Amey contact is that both parties can fine the others for breaches of contract. Most of the contract has been redacted, which isn’t confidence inspiring. One rumour is that if, due to protests, Amey are not able to finish their planned tree felling they will be able to fine the Council. This would mean that protesters, through their taxes, would be paying more to the company they are protesting against.
Part of the aspect of this that interests me is that the contract moves the locus of political power from the Council to a multinational. Some opposition to privatisation is about profiteering by companies, but if you are worrying about roads being repaved and trees maintained then profits are less concerning than the fact that you now don’t have any influence as a citizen over the management of public property. Amey don’t need popular support in Sheffield, and however much people hate the Council, the Council’s hands are tied (seemingly).
Now, some enterprising citizens of Sheffield are trying to streamline the process of raising road maintenance complaints. The Amey contract with the Council means that if they don’t adequate maintain the roads, including responding to complaints about their work, then the Council can fine them.
I run Ubuntu 16.04 Linux and use vpnc for my vpn (which runs at the command line, rather than through the network manager). This link tells you how to run vpnc at startup, but really I wanted to have the vpn monitored and automatically restarted if it drops. Here’s how I did that.
1. Make a script which checks vpn status and restarts it if necessary
1.1. Create file (at the terminal enter)
sudo nano /usr/local/sbin/checkvpn.sh
1.2. Copy and paste this into the file
if ifconfig tun0 &> /dev/null; then echo "---VPN active---"; else sudo vpnc; fi
Save and exit. The first line marks the file as a script. The second does the work, which I stole from here
1.3. Make this file executable (at the terminal enter)
sudo chmod +x /usr/local/sbin/checkvpn.sh
2. Now create a cron job to run this script every minute
1.1. Open root cron jobs list (at the terminal enter)
sudo crontab -e
1.2. Add this line to the end
*/1 * * * * /usr/local/sbin/checkvpn.sh
Save and exit
And we’re done. You can also worry about where your crontab logs are, and how to check they are rotated daily (so don’t grow infinitely in size). This should be set up as default, so you don’t need to worry about it.
But I will mention one severe but useful private test – a touchstone of strong inference – that removes the necessity for third-person criticism, because it is a test that anyone can learn to carry with him for use as needed. It is our old friend the Baconian “exclusion,” but I call it “The Question.” Obviously it should be applied as much to one’s own thinking as to others’. It consists of asking in your own mind, on hearing any scientific explanation or theory put forward, “But sir, what experiment could disprove your hypothesis?” ; or, on hearing a scientific experiment described, “But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”
Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science, 146(3642), 347-353.
The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
At Autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet
In the rich earth were set.
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.
Ambushed by beauty,
I a new creature, stand in Ancient Day,
At the turn of the road
By trees that bleed
And fill my eyes with plunder!
Is there no climax then? No ripe-as-thunder
Sudden, and strong?
Nought to be done
But only stand and stare and travel on.
‘Autumn’, by Mervyn Peake, written (c. autumn 1937), in Collected Poems (2008),
…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…
Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes…In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it…
This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself.
Karl Popper, The Open Science and Its Enemies, Chapter 23 (p217-218, Vol. II)
Michael Gove has become infamous for saying that we (the British) have “had enough of experts”. Here’s the context (FI= Faisal Islam, the interviewer):
FI: But let’s just look at this now, the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the Chief Exec of the NHS and most of the leaders of the trade unions in Britain all say that you, Boris and Nigel are wrong. Why should the public trust you over them?
MICHAEL GOVE: I’m not asking the public to trust me, I’m asking the public to trust themselves. I’m asking the British public to take back control of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, elitists and don’t have their own interests at heart.
FI: Elitist? Elitist? The Lord High Chancellor, a conspiracy of elites? It sounds like Wolf Hall.
MICHAEL GOVE: Well I haven’t seen Wolf Hall but the one thing that I would say is that the people who are backing the Remain campaign are people who have done very well thank you out of the European Union and the people increasingly … [Applause] … absolutely. The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal. I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …
FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?
MICHAEL GOVE: … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …
FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?
MICHAEL GOVE: Because these people are the same ones who have got consistently wrong …
FI: This is [inaudible] politics this isn’t it? This is Oxbridge Trump.
MICHAEL GOVE: No, it’s a faith, Faisal, in the British people to make the right decision.
From wikipedia: “William Stewart, in 1965, proposed the terms acrolect and basilect as sociolinguistic labels for the upper and lower boundaries respectively of a post-creole speech continuum”….
“In certain speech communities, a continuum exists between speakers of a creole language and a related standard language. There are no discrete boundaries between the different varieties and the situation in which such a continuum exists involves considerable social stratification”.
18 different ways of rendering the phrase “I gave him one” in Guyanese English (from Bell, R.T. (1976), Sociolinguistics: Goals, Approaches, and Problems, Batsford).
It interests me how the generations younger than me have changed their social media habits.
Whilst the professional-age world seems happy with twitter and facebook, younger people have moved their attentions elsewhere (you can google for the evidence of this, here I am relying on a completely unsystematic sampling from biased personal experience).
Is this because they want to avoid the social media that their parents are on? Because they are driven by a relentless and fickle need novelty and illicit thrills? Maybe in part, but there’s also a logic to the specific social media networks which are in vogue.
- WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption. As well as one-to-one messaging you can use group chat for the sort of thing you might use twitter @ messaging or facebook chat, with better privacy.
- YikYak offers anonymous location-based chat. Obviously they’ll bust you the moment the law wants your details, but if you are just after hook-ups or advice about embarrassing personal problems this is good enough anonymity to protect your identity from your employer (or partner, or friends).
- Snapchat messages disappear after a number of seconds, offering the illusion of impermanence for web-messaging. So different from message boards or most IM, where casual banter from years ago is stored for eternity.
So in this way new social media offers some sort of address to three of the big threats of life online: lack of privacy, irrevocable binding of your online actions to your offline identity, and permanent records of even your tiniest online actions.
Maybe The Youth aren’t so fickle and short sighted in their use of social media after all.
Cross-posted at Medium
How does anyone know what to aim for in perfecting aikido technique?
Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Traditionally, Aikido doesn’t feature competition or sparring, rather you take turns to practice the movements, consisting of various locks and throws. After a demonstration by the instructor (sensei), your partner (uke) simulates an attack and you (tori) perform the technique with a level of fluidity, speed and mercilessness matched to your skill and the skill of your partner. After a few goes you swop roles. After a few rounds of this, and maybe the sensei offering some one-to-one comments, the sensei demonstrates another technique and you find a new partner and take turns to practice again.
There are variations, and some other elements of practice, but for many people this is the main way they improve their skill at the art.
I am interested in the best way to get better at aikido (what should we do during training?), and the related issue of what the ultimate target of practice is (what defines a movement as good or bad, better or worse?). There are a few reasons why these issues, for aikido, are not obvious.
Martial arts in general are fighting systems, so they are meant to make you better at fighting. The problem with this is that you can’t train in real fighting (unless you like injury or litigation), so the different martial arts all adopt proxies, which introduce rules to stop people getting hurt. At the same time, the rules of the proxy-fights make them bad simulations of real fights, so if you optimise your skill to be good at a proxy-fight you may build into your technique blind spots for which you haven’t trained (or even for which you have trained yourself to be particularly susceptible). Examples: sparring which is stopped when it goes to the floor, outlawed moves (kicks to the head, eye gouging, various locks and breaks).
Many martial arts convey information about forms outside of ‘live’ contest situations. So Judo, Karate, etc all have a varying emphasis on practising the techniques separately from sparring or competition, and sometimes very formalised routines called kata, outside of competition.
Aikido’s situation is that it teaches some techniques which are too dangerous to do in competition. If your opponent resists it either won’t work or you’ll break one of their limbs. This means that when you practice these techniques you need a high degree of trust and consent from your uke. In a sense the uke is letting you progress the move to the end —they have to start the move as if they don’t anticipate what you are going to do (even though you’ve probably done it with them only seconds before), and then as the technique develops they have to react in such as way as to protect themselves from injury (typically by rolling or flipping).
So when we practice aikido we practice with the cooperation of someone who is, in some sense, letting us do the technique, but we are aiming to perfect a technique which will work on someone who isn’t cooperating. In fact, we want to develop technique which works on someone who is doing more than just not cooperating, they are actively trying to hurt us. The first issue is how to develop effective technique for antagonistic situations from practice which is predicated on cooperation.
The second issue is that, there are usually many ways to make a particular technique ‘work’ (and usually each school or each sensei will teach subtle variations). Is there any principled way to discriminate between these variations?
In a competition based martial art you have a method for answering the questions about the superior variations — if technique A helps people win, it’s good. If technique B is often defeated, its bad. Note that even here you don’t get away from doing some extra thought: because competitions are proxy-fights we still distinguish from legitimate wins and technical wins which are within the rules but would never work in any situation other than the one defined by the rules. People who train exclusively to win competitions, but using gamesmanship and techniques which exploit rule-loopholes are viewed with scorn — they’re optimising the wrong problem.
But in martial arts without competitions, like aikido, you don’t even have the opportunity of this objective but potentially misleading method. We practice the techniques, develop a feel for ‘what works’. And different styles teach different things. How do we decide between them? How do you know you are aspiring to an aikido which has even the possibility of being effective outside of the practice hall?
If you think the answer to this is “you just need to be honest with yourself” then I think you’ve overestimated our ability to do that, and/or underestimated the difficulty of gaining insight into the target of what we’re trying to learn.
Aikido is based around a system where knowledge of the art is passed down from the most senior grades. This system suggest that aikido has some true form which is passed down, like a secret, to each generation. This is obviously falsified, both by the historical fact that aikido was invented by a single individual in the 1920s and by the realisation that none of his students since can seem to agree entirely of how it should be practiced.
The idea of ‘revealed truth’ in aikido also contradicts what we know from the psychological science of motor learning, where self-guided discovery and practice based refinement of movements are known to be key to skill learning.
A useful contrast is other domains of motor skills, sports. Although coaching is important, in something like soccer, there’s a large component of learning through discovery — get on the pitch and kick the ball. The difference to aikido is that aikido doesn’t have a pitch. In soccer you can see how your practice has paid off in the match. In aikido, you practice for a match you hope to never play.
One response to this is to say “Fine, aikido isn’t realistic — I’m doing it for other reasons” which is fine (and probably the wise choice if you started out wanting to know self-defence, aikido is not first place to learn that). However, this response leaves the problem of what you are trying to learn unsolved. Aikido is fun, and beautiful, and patterned by the same constraints of human bodies and movement as dancing, but although it is a lot like dancing, it isn’t dancing. It references combat, but it isn’t clear to me how that reference can be meaningful when the people teaching it and practicing it no longer engage in combat as a profession (contrast the Samurai of feudal Japan).
Cross-posted at medium
In these terms the isomorphism between models and what they can model can be explained as a coactualisation of the same diagram, or of different but overlapping diagrams. In that chapter we went on to argue that the main danger of this account is making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing entirely entirely independently of the material world. But this potential pitfall can be avoided by always treating diagrams as immanent to matter, energy and information: while the objective existence of diagrams may not depend on any particular material, energetic, or informational mechanism, it does depend on the actual existence of some mechanism or another. If this account turns out to be correct then it will point to an intimate link between ontology and epistemology. And the existence of such a link, in turn, will constitute a powerful argument for breaking with the ontology we inherited from the classic Greek philosophers, an ontology based on the general and the particular, and an incentive to develop a new one based on the individual singular and the universal singular.
Manual DeLanda (2011) ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, final paragraph
Later Musallim and al Auf argued how far it was from Mughshin to Bai, where Tamtaim and the others were to wait for us. I asked al Auf if he had ever ridden from the Wadi al Amairi to Bai, He answered, ‘Yes, six years ago.’
‘How many days did it take?’
‘I will tell you. We watered at al Ghaba in the Amairi. There were four of us, myself, Salim, Janazil of the Awamir, and Alaiwi of the Afar; it was in the middle of summer. We had been to Ibri to settle the feud between the Rashid and the Mahamid, started by the killing of Fahad’s son.’
Musallim interrupted, ‘That must have been before the Riqaishi was Governor of Ibri. I had been there myself the year before. Sahail was with me and we went there from…’
But al Auf went on, ‘I was riding the three-year-old I had bought from bin Duailan.’
‘The one the Manahil raided from the Yam?’ Bin Kabina asked.
‘Yes. I exchanged it later for the yellow six-year-old I got from bin Ham. Janazil rode a Batina camel. Do you remember her? She was the daughter of the famous grey which belonged to Harahaish of the Wahiba.’
Mabkhaut said, ‘Yes, I saw her last year when he was in Salala, a tall animal; she was old when I saw her, past her prime but even then a real beauty.’
Al Auf went on, ‘We spent the night with Rai of the Afar.’
Bin Kabina chimed in, ‘I met him last year when he came to Habarut; he carried a rifle, “a father of ten shots”, which he had taken from the Mahra he had killed in the Ghudun. Bin Mautlauq offered him the grey yearling, the daughter of Farha, and fifty riyals for this rifle, but he refused.’
Al Auf continued, ‘Rai killed a goat for our dinner and told us …’, but I interrupted: ‘Yes, but how many days did it take you to get to Bai?’ He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Am I not telling you?’
From “Arabian Sands“, by Wilfred Thesiger
David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” tells the story of the erosion of social economies by market economies, fueled by a nexus of cash, war and slavery. The way Graeber tells it, the history of Western Civilisation is a history of incredible violence – both the actual violence of colonialism, slavery and debt enslavement, and the moral violence of the conceiving of the self as an isolated individual with ownership over her body and her rights.
Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined“, published the same year, presents a very different view of history. Pinker’s analysis supports the idea that 21st Century western society is a utopia of non-violence, in which deaths and physical harms by violence have been progressively contained and diminished over historical time. Part of this argument is the claim that per-agricultural societies are or were dangerous, homicidal places – he quotes statistics showing that something like 30% of male deaths in some foraging societies are murders. One ‘civilizing factor’ in Pinker’s account is the growth of the state and the state’s monopolising of violence.
Recently Graeber put out an “ask me anything” on twitter, so I asked him to comment on Pinker’s book, and the opposite reading of the history of violence and state power that it offers to “Debt”. He was kind enough to answer, and for convenience I concatenate his replies, made via twitter here (you can see them in the original form by starting with my original question).
Graeber: “He’s wrong [i.e. Pinker is] […] Almost anyone who’s ever had a choice of living under states & the “terrible violent” places he decries choose the latter.
take native americans & settler – captured settlers who had option of returning to their families often refused to; indigenous people who were offered right to stay in settler society, even adopted into families, invariably escaped the moment they could
same thing seems to happen with Amazonian societies today
so anyone who knows what life is like in both sorts of society, then has a choice which to live in, never chooses states
his argument that one social order was self-evidently superior is clearly false
This argument from choice doesn’t really seem to engage with Pinker’s argument: people might choose non-state societies AND they be more violent. Pinker’s account of violence in pre-state societies is contested in the scholarly literature, so it is hard for a non-anthropologist like me to judge. Plausibly, Pinker’s thesis can still hold if the historical span is restricted to the period from (horrifically violent) early state societies to now – but that leaves open a wide range of anthropological possibilities for how society could be organised and avoid violence. In other words, it leaves as distinctly more plausible the alternatives that Graeber’s anarchist thought supports.
Several decades ago, an eminent psychologist defined the field of psychology as ‘a bunch of men standing on piles of their own crap, waving their hands and yelling “Look at me, look at me!” ’ Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the years, and the field is no longer composed entirely of men.
Daniel Gilbert, referencing George Miller, in Gilbert, D. (2002). Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(1), 3.
If you had to make this decision again in a year, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now?
One challenge executives face when reviewing a recommendation is the WYSIATI assumption: What you see is all there is. Because our intuitive mind constructs a coherent narrative based on the evidence we have, making up for holes in it, we tend to overlook what is missing. Devesh, for instance, found the acquisition proposal compelling until he realized he had not seen a legal due diligence on the target company’s patent portfolio—perhaps not a major issue if the acquisition were being made primarily to gain new customers but a critical question when the goal was to extend the product line.
To force yourself to examine the adequacy of the data, Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman suggests asking the question above. In many cases, data are unavailable. But in some cases, useful information will be uncovered.
From Before You Make That Big Decision… by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo & Olivier Sibony in Harvard Buisness Review. The idea is similar to Gary Klein’s idea of the pre-mortem. Both, in the style of ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ type questions, ask you to take a perspective which is less involved in the decision immediately in front of you, to facilitate exploration the counter-factual space around the way things are (or are as you imagine them), and to return with questions you didn’t think to ask previously.
At the opening of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins wrote: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” This passage highlights the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist worldview of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that he has solved our mystery — and although science has indeed solved part of it — the fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our lives as solved beings. In the same way, no intelligent person could reject what we know to be our kinship with the animal kingdom. Yet few people would rejoice in being referred to as a mere animal. Being described as “mammalian” may shock and even stimulate for a bit, but to live as though we were animals would be — we know — to degrade ourselves. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we do feel that we are more than this. In the same way, we know we are more than mere consumers. We rebel when we are talked of as mere cogs in some economic wheel, and some people will even vote Green as a result. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.
Douglas Murray, 2015, in Standpoint magazine: ‘Is The West’s Loss Of Faith Terminal?‘
Dan Ariely has this autoreply keyed up, so that by typing a single word he can send you this email:
This is a very interesting and important topic and close to my heart. But sadly, my life is so full these days that I don’t even have time for the things I’ve already promised to do. I even have a few of my own projects that I haven’t been able to find the time to work on. Not to mention that I have projects with close collaborators that I promised to work on and haven’t been able to.
So while this sounds exciting, I know at the end of the day, it would just put me in a deeper spiral of obligation and place even more constraints than I have now. I hope you understand but I have to decline.
Wishing you all the best and lots of luck.
I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of owls), and I’ve added an introduction about why I think psychologists and journalists both love stories that we’re irrational creatures incapable of responding to reasoned argument. Here’s something from the book description:
Are we irrational creatures, swayed by emotion and entrenched biases? Modern psychology and neuroscience are often reported as showing that we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations. Challenging this view, cognitive scientist Tom Stafford looks at the actual evidence. Re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, he shows why persuasion by reason alone can be a powerful force.
All in, it’s close to 7000 words and available from Amazon now