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Peak grain

Here, a graph of population size in England, 850-1550; a “speculative reconstruction” from Dyer’s “Making A Living in the Middle Ages”:

2015-01-20 20.03.51

Note the exuberant growth of 1150-1300. What a hundred years to be alive! The population more than doubled! Towns, cities, commerce, a relentless pace of change unlike anything come before

This growth slowed even before famine (1315-22) and plague (1348-50) caused such precipitous drops in population. Dyer isn’t clear why growth came to an end: perhaps crop yields collapsed, after a century of intensive farming – a generational shift in the ability to extract energy (and one more thing that makes the time analogous to our own).

And after 1350, what a world to live in. How did it feel? An end of days? The old regimes collapsing with new men free to make a new order amid the ruins? In 1381 a two month cry of freedom, Englishmen demanding an end to aristocracy and autonomous government by villages under the king. Where did that come from? And what remained of it after Wat Tyler and John Ball’s heads were on spikes?

Reference: Dyer, C. (2002). Making a living in the middle ages: the people of Britain 850-1520. Yale University Press.

‘Without a safety net’

the brakes slipped in the wet
somebody messed up
the dam burst
the reinforcements never came
the supports didn’t hold
i forgot to write the address down
you never called

the brakes slipped in the wet
the backups didn’t run
the first aid box was empty
the safety catch slipped on this gun

the worse came true
we weren’t prepared for this
this wasn’t supposed to happen
but it did

the lifeboats weren’t ready
we weren’t warned
the fire-exits were obstructed
the alarm didn’t go off

somebody should have said something
and somebody should have checked
but it wasn’t me

this wasn’t supposed to happen
it did

freedom through constraint, part #518

You’ve probably had the experience of not writing back to someone because you want to write properly and don’t have time. So you put off writing. And put it off. And put it off. And never write back because you wanted to do it properly.

I think twitter is a wonderful facilitator of social interaction. Because each tweet or message is limited to 140 characters it is impossible to write ‘properly’ (i.e. in any depth), so you are free to nudge, bother, flirt with, joke with or otherwise contact all those people who you would like to be in touch with but have been putting off contacting because they deserve more than 140 characters.

Now, in honour of twitter I will attempt to rehash this thought in less than 140 characters:

Twitter facilitates social contact because msgs are limited to 140 chars. Can’t write properly, so easier to write at all!

(122 characters)

@tomstafford, by the way

Decline and Fall

‘Decline and Fall’ is the latest computer game from DO Arts. It’s a sim/civilisation game, but with a twist.

The game is half massively multiplayer on-line role playing game, half resource management, sim-city/Civilisation empire-building. Teams of players manage their way through the running of virtual civilisations, choosing to cooperate or compete as they so desire. They found colonies, invent new technologies, build monuments and foster communities as they balance the demands of their population’s desires with the threats and opportunities of contact with their neighbours.

The twist comes after approximately 10 hours of game play-time, when the resources of the virtual world begin to run out, and all the player’s civilisations face extinction.

Warnings of the radical shift in the game’s parameters are built into the game, but many players choose not to heed them, preferring to continue to expand and compete according to the boundless growth model that the start of the game seems to accord to. Typical game-world scenarios move through a depressing sequence of ignorance -> denial -> resource-wars -> massive population decline. Players recriminate each other, report dissatisfaction with the design of the game-world and the inherant unfairness of the game’s parameters.

But ‘Decline and Fall’ was never designed to be fair. It was produced in Italy, a collaboration between award-winning game designers DO Arts and Edwardo Gibbone, a social-psychologist at the University of Bologna. Gibbone’s team are now studying the game outcomes as teams of players sign up from around the world.

“We wanted to investigate how the players managed the collective impact of enforced energy-use restriction. To do this we had to get them hooked on one way of managing their societies, and then see how they reacted to a change in this environment.” says Gibbone

“We designed the game-play to be open enough to afford multiple different strategies in response to shortages in fossil fuels, clean air and water, and food simultaneously with catastrophic climate change and a population explosion large enough to tax environmental carrying capacity even without the other pressures. In doing so we hope to study the psychology of groups in crisis.”

Existing research on the psychology of trust has been restricted to relatively unrealistic experimental situations on the one hand, and non-repeatable real-life observation on the other. The ‘Decline and Fall’ project aims to established exactly what conditions or behaviours are required to allow groups of people facing individual threats to cooperate.

Specific theories to be tested by Gibbone’s research include the importance of trade links, democratic political organisation, free media, cultural exchange and technological development.

“The dynamics of the game are designed so as that painless transition to low-energy use societies is possible at all points of the game, even the final hours. Winning strategies aren’t hard to identify, in theory there are multiple routes to success — but the level of coordination required stops most groups of players from achieving it”

The project is due to complete in 2012, when an estimated 400,000 players from around the world will have played ‘Decline and Fall’. Gibbone is due to make a presentation of the results and the implications for real world civilisation at the World Climate Change Conference in Geneva that year.

Early reports from teams playing the game have been unpromising. When asked how successful teams of players have faced down their global crisis Gibbone just says “We’ll let you know when it happens”.

It is with regret…

Dear Correspondent

I regret to say that I have been unable to deliver your electronic mail to Mr Stafford. My employer has left with me strict instructions to run certain automated checks on the spelling, grammar and vulgarity of unsolicited messages, and I’m afraid it is due to the result of these checks that I am unable to deliver yours.

Mr Stafford has adopted this procedure after realising that many so called ‘spam’ messages contain basic errors of spelling, errors of punctuation and grammar or simple profanity. As you will know the basic problem of spam filtering is where to set the threshold so that no important messages are deleted, and so that few spam messages are delivered. Mr Stafford reasoned that he would not miss being denied badly spelled, poorly constructed or simply rude messages — even genuine ones — and that this procedure would be most effective in identifying spam that was not caught by his frontline spam filters. Additionally, this system means that any spam that is delivered does at least have the virtue of being well written, something which mitigates a good part of the offence, he feels.

This is why I have been employed as an ’email butler’, and why you are hearing from me rather than receiving a reply directly from Mr Stafford. Please understand, I am certainly not saying that your message *is* spam, merely that it fails on my checks of what we regard as proper English. Perhaps you have misused the apostrophe? I’m afraid to say that the misuse of just one of these little fellows is enough to have your message rejected (not so with mis-spellings, which my employer allows, in my opinion, to compose a very generous percentage of the message).

If you feel that your message is important enough to be brought to Mr Stafford’s attention then I would urge you to either redraft with more care, or to send a short note to Mr Stafford requesting that you be added to my list of his trusted friends and colleagues — I’m afraid to say that, as has always been the case, the ‘right sort’ are allowed to get away with behaviour that would have the ordinary person thrown out of polite society!


E Butler

On behalf of Tom Stafford, Esq


Thesis: Irony is so corrosive that even the slightest drop in anything you pursue will eventually destroy all seriousness and purpose. The project will then be impossible to sustain, except for the regular injection of large quantities of self-importance (for examples see critical theory, purportedly ‘post-modern’ art).

Looking out II

I have this recurring fantasy where a younger me is looking out of my eyes as I go about my daily life. The fifteen year old me can’t read my thoughts, or affect my actions. He doesn’t know how he got here, temporarily trapped inside the thirty year old me, doesn’t know what is going on. All he can do is read what I look at, listen to what I say, and try and deduce what kind of destiny awaits his future self. Is he pleased with how he ends up? Is he amazed at the confidence, the responsibility, the freedom that I have? Does he smile in recognition when I call up people he already knows, obviously still in touch? Does he wonder how some things worked out? He can’t ask any questions, trapped there. He just has to look for clues. Some people leave a trace on my adult life while he’s visiting, others are agonisingly absent. He watches the adult me and tries to figure out if these absences distress him, tries to figure out what he likes and avoids, what he loves and hates. He can’t tell for sure, just watches me, as I watch myself, swept through my own life.

My ‘as many goes as possible’ head

When I did my improvisation course recently the teacher, Chris, said something like this: When I have a group of kids and I ask them who wants to go first they all put their hands in the air and fight to get to the front, because they aren’t worried about success or failure on that attempt, they are just interested in having as many goes as possible. When I have a group of adults and I ask them who wants to go first they look at their shoes and try and hide behind each other, because they are worried about the quality of each individual go, about whether they can do it right, successfully. This is why children learn so quickly, he said, because they aren’t worried about getting it wrong. So, he said, when he asked for volunteers he wanted us not to worry about failure, instead to to expect it, and to remember that the most fun is to be had by trying to have as many goes as possible

climate care and airmiles don’t mix

My housemate Helen sent this to Scottish and Southern energy the other day:

Dear Southern Electric,

Thank you for your kind letter (customer account ref 3779898016, QBAY/ SR999B) asking why I am leaving you. I’m afraid I must cite irreconcilable differences (and the fact that I’ve found someone better, who I think takes me seriously). I started to have doubts about the relationship a few months ago, when you sent me a leaflet with a nice picture of a dolphin and a caption about fighting climate change the easy way, alongside an advert for free airmiles. It was your green credentials that attracted me to you in the first place, but I began to feel that the green tarif wasn’t expressing the real you, and that in fact you are as happy to destroy the planet as the next company if there is money in it.

Then someone showed me an article in the Ecologist magazine, which told me that Ecotricity spent around

eyes that care nothing for the thing they’re in

I dreamt that I caught a coach to leave london, but instead of heading north it headed south. We had been kidnapped by government agents, they were taking us to a secret lab where they would conduct sinister experiments on us. When we arrived I dived back into the coach and attempted to ram the barricades. Army squads appeared, shooting at me. I was hit. The scene blanked out and then restarted immediately – but i knew in another location, and some time later. Now i was restrained and those sinister government scientists approached with their sinister operating tools. The drilling begin and a sheet of blood feel over my vision. The scene blanked again and then, next, I knew that i was looking out of the eyes of the robot into which my brain at been inserted. The scientists were using my brain as the control system for an experimental bio-robot! I knew that i was condemned to look out of the eyes of the robot, as it roamed the world doing the sinister bidding of the sinister government. I was to commit horrors over which i would have no control, but which I would have to watch.

I think i need to stop reading so much Philip K Dick.

privacy and advantage

I was speaking to Jess last week, who is a biotechnological law ethicist. She said “What is privacy? What kind of thing is it? Why do we want it?”. I said – and I don’t know if I entirely believe this, but it is what came out – privacy is a concern to keep things unknown so as to protect future advantage. Some things we don’t want others to find out because it might disadvantage us in the future. Because there is no use only keeping important things secret – if you did this it gives away what is an isn’t important, which is half of the advantage. The other factor which works to bring things into the realm of privacy is that the future is uncertain. You can’t know with any precision what will and won’t be decisive in the future, so you need to keep more private now, just in case. One of the proximate mechanisms that results from the (evolutionary) logic of privacy is embarrassment. Just because, I claim, privacy is a result of supra-personal logic doesn’t mean that it isn’t a real human need, nor, for that matter that there shouldn’t be legal protections against our embarrassment.

transformative education

In my department we grade degrees based on four sets of exams – two in the second year, and two in the third year. In the University it is standard to assess students across the bulk of their courses like this. The alternative, which I presume used to happen at my University, and still does in some places such as Oxford and Cambridge, is to assess students in one set of finals at the very end of their courses. I can see that having one set of finals like this is a harsh discipline – especially for those who find exams stressful. Continuous assessment feels ‘fairer’ somehow.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if finals might be in fact be fairer, and might be based on a more inspiring model of what happens at a University. Continuous assessment seems to imply that students are receptacles, being filled with knowledge, regurgitating that knowledge at each stage and being assessed on their ability to do this at each point. Conversely, finals express the hope that education will be transformative. Over their time a student will be changed so that they can do some things, things which they were unable to do previously. Assessment on their final ability says ‘we are interested in what you have become, not what you were. We care what you are now able to do, not what you were once unable to do’.

Continuous assessment seems to discriminate against those who get the most out of University education – rewarding those who have been fortunate to grasp the essential model of absorbing and reformulating abstract information before they arrive.

the relegation

It’s a convention to say that the scientific discovery has progressively pushed man further and further from the center of the universe. Galileo displaced the fixed earth from the center and set it revolving around. Now we see the sun itself as a minor light in the backreaches of a single galaxy on the edges of a cluster of glaxies, all of which are hurtling away from each other so that more and more of the black-loneliness of space seperates us from the rest of the universe and from the explosion-point of the universe’s origin. After the Englightenment, God died of neglect and obscelenscence (was Nietzsche really the first to notice?). Without God, in whose image are we made, and on whose authority are we privilaged above all other life? Darwin put us on the same level as the animals, provided a mechanism for our blind creation from the forces of time, chance and selection. The Crick, Watson and the neo-darwinists showed that it is not even us that evolved and still competes to evolve – it is out genes. Our bodies, and by extension the totality of our thoughts and souls, mere ‘lumbering survival machines’ in Dawkin’s mememoral phrase. This is the modern universe. Feel small, feel very small.

But it occurs to me there is another way to look at it. With each relegation, the necessity of man’s existence becomes less and less certain. Because we are no longer required, we become like an unrepeatable moment of time. Because of this we must treasure our existence all the more. (Who else will treasure it for us?). An old testament submission to fate is now outdated, stoic resignation is unacceptable both for individuals and for the species. It is suddenly far more important that we survive, for ourselves rather than for some grand design of which we are the central part. We may not longer be as substantive – foam on the crest of the wave of causality – but we have become infinitely more precious for our pecariousness.

An existential dilemma?

Imagine something bad happens in your life. In fact, imagine that it is the worst thing that has happened to you so far.

Now you can think about this event, and respond to it, in two basic ways. Two ways which both offer something, but which also each extract a price. They contradict each other, so that you can’t hold both perspectives at the same time.

The first way of thinking about things is to rationalise. To get a sense of perspective. To say to yourself “It could have been worse”. Now this is essentially looking at your life from the outside and evaluating the meaning of things in a wider context. “I’m still alive”, you say. You look at the news and are grateful. “I could have just had boiling engine oil squirted over my face” or “At least my entire family haven’t been killed in a brutal and senseless tribal war”. This can work – you realise that compared to the sufferings of the rest of humanity, and compared to those sufferings you could potentially undergo, your trials are minor. They do not mean as much as you feel they do, you realise, and so you can feel more phlegmatic about them. And then you look at the whole of your life, and you judge it on the same scale, and you realise that to look at your life from the outside derives it of meaning. Not just this event, but all events in my life are minor. My sufferings, and my joys and my achievements do not count for ought on this cosmis scale. I win, I lose, I live, I die. So what. Your life becomes so trivial in its significance that it is effectively meaningless. This is depressing.

So you come to realise that the only way your life can have meaning is to evaluate it from the inside. To say “Yes, there are billions of lives like mine, billions that might be more important in the grand sense, but only this one is mine. Only I stand on this spot, only I can do the things I am uniquely positioned to do, and only I can feel the wind on my cheeks and turn my closed eyes to the morning sunlight, here at this moment. Only I can experience myself and so I must regard my life – I must value my life – in terms which are defined from the inside, on the scale of my own experience”. But now you have changed your perspective to give back meaning to your life, you are assulted by the disaster that started you thinking on this track in the first place. If you give meaning to events according to your experience, you may have the feeling of meaning in your life, but the events in your life mean you are sad. They are the worst thing(s) that have ever happened to you, remember. This is depressing.

But maybe you have a suspicion – or someone offers some sage advice – so you try and get a sense of perspective, but then you are back again to draining your life of meaning entirely. You revolve between the two point of view. Meaning and suffering, suffering from meaninglessness. You twirl and spin, exhausting yourself.

Now this paradox works however trivial a disaster has beset your life. Perhaps my goldfish dies. I loved my goldfish, and until he died my life was uninterrupted joy. Now this event has blackened my existence and I try and make sense of my pain. Obviously, compared to being locked in a cellar for the first fourteen years of my life, seeing daylight only when my abusive father comes into the room to beat me, the goldfish thing isn’t that important. Realising this I feel better. Then I realise that my so far pampered existence is equally trivial. I am sad. And so it goes on.

Disclaimer: I am fine. My family, including my father (non-abusive), are fine. My goldfish (non-existent) is fine. The worst thing that has happened to me today is that I have come to work wearing a t-shirt which has a wine-stain on it.

combustion engine snuff

As oil depletion speeds up, motor racing will be made illegal. Upon it will fall the moral censure which must accompany the change in our society’s relationship to fossil fuels. Motor sports will come to play a cultural role somewhere between bare-knuckle boxing and ascot: a barbaric, contraband, relic- but also the preserve of the very rich. Video footage of races will be the new snuff movies. Policemen will capture stocks in raids, and watch them in fascination before having them destroyed. “Christ Jim, look at the speed of that” “Think of the fuel it must be burning!”

narrative compulsion

Narrative Compulsion – that characteristic of an interpersonal situation, where the outcome of that situation is dictated by the logic of its description, rather than by the wishes or attempted actions of the players. See also life immitates art

So there’s this thread right…

So there’s this thread, right, which I got to via CT, where people are photoshoping cartoons from the New Yorker to make them funnier. Or wierder at least. And there was this one, below. Who knows what it was about, but i thought it was funny as hell with the new caption:

And i thought to myself. “That’s hilarious. I know just the person whose sense of humour that fits exactly”. And I was about to email that person, when i realised I didn’t know the name of that person. In my head i have the template of my impression of their sense of humour. I know exactly that this would make them laugh out loud, but i can’t remember which of my friends it is. Dammit