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Monthly Archives: December 2005

human sustainability

The policies of the eighties and nineties…were based, John Gray argued in his book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), on ‘the theory that market freedoms are natural and political restraints on markets are artifical. The truth is that free markets are creatures of state power, and persist only so long as the state is able to prevent human needs for security and the control of economic risk from finding political expression.’

Just as the late twentieth century grasped the fact that there was a crisis of environmental sustainability, the twenty-first century is beginning to grasp the dimensions of a comparable crisis, this time of human sustainability – a scarcity of the conditions which nurture resilient, secure individuals, familities, friendships and communities.

Madeleine Bunting. Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruling our lives (2004). p. xx-xxi

Quote #123 (Why we love books)

Why does this strike such a nerve? Because so many of us (not only authors) love books. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books are the mirror of ourselves. Books are not mere physical objects. They have a life of their own. Wholesale scanning, we fear, will strip our books of their souls. Works that were sewn together by hand, one chapter at a time, should not be unbound page by page and distributed click by click. Talk about “snippets” makes authors flinch.

George Dyson on

link roundup 28 dec 05

Life is open

So the biosphere appears to be doing something that we cannot describe beforehand – not because of quantum indeterminacy of chaotic dynamic behavior but because we don’t have the concepts ahead of time.

That, in turn, means that the space of relevant possibilities of the biosphere – its phase space – cannot be prestated. Thus the biosphere is creative in a way we cannot prestate. And that stands in marked contrast to what Newton brilliantly showed us how to do: In physics, in general, one can prestate the set of all possibilities – that is, the phase space – the consult the laws and the initial boundary conditions and calculate the forward trajectory of the particle in its phase space.

I suspect we cannot state the phase space, the space of possibilities, in the biosphere. You might, if you are a physicist, say, “Well, if you treat the system classically, there is always the classical n-dimensional phase space of all the positions and velocities of the particles in the [somehow isolated] system.” That may be true, but then you do not yet know how to pick out the relevant collective variables (the wings of Gertrude) as the variables that will matter to the unfolding of the biosphere. So we seem to confront a limitation on knowledge that we had not recognized before. The evolving biosphere is doing something cannot be foretold; we do not have the categories. The same, I think, applies to technological evolution: No one foresaw the Internet a century ago.

Interestingly, the fact that we cannot prestate technological possibilities, if true, cuts the core out of the contemporary reigning theory in economics: “competitive general equilibrium,” which begins with the assumption that one can prestate all possible goods and services, then proves that markets clear – that is, all goods are sold to buyers at the contracted price. But we cannot state ahead of time all the possible good and services, so the reigning theory is wrong at the outset.

Stuart Kauffman (2002). What is life? In J. Brockman (Ed.), The next fifty years, pp. 126-141. New York: Vintage

midland mainline complaints address

[local news warning]

You can wait on hold for 20 minutes to get this address to write your complaint letter to, like i did, or you can copy it down from here:

Midland Mainline Customer Services
Nelson Street

Normally Midland Mainline are fantatic, it’s their internet sales support which i’m complaining about (and guess who that is run by? Virgin, of course)

heart of darkness

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush . . . In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives — he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

Links: dec 9th 2005

questionnaire data

I always promised myself that I’d never do any research involving questionnaires.

Well, times change and we’ve all done things for money which we might not have done otherwise. So I’ve been running these huge postal-questionnaire surveys and gathering hundreds of thousands of data points and wondering what sense can be made of the morass of information.

Why the previous distaste for questionnaires? Well, true to the behaviourist-roots which i share with all experimental psychologists, I don’t have a lot of faith that people’s answers to questionnaire questions bare much relation to the thing that we, asking the questions, are interested in. The vagaries of personal intepretation, context, ambiguities in wording, differences in perspective between researcher and respondent add so much noise – why should i believe that the average response on a particular question reflects anything more than the willingness of the average respondent to tick that part of the response scale on that question?

(by the way, this is common, useful and potentially unhealthy aspect of the experimental psychologist’s trade: a complete distrust of people’s professed desires and beliefs. Just because they said they’ll vote Labour / choose to do that job for that reason / are a kind and conscientious person / etc you don’t actually believe them do you??).

Anyway, does that mean that my 200,000 data points are a load of junk? It means that i think that most of the survey data reported in the news is a load of junk. 75% of people think this. 2 in 3 people think that. etc etc. Junk. So, why not my stuff?

Well, it’s all about statistics and differences. Admittedly the point someone marks on a questionnaire may bare little relation to the thing the question refers to, but we can demonstrate that there is consistency in how people answer certain questions. Further than this, there are systemmatic differences in how different groups of people answer questions. By looking at differences, we can stop worrying about the reponse to the questionnaire as an indicator of wider meaning, and focus on the existence of differences between different people’s responses as indicators of wider meaning. Sure, if someone asks “How worried are you about water pollution” then my response is pretty meaningless, whether I indicate 1 (not at all) or 7 (extremely). If I ask 200 people, then the average response is still pretty meaningless. But if I find that the 100 Guardian readers give a statistically higher response than 100 Telegraph readers then that says something about the world. Anyway, maybe this was obvious to the social psychologists all along, but if it was they never told me.

quote #119

True radicalism consists of making hope seem possible, not in making despair seem convincing

(I don’t know who said this, I’m fairly sure it wasn’t me. I found it in my notes and can’t source it.)


O generation of the thoroughly smug
and the thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picknicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing

Ezra Pound