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What’s wrong with mob rule?

Just finished David Mamet’s A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays and one essay Poll Finds started me thinking about problems with democracy and choice (a hopeless task!).

We make awful choices as collectives – look at the newspapers we choose, the television we watch, the music we buy, the fast-food chains we make rich. But I have faith that we’re better than that. So why do we allow ourselves to be sold it? I’m convinced that part of the answer is the difference between what we’d really like and what we’re willing to put up with; Another part is the increasing size of markets; and partly it’s a culture of hype and fear that has chosen to put quantity over quality at ever turn (or am i starting to sound like a hysterical lefty?). But here’s another point, from Mamet, a bizarrely conservative liberal…

The viscious aspect of the poll is that it submerges the individual’s responsibility of choice…the person who answers the poll has no responsibility; they are asked how they feel at any given moment, and the very inducement to answer is this: you will have no responsibility for how these statistics are used: you are free, you are, in fact encouraged to answer as self-interestedly as you wish: for a moment there are no restrictions on your libido.

…As pollings has replaced voting as the method of electing our officials, our capacity to stand alone, to think alone, to be content while being in the wrong has all but evaporated….our acceptance of the poll is our rejection of our own thoughts or ideas because to hold them in opposition to ‘majority opinion’ is not as important as to be thought ‘right.’ And there we have American Fascism, in which we become our own dictator, and have forced on ourselves the will, not of others, but of the lowest aspect of ourselves; and this slavery has been forced on us not by the threat of death or torture, but by the threat of the momentary discomfort of being in the wrong.

Given what we know about the power of social influence we should expect essentially arbitrary, but majority, positions to gain strength. An obsession with polling can on exacerbate (more iterations!) this feedback between perceived group position and individual standing. (see also Arrow’s Possibility Theorum; via Crooked Timber).

Can we conclude that there are situations where too much information/communication is (democratically) a bad thing? Is this one of the points where the libertarian (and, incidentally standard economic) theoretical notion of the individual breaks down in the face of human socio-cognitive biases?

What should i do with my life?

Two quotes from Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life. An annoyingly complacent piece of American self-help literature on the one hand, but on the other I’m a sucker for bite-sized wisdom…

Three guys laying bricks are asked why they’re doing it. The first guy says, ‘I’m doing it for the wages.’ The second guy says, ‘I’m doing it to support my family’. The third guys says, ‘I’m helping to build a cathedral.’


…it is likely that we fall in love with people who bring out the part of ourselves that we’d like to see more of.

Am I Somebody Yet?

An unusually hysterical, but i thought zeitgeist-catching, article from the guardian – Bums and Deceit. You can kind of tell it was written by someone under the influence of lots of painkillers (and daytime tv)

…when you look like Barbra Streisand after three weeks under water and your pain relief is preventing you from tying, or even recognising, your own shoes, then you’re in the perfect condition to stay at someone else’s house and watch cable TV. So now I finally have a proper grasp of what’s important in modern life. And mainly it’s tits…
…I am now completely up to speed on the vital issues of the day. Is your sofa new enough? Are your teeth white enough? Is there enough fat in your arse to inflate your head in case of emergency? And are you spending enough? Because if you’re only spending what you’ve got, that’s not enough – you need to be IN DEBT. Not just a little bit overdrawn, I mean proper, wake up screaming, selling your underwear, Russian roulette in Soho basements to win back your kidneys debt.

This article, Celebrity nobodies, by Piers Morgan has an anecdote which just drips with the existential devestation of our celebrity culture. It is the audition for one of those Pop Idols-type programmes.

a young, totally anonymous woman called Tara looks at the camera and squeals: “Oh my God, everyone’s looking at me – they don’t even know who the camera is here for but they think I am someone. I might be someone … am I someone yet?” Told “not yet”, she replies: “But I will be soon won’t I? I love it!”

Photo Galleries working

I finally managed to get the PHP for my photo gallery working. Seems that PHP 4.2.0 and higher have a different default value ‘register_globals’ (it’s now set to ‘off’) meaning that you need to explicitly pass variables between functions. All i did was add $_REQUEST[‘var’]; in two places and it started working again.

It also means that I can host my friend Hugh’s photos and feel very jealous of his Nepal-Thailand trip.

Top of the pops

If you live in Sheffield people will occasionally tell each other that it is the 4th largest city in the UK. Then you have to spent time trying to work out what the others are. Of course it depends where you draw the boundaries. But provides this list:

City Population
London 7,074,265
Birmingham 1,020,589
Leeds 726,939
Glasgow 616,430
Sheffield 530,375
Bradford 483,422
Liverpool 467,995
Edinburgh 448,850
Manchester 430,818
Bristol 399,633

Which i think goes to show that size isn’t everything. Incidentally, if you live in Sheffield and need reminding, there’s a list of good things about the city here

– 7.2% of Sheffield’s working population are employed in the creative industries, well above the national average of 4%
Sheffield is officially the safest city in the UK (according to Government statistics)
– One third of Sheffield is within the Peak District National Park (no other UK city has a national park within its boundary)
– Sheffield is England’s greenest city, containing 150 woodlands and 50 public parks
– Half of the City’s population live within 15 minutes of open countryside
– Sheffield offers the highest level of funding assistance anywhere in Europe for inward investors

And now Sheffield is lonesome for her heroes!

Events in london

Just a few things coming up in london.

World Music by Steve Waters at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre. The premiered in Sheffield last year. The play has stayed with me since that time. I’ve seen more moving, or more engaging plays (not that it was in anyway emotionally flat or boring) but I don’t think i’ve ever seen a play that left me thinking for so long. Over the last month or so – and remember this is six months after I first saw it – I think I’ve finally decided on what I think the message of the play was. I’m going to see it again with a bunch of guys (including these two) and I can test out my theories on them.

The play has two settings: an african village, in a Society that sounds suprisingly like Rwanda, twenty years ago and the corridors of the European Parliament in the present day. Geoff Falen, then a naive gap-year student, now a socialist Euro MP, is torn between loyalties to his friends, his family and his principles. I didn’t think any play with scenes in the European Parliament could be gripping, but this is.

Also coming up in london is a talk on the 5th of March by Manuel DeLanda
at the Tate.

a New York based philosopher and science writer with an exceptionally cross-disciplinary body of work. Often drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, he has written on nonlinear dynamics, theories of self-organization, artificial life and intelligence, chaos theory as well as architecture, and the history of science. DeLanda is currently a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Columbia University. His publications include War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History and Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. DeLanda will be joined by Olafur Eliasson and Doreen Massey.

Bring it on.

At the recent anti-apathy / NEF event I found out about London Farmer’s Markets – which have to be one of the best things in the world. Buy fresh produce, meet the people who grow it, and cut out the middle man (supermarket) giving you cheaper food and them more profit. A full list is available here. (Incidentally the next NEF roadshow is in Vauxhall on the 18th of Feb)

quote #9

An example of implicit academic knowledge maybe? This simile, which Nicol told me last night, is actually pretty true and funny, trust me.

A Nature paper is like a red sports car that flashes past at 100 mph. A paper in Journal of Neuroscience is like a Rolls-Royce that cruises passed at a comfortable pace

Researching science

I’ve been thinking about how you find out the facts – the scientific facts – on a topic. As an academic you develop a set of prejudices, almost unconsciously at times, which help you deal with the riddle of too much information. You know what kind of paper makes it into Nature, from your field. You know how much to trust something published in Trends in Neurosciences compared to Perceptual and Motor Skills (for example). You’re also plugged in to a structure (the Academy) which provides easy access to colleagues, journals, conferences and hence filters and recommends information. You’re immersion lets you develop a judgement for how plausible new information is – you can spot bullshit.

Move out of the University, or move fields, and you lose some or all of that. If you’ve never worked as a professional academic, then you don’t even know what you’re missing. Do you even know that publication in peer-reviewed academic journals is the gold standard for any data? That for many scientists, evidence can in some way be said not to exist until it is peer-reviewed?

Anyway, I wrote some notes for the BBC intranet (research.gateway > science for anyone able to look there) which i’ve also put here. Anyway, if anyone can think of things that should be known by documentary researchers who don’t have a scientific background, but who are researching scientific topics let me know.

From psychology/neuroscience i’ve realised that Behavioural and Brain Sciences have a free on-line archive and so does CogPrints. Both potentially useful if you’re looking for papers to get started on a topic and you don’t have library access.

my idio-vocabulary

Since we’re talking about idiolects, here’s something silly that amused me greatly. I’ve had my phone four months and if i use a word in a text-message which isn’t in its dictionary then it remembers it. Today I found a way to look at this list of added words. In a way they show my (text-message) idiolect. And sometimes also my bad spelling. Here they are:




Start the week, don’t start the war

Just ran across a fantastic Start the Week on Radio 4. Interview with the director of human rights watch about the justification of invading Iraq. It’s so good to hear a liberal critique of the action, rather than a totalising leftist critique (yes, I agree it was the wrong thing to do, no, I don’t want to buy a copy of your damn paper).

Anyway. Does Ken Roth think invasion can theoretically be justified by human rights abuses? Yes. Does he think UN support is required for humanitarian intervention? No. But the point is: there was no clear and present risk of slaughter by Saddam so there was no justification for an intervention at this point, despite his history of human rights abuse.

That’s it, in a nutshell. And all from a man who has been campaigning on the need for an international response to Saddam from the early nineties…

Physics (journal) envy…

What does this mean?

Whereas 20 per cent of submitted manuscripts are rejected by physics journals, this rate reaches 80 per cent in psychology.
Adair, J.G. & Vohra, N. (2003).The explosion of knowledge, references, and citations: Psychology?s unique response to a crisis. American Psychologist, 58(1), 15?23.

Perhaps it means that psychology journals have higher standards? Or that that psychologists submitting papers have lower standards? Both seem unlikely, especially since the authors and the reviewers are often the same people. Does an incoherent intellectual culture make the business of publishing research more problematic? Answers on a postcard please…

A good analogy is like a diagonal frog

Over at The Edge‘s World Question Centre John Brockman has asked a bunch of interesting people to contribute a new scientific laws:

There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you’ve noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy.

And it’s a good excuse to gorge yourself on quotable titbits. On ourselves:

Pinker’s First Law
Human intelligence is a product of analogy and combinatorics. Analogy allows the mind to use a few innate ideas?space, force, essence, goal?to understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allows an a finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.

Stever Pinker

On science:

Warwick’s Second Law
Art tells the jokes that science insists on explaining.

Henry Warwick

Sapolsky’s Second Law
It’s okay to think about nonsense, as long as you don’t believe in it.

Sapolsky’s Third Law
Often, the biggest impediment to scientific progress is not what we don’t know, but what we know.

Robert Sapolsky

And reason:

Kai’s Example Dilemma
A good analogy is like a diagonal frog.

Kai Krause

Harari?s Law of Science Education
The faster Science and Technology advance?the more important it is to teach and to learn the basics of Math and Science and the less important it is to teach and to learn the latest developments.

Haim Harari

If you visit also check out P?ppel’s Universal and Ogilvy’s Law. The prize for insightful brevity is shared between Andy Clark and Steve Grand. Enjoy

quotes #7-8

Today, politics:

If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

-Charles Darwin

If you love Jesus, work for justice. Anybody can honk.

-bumper sticker

?nited St?tes Toughens Image With Umlauts

In a move designed to make the United States seem more “bad-assed and scary in a quasi-heavy-metal manner,” Congress passed a bill Monday changing the nation’s name to the ?nited St?tes of ?merica. “Much like M?tley Cr?e and Mot?rhead, the ?nited St?tes is not to be messed with,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). An upcoming redesign of the ?merican flag will feature the new name in burnished silver wrought in a jagged, gothic font and bolted to a black background. A new national anthem is also in the works, to be written by composer Glenn Danzig and tentatively titled “Howl Of The She-Demon.”

A friend sent me this, which rocked. It sounds like it is from The Onion but at the time of writing the site was down so i couldn’t check.

How the word became text

For some reason, today it became important to know when silent reading developed. In the middle ages, and in antiquity, the custom was to always read aloud. Monastic libraries would be full of mutterings and it must have been impossible to read private letters in public.

Then i found this essay and everything started to go ‘zing!’ inside my head. Seems the diffusion of the custom of word spacing (strange to think that something as unconscious as putting spaces between words needed invention. Strangetothinkthatsomethingasunconsciousasputtingspacesbetweenwordsneededinvention) was instrumental in allowing the development of silent copying and silent reading.

And- fantastic!- you can trace the historical development of this by looking at changes in the rules of monastic orders:

Reading likewise became a silent activity, as evidenced by changing interpretation of the rule of silence. Before about the 10th century, “oral group reading and composition [were] in practice no more considered a breach of silence than were confession or the recitation of prayers. Cluniac monks were judged to have violated their vows of silence only when a word they spoke was not written in the text.” (383) But later, “silence” comes to mean real silence.

So The Word is on a historical trajectory from phonetic to visual unit (Remember Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning was the command line. Notice Jocelyn Penny Small’s essay on Psycoloquy)

And, again from Relevant History, silent reading lets us interact with the written word in new ways

Books that were meant to be read silently differed from those meant to be read aloud: they were more visually complex, and their design could incorporate metadata and visual cross-references that wouldn’t make sense in books that were read aloud. What other scholars have referred to as paratexts– .e.g, “tables of contents, alphabetical glosses, subject indexes, running headings” (408)– only really work in books that you interact with visually rather than orally.

All these changes, marking “the transformation from an oral monastic culture to a visual scholastic one between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 14th centuries” (405) are first confined to the ecclesiastical worlds, but from the 14th century they spread in lay literate culture.

And then silent reading changes the nature of self-consciousness, another part in the development of the primacy of individual perspective. Is it coincidence that the widespread adoption of silent reading is coincident with the beginning of what we know of as the Modern period?

…private reading becomes a space for “individual critical thinking” that encourages “the development of skepticism and intellectual heresy.” (399) Likewise, spiritual literature in the 14th century was meant to be read alone, turning reading itself into a kind of meditation (that incidentally involved the highest of the senses, sight).
The privacy afforded by silent reading had the same effects in lay society that it did in scholastic circles. It made easier the cultivation of individual opinions and subversive thoughts…It also made religious feeling into a more private matter.

Dying of Consumption

A New Economics Foundation / ICA event panel debate, tagged as

How do we persuade people to be more ethical in their consumer choices? Is ethical consuming the preserve of the rich anyway?

…But unfortunately not much meat to this debate. The consensus seemed to be that we couldn’t rely on personal consumer choice to solve problems of poverty and environmental damage. But little agreement on how we resuscitate collective choice from the stranglehold that free market orthodoxy has imposed.

Richard Reeves made the point that for the first time in history there is a breakdown in the relationship between material wealth and happiness. Previously-and still outside the west- increased wealth correlated with increased well-being. Now we face a trade-off – our increased material wealth is cutting into those factors which we now rely on for marginal changes in our happiness (which are? security, community, free time?). It’s all, as Andrew Simms noted in one of the few occasions when he was being chirpy and constructive rather than chirpy and unconstructive, a good advert for the New Economics Foundation and the need for a New Economics.

The best point of the evening came from the floor. What do we need to do?

We need to redefine freedom as the autonomy to self-manage our lives, rather than the freedom of consumers to choose between products

Put me in mind of the Lakoff article (via Matt) about the need for progressives to stop letting conservatives define the semantic frames within which political debate occurs)

quote #6, Master K’ung

A plough man said to Tzu-lu, a follower of Confucius, ‘Under Heaven there is none that is not swept along by the same flood. Such is the world and who can change it? As for you, instead of following one who flees from this man and that, you would do better to follow one who shuns this whole generation of men.’ And with he went on covering the seed.
Tzu-lu went and told his master, who said ruefully, ‘One cannot herd with birds and beasts. If I am not to be a man among other men, then what am I to be?’

– the Analects of Confucius, Book 18

the invention of perspective

How did people see the world before they invented perspective, sometime in the 15th century? It would be comforting to assume that the world was the same, even though people could only imagine representations of the world which to us look awkward, childlke. If they saw the world like we do now, why was perspective not obvious sooner? Why couldn’t they see?

How did people experience the world before individual inner life was legistamised as a social object. Before we have a concept for self-consciousness, can it exist in the same way? Language might not condition our fundamental perception of the world (all the evidence I’ve seen persuades me to reject the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), but it might condition the reflexive use of cognition. In other words, until the concept exists out there, it can’t be operated upon by our words or thoughts. What affect would this have on our feelings and thoughts about our feelings and thoughts?

So many questions…

Remember guardian article from november 2002 by David Lodge. He talks about the development of the novel, about how the ‘interiority of experience’ came to be a focus of literature after Descartes’ cogito put consciousness as the foundation of philosophy:

Ian Watt, in…The Rise of the Novel , suggests that "both the philosophical and the literary innovations must be seen as parallel manifestations of larger change – that vast transformation of Western civilization since the Renaissance which has replaced the unified world picture of the Middle Ages with another very different one – one which presents us, essentially, with a developing but unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences at particular times and in particular places.

Watt observed that whereas earlier narrative literature usually recycled familiar stories, novelists were the first storytellers to pretend that their stories had never been told before, that they were entirely new and unique, as is each of our own lives according to the empirical, historical, and individualistic concept of human life. They did this partly by imitating empirical forms of narrative like auto biography, confessions, letters, and early journalism. Defoe and Richardson are obvious examples.

Remember Baumeister‘s How the self became a problem. He observes than in Western culture people could expect to spend 25 hours of every day in other people’s company: to eat, sleep, shit, make love, play, work with others present. Privacy was a concept that just wouldn’t make sense.

Remember Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Claiming that pre-homeric humans were not conscious. Experienced a will as external direction coming from gods or leaders, sort of hive-living robots. Fascinating stuff as he looks at the literature and archaeology to try an trace the development of modern consciousness. Madness. Genius.

Writing for radio

I normally think of myself- in a rather surly way- as a non-fiction man, but something obviously snapped recently and i’ve decided to write a 15 minute radio play. I think the turning point was listening to something on Radio 4 and thinking “I could do better than this”. Time to prove it! But first, some preparation.

The BBC – of course – has some good resources for writers in their Writersroom. Including this fantastic tutorial by Jon Ronson on finding and following a story (he mentions that being scruffy can be useful. Score!)

The BBC gets 10,000 scripts a year, so better get the formatting right and submit it correctly

There’s so much advice on how to write that i decided to read it after i’d actually got the thing written (although finding out that 15 minutes is very approximately 2000 words was good to know). I might still try and get David Mamet’s Writing for Radio (in A Whore’s Profession, 1994) because a friend recommended it and Mamet’s a god.

The cacophony of instruction on the Craft reminded me of this article in the Independent from a few weeks ago which busted a few myths about the hoops you need to jump through in preparing your script for Hollywood

This is the secret of how to be a screenwriter. You have to set two tabs. You set one tab setting an inch or 2.5cm from the left margin. You set the other tab a couple of inches or 5cm in. The first tab marks where the dialogue starts. And the second tab is for the name of the character speaking (always in capitals).

That’s it. Apparently.

Reminiscent in spirit to my favourite quote about writing, by Kingsley Amis

The Art of Writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair

quotes #3-5

It’s been a good day for quotes. These on, loosely, the scientific process:

People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support
rather than for illumination.

– Mark Twain

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.

– Richard Feynman

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

– US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Nurture Assumption

I’ve just finished The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris (1998, Bloomsbury). Fantastic book – and I think it says something about psychology that something so seminal can be published by a writer of textbooks rather than professional academic. Or perhaps, like Nicol suggested, it would take a writer of textbooks to be able to synthesise across fields without the blinkers of disciplinary indoctrination which are normally acquired by specialist professionals. I’d love to know more about the profressional response to the book. She must have really annoyed some people.

I put my notes online. The take-home message is this: It is a cultural myth that parenting style influences how children turn out. The nature-nurture dichotomy is a false one, because it suggests that aside from nature/genetics it is only parents who have an influence on how children develop (thank Freud for that one). Genetics makes children similar to parents. Being socialised by a peer group with the same values as the parents makes children similar to parents. Parents don’t make children similar to parents.

Think language: the children of immigrants take on the language of their host country as their native tongue, not the language of their parents.

Think twin-studies: we all know the stories about twins reared-apart who in adulthood are amazinginly similar. You don’t hear the flip side mentioned so often. Twins reared together are no more similar. Having the same parental up-bringing doesn’t add anything to the existing effect of genetics.

There is no scientific evidence that parents have any affect beyond providing genes and a socio-economic peer group which is most likely congruent with their own socialisation.

That’s the important thing, I think. No scientific evidence. We have to remember that what is real isn’t the same as what is scientifically demonstrable. But if psychology wants to be a science it needs to rely on the scientifically demonstrable and I think Judith Rich Harris shows that the discipline has spent too long chasing confirmation of a folk myth, rather than doing properly controlled stuides. ‘Group Socialisation Theory’, as JRH calls the alternative hypothesis that peers are more influential than parents, is another good example of the use of using evolutionary theory as an integrative framework within psychology. Not that you should naively apply evolutionary theory to all aspects of psychology, but that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. And psychology is ultimately biological, and you need to use the same principles – ie trying to work out function – to understand either.

quote #2

[Whilst watching 2001: A Space Odyssy, somewhere near the end]

Jon: I’m bored. I want to watch something else.

Tom: I’m bored too, but I want to know what happens.

Jon: That’s why you have a PhD and I don’t.

how i did this

In a cold technical sense, this weblog was brought to you by…

Moveabletype, for the blogging software and Low Cost Names for the hosting and for selling me the domain name.

Notetab Light is the king of text editors, and for FTP i used Leech (although normally i use Terrapin, but i couldn’t find a obvious way to set file security attributes).

I’m using Webmonkey and The Web Design Group for on-going guidance on web-authoring. This and this (via) inspired me to learn about CSS. Wondering what CSS is? Look here for something brief and useful from the WDG.

I didn’t use OpenOffice much to design the site – apart from some spell checking – but i still think it’s fantastic that you can get for free a word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, etc office software suite – which is fully compatible with Microsoft products but approximately ?200 cheaper than MS Office – so i’m going to link to them as much as possible.