do i turn the wheel or does the wheel turn me?

There is a human bias to underestimate the role we play in creating our own circumstances (this is part of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’). I wonder also if there is an opposite bias to underestimate the effect that our circumstances have on us. If there is, what is it called?

Either way, I think both (putative) biases can be explained by perceptual selectivity and an adapted mind. It’s easier and more useful to notice how our circumstances affect things than how unchanging aspects of ourselves do. Contrawise, it’s hard to notice slow changes that our circumstances have on ourselves.


the grace that others have inside

And do you sometimes lust
For the grace that others have inside
The simple peace they make with life
Yet filled up like some summer’s night?

‘I see the light’, Cracker, as heard not as sung


links for 21st of July 2005

elsevier politics

a response to Elsevier

Stephen J. Cowden
General Council & Company Secretary
Reed Elsevier
1-3 Strand
London, WC2N 5JR

21 July 2005

Dear Mr Cowden

Thanks for your reply (12 July) to my letter of 29th of June. I asked three questions in my letter:

  • Will Elsevier stop helping to organise arms fairs, specifically DSEi (next scheduled for September 2005)?
  • How does your involvement in the arms trade square with your playing ‘a positive role in our local and global communities’?
  • How should the members of academic and medical communities feel about this involvement?

  • You answered the first, with a straight ‘no’. I’d still like to know the answer to these two:

  • How does your involvement in the arms trade square with your playing ‘a positive role in our local and global communities’?
  • How should the members of academic and medical communities feel about this involvement?

  • And to this I’ll add another:

  • How can you say believe that sufficient “rigorous checks” are made on the exhibitors at DSEi and that their activities are “legitimate” when illegal activities, such as the sale of landmines (banned by international convention) have been shown, repeatedly, to be organised at DSEi? [1]. Are you able to provide details of the checks that your organisation carried out on exhibitors?

  • I look forward to hearing from you


    Tom Stafford




    Thinking about politics and morality on wednesday afternoon

    I’m not a socialist – but I agree with their point that markets will tend to seek efficiencies without respect for human dignity and well-being. I’m not a libertarian – but I agree with their point that the state will tend to aggregate power to itself, necessarily trampling on the freedoms of the individual. It seems to me like the key issue here is that of beaurocratic diffusion of responsibility – whether that diffusion happens in a multinational corporation or at the level of (inter)national government. The problem is only going to get more pressing as the connections between economies, polities and societies becomes more and more multiple, distal and diverse. The globalisation of markets requires the globalisation of responsibility, but at the same time makes personal responsibility near impossible. Time for radical new political solutions? No – time for radical old political solutions. The issues have got more tangled, but they were pretty tangled at the birth of modernity anyway. There’s enough old fashioned corruption, fascism, exploitation and war around that we can still get milage out of boring things like democracy, seperation of powers, the rule of law, human rights, welfare and free trade – despite all their problems and internal contradictions.

    Oh, dammit. I wanted to say something about the diffusion of responsibility (remember Milgram! remember Asch! remember Arendt!) and i’ve ended up thinking about the Enlightenment foundations of political philosophy. Hmm. So. Anyone got any ideas of how to deal with the moral impact of the diffusion of responsibility in complex socities?



    Excitingly, Andy Brown’s photography website has been updated. Stop by for some excellent documentary, portrait and music photography.

    My friend Cat now has her photos at, and I’ve put my photos back on-line, here (what, you didn’t notice they were down?), including the burning man photos. Hugh & Matt’s photos from Nepal/Thailand are also back up after space-shortage made me take them down as well.

    elsevier politics

    Reply from Elsevier

    I wrote to Elsevier to ask them about their involvement with the arms trade. Their response is below (and as PDF here, 600 KB). They only answered the first of my three questions (with a ‘no’).


    Frankly, just because something is legal doesn’t make it legitimate and anyway I find hard to believe that adequate checks are carried out at DSEi, especially given that we know it has, just for a first example, repeatedly haboured the brokering of illegal sales of landmines. I’ll be writing back to Elsevier, and in a few days I’ll post it that here too.


    Making words needed

    Part of any good advice on writing is to cut everything that isn’t doing some work. As the classic says ‘Omit needless words’, ‘Vigourous writing is concise’.

    It occurs to me that sometimes, especially with scientific writing, that rather than have a choice of what to include and what to omit, you have a fixed number of ideas to include and your task, as a writer, is the mirror of the maxim above. Rather than ‘omit needless words’ you must find a way to make needed the words/ideas you are compelled to include. Any advice on how to do this would be appreciated.


    Links for 16th of July 2005


    A human network syndrome?

    Dan wrote me a comment on my post on modelling local economies and the effect of shops which generate more income but send profits outside the local economy. It’s quite long so I’ve put most of it below the fold. Some context may be found from this post i’ve linked to before, by Dan at, about the
    redevelopment plans current for Burngreave, Sheffield. Even if you’re not interested in redevelopment policy, there’s stuff about the utility and use of simulations that has general interest

    Some abbreviations i’m not sure he defines: LM3 = Local Multiplier 3, a measure developed by the NEF which gauges how much of money spent in the local economy stays in the local economy. NEF = The New Economics Foundation. ABM = Agent Based Modelling. ODPM = Office of Deputy Prime Minister.

    Anyway, Dan says:

    This is all a bit like wading through underbrush at the moment. One day in the future, the concepts we’re trying to get at may emerge from the murk, but for now….

    1. The value of modeling
    2. A human network syndrome?
    3. Capitalism, network breakdown


    Links for 7th of July 2005


    The McNamara Fallacy

    The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.
    The second step is to disregard that which can?t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.
    The third step is to presume that what can?t be measured easily really isn?t important. This is blindness.
    The fourth step is to say that what can?t be easily measured really doesn?t exist. This is suicide.

    Charles Handy, ‘The Empty Raincoat’, page 219.