Sunday, 29 March 2015

Britain loses all sense of proportion

To judge by the endless pieces of merchandise plastered with the slogan "Keep calm and carry on" you'd think we Brits were calm, unflappable and quietly got on with things, when more excitable foreigners would be losing their heads, running around, shouting and gesticulating. The BBC Radio 4 news headlines this morning told a rather-less self-flattering story.

According to our national broadcasting organisation, three of the four most headline-worthy things that happened in the world today related to British people indulging in a screaming orgy of over-reaction.

The top headline involved some individual who has apparently e-mailed a death threat to the BBC's director general because the latter has failed to renew the contract of somebody who presents a popular programme about cars. Not only does the so-far unidentified e-mailer need to get out more, but the idea of this being a top news story, when , in all probability, the "death threat" is just some sad twit mouthing off under the cover of anonymity, rather than one of Jeremy's Jihadis hatching a serious plan to behead Tony Hall for insulting to the Prophet Clarkson (peace be upon him). Sure enough, the headline-grabbing story seems to have first been blurted out by UK Panic Central, the Mail on Sunday.

Then there's the calm, measured announcement by a group of head teachers in Cheshire that they will report parents to the authorities for neglect if they allow their children to play computer games rated for over-18s.

And Rob Wainwright of Europol, hyperventilating because some devices allow users to encrypt data, potentially allowing members of extreme groups like Jeremy Clarkson's Barmy Army to  radicalise or groom new recruits, who might end up writing angry e-mails to the BBC's director general. The horror!

I propose that Great Britain should henceforth be re-named The Kingdom of Chicken Little and that anybody caught buying a poster or piece of merchandise bearing the words "Keep calm and carry on" should be reported to the authorities and prosecuted for libellously misrepresenting The Land of the Scared and of The Home of the Wuss.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The indifferent mind of God

It was interesting to see how the recent Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything tackled the most famous quote from A Brief History of Time ('If we do discover a theory of would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God'). In the film, the reference to God came across as a concession by Hawking to the Anglican faith of his then wife, Jane.

But here's what Hawking himself actually said about that 'mind of God' phrase; 'What I meant by "we would know the mind of God" is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn't. I'm an atheist.'

Well, as somebody once said, that just about wraps it up for God. What is interesting, though, is the way that Hawking's disciplines of the physical sciences and mathematics do get us closer to something god-like than anything else I can think of. And you don't have to be a Stephen Hawking-level cleverstick to see something akin to 'the mind of God' implicit in the most basic mathematical concepts.

Take Orwell: 'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.' Although by the end of 1984 Winston Smith is so broken down by the system that when his interrogator holds up four fingers he can make himself see five, even the Party's terrifying power to create its own reality is still subjective.

Even if the whole population of Oceania was to be intimidated or indoctrinated into subjectively believing that two plus two equalled five, there would still be higher truths, omnipotent objective realities, including two plus two actually adding up to four and there'd be nothing that even the most powerful worldly authority you could imagine could do to alter these sort of realities.

In the real world, the residents of Indiana discovered this in 1897:
In 1894, Indiana physician and amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin (ca. 1825–1902) believed that he had discovered a correct way of squaring the circle. He proposed a bill to Indiana Representative Taylor I. Record, which Record introduced in the House under the long title "A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897"
In the event, the bill (which would have implied that, in Indiana at least, pi would henceforth have the nice, round value of 3.2, instead of being one of those pesky irrational numbers with an infinite number of digits after the decimal point), 'was nearly passed, but opinion changed when one senator observed that the General Assembly lacked the power to define mathematical truth.'

Mmm ... the source of ultimate truth, a higher authority, which controls the universe, immaterial, yet all-powerful, infinite and ultimately unknowable (as in the case of pi), the source of infallible truths to which mere mortal humans can only submit and which they'd be foolish to reject. Does that remind you of anybody? In that sense, even a mathematical ignoramus like me can see how underlying mathematical truths and constants have a lot in common with what religious folk say about God, or whatever spiritual reality they happen to believe in.

Still, however god-like these characteristics are, they don't quite add up to God, at least in any sense that I understand the word (although, heaven knows, there are more than enough of senses of the word).For a start, God is traditionally supposed to be a sentient being, not just a set of underlying constants, however all-powerful. Although, come to think of it, at least one famous scientist, science populariser and science fiction author has played with the idea of a mathematical constant being the 'signature' of a god-like higher intelligence, but that was a work of fiction and any resemblance to real deities, living or dead was purely coincidental.

And for seconds, most believers seem to believe in a moral being who wants you to do certain things and not to do others (although you have the free will to ignore His wishes at your peril):
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Romans 13:9.

Unlike the mathematical rules of the universe, these moral ones aren't inescapable - you can't change the value of pi, but you can flout any of the Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots He came up with and some humans have been energetically flouting His rules for thousands of years. Even moral precepts as basic as 'Thou shat not kill', which goes back to Moses and Exodus. And not only have people been breaking these rules in a way they can't break the inescapable dictates of mathematical reality, but the rules themselves have none of the elegant consistency of underlying reality.

The injunction not to kill, for example, gets waived, the majority of people think, rightly, in hard cases (a motorist smashing into a single motorcyclist head-on, when an avoiding swerve would mow down twenty people in a bus queue, killing an armed maniac who is preparing to murder innocents, or soldiers defending against an invading army) and even the Bible implies that the not killing thing is more of a context-dependent suggestion than a rule as such (it doesn't seem to have applied to the Chosen People's, sometimes genocidal, wars of conquest, nor were the faithful expected to refrain from killing those who'd made sacrifices to any god but the true God, or the worshippers of Baal, or false prophets, or necromancers, or blasphemers, or adulteresses, etc, etc).

And, unlike mathematical reality, such moral laws are changeable over time (whatever the Old Testament says about punishment, most real churches these days have harmless things like flower-arranging rotas, not stoning-of-adulteresses rotas like the ones Terry Pratchett's fundamentalist Church of Om organises in his novel Small Gods).

In short, the moral rules have none of the inescapable nature of the mathematical ones. Rather than being inhumanly universal, they bear all the hallmarks of the messy, fallible, exception-laden, frequently-broken, sometimes inconsistent, changeable rules that humans make when trying to govern themselves.

Yes, there is a higher power to which humans must submit - it's called reality and it won't change to accommodate our whims. But that level of omnipotent, objective reality seems to be non-moral and, as far as anyone knows, it's not sentient. When it comes to the messy, complicated business of human morality, fairness and justice, these things have none of the universal, unchangeable qualities of underlying reality, but seems to be changeable, contingent, negotiable, subject to power relations, and fashion. Just what you'd expect, in fact from something created by humans.

If you want to call the universal, inescapable rules to which we must all submit "God", then it seems to me that God cares a lot about things like the sum of two plus two, or inviolably irrational numbers, or the impossibility of four-sided triangles, but is pretty much indifferent to whether we keep the sabbath holy, eat fish on Friday, dress modestly, shun or enjoy sexual relations with people of the same gender, make graven images, believe in Him (Her? It?), commit adultery, go around killing one another, or whatever.

That sort of stuff, He/She/It apparently leaves for mere mortals to work out for themselves as best they can.

Innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground

It's not very rare to read an article bemoaning the inexorable rise of ugly, opaque managerialist jargon. It's far rarer to come across an attempt to analyse and quantify this process, so kudos to Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre for their quantitative linguistic analysis of World Bank reports.

It might sound like dry stuff, but this pairing of two extracts from reports published fifty years apart shows how dramatically the managerialist house style has moved away from imparting concrete information:
Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:
The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.
And here is the Report from half a century later, in 2008:
Levelling the playing field on global issues
Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.
It’s almost another language, in both semantics and grammar. The key discontinuity, as we shall see, falls mostly between the first three decades and the last two, the turn of the 1990s, when the style of the Reports becomes much more codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language. 
'Codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language', is how academics might describe the 2008 report. 'What does that even mean?' is what a non-academic might say.

Moretti and Pestre put quite a bit of meat on the bones in Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports, in The New Left Review.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Poor Grant Shapps

I never thought I'd say it, but I'm almost* sorry for Michael Green The Right Honourable Grant Shapps MP. In a Guardian article about Lynton Crosby pulling out of a public Q and A session (presumably due to recent Conservative PR wobbles)  Green Shapps gets name-checked thusly:
The party’s chairman, Grant Shapps, has also been under pressure after he admitted having been wrong to deny ever having a second job when he had in fact posed as a millionaire get-rich-quick guru under another name while an MP. 
Think of all the efforts the Conservatives have made to convince us that they're definitely not a party run by millionaires and bankrolled by their millionaire friends/donors/lobbyists. They even banned champagne, imposed a low-key dress code and made the guest list secret when they had their big fund-raising bash last summer.

Now, just when they think they might have convinced us that they're ordinary folk, rather than a bunch of over-privileged, out-of-touch champagne-guzzlers, their party chairman gets it in the neck for apparently** not being a millionaire.

Sometimes you just can't win.

*but not quite, obviously.

**I have no idea of Green's Shapps' actual net worth, but 'posed as a millionaire' implies that he's not one. For all I know he might be worth a million plus and might even be able to sue the Graun for libel over that that 'posed as.' But given the Conservatives' desperate attempts to lose their moneybags image and Shapps' own lack of enthusiasm for resurrecting his alter ego, I doubt whether he'll try.

Friday, 20 March 2015

As through a glass, darkly

Well, the eclipse has now swept over Europe and there's been nothing on the one o'clock news about massive power outages and general chaos* as the continent's partly-solar-fed power grids fail to cope with this entirely predictable event. Goodness me, I was relieved (not really)!

If there really were people out there who were reduced to a state of panic, I guess the biggest threat to the grid would come shortly after local maximum coverage, when any panicky pants who'd been fearing the coming near-dusk experience all started breathing normally again and switched on their kettles to brew themselves a calming decaffeinated beverage.

Fortunately, it was sunny here at around 9.35 (well, the sun was shining through a very light haze) and I did manage to stop what I was doing for a few minutes and witness the drop in light levels. It wasn't that dramatic, but you could tell that something was subtly different. The sun was high and the visible bit was still too bright to look at, but the light levels felt more like the immediate post-dawn or pre-dusk than half past nine on a bright equinoctial morning.

More than anything else, being outside at the height of the eclipse felt like looking out on a bright spring day from inside a building with tinted glass windows. Plus a slight drop in temperature. Casualties are thought to be light to non-existent, thank Sol Invictus.

*I'll update this post, should news of any actual disruption come in, but don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Good news, plain and simple

For somebody who thinks that Michael Green's Grant Shapps' extra-parliamentary income stream (web scraping) was less morally dubious than Kenneth Clarke's (tobacco), today is a good news day:
Plain packaging for cigarettes has been given the go-ahead after the plans were approved in the House of Lords. Peers backed the plans without a vote after MPs voted in favour last week.
The decision itself is good. The wider precedent it sets is even better:
That trademark registrations do not offer a right to use the sign also lends weight to the conclusion that plain packaging does not constitute a de facto expropriation of tobacco brands and does not expose the countries which adopt this measure (such as England, Australia and Ireland) to the risk of having to pay damages in compensation to tobacco producers under the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (which protect, among other fundamental rights, the right to property).
There are good reasons to think that this measure will work, which is probably why the industry has been fighting so hard against it.

As far as I'm concerned, a simple good news story.

If we ever had a more rational drugs policy, it might get a lot more complicated than that. Policy makers would have to think a lot harder about when the level of harm is sufficient to warrant restricting the right to advertise a legal product.

As a study in the Lancet pointed out, there is good reason to think that some substances which are currently illegal (e.g. ecstasy) are less harmful than the legal duo of alcohol and tobacco. Would you still consider some substances (e.g. heroin) so harmful that they should stay banned? At what level of harm would you start to restrict advertising (you might be able to make a perfectly rational case for removing branding from, say, alcohol bottles, but letting people buy khat in branded packets, as opposed to banning the latter, as we do at the moment)?

But, for the foreseeable future, inertia and ignorance will probably see to it that's what's banned stays banned and what's legal stays legal, subject to a few tweaks. And this is a tweak in the right direction. It means fewer hearts stopping prematurely, fewer tumours needing to be cut from living flesh, fewer people struggling for breath, fewer people being orphaned, or widowed, or losing a friend, or sibling in what should be the prime of life.

The harm done makes Michael Green's Grant Shapps' profitable sideline of releasing virtual parasites into Google's advertising ecosystem sound trivial in comparison. Green Shapps might be the sort of spivvy chancer who probably ought to have "would you have bought a used car from this man?" chiseled into his tombstone as an epitaph, when his time comes, but compared with that cheery, solid, dependable old tobacco shill Ken Clarke, he's no worse than a naughty boy caught scrumping apples.

As a personality, I still quite like Kenneth Clarke. Somebody (I think it was Simon Hoggart) once said that he was the one senior Tory who gave a convincing impression of being a fully paid-up member of the human race and I know what he meant. He was clearly a rounded personality with interests outside politics (and not just the sort you had to declare). He was calm and unflappable. He seemed to say what he thought, rather than channelling the usual on-message unspeak and, if attacked, calmly told you why he thought his opponent was talking nonsense, rather than squirting the random spray of bluster, ad hominem, or outraged victimhood exuded by lesser politicians under pressure. Green Shapps comes across as a pipsqueak in comparison.

But for all that, by their fruits ye shall know them. One of Kevin Spacey's best lines in The Usual Suspects was 'The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.' His second greatest trick was getting people to like him despite themselves.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Damning Grant Shapps with faint praise

In 2012, Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps denied working as a web marketer under the pseudonym "Michael Green" whilst being a Member of Parliament. In November last year he used legal threats to make a constituent withdraw a Facebook post, which had alleged that Shapps was doing business under the name "Michael Green" at the same time as being an MP. Now he's been forced to admit that he was doing exactly that.

It's not the general principle of an MP having an outside job, but the specific nature of the job, that matters here. Here's a description of the Trafficpaymaster product Michael Green Grant Shapps was touting:
The ‘Trafficpaymaster’ web site ... provides software which borrows from other sites and “re writes” it automatically for you. You can then generate income via Google’s ‘Adwords’. That was until there was some bad publicity in the national press about this product. Google then took action and removed all ‘Trafficpaymaster’ pages from search results. In short, the site provides industrial-scale plagiarism of other people’s original content and makes it look like your own.
Or 'HowToCrop’, which Green Shapps punted thusly:
'You could spend less than 20 minutes at your computer and turn out a newsletter that would simply stun your friends and colleagues with impact and quality. Not only is using our exclusive Copyright Free Article Directory as easy as copying-and-pasting, but we also explicitly allow you to claim every article as your own!'
So the author of the classily-titled self-help business guide Stinking Rich 3 was flogging a product that claimed to allow punters to make money by mooching off other people's content without creating* any good or service of value to anybody else.

None of it sounds good, but I suppose I can imagine worse outside interests.

In fact, I don't have to imagine. The formerly Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke, who's been Chancellor and Health Secretary (among many other things) had outside interests which included years sitting on the board of British American Tobacco, when he wasn't trying to convince parliament that BAT were innocent of tobacco smuggling, or trying to pour scorn on the idea of plain packaging for cigarette packets. Far from having to dismiss this as an 'old story', or hide behind a pseudonym, Clarke was quite open and ended his long career as a respected elder statesman.

At least web scraping, unlike tobacco, never actually killed anybody.
You, too, could get stinking rich with this amazingly addictive product that kills one user every 6 seconds!!!

*I originally wrote 'providing', but 'creating' would be more accurate - somebody might have used, say, HowToCrop to provide somebody else with content (say a newsletter that would 'simply stun your friends and colleagues with impact an quality') created by a third party whose content had been scraped.