Friday, 22 May 2015

Grand astrological prediction for 2065

According to the Telegraph 'The Liberal Democrats will be out of office for fifty years, grandees fear, after the parliamentary party was all but wiped out in “cruel and punishing night”'. I'm sure they have been wiped out for now and for the foreseeable future, but fifty years isn't the foreseeable future, unless you're Nostradamus (and not even then, because his "predictions" are completely worthless).

Imagine a 'grandee' from 1965 trying to make a firm prediction about what the next half century would hold for any given political party, based on contemporary events. It was a different world back then:
For all I know the average UK citizen of 2065 won't have a clue what a Lib Dem was (assuming there's still a UK in 2065), but the important words here are 'For all I know.' I have no spooky knowledge of what this country - if it still exists - will look like in 50 years, or whether any existing political party will be either prospering, declining, changed beyond recognition, or consigned to the history books by then. And neither does anybody else, even people grand enough to be called 'grandees.'

But never mind the grandees - the article also makes a claim about William Hague having a crystal ball that's proved accurate over a more plausible time period:
William Hague had foreseen the rout. On completing the coalition negotiations in 2010, he is said to have told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just destroyed the Liberals.”
What interests me here isn't the alleged prediction of a reasonably foreseeable outcome ('The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep', as someone once said), but the implication that destroying the Lib Dems was always part of a thought-out Conservative strategy, rather than just being a byproduct of the sort of power imbalances which generally stop seven-stone weaklings prevailing against 800-pound gorillas. Hague's quote sounds too apocryphal to clear that one up, though.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

I'm Mexico's idea of paradise

Beep goes the phone. 'You're Mexico's idea of paradise' says the text. I'm temporarily lost for words - should I reply:
a. 'Oh, Mexico - I never knew you felt that way.'
b. 'I see you have an opening for a functionally literate copywriter - where do I send my CV?'
c. say nothing and decide that there's little point upgrading to a smartphone when the incoming messages are still dumber than my ten-year-old Nokia?

Monday, 18 May 2015

Answer of the day (a bus-load of nuns, redux)

Q: 'Why are more women choosing to become nuns? ... So what has been happening in Britain, and what makes women in the modern world choose to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience?'

A: 'One reason may be the concerted effort by the Catholic Church here in recent years to demystify what nuns do, and to explain what life in monastic orders actually means.' A concerted effort which has resulted in only 45 women in the whole of England and Wales taking vows last year.

In other words, probably a tiny fraction of the number of people who choose to opt out of mainstream society via women’s co-ops, craft villages, communes, communities for Buddhists, or adherents of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or Christian pacifism, or centres devoted to sustainable living, self-sufficiency and general eco-warriordom, communities of artists, hippies, New Age-y folk and so on.

What evidence do I have for this? Well, the web site Diggers and Dreamers lists over 140 "intentional communities" across the UK. And that's just the communities listed in one directory - given the nature of these things there must be quite a few idiosyncratic experiments in communal living going on that never make it onto anything as official as a directory.

It doesn't add up to a mass movement, but I bet it adds up to more than 45 recruits a year for the whole of England and Wales.

In fact, it doesn't even add up to a movement - there's not much common ground between anarcho-syndicalists, evangelists for Krishna consciousness and people trying to set up Rudolf Steiner Schools - which is why a well-funded hierarchical organisation with centralised records and a slick public relations arm can puff a pitiful take-up figure of 45 recruits a year into looking like some sort of meaningful social trend whilst the, probably larger, number of people defecting from mainstream society into diverse sorts of intentional communities doesn't generate any such headlines.

Look out for similar "renewal of faith" hype from the Church of England, as it staunches its long-term vicar hemorrhage with massive wads of cash from its property-bubble-pumped investment portfolio:
The Church of England’s investment portfolio is to spend £100m on a huge expansion of the clergy as booming property values pushed it to over £6.7bn....

...The dramatic rebound from the lows of 2008 when the Church was forced to raise the retirement age for the clergy has facilitated the “over-distribution” to allow the church to “dig in” against decline and increase numbers by up to 50 per cent.

Property was the leading component of last year’s stellar return and investments totalled just under £2bn at the end of 2014, nearly 30 per cent of the portfolio. The average return in 2014 was 27 per cent, but only 2 per cent of that came from rental income. 
The Indy

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Obeying the law is no defence

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.
David Cameron (via Chris Bertram / the Graun)

If he thinks that we can't go on like this, how would he like things to be? Something like this, I guess:
Therefore we will become an actively intolerant society, interfering in the lives of law-abiding citizens whenever we see fit.
I've never had any time for Cameron's views on political economy, but at least I gave him credit for the reasonable belief that the state shouldn't interfere in the lives of law-abiding citizens who aren't causing harm and, furthermore, that the laws themselves should be changed when they limit people's freedom for no coherent reason.

I'm sure he'd say that the people on his little list are causing harm. If that's really the case, he should do what he did with equal marriage - change the law. If he could make the case that same-sex marriage harmed nobody, so the law had no business interfering with it, he should be able to do the converse and put forward a reasoned argument that specific activity x, which is currently legal, causes harm, so it's the law's business to control it.

Others might, or might not, agree that activity x should be banned, but at least the issues could be debated openly and the rules made clear. Instead, Cameron seems to be suggesting a system where obeying the law of the land is no defence - so long as somebody in authority doesn't like the look of you, you can be spied on, detained, censored, "disrupted" or otherwise interfered with, with impunity.

Dave must be suffering from a severe attack of cognitive dissonance, trying to square the idea of Conservative respect for individual liberty and the rule of law with this kind of arbitrary, statist authoritarianism. But that's nothing to the amount of doublethink it'll take for our new justice secretary get behind the Conservative project to extend the state's coercive powers, unchecked by reference to anything as fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned as the rule of law, after his high-profile campaign, as education secretary, to instill respect for our ancient liberties in every schoolchild:
The rule of law is what Conservatives in particular were brought up to believe in, a bit of the imperial history (Magna Carta, Blackstone, Dicey; etc) that Michael Gove will soon be making all little Englanders learn by rote.
Now children, I want to hear all of you recite clause 29 of  Magna Carta: 'No Freeman* shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.'

*Yes, I know it's sexist - don't blame me, blame the 13th Century.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

You have control... they say on the flight deck. Which is where behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton identified an early iteration of behavioural economics:
During that era [World War II], the authors recount, the United States military experienced an inordinate number of “wheels-up” crashes; after planes had landed, pilots would inexplicably retract the wheels instead of the wing flaps, sending the planes crashing to the runways on their bellies. At first, the blame fell squarely on the pilots, the authors explain: why were they so careless? Were they fatigued? But when the military began to look more closely, they realized the problem was limited to two particular plane models: B-17s and B-25s. Instead of looking inside the heads of the pilots,* Mullainathan and Shafir write, the military looked inside the cockpits of those specific planes; there investigators discovered that the wheel controls and flap controls were placed right next to each other and looked nearly identical—a design specific only to the crashing planes. After identifying the problem and implementing a minor change in design (a small rubber wheel was placed on the end of the landing-gear lever), the number of wheels-up crashes declined.
It's a telling example, because it seems to me to run counter to the frequent misapplication of behavioural economics by bodies like the British Government's infamous, now semi-privatised, 'nudge unit', where Mullainathan himself ended up working.

In providing an ergonomic fix to the wheels-up landing problem, the military looked at the system, found out what was sabotaging people's attempts to do what they needed to do, then made the system better.** The military weren't trying to mess with the pilots' heads. Before and after the fix, the pilots were trying to do the same thing - land the damn thing with the wheels down - and they had autonomy in consciously using their skill and judgement to try to do exactly that (with more success, once the bug in the system had been partly rectified).

But, somehow, the current post-democratic fad for "nudging" seems to have left the idea of autonomy behind in favour of the managerialist assumption that you're not just fixing a broken system in order to help grown-ups to do what they need to do more successfully, but cleverly using subliminal nudges to reprogramme those dumb ordinary people into unconsciously do the right thing (as defined by some unelected, unnamed technocrat, who always knows best and never makes suboptimal decisions).

And once the unaccountable technocrats start thinking of the nudgees as dehumanised experimental subjects, rather than people with agency, sure enough, they start abusing the powerless, as they did with those fake psychometric tests they were wasting jobseekers' time with a couple of years ago.

You can't fool all of the people all of the time, but in these days of PR, think tanks and nudge, it's fashionable to suppose that you can do exactly that, and claim that you're doing the people you're trying to fool a big favour.

*My emphasis.

**Within the practical constraint of not being able to stop production and redesign the cockpit from scratch so those two controls were no longer adjacent and nearly identical.

An ovation for Nigel

Like Ceres, the general election result had a few small, bright spots, chief among these being Nigel Farage going through with his promise to resign if not elected. So I was disappointed and unimpressed to see him reneging on his promise at the first possible opportunity (resigning on a Friday and coming back the next Monday may technically count as resigning, but only in the idiosyncratic sense that Bill Clinton 'did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinski').

This bright spot has shrunk but it hasn't disappeared altogether. When Farage resigned, I was in the Milton Keynes football stadium, helping with the count for the local* elections. At the stadium, they had big screens with the BBC news coverage of the breaking general election results.

Mostly, people got on with what they were doing and kept any thoughts about the results to themselves. But when the news came in that Farage had quit, most people stopped for a moment and spontaneous applause echoed round the huge room. It did my heart good to know that it wasn't just me, my friends,  the 'biased' audience in that TV debate and the other inhabitants of my personal filter bubble who were unimpressed by the Scapegoat-Finder General's 'I'm just a straight-talking bloke, not one of those two-faced politicians' sales pitch.

Now that he's  publicly blown his sales patter by squirming out of his most public promise, I'm hoping that even more people will be clapping the next time he takes a fall.

So what are you going to promise us next, Weasel Boy? Do tell.

*As I'd been poll clerking from 7am to 10pm the previous day, I was up for helping to count the locals for which started at 9.30am on Friday, but not the general election results, which were being totted up from shortly after the close of polling until what-bloody-time-do-you-call-this? in the morning.