Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The English Empirical Tradition

Was watching The Sunday Politics discussion on the 'two child policy' a little while ago, and rather shockingly (but unsurprisingly) the person speaking for the Government, when pressed on the lack of evidence resorted to second-hand anecdote.  This sort of thing is ubiquitous in political discussion even on television and radio, where the single most common format for hashing out issues is to set two partisans against each other and allow them to make time-limited statements in opposition to one another. Outright lies often slip by, context is frequently missed and evidence entirely ignored.

At times I long for an Institute of Evidence (-based-policy) which could independently adduce arguments made implicitly or explicitly as part of policy positions, and aggregate and assess the state of available evidence for those arguments where possible while avoiding addressing the arguments themselves, except in so far as they make statements of pre-existing fact. Such an organisation would require strict rules and regular review by external experts in the field as to its methodology.

I'd also like a requirement that every election, every referendum and every vote of every kind should have relevant details (manifesto commitments, policy positions, argument summaries) presented on a website in some basic form and clearly signposted to voters via a web address, with links to third party (political or otherwise) sites for additional information.

I'd very much like it if there was an aggressive attempt to ensure that all voters have easy access to the minimum necessary information required to make a decision on all matters on which they might have to vote. And if all politicians had to be concerned about making false or deceptive claims regarding facts which can be clearly established by reliable evidence.

I'm not convinced it would be that difficult to do.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Out of all the terrible, appalling ways to generalise about humanity, there's just one false dichotomy I've always kept to: That there are those who, upon encountering something vast, extraordinary and impenetrable are made to feel small. And then there are others who feel the greater for it.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Crowdfunding - Its Many Unexpected Virtues

Many years ago there was a computer game, a quirky little number, that went by the name of Psychonauts. Psychonauts was well received by critics, and had an adoring fanbase, but it never actually sold that many units. It's not an unfamiliar story, of course. Sometimes it's just that quality and popularity don't quite go side by side, and sometimes it takes time for people to catch on to something new. We all remember Fox's cancellation of Firefly, and its subsequent massive DVD sales.

Well now a sequel to Psychonauts is being made, despite those early commercial hiccups, thanks to a kickstarter funding appeal. Kickstarter allows price discrimination, so that fans don't all pay the same price. Instead of paying say $40 per unit, some may pay $20, some $2,000. This allows consumers who really care about something to chip in and help get it made. It also changes the formula, from 'units sold' to 'general appreciation' of the product.

In the past this has often been achieved for games by collector editions and the like, but they were limited and offered very few tiers of discrimination. They also happened *after* the game was made, and so played no role in the decision to greenlight it. Kickstarters create serious long term accountability for companies, by making them reliant on goodwill, and they create a more dynamic relationship between supply and demand.

Crowdfunding offers up many questions: Will it create more or less of a buzz around products during development? Will there be more or less marketing money spent? And will it even begin to take over areas of the market? Could it even be extended to helping to fund newspapers?

Newspaper circulation has dipped year on year over the past few decades, it has mainly affected the tabloids while broadsheets with their low, if loyal base have suffered far less. Broadsheets however famously unprofitable, so the question arises, is that base loyal enough to pay more in exchange for certain types of additional content and possibly accountability? If there is a clear understanding that without extra help papers could not survive independently, it's not impossible. Perhaps new papers could even arise on the promise to adhere to certain values, or cover certain areas.

That's just one possibility, more obvious is the area of entertainment media: As camera equipment becomes cheaper, and editing software more readily available, will even film and TV become more susceptible to crowdfunding and even sourcing over time? With modding software independent games, such as the ever-famous DOTA (defence of the ancients, a game developed from blizzard's real time strategy games and their mod scene, particularly WC3),  have already begun to be develop with increasing frequency, many of them sold over steam for relatively low prices. Could this herald an explosion in content creation? World of Goo, another extremely well received game made by a tiny group had serious problems with piracy, but if it was funded before it was made, this problem might not exist.

(I've looked it up, and VAT is paid on donations made contingent on future benefits)

Sunday, 19 August 2012

There is a saying attributed to Lord Acton, that power corrupts and so, absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is also a phrase, perhaps less well known, which goes: "Power does not corrupt people, people corrupt power." Both ideas contain truth, but only the latter actually is true.

Power is a word whose penumbra extends both far and wide in our discourse and culture, but at its heart it simply refers to 'control'.  The reason that people fear the corrupting influence of power is simply that people are imperfect, and if you are to be suddenly elevated from the rank and file, and given power over legislature, or soldiers, or life and death itself, then you had better not be petty, or vengeful, or insecure. The allure of asserting your will, of showing your worth through displays of power, or of substantiating your own worldview is great indeed.

But power is also essential. It uplifts and elevates us, it frees us from stress and anxiety, and it can allow us to change the world around us for the better. And a great part of that control is self-control. Control over our lives. Many of our problems lie in the expectations, obstacles and problems in our lives which we feel powerless to change, and many of these find their source in us, in our personalities and personal histories. As we are able to assert ourselves constructively within our own lives, and to surrender our need to control the uncontrollable we become happier in return.

This is even more important as societies and communities. There has always been a tension within society between two theoretical extremes: The cold war M.A.D. , prisoner's dilemma sense of a world in which we lock our doors, shun strangers and apply as little effort for as much return as we can is one extreme, and in that extreme we know others can exploit us, so we behave strategically to improve our situation, and expect others to do the same. This idea feels quite grounded in reality to many of us, even if it is not a true description of the world we live in.

The other pole is that of an ideal world. In this world we surrender our power over each other, and trust. This trust is reciprocal, and for the most part we are able to live happier, healthier lives safe in the knowledge that we are not actually being exploited, and that on the whole other people don't seek to exploit us. When, inevitably someone does so, we move on and continue to trust, disregarding them as an exception. In effect, they are locked, but we remain open.

The tension between these two exists because both versions of society operate alongside each other and we have a clear sense of each, but neither dominates completely in almost any situation. We expect to be able to 'trust' friends or loved ones, when if we were rational, we would trust them only to behave according to their nature, and would calculate on the basis of our best assumptions. And we are wounded when this trust fails. We do need to trust. And we try to trust when we can.

Of course, even small communities contain struggles, as within any group, large or small, there exist differing personalities, some of whom are more assertive than others, and many of whom vary in their view of how things should be. We judge each other, we disagree with each other, and we sometimes resent each other. In the workplace or the marketplace we know the nature of our relationships are founded not on trust or duty or culture, but on money and productivity. When we see another employee do less work for equal pay, we are tempted to reduce our own productivity, just as we are when we feel we are unpaid or poorly treated. Often it is desperation that keeps us working, and not a desire to do the task at hand.

Even so acts of kindness and duty are everywhere, even in such environments, and in situations where a person works a job they really believe in, duty is far greater. Many a teacher gives their free time to help children, and many a doctor, lawyer or even politician may be found doing the same because it gives them a sense of purpose, and that too is control. They can give back, they can make it a slightly better world, they can control who they are and what that means. Not everyone is always so lucky.

Outside the workplace the citizen volunteers, he or she votes and engages in debates among friends about politics. Disenchantment with politics is not usually about bad politicians, though that is a part of it, but about the lack of power in politics. Politics has become couched in the language of that control which springs from insecurity, as politicians measure their every word against its inevitable reaction. As a result parties are seldom very different, as they strive to remain close to the top of the imagined normal distribution of opinion. Extremes will alienate most, but moderate views and incremental changes will alienate few, even if they lack inspiration.

Of course incremental changes do not necessarily work, and combined with shifting policy within and between different governments, they leave us with even less of a coherent understanding of what exactly government achieves, of what change it achieves. Or whether a policy is good or bad. It leaves us with tribal, kuhnian worldviews, arguing past each other without empiricism as umpire, or experience as guide. Ideology cannot survive in such a world, and the power of politics has diminished into that democratic inner conflict.

In communities we learn that disputes are inevitable, even among close friends and family. You can solve them through understandings and custom, where you each understand how far you can go, and don't push things too far, or you can solve it through agreed rules and external arbitration. The former relates back to those two extremes, it is a self-organising system where the lack of rules cause behaviour to be ordered according to assumptions and the patterns of history. If you distrust your neighbour you will take measures to avoid leaving yourself open to exploitation, if you trust them you will not need to.

The latter is procedural justice. In the common law system of England we understand the basic premise to be that a judge / judge and jury decide the outcome of cases, be they between two individuals, or the case against an individual on behalf of society in general, and that they agree to be bound by rules which are the same in all cases. In this way the law of evidence, stare decisis and so on, have grown up. These rules have two effects: First it is clear 'how' a dispute is to be settled, and parties can therefore judge what the result will be without having to seek arbitration, and secondly it is consistent, and as such it can be seen to be fair and impartial.

Procedural justice relies on many, many rules governing how decisions are made, who can make them and how they can be challenged. In a democracy such as the UK, the source of law is the 'democratic' legislature, whose elected representatives of the people as a whole come together to write the laws of the land. Democracy does not just write the rules of arbitration however, it is itself a system of bloodless arbitration. Democracy settles the dispute of which group gets to write the rules, and it does so according to who has the most votes, rather than the largest army, or the most money.

As a result democracy has produced stability, allowing different parties to abide by the system in the knowledge that they will rely on their adversaries similarly abiding in the future. When this reciprocity breaks down, as with the fillibuster in the US senate in recent years, it can produce a catastrophic failure of government.

However even at this level, custom and agreement exist as well as procedure. The British system features an unwritten constitution, and this gives special prominence to its 'constitutional conventions', gentleman's agreements regarding how powers will be exercised. It may help to draw a clear picture of how this works:

The courts decide the law in effect through judgments, as there is no written constitution the need for clarity requires them to construe the law as narrowly as possible. By convention parliament is supreme, and what it sets as law is interpretted literally by the courts as being the law, but in practice other conventions dictate that where absurdity or contradiction arise, the courts can broaden this reading.

The courts also by convention attempt to avoid politics, and seek to leave dramatic changes in the law to Parliament's decree. In turn, politicians by convention avoid discussing or passing judgment on the decisions of the court. The powers of parliament rest with a voting majority, and the Queen, who possesses the legal powers to govern will, nonetheless, by convention select an MP from the commons who holds 'the confidence of the house', which today means 'is the leader of the party with enough seats to form a government'.

By convention parliament must meet often enough to agree budgets, and by convention the Prime Minister, as he is today called, selects ministers for his cabinet, and they exercise the powers of the reigning monarch. By convention disagreements are restricted to the cabinet, and the cabinet members agree to present a united front, or else resign.

In this sense, politics is a community divided between the rules of procedure which dictate what they can and must do, and which ensure that we can trust in their actions, and the conventions and political realities which they attempt to faithfully carry out in the knowledge that if they fail to, that loss of faith will damage them the next time they are out of power. Moreover, if they cannot control themselves, the law will have to be changed. If the Queen had started to actually hand-pick judges, politicians would have had to act to withdraw that legal power, and either formalise the existing convention in law, or remove her entirely and change the constitution.

The penalties for breaking faith and violating custom are real, in communities as in politics. They breed distrust, alienation and revenge, but they also change the rules of the game and create new realities. Even so, it might be tempting to imagine that procedural rules seem more trustworthy and resilient than mere custom, but we must remember that custom emerges through agreement and there is no fallback position if agreement is lost. If you are playing monopoly and the person you're playing with abandons the rules, your only real option is to simply stop playing the game.

The problem with laws is that they crowd out customs. They remove trust from relationships because the reason they exist is in some part because trust has failed as a mechanism for redressing the problems. They are necessary-- the rule of law is undeniably a vital component of any successful and modern state-- but they are limiting.

Nor is it only the law which has this effect. The marketisation of invisible labour has the same essential effect. Historically multi-generational households were normal, with children taken care of by wives and parents, and the knowledge and support necessary for child-rearing passed down directly, even as the children supported their elders. In modern times work is the norm, and money is exchanged to pay for daycare, nurseries and care homes. This is not a condemnation, after all, a part of this is women's liberation, but it shows how systems can crowd out other behaviours.

We may find it is helpful to maintain structures based on trust and reciprocity, and to create new structures for the governance of our communities, which rely on far greater volunteerism. In this sense the 'big society' rhetoric of David Cameron, while rather empty, is at least in the right area. The difficulty with it is that it would inevitably mean fewer hours of paid work, and a greater demand for support from the state either directly or through legislation.

We need more power in our lives, not so we can abuse it-- we will find the equilibrium to allow us both dynamism and stability-- but so we can understand more intimately the difficulties of it. The costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs and priorities. And national politicians in turn need to be empowered to make real arguments on the basis of sincere beliefs, and to lay out transformative visions of how we can better order our society.

It is only through finding our place within the power struggles of society that we can with renewed confidence and therefore optimism, make our slow progress towards a better world. And slow progress will be enough, simply because it will be progress we can believe in.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Thoughts on Thought, or The Audacity of Blog Tangents

This post is going to be a bit unusual for me of late, so much so that I've created a whole new blog for it. It will be nearly entirely unrelated to politics. That is not to say that its contents, in so far as they may be held to be a useful guide to action or analysis, have nothing to say about policy, but policy is not the topic. Further, and this is extremely important if I am to write anything at all, while you may assume this of blogs generally, I must be explicit in saying I am not writing in my sphere of expertise on this topic. Grains of salt may spare hearts here.

Paradigms of Learning

This post is about the mind. In simple terms it may be said that there are three broad stages to learning. Passive, positive and negative. Passive learning is on the whole little more than ideative osmosis, the acquiring of knowledge through coming into contact with it, while growing up, through your immediate cultural and social surroundings, and yes even in the occasional lesson. This kind of learning is effectively universal, and while it is not really entirely passive it is often comparatively unreflective.

The second, being positive, is more inquisitive and analytical in character. We seek out new information (though artifacts of mental fallacy such as the confirmation bias incline us in the *type* of information we seek, and how we use it), consider it, use it as a foundation for further thoughts, ideas and knowledge. We might almost call this constructive knowledge, but for sound linguistic reasons we should shy away from the word ‘construe’. Most everyone engages in it, but to different degrees. It may imply an element of learned and internalised analytical skill.

Finally there is negative learning. This is deconstructive learning, socratic analysis. Here we examine all the facts we never questioned, all the axioms which lay at the root of our analysis, but whose provenance may have been questionable. This is also where we develop far more metacognitive activity, internalising processes and tendencies which lead us to instinctively question our own assumptions and thoughts. It would be faulty to call this purely socratic, however, as we must rely in some part on the empirical and scientific evidence acquired by others, such as that relating to human irrationality, in engineering our awareness of our own motives and actions.

We could, again simplifying, further divide into ‘scientific’ and ‘artistic’ methods. These are borrowed terms, and in this context by scientific I mean analytical, logical, a process which produces a single logical outcome and is repeatable. By artistic I mean a mental configuration which, being unique to that person, produces through the same essential process an endless variety of different outcomes. In this sense, there are ways of thinking intended to anchor ideation to concrete and axiomatic logic, and although the two frameworks cannot be separated meaningfully, it is here that we most associate negative learning with constructive progress.

Development and Paths Not Taken

We must consider that our minds contain positive and negative feedbacks, much like most emergent systems. An example I have already given above, that of the confirmation bias. Humans have a desire to affirm our existing beliefs, and this extends to justifying our own previous actions and behaviour. This is a negative feedback, it opposes the direction of change. It causes us to be more likely to seek out, remember and employ arguments and information which support our existing beliefs and ideas. Other such examples can be found readily in the human tendency towards tribalism and in our egocentric capacity to falsely generalise our experience to the world at large.

As a result of these feedbacks, by and large, without a lot of effort we tend to calcify over time as we develop identity, positions and ideas and to take sides. We also tend to stick by old defence mechanisms, and to rely on emotional tactics and impulses learned throughout childhood and adolescence.

For me, entirely as a side-note, this is much of why I believe that the only true ‘freedom’ in a deterministic world is our capacity to attempt to understand and shape our development, much as we have sought to understand and reshape nature. Hume said freedom and determinism are not incompatible, determinism  exists in the operation of freedom precisely because in order for us to make choices that are truly ours, we must have a character from which such choices spring. It is in the shaping of our character we liberate ourselves--not from determinism, but from passivity--, and by taking pride in the work of change, and in facing our own inner demons come to find greater solace in ourselves.

During our childhood, however, the nature of the brain ensures that use promotes development. In adulthood we tend to only use those skills which are germane to our way of life, to our work and our habits. In childhood however we are forever pushed from one thing to another, and encouraged to believe in what may well be, and likely are false dichotomies of developmental understanding. Certainly when I grew up there was a sense that you were either ‘artsy’ or more logical. Such a distinction might have seemed strange to those erudite figures of the Age of Enlightenment, but the mere possibility of a child feeling it is true could very well lead them to avoid something that is initially difficult, to perhaps avoid art or maths, believing it simply isn’t their thing, and in the process by avoidance and discomfort, failing to develop it as sublimely as others.

This can in turn lead to path dependence in learning, where a child loathes a particular topic, avoiding it at all costs, daydreaming in that class, and inflating artificially in their mind the horrors of studying it. They might have been quite good at it, and have simply lacked confidence-- they might not have been. The result is the same: we may never know.


The paths which the development of an individual intellect must take are bound to be complex. Even in my ignorance I will not dare to generalise from the specifics I have outlined. Still, it is worth bearing in mind that it can be overly dangerous to categorise people by intellectual and academic outcomes when we cannot know what other developmental paths they could have taken-- might yet take. The process of learning as an adult is very much about unlearning false axioms, foolish ideas and in some part correcting the mistakes adults mapped onto us when we were still passive victims of their instruction. Our attempts to instruct children in turn must bear in mind the reality that the individual human mind is a complex system, just as are the societies which spring from them.

The Shape of Things to Come

It may seem absurd that I outlined so-called scientific and artistic frames of mind earlier, only to rebuke the division later. It strikes me however that our capacity to shape our own development is the source of much individual artistic greatness. Art is not some pure, feral instinct given to us from birth, nor is it delivered in discrete packages by a Muse when it serves its caprice to do so. An author, an actor or a painter trains rigorously and develops not only their art in abstract, but their mind and their self as a path to producing many different beautiful and diverse outcomes from a single mind. Creativity is not identical to the rigour of science, but creativity has been critical to the ideas which allowed science to flourish. The grand theories and leaps of imagination which led to experimental designs and affirmation or contradiction. Likewise an actor today might be trained on the basis of the science of Stanislavski or Brecht, incorporating processes of understanding and operating from the (relative) ancients without compromising their own unique character.

Life is a constant peril of limitations to us, and a constant bounty of beautiful new ideas and wondrous new experiences. Unlearning is as liberating as learning is empowering, and these things I commit to cyber-paper as the basis for a belief that we all have untapped potential, and our great promise, our great joy and hope lies in not consigning our children to the lens through which we understood our own learning as babes.