Friday, November 21, 2014

What Was She Thinking?

When @emilythornberry MP saw a house draped with the flag of St George, white van parked outside, she couldn't resist tweeting a picture to her followers back in her constituency.

Picture of Emily Thornberry tweet

Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, which, as the Guardian constituency profile acidly remarks, "is routinely maligned as the natural habitat of the hypocritical, well-off, ostensibly liberal chattering classes". Perhaps as a result of this unfortunate stereotype her innocent action was widely interpreted as a snobbish reference, from a member of the North London urban elite, to the working class voters of Rochester, and she was forced to resign her position in the Shadow Cabinet.

But her constituency isn't homogeneously affluent, and she tweeted a photo of herself earlier this week, happily delivering leaflets in a housing estate. So not snobbery exactly.

So what motivated her to post the Rochester tweet in the first place, and who was its intended audience? It is now common for people to post pictures from their travels onto Facebook and Twitter, as a modern equivalent of the postcard home. So Emily Thornberry's tweet from Rochester makes it seem as if she regarded her visit to Rochester as a kind of rustication (or missus ad rusticos).

To the extent that her thoughts and tweets are directed at the people back home in North London, she is keeping the voters of Rochester at arm's length. As far as I can see, she doesn't appear in any of the photos she tweeted from Rochester, even as a tourist. Like many tourists, her tweets often lack explicit meaning, which then prompts people to project their own interpretation onto the real purpose of her communication.

Further insight into her personality can be inferred from her having retweeted a post from Buzzfeed called 27 Reasons To Fall In Love With A Londoner, which starts with the assertion that Londoners are the coolest people in the country. Yes indeed, Lady Thornberry, yes indeed.

Adam Donald, Emily Thornberry: How one tweet led to her resignation (BBC News 21 November 2014)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Forgotten Tricks

Old typewriters didn't have an exclamation mark key. Those accustomed to modern word processors might infer that people didn't use the exclamation mark. @newstypewriter even suggests that this forced writers to "convey excitement by writing artful sentences".

But if you ever used an old-fashioned typewriter, you should remember the workaround - single quote, backspace, point. Numerous people leaped onto Twitter to point out this error.

Which raises the question - how do tricks like this get erased from the collective memory? 

Another forgotten trick is the fade-out at the end of a pop single. This was sometimes used to conceal flaws in the recording, but was sometimes used as an artistic device. Indeed, the fade-out at the end of the Beatles' Day in the Life was engineered to last for an unnaturally long period. Nowadays, the fade-out isn't thought to suit the way music is consumed, and is typically only used for retro pieces such as Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … (Slate, 14 Sept 2014)

Obviously our sense of the possible is influenced by present and future technology, but it is also influenced by our experience of past as well as present technology. New technology occasionally allows people to do things they didn't know they wanted to do, but it often merely finds more streamlined ways of doing things that people could already do if they were sufficiently determined and ingenious. Look at Delia Derbyshire and Karlheinz Stockhausen, synthesizing highly original music without the aid of commercial synthesizers. Whereas if you use the same tools as everyone else, you may struggle to produce music that doesn't sound the same.

Related posts

Art and the Enterprise (March 2006)
Karlheinz Stockhausen (December 2007)

Saturday, September 06, 2014

School Uniform

#wrongtrousers @HeatonManor, a state school in Newcastle, has attracted opprobrium for putting over fifty children into detention for wearing the "wrong trousers".

It seems that the school had issued new school uniform guidelines, specifying "tailored" trousers, which many parents had misunderstood or ignored. It appears that the school interpreted these guidelines as banning tight or drainpipe trousers, and was zealous in enforcing this interpretation. Clearly there is a question here of language and class: how many parents appreciated the teachers' notion of tailoring?

If you look at the dictionary definition of tailoring, you might imagine that it meant "made-to-measure" rather than "off-the-peg". Many decades ago when I was at school, there were a few boys with wealthy parents, who had their school uniform made to measure. The rest of us had much cheaper off-the-peg clothes, and everyone could see the difference. This of course undermined one of the alleged purposes of uniform, which is to conceal differences of wealth and social background.

What is the real purpose of school uniform? Sometimes it seems that the real purpose is to prevent children from ever wearing anything fashionable. In the early 1970s, school rules prevented boys having long hair, but very short hair was fine. Then in the mid 1970s, school rules were reinterpreted or changed to ban skinheads. Obviously fashions change faster than the schools can reissue the rules.

Another alleged purpose of school uniform in state schools is to ape private schools. Many comments on this incident have accused the school authorities of behaving like dictators: imposing controls on something that is irrelevant to education, and then imposing sanctions that interfere with education. This is a very old debate, and is certainly not unique to Heaton Manor.

Meanwhile, as @MagNews comments, no reference as to affordability! Some families try to get by with one set of clothes, and may have difficulties when these need washing, while others can afford more than one set. Families typically buy new or second-hand uniforms before the start of the school year, and it's not easy to rush out and buy more clothes because the teachers don't like the first lot.

Finally, let's look at the Heaton Manor guiding principles (retrieved 6 September 2014). These include

  • Courtesy, self-discipline and respect for others – good fellowship
  • Trust, honesty and integrity
  • Acceptance of personal responsibility
  • Understanding, care and tolerance
  • Confidence, motivation, self belief and esteem – encouraging independence 

It will be interesting to see how the school explains its interpretation of these principles in this context.


Newcastle school puts 50 pupils in detention for wearing wrong trousers (Guardian 5 September 2014)

More than 50 children put into detention for wearing the wrong trousers (Independent 5 September 2014)

and before you think this is only a UK thing ...

Strict dress code nets detentions at NY school (Salon 15 September 2014)

Jessica Valenti, How many young women can a school legally punish for dress code violations? (Guardian 17 September 2014)

Updated 17 September 2014

Friday, May 23, 2014

Smart Guns

Just suppose that smart guns were safer than ordinary guns.

For example, if someone grabbed your gun and tried to point it at you. If it was a smart gun you'd be perfectly safe because there is a fool-proof mechanism that prevents its use by an unauthorized person.

As with any technological advance, some people are sceptical. How much do you trust new technology? Suppose the gun doesn't work when you need it. Maybe an electromagnetic pulse (triggered by terrorists or natural solar activity) might take out all weapons in the area. Or maybe the bad guys (or the FBI) can hack into this mechanism and disable your gun before they attack you.

Meanwhile, like many technological advances, there are political implications. In the USA, the key question is whether such a mechanism might help reduce gun violence. Some gun control activists think such a mechanism would be pretty irrelevant.

But that doesn't stop the gun rights activists freaking out at the prospect of any damn technology on their precious weaponry. A shop owner in the US claims to have received death threats from pro-gun lobbyists for offering to sell the weapons. Meanwhile, as Joseph Steinberg suggests, an obsession with smart guns may inhibit other technological innovations that could make guns and gun-owning safer.

Because once these smart guns are available, by a process of technological determinism, they become irresistible to legislators. Before long, you won't be able to buy regular guns.

Obviously that's a cause worth killing for.

David Kopel, Brady Center lawsuit to use “smart” gun mandate to trigger handgun ban in New Jersey (Washington Post 22 May 2014)

Karen McVeigh, Gun control groups accuse New Jersey of ignoring 'smart gun' law (Guardian 21 May 2014)

Michael S. Rosenwald, Maryland dealer, under pressure from gun-rights activists, drops plan to sell smart gun (Washington Post, 1 May 2014)

Joseph Steinberg, Why You Should Be Concerned About The New 'Smart Guns' (Whether You Love Or Hate Guns) (Forbes 4 May 2014)

Nicholas Tufnell, Smart guns: How smart are they? (BBC News, 23 May 2014)

Eugene Volokh, Smart guns, electromagnetic pulse, and planning for unknown-probability dangers (Washington Post 23 May 2014)

See also Batman/Catwoman: Trail of the Gun (hat tip @ChBrain).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Purpose of Wealth 2

Is America an Oligarchy?, asks John Cassidy (New Yorker 18 April 2014). He challenges what he calls the "alarmist" headline US is an oligarchy, not a democracy (BBC News 17 April 2014) reporting a recent study by Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University).

The study shows a small correlation between US policy and the opinions of the rich. No doubt this could be explained by the fact that the rich are more in touch with sociopolitical realities, which is probably one of the factors helping them to get rich in the first place. Correlation not causation? Yeah, right.

 In any case, the supposed influence is asymmetrical. Even when the rich support some policy change, its chance of being enacted is less than 50%. But when the rich oppose some policy change, its chance of being enacted is less than 20%. Thus the rich appear to have an effective veto.

But a large veto is wielded by the political system itself. Only a small fraction of policy changes are enacted, and public opinion (whether majority or rich) doesn't make much difference. Obviously, the system itself doesn't like change. Now where have we heard that before?

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (forthcoming Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Purpose of Wealth

Marc Benioff has a message for his rich tech friends: "Give back or get out". (San Francisco Magazine, 19 April 2014)

One man obviously doesn't need this message. "Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, has told a conference his children will not be left billion-dollar trust funds, despite [his] having amassed a personal fortune of $76 billion (£46 billion). The Microsoft founder was speaking at a TED conference in Vancouver when he announced that most of his wealth will instead be left to the family's charitable organisation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The charity works to improve health care, education and reduce extreme poverty around the world." (The Independent, 20 March 2014).

Interviewed at the same conference, Larry Page outlined an apparently different idea about the purpose of wealth. Asked about a sentiment that Page had apparently voiced before that rather than leave his fortune to a cause, that he might just give it to Elon Musk. Page agreed, calling Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars “to back up humanity” a worthy goal. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” he said (Wired, 19 March 2014). In Business Insider, this story is headlined as "I’d Rather Leave My Billions to Elon Musk Than to Charity" (Business Insider 19 March 2014, Slate 20 March 2014).

But surely Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars is a cause. And as Page understands the word, it is a "philanthropic" cause. He presumably doesn't want to give lots of money to Musk just so Musk can set up trust funds for his own children.

I have no idea whether Page actually believes what he says in public about charity. Obviously rich people like Gates and Page have an endless queue of optimistic people asking for money for this or that charity. One way of managing this queue is to set up a Foundation, and refer all requests to this Foundation. Another way is to put on a public show of disdain for charitable causes.

Technology entrepreneurs sometimes compete to display their philanthropic credentials. In a recent interview, Marc Benioff expressed scorn about a large donation by Mark Zuckerberg, and hinted that this was merely a politically motivated tax write off.

Where’s it gone? What good is it doing now? What are his targets? What are his philanthropic interests?

If Page wants to give his money to a company, the obvious choice would be Google itself, There are precedents for a company founder to give his shares back to the company and/or its employees in perpetual trust. Google could then invest the cash in a number of interesting and even "philanthropic" ways. Such as buying into Musk's company (Tesla Motors).

Indeed, Google's much mocked slogan, "don't be evil", would imply that all Google's cash should be invested in missions that Page would regard as "philanthropic". But then I can hear the unmistakeable voice of the late Tony Benn asking Larry Page five questions:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

This post was originally written in March 2014 about the difference between Bill Gates and Larry Page. Updated 19 April 2014 to include the difference between Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg,

See also Andrew Leonard, Tech titan throws some shade at Mark Zuckerberg (Salon 17 April 2014)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Social Placebos

The theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argues that humans are genetically programmed for caution. As an example of this, he cites the curious effectiveness of placebos.

Consider what happens when the human immune system fights a disease. Suppose you have a disease that causes you to function at 90% of your usual capacity. You could struggle on for weeks at this level, feeling slightly run-down. Or your immune system could mobilize a full attack on the disease, during which you will feel terrible, you may have a raised temperature and other unpleasant symptoms, and you may be unable to carry out your normal activity for a few days. Most of the symptoms of disease are actually caused by the immune system trying to eliminate something or other.

In some situations, a full immune system response might be dangerous, as it makes you vulnerable to all sorts of environmental threats that you would be unable to protect yourself against. So instead of responding instantly to the first signs of a disease, it makes sense for the immune system to wait until the person is in a safe place to undergo this phase. For example, shelter, warmth, supply of food and water, someone else to keep the fire burning and watch out for wolves.

So what kind of signal triggers the immune system to start fighting? We can identify three possible signals. Firstly, when the person stops working hard and enters a period of relaxation. (This is why so many people get ill on holiday and at Christmas.) Secondly, when the person anticipates some future period of stressful hard work. (This is why so many people get ill before exams.) And thirdly, when the weather changes. (Which is why people get ill in the Autumn and Spring.)

According to Humphrey, the placebo acts as another signal of this kind. Especially when provided by a healthcare practitioner with the appropriate bedside manner, it indicates to the immune system that it is safe to mobilize a full response. It is as if the witch doctor is providing some level of "reassurance" to the body.

In a recent article, Humphrey extends this idea to social placebos, or what he calls Placebos at Large (New Scientist, August 2013, subscription required). He suggests that social symbols and rituals perform a similar reassuring function, allowing people (individually and collectively) to take bold action.

People love mocking "health-and-safety" regulations, promoted by the much-derided "nanny state", as if these regulations hold us back from being the enterprising, rebellious souls we would otherwise be. Humphrey quotes the sociologist Frank Furedi, who says, "in a world where safety has become an end in itself, society constantly promotes symbols and rituals to transmit the need for caution".

Humphrey offers a contrarian interpretation. He believes that in many areas of our lives we humans are, by nature, cowards. Left to follow our instincts we tend to be much more cautious than we need be – indeed, more cautious than is good for us.

So we are often presented with warnings that don't tell us anything - such as packets of peanuts that solemnly announce that they "may contain nuts". By laughing at these unnecessary warnings, we are able to project our real fears of alien food onto some bureaucratic Other, and feel (irrationally) reassured in the illusion that packaged food is safe for everyone except those with weird and antisocial food allergies.

Thus the implicit message of these warnings is a paradoxical one - no need to worry, nanny will do all that nasty worrying for us. Nanny as witch-doctor.

And in the corporate world, there is a wealth of corporate signals and rituals that are used to enable corporate change, including the appeal to corporate witch-doctors, also known as consultants. People often complain that corporate placebos and platitudes don't work - but the point is that they actually do work, but in a mysterious way. Isn't this an example of what Margaret Heffernan calls Willful Blindness?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Death or Dentist

@sciencenow (via @jchyip) claims that Fear of Death Makes People Into Believers (of Science) (June 2013)

The article reports on a British experiment in which researchers invited subjects EITHER to contemplate their own death OR to contemplate dental pain. But contemplating death is not the same as fear of death. As I have pointed out on this blog before (a) the contemplation of one's own death is a standard meditative practice, and (b) contemplating dental pain is probably a lot more realistic and unpleasant than contemplating one's death.

So why do researchers persist in constructing a dubious comparison between death and dental pain?

Mortality salience and the spreading activation of worldview-relevant constructs: exploring the cognitive architecture of terror management
J Exp Psychol Gen. 2002 Sep;131(3):307-24

From terror to joy: automatic tuning to positive affective information following mortality salience
Psychol Sci. 2007 Nov;18(11):984-90

Sex and Death (October 2011)
Wikipedia: Mortality Salience

Saturday, May 04, 2013

A life without pain?

@giles_fraser writes

I have no fondness for pain per se. And I can even imagine taking a draught of something myself one day, were some pain to become utterly intolerable. I do understand. And, yes, even understand that helping others to do it can sometimes be an act of mercy.

But it is also right to push back against the general assumption that pain reduction is unproblematic. For pain is so much a part of life that its suppression can also be a suppression of a great deal of that which is valuable. Constantly anaesthetising ourselves against pain is also a way to reduce our exposure to so much that is wonderful about life.

Yet too many of us make a Faustian pact with pharmacology, welcoming its obvious benefits, but ignoring the fact that drugs also can demand your soul. That's perhaps why we speak of the overly drugged-up as zombies.
 Giles Fraser, My Problem With Euthanasia (Guardian 3 May 2013)

I have written before on this blog about the biological function of pain. In Cycle of Pain Relief, I discussed how pain relief becomes the problem, illustrated by the last 48 hours of Kurt Cobain. And in Back Pain, while sympathizing with Scott (Dilbert) Adams, who had complained about his own back pain and suggested that his back was evil, I suggested that sometimes it was the painkillers that were evil - especially the casual use of painkillers - because they interfere with the natural communication between the mind and the body, and the natural balance of work, rest and play. See also my post on The Purpose of Labour Pains.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Unreliable Evidence (Alan Alda)

The actor Alan Alda has presented several science programmes on PBS. In one programme, he visited Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has made a special study of false memory. According to the Guardian, Professor Loftus successfully gave him a false memory of having been sick as a child eating too many hard-boiled eggs.

"The researchers showed him round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a child - something that never happened." Laura Spinney 'We can implant entirely false memories' (Guardian December 2003)

Spinney's version of the story is repeated on several other websites. I have just watched the programme on the PBS website (Don't Forget, May 2004). Loftus certainly tries to implant this memory. She manages to slightly reduce Alda's confidence that the hard-boiled egg incident didn't happen from CERTAIN to ALMOST CERTAIN. But he still eats the eggs at the picnic.

So my memory of the programme is significantly different from Laura Spinney's memory. Given that the programme was about unreliable memory, that's an interesting twist.

However her article seems to have been published some months before the programme was first broadcast, so it is possible she saw an earlier edit or had some other source of information. It is also possible that the programme has been re-edited retrospectively. Who knows whether the facts she was given were more accurate than the ones in the version I saw?

A few years later, Alda made another programme about memory, also involving a picnic. Professor Daniel Schachter set a number of memory traps for him; he avoided many of these traps but not all of them.

SAF- True or False with Dan Schacter (2010) via Emily Vukson

So if we watch enough programmes involving Alan Alda and picnics, will our memories get confused too? "Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be." Bulletin Board (1975)