Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reading Circle for Systems Thinkers

@kate_hammer and @Europeripheral are planning a reading group, to be conducted over the internet. The reading group will explore the controversial 1972 book The Limits to Growth.

In 1972, a think tank called the Club of Rome published the alarming results of a computer simulation of the world economy, environment and population, developed by a team at MIT. If events followed what the authors called the "business as usual" scenario, without corrective or preventative action, the model projected “overshoot and collapse” by 2070. Since its publication, the report has been subjected to sustained critical attack. But a few years ago, researchers at the University of Melbourne compared the model with data from the past four decades. Their results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the "business-as-usual" scenario.

Those interested in joining the reading group should complete this Google form.

But At Least There Are No Limits To Reading The Book

The Club of Rome has made the book available in PDF format here:

The book has been digitized and can be read in a web browser here:

See also

Academy for Systems Change (The Donella Meadows Project)

Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander, Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse (Guardian, 2 September 2014)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Pursuit of Truth

As @PennyRed said last month, after the election of Donald Trump: "It turns out that you cannot stop fascism by turning off Facebook and doing some deep breathing."

The other day, I was arguing with a woman who told me about some recent atrocities in a politically torn part of the world. She was clearly upset by these atrocities, which she framed in a particular way, and used to support some fairly extreme political conclusions. I disagreed strongly with her conclusions, and I was not minded to take the reports of the atrocities at face value.

When I looked on the internet later, I found a Facebook page that carried the same reports, in similar language. Presumably that was the woman's source. I also found a Wikipedia page on the conflict, which framed things in more neutral terms, based on a number of apparently independent sources. Although there were some unpleasant incidents reported by the mainstream news media, these were neither as drastic nor as one-sided as the Facebook material suggested. So while I don't have sufficient evidence to disprove the atrocities completely, I cannot see enough evidence to take them as seriously as she does.

Many Facebook pages use dramatic images to increase circulation. There have been images of billboards supposedly encouraging criminal behaviour. Snopes shows that a fake billboard, supposedly displayed in Finland to encourage rape by migrants, was actually based on a genuine billboard displayed in Liberia to offer support to rape victims. Georgina Guedes finds another version of the same billboard in South Africa, this time supposedly promoting violence against white farmers.

And both sides are now using the fake billboard tactic. Today someone tweeted a picture of a billboard advertising some Trump property development, which was supposedly displayed in an Indian slum, with people sleeping on the street below. A few hours later, the same person deleted the tweet and apologized for the fake.

Many people find it harder to apply the same critical eye to material that they are instinctively sympathetic to. But as I said in my earlier piece on The Purpose of Truth (November 2016), the more I want to believe something (because it fits my preconceptions), the more I should doubt it.

BBC Guidelines - things to ask yourself before you share a claim
  • Have I heard of the publisher before?
  • Is this the source I think it is, or does it sound a bit like them?
  • Can I point to where this happened on a map?
  • Has this been reported anywhere else?
  • Is there more than one piece of evidence for this claim?
  • Could this be something else?

How to spot a fake US election claim (BBC News, 2 November 2016) Fake news in 2016: What it is, what it wasn't, how to help (BBC News, 30 December 2016)

How to verify photos and videos on social media networks (The Observers, France 24, 10 November 2015)

Dan Evon, You Can't Do That in Finland (Snopes, 11 January 2016)

Georgina Guedes, The ANC is not encouraging black people to kill whites (eNews Channel Africa, 10 March 2016)

Laurie Penny, Against Bargaining: On not taking leave of your senses (The Baffler, 18 November 2016)

Wikipedia: BBC News, eNews Channel Africa, France 24, Snopes, The Baffler

Related post: The Purpose of Truth (November 2016)

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Purpose of Truth

The more I want to believe this (because it fits my preconceptions), the more I should doubt it.
I don't know whether this is genuine. If these tweets even exist, do they represent the views of a real Trump supporter. And even if this is genuine, does it matter that one Trump supporter looks dangerously inconsistent? What conclusions, if any, am I justified in drawing from this? Should I be comforted because my low opinion of Trump supporters in general is corroborated? What should I now feel?

I know how I might go about resolving some of these doubts.  But can I be bothered? I could spend all day fact-checking, but I have a proper job.

The point is that the 2016 US election was dominated by this kind of material, on both sides. Of course we are all sometimes tempted to take some of this material seriously, and to scorn the material from the other side. But if you want to propagate some controversial material, you have a moral duty to hesitate - am I being seduced into fanning some false flames?

This morning, for example, I wanted to tweet something about President-Elect Trump's phone call with South Korea. But I wasn't prepared to trust the first story I saw, so I didn't tweet anything until I found a Reuters story that confirmed it. Of course, it may still be untrue, but I'm glad I checked.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Back Door Steps

Theresa May used to be rather keen on back doors. As Home Secretary until her move to Downing Street, she was responsible for the Investigatory Powers Bill, which insisted on back doors to enable the security forces to snoop on private communications. Now she insists that Britain will not remain in Europe by the back door. So what's wrong with back doors all of a sudden?

Now you might think I'm just making a snarky political point. Obviously the back door metaphor has a different meaning in the two contexts. But there is an important connection here, so please bear with me.

The European Data Protection Supervisor is dead against encryption back doors. By mandating encryption back doors, the UK therefore appears to place itself outside the European circle of trust. The proposed legislation would mean that any UK company or UK-based facility might be subject to an equipment interference warrant (aka back door), and would not be permitted to reveal whether it did or not. Aside from the competitive disadvantage that might follow from this potential vulnerability, UK companies and UK-based services would be challenged to demonstrate compliance with the European Data Protection Regulation, and might therefore be prevented from holding data on any European citizen. There is going to be a single market for data, and we wouldn't have access to it. Another blow for the UK service industry.

So evidently Mrs May is right. Backdoor membership of the EU is not on the table.

Anushka Asthana, No staying in the EU by the back door, says Theresa May (Guardian, 31 August 2016)

Jennifer Baker, Encryption backdoors appear on EU data chief’s ban wishlist (Ars Technica, 25 July 2016)

Lucy Mair, Supreme court strikes down Home Office's back-door changes to immigration rules (Guardian, 18 July 2012)

John Naughton, Theresa May’s surveillance plans should worry us all (Guardian, 12 June 2016)

Iain Thomson, FBI Director wants 'adult conversation' about backdooring encryption (The Register, 31 August 2016)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Waiting for Article 50

HT @NickCohen4 @DavidAllenGreen @joncstone @bencoates1 I don't know whether Brexit was foreseen in Nostradamus or the Book of Revelations, but we can find troubling harbingers in the works of two writers honoured by the Swedish Academy.

Nick Cohen applies what Kipling said of the demagogues of his age to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan Smith say Not I.

Teebs discusses Endgame
If Boris Johnson looked downbeat yesterday, that is because he realises that he has lost.
Perhaps many Brexiters do not realise it yet, but they have actually lost, and it is all down to one man: David Cameron. ... Boris Johnson knew this yesterday, when he emerged subdued from his home and was even more subdued at the press conference. He has been out-maneouvered and check-mated.

Jack of Kent invokes Godot

Stalemates can last a long time. And unless there is political will to resolve it, this stalemate will not resolve itself.

 Am still looking for hooks for the following Beckett plays. Any ideas please comment below.
Come and Go? Happy Days, Catastrophe or Neither?

Nick Cohen, There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (Guardian, 25 June 2016)

David Allen Green, Why the Article 50 notification is important (Jack of Kent blog, 25 June 2016)

Jon C Stone, Video evidence emerges of Nigel Farage pledging EU millions for NHS weeks before Brexit vote (Independent, 25 June 2016)

Teebs, If Boris Johnson looked downbeat yesterday, that is because he realises that he has lost (Guardian comment, 25 June 2016)

Wikipedia Category:Plays by Samuel Beckett

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Illusion of Independence

In October 1964, the British Labour party won a close victory in the General Election. Within weeks, there was a currency crisis, which Labour politicians blamed on the so-called Gnomes of Zürich - in other words, external and unelected powers that controlled the international economic climate. After a decade of economic crises, Britain joined the European Economic Community (known as the Common Market) in 1973, and this was endorsed by a referendum in 1975. The EEC has now evolved into the European Union, with the active participation and (sometimes grudging) consent of successive British Governments.

In 1975, one of the key arguments against EEC membership was that it was supposed to undermine British sovereignty. The argument was put forcibly at both ends of the political spectrum, by Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, and a new version of the argument has been put forward by Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP. (By the way, Professor Sked is no longer involved in UKIP, which in his opinion has been taken over by racists and the far-right.)

However, Sked's argument is rather puzzling. He puts forward a formal notion of sovereignty that is possessed in equal measure by the dictator of a bankrupt and internationally powerless country (Zimbabwe), by the elected president of a rich country with a robust separation of powers (United States), and by the UK parliament acting in the name of the sovereign. The UK parliament retains the power to repeal the European Communities Act of 1972; therefore although some elements of sovereignty may have been delegated to Europe, they have not been lost. And yet the protection of this formal sovereignty provides sufficient reason for Sked to advocate Brexit.

These notions of sovereignty were already being dismissed as Victorian in 1975, and seem no more relevant today than they were then.

There are many small and powerless countries around the world, and the idea that we should envy them their "independence" is laughable. As is the idea that our bargaining position as an "independent" country would be anything like as favourable as our bargaining position as a member of a substantial trading bloc.

It was initially thought that big business was unanimously in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. Even Swiss financiers (ironically) have warned that Brexit could lead to market turbulence and currency crisis.

However, other financiers now appear to be endorsing Brexit, claiming that they want control to pass back into "our" hands. 

So whose hands would that be? Financiers? Or gnomes? No thank you.

Alex Brummer, The sovereign that never ruled (Guardian, 6 January 1999)

Alex Brummer, 'Gnomes of Zurich' strike again with an epoch-making move in the currency markets (Daily Mail, 15 January 2015)
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Swiss wealth managers warn of 'sudden stop' in capital after Brexit (Telegraph, 15 April 2016)

Greg Rosen, Labour’s Brexit brigade should not rewrite history (Progress, 10 Feb 2016)

Alan Sked, L’état c’est nous: sovereignty is no illusion, and we should retain it (LSE blogs, March 2016)

Harold Wilson and the 1964 Labour Government:The devaluation of socialism (Fifth International, Feb 1997)

European Communities Debate (Hansard, 27 October 1971)

Wikipedia: Bruges Group, Gnomes of Zürich, Separation of powers, UK Independence Party

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Spelling Crimez

According to news reports, a ten-year-old child recently got a visit from the police after writing that he lived in a 'terrorist' house. 

Given that the family was Muslim, the Internet jumps to the conclusion that there was some racial stereotyping going on here. A day or so earlier, the Prime Minister had announced a fund (or at least partially reversed previous cuts to such funding) to teach Muslim women to speak English (which would presumably include learning the correct spelling of such words as 'terraced').

If the police were serious about gathering intelligence about potential extremists in the community, and if they believed that this was a genuine lead to an extremist family, you'd have thought they would want to treat the boy as a valuable source of information, rather than immediately alerting the family that they were under suspicion. What purpose does a home visit achieve, apart from shock and awe.

The authorities have responded to the news reports, claiming that the home visit was not prompted solely by a single misspelling, there were a number of issues arising from the child's schoolwork, and that it had not been regarded as a terror incident. The home visit had been done by a social worker, accompanied by a PC.

According to the boy's cousin, the boy is now scared of writing, or using his imagination. Arguably that's not a good use of police time, when a bit of well-timed sarcasm by a schoolteacher can achieve that outcome much more efficiently.

Update. Apparently what the boy actually wrote was this.
"I hate it when my uncle beats me. I live in a terrorist house with my uncle."
So what happened within the family after the social worker (accompanied by the PC) leaves? And what happened within the community when the media sensationalized the story? Can anyone use some imagination?

Rahila Bano, Muslim boy, 10, probed for 'terrorist house' spelling error (BBC News 20 January 2016)

Mario Cacciottolo, How much of a problem is speaking English for some Muslim women? (BBC News 18 January 2016)

Aisha Gani, Lancashire police criticise BBC over 'terrorist house' story (BBC News, 21 January 2016)

Lancashire 'terrorist house' row 'not a spelling mistake' (BBC News 20 January 2016)

Bill Jacobs, 'We've done nothing wrong' - Teachers and police respond to 'terrorist house' 'overreaction' (Lancashire Telegraph, 21 January 2016)

Updated 21 January 2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Book of the Dead

A few years ago, the British Museum had a large exhibition for the Egyptian Book of the Dead. According to John Taylor, the curator of the exhibition, it's a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey:
  • spells for controlling your own body after death;
  • spells for protecting yourself from attack;
  • spells for satisfying the gods and demons guarding the gateways you must pass through.

We bought a jigsaw puzzle at the time, which we finally got around to solving this Christmas. The jigsaw at least we solved. But what about the meaning of the picture?

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, c. 1275 B.C.E., 19th Dynasty, 45.7 x 83.4 cm, Thebes, Egypt © Trustees of the British Museum

The picture shows a ceremony called the Opening of the Mouth. This is a ritual performed on a mummy (in this case, Hunefer) to enable the dead person to breathe, to speak, and to consume ritual offerings. The priests are waving the foreleg of a bull calf over the heads of Hunefer's grieving wife and daughter.
But the spell has already been cast, so why would Hunefer need to know the spell? To my mind, the purpose of this particular page doesn't seem like practical guidance at all, but more like bureaucratic compliance. It is a certificate (audit trail) to prove that the Opening of the Mouth ceremony has been correctly cast. One might imagine an official in the Egyptian afterlife scanning the document, rather in the same manner as a US immigration official checking your visa waiver and customs declaration form. 

So the Book of the Dead seems to conflate and confuse the functions of guidebook and logbook. John Taylor acknowledges that parts of the Book don't make sense to the modern mind, and speculates:

"Perhaps there was a box-ticking mentality going on here: you should have one of these in your tomb so you get it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s completely accurate or not. You’ve got it, it’s there, it’s in the tomb, and it has got the right spells on it. It’s a part of the burial kit you must have."

Box-ticking? From one of the most bureaucratic cultures in the Ancient World? Surely not!

Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Exhibition at the British Museum, November 2010 - March 2011.

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, 1285 BC (Google Cultural Institute, retrieved 2 Jan 2016)

Hunefer, Book of the Dead (Khan Academy, retrieved 2 Jan 2016)

John Taylor, What is a Book of the Dead? (British Museum Blog, September 2010). A bit of afterlife admin? (British Museum Blog, December 2010).

Wikipedia: Ancient Egypt, Opening of the Mouth Ceremony

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Purpose of Marriage 2

A couple in Australia threatens to divorce, in protest against same-sex marriage. @garwboy is dismissive.

Actually, they are not wrecking their marriage. They intend to continue to live together as man and wife, and they intend to have more children.

Nick Jensen explains

"My wife and I, as a matter of conscience, refuse to recognise the government’s regulation of marriage if its definition includes the solemnisation of same sex couples."

In other words, same-sex marriage reframes the legal institution of marriage. The Jensens feel that same-sex marriage devalues all marriages, including theirs, and there is no real purpose in remaining tied to an institution that they no longer value. So this divorce plan appears to be a purely symbolic protest with no real content. (Like miming pissing on your feet.)

Surprisingly, Australian law doesn't recognize a symbolic protest as a valid reason for divorce. Divorces are only granted when marriages have broken down irretrievably. So unless the Jensens are willing to fake a separation for the purpose of the Australian divorce courts, they will be prevented from carrying out their threat.

In the meantime, the gesture has created a lot of noise. Perhaps that's as much as can be expected.

Gay law change may force us to divorce (City News, 10 June 2015)

Kate Aubusson, Christian couple vow to divorce if same-sex marriage is legalised (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2015)

John Griffiths, Bad news for the Jensens’ divorce plans (City News 12 June 2015)

Kirsty McCleod, If same-sex marriage is legalised, can you divorce? (@FGDFamilyLaw, 11 June 2015)

Same Sex Couple Threaten Not To Give A Shit If Other Couple Divorces (Backburner, 11 June 2015)

Related Posts

The Purpose of Marriage (February 2012)
#BigWeddingWeekend (Storify August 2014)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dark Politics

What metaphor shall we use for the travails of the British Labour Party? As the drama of the General Election abates, the Labour Party hastens to elect a new "leader". Each candidate leader sets out a position, initially intended to attract the members (and possibly the financial backers) of the Labour Party, and subsequently to attract votes in a future General Election.

The word "attract" suggests a metaphor taken from school physics lessons. As if the electorate were pulled this way and that by a series of powerful magnets, and by the magnetic personality of the right person.

More advanced physics yields some more sophisticated metaphors. I recently had this exchange on Twitter.

The "dark matter" theory leads to the idea that the Labour Party needs to identify and attract people who didn't vote for it in this election. This becomes a marketing exercise, based on a segmentation of the population. The candidate leaders fall over one another to suggest that the party has neglected particular segments of the population - the "moderate" voter or the "aspirational" voter, the socially-conservative working-class voter or the more liberally-minded middle-class voter - and to demand repositioning the party to appeal to this segment in future.

The "dark energy" theory leads to the idea that parties of the Left are always frustrated by hidden forces - the baleful influence of the City or Media - which divert the opinions and votes of people who rightfully ought to vote Labour. When she was growing up in a working-class household, @suzanne_moore diagnosed her mother with 'false consciousness'.
"This is still how most of the left operates. We have the truth, we know what is best and we will enlighten you, awaken you from your slumbers and you will be grateful."

Meanwhile, Martin Kettle points out that the search for understanding requires us to look at what was attractive about the Tories, not just what was unattractive about Labour.
"On the left, Tory motives and values are often stereotyped (as Labour motives and values are, of course, caricatured on the right) in ways that make people on the left feel good about themselves. The Tories in this view are variously greedy, mean, destructive, selfish, uncaring, small-minded, racist, nationalistic and more. But what if the motives and values that Tory voters see are less extreme – things like competent, reliable, realistic, prudent, generous, tolerant, decent or patriotic? None of those qualities is in itself in any way objectionable. It would be reasonable to vote for a party that you thought had such qualities – and I suspect lots of people did on 7 May."

The "New Labour" project under Tony Blair simultaneously tackled both parts of the matter/energy equation - appeasing Rupert Murdoch and the City, distancing the party from its traditional working class base (especially the Trade Unions) and appealing to the middle classes. This strategy was highly effective in electoral terms, while it lasted, but it was a Faustian pact. Some traditional Labour supporters believe that the Blair-Brown government permitted itself to be influenced by dark forces of various kinds: it extended the promotion of market forces into public services (especially healthcare), it participated enthusiastically in the disastrous intervention in the Middle East, and failed to prevent the systematic trashing of traditional capitalism by a handful of merchant banks. It introduced tuition fees for university students, and created or extended business-friendly initiatives such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Academy Schools programme, which were continued by the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. Between 2010 and 2015, the Labour Party was fairly constrained in its criticism of the coalition government, perhaps because it was easy to imagine a neo-Blairite government doing much the same kind of stuff. Indeed, that has been one of the main complaints of the right-wing of the Conservative Party, especially under threat from UKIP.

In the 1990s, Blair was regarded as a "modernizer"; the word is now used as a coded way of referring to Blairite candidates for the leadership, especially Liz Kendall, and implies a rejection of some out-dated notions of socialism and/or syndicalism (in other words, the baleful influence of the Trades Unions).

The trouble with modernization is that it is a management agenda, not a leadership one. All of the clean-cut and articulate Oxbridge graduates who are now competing for the Labour leadership would probably make a decent job of management, even though none of them appears to have much experience outside politics. But the debate is along familiar lines - Old Labour, New Labour, Borrowed Labour, Blue Labour. True leadership would entail creating a new narrative, not merely rehashing the familiar debate.

Not for the first time, the Labour Party now faces an existential crisis. Historian Selina Todd suggests that Labour could be reborn in a different guise and with a different purpose. Meanwhile radical Conservative thinkers (Steve Hilton) see an opportunity to seize the moral high-ground on social justice. Maybe there is some more drama still to unfold.

Daniel Boffey, Can David Cameron make Tories the new party of social justice? (Observer 24 May 2015)

Alain C. Enthoven, Introducing Market Forces into Health Care: A Tale of Two Countries (Nuffield Trust, June 2002)

Martin Kettle, It’s vital to know why Labour lost – yet more so to know why the Tories won (Guardian 14 May 2015)

Suzanne Moore, Working-class Tories are not just turkeys voting for Christmas (Guardian 14 May 2015)

Clive Peedell, The Politics of NHS Market Reforms (8 January 2012)

Allyson Pollock, A gauntlet for Brown (Guardian 11 April 2007)

Selina Todd, Has the Labour party outlived its usefulness? (Guardian 24 May 2015)

Wikipedia: Academy (English school), Private Finance Initiative (PFI), Tuition fees in the UK

Updated 24 May 2015