Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Frozen pizza

There is nothing wrong with automation per se, but for me this feels like a step too far. Doesn't do much for my appetite either.  

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Freud Files

From Wikipedia

I’m tempted to buy a book called The Freud Files. It claims that Sigmund Freud promoted his own reputation, deliberately placing himself at the centre of a "lone genius" myth at the expense of others in his field. Furthermore, the book claims Freud’s acolytes have promoted and nurtured the myth for decades.

How did psychoanalysis attain its prominent cultural position? How did it eclipse rival psychologies and psychotherapies, such that it became natural to bracket Freud with Copernicus and Darwin? Why did Freud 'triumph' to such a degree that we hardly remember his rivals? This book reconstructs the early controversies around psychoanalysis and shows that rather than demonstrating its superiority, Freud and his followers rescripted history.

I suppose many of us have encountered significant cracks in Freud’s faded reputation during the course of our general reading. Doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is worth pursuing though. The field of Freudian scholarship is so vast that a dabbler is almost obliged to begin from a potentially biased starting position. Otherwise how does one select sources? Even neutrality doesn’t work if one side of this debate is substantially correct.

So as a taster I downloaded a free sample of The Freud Files onto my Kindle. You may or may not know, but this is a standard Kindle feature – browse before you buy. The book appears to be clear, concise, well-written and meticulously researched.

So if I buy it, this may be my biased starting point or it may not. Reviews suggest the book is certainly controversial and I am in no position to resolve the controversy.

However I already have a suspicion that Freud was dodgy. For example, some years ago I came across an essay in Speculum Spinozanum which claimed that he acknowledged an intellectual debt to Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century philosopher but only in three private letters. He never acknowledged it publicly.

This is not necessarily a big deal because Freud could not have owed a huge debt to Spinoza in the first place. Why not acknowledge it more publicly though? It would have attached an interesting thread to Freud’s thinking, locating it in the wider sphere of human thought.

Inevitably his failure to acknowledge Spinoza, however trivial his debt might have been, raises a suspicion that Freud had no wish to extend the public perception of his ideas beyond his own person. Only a suspicion, but there have been others and they add up.

Freud's reputation probably isn't particularly important to the modern world, but I was brought up in a time where he was still a towering intellectual figure, at least in popular culture. A paradigm of the "lone genius" myth. So maybe I’ll buy the book and perhaps bury the myth.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Smarter voting

A guy who happens to be a billionaire, or at least very rich by normal standards isn’t like the rest of us. For one thing it is easy for him to buy influence if he so wishes. There are over a hundred billionaires in the UK, but let us introduce a fictional one named Alexander Charles Prosser. Let us also infect him with an irresistible urge to spread his political wings.

To satisfy this urge, Prosser could easily afford to put aside say £500k per year and donate it to a political party. It’s only £5 million over ten years – chickenfeed for a fictional billionaire such as Prosser. So what does that £500k buy our man in terms of political influence?

Firstly it depends which party he chooses to support. Hand over the cash to a fringe party of loons and all he gets is to be is a big fish in a small pond. Which may be nice enough but Prosser also has to speak fluent Loon if he is to enter into the spirit of the thing. A tedious learning process may blunt his enthusiasm.

Apart from which, in terms of political bang for his buck, it is obviously better for Prosser to stick with big parties. In the UK that would be Conservative or Labour. With the Lib Dems there is still too much Loon to be learned. UKIP may be an option, but UKIP might not make it into the big time. Prosser should wait until the fog of political war clears – the moolah will still be welcome to the victor.

Unfortunately Prosser will still have to learn a certain amount of politically correct Loon if he chooses to stuff the Conservative or Labour party with his cash. The big plus here is significant political influence - the thing he really yearns for. He gets to rub shoulders with people who actually pass a few laws every now and then. It’s not quite the EU, but UK MPs are still allowed some residual functions.

So Prosser’s £500k per annum buys him a level of influence far beyond anything the ordinary voter could ever hope to wield. The only trouble is, there are other political heavies in there too, so his money might not go as far as he imagines. Even so, it beats being a voter with only a measly five-yearly cross on a piece of paper to look forward to. 

How do we ordinary voters compete against Prosser's £500k per year? It isn't easy, but we have the power of democracy on our side don't we? So one solution is much smarter voting...


Sunday, 28 September 2014

The eye of the priest

Many of us have grappled with the problem of moral imperatives in a secular society. Where do they come from if not handed down by a deity?

These [priests] are however the only teachers of ethics that the people have, and without them where should we be? Will the newspaper ever manage to take the place of the parish priest?
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

How do we replace the vigilant eye of the priest? It is hardly a perfect eye, so do we need to replace it at all? Yet if we don’t, it will surely be replaced by something because the closing of the sacerdotal eye has left a power vacuum well on the way to being filled. So what is replacing the eye of the priest? Something wise and respected?

No I don’t think so either.

So far it resembles a uniquely repressive trend slipped in under the radar while we were busy ordering a pizza with our new iWatch while playing Game of Oafs on our new phone which we never actually pay for because it’s on contract.

What follows is merely speculation, but suppose some organisation with deep pockets eventually builds a computer network which hands down moral and legal judgements. By this stage moral and legal issues could have been tied firmly together anyway, so there’s our shiny new imperative.

Imagine a judicial computer network dealing with everything from a boundary dispute with a neighbour to a divorce to an international patent dispute to a war to offensive language. All human life would fall within its remit. Or rather our lives would fall within its remit - yours and mine. The elite would live their agreeable lives well beyond the reach of the network.

In reality the elite, the effective owners of the system, would be handing down the judgements, but only in terms of policy, guidelines and approved upgrades. The day to day judgements would be left to the system. Or maybe that should be the System?

In a way there is no point speculating how the System might evolve because we are all familiar with the trends, the pieces of the jigsaw which seem to be fitting themselves into a pattern we can’t yet see except in hazy outline.

Bits and pieces of a totalitarian future seem to be coming together well outside the feeble sway of democratic control. Political pieces and commercial pieces, the difference seems to be increasingly irrelevant. They fit together quite nicely these days. I’m not convinced there is much in the way of independent human agency here though. Some kind of blind destiny seems to have us in its steely grip.

Of course the System will never be given a name. It will simply be a complex of familiar systems with some background processing we never get to know about. Still, with a bit of luck it will have too many bugs to be viable.

To be fixed in the next upgrade...

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Bennett on mass production

Arnold Bennett shows us the reality of mass production without automation. This kind of thing probably went on well into the twentieth century. In some ways I find it more depressing than any amount of squalor described by Dickens. 

You may have observed the geometrical exactitude of the broad and thin coloured lines round the edges of a common cup and saucer, and speculated upon the means by which it was arrived at. 

A girl drew those lines, a girl with a hand as sure as Giotto’s, and no better tools than a couple of brushes and a small revolving table called a whirler. Forty-eight hours a week Mary Beechinor sat before her whirler. Actuating the treadle, she placed a piece of ware on the flying disc, and with a single unerring flip of the finger pushed it precisely to the centre; then she held the full brush firmly against the ware, and in three seconds the band encircled it truly; another brush taken up, and the line below the band also stood complete. 

And this process was repeated, with miraculous swiftness, hour after hour, week after week, year after year. Mary could decorate over thirty dozen cups and saucers in a day, at three halfpence the dozen.

Arnold Bennett - Tales of the Five Towns (1905)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

After the conference?

This little figure of a clown was carved from linden wood by Pascal Bosshardt of Thannenkirch in Alsace. We were there last year and bought the figure after watching him at work. To take the photo I stood the clown by a pound coin to give an idea of scale. 

I'm fascinated by this kind of skill, probably because I'm so far from being able to emulate it. I just don't have the coordination between hand and eye, the sense of scale and proportion. This was one of his simplest pieces too. 

I don't know what inspired M Bosshardt to carve it, but to my eye the clown could be an ironic reference to politics. A clown blowing his own trumpet. Doesn't quite work because his expression has a touch of melancholy. 

After the conference?

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Plight of the good guys

If the negotiator expects a bribe then we have to offer one or we lose the business to someone with fewer scruples.

If their lot tell lies then we have to be a little economical with the truth too. Otherwise we lose the election to someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t report this story as received then my source may go to someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t follow the narrative then my superiors will sideline me in favour of someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t present the data in this way then my superiors will sideline me in favour of someone with fewer scruples.

If I am not more enthusiastic about this absurd idea then my superior will promote someone with fewer scruples.

If I don’t spread my share of the gossip then my friends will stop listening and move on to people with fewer scruples.

Too often the good guys get nowhere, never did, never could. When it comes to climbing greasy poles, the logic of corruption and moral ambivalence are compelling. Environments select – it’s what they do. So an environment where corruption and moral ambivalence are condoned will select those who adapt to it. Rotten apples - it's a good metaphor.

We only seem to have two ways round this problem – legal and moral. We sidled around Christian moral imperatives some time ago so that leaves laws and regulations.

But without the invisible hand of moral imperatives, however imperfect it may have been, laws and regulations have to be extremely detailed, rigorously enforced and constantly revised as new evasive strategies emerge. 

Not only that, but human behaviour has to be managed in minute detail. Good guys, bad guys, there is no distinction when it comes to the mass management of behaviour. How could there be?

What could possibly go wrong?