All posts for the month January, 2009

My Akismet comment spam filter has been working fine except to a few Russian (cyrillic) posts and links getting through. But these have always been easy to spot and delete / mark-as-spam.

Today I noticed a bunch and went through deleting them, only to discover that each deleting of a spam comment also deleted one real comment … I have all comments now deleted since 7th Dec !!! apologies to anyone affected.

Bigger problem for me immediately is to find out how and stop this recurring. Anyone ?

Only yesterday I noticed this image of protesters in Nice carrying “Solidaire” banners (solidarity presumably ?) and had John Martyn’s “Solid Air” going round my head all day as a result.

Spooky to hear at the end of yesterday that John had died.

First saw John Martyn in my student days, ’74/’75 ish, backed by Paul Kossoff. Went for years never really noticing that John remained active – unlike say, the way I continued to look out for Roy Harper in that vein, until I bought a live double CD just a couple of years ago. Apart from “Solid Air” itself, I would say “John Wayne”, backed by Dave Gilmour was my most memorable.

I keep pointing out that the World Wide Web model of information is enlightened enough to actually have trust at the top of the stack – ie however information is organized and presented on the web (or anywhere for that matter) it ultimately depends on trust in people in enforceable authority, even if the expert authority is earned in advance. Anything based (entirely) on the power of crowds risks overlooking this important fact.

I often note it in references to limits to freedom in free-democratic-governance at any level, most recently in the Brittanica / Wikipedia story. More frequently in the serious psychological deficiencies of most web information models – like “unfriending” in social network situations.

As a Brit resident in Norway, I can’t help thinking this survey may prove significant.

One of my pet subjects is the fact that in (free democratic) systems of governance, there must be institutions that are not free and democratic, not in the sense of the popular “one man one vote” mantra.

OK, so most people quickly see that total freedom for popular decision-making is a recipe for anarchy, not democracy, which demands institutions to defend and preserve rights and freedoms of individuals and groups from other individuals and groups. There are “greater goods” than individual rights and freedoms. And it is easy to see that pragmatically authority has to be delegated to elected representatives or delegates in order to achieve timely decisions and actions on behalf of the electorate.

However what is harder to see, because it appears paradoxical at first, is that some of those institutions must also have intrinsically “elitist” non-democratic arrangements.

At the very least they need to have meritocratic arrangements that are insulated from direct popular democracy. They require a caucas of people “who know better”. Of course they have to be “trusted” to know better, trusted to make “unpopular” decisions without the question of direct public decision-making input. There must ultimately be free and democratic sanctions, answerable to the “popular” constituency when that trust is lost, but that trust does not have to be sought on the same timescale as the operational decisions of that population.

Of course any sophisticated national government with a history knows about meritocratic appointees to high-ranking public servant positions, high-court judges and the like. These will be appointed democratically (well, by political horse-trading maybe) by one or other house of popular elected government institutions (one level removed from popular vote) and on tenures longer than the popular election cycle of those elected institutions (a second level of insulation from popular voting).

That way the appointers can consider their candidate appointees independently of their electoral considerations, and merited in terms of greater considerations of quality, value, truth and good. Of course the higher (public) profile the particular positions, the greater the (public) political pressures anyway, but the principle is well established.

This is rarely noticed however in new / young institutions embracing the free & democratic “dogma”. And the “received wisdom” view of evolution, particularly in the power of crowds empowered by free access to communications media and technologies, is to completely overlook this issue, and to positively rail against any hint of attempted, even suggested, control by higher “authority”. Two or three posts into a discussion on the subject and some well-intentioned individual – supported by a crowd baying for blood –  is invoking liberty and personal freedoms, accusations of control-freakery or pretensions of higher knowledge, screaming “censorship” and pointing out Hitler, Mao and Stalin and the historical lessons of fascism. Well, all the easy bits ayway, the popular received wisdom of the lesson, minus anything else of value – necessarily of greater value, since by defintion they will be valued by fewer of the population – paradoxically, the opposite of democratic. (There’s a name for that syndrome – counting how many posts before someone makes a “fascist” reference in a  contentious correspondence thread – lost it for a moment.)

 Anyway, memes always promulgate the easy to understand bits, never the valuable subtleties.

I have pointed out before that excellent inventions like Wikipedia are wonderfully valuable in capturing high quality knowledge where the content is uncontentious and low profile … anywhere where it is “political” the mechanism fails and is replaced (devalued) with a power of conflicting wills and attrition, often disguised by many layers of rhetorical and ironic game-play.

Encyclopedia Brittanica seems to understand this – avoiding falling for the obvious Wikipedia model. Somethings, to be definitive, need to be authoritative. W3C itself knows this [Figure 7 Semantic Web Layers], by having “trust” at the top of its architectural stack of web technologies, but those using the power of mass communications often ride over this with their personal democratic dogma.

Some things need to be managed by those with the pretensions, the presumption, the wisdom …. to know better. That’s really, really, really free.

[Post Note – Hooray, and even Wikipedia itself has seen the error of its (simple popular) democratic ways …. nobody said the alternative was easy, just better … as with any publicly shared reference data, publication can be fast, but quality can take a little time. ]

Plus c’est la meme chose. Vive l’Anglais.

It’s a memetic evolutionary loop, but English is a very expressive language because it is used for global communication above and beyond trans-atlantic drivel, and yes it will evolve into “Globish” in the process and even lose the tag “English” if it offends the French. Defenders of English as she is writ and spoke proper should remember that Shakespear is written down, so it’s not going anywhere, provided democratic free cultural evolution enforces the taboo on book-burning. Some things are not free in a free democratic global village. Preservation and freedom can, must, live side by side.

Come on France, the water’s lovely, and bring your best stuff with you Madame Pecresse.

The BBC is right to express concern at the potential mis-use of the fundraising behind this Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, but is getting its priorities back to front and making more of a partisan stance by not carrying this humanitarian appeal.

(Same issue as the Pogues Fairytale fiasco – need to separate political correctness in negative risk-taking, from direct support for the positive point of the exercise. Still at least the Beeb admitted its error that time. Here’s hoping.)

[Post Note : This one will run and run.

And of course

The high profile controversy has given this appeal more publicity than it could possibly have imagined getting – Mark Field, MP.

Maybe Auntie is smarter than she looks, by deliberately making it a political issue and upping the ante ? And Sky now joins the Beeb.]

Went to see “Slumdog Millionaire” last night not having an inkling what it was about. Had detected the Oscar buzz and noticed the poster image of the lead couple, but genuinely had managed to miss reading, seeing or hearing anything like a review or a trailer. I had even failed to connect some recent Bollywood media references with this film, and not noticed the “Who wants to be a Millionaire” references. So I went in cold, expecting some cheesey chick-flick.

What a treat, on so many levels. The best movie I can recall seeing in a very long time …. spoiler warning ….

On the face of it, it’s Hollywood plot #1, boy meets girl, circumstances drag them apart to near-death experiences, and mixture of fate and determination bring them to the obligatory tight-shot as they finally kiss, love having conquered all. I was actually disappointed that the (Oslo) audience did not get up to dance and cheer as the credits rolled with the Bollywood-style curtain calls. (But then we’ve had surreal cinema audience experiences here before. *)

The 2008 Mumbai hotel and railway station terrorist events must have created some interesting production team meetings, concerned as the film is with Hindu vs Moslem vs the underworld of the Westernization of the Indian economy set against those very same Bombay locations – setting brother against brother – from the perspective of street-wise Moslem kids. Brave stuff.

“Millionaire” provides not only the insidious example of a Western meme creeping in to dominate popular culture, but of course is the vehicle to create the suspense and tension as each “chapter” is played out. Inspired. Inspiring too the sights, sounds and smells of the locations and the characters, especially the child actors playing the eponymous slum-dogs.

Millionaire also provides the “riches” in this rags to Raja, raga-musical tale, where it is so evident that love drives the final gamble. He makes the right choice. It is of course not written, but determined; By all too human intentions.

OK, so maybe the predictable outcome was a little too cheesey, and why did they have to show us a shot of the cell phone falling onto the car seat to signal its later significance. Minor flaws in a well executed emotional whirlwind with some deep and lasting messages. Go see, and don’t fail to get up and dance as the credits roll.

[(*) The previous Oslo fim experience ? The audience laughing at the ironic discovery of the pet puppy hidden amongst the matket produce on the boat, after Apocalypse Now’s Mekong patrol crew had machine-gunned the local occupants . Irony yes, but laugh ?]

[Post Note … and this is reassuring.]

Thanks to Sam for the link to this Grauniad piece. A series I didn’t know, featuring in this edition Niall Ferguson, a historian I’ve barely heard of.

We historians are increasingly using experimental psychology to understand the way we act. It is becoming very clear that our ability to evaluate risk is hedged by all sorts of cognitive biases. It’s a miracle that we get anything right.

I’ve become a transatlantic human being – six months here with my family and six months in Harvard. I abuse caffeine on the way out and alcohol on the way in.

Cognitive biases and habits, and …

I don’t envy the historians of the current period. You have a disappearing decision trail in politics. It’s likely that databases of emails won’t be preserved, and if they are there will be so many that it will be extremely hard to use them. Plus, in investment banks they downgraded the use of email and switched to voicemail for key decisions, because of legal issues.

Oral history is a recipe for complete misrepresentation because almost no one tells the truth, even when they intend to.

Truth eluded in the information age.

[Post Note : For heaven’s sake; Join up the dots between points one and four. It’s not the Oral aspect of history that’s at issue, but the elapsed time between the experience and the expression of it, written or oral. What is expressed is always related to what is experienced, via psychology … all of it ! ]

A 1980 film that passed me by, of a genre that I wouldn’t normally be looking out for anyway … but I discover includes footage of Stevie Lange performing The Stripper with Night, as well as performances from UB40, Pretty Things and B A Robertson. (A track not published in any other recording, except the inevitable YouTube. The clip – including a strip – has been removed, but the sound track is ripped here.) What a voice.

In her current line of voice-coaching and music-production business Stevie is promoting her work with heavy rock band from Virginia  Sekshun 8.

Another great Einstein quote, provided by Steve Peterson in the Hildebrand / Dewey / Rorty thread mentioned earlier on MoQ.Discuss.

“Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of the mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.”

This is my “there is always a hole in any metaphysics” point. And, let’s not forget that ingenious is the root of “engineering”, Dennett’s preferred intentional metaphor for evolutionary processes … cue blind watchmaker … etc.

I linked earlier to the BBC resources aimed at celebrating the 200 and 150 year annivesaries of Darwin and the Origin.

When I saw the “In Our Time” schedule for Darwin last week I had to yawn however. So I also had to smile also when Melvyn in his own newsletter decided not to mention the subject of the series at all, or only in passing in the newsletter about the subsequent week’s subject – Thoreau.

I didn’t think that I needed to write newsletters about Darwin, … there seemed not a lot else to say.

Why oh why did the BBC miss a chance to contribute to the value of Darwin in the evolving world of here and now by going back to the history of his life and times – again ?

OK so it is amazing how much Victorian gentlemen really were working on the right stuff (despite the conservative image of their day) and how the rise in the dominance of science and technology through 20th century wars and economics almost totally obscured that view. Evolution as the most important natural process in human progress was true then, as before and even more so now. The resources of education must be focussed on explaining that point. Contributing to the fluff that takes our eye off that ball was a major gaff by the Beeb.

Still at least Melvyn noticed the real topic, when linking the contemporay rise of US Pragmatism from Darwin, through Thoreau …

I’m always astonished by the range of these great Victorian men.

So come on Melvyn and the Beeb, join up the dots, and stop falling down into the tried and tested silos of subject matter.

Debating the legal niceties never helped anyone but lawyers.

Glad to see the Israel Gaza conflict back in proper focus after the inordinate coverage of the feel-good Hudson Hero story over two days.

Of course phosphorus weapons are legal battlefield weapons, but that gives Israel absolutely no moral right to use them in the densely populated Gaza. Criminal. And they’ve been doing it continuously since December. Criminally cynical too for Israel to launch this offensive over Christmas and New Year and whilst the US administration is in limbo. The UN effectiveness must be strengthened to balance these Christian / US weaknesses.

How does Israel expect any case it has for Levantine lands to be taken seriously when it acts like this ?

Sign this petition at No.10 Downing Street if you want live music to continue at venues in the UK.

Direct intervention by fitting technology based control is rarely the best solution to any human problem.

[Post note – and as Tom pointed out something like a non-amplified brass-band concert can be as loud as an amplified gig, so having the technology-based limiter simply discriminates against musical genres.]

Two excellent articles by Danny Postel, one the last interview with Rorty before his death in 2007, and one shortly after on his brand of atheism.

Links from Steve Peterson commenting on a great thread on Dewey and Hildebrand on MoQ-Discuss, posted by Dave Buchannan and debated again with Matt Kundert.

{Post Note :

Hildebrand’s “The Neopragmatist Turn” on Hildebrand’s web site.

The original post thread has links to Hildebrand’s books on Amazon as of course does his own web site above. Some specific quotes from Hildebrand on Dewey, from the web-site that he edits.

Dewey’s entreaties—that philosophy start from lived experience (practically), motivated by moral ends (meliorism)—are prescriptive but necessarily vague. They pose a challenge to professionalized philosophers, who tend to respond by demanding specifics

… [but, rather than to look for absolute value or reality per se, should instead] …

… have the courage and emotional intelligence to trade certain answers for questions which aim to make life better.

Can’t argue with that – “trading answers for questions”. 

so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

And did they get you to trade
your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
a walk on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish
how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found ?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

(Waters / Gilmour)

Well, did they get you to trade ?
Ever wish you were here ?
Did Wittgenstein, Dewey, Pirsig or Rorty show you the way out of that fly-bottle, or are you a lost soul still running over that same old ground ?}

Interesting reporting on this campaign, on the use of the word “probably”.

Some implying Dawkins was against it in his quip “about as likely as the tooth fairy” and suggesting the word was enforced by advertising regulations against Dawkins wishes, whereas others indicate that the campaign organiser (not Dawkins) had no intention of being dogmatic. I guess the dogmatic Dawkins invites this kind of trouble, even though quip and dogma are miles apart.

This is back to the agnostic / atheist definitional – cup half-full / half-empty – problem. To a theist a non-theist seems to have to be either agnostic or atheist so they can choose the right argument. But to a non-theist the distinction only matters if they are also being dogmatic. “Probably no god” (in the sense the public would understand a theist believes in a god, as a opposed to a sophisticated theologian) is exactly right to any pragmatist who sees no reason to invoke a god – a non-theist. It’s not agnostic; the pragmatist cares about the question, and has decided the answer on balance of evidence, probabilities, etc, like any rational (scientific) pragmatist. A non-theist is a non-dogmatic atheist, a concept that is tough for a dogmatically “faithful” theist to comprehend. Dawkins speaks to people he wants to pick a fight with.