Friday, 31 December 2010

How Adults Make Moral Decisions: Part Four

In the last three posts in this series, I've suggested that the way adults make moral decisions is by asking if they can live with the foreseeable consequences of the actions, and if not, then what changes to the actions might make the goal of those actions achievable in a way they can live with. What adults don't do is look for principles from which to deduce an answer. Their concern is with their conscience, not with what God and Her Angels might think is the right thing to do. This might be how adults make a moral decision, but we can always ask: is it the way they should make it? The answer to this depends on your view of what a person is and how that affects their responsibility and accountability.

You can believe that a person is only able to live a purposeful life through membership in some reasonably-ordered community and as such has a prudential interest in following its rules. (If the society falls apart, so does their life.) Hence their moral obligations and duties arise from the rules of the society: they are accountable for following the rules, and doing so is their defence in the event that, having done so, something really nasty happened as a result.

You can believe that, modulo the interests themselves, everyone has a common conception of what is in their interests and what is not. No matter what you want to achieve in life, being murdered or having a limb chopped off won't help. Nor will loss by theft, arson or negligence of your property, work-in-progress and reputation. Any action which leads to one of these harms can be condemned for that reason, and so made a crime, tort or regulatory breach, depending on how the society wants to handle the administration. Thus actions, decisions and even rules and laws can be judged by their consequences. The prime moral obligation is not foreseeably to cause one of these harms, and the prime defence is that the harm was either not reasonably foreseeable or did not result from the action.

No matter what your views on these subjects, you can independently believe that there are limits to a person's accountability: that there are legitimate excuses for the harm you caused or your breach of the rules. Insanity has long been one, and ignorance of the law has long not been one. You can also decide that there are times when responsibility does not always imply punishment or censure: the light punishments, often judicial warnings, given to "first offenders"" are an example of this. All this gives you, if you want it, what many feel to be a necessary flexibility in the administration of justice and the conduct of social censure and reward.

So far, so flexible. However, if a society says that its citizens must follow the rules and do not need to think about the consequences, and if a defence of following the correct procedures is always effective, then that society has effectively removed the responsibility for decision-making from its citizens and given it to its legislators. It has infantalised its citizenry, who merely need to follow the rules and need not make independent judgements.

Making independent judgements, no matter the rules and expectations of society, is one characteristic of adults and a necessary condition of rational conduct. Adults cannot allow themselves the luxury of "following procedures" but must make up their own minds, and to do this, they must look at consequences as well as rules in order to strike a balance or reach a solution that they can live with.

But if you're someone who wants rules, and duties, and obligations and rights clearly stated, you won't like this. You will prefer people to have to deduce the correct thing to do from your general principles as you interpret them. Plato thought like this, it's the implicit position of deontologists, and many cultures have a strong legalistic streak in them. Of course, Plato wanted to be King, and legalistic cultures are often run by an elite of law-interpreters who don't really trust their people to make decisions. Adults don't much go for being subjects of anyone, whether Kings, priests or bureaucrats. And that, ultimately, is why they reserve the right to make up their own damn minds.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

How Adults Solve Moral Problems: Part Three

The two examples of someone making moral decisions were both about someone deciding if they could live with something they were going to do. I hold this is the prototype of a moral decision. A moral decision differs from a legal, tactical, logistical, business, medical, artistic or any other kind not because of its content, but because we remain responsible for its foreseeable consequences no matter what reasons we had for making it. Nothing and nobody can remove this responsibility, neither God, nor the High Command nor the Categorical Imperative, the teachings of our prophet nor the advice of our lawyers. Moral decisions are taken by ourselves alone. We cannot lay off our responsibility on our culture, God or principles, because it is for us to decide to act according to those principles, that culture or God. It is our decision how we decide how to decide.

And this is the relevant characteristic of an adult: someone who accepts their responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their decisions, their responsibility for choosing how to decide, and for the decision itself. (Deciding how to decide how to decide is equivalent to deciding how to decide, so the regress stops at two paces.) The question "what should I do" invites an answer from an authority, from Emily Post to Halsbury Laws of England, or perhaps guidance from a guru, from Aristotle to L Ron Hubbard, but while the authority can rule, and the guru can suggest, neither removes the responsibility from you. The question "can I live with this?" puts the responsibility where it lies - though it is worth noting that the answer "I can live with it, but that doesn't mean I'm going to do it" is perfectly consistent.

If we accept that morality is about what we should do, we set off in the wrong direction from the first step. It has us arguing about the merits of one authority over another, and the tenability and interpretation of general principles: arguments that have been going nowhere since the Egyptians built the Pyramids. Given two people of equal sincerity, intelligence and good intentions, if they hold inconsistent principles (or inconsistent interpretations of the same principle) then agreement is out of reach. If we accept that morality is about what we can live with, what we can do in good conscience, then we recognise that the discussion is there to persuade, influence, inform, and maybe even convince, the us, the decision-maker. In most circumstances, to call an argument "ad hominem" is dismissive, but part of what makes morality special is that its arguments are properly ad hominem. They are properly directed at the concerns, interests, beliefs, situation and interests of the decision-maker.

Two quick technicalities. First, moral responsibility is not legal responsibility. It's up to the legislature, influenced by whatever theories of the mind they may hear, to decide when a person should not be held to account for the foreseeable consequences of their actions - the scope and limits of legal irresponsibility is itself a moral decision. Moral responsibility applies to anyone capable of acting, because even if we do not use the law to punish someone for an action, we may still decide to exclude them from our daily lives, and that is moral censure as much as it may be prudential good sense.

Second, foreseeable consequences are those that a reasonable person would predict. I know no tax law, but my decision not to pay my dues taxes is unreasonable because I lacked the information I needed (the size of the fine for non-payment) to make it. Being late for a meeting because the train was cancelled is not foreseeable (at least if the weather is clement) because we cannot reasonably work in a world where we can't assume that railway companies might arbitrarily cancel trains. However, my powers of reasonable prediction end when another person has to decide how to respond. The actions of other people in response to our actions are not foreseeable. If I throw a punch in your direction, the blood from your nose is foreseeable, but your reaction is not. You might do many things as a result of many different calculations and reactions. One day you might fight back, and another not. However, some of your responses will be entirely reasonable and in common speech I "shouldn't be surprised" or I "can't complain" if you do them: others will be unreasonable. I can't complain if you take a swing back at me, but I can if you pull out a knife. Such actions are considered possible responses by a reasonable person, but which if any will happen is not reasonably predictable.

Adults make moral decisions by asking what they can live with. How do we best influence them? Treat the problem as a practical one. What would change their minds? What facts would make a decision easy? What are the pulls-and pushes in their decision, what are the trade-offs? Are there any principles they really won't compromise? (For me, it doesn't matter what you threaten me with, I'm going to take an alcoholic drink.) What are their concerns? What actions might mitigate those concerns? Is there a way of doing whatever it is that is acceptable, and are there unacceptable ways? Can they live with it if amends are made for the harms and losses the action might cause? Or is it simply a question of steeling themselves to do it, of overcoming some squeamishness and of accepting the full scope of the responsibility their role places on them? And if so, how do we help them do so? (What we do not do is preach, harangue, threaten, insult, charm, bribe, distract, sweet-talk, promise, or use tricks like reflective listening. Because that's not how you treat equals and colleagues. It's how you treat children. And if you want an adult to punish you for your insult and presumption, treat them as a child. You will deserve everything you get.)

In the next post I will look at the consequences of this position for traditional moral philosophy.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Seasonal Fatuous Advice For All

I thought I would bring you this piece of silliness, to add to all the other silliness of the season, from those people who brought you Lending Money to Irish Property Companies. Posted on The Bank's intranet recently was this, to keep you from slitting your wrists at the thought of a whole Christmas weekend with the in-laws...

"Ten Tips for your Emotional Wellbeing. ABC Corp, one of our Employee Assistance Providers, has these top 10 tips for your Emotional Wellbeing:

1. Get Active! There is no better way to lift low mood than exercise. Any moderate to vigorous activity can enhance general well-being. Try dancing, walking, cycling. Don't forget to eat well and drink lots of water too!

2. Sing Your Heart Out! Recent research has shown that singing a favourite upbeat song increases positive states of mind.

3. Get The Balance Right. It has been proven many times that people with a reasonable work/life balance tend to be happier and healthier.

4. Let Go! People who 'live in the moment' not in the past are mentally more alert and relaxed. Try yoga or Tai Chi.

5. Volunteer. Get the 'feel good factor' – give to others – get involved in charitable causes.

6. Play It Forward. Positive anticipation has been proven to stimulate the brain to expect the best – this then translates into intentionally seeking the best for ourselves. Result – more pleasure, less stress.

7. Accentuate The Good Stuff. Psychological research suggests that reflecting on our achievements – no matter how small- can boost our mood.

8. Feel the fear – Do it anyway! Stepping outside our 'comfort zone' taking a risk every now and again is good for our wellbeing. A sense of achievement, fun and challenge boosts endorphins (our feel good hormones).

9. Find Your Passion. Throwing yourself into an activity, hobby or special interest has a very beneficial effect upon our mental health. Being totally absorbed in any activity reduces the stress hormones.

10. Nurture Your Social Network. Numerous studies have shown that people who spend fun time with family and friends are generally happier and healthier and live longer."

So there you are. Easy as that. What could be holding you back?

Happy Christmas.

(And in a post to follow in the New Year, I'll explain exactly what is silly about this...)

Friday, 24 December 2010

How Adults Solve Moral Problems: Part Two

The next problem has a similar structure as the last one. A large corporation is going to close the factory which provides the living of a small and up until now thriving community in what is really a company town a long way from the nearest big city and industrial park. Two thousand jobs are going, after a couple of years of re-organisations, cost-savings and productivity agreements, and some quite remarkable co-perations from the workforce and Unions, who understood how important it is to keep the jobs in the town. They know what happens to company towns which lose the company: permanent high unemployment passed down the generations and problems with drugs, depression, health and petty crime. The CEO knows this as well, and in a moment of night doubt, the CEO asks if she can, in all conscience, do this thing. She's not asking if she has a legal defence, because, assuming that her HR department are following the rules about consultation, there is no crime anywhere in sight. She's wondering if she can live with herself for causing the misery and degradation that is going to follow.

The following morning, she's just fine with it. First, neither she not the corporation are responsible for the lack of other economic opportunities in or near the town; second, it's not her fault if the locals take to heroin and skunk, that's their decision; third, the local council should be working to attract new employers into the area, and the local MP should be trying to get some Government subsidies to help that process; fourth, there is no rule that says the people have to stay in the town, let them move to where the work is; fifth, it's not her job to look after communities, it's her job to look after the company, and that's what she's doing. They can't go on with that loss-making factory, and they tried hard enough to make it profitable. Maybe, she thinks, they could do more than provide the usual outplacement advice, but what? Well, that's what she has an HR specialist for. Sixth, the only reason they are having to close the factory is the lower costs that competitors are getting by manufacturing in China. If you want a villain, blame the Chinese.

These look very similar to the reasons I gave in the first example. Except I don't like corporations who create employment ghost towns and I want them on the hook.

First, I can argue that the corporation is responsible for the lack of other employment opportunities: the world is covered by company towns and one-industry counties. Multi-employer areas are the exception, not the rule: London has two industries - The City and Whitehall - that all the rest rely on; Washington is a company town; New York falls apart without Wall Street and media. Actually, it's quite hard to think of robustly multi-industry towns. The CEO's company created the town, and now it is destroying it. Third, neither the local council nor the local MP have the skills to find another employer: this is like the NHS closing the hospitals and shutting down the GP's surgeries and saying that the local council should find its own health service. Fourth, everyone can't pack up and go, because how are they going to pay rent when they get to wherever it is they're going? This is England, not Kenya, they can't just build some more shacks in Kibera. I'm agreeing with her on points two and five. Point six is a real cheek: if she and her fellow CEO's hadn't started outsourcing to China in the first place, they wouldn't have let the Chinese create the industrial base in the first place. That's a devil of their own creation.

Now I've got her back on the hook, how does she get off? I'm not going to expect her to keep the factory open. I am going to ask she uses her corporation's vast networks to see if they can find another employer for the town, maybe as a joint venture with investment from both the exiting and the entering companies. I'm going to ask that her company sets up a scholarship program so that the children can see there is a point to doing well at school: they will be able to get out via university. I'm going to ask that the company make zero-interest loans available to help people re-locate if they do find jobs elsewhere, and set up a fund for paying interview expenses to be administered by its own finance department. Any more ideas along those lines, add them to the list. (In a similar vein, the pilot of our first example could ask that the army make some attempt to provide medical services to the children in the school if there are injuries. Of course, that would be a lot harder to do in practice than what we're asking the corporation to do, which is spend a bit of money.)

Notice how I'm not discussing right and wrong. That would get me nowhere. Nor am I appealing to general principles, which for different reasons, would also get me nowhere. I'm keeping the discussion about practicalities, and appealing implicitly, to a sense of fairness or common interest or general decency and thoughtfulness. This isn't what moralists do, but it is what politicians, businessmen and, I rather suspect, priests and other elders do.

In the third part, we will see why the moralists are on the wrong track entirely.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

How To Solve Moral Problems: Part One

Philosophers like to solve moral problems by appealing to principles, and it's what we are supposed to do. Being "principled" is very good, if not always fun. The opposite is "expedient", which may be fun, but isn't very, well, principled. There's just one little catch. Seasoned adults don't use principles to make their decisions. They never have. And since the seasoned adults are in charge, it might behoove philosophers and those who study decision-making to wonder how the grown-ups decide things.

Here is a problem. "Suppose a pilot comes to us with a request for advice: “See, we’re at war with a villainous country called Bad, and my superiors have ordered me to drop some bombs at Placetown in Bad. Now there’s a munitions factory at Placetown, but there’s a children hospital there too. Is it permissible for me to drop the bombs?”

The first thing you have to do is get over your horror at the idea of bombing innocent children. You won't think straight with that in the way. The second thing to notice is that it's not clear what is being asked for. The pilot already has permission - from her superiors. There is one catch, which is that "I was only following orders" was removed as a presumptive defence after World War Two, so she may well be asking if she has a good defence if she is charged with war crimes afterwards. That is a matter for an international war crimes lawyer. What she is asking is something like: "can I, in all good conscience, fly this mission?". (We will assume that she has no religious beliefs that provide her with an unequivocal "no" - if she has, I think she has to ask her superiors that someone else fly the mission. After that, it's between her and her rabbi.)

As I read the problem, a number of questions occurred to me. How close is the munitions plant to the hospital? How is the pilot going to bomb the plant: using a fire-and-forget GPS-linked missile launched from several miles out, a laser-guided smart bomb dropped a lot closer or with dumb bombs aimed by old-fashioned targeting computer? Have similar missions been well-informed as to GPS co-ordinates? Why are the children in the hospital: because of the injuries they received as combatants or because they are suffering from a terminal illness? What is the attitude of the local people towards children: do they regard them as precious possessions - as Westeners do - or do they take the more robust view that if there's one thing people can always make more of, it's children, and that it's the mothers who are precious? Why didn't the authorities re-locate the hospital once they knew there was an insurgent munitions plant next to it? Why did the insurgents put the munitions plant there? How many of her own comrades will be killed if the munitions factory continues to work? Or will they just start another one down the road the next day? Does the pilot have a choice in flying the mission, or will she get a court-martial or a reprimand if she doesn't? If she doesn't fly it, will someone else? Does the pilot have religious beliefs that preclude her from flying aggressive missions like this? Did she understand when she signed up that she might have to fly missions like this? Is it likely that the conflict will be over before the children grow up to be insurgents themselves? Would seeing the hospital go up affect her ability to fly other aggressive missions?

Eventually, the following argument resolved itself. The only reservation about the mission is the possible harm to the children. Assume that the weaponry she is given is accurate enough to hit the munitions factory, and the blast from that weapon would not itself damage the hospital beyond a slight shaking. What will damage the hospital is the blast from the explosives stored in the factory. A blast that will be set off by the pilot's missile, but equally could be set off at random by some clumsy materials handling by the insurgents. The children will be harmed, not by the missile fired at the building next door, but because that building contained explosives. Which were put there by the insurgents, who are cynically using the children's hospital as a human shield. The harm to the children is not caused by the attack on the munitions dump, which would be attacked no matter where it was, but by the decision of the insurgents to put their munitions factory there. And, by the way, by the complicity of the local people in not raising hell when the insurgents did. The fact the local people don't see it that way makes the PR harder but doesn't affect the moral issues. An army cannot be deterred by the use of human shields (exercise for the reader: why not?) - though a civilised army might try to work around the poor bastards being used as shields if they can, just not at the risk of greater harm to its own people.

This argument is intended to make you realise that, assuming the weaponry is well-chosen, the blame for any collateral harm to the children can be seen as not being the pilot's fault (strictly, the fault of her superiors who tasked her with the mission). Most people buy into the idea that it would be the pilot's fault. after all, the very setting of the question assumes that it's the pilot (strictly, her superiors) who has to justify her actions. Whereas it isn't: it's the insurgents who have to provide a moral justification for putting a munitions factory next to a school hospital.

I think the pilot's commanders can properly ask her to do it, and she should carry out the orders, if she is given a smart weapon (laser or GPS) of appropriate destructive force (that is, a small nuclear warhead would not be acceptable). If she believes the weapons are not adequate, she should ask for the appropriate ones. If none are forthcoming, she might request someone else fly it if she believes that her future effectiveness would be compromised by knowing she had caused the deaths of innocent children. That's the situation as I see it.

Which doesn't look anything like a regular moral argument. No appeal to principles, to the relative value of human lives, to our folk intuitions of fairness nor appeals to the rights of the children not to be harmed by a conflict between two groups of people neither of whom have the childrens' well-being in mind. No weighty demand that the pilot's superiors must answer to a higher standard of behaviour than that applied to insurgents. Just some fairly practical considerations about whose explosives did the actual damage and what weapons the pilot will use. Of course, there is an argument about responsibility in there, and that might make it a moral argument, but the assignment of responsibility is more a matter of fact, even if those facts can cut both ways.

In a later post, I'm going to look at another example and see how we deal with that.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Reflecting On A Former Ambition To Be An Academic

Once upon a time I wanted a career in academia. Now I thank God or whoever that I didn't. I've worked in a number of large and small companies since, in industries ranging from railways to telecoms to retail to banking. I've learned financial reporting and accounting, marketing, three programming languages and, of course, have an unhealthy familiarity with Excel, Access, SAS, SQL and computers in general. I've worked for CEOs who have gone to jail, who were in the Israeli Special Forces, and who were borderline con-men: I've also worked for large, institutional world-class companies.

And all I would have done for the same length of time as an academic was teach logic to a never-ending stream of undergraduates, thanking God when I got a bright one. I'm not academic superstar material - I might have had the looks but I didn't have the confidence and self-promotion. No best-sellers and television shows for me.

What has really disappointed me about academia has been the invisibility of the philosophers - which I would have been. Since I left university in the mid-1970's, there have been three high-profile "scientific causes", each one generating substantial grant monies, profitable commercial spin-offs, a great steaming pile of bullshit in the press and public arena, and which have been exploited by politicians and bureaucrats: AIDS; global-warming / climate-change; and the obesity / healthy eating campaign. Additionally, there is the misuse of statistics across the social sciences; the disaster that has been mathematical finance; the running sore of pharmaceutical research and epidemiology; string theory; cold fusion, and the continuing farce of economic forecasting. And that's just reading the headlines.

Where were the philosophers when we needed them? Why did it take a junior economic analyst (Bjorn Lomberg, The Sceptical Environmentalist) to expose the weakness of climate change "science"? Where is the measured methodological appraisal of String Theory we might have expected from Lakatos' students? Where is the controversial but measured book - perhaps co-authored by a journalist, a former technical journal editor and a philosopher - about the quality and reliability of published medical research? Why did it take a journalist (Gary Taubes, The Diet Delusion) to write a detailed expose the utter lack of science behind the current carbohydrate-heavy views on "healthy eating"? Why did it take a maverick options trader with a PhD (Nicolas Nassem Taleb, The Black Swan) to point out the flaws with the basics of the current theories of mathematical finance?

The philosophers might reply that they don't do nutrition, medicine or commenting on physics - except there's a branch of the philosophy of science called "methodology" which is about evaluating scientific theories - nor indeed do they do anything much to do with the daily world, and certainly not the Black-Scholes equation. As philosophers, they are concerned with a number of technical issues and that's it. This is pretty much the standard reply and they would be only the second generation of philosophers to make it. Previous generations of philosophers thought nothing of writing on the proper form of government on Monday, the theory of mind on Tuesday and the concepts of space and time on Wednesday. The Philosopher (Aristotle) wrote on everything from ethics to physics and from rhetoric to biology.

They could also reply that they don't want to say anything about these and other shortcomings. Their fellow academics have careers to make, and they have their reputations to consider. It's professional courtesy not to mention the King's New Clothes. Large corporate bureaucracies see that kind of behaviour as well, but it's all surface: no-one in The Bank says in public that the Operational Risk function is a farce (recently we all got stickers reminding us of what to do if we got a bomb-threat phone call!), but in private it gets no respect. This doesn't matter much because Operational Risk just mess up the lives of bureaucrats like me. But science-free nutritionists advising governments and writing pop diet books have created an overweight population, while the users of Black-Scholes equations have flushed many, many billions of everyone's pensions down the toilet. Letting pseudo-science run free through Whitehall and Washington is not harmless.

Which is one thing. The other is that philosophers aren't supposed to be courteous: they are supposed to upset people so much they get given a double brandy with a hemlock chaser. Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire spent their lives slipping away at night before the Authorities caught them; Bertrand Russell served two jail terms (six months in 1918 and one week in 1949); Hegel had to write in an incomprehensible manner so no-one would notice he was an atheist left-winger; Socrates, the First Philosopher, was assassinated. Is anyone sticking their head above the parapet today? The French have had a good line in provocateurs but the last time I looked, none of them ever did time.

And you know what? I have many dissatisfactions with my current life. But at least I'm doing my job.

Friday, 17 December 2010

St Thomas Aquinas and The American Postgrad

I went looking for philosophy blogs recently. Which is another subject. I found the top ten philosophy blogs on and took a look at Think Tonk. Where its author Clayton Littlejohn discusses a thing called the Doctrine of Double Effect. This is Aquinas' solution to the problem of bad things you didn't intend happening as a result of you doing something good. Aquinas' criterion has four parts and is: the nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral; the agent intends the good effect and not the bad either as a means to the good or as an end itself; the good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficiently grave to justify causing the bad effect; and the agent exercises due diligence to minimise the harm.

Before going any further, remember that this was put forward by a man who was born in 1225 and died in 1274. That was an age so different, they didn't even have syphilis, the first recorded outbreak of which was in 1494. He saw the introduction of at least one devastating military technology in his lifetime: gunpowder. Printing was two hundred years away and America was undiscovered. They had decent steel swords and the deadliest weapon was the longbow. He wasn't thinking about carpet-bombing, prescribing drugs with spirit-sapping side-effects or building dams which would deprive the tribes downstream of water. No-one could do that then. I doubt he intended his criterion to be used to debate the permissibility of precision-bombing munitions factories placed by cynical insurgents next to schools. In fact, it's very hard to work out what he could have had in mind. Sawing off limbs to prevent gangrene, maybe; diplomatic fibbing, most likely.

Today, we understand that even the simple act of breathing has a downside: it creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. People are not carbon-neutral. (I'm not a carbon-facist, but like rats, there's always one within ten yards of you.) It's no problem for us to do something knowing that there will be bad, undesirable, wish-we-could-avoid-it-but-we-can't consequences. Perhaps any significant action cuts both ways, and the only ones that don't are trivial gestures. Maybe the issue is not a formal one about when we can commit actions with downsides, but a substantive one about which downsides should make us re-consider the desirability of the proposed action. Now there's a challenge for a modern St Thomas.

Well, except Think Tonk doesn't look at the DDE itself, but at the comments of another contemporary philosopher, one "Thompson", who doesn't like the idea that we should look at someone's intentions when judging their actions. Then Think Tonk walks straight into the Fallacy of Supplying The Right Assumptions (see later entry) and afterwards heads off into a discussion of intentions and intending as abstract as any you will find this side of... anywhere. I am not going to discuss his argument, because, well, here's the conclusion: "thus, the fact that we do not look inward in deliberating about what to do is not a reason to think that intention has no bearing on permissibility." (This pile-up of negatives reminds me of Rae Langton at her worst.)

So let's look at intention. It seems to me that the question is: can I claim that I intended for the good thing to happen, but not the bad thing that seems to go with it, if I knew that the bad thing did go with it? St Thomas obviously thought that the answer was "yes". St Thomas' world had an idea of foreseeable consequences, but back in 1260, they couldn't see very far. (I'm not sure that St Thomas's world had many "side effects" either - they simply didn't have enough understanding of what caused what to have "side effects". Their world was much more random, and hence much more God-directed.) There was no idea of testing medicines, or food additives, or consumer goods, or anything much. Today, a doctor prescribing metformin, which causes nausea, loss of appetite and diaorreah in about forty per cent of the people who take it, knows very well there is a high probability that the next patient will wish they had never been given the stuff. Here's the question: can the doctor claim she didn't intend the nausea, but did intend the cure, given that both are as probable? (Metformin only provides significant benefits to about a third of the people who take it.) If so, why can't the murderer say they did intend the attack, but not the death?

Well, maybe "intending" means, in these circumstances, nothing more that "wanting to happen"? The doctor wants to reduce your blood sugar and doesn't want you to feel nauseous: she's just chosen a very ineffective way of achieving those two hopes at the same time. (Bad drugs make good doctors look incompetent.) I suspect that's all St Thomas meant by it. "Intention" sounds too subtle, and verges on the logically private: "wanting" has the right common-ness about it. The murderer did want to attack their victim (to scare them) but didn't want to kill them: since the attack was malicious and with a very large knife, I'm going for murder and the I bet the jury agree. I still don't know what the difference between the doctor when prescribing and the doctor when waving knives at her cheating husband. Let me know.

The catch then is that the "intention" clause is pretty weak: everyone can get the right answer to it. And that's why intention should be left out of "permissibility" - it's way too easy to fake. St Thomas could scare people with the knowledge that God would know if they were faking it. Now we know God is AWOL, we're not so bothered about spinning our answers. And that's another difference between St Thomas' world and ours.

Which is a much neater way of getting to a result than paragraphs like this: "While acting for some intention rather than another is something that happens and happens just when we do something, it is not itself something done. To see this, remember that the agent who decides to V could potentially V from any number of intentions. If she were obliged to V from one intention as opposed to another and this was something she did, it too could be the sort of thing that could be done from one intention as opposed to another. Again, if this is a doing, to be done from one intention rather than another, the agent would have to select between possible intentions. A vicious regress looms. It would seem that doing something from one intention rather than another would require completing an endless series of prior acts, something we cannot do. So, since doing something from one intention rather than another is not something we do, it is not something that we concern ourselves with in practical deliberation."

Let me know if a) you understood that the first time you read it, and b) if you think he's right. This is the kind of stuff that gives philosophy a bad name. It's confined to academics, however. Real philosophers tend to be quite snappy writers. (Except Hegel, but he was prolix so that stupid university Chancellors wouldn't get what he was really saying.)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked: Part 25

One summer afternoon I came down the escalator into Waterloo from Waterloo East and saw this vast, waiting crowd. I forget what had happened - probably a points failure or signalling problem. I pass through Waterloo station every weekday and it is never a pleasant experience. It's the largest station in London and the concourse is full of criss-crossing streams of people. Paddington, Liverpool Street and Euston have the same nearly-always-full concourses, but not the sheer scale. Charing Cross over the river in the rush hour is like a county-town terminus on a Saturday afternoon.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked: Part 23

I've had a horrible cough all week. Those nice people at the Walk-In Centre said coughs could last for four weeks and I should just take the pills and potions to get me through the busy day. They mentioned Night Nurse by name. You do sleep, but you do take a while to come round when you wake up. (These are all scans from original film photographs taken with an Olympus OM10 about, oh, in the early 80's.)

Friday, 10 December 2010

"Growing Up" As A Movie Subject - Or Not. Part 2.

So how do you make a movie about "growing up"? Trick question: you can't because there's no such process. You could make a movie about people stopping drugs or binge-drinking or hopping to yet one more job or finally getting their own place... damn, they did, it was called St Elmo's Fire. What can you make a movie about?

Becoming an adult, which is quite a process. What adulthood is not about is "putting aside childish things": by now you should know not to fall into that trap. We make ourselves people by advancing our projects, our plans for our lives, the contributions we want to make to other people, institutions and the arts and sciences. Sounds a little pompous, as well it should. Adults have plans that challenge them. What counts as a challenge depends on the place and time: just getting by with some dignity is pretty damn heroic in Kyrgyzstan, but it's really not enough in Frankfurt for a middle-class engineering graduate.

Adults don't dream their life away and they don't throw it away either. A talented lady surgeon loses her adult status if she gives it all up to have children. She can do what few others can, and that's her obligation to the rest of us. She has to hire a nanny and get back to work. The capable have duties that the plain folk don't have. A tax-collector can throw it all in and paint in Polynesia, but only if they're a better painter than tax-collector.

Adults accept their responsibilities, but do not confuse those with other people's needy demands. Adults don't rescue, but if they have the ability to help and someone asks for that help, then they do. Adults know the difference between rescuing and helping.

Adults have lost most of their illusions, but so they can deal with the real world with clear sight. Illusions are pleasant and it is better to have had them and lost them than never to have been illuded at all. There's something a little dull about people who never had any illusions.

Adults understand that right action is contextual, specific, and depends on your aims, not abstract moral law. This is not something that young people and moral philosophers who want timeless moral principles understand. Adults also understand that in many cases there are no right actions, and there aren't even any less wrong ones.

Adults do apologise for their occasional crass, rude or thoughtless actions. No-one is perfect. They don't apologise for themselves. It doesn't mean they are perfect: an adult is always changing because that's the world they live in. It does mean that they do not allow anyone to make them feel ashamed of themselves. There's always someone out there who can push our buttons, but adults fight it. Or leave.

Especially an adult does not apologise for taking a share of the Good Stuff (however you conceive of the Good Stuff). They go after what they want without worrying if there's enough for everyone else in the queue. Adults accept that they can't take it all and they can't stomp on the competition to get to the trough, but they don't feel guilty when they take what they need.

Finally, an adult doesn't take major shit from anyone. The indignities of everyday life have to be suffered by us all, but major shit gets fought against. This is the final defining moment in the evolution of a black-belt adult, and a knowledge of the arts of self-defense is usually needed.

According to this, a great many people of mature age are not adults. It's not their fault: it never was a common spiritual condition. A consumerist, post-modern capitalist, bureaucratic society and economy doesn't need adults, it needs good little consumers and flexible employees who don't defend their interests, whose projects can be realised by buying things and experiences and buy following "processes", who believe the hype (or at least don't try to see beyond it), who can be guilt-tripped into conformity and leaving the Good Stuff for their Lords and Masters, and who are prepared to take a whole load of shit because you can't take the law into your own hands and you can't fight City Hall. Every one of us, after all, spends the first twenty-one or so years of our lives at the mercy of hormones and examinations, and of teachers and parents whose overwhelming need is to keep us within the limits that they are comfortable with. We spend twenty-one years being rewarded for doing as we are told and punished for being independent or unruly. You need more than just determination to shrug that lot off: you need to know there is an alternative and that it is acceptable.

Now there's a subject for a movie: showing a bunch of adult guys dealing with the overgrown children around them.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

"Growing Up" As A Movie Subject - Or Not. Part One

There's a very badly-written film about how a group of men in their late twenties "grow up". Apparantly the original was a big hit in the Netherlands, but the British version sunk without trace to the bargain bins at Fopp. Sadly I borrowed it from Blockbusters just before I stopped borrowing anything there at all. The writer clearly didn't like the male characters and to judge from his script has had a life full of demanding and judging women. Or maybe that's how he sees them. Right from the opening scene the guys have no chance against Billie Piper's character, who is... well, I'm not sure Ms Piper or the writer understood that most of the audience would assume by the end that she was a closet lesbian: why else would she be going out with such a nebbesh?

What the writer missed is that when someone asks you when you're going to "grow up", they are not asking you about the course of your personal development. They aren't even asking you a question. They are just trying to shame you. "You did something that I didn't like / didn't want you to do / embarrassed me / doesn't fit into my plans / generally pissed me off." That's all it means. They have no idea what they might mean by "growing up" - except "not behaving like a child / idiot / spoiled brat / teenager / whatever", which is sort of circular.

The law says you're an adult when you reach your eighteenth birthday, because that's the age it's decided you can't claim you're a dumb kid with no sense that your actions have consequences for which you are responsible. That's the core of the idea: that you become responsible for the course of your life and the foreseeable consequences of your actions.

By contrast, being a grown-up used to be about taking a role in a community, having a status, a standing, an identity. From which it follows: no community, no grown-ups. There are no grown-ups in the suburbs,because the suburbs aren't a community. Post-modern capitalism attempts to substitute "economy" for "community", so that you're grown-up when you have a job, a pension plan, a mortgage and other debts and possessions. Of course it would: what better than to link a moral virtue with consumption? You can't be a grown-up at the office, because you aren't you there, you're the function. Replaceable by with the same "skill-set", disposable when the management decide to play musical chairs.

Due to the lack of effective birth control, parenthood usually happened around the same time as you took your place in your community. Parenthood was a co-incidence, not a component. One thing a grown-up isn't, and that's the couple with the trophy wailing baby, the trophy pram blocking the aisles, the trophy SUV blocking traffic as they try to turn right, the two-salary mortgage, the wedding plans and an air of entitlement as strong as the smell of a brewery at fresh hops time. Consumer toys make them consumers, not grown-ups or parents.

So if we can't be grown-up the old-fashioned way, is there a new-fashioned way that makes sense? It's tempting to suppose it's about behaviour: dignity, restraint, appropriate playfulness, and other such. The catch that a child can behave like that - even if it's slightly scary when they do. Personally, I don't think you're a grown-up until you've been made redundant at short notice and learned that you can't just "get a job", but that's really about learning a little humility. I suspect surgeons don't "grow-up" until they've had their first death on the table, but that's about professionalism, not moral fiber. "Grown-up" is as opposed to "child": the kids sleep in the back of the car after a long day out, the grown-ups drive them home and tuck them up in bed. Grown-ups can be depended on by children and won't deepen the insecurities of women; they are reliable, trustworthy, don't say they can do what they can't and do do what they say they can. Amongst men, grown-ups deliver and amongst women and children, grown-up men protect.

That's the idea, anyway. The truth is that "grown-ups" only exist in the eyes of children. Just as every generation deplores those younger for having no manners and being functionally illiterate, so every generation wonders who amongst its own can replace the grown-ups it knew when it was young. No-one can, because those very grown-ups were wondering the same thing. If you're over thirty, have stopped binge-drinking and don't do drugs, hold down a job, don't live with your parents, don't expect other people to fix you, exercise some financial caution and generally keep your promises, you're a grown-up. If you're still calling everyone "dahling" or living off debt and dodgy jobs, you have a way to go. You can ignore your parents when they ask when you're going to grow up - they are just resentful you haven't produced a grandchild for them - and you can ignore your girlfriend as well - she has to learn that other people can't ease that chronic insecurity she feels.

In the next post, I'll talk about what you can make a movie about, if you can't make one about "growing up"

Monday, 6 December 2010

Why Philosophy?

There's an article on Arts and Letters Daily in the New York Times that asks philosophers why they study the subject, and maybe why other people should. And suitably judged and academic their answers are. Here's mine.

Why Philosophy? Because if you haven't studied epistemology, basic mathematical logic, informal logic, rhetoric and moral philosophy you are going to be hoodwinked by every charlatan and false priest who can string together words - or worse, you will simply ignore it all for fear of being hoodwinked and learn nothing. You wouldn't go out on the streets without having the basic skills of self-defence, would you? Oh. That's right. Almost all of us do. That's why you don't tell that irritating jerk to speak softly or not at all (because you know you can't handle yourself in a fight), and it's why you let people talk the most utter crap (partly because you're polite, but mostly because you can't handle yourself in an argument).

The same line has you learning some science and hence some mathematics as well - especially statistics and statistical reasoning. Oh. And law. And medicine. You have plenty of time. What else are you going to do? Take a Business Studies degree? Read a Dan Brown novel? Prepare yourself for the endless fight against bullshit, spin and ignorance that is the life of an engaged adult in today's world: start with a class in self-defence and a short reading list in Western Philosophy. Aristotle's Nichomanean Ethics, Descartes' Meditations, Locke's Essay On The Human Understanding, J S Mill's On Liberty, William James' Pragmatism, Imre Lakatos' Proofs and Refutations, Karl Popper's Conjectures and Refutations. Come back for the reading list on informal logic and statistical reasoning later.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Generations Game

It's been Diversity Week at The Bank. In common with all large institutional British companies, The Bank is pretty much British, white and middle-class, except for a handful of second-generation Indians and Chinese/Hong Kong/Japanese middle-class graduates, and the usual smattering of EC and ex-Colonial white middle-class graduates whose partners have real jobs in the City. You will search for a long long time before you see a West Indian or an African face in the Bank and even longer if you look in the ranks of "senior management" and above. Now this is partly because most of the British population is white (check the statistics - the rest of Britain is not like East London) and you need to be half-way numerate and literate, hence educated - or at least have a Business Studies degree - and hence middle-class, to work in banking. In other words, you're going to have a tough time demonstrating a lot of Diversity - compared with, say, an inner-London Local Council.

They did "Generational Diversity" and trotted out a graphic with Boomers, Generation Y and Generation X. It's a hoot. I've edited the graphic to protect my sources so you can chuckle away. For one thing, these are the US generations, not the UK ones, but that's really just a quibble.

The “Generations” idea isn’t serious psycho-sociology, or whatever discipline it should fall into. It’s a marketing device: you’d never heard of “The Greatest Generation” until “Saving Private Ryan”, “Band of Brothers” and all those other Second World War TV series and books. The idea that people will have similar attitudes and expectations just because they were born in the same (say) ten-year period is about as silly as astrology – except that astrology does a lot more detail. There was a spate of petty house-breakings in the early 1980’s: that had nothing to do with the weak moral fibre of the young men born twenty years previously, it was caused by the increased availability of cocaine and heroin combined with the availability of an easily stolen, easily-fenced high-value item: the video player. The disillusion of older people with corporations is not a function of when they were born: it’s how anyone would feel when they have seen all their friends and neighbours get dumped out of work because their employers are run by barely competent, socially irresponsible stock-market cronies. Career dynamics mean that you don’t see this happening to you and yours until you hit thirty-five or so. (But let’s not get into politics.) The attitudes of age-grouped people are due to their experiences, not their date of birth or even the circumstances of their birth. That puts politicians, bureaucrats and business managers on the hook for those attitudes – how much nicer to say it’s because there was no Internet when the disgruntled were born.

Not everyone is included in the “Generation”. Generation Y are supposed to have “multi-cultural ease”. Really? This applies to UK Indian boys who import village girls from back home because they find the Indian girls they went to school with too Westernised? How about the West Indians boys in Brixton who call anyone who aims to be a white-collar worker a “Coconut”? Or the young white lads in the National Front? Not so much. What it means is that nice middle-class graduate boys and girls of many ethnicities get on with each other and eat each other’s food – which is not surprising because it's not the ethnicity that's important but the middle-class graduate bit. Englishmen were marrying Indian women way back in the 1800’s. Attraction has always been ethnicity-free and it has always been culture-specific (smart people mix with smart people, cool people with cool people, outcasts with outcasts, normals with normals).

Remember, “Generations” is a marketing game, so the base population is the one your client can sell to. In the polarised world of post-modern capitalism, that tends to mean those nice middle-class graduate boys and girls of many ethnicities. They’re the ones with the money – outside the City. While we’re on the cultural thing, the “Generation” excludes people with strong morals (aka “religious beliefs”), other assorted outcasts and I’m not so sure it doesn’t exclude all the quiet apolitical people who do their jobs, raise their children to be reasonable people and have never been to an Apple Store or a steampunk event. Within whoever is left, some people will have had good luck, some bad luck, some were just born mess-ups and a few were born into money, contacts and influence. Even if they all went to the same school back in the day, they haven’t had the same lives and may have little in common with one another except a superannuated teenage pop culture.

Look at the details. Notice how "autonomy regarding work tasks" is a value for the older guys but not the younger? Actually, everyone wants that, but it's not so possible with young folk who do the junior and more process-bound roles. How convenient that they don't want it!

The question is why a serious company such as The Bank would go in for this twaddle. In this case, it's an easy way to tick a box no-one cares about anyway. And some people call me cynical.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Untitled (Photographs Two)

Three more photographs, two taken on a trip to my Osteo (earlier entries passim) and one more from the walk round Virginia Water.

(The GPO Tower Across A Building Site)

(The Gulley, Red Leaves)

(The Stone Lawn, Harley Street)

Monday, 29 November 2010

Employment Market Opportunists Number 15: The Money Launderer Again

This week's dodgy e-mail came from someone's mailing list. The lead-in name is Here you go...


Worldwide association Auction Centre , based in the United States, is looking for new assistants for cooperation at distant office, in the United Kingdom. We propose flexible schedules full-time and part-time available. These careers concentrate on providing administrative representation in online auction sales.
Auction Centre presents best auction decisions, concentrated on market research and growth as well as database control.
The main duties of the job as a Representative will include but are not limited to: compiling and maintaining records of business transactions; preparing and sending out invoices and checks; performing basic bookkeeping and routine tasks such as operating the administrative and partially financial fields of the Auction Centre activities, preparing payroll, and other office activities.

Professional Characteristics:
- Giving a priority to customer needs manager
- Demonstrates a high level of personal accountability
- Thinks about the team first over individual issues

Basic Requirements:
- Internet Access
- Microsoft Office
- Basic Accounting Skills

If you are interested in this job please contact us via email.

Have a happy day,
Auction Centre Team

By now, you don't need me to tell you this is a 100% money-laundering scam. Test yourself on how many implausible things you can find. Whoever wrote had English as their second European language and French as their first ("We propose flexible schedules"). That means West Africa - nah - or the Far East. Is this Vietnamese? I suspect the "have a happy day" is a giveaway - it's an American thing, so we're looking for French with an American influence. I'm going with Vietnam here.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Reflections on Holly Golightly

Just what is it about Breakfast at Tiffany's and Holly Golightly? There's La Hepburn's look and performance, of course. There's a nicely-judged masala of silly comedy (Micky Rooney), adult stuff (George Peppard and Patricia Neal), romance, heartbreak (Holly's previous husband) and some neat legerdemain with Holly's weekly visits to the crime boss. There's the bits where Holly makes fools of the men she suckers in nightclubs and her ease with cafe society - very appealing to teenage girls of all ages - and the collapse of her dreams of marrying into wealth, which is also very reassuring to suburban teenage girls everywhere, as it confirms that they aren't missing a trick because there are no tricks to miss. Most of all there is the portrayal of life as dizzy and basically innocent fun. With handsome men. Which, oddly, is very appealing to teenage girls everywhere. It's so easy to get a bit of Holly for yourself. Say "Darling" and change your mind a lot, and avoid anything that feels remotely serious.

Holly Golightly was a role model for many thousands of women of my generation. It was a long time before I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's. When I did, I saw fifteen minutes of Holly Golightly and said "Margie". Margie behaved as if she was going to marry up to some Kensington Male, and for a long time we thought that was a real ambition. So did she, which might explain her breakdown in early middle age when it had clearly reached a point where it wasn't going to happen. First, she didn't quite have the looks to compete with the Guildford Girls; second, I'm not sure she had the tolerance for functional sex needed for the task; third, no-one raised in that household with those parents in that marriage could possibly get the idea that marriage was desirable. She thought of men as something to be manipulated and tolerated, and that's not how men think of themselves. I suspect she understood somewhere in her psyche where secrets are recognised but never spoken that her life was not going anywhere special and being Holly throughout her twenties gave her a way to pretend it was. After all, Holly herself falls romantically for a writer who has so far been supported by a wealthy sponsor. (A relationship as far as I know used twice in mainstream movies: the other one is in An American In Paris.) But whereas Holly had actually left a perfectly fine - if backwoods - marriage, Margie had never seen one. Holly had a role model for the future of her relationship with George Peppard: Margie didn't.

That generation of women could use Holly as a role-model because they didn't understand the details. Today's girls do understand the details: for one thing, there is no way they can get a flat anywhere in Manhattan (no-one can). For another, they know that her early mornings and general breeziness are sustained by taking drugs - maybe the amphetamines were better back then, but I'm betting the real Hollies all blew a little pot to come down after a night running the suckers round the nightclubs. Above all, today's girls have jobs and have had since they left education. The job might be as a Good Mother or it might be as an HR Drone, but it's a job, and likely more secure than any partner's. I'm guessing the suburban girl looks at Breakfast at Tiffany's and sees it as an historical curio: Audrey's glamour is still there, but it's the glamour of a museum piece, like a Fortuny dress in the V&A. Your contemporary suburban girl knows that modern glamour takes luck, hard work and a single-minded ambition: Victoria Beckham taught her that.

None of which stops the opening of Breakfast at Tiffany's being one of the Top Five Movie Openings Of All Time. Or one of the best constructed stories in the movies. It may be time to retire it from "iconic" to "historical curio" though.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Alasdair MacIntyre and Fantasy Moral Philosophy

There's a neat article on Alasdair MacIntyre on Arts and Letters Daily. It's broadly approving of the Great Man, which you can tell by this quote:

"Ever since he published his key text After Virtue in 1981, he has argued that moral behaviour begins with the good practice of a profession, trade, or art: playing the violin, cutting hair, brick-laying, teaching philosophy. Through these everyday social practices, he maintains, people develop the appropriate virtues. In other words, the virtues necessary for human flourishing are not a result of the top-down application of abstract ethical principles, but the development of good character in everyday life.... MacIntyre yearns for a single, shared view of the good life as opposed to modern pluralism’s assumption that there can be many competing views of how to live well."

I bet you were nodding along, if not admiring the solemn seriousness of it all. "Good practice of a profession", "everyday social practices", "appropriate virtues", "development of good character in everyday life", "single, shared view of the good life". How many questions can you beg in so few phrases? And how much naivety about people can you show?

There is absolutely no connection between being good at your trade and being a decent person. In fact, everything I know about being any good at anything tells me that the relationship is slightly negative: the better you are at your trade, the more time and energy you have put into it and the less you have for family, friends and assorted Good Deeds. I have met people with very high energy levels who can consult with McKinsey, sit on the board of a charity, snowboard at the weekend and play with the kids - but they had the salaries to afford it. I have also met people who are not very good at anything much, oh, except being parents and citizens.

What irritates me is the implicit assumption that the world is organised in such a way that we can thrive, feed our families and be fulfilled craftsmen and virtuous at the same time. How does anyone thrive on a nurse's salary? How does anyone live honestly when they have to bribe the railway clerks to buy a ticket? How does someone even learn a craft if their employer has no training programme and keeps dumbing-down the work? And who said that we would all fall in love with the girl (or boy) next door? Given the make-up of households today, the odds against there even being a girl (or boy) next door are shorter than you might think.

There is no guarantee we will meet people with whom we can develop loving relationships, or that we will find someone to employ us to do something we find satisfying. Many people have such limited opportunities and hard circumstances that religion or whiskey are the only way they can get through the interminable months. Others enter their adult years so emotionally bruised and suspicious that they could not start and then sustain the relationships needed to work and love well. And so many of us turn to substitutes. There is nothing ignoble about substitutes, if we have little chance of getting the real thing. The religious enthusiasts, New Age mystics, compulsive computer-gamers and sorrow-drowners should be left alone: it is simply impolite to tell them they are missing out without also showing them how they could start to live well despite these disadvantages.

As for the idea that we should have a shared idea of the Good Life? How excellent that sounds, until you remember that we live in a world where there is not enough of anything worth having. There's sorrow, poverty, starvation, ill-health, contempt, ignorance, hatred and anger for every man and woman alive, with some over for seconds all round. The good stuff is in short supply - sunshine in Northern Europe, rain in Chad - because that's the way of the world. It's actually better for us to have different ideas of what the good stuff is: that way more of us might get satisfied. If you like fast cars and I like works of art, we can both satisfy ourselves without competing: if everyone agrees that Pre-Raphaelite art is the thing, almost all of them are going to be disappointed.

It simply won't do to pontificate in such a circular manner with assumptions about the world that just aren't true. It's too much reading Aristotle, of course. You have to have absorbed Aristotle to use words like "virtue" and mean it. Aristotle could do it because he was writing and speaking for an elite and wealthy audience, not merchants, barbers and brick-layers. (I have a feeling he says that such people can't actually live virtuous lives because their pursuits won't let them.) Our modern philosophers are not, and it would be a cruelty to their students and readers if they did. We need philosophers who are going to deal with the real world - one in which there is not even a link between obtaining a degree in philosophy and subsequently finding employment, and no link between employment and being able to afford somewhere to live an independent life.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Why Business Insight Hurts The Head

I have a colleague who has a PhD in Algebraic Topology. He’s working on Customer Insight, which is the fancy name companies give to crawling through masses of data trying to figure out how to squeeze and extra buck out of people. The other day I asked him, by way of idle chatter, if he ever wondered why it was that he could calculate homology groups in his head but found the insight work as hurtful to the head, if not more so. Somehow it shouldn't be harder to make decent progress getting an answer from a database than with a long exact sequence.

It’s the details, we agreed. Abstract topological spaces tend to be fairly simple, because they are a) infinite and b) smooth. It’s the finite world that’s tricky: think of the thousands of pages of alleged proof of the classification of finite groups. Infinite groups are pretty much a doddle by comparison. Or classifying manifolds: it’s only difficult in four dimensions, because there’s a trick that makes it simple that works in five or more.

Business analysis is more like combinatorics. It’s finite, with a ton of fiddly details. If you’re an analyst and you don’t have a report with something like “Assign a sale to the X channel unless it’s Thursday and the application came through the internet from Scotland, when you should assign it the Y channel unless it’s for a gadget not a widget” – if you don’t have something like that, your Sales people aren’t trying hard enough. Or you have really good data stewardship.

In business we deal with a large number of tables with a large number of fields each with its own often idiosyncratic definition. Getting data for a business problem goes through the following stages:

Can we translate the problem into data we have?
If not exactly, how inexactly? How good do we think the surrogate variables are?
Can we get data for a simpler version of the problem that still gives us a good decision?
Where do I get that data?
How reliable is it?
How do I link all those tables together?
How do I get the records I want out of that monster?
What bit of syntax have I got wrong this time?
What do you mean “fieldname sally does not exist in object fred?”

And let’s not even get into incompatible date formats, converting data types, converting one set of indicator values to another, using case statements to define groupings and the fiddly syntax of SQL / SAS.

It’s way easier to calculate the homology group of the direct product of a torus with a Klein bottle.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Untitled (Photographs One)

Whenever I have taken a week off this year, the weather has turned to a grey damp mush. My colleagues have planned their own holidays around not using the same week as me. It's an office joke. Except one day on the last week off when the weather was sunny and I went for a brisk lap round Virginia Water. Armed only with the Sony Ericsson C510, I took these.

(The Red Tree)

(The Copse)

(The Red Leaves)

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Movies For The Naive: Outing "Brief Encounter"

For years I heard people talking about Brief Encounter. It was a deeply moving study of unrequited love, middle-class self-control, a Noel Coward script, excellent acting and some wonderful black-and-white photography.

Finally, I was in the room when it was on television. I settled down to watch it, and no more than twenty minutes in turned to the others in the room and said "you know this is about a gay relationship, right?"

You need some context. It was 1947. Britain had been at war for six years until 1945 and the soldiers were still returning in 1947. For those years, the British did not give up sex. Indeed, they committed adultery, casual affairs, knee-tremblers, and the men shagged foreign women while their girlfriends wrote them Dear John letters. All of which was just fine while the Germans were throwing bombs and bullets around, but not so good when they weren't. And so began one of the larger exercises in society-wide denial. The English were not, in 1947, clueless about sex, illicit affairs and one-night-stands. If today a man as good-looking as Trevor Howard met a woman as handsome as Celia Johnson, he would entertain the thought that they might fool around a little. And so would she. Newsflash: people are much the same now as they ever were.

The giveaway scene is in Stephen's flat, which Alec and Laura have borrowed for an evening alone. Stephen returns unexpectedly and Laura leaves quickly, leaving her scarf behind. Stephen sees the scarf and holds it up accusingly saying to Alec "I'm disappointed in you. I thought you'd stopped this sort of thing."

A remark that makes no sense made between two single professional men in their thirties in 1947. But which makes complete sense if it's a man's scarf. This is Noel Coward, not some hack who might very well have written the line by accident. The Master knew exactly what he was writing and what it might mean. It was his one explicit clue.

My English Literature studying companions would have nothing of it. I didn't understand that the story was about "Laura's...horror at the thought of betraying her husband and her settled moral values, tempted though she is by the force of a love affair. Indeed, it is this very tension which has made the film such an enduring favourite. The values which Laura precariously, but ultimately successfully, clings to were widely shared and respected (if not always observed) at the time of the film's original setting..." (Wikipedia).

Yes. Right. You go on believing Celia Johnson wasn't playing a man in disguise. The movie was a huge hit because it showed told an Official Truth its audience wanted spreading: "There dear, that's how it was for me when you were in Africa / Sicily / Normandy."

As if.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Employment Market Opportunists Number 13: The Franchiser

Read this and try not to gag on the fluff...

"Hi Seven Dials

I’d love the opportunity to talk to you about your CV! Your credentials are very impressive, your background and track record closely resemble some other highly successful individuals. We have worked with many such professionals and helped them realize their dreams to become successful entrepreneurs. Based on your CV, I can see that you are quite accomplished in your field and may welcome the chance to apply your expertise in a more entrepreneurial setting.

Recession has touched us all, but some industries have turned it into a business growth opportunity. Franchising is one industry where success, profitability and economic stability have actually made incremental strides. My role is to carefully select and personally invite qualified individuals to explore franchising in all its potential and you fit the profile.

With your background in management and leadership positions adding weight to your credentials, I am confident that you are likely a great fit. We know you have the initiative, skills and educational qualifications that are the building blocks of a successful business. Finding the missing link - the right franchise opportunity - will be a breeze with our help and advice. The research, qualification and application services I provide costs you absolutely nothing.

Imagine the possibility of applying your experience in a business of your own, increasing your earning potential, gaining the flexibility of working your own hours in a career you enjoy and more importantly never having to worry about losing your job again. It doesn’t have to be a pipe dream anymore! Here’s a chance at work-life balance like never before!

Please visit and find out more information about my services. Once you are there, fill out the “Get Started Today” form and I’ll give you a call within 48 hours to discuss the next steps.

Best regards,

Rachel Taylor
Franchising Coordinator"

MyFranchiseCareer is a real company.  It's a recruiter for various franchisers. Franchising is where you pay for someone to supply their branding, operations and product and then they take about 10% off the top. That's what we did at Hertz back in the day.

My MacBook Pro's Mail thought this message was Junk Mail. Right on.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Employment Market Opportunists Number 11: The Fishing Ad

It comes as a shock to many when they find out that a number of job advertisements are not advertising actual jobs at all. In the old days you could tell them because you would ask the agency about the fantastic role in the window and they would tell you it had just been filled. But while you were here, are you registered with them and what are you looking for?

Fishing ads. Here's a goodie, from Total Jobs.

Time Series Analyst needed to make a difference, London, 30 – 45k

Date posted:08/10/2010 15:21
Job type:Permanent
Company:Corporate Recruiter Network Ltd
Contact:Sarah Gray
Ref:Totaljobs/TJ/1560/SCJob ID:48735774

Time Series Analyst needed to make a difference, London, 30 – 45k
Remember when you started out with the idea to get into finance but somehow ended up elsewhere – or maybe you suddenly fancy a change and the opportunity to apply your expertise to the fabulously rewarding world of finance. Well, here is your opportunity to move from any industry into the fast paced high flying world of banking. As long as you have strong Time Series regression modelling, analysis and forecasting experience, the door is open to jump ship into a fantastic banking role giving you the means to train in finance, whilst building on your existing skills.
To apply all you need is:

* An analytical mind, set on success
* A passion for econometrics / statistics / numerical analytics
* Preferably with SAS experience, but if not then an aptitude for programming and a desire to learn SAS, if you can use SPSS syntax, STATA etc
* Strong technical Time Series ability and forecasting experience in a commercial environment
In return you will enter a team of like minded professionals in a dynamic and proactive working environment. You will receive a hefty remuneration package depending on the skills and degree of experience you bring. Grasp this opportunity with both hands and get on the spaghetti junction a role in finance offers.
Send your CV now for a discussion on what opportunities we have in your area.
Yorkshire, London, Manchester, Gloucester, Cardiff, Essex, Bristol, Durham, Nottingham, Lincoln, Herefordshire, Worcester, Warwick, Kent, Surrey, Reading, Oxford, Wiltshire…

There's a website for Corporate Recruiter Network Ltd and it looks okay at first glance. Their address is Admiral's Way in Docklands, but the photograph is of the landmark One Canada Place building. And they have about 380 jobs on file. For number-crunchers in SAS / Business Objects / SPSS and other such across Credit Risk, econometrics, direct mail and other such areas. 380 jobs. Nah. Look more closely and a LOT of the jobs look the same. And how many people are handling these jobs? Sarah Grey. The busiest employment consultant in London. There's a photograph of an office with fancy logos and all, but somehow I'm not sure I believe it.

For me, the first giveaway is that the ad looks like it's for a specific job, but ends with "send you CV now for a discussion of what opportunities we have...". The second is that they are waving "banking" in front of you. There's two types of "banking": retail and investment. The money is in investment banking and you need PhD's to crunch numbers for Morgan Stanley. If the job is paying £40k, it's in a retail bank such as where I work and it's strictly non-glamorous.

I call something fishy fishy.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Just A Phase I'm Going Through

I spent a while a few nights ago not booking a ticket to and an hotel in Paris. For a couple of days. I'd take in the monumental Basquiat exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Wander round. Go home. But I didn't book the ticket. Airfare and hotel would have been £400-£500. Why would I want to pay that to be aloine in Paris when I could be alone in London for free? Because that's the point: I would be on my own. I haven't been on an "away" holiday - except for a short break to see my friends in Utrecht and a trip to Nice - since I broke up with my last girlfriend. Two years ago.

The emotional truth of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood was that I was alone, as in lonely. When my parents moved us from Bexleyheath to Teddington in the summer of 1967, the boys and girls in my class got up a collection and bought me a car for my Scalextric. We went ten-pin bowling. I don't know if that makes me popular. I'm not sure I felt as if I belonged at my own leaving do.

I was one of those children who say they don't have any friends. I didn't share anyone's life, see the inside of their homes, meet their parents. Except Geoff Mason, who was another slight misfit at Erith Grammar. We hung out from time to time, but that was it. We didn't go off on any adventures (we were eleven years old: going into central London would have been an adventure). And a guy called Derek Hasted who was into model railways and at Junior School played the descant recorder well enough to get to play the treble recorder (as I did) and later, as I've just discovered through Google+Facebook, became a guitar teacher and runs a number of guitar groups.

You can live a life on your own right up until the day it occurs to you that everyone else has a partner and you're the Old Guy With No Friends Of Their Own. Slightly creepy. I've started seeing myself as a creepy old guy, and if you don't shake that suspicion, you're done for. If someone doesn't validate you by finding you sexually attractive and pronto, you start to want not to be in other people's company. Because when you are you feel creepy. That's how I feel.

If I'm feeling ironic, I'll say that I can remember either what I used to do with attractive women, or why I used to do it, but not both at the same time. Ha ha. I've got so used to not having someone to share my sexual feelings with, I barely let myself have any, lest I remember how nasty the bitterness of sexual disappointment is. How it alters everything I say and do and how it stains everything else I feel. And then there are days when I think I would rather feel that than feel the bland nullity I usually feel. Feeling-good becomes feeling-good-because-you're-not-feeling-bad. Not feeling-good-because-you-got-laid-last-night-and-it-was-fabulous.

I have lost the sense that other people are magic. That they can and will make my life better, enhance it, add to it, and otherwise make getting out of bed a better idea. Lose that and you're left with habit as the only reason for leaving the front door.

This too shall pass, as we say in AA. And the sooner it does the better. But right now, it's where I am. And if I don't share it and name it, it will go on being where I am.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Oh Comely - The Official Magazine of Pixie Girls Everywhere

The third edition of Oh Comely is out. I found a copy of the second edition about five weeks ago in one of the many absurdly-well-stocked newsagents in Soho and Charlotte Street. (Those newsagents have magazines - mostly fashion, style and design - that you couldn't even find in Borders before it went broke. I'm pretty sure there isn't a newsagent outside that square mile anywhere near as well-stocked. Certainly not W H Smug.) It describes itself as "a magazine about people and their quirks and their creativity, rather than money and what it can buy". If it were any more cute, it would be twee, and it is so girly it could never be gay. It took me a while to understand what it is, but it's the long-awaited official Pixie Girl Magazine.

To understand that, you have to know what a Pixie Girl is. She isn't the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" of the movies, though they may look alike. MPDG's are a male fantasy. Real Pixie Girls are, well, they look like Nadia Dahlawi and Sara Jade, who are not only the record label Young and Lost Club, but also damn near reference PG's.

The PG is feminine without being sexual, and attracted to all things slightly insubstantial (cupcakes, embroidery, folk music, non-corporate careers). Confident without being assertive, she yet has an air of uncertainty, and while she isn't a Material Girl she does like the trinkets and objects she surrounds herself with. They can be promoted without being ambitious and while they would never admit to husband-hunting, when they grow up, PG's become those self-satisfied well-off suburban wives and mothers (aka "Twickenham Wives") you see during the day in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Guildford, Putney and other such places. No-one was ever a PG at school: it's something that happens to a girl in the summer between the school and university.

The magazine has many nice moments and lots of wistful photographs of pretty girls. The essays and interviews are refreshingly not about successful people, and I could buy it just for the quirky decision tree at the back. The guiding lights / editors are liz bennett and des tan (it's a lower-case kind of magazine) and they seem to have decided that they're tired of the usual editorial tone of modern magazines, which, let's be honest, hasn't changed much since the early 1990's and is of marginal relevance to the 2010's. It's also not about money, just like it says, and that's probably what attracts me to it.

Buy a copy. Really. Enter a gentler world.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Promotion As An Anti-Climax

I have done my share of bitching and moaning about The Bank. And I will do some more when they deserve it. But a couple of weeks ago something happened that, well, in cliche-land it would have taken me by surprise, but this is the real world.

Last summer I'd taken a job below my personal pay band because I had had a couple of bad appraisals (the justice of which were mixed), I didn't fit in with any of the jobs on my grade but nor did they want to lose me, and nor did I want to be unemployed. The rules gave me three years' salary protection, but there would be no pay rises. After that, HR could cut my salary back to match the grade if they so chose.
Absent that threat, I couldn't care about grades.

So I came back from a week's break and my new line manager took me aside and told me that they were prepared to offer me a senior analyst role that was in the same pay band as I am. They have been interviewing for a couple of months and the people with more skills than me won't take the job (not enough money, not CV-enhancing enough), whereas the people who will take the job are way short on my skills. Which I knew. I said "I should just shut and say thank you, shouldn't I?" Which was what I did. What I didn't do was feel a deep sense of relief, a sudden uprush of gratitude, a lightening of the spirit or any great urge to rush out and celebrate. I didn't even rush to tell my friends. I didn't even feel a I-told-you-so victory.

Instead, my back and shoulders locked up and became so painful I had to go see my osteopath on Harley Street. And that's where my emotions are: locked. I have no idea what I'm feeling at the moment. I've spent the last fifteen months under the threat of having my salary cut, and on an fifteen month job interview. You might unwind from that in an instant, but I can't.

I've felt lost since. Before I was someone trying to remove a threat to their salary. Now I'm not. Now I have to figure out what I do next. I have to keep up the same pace I've been doing to prove myself, and maybe even exceed it. I have two newbies to train over the next few months, which I can turn into a learning and CV-enhancing opportunity. But right now I feel lost. I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing. Not for The Bank, but for me.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Guru Advice and The Real Seven Habits

I mentioned that all the management trainers mentioned Stephen Covey's book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I have no intention of reading it and fortunately I don't need to. Mr Covey has provided a useful summary on his website, and it's that I'm going to refer to. The Habits are fairly simple, it's the gloss he puts on them that's objectionable, but I'm not going to discuss it.

Habit One tells you to focus on you Circle of Influence (what you can do something about) instead of their Circle of Concern (what you worry about but can't change); Habit Two tells you to develop an Personal Mission Statement, defining what you want to do, on your "plan for success"; Habit Three suggests you do what's important to you first; Habit Four, that you should stick to your true feelings and commitments, express your ideas with courage and believe there is plenty for everybody; Habit Five suggests you should listen to what people say before rushing in to say your piece; Habit Six that you value the differences between people so you can co-operate with others who can do things you can't; and Habit Seven suggests you should exercise, eat well, keep learning, make meaningful friendships and practice meditation or some other spiritual discipline. You can guess there is a noticeable lack of statistical tables contrasting the surveyed behaviour of "effective" people with that of "ineffective" people. It isn't that kind of book. It's a guru book. It's sold in the gajillions, but nobody knows how many of those copies were abandoned fifty pages in and turned to good use as a door-stop (it's a big book).

There are four rules for pseudo-guru advice. It should be unqualified in scope and apple-pie in content, so you're not likely to suffer prima facie disagreement; it should be something people don't do naturally or can't do easily, so we can get some good guilt trips going; it must have no political consequences; and it should not be an analytical discussion of the ideas involved, let alone refer to actual psychological research (therapies and advice come out as mostly ineffective when researched). One of the rules must be that you are responsible for the state of your life and for changing it. In self-help literature, the economy and politics is random like the weather. It wasn't Wal-Mart that put your Mom-and-Pop store out of business, it was your own damn inability to adapt to the times. Gurus never say "get on your bike" but only because their editor told them it would make them look unsympathetic. This responsibility thing is a huge subject that I will discuss elsewhere.

So let's get to the advice. Of course we should eat well, exercise, meditate and develop our minds and relationships. Good luck doing that when you work on an industrial estate an hour's drive from home where the only food is supplied by a sandwich van and there is nothing but grey delapidation all round. And when you get back, the kids want to play, your spouse needs attention and you have to get to bed by half-past ten to get eight hour's sleep before waking up at half-past six. Weekends? By the time you've gone shopping, entertained the kids, washed, ironed, housekept and slumped... you know the score. Here's the thing: instead of blaming the organisation of post-modern capitalism, you blame yourself. Neat huh?

An effective person only listens to someone whose co-operation they need, and they are only listening for the buying signals. The rest of the time, they no more listen than the rest of us. We don't need to. Most people state their views not for discussion but for expression. They don't mind what's called "an exchange of views" and a lot of perfectly good conversation is just that. When someone is angry with you? They don't want you to engage with what they say, they want you to witness their anger and be contrite. What matters is the tone, not the words. If you pull that reflective listening schtick on them, they will throw things at you and you will deserve every bruise.

Guru advice is often willfully naive. For instance, most people don't fret about things outside their Circle of Influence because they are silly and ineffective. They do it to sound as if they are involved in the Great Issues of Our Time ("Think Global, Act Local" is worthy of an advertising agency and was probably devised by one. It gives an entirely specious significance to acts that are utterly insignificant. It's right up there with "The Personal Is The Political", which gave feminist significance to every little fight a wife picked with her husband.) Or more sadly, they do it as a displacement activity, because they have no real opportunities to get involved in anything significant. (We're back to that thirteen-hour work day and those lost weekends again.) A few people do fret about stuff they can't affect and not for show or displacement, and they do need to see a therapist. They are also the very last people who would and they certainly won't read self-help books. Besides, every activist started off fretting about something that was only in their Circle of Concern, until they decided to get active and extend their Circle of Influence to include the cause.

While we're on naivety, as for believing there is enough for everyone? Because we live on a finite planet, the amount of anything is limited. There's an amount of "everyone" which is too many for any given resource (other than World Peace). So if you really want to think that there's enough to go around, what you're really thinking is that there's a manageable amount of competition for the available resource. That doesn't have quite the same spiritual ring to it.

A "plan for success"? This assumes that you have by now found out what you want to do with your life, that it is legal and moral and that you can make a living doing it. None of this is guaranteed. Very few people make money doing what I want to do, so I have to have a day job. In post-modern capitalism, your "plan for success" is going to be more a "plan for adaptation" as house prices whistle skywards beyond your ability to raise the funds, your employer makes you redundant, your sex life dries up because being out of work is such a turn-on... you know the score. None of that matters. If you don't have a home of your own, it's your fault, I mean, it's for you to take action. You can do it, Little Engine.

The reason the gurus get away with this stuff is that we want to believe them. They don't need to put in the qualifications to their advice, because they know we will do it for them. They don't need to deal with the political and economic issues because we don't want to either: we want to be told that it's our responsibility because we'd rather be lazy and spiritually weak than economically and politically powerless. I might almost suggest that most self-help books are bought - or at least read all the way through - by people who want reasons to blame themselves for their failure. Because the alternative is to take political action, and no-one, not even The Invisible Committee, knows what that looks like.

Besides, from my experience, highly effective people have the following traits: 1) lots of energy; 2) not dealing with people and things that don't advance their cause; 3) a do-able plan and the resources to carry it put; 4) a product or service that meets a need; 5) either actual justified confidence or the ability to blag others into believing they can do it; 6) nothing to lose and 7) a neurotic need to achieve and succeed. Achievement takes special efforts. There are no well-balanced millionaires, creative artists and scientists, political activists, award-winning sports(wo)men, war-winning generals, Special Forces operatives, CEOs or elected politicians. And if the guru tells you that those things aren't a measure of effectiveness, they really are moving the goalposts.