Friday, 30 December 2011

The Epistemological Problems of Privacy: (2) Why You Should Have Screamed

Privacy and secrecy are not epistemic concepts, and have nothing to do with ideas about the nature of knowledge. Epistemology is, or has been up to now, a normative theory: it is about what something should be if it is to be knowledge and what sorts of things can be knowledge-holders. What used to make the subject tricky was the need to include the revelations of faith, and what makes it tricky now is that the most useful and successful scientific theories, theories that send satellites to distant planets and identify brain tumours, are actually false. So if knowledge must be true, it excludes our best physical theories and is danger of being trivial, but how do we distinguish between "good" falsity and "bad" falsity? And no, mere predictive accuracy is not enough.

Privacy is the condition of being unobserved by your enemies - those who would seek to use what they observe to frustrate your intentions and plans, to ridicule or otherwise harm or irritate you. (I'm assuming you don't mind being observed by your friends.) Privacy is what we need when we are doing things other people disapprove of, or, of course, when we are living in a police state. Any right to privacy has to be conditional, because murderers, kidnappers, drug dealers and other assorted carteliers don't have a right to expect that they can hatch their plans un-monitored.

Secrecy is the condition of being kept from public knowledge, a secret is something that only a few people know and they intend to keep it that way. The contents of my kitchen cabinet are not a secret because I take no steps to hide them, the contents of an encrypted journal that I keep on my computer are a secret. Until, that is, some reads it and publishes it to my enemies - then it isn't a secret. A friend who says nothing about what they have read is "keeping the secret".

Neither privacy not secrecy feel to me like the kind of ideas that will take the weight of a philosophical debate: some robust, commonsense legal discussion, maybe. Anyway, the key ideas here aren't really secrecy and privacy, what's important is permission and control.

An unstated but driving idea in Western (Greco-Roman) culture is that we can, should and indeed must, control what others know about us. In the past people did so by behaving in a measured, self-controlled manner, not "giving away" their thoughts, feelings or plans, keeping a "poker face", behaving one way in public or in front of their enemies, and another in the supposed "privacy of our home" or with our friends. Many homes were not actually very private places - with servants coming and going at all times. There was little to know about us, simply because very few people did much and that infrequently. There was word-of-mouth amongst traders about people who didn't pay bills, but no credit-rating agencies, and very few people paid taxes or used banks. On the other hand, in a small town, everybody knew everybody else, if only by sight, because they all went to Church Sunday (or Saturday or whenever).

This worked fairly well for thousands of years, until, to pick a symbolic date, the first urban myth about the job applicant who was turned down because the employer's HR snoops found a Facebook photograph of them smoking a spliff on the beach at Goa. There had been fears about Big Brother government databases, but these subsided as governments and IT contractors showed time and time again that they were simply not capable of constructing such things, and as the huge costs of high-quality data cleansing, verification and stewardship dawned on everyone. (I would also like to think that by the 2000's governments realised that such systems would in practice be run offshore in countries over which they had no jurisdiction, or if onshore, then by people who would have no stake in the proper running and data-fill of the systems, and that the security and economic risks were simply too great.)

The issue is about who controls who uses what information about us. It isn't even about ownership of the data: the data a bank has about my current account transactions wouldn't exist without its computers or my activity, so we're both creators and owners of the data. I create it, they store it. Ownership isn't the way into this conundrum. It's data-about-me, and what makes that different from data-about-alpha-centauri is that I am a person, and alpha-centauri isn't. As a Western person, I expect to control the information you have about me - as I allow you to control the information I have about you. Applying this principle, if the banks want unlimited access to the information they gather about us, then in return we get to be able to gather unlimited information about the banks. Which their Directors do not want us to have.

The point is that I provide the bank with information so that it can act on my behalf, and that's it. The bank will use my payment record to make judgements about how much it is willing to lend me and for how long, and that feels like a legitimate use of the data. My record on paying my bills is a legitimate matter of public interest, even if the "public" is somewhat limited. Sending me "targeted" junk mail, or giving me discriminatory pricing based on my behavioural propensities derived from a model based on "my" data amongst others, doesn't feel as legitimate.

None of this has anything to do with the theory of knowledge. It does have to do with the management of information and data, and many of these issues have been raised and addressed. How long should "personal data", which I understand as data-about-people-and-what-we-do, be kept by what kinds of organisation? What protection should various kinds of data have? What purposes can various types of data be used for, without the explicit permission of the person-or-their-activities-it-is-about? Is personal data-driven advertising just a narrowcast version of broadcast advertising or is there a qualititaive difference involved?

Far from being less valuable than, say, pharmaceutical research, personal data is much more valuable to business and the State. Of course, it is transient and by definition non-universalisable, and so not the kinds of facts that science and technology are about. It doesn't tell us about "the world", only about some stranger in another town whom some company thinks will be a sucker for this special offer. Which is cosmically meaningless, even if all those strangers add up to a lot of money.

Perhaps the real task for epistemologists is to develop a criterion for "cosmically meaningful" information: the kind of knowledge that should be defended by the Western Liberal Rationalist knowledge-is-preferable-to-ignorance creed. This might sound simple, but I suspect that if it's simple then it's going to be trivial. I'd like weapons research not to be preferable to ignorance, but how about research into body armour? I'd like to think that medical research is preferable to ignorance, but some of the results are very, very expensive and have marginal effects or don't cure but merely manage symptoms, and the drug companies are very good at PR designed to get such drugs on the NICE list, thus costing the taxpayer money that should be spent elsewhere. David Hume never thought about these issues - nor has anyone had to prior to 1945.

The privacy and secrecy debates in the press and legal circles are a way of having a debate about who controls data-about-me-and-what-I-did. Very, very large sums of money are involved. If Facebook can't use what we "Like" to target advertising at us, it has de minimus financial value as a business, and neither does Google. The commercial basis of the Internet is that it offers highly targeted advertising, but if we can control ourselves out of it, the Internet starts to lose its commercial value. And it employs a lot of people who won't get jobs that pay as well anywhere else. Privacy and secrecy are about "the economy, stupid". Not the theory of knowledge.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Epistemological Problems of Privacy: (1) The Conference Outline

I ran across the prospectus for a conference on the "Epistemological Problems of Privacy" to be held in June 2012 in Delft. Here are the "potential topics and themes". Read it carefully.

Below follows a non-exhaustive list of topics and themes that might be addressed by the papers in the open sessions. Note that, even though the issue of privacy borders on several fiels of philosopy (such as epistemology, ethics and political philosophy), we have a decided preference for orientations that are heavily epistemological.

1. Privacy and the value of knowledge
A central thought in epistemology is that knowledge is distinctively valuable and that our social practices should therefore promote it. If that is true, however, how should we explain that with respect to private matters knowledge of these private matters doesn’t seem distinctively valuable at all and that knowledge seems to be even less valuable than true belief?

2. Privacy and the value of ignorance
Epistemology focuses on knowledge and tries to explain what its value is. Privacy suggests that there might also be a value to ignorance. What could the epistemic value of ignorance be?

3. Knowledge and secrecy
In contexts of the accessibility and transparency of information on the Internet one sometimes hears slogans like ‘Knowledge wants to be free’ (Compare, for instance, Wiki-leak activities). But what is meant by this? Should this be taken as a universal maxim that governs social-political policies? This would impact not only on issues of privacy but also on issues of secrecy. If there is a right to protect privacy, might there also be an argument to protect secrets?

4. Privacy and contexts of epistemic appraisal
Privacy seems to have a contextual element. In some contexts, one might want to protect one’s privacy, but in other contexts one might consent to opening up one’s privacy. This might, for instance, depend on the stakes the subject faces in a given context. How should we think of the relation between this kind of contextuality and the debate about the contextuality of knowledge, where the stakes are sometimes thought to play a role in evaluating the truth-value of a knowledge ascription?

5. Privacy and assertion
According to the knowledge account of assertion, one should assert that P only if one knows that P. Assertions of P can invade on someone’s privacy. Should norms for assertion be specified that accommodate this idea?

6. Knowing-who and personal data
The notion of ‘personal data’ is central in the privacy debate. But what exactly personal data are remains unclear. Can epistemology shed some light on this issue by, for instance, establishing a connection between knowing-who and personal data?

7. Privacy and epistemic justice
Knowledge is central to privacy. Privacy violations seem to be a form of injustice. If one’s privacy has been violated, has an epistemic injustice been done to the person whose privacy has been violated?

8. Privacy and trust
‘Trust’ is a central theme in contemporary epistemology. How do concerns about one’s privacy interact with the notion of trust?

Okay. Now you can scream. If you don't know why you should scream, read the next post.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Clive James, A Point of View, Wisdom Literature Twaddle

There's a review by David Barrett of Clive James' programme A Point of View in which he praises James for reaching a deep and mature worldview in his later years. This being England, we can assume that Barrett and James are good friends. He quotes James as saying...

"There should be pride in it, that you behaved no worse. There should be gratitude, that you were allowed to get this far. And above all there should be no bitterness. The opposite, in fact. The future is no less sweet because you won't be there. The children will be there, taking their turn on earth. In consideration of them, we should refrain from pessimism, no matter how well founded that grim feeling might seem."

Maybe in the context - Radio Four listeners with decent pensions, children who didn't turn into criminals, wastrels or Bank CEO's and who gave them wonderful grandchildren - these sentiments make sense. They do for Clive James, and I have no doubt that he is really speaking for himself. What David Barrett really means is: Clive James has finally lost his sting and is now repeating the same old wisdom literature twaddle.

There should be pride in it, that you behaved no worse...

So give yourself a pass on all the times you were a jerk and an asshole, because you could have been a much bigger jerk and a much wider asshole. I guess what he really means is this: if you've been a decent person most of the time, don't beat yourself up that you weren't perfect. Which is not the same thing, and doesn't sound quite as well.

There should be gratitude, that you were allowed to get this far...

"Allowed' by whom? Some nine year-old with a Kalishnakov who didn't shoot me? The drunks who didn't run me over? I got this far because I didn't die yet, and that's nothing to either resent or be grateful for. This is a silly sentiment. And yes, I've been in a could-have-been-fatal accident, and I was grateful to be walking afterwards. Right up to the point where I had to go back to work. Maybe what James means is that people who have had lives like his should be grateful, and perhaps they should be. I haven't. But he covers that.

And above all there should be no bitterness. The opposite in fact...

Because? Bitterness is counter-productive for the person feeling it, but even more it's a pain for other people to have to live with. It's kinda, well, not polite. I don't think that's what James means. I think he means we should be thankful for the lives we've been "allowed" to lead. This may make sense for him, and a dying twenty-three year old drug dealer couldn't care, but for the rest of us? When we look back on the lost opportunities, the wasted talents, the pointless arguments, the empty, empty days and years, the long periods of unemployment kidding ourselves we can get back on the merry-go-round, the endless insolence of office we had to endure at work and dealing with the bureaucracies... you would have to be on drugs not to feel slightly bitter about it. This was it? Clive James lives in a world where Elle McPherson is a friend. Not our world.

The future is no less sweet because you won't be there...

It's no less ghastly either...

The children will be there, taking their turn on earth...

Pass the Desiderata poster! By the time they are "taking their turn", they will be frustrated adults who have been waiting for the career blockers to retire for at least a decade longer than they wanted. But then that's why he says "their turn" - to make it sound like he hasn't been keeping the kids waiting until he felt gracious enough to step aside.  It sounds like there is opportunity a-plenty for the young and freely given at that, when the truth is anything but.

In consideration of them, we should refrain from pessimism, no matter how well founded that grim feeling might seem...

I grant there's no point in telling the kids it's all going to be awful if you can't tell them how to avoid the awfulness. But I can't help wondering if he wants to refrain from pessimism because it was his generation who fucked it all up and he doesn't want to live with that consequence?

I know what I'd tell the young about the future: that it seems to balance improvements with losses and it's full of unintended consequences. In the 1970's, we could afford flats of our own but the nightlife was awful, the jobs were secure but working was a catalogue of pettiness. Now the nightlife is marvelous, jobs are all temporary, working is much more relaxed, and thirty-year-olds can't afford anywhere to live. Sure, it's great that the Iron Curtain has come down, but the first people across were those possessors of the ultimate transferrable skills, the gangsters, criminals, hookers and scroungers. The second bunch of people across helped take jobs from English workers because they were prepared to sleep on floors and had no intentions of staying, only of sending money home. We have expensive CCTV on every street corner, rendered useless by a £5 sweatshirt with a hoodie. We have a hundred channels when once we had four, and there's nothing on ninety-nine of them. But whatever happens, the Duke of Westminster still owns Mayfair, Belgravia and chunks of other prime property around the world. That won't change.

Oh Clive! How are the mighty fallen! I will cherish two lines of his. The first is the argument against banning abortion. That the choice isn't between legalised abortions or no abortions, it's between legal abortions and illegal abortions. The second is his opening line of a review of a TV series called Stay With Me Till Morning, "a title designed to evoke a more exotic mileu than the one the rest of us live in, which might on the same principle be called 'Shouldn't You Be Going Or You'll Miss The Last Tube Home?'".

If I ever start prattling on like a second-rate Seneca, or even a first-rate one, you can kill me. Headshot. Exploding bullet.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Anatomy of Decisions and the Mobile Phone Contract

How do we make decisions? There's no right way: we could flip a coin. The "proper" answer is to make a list of all the pros and cons, weight those by utility, and pick the option with the highest utility. Then there's the one about taking the first option that's better than the first one you thought of - though that really applies to temporal processes like job offers and picking spouses. Some people who commit the sin of linguistic inflation call these "heuristics", though more homely terms are "rules of thumb" or "guidelines". 

These rules and guidelines assume many things, one of which is that the decision is really about what we think the decision is about. Here's an example of when it isn't.

Renewing the mobile phone contract sets my inner "proper" decision-maker up for the long haul. It triggers my inner scrooge and it also sets off my inner little-boy-who-likes-toys. My inner Scrooge thinks it's a huge waste of money to be on a monthly contract with 300 minutes when I barely make any calls. Or even receive any. My Scrooge accepts that one decent job offer justifies a good few years of minimum-cost mobile ownership, but that's as far as it goes. As for iPhones, mobile internet and the rest, Scrooge is having nothing of it. Meanwhile, in my left ear my Inner Boy is whispering that if I don't get a fun phone this time around, I'll spend another two years regretting the decision every time someone does something cool on their HTC or iPhone. The     last time I went through this process I was comparing the iPhone (horribly expensive) vs other phones that weren't really comparable but were almost as expensive, or free phones that had the core functionality but not the pizzazz. This time HTC are producing phones that have near-iPhone functionality and good, anonymous styling.I like anonymous styling; it doesn't say anything about you, and it doesn't attract thieves.

So I set off on a long cost-comparison exercise, complete with calculations of break-even minutes / month - which at 25p per minute on a PAYG contract aren't many - after taking into account data contracts and the like. Half-way through this, after putting together combinations of low-function PAYG phones and schlepping a £100 slim camera and my Nano everywhere, I suddenly wrote down what I wanted if I didn't give a damn about cost. Which was: a DSLR camera, a Macbook Air and a 5MP smartphone, most likely the Desire S, on the cheapest contract that made it free.

Which changed the nature of the decision. It wasn't just about the phone, it was about my personal, portable electronics. I have been finding my trusty Canon AS510 a little restrictive of late. What I was looking at was an upgrade. I did that with my TV and hi-fi a couple of years ago.

This is one of the many things that's wrong with the classical theory of decision-making: it assumes that you know what the decision is about. Whereas often you only think you do. In some parts of business what I did is called things like "scope creep" and frowned upon. But sometimes what you really want to do isn't what you start off thinking you need to decide. You might be thinking about which movie you want to see, but really all you want is to get out of the house and do something, anything, for a couple of hours. If you persist in seeing the decision as being about movies, you won't do what you really want to do, which is not-be-in-the-house.

Having decided that this was about upgrading, I could dump the Scrooge options and stop attempting to justify an HTC smartphone. An iPhone would need justification, because it's so much more expensive than the almost-comparable (for my purposes, maybe not yours) HTC's. The Desire S on the cheapest contract that makes it free, along with the company discount, now becomes a shoo-in. 

Now I could look for a DSLR. Since I work with a qualified (and very good, IMHO) wedding photographer, I asked him about cameras. For what I wanted to do, he said, I should get a mid-range (£400) consumer model and spend the money I saved over the next-up (£700) on a decent lens later. Which advice and some reading got me to the Canon 1100D. What Camera? liked it, Amazon reviewers  liked theirs, I like the pictures my AS510 takes and I don't see myself with a Nikon.

I need internet access and portable computing, since The Bank doesn't let us access our webmails and its internet access is a frustrating exerience (it still uses IE7!). I don't need that every day, but I should use it more often than I do. I have an Asus netbook (running Ubuntu Zonked Zebra - I'm cool) already. It's anonymous, already paid for and slightly heavier than the Macbook Air. I do notice its weight in my Eastpak messenger bag (Eastpak messenger bags are the epitome of "anonymous style"), but while the Air isn't that much lighter it is way, way more expensive. There's the iPad, of course, but it has no real keyboard. It's for media consumers, and I'm a text producer. 

Accepting that this was a decision about upgrading also changes the conversation with my inner Scrooge. I'm not now arguing about the details of various money-saving schemes and the relative value-for-money of the options. Details are how Scrooge distracts me from what the decision is really about. He knew he had no chance once I made it about quality-of-life. I'm not going out and splurging on a £1,000 DLSR, a £45pcm iPhone contract and a 128GB Macbook Air. The Air is on hold indefinitely, as it breaks the "anonymous" part of my chosen mode of "anonymous style". That's also why I can say NO to the iPhone.

Sometimes you make a decision by making another, larger, decision which is easier to make. I could quibble with my inner Scrooge about how many minutes of calls I expect to make for hours, but he's going to have a hard time telling me that I haven't felt the urge to upgrade my kit for a while now.

Here's a very important rule about decision-making. Money should never be the deciding factor. What you can afford sets the limits, but within those limits you decide what fits your style best. And if nothing does, either don't do it at all, or take the cheapest option with the least commitment. That way you can get what you want later, when you do have the money, with the least wasted spending.

Behavioural Psychology, Ultimatum Games and Trolley-ology

Behavioural psychology has been a hip thing for quite a while. Much of the research involves a thing called an "Ultimatum Game". In this A is given an amount of money or other good, and has to offer B some of it. If B doesn't like the offer, she can reject it and nobody gets any money. In the early versions of this game, the amount was $10 and A and B were undergraduates.

It's worth noting that, according to "rational economics", B should accept at offer of 0.01$, because it's a cent she didn't have before and how can it matter to her that A gets to keep $9.99. Well, that shows how much insight into human affairs, and hence the stock and bond markets, rational economics provides.

The Ultimatum Game is to economics and behavioural psychology what the Trolley Game is to moral philosophy. Both have a common fault, which is that neither side knows what relationship they are in. The other fault is that, at lease in the simple version,  there's no negotiation. B has to accept or reject. If she could negotiate, and A could reject her counter-offer, B would say: "split it 50-50 or I beggar both of us". At least a B with a healthy sense of self-regard and fairness would. Others might offer something less fair, but would be re-negotiated back to fairness - or of course, they could go on negotiating forever. A variant of the simple game that allowed for conditional negotiation revealed that the majority of people settled for a close to 50-50 split. Who would have guessed?

The essential condition of the game is that both sides know that it's not A's money. If it is A's money, there needs to be a relationship between A and B that makes sense of the idea that B should get any of it. Perhaps B is A's temporarily broke sibling who needs $5 to get home. Perhaps B is a charity offering to do something about a situation that A cares about. This is the familiar land of obligation and quid pro quo. Nothing to see here.

Except that there's a version, called the Dictator Game, due to Elizabeth Hoffman at the University of Arizona which shows that people will behave more generously if they suspect other people are watching (Wow! What these people find out about the depths of our souls!). William Poundstone, whose excellent book Priceless I have taken this stuff from, tells us we should not be shocked by finding out that people will keep more of what only they know they're getting than they will if they know other people know what they're getting. After all, he says, that's what we do when we don't donate a chunk of our salaries to charities.

That's too much Peter Singer. Donations to charities from our salaries are not the same as donations to charities from anonymous envelopes full of money given to us by researchers, or even by oil company executives. You need to be a very clever academic, or really to despise salarymen, to have that distinction blur in front of your moral vision. 

Ultimatum games don't really tell us anything we didn't know, except the extent to which people aren't willing to enforce fairness on each other (A shouldn't even think she could offer less than $5 to B for fear of being told off). Unless, of course, we are old-school economists, when it's all a huge surprise and a proof that people are crazy. Which attitude is almost as bad as the idea that people are cute in their erratic behaviour.

The attraction of the Ultimatum Game is that it can be, with the right squint, made to look like a lot of economic behaviour. Perhaps A is a supermarket and B is a supplier, and A's offer is what they are willing to pay for the goods. In which case, the fair answer is: cost plus an acceptable profit, plus a 50-50 split of any super-profit due to the consumers' willingness to pay a silly price for the product. (The super-profit is what's left after the supermarket takes it's fair profit.) Of course, in real life what happens is that the supermarket offers $3 and then when it actually has the £10 from the customer, only pays £1.50 because, well, like B has a choice?

The sad thing is that most of the research seems to be about how companies can exploit customers and suppliers. I guess that's what the academics can get grants for. Where's the research that helps customers, workers and suppliers exploit the faceless bureaucrats who own the shares in the companies?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Facebook Is Reminding Me That My Life Sucks

So I joined Facebook, and now I feel like I used to at a certain kind of house party, where everyone else was chattering away and moving between the kitchen (drinks) and the living room (music, people) with great purpose and many nods of recognition. Everyone else, not me. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing there. So I hung around the edges for a while and then either got drunk or found someone to talk with. Or I just left.

The difference between Facebook and the house party is that I could and did get drunk at the house party. That was the point of going to parties: to get drunk, to get laid, to get fed and to get away from home. Meeting people? Maybe a little, for a while, but the only people I really wanted to meet was a girl I hadn't met before and probably wasn't going to again. Later on, of course, I made a point of meeting Jack Daniels and Jim Beam and all those other guys. 

Turns out I'm a career number-cruncher. There aren't many of us: most people who bash SQL and non-financial numbers aren't actually really any good at it, and don't really get the fun, and fall sideways into jobs that are about "project management" or "account management" or "engagement" or some other such soft stuff. Anyway, I fucked up my life and this is the only way I know how to make a living. So I work with people who are mostly between twenty-five and thirty-five, and I enjoy it. They keep me sharp and stop me getting complacent. I like them, and I'd like to think they like me, however odd they think I am, but we don't invite each other round to our places, go on holidays together or any of that stuff. If I was handed my P45, they would be upset for me, and not miss me by the same day the following week. I'm not being harsh here, but realistic.

They are, however, all the life I have, other than my family of origin and a couple of friends left from the Old Days. My only LTR finished about three years ago and there's been nothing since. I can remember the last time I had sex because it was the only time in the last seven years. Yes, you heard me. Seven years. That's what staying in an LTR that's lost its intimacy, but still seems to provide something, does for you. When I call my good looks "fading", I should probably say "vanished": my face is like a rubber death mask that can contort into a few stylised expressions. I look at it in the mirror when I shave, otherwise I don't want to see it. I have no idea why anyone would want to spend time with it. Are they all humouring the "old man"?

I'm fifty-eight next birthday. I have no money to pay for weekends and hotels, and nothing by way of a life to offer anyone. Sure I'd like some real sexTM, but at my age I have to bring a life or the things money can buy. There aren't many people "like me", I know that because I never saw another single guy my age in the restaurant lunchtime on the Cote des Basques reading Hegel's Aesthetics, or anything close: wherever I go, I don't see another me. Almost all men my age are either married, materially comfortable and living in smug denial, divorced and living in dingy flats making two sets of maintenance payments (one for the flat, one for the ex-wife), or they are weird cranks you wouldn't want in your life either. Non-married women my age? Either long-term single like me, and therefore as suspect as me, or looking for replacement fathers / husbands / first partners. 

You think I'm talking myself into a corner here, but you don't see the world from where I stand. There's a lot of it, and it's all a long way away, just like it used to be, but now I know that since I can't get drunk at the house party, it really isn't worth me going. I never went to the kind of house parties where you might meet the co-writer or the hot girl or the guy who can introduce you to the guy who can back your venture. The house parties I went to were full of regular suburban kids like me.

I'm feeling down, and some of the descent is for good reasons. Right now, I look at the world and there's nowhere I want to be. The only place I've ever wanted to be is somewhere I don't have to come back from. Plenty of places I don't want to be, but nowhere I want to be. Not even here.

Oh. Facebook? I could ignore it, but that wouldn't change the actual facts of my life. I'm sure there's some creative way to use it - especially if I could stop all the junk coming to me account whenever I "like" anything.

Monday, 19 December 2011

True Force... All The Kings Men Cannot Put It Back Together Again

A couple of Fridays ago, I went to the gym after work. I do that regularly, except I don't usually get utterly breathless after running 800m at the sedate pace of 11kph. I had to stop three times in the mile-and-a-half I usually do on Fridays. My legs weren't there, and my breathing was tight and shallow. I went swimming about twenty minutes later and didn't have any problems, so it wasn't about having a cold or cough or whatever. No. It was about having eaten the wrong stuff at lunchtime: too many carbs cooked in too much fat disguised as a kind of pancake. Plus I hadn't had a decent walk all week: the previous two weeks I've walked from Waterloo to St Paul's and hopped on the Central Line to Liverpool Street there. Not the fastest way, but damn good exercise.

I'd spent the day trying to find data in the wreckage that is The Bank's MI since a project called "Release C", which was supposed to bring the data from the two merged banks together, but actually does nothing of the sort. Our Bank databases are still there and being updated, but Their Bank data is segregated in some ghastly 1990's attempts to produce a suite of normalised data tables, which has actually produced a set of tables called "I don't mind if it goes into ****** as long as it goes somewhere useful as well." In my circles, that line is a consistent laugh-getter. I am not making progress with the project I'm working on, and I'm spending more time repairing the damage done to our neat, easy-to-use, data environment by those vandals who ran Release C. I am waking up and wondering how much longer I have to keep going into work. I know the answer to that: I have to work until I die, because my pension isn't worth a damn. This is frustrating.

So gasping for breath on the treadmill kinda did it for me. That's enough. I'm letting this new location and office get to me, and it has got to stop. I need my morning walks. I need to eat right, and after Xmas, have a month on the 1,500-calorie diet. I need to find a way of being able to think straight again. I need to stop being self-pitying, and get a life and a whole load of other things. 

Or as Travis Bickle says: "I gotta get in shape now, from now on it will be 50 press-ups each morning, 50 pull-ups, from now on it'll be total organisation, every muscle must be tight."

This year my challenge was getting into some kind of physically-fit shape, and actually taking holidays. I did both of those things. I was pretty clear about what the challenge was for 2011 at the end of 2010, but I'm not so sure about what it is for 2012.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Phenomenology of a Day At The Beach

Remember when your parents took you to the beach on summer holidays? How the days lasted forever with a huge gap between breakfast and tea? I'll bet you're thinking "ah the innocence of childhood, wasn't it great?". Going by some recent experiences, it has nothing to do with being nine years old, and everything to do with the circumstances and the way we felt.

I found it happened when we were, or I am, on the beach. Some of it is the sunshine, the blue skies, the sound of the waves, the sand and the process of playing or walking on the beach, which requires you to surrender to the present moment. Living in the present for even a couple of hours puts the past way, way behind, and the sunshine, sky, sea and sand make it easy to live in the present. I suspect sailing does something similar and for the same reason. Walking across a moor or through a park or zoo does not have the same effect, even if the weather is the same. Perhaps because moors and fields are already human spaces, colonised by our herd animals and crops. Cows and sheep are always someone's cows and sheep and they are there to provide milk and ultimately beef; fields of corn or flowers are always someone's fields and there to be picked and sold. A wild moor might be different, but it the beach has one huge advantage: turn around and there is safety, familiarity, the car, the hotel, the resort. In the middle of a moor, you're a long way from help or an ice-cream.

I think it's something to do with the uniformity of the colours at the beach and the white noise of the waves - which is why I don't lose touch with time on the Mediterranean or the Caribbean the same way I do on the Atlantic. We can gaze at the seaside, experience it, but we don't need to understand it, interpret it, ask what parts of it are called. Every moment it is different, but the difference does not signify. Until the tide surprises us. And then all it takes is a quick scamper up the beach. A surfer may experience it in another way, with the sea as a source of waves, becoming disappointing, or tremendous, as it does not or does provide waves.

All this is true. Unless, of course, I was sulking or having a family squabble. Then time tick-tocked by. Emotions don't so much create the awareness of time as create something to remember. This is another hour I am hungry, angry, lonely, tired, bored, sad, aroused, excited, lustful, intrigued, interested, puzzled. Sensations by contrast provide a distraction from an otherwise bland or unpleasant episode, or enhance a pleasant one. This is why ice cream never tasted so good as at the beach, or why a whisky is so potent in a tense moment, or why in an hour of tedium, the sudden appearance of the sun from clouds may be so absorbing. 

Happiness and contentment are a kind of satisfaction, of fullness or repleteness, just not necessarily caused by consuming something. This is not what we feel at the beach. Strictly we feel nothing there, except for the sensations of sand, waves, heat and breeze, because we are distracted from ourselves and the world by being there. This is not being in the zone, that much-hyped state of productive nirvana, because we are not productive at the beach, and the in the zone we so occupy ourselves with the task that we cease to notice the world, whereas at the beach, we are so occupied by the world that we cease to notice ourselves.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

I Have Nothing Coherent To Say... so here's a song

One of the few bright spots near the new location is that Rough Trade Records (East) is about three hundred yards away and is full of stuff that Fopp and the high street stores of the West End don't have, and I wouldn't think of looking for on Amazon. So I've paid that a couple of visits, picking up three samplers and the John Maus album. This is "Copkiller"

I've also switched from French Radio London to Amazing Radio, which plays a lot of stuff that Rough Trade has. I switched to FRL because I was tired of the sound of English voices and for a while it reminded me of Biarritz and general French-ness. They play cover versions of any song you care to think of and their mixes can be eclectic and yet at the same time French.

It's winter, it's dark, it's cold. It's week three of the move and it's still not home. I have too many ideas for entries that need time I don't have and concentration I don't have. It's also near sodding Christmas, and I don't like this time of year. Only the dog days of January (Britain closed, opens again in February) are worse. I may have a cold. Bleeuuugh.

Monday, 12 December 2011

"Living In The Day" - Don't Do It Unless...

There's a spiritual practice known as "living in the day". It's generally taken to be a part of the AA Programme, but I can't recall it being mentioned in the Big Book. It's one of those phrases I heard in my early days and wondered what they were all talking about, and at sometime over the years, I stopped wondering, because I was doing it. I can't explain what it is, and it's nothing like any of the quotes you may find if you google the phrase, but this may give you an idea.

Living in the day lets me feel emotions. Joy, irritation, frustration, exhilaration, calm, pleasure... all these are emotions that pass in a fairly short time, leaving me able to get on to the next thing I need to do. I wake up the next morning feeling whatever my physical condition is - rested, horny, creaky, tired - but starting emotionally from zero. I don't feel anything else until I load up the diary for the day, when I may then feel various shades of anticipation, dread or irritation. Sounds good so far?

For that to work, yesterday must leave little or no emotional traces. Now think about that for a moment. Imagine not carrying over any emotions from yesterday. No, I don't just mean anger, frustration, irritation and all that other bad stuff we are exhorted to leave outside the bedroom door. I mean, not carrying over any emotions. LIke, you know... Love. Affection. Ambition. Fascination. Absorption. 

Because it turns out that practising the techniques that let me leave behind the bad stuff and the small stuff also leaves behind the big stuff as well. I don't even really remember what it is I feel for whoever's in bed with me: I just give them a chance to show what mood they are in, and react and deal accordingly. That's how you will feel about the woman you're married to or the kids you created, if you "live in the day". And if you're wondering, no, that's not how you are supposed to feel. Not at all. Those emotions about those people are supposed to be always with you - whichever emotions it you'e feeling at the time. 

Love, hate, ambition, despair, enthusiasm, hope, desire, lust, care, revenge, affection, friendship, competition... The emotions that make life worth living, that give it structure, colour and flavour, do so because they infuse our bodies - literally, with hormones - and create continuity and memory, linking the days together, linking this hour with an hour four days or four weeks ago. When I live in the day I feel none of these, not because I don't want to, but because whatever it is that lets the insults and pleasures of the day roll off my back like a duck, also means that the meaningful emotions won't stick either.

One of the things that happened to me as I recovered was that I understood that all I ever really felt was variations on that sick neediness, pain and emptiness that comes with the territory. These are also meaningful emotions that create memory, but none have anything to do with other people, other specific people, as love and hate do. For screw-ups, emotions are endless loops inside our own heads, hearts, bodies and memories. Dump those emotions, deal with the resentments and guilts in the Steps, and it's quite easy to live in the day. 

In the early years, it's a helluva an improvement on being hungover, withdrawn, flooded with pounding adrenals, ridden with undeserved guilt and hearing punishing voices in your head. But in the same way a Japanese stone garden is an improvement on the brambles and weeds that were there. It's clean, it's simple, it's low maintenance, and it's pretty vacant. I'm not sure I have much of choice, just as you don't have much of a choice about never knowing what a co-homology group is (because you gave up maths well before you went to university and you haven't got the time or background to read it up now). Which doesn't stop my body telling me from time to time that it's missing some stuff it needs to function really well, which leads me to feeling a tad empty, directionless and generally de-motivated and lacking sparkle and vigour. That passes, given enough time, but the last few weeks have been just a little empty.

Living in the day, like a lot of the other "spiritual"-sounding practices, is not for ordinary folk. It's for people who are or were severely fucked-up for an extended period of their lives: heroin addicts, alcoholics, children who passed through The System or who were abused or mistreated, not to mention people who have been through extended traumatic experiences that the rest of the world knows nothing of. That is unlikely to be you, gentle reader, and you'll screw your life and soul up if you try it. 

Friday, 9 December 2011

"Workwise" = "Work Dumb": How Not To Move Your Staff

We were moved to a new office a couple of weeks ago. Right next to Liverpool Street station. Some people think that means that we're now in "the City", but we're not. "The City" means insurance, law, merchant banking, some shipping and commodities trading. It does not mean retail banking. I prefer to say I work in Liverpool Street.

The office itself is cheap and slightly nasty. We will pass over the toilets that you would not accept in your home, the dirty telephones we all had to spend time cleaning, the flimsy keyboards that haven't been cleaned since purchased and don't always work, the floors that move slightly if someone heavy walks by, the weak-ass cafe, and the as-high-as-legal people density. The ceilings are about two feet too low, and the soundproofing so poor that the usual level of office chat, informal meetings and telephones calls generates a permanent background noise about the same as a cinema full of kids at half-term. Earphones and some music won't really do it - over-ear noise-cancellers might, but would look a little odd. 

There are deliberately not enough desks for the people based there. At the end of every day we have to pack up all our crayons and colouring books, laptop transformers and laptops, into a plastic box and put it in a locker. Each morning we have to set it all out again, and not always at the same desk either. Any alleged cost-savings are tiny compared with the twenty minutes a day per person to set-up and pack-up. Because you have to re-arrange all the wiring, computer screen and chair to suit you. We have to log into the telephone on our new desk every day as well - but many simply don't. Within the area allotted to a team, we can sit anywhere, and if someone from outside sits at one of "not-our-desks" we can ask them to move if there's no more "not-our-space". They would rather you didn't have your Amazon deliveries sent to the office, but will live with it if you don't overdo it: though you have to go to the post room to ask. Since you don't have a desk, they can't deliver. And they won't notify, either. Leave a jacket on the chair overnight, the cleaners will take it away. No personal effects, no baby photos, funny cartoons, toy animals, special mouse, technical manuals... nothing. Not even the management have dedicated, lockable offices. Yes, that's right, I'll say that again: not even the management have dedicated, lockable offices. 

This alienated condition is called "Workwise" and has the motto "Work is something you do, not a place you go". Not only does nobody "of weight" buy it, they can't even be bothered to pretend to buy it. Taking dedicated offices away from senior management is one gesture too far. Taking their pay rises away, so that they all face a five per cent pay cut, isn't the most sensible move either. 

It feels fake, only this time, it feels like people can't be bothered to pretend it's real. Not even the management. It's occurred to nobody except the workers that if work is what we do, not the place we do it, then it doesn't matter where we do it, or for whom. Way to go encouraging employee engagement there. 

And of course, then there's the Liverpool Street area. Packed. Everyone rushing everywhere. And they're all indistinguishable, no matter what shape and size they are, mere office canon fodder. The CIty / Liverpool Street is a huge industrial estate that doesn't actually make anything. It has a sense of history - you have to chuckle at "Frying Pan Alley" - but largely in the names and the churches. The best thing that can be said for it, is that I can be back in Soho in about twenty-five minutes door-to-door via the Central Line.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Free-Will, Identity, Decisions and Choices

Let's start with the nature of the "I" I'm saying is free.

I don't know about you, but I'm not a ghost of identity passing through the walls of my brain and body, wondering why my material manifestation does so many silly things. The "I" I feel I am is no more one unified process than my body is one unified process. My body is a rag-bag of inter-connected parts, each with its own function, each monitored, loosely controlled and crudely co-ordinated by the autonomic nervous system, and sometimes consciously, and with no guarantee that all of them will work well together. Since the brain is part of the body, this applies to the brain as well. I see, hear, taste, estimate what is about to happen in my world (do I have time to cross the road before that slower-moving car gets here?), judge the people and things in it ("ugh, what a Spring 2003 office block") and a dozen other things, all at the same time, in what used to be called a "stream of consciousness". The human brain is a motherboard with many special-purpose CPU's, only one of which is there to have that conversation in our heads we call "consciousness". All the real work is done in the background, as it should be. The flaw in the traditional way of thinking about ourseleves and our identities, and hence of the nature of our freedom, is to suppose that we are in some way One, that there is one process - a soul, mind, spirit -  that "is" us. We are a bundle of processes, many of which can communicate with each other but might not on occasion.

One of those processes has priority over the others, when it is engaged. This is the process which chooses the other processes get to use my body and the other resources I have. Sometimes that choice is made on a whim, or out of habit, or under the spell of a strong emotion - wisdom literature and guru books, and every book about being an effective manager, stress keeping the decision-making process conscious: do nothing without considering its effects, and do nothing in the heat of the moment. Some people do this better than others, I do it badly, and for most people, you can see the wheels turning when they try. That process is where freedom lives: it is the part of "I" which chooses and decides.

When I choose or decide I am influenced by what I have learned, experiences I may or may not have mis-interpreted, by what I have seen, heard, tasted and felt, by rumours, facts and thousand-year-old ideas, and my thinking is flawed, messy, incomplete, as deductively fallacious as valid and full of leaps and non sequiters. I limit my choices to what is possible, affordable, legal and acceptable, and that perhaps of all the choices, none are what I would do if I had the money, nerve and courage. Some of the thinking is conscious - feels like a conversation in my head, like reading without moving my lips - and some of it, perhaps the bulk of it, goes on silently. Just because I can't hear it doesn't mean it isn't happening, and it doesn't mean it isn't me who is doing it. The idea that thinking must be conscious or it is not thinking is a silly prejudice. I don't know about you, but I need as much thinking as possible to be going on silently, so I can concentrate on listening to music, or gazing at a blue sky. I want to know I will figure out the solution to a work problem without it interrupting my enjoyment of the present moment.

These influences are not constraints, just as reasons are not restraints and faulty reasoning is not a symptom of being human. These influences are, in fact, part of me. I am defined in part by my education, my experiences, what I heard from my parents, at school, on the radio and television, what I read, what I taught myself. Part of "who I am" is someone who can understand a proof in mathematics, identify the major 1950's jazz musicians after one chorus, and absolutely refuses to take part in fancy dress parties. It makes sense to say that "I" make a decision before I become conscious of having done so - actually, I thought everyone did that, it's how you know it's the right decision for you - but it makes no sense to say that the decision is not therefore my decision, as if only what I do consciously is "me". We are what we do, and what we intend to do, and we are the the gap between the two as well.

Reasons, arguments, influences and reasoning are important. It's not a decision unless there are reasons. If there are no reasons, it's an impulse, or a whim, and if being free isn't one thing, it's being at the mercy of every whim that passes through our pretty little heads. An adult may have all sorts of odd ideas flitting through her head, but she decides which one she will act on, if only by rolling a dice, and then deciding to abide by the dice's "decision". (The Dice Man decides to follow the dice, and part of that story is just how much self-control and will it takes to do so. Random living can be as demanding as routine living.) 

(One reason that neuroscience seems so determinism-friendly is that it only looks at, as it must, toy decisions made in falsely simple circumstances. It doesn't look at the long decision-making processes of businessmen, or jurors, or me when my mobile phone contract is coming to an end. In these processes there may actually not be a point where anyone "decides" to do a particular thing, rather there is a drift towards the eventual choice as one by one the alternatives are eliminated for cause. Long-process decisions may include short-process decisions but are not resolvable into a series of them.)

So where's the freedom? You're staring at it: it's right in front of you. Papa Hegel said it, in his Aethestics. Freedom arises because my consciousness stops paying attention to the outside world and looks inwards at itself. (I had to read it over a number of times to make sure I hadn't been dreaming or misunderstood. Is it that simple?) Only the external physical world, including the people in it, can compel and constrain, so when I turn my back on it, I become free - even if I can't put my decision into action for fear of the Secret Police or for sheer lack of energy and money.

I'm free when I stop trying to do what you want me to do. This doesn't mean I act selfishly, become self-centered and ignore the rules and the needs of other people, it means I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to satisfy your every whim and demand. It means I  "stop and think". Learning to stop and think, to not do as we're told or as we think others expect, to ignore our first impulse, and decide for ourselves, is part of becoming an adult. The teenager who doesn't "feel" as if they are free is quite right: they haven't achieved these disciplines yet.

The beauty of this is that it doesn't matter how I do it, or what does it, or even if I'm aware of much of it. It doesn't matter how you got your ideas of why I should do, or how I wound up thinking that what you think I should is so darn important. What matters is that I stopped responding to your priorities, and started responding to mine. The hardware and software I use to do it doesn't matter. It's that I do it that matters, not how I do it or which exact part of my anatomy passed what chemicals and electrical impulses to what other parts. In programming, we call that last bit "implementation" and everyone knows there are a hundred ways of getting the same result from the same inputs. 

Freedom is not, in other words, a relationship I have with the Universe, but one I have with other people. I am not free because somehow I can dodge an hypothesised universal Laplacian causality with some Heisenbergian indeterminacy, nor because I can shake off all my schooling and indoctrination and choose freely. I am free because I briefly ignore everyone else and make up my mind to do what I want, which may or may not suit you, depending on how suiting you suits me. My guess is that there are many people who are so caught up in the race for power and influence, or the search for love and reassurance, or so bound up in their relationships with others, or in the endless reflecting mirrors of second-guessing and people-pleasing, that they really do not experience themselves as choosing, and whose consciousness has yet to turn away from the world, look inside itself and summon the courage to say their first "YES" to themselves.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Memories on Metro Line 11

During the days in Paris, I took the 11 line a couple of times. It goes through the Marais, which is why I took it, to get to Rambateu, but the reason I remember it especially is that it has a stop called Telegraph. And Telegraph is near the rue du Borrego, and that's where, back in the day, Susan Dawn lived, in a one-room apartment in a huge modern block of flats overlooking a courtyard. She had garden furniture in the room (which was nomad-style at the time) and the bed was on the floor (ditto) opposite the large window.

How do I know the geography of her flat? I have mentioned that I was once a Nine. You may rightly be sceptical. So hear this. Before the Eurostar, to get to Paris, we took a train to Dover, a ferry to Calais and a train to Paris. That's what I did one week. I was drinking then, so I made my way to the buffet car and found myself talking to a middle-aged wiry American of dubious abode and solvency, and a very attractive blond English girl about my age. I have no idea what we talked about, though I do remember the train made an odd noise that suggested something had fallen off, and stopped for a while in the middle of nowhere. By the time we reached Paris, I had Susan's number and the promise of a date if I called. Yes, I was That Guy. Not often, but I had my moments.

I don't remember where I was staying, though I think it was somewhere in the 9th. I may have spent the first night in the hotel, but I didn't spend the second, or the third there. One morning I went out for croissants and cigarettes, and I'm not sure if it was the two croissant and pain au chocolate that raised eyebrows, or my choice of cigarettes, which was Boyard. (Boyard make Gitanes taste like Silk Cut). Ah, those were the 80's! Susan made the rent as a tour operator contact - the person who meets you within a day or so of arriving, talks about the location, books any outings and gives you a free drink on the hotel? That was Susan. Minus the carte de sejours, which meant she was off the books. She had a pretty spectacular figure and by today's standards was a bit messed up. Given that she was a 70's teenager like me, that made her ordinary. We spent the free part of her day wandering around Paris, had supper in Montmartre, where frankly the food was as awful as the location was allegedly picturesque. We always took taxis back to her place - she had this formula to describe her address "(something) rue du Borrego, c'est pres de la Metro Telegraph (and something else)". Somewhere along the line we drank a rose Cote de Provence, a wine which has never tasted quite as good as it did then.

I went back out to Paris for a weekend a few weeks later, through Charles de Gaulle, and we had supper Friday on the Left Bank and stayed at her place. I can't remember what we did Saturday night, but I'm pretty sure we went out. Sunday was lunch and flying back. It went okay as I recall.

We met in London that November and it was the disaster that every movie ever says it will be. We saw a play. The weather was cold. Very cold. No connection, no romance, no sex when she stayed over at my place, and looking back on that attic flat in Wimbledon, I don't blame her. That was that.

And that's the bit of my past I left on the 11 Line - a bit you will notice I remember in some detail. I don't reminisce about it every time I travel on it, but I did this time.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Free-Will, Neuroscience, Emergence And All That PR Jazz

What is it about free will that makes it such an attractive target? Perhaps because it's all we've got left now that God has gone. Just as there was a ton of publicity to be had attacking God and every last sentence in The Bible, so there's a lot of publicity to be had saying that we don't have free will or that we're so dumb and easily manipulated we don't deserve it.

Determinism - the thesis that everything but everything in the Universe was pre-destined to happen from the moment of creation because the development of the Universe is governed by the Laws of Nature and the disposition of the particles at the start - was really a PR stunt by Laplace Associates ("We Have No Need For That Hypothesis") for their Celestial Mechanics product. It's not a serious idea and was never intended to be. If you wonder how it was ever taken to be one, remember, you think that bottled water is better than the tap water in a first-world country. That was a PR stunt as well, and boy did it work.

Reductionist materialism - the thesis that everything you value is "merely" a bunch of atoms / whatevers, does not really exist ("Love ain't nothin' but oxytocin talkin'") and you're a fool for taking it so seriously - is just a playground wind-up. It's one thing to say that "emotions are caused by the release of hormones as a reaction to what happens to you" and another entirely to say "there are no emotions, merely hormones released into the blood stream". If there are no emotions, why go looking for hormones to explain them? To reduce X to Y is not to deny that X exists, but to claim that X is caused by Y and can be relieved by an antidote to Y. It's not necessary for me to convince you that your new girlfriend is trouble on stilts - all I need to do is to give you a dose of the anti-love hormone and you'll be free of your unhealthy fascination. Love may be hormonal, but that doesn't make any less all the things every poet in history ever said about it. Unless, that is, you're looking for a reason to be bitter and twisted.

The latest passengers on the Knocking Free Will bandwagon are the neuroscientists. But hold on here: when they publish research that seems to show that decisions are the result of brain processes, our reply should be... Gee, who knew? Followed by... and you'd publish it if you found that decisions weren't a result of brain processes? It's the business of neuroscience to find physical correlatives for what we think of as mental processes, so we should not really be too surprised when they say they have done so. Recently they have discovered that there's a brain process that accompanies a certain type of decision that happens before we become conscious of having made the decision. Lawyers are lining up to claim that their clients, criminals and bank CEO's all, are off the hook for anything they did. One way we know an idea is a bunch of crock is that defence lawyers rush to use it in defence of the clearly culpable.

We should be used to the idea that we are physical bodies and brains, with no magical ghosts, souls, minds or spirits interacting with our bodies (presumably via the pineal gland), and yet with free will. This is the twenty-first century, after all. It's sheer laziness to carry on proclaiming that we are but physical beings and therefore have no free will and our mental life is an irrelevant illusion. The real challenge is to explain how we can be wholly physical beings with free will,  making morally significant choices. From the fuss about the recent research on brain processes, it seems like a lot of people have yet to get the message.

I'm going to do is explain what I understand by freedom and free will. See if it makes sense to you. But don't expect me to argue against the determinists and Sneering Reductionists, and don't expect me to explain why free will isn't some massive illusion. All of these are self-consistent positions - sadly - and there's no way out once you step in. So pardon me if I trust my experience over an hypothesis that was only invented as a publicity stunt anyway.

What free will is not is this: that in the situation S there were options X and Y, and though we did X we could have done Y. This makes far, far too many fuzzy metaphysical claims for my taste. What does "could have done" mean? In practice? How does anyone know I could have done Y, especially since I'm a Catholic / Muslim / Vegetarian / Mother / Barrister and it's against my beliefs / ethics / religion and anyway I don't have that kind of money and have no idea where to buy arsenic? What does it mean to say that X and Y were options? For who? Me? Or a Russian oligarch? (Russian oligarchs have so many more options than I do.) Usually when someone says that I could have done Y, they are making a moral judgement, not saying something about the state of the Universe when I made the decision to do X.

There's an idea of free will that's just a little bit Romantic - in the way that Sleepless in Seattle is just a little bit romantic - and it goes like this: are we really free when we're the victims of manipulative advertisers, global brands, the indoctrination of schools and grade-inflated universities, peer pressure, employer's expectations and corporate rules, the censorship of the media conglomerates, the thousands of hoops of the bureaucrat, and the tricks played on us by marketeers informed by the latest research in behavioural psyschology? When artists have to have Masters' degrees and networking skills before they can even be considered by a gallery... are we really free? Or are we just choosing conformities?

You get the idea. Romantic free will must be pure or it is not. Free will is unconstrained, uninfluenced, and uncontamiated by the slightest taint of mundane reason, the unfettered expression of our inner souls, acting in a spirit of love, creativity, autonomy and originality. This isn't my idea of free will.

As a side issue, soul-lovers and mind-merchants will try to convince you that things like decisions and choices are "intentional objects" that cannot be understood in a purely material world, and need minds and other mysterious "emergent" objects. Emergence is a bridging idea - in this case between the rather simple way we thought about the world up to the end of the nineteenth century and how we are starting to think of it now. Back in the day, only the fundamental particles were real, and everything else was some temporary arrangement of them, with decreasing amounts of plausibility the more complex the arrangement became. Today we are starting to understand that it's the arrangements that are real, because the fundamental particles come and go. Your skin is real, but the cells are always falling off it. The Inland Revenue is sadly real, but the staff come and go on their temporary contracts. "Emergence" is offered as a magical process by which complicated things appear from seemingly simple components, as if bread dough "emerges" from its ingredients. It doesn't, of course, because it takes something to mix and knead the ingredients before the dough "emerges", even if in the case of the primordial DNA-creating soup, it wasn't an actual baker. Anyone who offers "emergence" as a serious explanation needs to learn more science and technology.

Free will is making decisions and choices, with an important condition, which I first read in Hegel's Aethestics. In the next post, I'll talk about that.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Junk Page Views: and Others

A while ago Google introduced Google Stats on Blogger. Very interesting it is as well. I have recently ascended to the giddy heights of roughly ten page views a day - which can be more than I get e-mails at work - and I would like to think that those are all real people brought here by a search on Google or the "Next Blog" button on Blogger.

Then I saw that a site called was a top provider for a few days. Never having heard of it, I went to have a look. What a nasty site. It seems to be offering software to set up a whole bunch of random blogs from which you can, allegedly, make money. Because if it was that easy, why don't they do it themselves and cut out the middleman?

I had noticed other odd-looking sites before. was one, another and,, yet others. Many of them are based in, oh!, look!, Russia. I am willing to believe that someone might have been browsing from what looks like a Russian furniture store, but then I trust everything from Russia, from the blondes to the billionaires.

I'm assuming the scam is to spam sad and lonely bloggers like me with views so that we go to their site, where they will infect us with viruses or try to sell us some bogus software that will make us rich or popular or attractive to women. Maybe they will hi-jack the blog. I don't know.

This is never going to be a popular blog. It's too text-heavy, the entries are often long, the tone is personal and the photographs don't feature Abbey Lee or Lily Cole on a regular basis. (I don't know how many page views Terence Tao gets - in a sensible world, it should be thousands - but I bet it's not as many as Rumi Neely gets.) I'm not writing about things people care about, like fashion, music, mathematics and cooking. Nor is it chirpy in tone and garishly colorful in design, which also seems to help.

I would like to know that the page views I get are real. Occasionally someone leaves a comment, which just makes my week. (I've never left one, which I know makes me a Bad Blogging Citizen, but I can never think of anything to say other than "Interesting post" that wouldn't take half an evening to compose. I would feel frustrated if I read "interesting post" because I would want to know why.)

Google know about these junk page views, but doing anything about them isn't on their list.  Best advice seems to be: don't click on the link. Just like you don't "unsubscribe" from spam e-mails.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Art of Non-Conformity (3): Lucie's Laws

Hold back the sophomore comment about "there can't be ways to be a non-conformist, because then you'd be conforming to the rules of being a non-conformist". I can conform to the rules I choose, and I can choose your rules or their rules, and it doesn't matter, because tomorrow or in the next instant I can change my mind. The point is not to conform to their rules because you can't think of anything better to do, or because you want to be accepted by them.

I'm going to cheat and quote myself, because this is the best way I've put this, though I wasn't thinking about it at the time. This is Lucie and Adam's second date, and Lucie is explaining the Laws she and a friend mentioned as an aside when Lucie and Adam first met.

LUCIE     One: do not watch television and only read foreign newspapers...

ADAM     I can read the FT?

LUCIE     I do. Saturdays. Vanessa Freidman, Jackie Wullschlager, Peter Aspden. Sometimes even to make sure they've kept their promises.

ADAM     Oh. You really do know everyone.

LUCIE     Or I'd have a day job. Rule Two?

ADAM     Okay.

LUCIE     A light suntan and good muscle tone are not optional...

ADAM     Damn straight.

LUCIE     Three: outside the home, even casual clothes should be classy.

ADAM     That's what I was trying to say...

LUCIE     You were. Four: shopping is not...

ADAM     ...a destination activity...

LUCIE buy your food and washing-up liquid on your way to somewhere else...

ADAM     Aha.

LUCIE     Aha indeed. Five: drinks begin with a w - whiskey, wine and water...

ADAM     You just took that from me.

LUCIE     Well, you might think so. But actually I didn't. Six?

ADAM     Six.

LUCIE     If you can see a crowd, you're in the wrong place...

ADAM     So true.

LUCIE     Seven: butter, coffee and toilet paper, however poor you are, never scrimp on those three things...

ADAM     That sounds familiar, but I shouldn't let on I know it's India Knight, should I?

LUCIE     No. People will think you read your girlfriends' books.

ADAM     And we wouldn't want that. Eight?

LUCIE     Eight: argue with your dentist and your doctor, but not with your petrol gauge or your first impressions.

ADAM     My petrol gauge is as reliable as my first impressions?

LUCIE     Which are way more reliable than your doctor.

(05:20 In The Morning - un-produced theatre script)

Lucie's Laws are about keeping the crap out of your life so you have time, energy and money to enjoy the good stuff. Do what you want except consume junk culture, junk food and the poisonous air of the English media. Rules two and three mean you're going to dress well and you will be going to the gym or playing sports a couple of times a week at least (because being an overweight slob in sloppy clothes is so desirable). Rule four keeps you away from the High Street at the weekends, and from having a family, because you can't shop for a family on an ad-hoc basis. Rules five and seven tell you to aim for simplicity in taste and quality in essentials, not quantity or novelty (that's where most people fall on their faces). Rule eight tells you not to accept so-called experts at face value: many doctors and dentists have ulterior motives, whereas your petrol gauge doesn't (some phone battery indicators do, I read somewhere). Rule six reminds you that the last time the crowd was right was in the mid-Sixties about the Beatles and the Stones. Since then, what's interesting and quality has diverged further and further from what's popular.

You can do whatever else you want. Adam he is an accountant and Lucie she is a PR. You can have a day job or a career. You can like your sex vanilla or kink, you can be a vegetarian who believes in global warming or a carnivore who doesn't, you can have ink or clear skin, you can dig Mozart or Ornette Coleman - as long as you dig someone. You can be well-balanced or you can be a screw-up. You just can't be so messed-up you so things because you think other people think that's what you should do. You can be as dogmatic as you like in the instant, as long as you drop your dogma when it gets in the way of doing what you need to get done.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Sunday Stroll Along The Canal in Utrecht

Once or twice a year I stay with a friend who lives in Utrecht. The more I go over to the Netherlands, the more I like it. Just walking through the streets is restful. Even when it seems, that the Dutch had started their Christmas shopping that weekend.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Friday Afternoon Around Culemborg

Culemborg is a Utrecht dormitory about fifteen minutes south by train from Utrecht. It dates back to the 1300's, with a market square, a church, a very fancy town gate (bottom photo), a modern railway bridge over the river, but no road bridge, so there's a the ferry that runs from about six in the morning to ten-thirty at night. 70 cents the single trip for foot passengers. We had lunch in a cafe - there are quite a few decent-looking restaurants and cafes there - and crossed the river, where the wind was cold, but the cottages picturesque, then returned to the town, stopping at the shop with the marzipan pig to buy some marzipan sweets for desert that evening.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Art of Non-Conformity (2): What Non-Conformity Isn't

So we were talking about non-conformity, and how it has nothing whatsoever to do with being prepared to sit around ramshackle airports in poor countries waiting for the pilot of the held-together-by-duct-tape DC3 to sober up and fly the plane, while eating vegetarian tacos and re-coding your client's website. It may sound exotic, and it narrowly beats commuting in suburban London, but it's not non-conformity. Non-conformity in those circumstances would be finding a doctor to give the pilot a vitamin B shot to help him sober up.

Non-conformity isn't about not following rules or not doing what everyone else does. To do anything that resembles an organised activity, from playing chess to driving (even in Naples), requires you to follow some rules. This is one of those points philosophers don't make enough of: to "do" anything that other people can recognise as our doing X means that we have to follow the rules they have for doing X. If we start moving chess pieces around at random, nobody will think we're playing chess. They will either think we're bonkers, or being silly. Even Mornington Crescent has rules - it's just that the rules aren't about what you think they're about.

Conformity is about following the rules when you have forgotten why, or never knew why or just because you like to follow the rules. Bridge clubs are full of old people tut-tutting at the newbies who don't know that a bid of three clubs is never followed by four hearts except when your partner has bid one no trumps and it's the third Thursday after Lent. Professional players will tell you that these "rules" are guidelines: you use them, don't use them, according to your judgement of the situation. Pros always say stuff like that, no matter what the subject. The point for them is to go home with a shed-load of money. But the point for the amateurs is to take part in a ceremony that confirms them as being insiders, members of the club and good social team players. Process is more important than results. (Which is why even now I recoil inwardly when I hear people talking about "process" in business: the point of business is to make a product people want at a price they can afford that leaves you with a profit. Not following a "process" that like as not has no positive effect on profit. But that makes me a non-conformist.)

Non-conformity is not about being random or ignoring common social conventions. If you have the opportunity to bathe on a regular basis and don't, that doesn't make you a non-conformist: it makes you smelly and anti-social. If you don't return things you borrow, that doesn't mean you are questioning notions of personal possession, it makes you a thief. If you do things without thinking the consequences through, that makes you impulsive at best and a dangerous and irresponsible twerp at worst. Some rules and conventions are there to enable co-operation and the smooth passage of business and human affairs. Mess with those when it matters and you're just an a..hole.

Non-conformity is about following the spirit of the law and focusing on the results, not the letter of the law and the ceremonial trappings. Non-conformists treat everything as a guideline, each rule applicable in perhaps many circumstances, but not in all. On a clear road with turns you can see round, why not have fun using the full width of the road? In heavy traffic, stick to your side. As for ceremony and process: those are regarded as optional, content-free and to be performed only if it will result in getting what they need. To a non-conformist, "process", "convention", "the way we do things" are not real. Reality is creation, getting results and making things happen. If there's one thing that most non-conformists do, it's jay-walk.

A conformist gets a large chunk of their identity from following the rules and taking part in the ceremonies. A conformist goes to Church because they like the routine, the feeling of being with other people, and of being in the place. The non-conformist goes because they need the religion: if they wanted to be surrounded by people, they would sit in a cafe. When they don't need the religion, they don't go. The non-conformist is not defined by what they do, and that's scary, if not actually a contradiction, to most people. After all, isn't "you'll do anything to (insert objective speaker doesn't share), won't you" one of the standard junk-drama put-downs?

The downside of non-conformity is steep and deep. I am never going to one of the gang, because being one of the gang means committed, unquestioning acceptance of their rules. Ain't going to happen. There will be something in my body language and facial expression that suggests I'm deciding or otherwise judging for myself. I'm not supposed to do that. Other people want to know that when they do X, I will automatically approve, and when one of the Other do Y, I will automatically disapprove. That way they don't have to worry about being judged they because they know just what to do. I mess all that up, because I insist on starting from scratch every time. And people don't like people who are motivated by results: they prefer ceremony. The merchant middle class that emerged across Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries upset both the aristocracy and the workers exactly because it was focussed on results, on profits and on political change.

The benefits of non-conformity? I can't think of one, to be honest. It's something that you're born with, or start doing very early in your life. At some point you find yourself choosing to be where the crowd is not. And when I think of it, that's the main benefit. And if you understand what I meant by that, you too are similarly cursed.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked: Around The Brunswick Centre

Some Sundays are nearly perfect. The Sunday I took these pictures, I drove in to central London in thirty minutes, ran two miles in 16:50, swam the fastest I've ever swam, saw Mademoiselle Chambon at the Renoir, and had these blue skies to walk under.

The Renoir Cinema has been underneath the Brunswick Centre for as long as I've been watching movies. It used to be one large auditorium with the seats arranged in curves, and was split into two screens a long while ago. It's part of the Curzon art-house chain.

Back in the 1970's the Brunwsick Centre was a concrete wasteland with the little hut of the Renoir box-office in the middle. If you were blindfolded and dropped there, you might think you were in Soviet Russia or a northern council estate. Which you were: a Camden council estate, that is. I visited the Renoir a few times in the early 2000's when I was working over in a City telco, and it was still pretty dire. The Giraffe cafe was there. I think.

Then someone refurbished it and brought in the shops and cafes. When I started working at The Bank in 2007, I went to see a movie there, and was amazed. Because it looks like this...

When I came out from the lunchtime show, it was even more busy. But then, the whole area has changed. It used to be deserted, but at almost any time there are people walking around, even if they are tourists going to Heathrow via Russell Square tube. I've written about the Goodenough College before, so here's a view of Marchmont Street on the other side of the centre. London did not look like this in the 1970's. And I know which I prefer.

The idea of a health store with a pavement cafe being open on Sunday in Camden on Marchmont street, or the Italian on the corner of Marchmont and Tavistock being open, in 1970? It would have been un-thought of, it would in fact have been impossible to think. Philosophers would have given you elegant explanations of the idea of the logically impossible and used "pavement cafe in Camden" as an example of the logically impossible.

And yet here it is. With two Americans talking about "pro soccer" over their cappucinos. Which is something that would have been equally impossible to think in 1970.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Art of Non-Conformity (1): The Review

Recently I read a book called The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebreau. You know how that happens. You're browsing, you pick up a book, it seems to have things to say on the pages you turn to, presto! Another pop-culture slip.

I grew up in an era when "conformity" was a grey, grey word to colour parents, teachers and people with clerical jobs. (Oddly, manual workers were neither conformist nor non-conformist: they were "the workers" and as such outside cultural judgement.) Back then we knew what it was people were conforming to: marriage, children, job-for-life working for a bank or one of the nationalised industries or in government, washing the car on Sunday and middle-brow culture. It meant fitting in with what other people said they expected you to do and believe.

An updated version of this is roughly what Chris Guillebreau means by "conformity". I think he makes two mistakes. The first is that post-modern capitalist economies don't want you to conform, except to your employers' dress and IT codes. Expecting you to conform to anything else would mean setting standards and training people and generally making commitments, and post-modern capitalism needs to be able to dump it, outsource it, price it out of your salary range and generally melt it into air at any time with minimum disruption and expense. The second mistake is that conforming is not about product choice and how we make the rent, and many of the choices we make are constrained by the numbers. Most of us have to work 9-5 because most jobs are 9-5, not freelance. Most of us have to work at what we're good at rather than at what we love, because what we're good at pays and what we love doesn't. Following your bliss is viable if it so happens that your bliss pays enough, or you are prepared to live very cheap.

Indeed, the book's title should be "Live Cheap and You Need Never Go Into The Office". He's a web developer and seemingly one of the few who are good enough to find enough clients prepared to let him work off-site, which not many clients are prepared to do. He only needs some telephony to do his job - sometimes, I'm gathering, sat phones so he can dial in to a client conference call in the middle of Africa. (That strikes him as cool, but I think it's a little... disjointed.) He travels a lot - not in a Tyler Brule style. He's not going to Biarritz for dinner at Restaurant Phillipe, but to Azerbaijan, Syria, Turkey and other Poor Countries. His idea of fine dining at lunchtime is Chipolte and he's a vegetarian, which keeps the costs down. He's also prepared to sit around airports for a day waiting for connecting flights, delays and the like, on cut-price airlines. Going to poor countries makes your income last a lot longer, and provides months of comparing your material circumstances with Poor People, which makes you feel a lot better about yourself than a few weeks in Manhattan or Kensington.

If I said that books like this were actually commissioned by corporations and western governments to convince you that it's your fault you're a wage-slave tied to a soul-crushing commute and job, which given your skill-set you can only change for a different soul-crushing commute and job, you would mutter something about "Corporations and governments aren't that smart". He may not know it, but he's blaming the victim, the favourite tactic of the oppressor and his lackeys. If only we had the gumption to Do What We Love And Find Someone To Pay Us For Doing It, we would be happy and unafraid of being replaced by someone in Mumbai. Good thing Chris likes web development, which he can do from a rooftop cafe in Syria, and not Java enterprise systems, which would mean he would have to be on-site right up to the day they at-will terminated him.

I felt cheated, because a book with this title should be about more than working freelance, which is a way of life that takes a particular character and mind-set that most of don't have - which is why we don't do it. Non-conformity is about just a lot more than how you make your pay-cheque and where you go on vacation, and there are moments he addresses that stuff, but not for long enough.

There are three posts in this series. The next one is the philosopher's analysis of the idea of non-conformity.