Saturday, April 11, 2009

Unintended Consequences

My blog tongue has been tied - the usual excess of dead tree work. But, anyway, I did an 'in conversation with' Peter Ackroyd at the British Library (eat your hearts out, Eric and Ernie). Peter remarked to me afterwards that his favourite expression is 'unintended consequences'. Mine too. It's a two word autobiography of everybody who has ever lived. Ask anybody how they would summarise their life and 'unintended consequences' is the complete answer. The phrase suffuses me with gleeful peace, an oceanic feeling and a profound love for all mankind. The next time I hear somebody whining about their lot in life - I get this all the time - I shall murmur 'unintended consequences' and they will sob with gratitude - 'Yes, yes, you understand me perfectly....'


  1. Here's an example from the last two days. Someone from The Times calls me on Thursday to ask about Twitter and its demographic bulge of 45-54 year-olds. A friend has said I may have some useful thoughts. That gets me thinking about Ward Cunningham, inventor of wiki and gentle guide to a wiser if not always older generation of software engineers. And of his many friends who I've noticed in the last few months are increasingly active on Twitter.

    Through paying more attention to this growing network I become aware of two things: the first positive review I've ever seen of my own efforts with the wiki idea 1999-2004, posted a month ago today, and what looks like an extraordinarily helpful free book on energy (including climate change, at least in passing) just released by Cambridge physicist David JC MacKay.

    I heard about MacKay's opus through Cory Doctorow, who used to work with Esther Dyson at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I met Esther just once at some trade show in the early 90s. She's the daughter of Freeman Dyson, the physics-genius-without-PhD who was my last mention here on the warmist dispute.

    MacKay has some good quotes at the head of his chapters, starting of course with Bryan's friend James Lovelock. The plea for numbers over adjectives in what follows reminds me forcefully of Sir John Houghton and Richard Lindzen crossing swords before the House of Lords in 2005. Houghton said the increase in temperature since 1860 was 'unprecedented', Lindzen retorted it was 'small'.

    It should go back to the numbers and, right now, I'm very grateful for MacKay's passion on the subject. And of course to unintended consequences of many other kinds.

  2. Tell me about it. I only stumbled on this blog because I wanted to know how to live forever or die trying. Now my life largely consists of malty and nigeness.

    I wonder if we can combine all these profundities into one uber-profundity? Something like:

    Life is one damn unintended consequence after another which happens between eternities of darkness while you're busy making other plans.

    What do you think - does it have the it headstone-worthy?

  3. I like it. In fact, I think I like it even better than ''Thought Experiments''. should you consider a brand realignment, may I suggest not using Ringo Starr and Bruce Willis.

    Eric and Ernie eating their hearts out is a bit like Terry Pratchett getting his head together. Unintended's good!

  4. There's a line from Death of a Salesman about picking up a ringing phone, and finding that it triggers an explosion in the basement...

  5. So your an agony aunt now?

    I disagree I would describe by little foray in this strange thing called Time as, "uncertain circumstances"

    I suppose its the flip side of the same coin, but the unintended bit can be alleviated to some degree with understand you don't know what you don't know.

  6. Sounds such a benign malady, unintended quincequonces, how can one be expected to guess tomorrow when understanding today is enough to make ones brain hurt. What you're saying then, Bryan von Strunkel, is because of the fact that in 1959 this blonde had her evil way with me, today the steel hawsers holding up the Forth road bridge are rusting.

    Sounds like it's living trying and dying forever, now there's an intended quincequonce.

  7. Gordon's Death of a Salesman moment reminds me of a story I heard of a man who picked up a pay phone he heard ringing in the street only to find the caller asking for him by name. A combination of wrong number, momentary physical proximity and the desire to help. Before the days of mobile phones, which have made the miracle mundane. The thing is, I fully believe that this happened, just once in the history of the universe, but I've no idea where I read about it. I certainly didn't check out the sources. But it convinced me.

    Pointers welcome, especially to a work of fiction that includes this tale, thus casting doubt of its real-world status.

  8. Not quite what you mean, Richard, but Dave Lee's 'Bright from the Well' has an anecdote of someone trying to track down an old friend: she drew some tarot cards and rang the telephone number corresponding to the cards - it wasn't the long-lost friend, however - it was the friend's next door neighbour.

  9. It's kinda simple. Chap walks along street, not expecting call, pre mobile phones. A public phone booth has a phone ringing and on a whim he answers. They say "Is that Mr Appleyard?" (Or Nietsche or whatever.) He says yes, with some amazement. It was someone trying to reach him, who had misdialled - or not, depending on your metaphysics. I thought it was a cool thing to have happened and I bought into that reality. But I've no idea where I heard it and what made it convincing to me.

    It's also a bit of double entendre on the unintended consequences theme of course. For the amazing thing is not that intentions are sometimes frustrated. It is that sometimes, maybe very rarely, they work out. There's a key moment Roger Penrose gets this wrong in Shadows of the Mind. But that is too far off course, even for me.

  10. How about this: a man walks down the street, hears a phone box ring, picks it up.

    "Is that Mr X?"

    - step into someone else's shoes and pretend to be them out of whimsy. The consequences, could you take on their fate and die their death?

    i was once in a computer room where the phone kept ringing - a crazy woman kept asking for such-and-such a person. Every five minutes she'd ring and someone would sigh, get up, and say "no, this is the Psychology Dept computer room, you must have the wrong number, there's no one called X here."

    About 10 people went through this over an hour. Finally i went into action.

    Crazy woman (who actually sounded sane enough): Hello, can I talk to X?

    Elberry: You certainly can. i'll just get her. [pause, then continues in shrieky insane voice]: Hellooooooo? Helloooo? This is X! i've been waiting for you to call all day! Where were you!


    Crazy woman, nonplussed, said she'd call back later. She didn't call back. That's the thing, you just have to outcrazy the crazies, then they respect you and leave you alone.

  11. Have you noticed that nowadays it's tougher to guess who among pedestrians is truly insane? Used to be the people talking to themselves, but now they're just on their phones with a Bluetooth attachment.

    That's an unintended consequence of cell phones. And today at the gym, I ran into an old colleague from the Phila. Inquirer. He noted that the demise of newspapers is an unintended consequence of the Internet.

  12. Talking of intentions fulfilled Guido has seen McBride off the premises. He stated his intention to Derek Draper back on 26 March on the Daily Politics (c2:05), a spat to which I drew attention later that day. Longer term consequences for Stalin/Bean are harder to gauge. But fair cop. I can't agree with the Guardian blogger that the photo with crosshairs was too much. McBride knew exactly what it was about and what Guido had in mind. That's different from explicit or veiled threats of death, including - perhaps especially - from anonymous or pseudonymous putative assassins. Unfortunately a fair few netizens have had to ponder such intentions in times past.

  13. Elberry, very cool example, thanks, bound to be added to my store of such tales vaguely remembered but told with relish. Is it part and parcel of being crazy that one fears one's (stated) intentions coming to pass?

  14. Fearing your stated intentions will come to pass is merely good sense, at least if you intend anything substantial. As soon as you write or speak you are taking a fairly serious step. If the consequences were mechanical (press button A and experience consequence B) it would be bad enough but as it is it's more like press button A and ten years later you experience consequence Z.

  15. Richard - you're probably thinking of that story about a chap who answers a pay phone in the middle of nowhere, they ask for him by name and it turns out they've accidentally dialled his payroll number which happens to be the same as the pay phone he's passing.

    Here's a version.

    It pops up quite a lot, so urban myth, I fear.

  16. elberry: I aver it's possible to live with more boldness and joy than you imply! But fun to think about thanks.

    Brit: Thanks for the reference, will look into it.