Friday, August 28, 2009

Turner and Boris

To my surprise Lord Turner and Boris the Blond have succeeded in interesting me. The former has floated the possibility of a transaction - 'Tobin' - tax to control the excesses of the City and the latter has said this is crazy because it will damage our competitiveness and, anyway, even the bonus buggers pay taxes. Turner said some City activities were 'socially useless'. This, at least, is true. I often tried to get City types to explain the point of their menagerie of derivatives and they always failed, primarily because, as we now know, the point of them was to be ever more elaborate versions of Find the Lady that would enrich the card sharps on the other side of their easy-pack trestle tables and leave us impoverished when they suddenly vanished with their carpet bags full of used tenners.
But lots of things are socially useless and we can't legislate against people solely because they make money. We can however legislate - in this case, tax - things that are socially damaging. We do it all the time. It should now be clear to everybody that whatever the bonus buggers were up to that wiped out trillions of pounds of our wealth was socially damaging. This should not be forgotten even though Barclays and Goldman Sachs are now floating happily on a government-rigged market saying it was all a storm in a tea cup. The question then becomes: how much of our present prosperity, as defined by Boris, are we/should we be prepared to forego in order to eradicate activities that are bound to be socially damaging in the medium or long term?
Turner went a long way in using the phrase 'socially useless' but not quite far enough properly to sharpen the issue. The enormity of the City's long con is in danger of being forgotten as stock markets and house prices begin to rise. They ripped us off, they drained the blood out of our economy. Think on, Boris.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The American Way of Death

Understanding the American health care debate from abroad has been rendered difficult, if not impossible, by the cretinous, Palinesque rhetoric which now seems to be the preferred discourse of the Republican Party. There will be, according to these knuckle-draggers, government death panels and the whole Obama scheme is either Nazist or socialist or both. In fact, what the current health insurers get up to seems to be far worse than anything imaginable in any state scheme and, besides, America's position as the only wealthy country not to look after the health of all its citizens does look increasingly weird as the years go by.
This is not to defend the NHS, which needs very radical reform indeed, but it is to say that American suspicion of any government involvement in health insurance and the resulting denial of medical care to millions of its citizens needs more explaining than I have yet seen.
Part of the answer, I think, is the deep American conviction that failure should be punished so that success can be rewarded. This is seen both as a moral and an economic imperative. In this context, failure involves the loss of health insurance. If this penalty is removed then there will be less incentive to be successful. The three big flaws in this are: a)rampant and demonstrable private sector abuse of the system b) the fact that very little failure is actually deserved and, even if it were, death or serious illness must be an excessive punishment and, therefore, the moral aspect of the imperative drops out of the equation and the only justification becomes economic. But this too is weakened by the fact that c) the current US system is not very effective in that life expectancy is not that high, it encourage massive over-medication to the point where iatrogenesis is the third biggest killer and it is fantastically inefficient and expensive.
Health would seem to be a perfectly legitimate extension of the state to correct market failures. Nevertheless, I understand the need to reward success and punish failure in the context of the American imagination. The potency of the idea is what makes the US so different from Europe. Unfortunately, to stir up the knuckle-draggers and damage Obama, the Republicans have decided to exploit and debauch this idea. American individualism thus becomes American savagery and true conservatism withers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Class

I dimly remember Roger Scruton writing somewhere that snobbery was a form of sanctity. This made certain meritocratic types of my acquaintance madder than wet hens, which, I assume, was Roger's intention. He's like that. But I know what he meant - snobbery sustains class divisions and aspirations which were the foundations of eighteenth century England, a kind of paradise. Unlike Roger, I can't go along with this. Not only am I an angry agnostic, I am also chippy middle class. This means I regard the working class with intense paranoia because I know they are out to rip me off and the upper class with burning resentment because all this bird-slaughter and condescension is plainly designed to conceal the fact that they aren't as clever and well-read as me.
But, to be honest, I think the worst aspects of the British class system are expressed in the idiotic strivings of the middle class. One becomes aware of these things if one spends too much of the summer in the country. There is, for example, the desperately fraught phenomenon of the house guest. Middle class house guests instinctively strip their beds before they leave and neatly fold the sheets, perhaps even putting them in the washing machine. Upper class guests leave their beds unmade and a tip for the cleaning lady. These are both perfectly respectable responses. What is not respectable is middle class types making a big show of leaving a cleaning lady pourboire just to demonstrate they know about upper class manners. Once you notice this, you see it everywhere. I was scanning a wedding magazine in a hairdresser's and I became oppressively aware that weddings have become an entire industry designed to extract money from the middle classes by telling them they must have flouncy marquees, poncey catering and daft clothes because that's what the upper classes do. And what did the middle class jerks in the City who made money out of dud mortgages and the misery of the poor spend their bonuses on? Purdey shot guns and the like.
I have come to the view that we should proudly be what we are. This means we should politely say to the uppers 'We don't do that, we read Marilynne Robinson' when they offer to take us bird murdering and to the lowers, 'Don't come the cheeky chappy with me, sunshine, I'm in trade myself' when they tell us fixing the toilet will cost exactly £999.99. Being non-striving middle class is, I have concluded, the most fun.

Back to the Past

I shall be on the Today programme at 8.40, I think, discussing the return of the seventies. Brilliantly, the producers have organised an overnight demonstration of this phenomenon.

Ben Hur

Mysteriously my article on Ben Hur in The Sunday Times did not appear online until now. Here it is.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kliban and the Ontological Proof

There's a cartoon by, I think, the sublime B. Kliban which shows an anguished man crouched in a cave. On the wall behind him is a sign which reads, 'Do not read this sign'. Of course, the fact that he's crouched and anguished means that he has read the sign and is awaiting the consequences and/or he is trying desperately not to read it again.
Now say, bear with me, the sign is God and the man is an atheist. Now his predicament is that he doesn't want to have anything to do with the sign, but, having read it, the contents are, so to speak, inside him. In his head he is constantly reading the sign or, in my version, thinking about God, which, for an atheist, must be damned irritating. But, of course, that's what atheists must do if they are to continue to be atheists - if they stop thinking about God, they stop being atheists.
I think there are elements of Anselm's Ontological Proof in this. Or, at least, there was something about this proof - discussed here by Nathan Schneider - that evoked the cartoon. What is most interesting about the Schneider piece (aside from the glorious fact that it is on a newspaper web site, long live the NYT) are some of the comments. I think that it is these that evoked Kliban's man in a cave. Typical is the one from Jack Walsh - 'Eeek. Will you all just stop it?? This is all just crazy talk about nothing. Nothing. Read your Wittgenstein!!! Aaaaaarrrrrgh. Otherwise sensible bright people wading through cant. Just stop it.'
I think Jack should reread Wittgenstein. But, anyway, these are clearly the howls of a man who has read the sign or possibly one with his fingers in his ears yelling, 'La-la-la, Can't hear you.' Schneider's piece is tinged with sentimentality, but it does make the point that, whatever you think of Anselm's proof (in fact, it wasn't just Anselm's), it is clear that it says a great deal about the way language and the human mind work. God as the greatest possible concept is a perfectly reasonable way of assessing our thoughts, intuitions and, most importantly, our art. Consider it as the square root of -1 in mathematics. You can stop thinking about it if you like, but then you won't understand maths or, in the case of God, people who, you see, have all read the sign.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Elberry the Unkillable

So I get this email from the prodigious Elberry telling me he's burnt his blog and will not blog again. I reply sympathetically only to be told he is, in fact, blogging again - here. I sometimes wonder whether I have imagined Elberry. Like the incomparable Dave Lull he may be the first sign of the acquisition of self-consciousness by the internet. It is winning us over by adopting seductive and alarming personae. Perhaps I should alert The Guardian.

Science and the Guardian

Today's Guardian leader on the Large Hadron Collider - 'But the greatest benefit of the LHC may simply be that it exists.' This provokes in me two associations. The first is those follies that rich men built to keep the poor employed during hard times. The LHC, having been the great key that would unlock the mystery of matter, has become a job creation scheme. The second is what might be termed the Scargill defence. Arthur Scargill, having taken on Margaret Thatcher and lost and having destroyed the power and credibility of the Trade Unions for the next two decades, said the miners' strike had been a triumph simply because it had happened. I quite like the follies and even Scargill's hilarious combover has taken on a pleasing sepia tinge with the passing of the years, but I do think it's a bit early to start so radically lowering the bar on our expectations of the LHC. Admittedly I've always thought of it as a contemporary cathedral, but I try to remember that the medieval cathedrals had a real function for at least a few centuries. The full argument of the Guardian leader is that the mere fact of international co-operation on such an apparently useless project is to be applauded. Again I feel a sepia tinge coming on - this time it involves a kind of Fabian hard-work ethic. But, behind this, lurks the way in which 'pure' science is being used as a quasi-religious abstraction, a transcendent force that guides and justifies our striving. The leader steers away from this at the end by bringing in climate change as a practical project, but, so far as I am aware, the discovery of the Higgs Boson will have little impact on global warming.
Which brings me to another article in The Guardian. This ties together a number of developments in neuroscience and psychology. Madeleine Bunting says these point to a new view of human nature as humans now no longer seem to possess reason, autonomy or freedom. This is a tricky argument as, once you have said it in its strong form, you can't say anything else because you are human and, therefore, anything else you might say is compromised by your lack of reason, autonomy etc.. See Vladimir Tasic for the full version of this. But, since the point has been made, it's worth saying that it has been made many times before, most famously by Michel Foucault's announcement of the death of the human. In fact, the idea is much older than that because it has been implicit in the causal assumptions of science since Galileo. These new versions of the idea are interesting but tentative. Speak to any decent neuroscientist - and I have - and he'll tell you that, in spite of our big white scanners, we know next to nothing about how the brain actually works. As ever with science, this makes it dangerous to draw any conclusions for the real human world. Bunting does this, suggesting there is some link between free market conservatism and the 'old' view of the autonomous human self and that, therefore, the left should take on board this new science as a countervailing ideology. This offers the pleasing prospect of a kind of Dadaist Labour party, declining all suggestion of rationality and autonomy. Don't go there, boys. Science as tentative as this is likely to change in an instant and you'll be left with a political programme with all the authority of a pack of Tarot cards.
Anyway, in all seriousness, this is why I like the Guardian, it's full of ideas. They may be wrong, they may be bonkers - a perfectly respectable technical term, I was told by a distinguished psychologist yesterday - but at least they are ideas.

All We Have Is Cricket

Sun and deep thought have stalled the old blog drive. There are, however, some things too wonderful to evade remark. Come on now, really, is there any game that can compare with a five-day test match? 'At least we still have this,' was the gist of most remarks I heard yesterday, the clear conviction being that in every other respect our nation is pretty much screwed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Read this. Mary Midgley is a good thing, a great, persistent and wise critic of scientistic pretension.
'The mythology of how markets work, of how money can do things on its own, is as remote from solid physical reality as these other things. And of course whatever the mythology of the time is, those inside it don't recognise it as such; they think they're just noticing facts.'
This mythology to facts manouevre became the excuse for the absurd 'strong programme' in sociology, an attempt to turn science into just another social discourse. Midgley is not going that far, indeed she is not saying anything about science qua science. She is simply saying that prevailing mythologies can produce phantasms that are taken for facts - factasms? - by believers. The mythology thus takes on the authority of science, often, as Midgley well knows, with the collusion of scientists.

Dave Lull's Death Worm

Noting my interest in Mongolia, the incomparably associative librarian Dave Lull (Is a really a librarian or a strange emanation of the internet, some spontaneous leap into higher levels of complexity, an emergent librarian?) draws my attention to this loveable critter, the acid-spitting and lightning throwing Mongolian death worm. I'd like to believe in its existence and, in fact, I probably will when I find one in my bed tomorrow morning, courtesy of Apple public relations department.

Protecting Steve Jobs

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I profile Steve Jobs. Apple tried to stop us running this piece, not because of anything in it - they had no idea what was in it - but because that's what they do. 'We're very protective of our boss, Bryan,' they explained. I suppose this remark is justified to the extent that he has just had a liver transplant, but it's still weird. 'Don't worry, boss, we'll protect you from this uppity Brit hack...'. In any case, The Yard is not a boss protective type, he expects irony from rich, powerful people. It is their only possible excuse.
Link tomorrow.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not So Green

And, speaking of Mongolian clusterfucks, it seems a new wave of electric cars may prove too much for existing generation systems. In Britain - surprise, surprise - this problem will be worse than anywhere else because, even without electric cars, we will soon have insufficient juice to go round. In order to sustain our green credentials we will have to burn coal and buy Russian gas. Clever.

Cheney and the Fear of Softness.

This from the Washington Post.

'John P. Hannah, Cheney's second-term national security adviser, said the former vice president is driven, now as before, by the nightmare of a hostile state acquiring nuclear weapons and passing them to terrorists. Aaron Friedberg, another of Cheney's foreign policy advisers, said Cheney believes 'that many people find it very difficult to hold that idea in their head, really, and conjure with it, and see what it implies.''

Since it is unimaginable that this threat will ever recede, what it implies is a state of perpetual war. As I have said before, though I can't find it. Cheney seems to want an Israelification of American society, a constant state of intense military readiness affecting everybody all the time. This is what is odd about the man. He sees unacceptable softness wherever he looks, including, it is soon to be revealed, in Bush.

What Life Is

Idly - well, not idly, rather conscientiously in fact - researching words for abject human failures - FUBAR, SNAFU etc - I came across an old favourite, clusterfuck. I also discover a new - to me at least - variation - Mongolian clusterfuck. Apparently P.J. O'Rourke used it for a 'preplanned, wholly scripted news-free event' or 'press conference' as they are sometimes called. But it seems to be more commonly used for traffic jam-like situations where the chaos is such that all progress is utterly stalled. I am not sure there's a substantial, real world difference between a garden variety clusterfuck and the Mongolian form, but there is something about the word 'Mongolian'. It is both exotic and sinister and evokes the wholly incomprehensible. It certainly adds something to the concept of failure. Anyway, this is just to say that, this morning, 'Mongolian clusterfuck' seems to me to be the most perfect summation of human life.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Epistemological Sucker Punch

I observe, he said rather grandly, that the economists are fighting back. Robert Lucas points out that, for forty years, the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) has shown that economists are unable to forecast financial crises because, if they could, they could beat the market and the EMH proves that nobody can do that. Slightly more pithy is this blogger's reponse to the question posed by the Queen - 'Your Majesty, economists did something even better than predict the crisis. We correctly predicted that we would not be able to predict it.' Now I don't feel quite as badly about economists as Nassim - spawn of Satan, basically - but I do think there's something of a rope-a-dope going on here. The econs are soaking up the punishment prior to bouncing back with the EMH sucker punch. The EMH performs the role of the Turing Halting Problem in computation or Godel's Incompleteness Theorem in mathematics or even Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in physics. It's an epistemological limit, a border we cannot cross even with limitless information at our disposal. It is just out there in the world and it has the secondary virtue that it is not understood by ordinary people. This allows Lucas and friends to say, in effect, 'But we told you we couldn't make predictions about big things like financial crashes. If you had just understood economics better you would have understood this.' To which the only intellectually respectable response is, 'Yeah, right.' For the point is that economists, as most of them presently define themselves, exist to make predictions. It's how most of them make their living. They must, therefore, do this while assiduously concealing from our gaze the momentous implications of EMH. And that, let's face it, is exactly what they did - unfurling the sucker punch only when things got really tricky.
The reality is that economists still can't come to terms with the fact that they are not scientists, they are, if anything, historians or social commentators. Perversely, the existence of the EMH probably strengthens them in their delusion - 'Look we have a real epistemological limit just like the computer geeks, the mathematicians and the physicists!' What they should be thinking is, 'We are proud to be dealing in real complexity, in the truly unknowable.' But nobody ever says that any more.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Auden at Golgotha

Having just written that, I read the following in W.H.Auden's wonderful commonplace book, A Certain World. This is not, like most of the book, a cherished quotation, it is written by Auden. As with much of what he writes - or, indeed, Mozart composes - the tone is deceptive; he uses lightness to disguise depth. This, to me, is an exalted form form of good manners. The passage is a very profound justification humility and of the religious perspective.

'Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I'm certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight - three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, 'It's disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can't the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?' Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.'

Monday, August 10, 2009

God. Again. Again

Oh, what the hell, it's the silly season and I seem to have started it again. If the only aspect of God in which you are interested is his scientifically verifiable existence or non-existence then you are a fool, a prat, an illiterate, a bore, a half-wit, a freak, an ill-educated clown, an insensitive lummox and a complete child. This, essentially, is my problem with these militant atheists, they are children. All they are saying is, 'You said he was a man with a white beard above the clouds. Well, now we have planes and rockets and he's not there so he doesn't exist. Ya-boo, you stink.' Pre-school stuff, so why are they doing it? I don't know but two reasons suggest themselves - 9/11 and the apparent power of Christian fundamentalism in the US. I am not sure of the reality or otherwise of the latter, but I am sure that whatever power there was has waned considerably. And, as for 9/11, well that may reasonably have inspired questions about this particular version of God, but broadening that to all versions is plainly absurd. Oh and there's a third reason - it sells books, but I'm trying to give the atheists more credit for high-mindedness than, perhaps, they deserve.
Anyway, I'm an Angry Agnostic - I don't believe in God, I don't not believe in him, but I'm very interested in him. How could I not be? I have a mind and I've read a lot of stuff. I am also hyper-aware - as are most intelligent scientists - of the excessive claims made for science.
I am not a cognitive relativist like those goons Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray etc.(I rate Derrida and Lyotard). I accept the explanatory power of science and in its unique place in human knowledge as a genuinely accumulative form of wisdom. Indeed, it wouldn't be remotely interesting to me - well, about as interesting as scientology - if it were not so powerful and unique. But it's important to remember that, at any given moment, most of what scientists say is wrong. This has to be the case. Natural selection produces an eye by selecting certain mutations from billions of others which were either harmful or useless. That's also how scientific progress works, though the numbers are smaller. One reason we're not aware of this is the lamentable lack of reporting of negative results - a lack that results in research students barking up trees that have already been found to be wrong. The institution of science is, if anything, slightly more irrational than most other institutions.
This is not to say that I expect science, one day, to find God, though, having just read Paul Davies's excellent The Goldilocks Enigma to catch up on physics and cosmology, I can safely say it's not out of the question. But it is to say that extrapolating the state of science at any one moment into non-scientific realms - like theology - is dangerous and absurd. This, in fact, was the true message of the Intellectual Impostures scam. A couple of scientists made fools of those French thinkers who randomly imported science into their impenetrable meditations. Quite right. But we should be aware that in religion and other areas, some scientists are now doing the same thing in reverse, busily exporting science into places where it does not belong and, perhaps, can never belong. That way lies a very stupid world indeed.
If you are really interested in any of this - and you should be - you should read the argument between the theologian Richard Swinburne and Richard Dawkins. Properly done, this will keep you going for the rest of August. You may take the view that it's not worth it because Swinburne is a theologian and, therefore, a silly fantastist. If you do take this view, then you are a a fool, a prat, an illiterate and a bore etc. and you are banned from reading this blog.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

God. Again

In The Sunday Times I review Robert Wright's The Evolution of God: The Origins of Our Beliefs.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Unopinionated Post in the Style of a Famous Physicist

I just heard a story on the radio about a drug they've given to animals in India. It poisons the vultures that feed off the corpses. This has led to a decline in the vulture population which has caused problems for the Parsees who traditionally dispose of their dead by leaving the bodies out to be consumed by, you guessed it, vultures. Complex systems are much smarter than we are. Having opinions is, as a result, stupid, not to say embarrassing. This is why I stopped blogging. The night before I stopped I got through an entire dinner party without expressing an opinion. It helped that I wasn't drinking. Both not drinking and not having opinions made me feel exceptionally well the next morning. Every year at about this time, Claire Fox invites me to take part in an Institute of Ideas debate. Every year I decline. I am thinking of accepting this time. The debate is The Good Society - Virtues for a Post Recession World. It is possible not to have opinions about that. John Bolton has a lot of opinions and he looks as though he is wearing a disguise. This is a fatal combination for a man who wishes to be taken seriously. I heard him on the World Service saying Bill Clinton's rescue of those women from North Korea was a disaster because it would make Kim Jong-il happy. He probably thinks this is a clever opinion because nobody else holds it. In fact, it's stupid because it show a vulgar inability to understand complex systems. I was in Dusseldorf yesterday. The only thing I knew about this city was that it occurs in a creepy but brilliant song by Randy Newman. It's true that Germans don't have a sense of humour, but they do laugh a lot when they finally get the joke.
This post has been written in a parody of the style of Richard Feynman, who, I think, apes the style of Kurt Vonnegut, who probably owes a lot to Mark Twain. I hope you enjoyed it. It's not a style I like very much.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Art and Death

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I talk to Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, about, among other things, the miserable state of Trafalgar Square and I discuss assisted dying in the wake of the Debbie Purdy case. Links tomorrow.