Friday, 15 September 2017

Mary Poppins - the only analysis you will ever need

Mary Poppins (1964) is a film in which the happy ending includes a man killing his boss and thereby securing promotion to the board of directors of an international bank. It is not your typical children’s film. 

I have set out below - at some length, I should warn you - the crystallised form of various thoughts I have had about this my favourite film.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

"He was again accompanied to court by his official clerical dog The Venerable Mr Piddles"

That's from a story about a fraudulent cleric here.

Also: "The court heard he has no connection to the Church of England and regularly travels to Moldova." (The owner, not the dog.) I feel that "regularly travels to Moldova" is a euphemism for something, but I have no idea what.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A follow-up on men, women and equality

I said something here (and a little here) about women being better educated than men. Here's some further thoughts, based on data from Canada.

The conclusion: "Put (too) simply the only men who are good enough to get into university are men who are good at STEM. Women are good enough to get into non-STEM and STEM fields. Thus, among university students, women dominate in the non-STEM fields and men survive in the STEM fields. [...] I don’t know whether this story will hold up but one attractive feature, as a theory, is that it is consistent with the worrying exit from the labor market of men at the bottom."

Going back to what I said earlier, I'm not certain that "good enough" is the right way of looking at this: it might be that universities favour female traits over male ones, or that men are more likely to decide that university is not for them, or something else. But it's worth being reminded that the problem (if there is a problem) is not that STEM is favouring men, but that men are falling behind everywhere else.

British society really has changed from the 1950s (or wherever it is that reformers seem to get their stereotypes from). Men and boys are well behind in the educational races; the white British are the worst performing students (allowing for income); Christian churches are not oppressive structures in society but rather tiny groups struggling to deal with their irrelevancy. Social reformers seem to be very keen to fight the last war when they should be preparing for the current one, not least because I'm pretty sure that it would be far better if the cause of less well-off white, Christian-heritage males is not left to be defended purely by the likes of some home-grown Donald Trump equivalent.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Parents Who Pay to Be Watched

"The family architects were the foot soldiers in the Cognition Builders team, but the most critical part of the company’s strategy involved the installation of a series of Nest Cams with microphones all around the house, which enabled round-the-clock observation and interaction in real time. At the end of each day, the architects would send the parents extensive emails and texts summarizing what they’d seen, which they’d use to develop a system of rules for the family to implement at home. Over time, the role of the family architects would evolve from observing to enforcing the rules. Through this kind of intensive scrutiny and constant behavioral intervention, they claimed to be able to change a family’s, and a child’s functioning from the ground up."

It's all here.

This is a sad story in many ways. Leaving aside the fact that people are paying vast sums of money to create a mixture of Big Brother and the Truman Show in their own homes (I hope that data is very secure), how about this:
"I asked him if it was hard coming back to America, and how things were different.

“There, I could always take a walk to my friends’ houses. Here we have to drive. The only really social time is at school or on my phone or video games or Xbox. That’s where I talk to my friends the most. Back there, I could see them every day, but here I can’t.”

I asked him what he thought the best thing about being a kid was, and the worst.

“I think the best thing is being able to talk to my friends and my family. And the worst thing is definitely having a lot of homework. I’m taking a lot of honors classes. And then I have therapy once a week, drums once a week, tutoring twice a week, and an executive-functioning tutor once a week.”

Poor boy. 

Monday, 11 September 2017


This is an interesting post about what we mean by "magic", suggesting that JK Rowling's success is driven by her unerring instinct in using the concept correctly in the world of Harry Potter.

Rao's basic thesis is this: "Magic is an imaginative conception of the lawfulness of a universe where matter has the attributes of consciousness, and can be engaged purely through intention." He continues: "Here is a thought experiment to demonstrate the point of the definition: imagine a real magical broomstick that responds to Accio! Broomstick because it is, at some level, a dimly conscious and intentional entity that likes you. Now think about a broomstick that is really a Magnalev flying machine with a high-gain directional microphone for an ear and programmed to respond to a set Latin vocabulary via speech recognition algorithms. Unless you are an impossibly dull person, the idea of the former should make you yearn while the latter should make you yawn."

This is basically right, but I think Rao mis-steps a little in placing too much emphasis on connectedness rather than control. He suggests that at some level one becomes one with the broomstick. That might be right (although I doubt it), but he's probably started with the wrong example there. I think it is better to consider the primacy of human (or human-like) intention as the key concept. A magician can exercise dominion over wholly un-magical (i.e. unconscious) objects by, e.g., levitating them; and can also treat conscious objects without regard to their consciousness (e.g. levitating a human). Quite apart from that, there are also magical objects, e.g., broomsticks, which have their own powers of consciousness (e.g., they might not respond to evil commands, or what have you). The universe as a whole need not be connected on a conscious level for magic to operate, merely susceptible to the power of consciousness: the concept of magic has plenty of room for Muggles. Rao suggests that "We need to imagine magic because we want the entire universe to behave this way. To be intentionally one with us"; I would say that "subservient to us" instead. Magic is mind over matter.

This also illuminates the difference between magic and religion. (CS Lewis has it right.) Magic is like technology: both are practices aimed at controlling the universe; it is just that technology, rather more successfully than magic, uses physical rather than mental force to do so. Magic is not really that similar to religion, and indeed religions are often antipathetic to magic (you don't find many atheists burning witches). Why should this be? Because the ultimate aim of religion is not for us to control reality but rather, at a fundamental level, to understand reality such that it controls us.

Of course, in our day to day lives we need to control little bits of the physical universe, and religion will generally not care too much whether (for example) that bit of metal is flying using jet propulsion or magic power. A little bit of harmless magic, healing minor ailments and so on, is not too worrying. But magic opens up the possibility of the whole universe bowing to a human's intention: magic has inherently blasphemous tendencies.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Top-notch stuff

1. Farming challenge. The "planet must produce “more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years.”" From here.

2. Lunching. "“There are two things you need to know,” she said. “The first is that Gavin came home yesterday happier than I have seen him in a long time. The second – and you are not to feel bad about this – is that he died this morning.”" From here.

3. Optical illusion:

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4. Journalism. List is here. I can't vouch for it all, but I'm prepared to trust Conor Friedersdorf on this.

5. OTT-ness: "In Britain, Atlas is about to shrug". Yes, honestly. That is from the Economist, here, suggesting that "The combination of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn could lead to the dystopia that Ayn Rand predicted". In a tone-deaf parody of what people who don't read the Economist think the Economist is all about, the article suggests that Britain should be grateful for the presence of investment bankers, and worried when demand for £2m+ houses dips slightly. I'm not saying the Economist is wrong, but I'm not sure that is quite the right line to take when trying to change the minds of the pro-Brexit or pro-Corbyn camps. (Compare that maniacal approach with the sanity on display here.)

6. Summing up the point in a nutshell: "is there a sort of law of conservation of coercion in well-functioning societies?" Further explained here as follows: "A community with a minimal state can only function if it is thick enough and homogeneous enough to enforce sanctions for antisocial behavior that are almost state-like in their severity, and, furthermore, can make them stick. Freeing individuals from their smothering parochialisms will lead to a compensating increase in the scope and reach of the state as people search for a new solution to social dilemmas formerly handled via informal means. Conversely, attempts to suddenly curtail state power may lead to chaos in the intervening period when social institutions have not yet reasserted themselves. Principled libertarians might still have good reasons to prefer the non-state forms of compulsion ... But “increased freedom” may not be one of them." (A further reason for left-wing political parties to favour immigration: a less homogeneous society requires a more active state?)

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Who wears a black shirt to a political rally nowadays?

If my own experience is anything to go by, you will have seen many - far too many - attempts to draw parallels between events of the 1930s (and I'm talking about Nazis here) and current affairs. They are all, I find, very silly, tending to the "Nigel Farage grew a moustache - do you know who else had a moustache?" line of argument.

One reason why people reach for this period in history for their analogies is that it is one of the few periods that pretty much everyone knows about. Which means that, for example, it's a safe bet that no one who uses a swastika at their rallies nowadays is a nice person who spotted the device in a Hindu temple and liked the look of it. People understand the symbolism and iconography of the 1930s, and know what they are doing when they use it today.

All of which makes it seem extraordinary to me that there is in fact a sizeable number of people in America who put on black shirts and beat people up at political rallies. In California, no less. You should read this for an account of a half-Japanese man and a Samoan not getting killed by these people. It's even funny in parts.

The black shirted characters call themselves 'antifa' (meaning 'anti-fascist'), but then North Korea is officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Symbolism matters too. This is the caption to one photo: "Masked counterprotesters kick and punch a Hispanic man in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, August 27". What is the symbolic impact of putting on a black shirt and then beating up a member of an ethnic minority in a park named after Martin Luther King?