Monday, 6 July 2020

A very large reduction of uncertainty

There is an interesting essay by Anil K Seth in aeon concerning consciousness. I'll add one quote here but the whole thing is well worth reading because it raises some fascinating questions.

Consciousness is informative in the sense that every experience is different from every other experience you have ever had, or ever could have. Looking past the desk in front of me through the window beyond, I have never before experienced precisely this configuration of coffee cups, computers and clouds – an experience that is even more distinctive when combined with all the other perceptions, emotions and thoughts simultaneously present. Every conscious experience involves a very large reduction of uncertainty – at any time, we have one experience out of vastly many possible experiences – and reduction of uncertainty is what mathematically we mean by ‘information’.

Consciousness is integrated in the sense that every conscious experience appears as a unified scene. We do not experience colours separately from their shapes, nor objects independently of their background. The many different elements of my conscious experience right now – computers and coffee cups, as well as the gentle sounds of Bach and my worries about what to write next – seem tied together in a deep way, as aspects of a single encompassing state of consciousness.

A very large reduction of uncertainty is another aspect of Karl Friston’s idea that we navigate through life by avoiding surprises. Looking at it more widely, it also seems to be one of the great divides. Some people are pragmatic enough to understand how embracing uncertainty can be the best route to greater certainty. It is not even a paradox because we can be certain that something is uncertain. 

Others seem to need the more immediate and lasting certainties of ideology and dogma, even at the expense of  honesty, personal integrity and even outright silliness. Fake news propaganda is itself a dishonest evasion of a much deeper problem that is fake certainty.

Let's go out for a Berni

Wedding anniversary today and a few memories of going out for a Berni.  Prices have changed a little since the 1970s though.

Sunday, 5 July 2020


Decades ago a young chap began working in a public sector scientific department just down the corridor from the lab where I worked. I’ll call him Steve because that wasn’t his name.

Steve was obviously bright, had only left school a year or two previously but for some reason hadn’t been to university after A levels. He lived with his parents in a Derby suburb not far from where Mrs H and I lived. Near enough for me to give him a lift to and from work on the few occasions when it wasn’t convenient for him to catch a bus.

Steve’s family ran some kind of small business. I can’t recall what they did but it may have been a printing business. It soon became apparent that the public sector was not what Steve had expected even though the department he joined did some interesting scientific work such as devising ways to combat fly nuisance at a sewage works.

For obvious reasons it is a good idea to build a sewage works well outside the town it serves. Smell is one reason and flies are another. However, councils sometimes give planning permission for houses closer and closer to the town sewage works, builders build them and people buy them. Then they complain.

However, although Steve was good at his job and adapted to it very quickly he wasn’t impressed with us. He knew that ultimately the organisation he had joined was engaged in what he referred to as just office work and he was right. It was a good job he had – secure with some field work, opportunities for more qualifications and certainly advancement for someone as bright as he was. But he saw where it would all lead to clearly enough. He left after giving it less than six months.

I was always impressed by the way Steve summed us up so accurately, saw his likely future and decided it wasn’t for him in spite of the advantages. It isn’t common in the public sector.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Cheap news

An oddity about giving up on BBC news is how cheap it now seems. Ludicrously expensive salaries for the talking heads and enormous production costs sending overpaid people to stand around in wellies every time there is a flood, but the content still feels absurdly cheap. 

Cheap in the sense that analysis is superficial, presentation is shallow and one-sided and always we are given the dull, fashionable pap, never the imaginative sideways look at other possibilities. It's the endless diet of pap which has done for the BBC. Pap should not be eye-wateringly expensive.

Smaller and more agile media outfits, semi-professional bloggers and vloggers and even knowledgeable amateurs often give the world a better, wittier, more imaginative, more detailed angle on current affairs. They seem able to cut the grossly padded production costs to virtually nothing yet still come up with better analysis which is less misleading, more reliable and easier to confirm.

The barrier to entry has fallen to the floor and this is where the fake news angle originates – the big boys want it raised again. It’s too late for that and nobody cares.

Friday, 3 July 2020

When evil survives

We all know in outline how World War II turned out. We know who won militarily and who lost, but we have tended to sidestep the uncomfortable reality that the USSR was one of the military victors while being just as evil as Nazi Germany. Stalin was just as evil as Hitler – we don’t stress that as we should.

The point about degrees of evil may be argued forever but it isn’t worth it. Both regimes were appallingly evil but one ended up on the winning side. Evil acquired a certain degree of respect and that was a disaster we still have to live with today.

As we also know, the USSR had its external fans and apologists before the war, as did Nazi Germany, but one fan base survived the conflict and even the downfall of the USSR, while the other, to a good enough approximation did not survive. We may usefully abide by this position in spite of ludicrously extreme political rhetoric we still see today.

In other words evil political ambitions and a vast and evil regime survived WWII as one of the victors, taking its place on the podium with the good guys. Victors are almost always the good guys anyway - as we know. With the triumph of Stalin’s USSR in mind, it is worth asking what effect this had on our perception of respect because it seems clear enough that respect has become increasingly political rather than a simple moral concept.

The issue is worth posing because pre-war life seems to have been different in ways which are nebulous and now largely obscured by those verbal minefields fans of political rhetoric love to lay down. Pre-war culture is not easy to analyse because we are not part of what is now a bygone culture, however familiar it still appears to be. We cannot live it as it was lived and pick up nuances we may no longer be aware of. 

For example, it seems to have been a world where social obligations could be more personal than we generally see today, less avoidable morally. This is not a suggestion that pre-war life should be viewed through those notorious rose-tinted spectacles, but broad social changes are always a mix of gains and losses. It is not good policy to pretend there were no other losses after WWII apart from all those wasted lives and colossal physical damage.

That pre-war world also seems to have been one where moral choices could also be more personal than today because do as you would be done by was more fundamental than it is now. It was an ancient religious precept however often it may have been dishonoured. It may be worth adding that dishonouring it was a well-known failing in social life, known and understood in a way we have not retained.

This pre-war world still seems similar to ours because it was very similar, because many of us alive today once knew people who lived through those times. Yet we also know those people and their times were a little different. As respect becomes political rather than personal and moral, do as you would be done by becomes irrelevant as people today are less inclined to accept such a strong level of personal responsibility. Now we are more inclined to allow such abstruse matters to disappear into the memory hole that is political rhetoric. It isn’t my fault goes the often covert refrain.

It is as if the aftermath of WWII redefined how we think of ourselves and reshaped the stories we tell in our attempts to live harmoniously with the wider world. Yet as the USSR, one of the most evil regimes in human history, emerged as a good guy from WWII we have an obvious problem with social narratives where respect is a lesson we must absorb if things are to continue as we wish them to continue. Aspects of social life must be worthy of our respect or not and the difference must be clear and personal. Otherwise how does anyone try to be respectable in its straightforward moral sense – worthy of respect?

The cracks appeared fairly quickly within a few decades of 1945. An example of that is how we never seemed to hold on to the political will to secure our own borders against undesirable social changes which were bound to be a concomitant result of large scale immigration.

Respect for what the wartime generation defended should have been morally secure after WWII but it was not. It all carried little weight with those who were sufficiently secure themselves to ignore the obvious threat of cultural drift, a threat which was not ignored by a majority of the population. But this did not seem to matter politically as the personal responsibility entailed by the personal nature of respect had lost ground to diffuse notions of political expediency and a culture which evades blame from the highest level downwards.

A moral determination to defend ourselves and respect our purpose in doing so faded quite rapidly after WWII. It was eroded by a strangely defeatist narrative that there is nothing worth defending apart from the freedom to attack and destroy those who try to defend what they value and respect. This freedom to defend ourselves had been an essential part of fighting WWII but afterwards it was undermined within a matter of a few decades.

After all, if one of the WWII victors was a supremely evil regime, what is there to defend? This is the nihilism Dostoevsky hated so much and it is still with us - an ineradicable aspect of any political psyche. In fact Dostoevsky’s outlook may be worth emphasising here – nihilism is ineradicable aspect of any political psyche. We see it today – now.

Culture matters because this is where our knowledge of personal respect resides in all its subtleties, nuances and strengths. An ancient evolved culture such as ours prior to WWII was not at all simple and far from perfect but it was understood from childhood onwards and its concepts of respect and respectable were understood. This was a vast advantage.

Change all that towards prescriptive political notions of appropriate and inappropriate, lay the minefields of political expediency and the moral basis of personal respect is gone forever.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

One of those stories

When I first read this story I gave that mental it's North Korea shrug and moved on as one does. But after a while  it popped back into my mind, perhaps because I happened on a reference to George Orwell and this story is so close to Orwell's 1984.

A fire recently broke out in an apartment complex in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, and raged for several hours before burning itself out, Daily NK has learned.

“The fire broke out in an apartment in the city on June 12 at 7 PM,” a source in the province told Daily NK on June 18. According to the source, the top floors of the building were left to burn because firefighters never arrived on the scene.

“With no way of extinguishing a fire on the top floor of the building, residents just stood around and watched,” the source said.

“The fire eventually burned itself out when there were no flammable objects left to fuel it. People didn’t even expect the fire brigade to show up,” he added.

Bad enough in a country which if it so chose could be technically and economically advanced, but there is another aspect to the story which even Orwell might have found too extreme.

The source also noted that as soon as the fire broke out, the first possessions residents rushed to protect were portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging in their homes.

“They grabbed the portraits and evacuated the building,” the source said, adding, “They were so intent on making sure the portraits were safe that they didn’t have time to attend to furniture or other household items.”

We know why of course. Damage those portraits and you may as well have perished in the fire.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

And so to Ikea

Victorian furniture had always sought after immortality; in Bursley there were thousands of Victorian chairs and tables that defied time and that nothing but an axe or a conflagration could destroy. But this new suite thought not of the morrow; it did not even pretend to think of the morrow.

Nobody believed that it would last, and the owners of it simply forbore to reflect upon what it would be after a few years of family use. They contemplated with joy its first state of dainty freshness, and were content therein. Whereas the old Victorians lived in the future (in so far as they truly lived at all), the neo-Victorians lived careless in the present.

Arnold Bennett - These Twain (1915)