Wednesday 31 May 2017

How Do We Really Form Opinions?

If Daniel Kahneman is right, then this is how Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn form their opinions too. However, I think we knew that already.

Sunday 28 May 2017


On holiday in Norfolk at the moment so light blogging. Anyhow it's good to get away from the politics. I'm beginning to think that Team May could be as hopeless as Team Corbyn. Seemed impossible not so long ago.

Friday 26 May 2017

May be slipping

Elections Etc sees a diminishing likelihood of a Conservative landslide in the forthcoming general election.

Overall, our combined forecast of the Conservative majority has dropped to 100, down from 123 last week and from 132 two weeks ago.

The combined probability of a Conservative majority, at 87% has correspondingly taken a small dip from 91% last week. More strikingly the probability of a Conservative landslide (a 100+ seat majority) has fallen from 64% (and 71% two weeks ago) to just 34% this week.

Presumably the Tories do not welcome such news but it is not yet anything to worry about. There are times when I ask myself if they would welcome a result which encourages Jeremy Corbyn to cling on as leader after the election. Not that he seems to need much encouragement.  

Thursday 25 May 2017

Manchester - Obama puts it down to complexity

From the Independent we have Barack Obama's take on the Manchester bombing.

Barack Obama said he was “heartbroken” by the Manchester attack that killed 22 people and he hoped he will be able to use his influence to bring young people together in the face of terrorism.

“At a time, when the world is a very complicated place, when we can see the terrible violence that took place just recently in Manchester," the former US President told a crowd of tens of thousands at an event in the German capital Berlin about democracy and global responsibility.

No mention of Islam as far as one can tell. Obama's solution is to "push back" whatever that means. Not much if his past is any guide. We are well rid of him.

"We have to push back against those trends that would violate human rights or suppress democracy or restrict individual freedoms,” he said.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

When old is new and new is old


An interesting post from Aeon by Nick Romeo draws parallels between Plato's ideas and modern behavioural psychology and economics.

In his essay ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ (1950), Bertrand Russell describes a particularly seductive illusion about history and intellectual progress. Because every age tends to exaggerate its uniqueness and imagine itself as a culmination of progress, continuities with previous historical periods are easily overlooked: ‘new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own.’

Behavioural economics is one of the major intellectual developments of the past 50 years. The work of the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in particular is justly celebrated for identifying and analysing many of the core biases in human cognition. Russell’s insight, in fact, bears a strong resemblance to what Kahneman calls the availability bias. Because the catchwords and achievements of contemporary culture are most readily called to mind – most available – they tend to dominate our assessments. The fact that Russell’s articulation of this idea is much less familiar than Kahneman’s is itself a confirmation of Russell’s point.

Changes in language and social emphasis tend to obscure the lessons of history, so much so that even common sense has to be relearned under the endless pressure of events. If it ever is relearned of course. There are reasons to doubt that. Romeo continues -

But the richest precedent for behavioural economics is in the works of ancient Greek philosophers. Almost 2,500 years before the current vogue for behavioural economics, Plato was identifying and seeking to understand the predictable irrationalities of the human mind. He did not verify them with the techniques of modern experimental psychology, but many of his insights are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the cognitive biases found by Kahneman and Tversky. Seminal papers in behavioural economics are highly cited everywhere from business and medical schools to the social sciences and the corporate world. But the earlier explorations of the same phenomenon by Greek philosophy are rarely appreciated. Noticing this continuity is both an interesting point of intellectual history and a potentially useful resource: Plato not only identified various specific weaknesses in human cognition, he also offered powerful proposals for how to overcome these biases and improve our reasoning and behaviour.

The whole essay is well worth reading. For example, the paragraph below impinges on a particularly corrosive modern problem where we seem to be losing sight of the personal element in ethical behaviour, where we pay attention to what our minds are doing or not doing when we go with the flow.

It’s rare that contemporary discussions of cognitive biases flow directly into conversations on ethics, pleasure and pain, and the best way to live one’s life. But ancient philosophy did not compartmentalise what are now cloistered academic fields. Plato understood that susceptibility to distorted reasoning was a matter of ethics as well as psychology. This does not mean anything as simple as ‘bad people are more vulnerable to cognitive biases’. But consider his diagnosis of misanthropy and other sampling errors, which stem from ‘the too great confidence of inexperience’. In the Apology, Socrates claims to be wiser than other men only because he knows that which he does not know. When Kahneman writes that we are ‘blind to our blindness’, he is reviving the Socratic idea that wisdom consists in seeing one’s blindness: knowing what you do not know.

Saturday 20 May 2017

Hijacking minds

Last year Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, wrote an interesting post about mass manipulation by social media. 'Hijacking minds' he calls it, comparing what is done to the tricks of misdirection magicians use. Harris is also a magician.

The techniques he describes are unlikely to be news to anyone, but it is worth reminding ourselves that global social media businesses know how to make their products appealing and even addictive. They also know how to narrow user options in their own interests.

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how we’re manipulated upstream by limited menus we didn’t choose.

This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize how deep this insight is...

...For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?

It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.

Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

Harris goes on to list ten ways which he says are used to hijack the minds of social media users. Number seven is a good example. 

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery

Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously (like email or any deferred inbox).

Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.

In other words, interruption is good for business.

It’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it(“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) By contrast, Apple more respectfully lets users toggle “Read Receipts” on or off.

The problem is, while messaging apps maximize interruptions in the name of business, it creates a tragedy of the commons that ruins global attention spans and causes billions of interruptions every day. This is a huge problem we need to fix with shared design standards (potentially, as part of Time Well Spent).

By now we are so familiar with it all that is isn't easy to be concerned about the trend. It has happened and the consequences are easy to see. Perhaps we could learn more about our own psychology and do something about it, but how likely is that? 

Thursday 18 May 2017

Pontius Pilate in Venezuela

Sandro Magister has some harsh words about the Pope's approach to the crisis in Venezuela.

Pontius Pilate Has Reappeared In Venezuela

The number of dead is now around forty, the wounded number a thousand. It is the price of a month of popular demonstrations, even of only women dressed in white, against the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, in a Venezuela on the brink.

A Venezuela in which a new factor has recently taken the field, and this is the growing, systematic aggression against properties and personnel of the Catholic Church...

...Nothing is off-limits. Death threats and blasphemous graffiti on the walls of churches. Masses interrupted by incursions of Chavist “colectivos.” Caracas cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino silenced during the homily and forced to leave the church. The venerated image of the Nazarene in the cathedral of Valencia smeared with human excrement. The chanceries of the dioceses of Guarenas and Maracay plundered. Thefts of consecrated hosts in Maracaibo. The headquarters of the episcopal conference devastated. One priest killed in Guayana and another abducted...

...The fact is that between Pope Francis and the Venezuelan bishops, concerning the crisis that is ravaging the country, there is an abyss. The bishops stand with the population that is protesting against the dictatorship, and are respected and listened to as authoritative guides. While Bergoglio is judged on a par with Pontius Pilate, unforgivably reckless with Maduro and Chavism, in addition to being incomprehensibly reticent on the victims of the repression and on the aggression that is striking the Church itself.

It is a fracture analogous to the one produced in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has his biggest critics in the bishops, and instead a tireless supporter in the pope. Or that which was seen during the pope’s journey to Cuba, where Francis did not conceal his admiration for the Castro brothers, while not dignifying the dissidents with so much as a word or a glance.

As a crusty old atheist this is not my territory, yet even an atheist cannot fail to be aware that all is not well with the current papal regime. Pope Francis' support for the orthodox climate narrative must have raised quite a few eyebrows both inside and outside his church. How these things are dealt with I've no idea. Do we go back to black smoke? 

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Money for no rope

Apart from reminding us yet again of his vile crimes, the recent death of Ian Brady raises a wider issue.

Capital punishment for murder was suspended in Great Britain in 1965 and abolished in 1969. The likely motive was to remove it from the political stage, but another effect has been to monetise murder. Governments have done this kind of thing forever, they monetise certain social issues and in so doing they build inertia into the status quo. In doing that they build acceptance.

For example. Recently Mrs H and I were discussing how personal interests might subtly affect the activities of publicly funded bodies such drug enforcement agencies. It has been said before but has not been said often enough – where is the enforcement agent’s personal motive to reduce the scale of the drugs problem?

This is not to claim that the problem is resolvable or that enforcement is lax, but if drug abuse were to vanish with the wave of a magic wand then jobs would vanish too. Jobs which pay the mortgage, buy food, clothes, fuel, holidays, car and a hundred other consumer goodies. For enforcement agencies, perpetuating the status quo is rational behaviour. If the drugs situation worsens, government may be forced to try another approach. If the situation improves, budgets may be cut and fewer enforcement agents required.

In this respect whole swathes of publicly funded activity are much the same. Money is spent on a social issue and that spending benefits the agency tasked with keeping the issue below the political radar. As long as it suits the agency to keep it there of course. On occasions it may not.

The environment is another example. Natural waters in the UK are generally in a better condition than they have been for several centuries. Pollution from the industrial revolution is mostly under control and rivers are not the open sewers they often were in the past.

So what? So new environmental problems have to be found if controlling agencies are to keep their budgets. Climate change, air pollution, endocrine disrupters, dioxins, landfill, fly tipping, recycling. Some of these problems are more legitimate than others and looking after our environment is the right thing to do but those budgets are a key driver to what is done and why. They lead to the exaggerations, the overblown rhetoric, the dubious links to cancer and other health horrors. It’s the way government does these things.

Governments know all this because they are run by senior bureaucrats who need to maintain their budgets and their slice of the status quo. They have their personal incomes and index-linked pensions to protect. There is no great imperative to make things radically better - where would the imperative come from?

And so we return to the Ian Brady abomination. Leaving aside arguments for and against capital punishment, many incomes are linked to keeping people such as Brady incarcerated for decades. Lawyers, bureaucrats, prison officers, doctors, psychiatrists, administrators, publishers and the media. Paltry amounts of money in the overall scheme of government spending, but this is how governments do these things. 

Saturday 13 May 2017

Steamy art

Nottingham Post reports how an art installation has caused numerous calls to the emergency services.

Firefighters have received 'numerous' reports of a suspected blaze in Nottingham - which turned out to be part of an art exhibition.

Clouds have been seen rising from the roof of the Nottingham Contemporary gallery, in the Lace Market, over recent weeks, with concerned passers-by ringing the emergency services.

But they are from the Thinking Head piece which will be part of an exhibition starting at the venue on May 20 - and are merely formed of steam.

All art teaches us something I suppose. Not necessarily what the artist intended, but it teaches us something.

Friday 12 May 2017

Learning from baboons

The destructive nature of certain baboon hierarchies is well illustrated by this video, but how applicable is it to humans? 

It is certainly tempting to make the comparison, but maybe we need our hierarchies more than baboons need theirs - to maintain the complexities we rely on so heavily.

Mystery bird

Not a good photo I'm afraid. Maximum zoom and taken too quickly because the bird was flitting around on a dry stone wall. I'm not a bird chap and don't know what it is. One possibility came up from leafing through a bird book, but it's an unlikely one so I'm posting the photo in case anyone does know.

We saw a pair of them up on a hill opposite Monsal Head on Wednesday. Here's the second photo which unfortunately is no better.

Thursday 11 May 2017

If Nemesis licks her lips

And it is probable that Nemesis at that precise moment licked her dry lips. "Fun!" thought Nemesis.
E. F. Benson - Lucia In London (1927)

As well as the flattened foot, the leak of the Labour party draft manifesto is another strand of political embarrassment in a tangle of embarrassments. Apart from the revealing nature of the manifesto itself, another factor comes to mind and that is the issue of luck.

So far Theresa May is a lucky Prime Minister. She was an unremarkable Home Secretary but thanks to a series of unforeseen events she finds herself in a situation where her only serious political opponent is hopelessly incompetent and those around him are little better. Obviously not a situation she could ever have engineered herself.

Not only that, but May's difficulties in and around Brexit negotiations must have been eased politically by the boorish behaviour of prominent EU functionaries. Jean-Claude Juncker comes across as a spiteful old soak, which may be unfair but he certainly does May no harm here in the UK. Again, May’s calm and decidedly reticent public temperament seems suited to these turbulent times and that too is not her doing. Much more luck than judgement.

One might widen this issue of luck to include Donald Trump, who in the presidential election could surely have faced a more likeable and trustworthy Democrat candidate than Hillary Clinton. These things matter even when they should not and in Trump’s case Clinton's candidacy was a lucky break. He didn’t arrange it as far as we know.

How many successful CEOs are at least as lucky as they are competent? How many slip into their predecessor’s shoes at just the right time, when markets are turning in their favour? How many economic forecasters are selected by their luck, by a few lucky hits in an ocean of missed predictions?

In which case, and in spite of Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence, we might wonder if Theresa May’s luck will hold until June 8th. Corbyn has loaded the dice heavily in her favour, but that was her lucky break too. It may not last.

Not that I’d bet against her.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

I see Chris Froome was forced off the road and had his bike wrecked by an impatient hit-and-run driver. Shouldn’t happen and there is no excuse when vehicle drivers lose their cool or whatever it is that snaps when they deliberately endanger the life of a cyclist.

We see large numbers of cyclists while driving around Derbyshire, especially the Lycra-clad, hunched over the handlebars variety. Nothing wrong with that, but there is another side to this coin. Here’s an example.

The other day we were driving along a country road behind a few slow-moving cars. The reason for our slow speed was obvious, a large group of club cyclists had decided to ride in such a way that passing them was virtually impossible. It wasn’t a big deal, obstructions happen on country roads all the time. However, this one was obviously deliberate. 

It was easy enough to see that it was deliberate from the way the cyclists occupied slightly more than half the road until a vehicle approached from the other direction. No doubt their justification was that they rode that way for their own safety. If so then that is an understandable reason but obvious risks are passed on to other cyclists. This kind of behaviour adds a negative aspect to the image other road users have of cyclists. If the cyclists concerned don't realise that, then they are being obtuse.

We see many cyclists who ride as if their safety is the responsibility of other road users, especially when riding in groups. They ride as if they occupy some kind of moral high ground, well above those dirty, polluting vehicles trying to pass them safely. The attitude is bound to increase resentment felt by at least some drivers. 

The consequences we see all the time, but this is a politically incorrect aspect of road safety and seems to be officially invisible. 

Monday 8 May 2017


Science News has an article on the contentious issue of statins and their expanding use. I don't take them but at my age the issue is of interest, particularly the idea that statins have a preventative role for people who have not had a heart attack or stroke.

Once the powerful cholesterol-busting drugs appeared, in the 1980s, scientists were able to show that a drop in cholesterol could keep a person who had suffered one heart attack or stroke from having a second. Later studies pointed to protection for even relatively healthy people. Researchers writing in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2010 declared that the drugs were such cardiovascular heroes they could essentially neutralize the health risks from a Quarter Pounder with cheese plus a milkshake.

I can't imagine taking any drug for the rest of my life without good medical reasons. That means reasons which apply to me and are not merely a product of government policy.

Sussman, of Michigan, refers to one of several online calculators that can help determine what that risk number is for any particular person. These kinds of tools take into account each person’s unique set of circumstances. In one online tool, a sedentary 60-year-old white male with a weight of 250 pounds, a total cholesterol of 225, no high blood pressure and no personal or family history of heart disease might have a 9 percent risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. A 60-year-old African-American woman with diabetes but all other parameters the same would have a 13 percent risk.

The guiding principle Sussman tells his patients is that the lower your risk of disease in the first place, the less you have to gain from statins. Patients also have to factor in their own sense of how much they fear a heart attack or stroke — all the while knowing there are other means of prevention with almost no risk that can get lost in the statin debate, including weight loss, exercise and a better diet. That theoretical 60-year-old man with a 9 percent risk could drop his risk to about 5 percent with 20 minutes of moderate activity each day and better eating habits.

The comments on the article are generally negative which is not surprising. Apart from being intrinsically suspect, any form of mass medication could result in unforeseen long-term consequences. I'll stick with moderate activity and a fairly healthy diet.

Sunday 7 May 2017

A host, of golden dandelions

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden dandelions;

William Wordsworth (near enough)

Photo taken today in the hills above Milldale. Even though dandelions are a constant menace in the garden, I find myself admiring the remarkable toughness of the little blighters. When they flower en masse like this they can look quite spectacular too. 

Knowing what they are takes some of the edge off it, but not entirely. This was just a small section of a large field carpeted with them from dry stone wall to dry stone wall.

Saturday 6 May 2017

Corbyn and the verdict of history

Yesterday Mike Smithson of wrote a post about a question he asked on Twitter –

How is history going to judge Mr. Corbyn?

Mr Smithson received a range of replies to what is a tempting but unanswerable question. The question also gives rise to an equally interesting but much more general issue. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to Labour party leader would not have been predicted only a few years ago. Even if his leadership had been suggested as a future possibility it would have attracted widespread ridicule. As it does now of course.

Ed Miliband’s bungled update to the Labour leadership election rules kicked it all off and Ed obviously didn’t predict this outcome or he probably would not have changed anything. A few years ago, Corbyn would not have predicted it either, yet a series of apparently unlikely events changed the course of Labour party history. At least for a time - we can't predict that either. A lesson for democracy perhaps. 

Let us go much further back in time, to the time of Jeremy's conception. First contact between his mother's egg and his father's sperm could have turned out differently and Jeremy could have been Jemima. Such as small matter yet these things change the tide of history. Apply the same thought to any major actor on the political stage and what do we get? We don’t know. We’ll never know. Things are as they are.

It all goes to show the validity of Harold Macmillan’s disputed but famous quote.

Events, dear boy, events.

Thursday 4 May 2017

A righteous man

For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon his very soul that nothing could ever shake it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Firm of Girdlestone (1890)

It’s a strange idea, the notion of righteousness. So often we have seen it applied to fictional characters who are emphatically not righteous, as Conan Doyle does here with John Girdlestone and as Dickens did with Seth Pecksniff. Both characters projected their supposed righteousness via religious and traditionally moral facades. 

Righteousness still has religious connotations, but much less so than in Dickens’ and Conan Doyle’s day. Even so, in view of her religious upbringing one might expect Theresa May to have a degree of righteousness in her political persona but she doesn’t. Neither does Jeremy Corbyn, yet Conan Doyle’s quote seem to fit Corbyn better than May. It fits his politics, it fits his supporters.

In modern times, the whole idea of righteousness has become much more political and rather more covert. It is signalled via behaviour and language rather than explicit religious quotations or moral maxims. It has morphed into political virtue-signalling and is not likely to be religious nor traditionally moral.

It was easy enough in Dickens' and Conan Doyle's day, but somehow we have made it even easier to be righteously stupid, righteously incompetent, righteously dishonest, righteously wicked. 

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Strewth I’m idle

Yesterday Mrs H made some veggie pâté so I decided to make a loaf of bread to go with it. Sadly, after the pâté ingredients had been weighed out, the kitchen scales complained of a low battery and steadfastly refused to weigh even one more item. A feeble little 'Lo' appeared on the display for about a second before the thing went into an electronic coma. 

I make bread using a breadmaker and reasonably accurate quantities are important, but at the time I didn't want to toddle off to the shops merely to buy a new battery, so what to do?

Simple. I logged into Amazon and ordered a pack of two batteries for 24 hr delivery. Yes I suppose I could have nipped out to Sainsbury’s for batteries and made the loaf yesterday, but why bother when it is so easy to click, click, click even if one has to wait a day for delivery?

My little package of batteries was shipped out from Peterborough overnight and popped through the letterbox today while we were out visiting. When we returned I breathed new life into the kitchen scales via one of those brand-new, fresh from Peterborough batteries and my loaf should be ready in a couple of hours.

Where does it all end though? How idle is it possible for a chap to be? In future will I have any real need to leave the house at all?

Monday 1 May 2017

The growth of garden centre culture

We visited a garden centre today, one we’ve visited occasionally for quite a few years. It is situated out in the Derbyshire countryside and once upon a time it was mostly a place to buy plants, shrubs and trees. Bit by bit the plants seem to have taken second place to the cafe, garden furniture, shabby chic decorations, farm shop and barbecue kit.

Today we discovered that the pace of change has accelerated. The garden centre has received a substantial makeover. Gone is the piece of apparently derelict land which once served as a car park. Now it has organised parking in rows so we couldn’t just leave the car anywhere and mooch off the entrance. 

Not only that but the entrance has moved too. The new one has automatic doors and once inside a brand new layout guides folk through all the indoor goodies before they have a chance of finding the outdoor area. The cafe is much bigger, that was immediately obvious, but it wasn’t at all obvious where the plants might be.

Fortunately we have a general idea of the layout so we were able to use our sense of direction and wend our way from the pervasive aroma of coffee to the outside world where things turned out to be much the same as always. Apart from the car park, no money had been spent outside as far as one could tell. In other words the place has become a copy of all the big garden centres hereabouts, if still a little smaller.

Had I been asked, which was vanishingly unlikely, I would have supposed that copying the big boys in the garden centre business would destroy any advantage to having one in the Derbyshire countryside set in picturesque surroundings. Apparently this isn’t the case as the car park was absolutely packed. People were even waiting for vacated spaces when we left. Never seen that before.

It was a bank holiday of course, but dull, overcast and chilly after early rain. Even taking the bank holiday into account, the makeover seems to have worked a treat, so this is what people must want from a garden centre. Coffee, cake, a bit of shopping and maybe a plant in a pot if there’s still time.