Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Society

Friday April 29 2016

This is a first:

I am at Brian Micklethwait’s place for his latest Friday. This argument against leaving the EU was made (I am literally live blogging, this is breaking news!): The good thing about Brussels is that it is impossible to be emotionally attached to it. This weakens the state.

Interesting discussion is now ensuing. And we have not even got to the speaker yet.

The liveblogger in question being Rob Fisher, to whom thanks.

The speaker and subject matter were described in this earlier posting here.

I do hope to write something soonish about what was actually said by Patrick Crozier, but meanwhile, the other interesting thing about this evening’s event, for me, was how well attended it was.  By this I mean that the room was, as it usually seems to be, comfortably but not uncomfortably full.

What was so unusual about this outcome was that when I sent that first email out last Sunday evening, flagging up the meeting, I got no responses.  Usually, one or two or three people reply by return of email that they intend to attend, and more acceptances come in as the week before the meeting (which is on the Friday) progresses.  But this time: nothing.  Not even one email.  Not a sausage.  In my reminder email, which went out yesterday, I pretty much begged people to come, and to tell me beforehand that they were coming.  And a healthy trickle of positive responses duly trickled in, and I relaxed.  And then, come the evening itself, as already revealed, pretty much the exact same number of people showed up as usually shows up.

How do people, collectively, know to do this?  There has to be some kind of mathematical law in operation here, which says that the right number of people always shows up, no matter what.

It cannot be coincidence that the only time when far, far too many people showed up for comfort was the very first of these meetings, when I restarted them at the beginning of (I think it was) 2013.  Never again.  This strongly suggests to me that The Crowd, subsequently so wise, started out ignorant, of how much comfortable space there was, but that The Crowd has subsequently learned.  And now, The Crowd knows how to turn up chez moi in the exact right numbers, every time.  No matter what I do to assemble it, and no matter what it says beforehand, or doesn’t say.

Wednesday April 06 2016

I am continuing to read, with huge pleasure, Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air.  Here’s another good bit (pp. 58-61):

With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story.  The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble – they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouse enabled.  Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modem insurance company.  You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug in to an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated.  Not just because there were learned men of science sitting around the table – more formal institutions like the Royal Society supplied comparable gatherings – but also because the coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.

The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers.  Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function - particularly for memory-related tasks - during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked.  Create enough caffeine-abusers in your society and you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason. That may itself sound like the self-justifying fantasy of a longtime coffee-drinker, but to connect coffee plausibly to the Age of Enlightenment you have to consider the context of recreational drug abuse in seventeenth-century Europe.  Coffee-drinkers are not necessarily smarter; in the long run, than those who abstain from caffeine. (Even if they are smarter for that first cup.) But when coffee originally arrived as a mass phenomenon in the mid-1600s, it was not seducing a culture of perfect sobriety.  It was replacing alcohol as the daytime drug of choice. The historian Tom Standage writes in his ingenious A History of the World in Six Glasses:

The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak “small beer” and wine .... Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved .... Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.

Emerging from that centuries-long bender, armed with a belief in the scientific method and the conviction, inherited from Newtonian physics, that simple laws could be unearthed beneath complex behavior, the networked, caffeinated minds of the eighteenth century found themselves in a universe that was ripe for discovery. The everyday world was teeming with mysterious phenomena – animals, plants, rocks, weather – that had never before been probed with the conceptual tools of the scientific method.  This sense of terra incognita also helps explain why Priestley could be so innovative in so many different disciplines, and why Enlightenment culture in general spawned so many distinct paradigm shifts.  Amateur dabblers could make transformative scientific discoveries because the history of each field was an embarrassing lineage of conjecture and superstition.  Every discipline was suddenly new again.

Thursday December 03 2015

I’ve been reading more of Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything, from which a previous excerpt can be found here, here.  It continues to be very good.  In this bit, Ridley discusses the relationship between genetic and cultural evolution:

What sparked the human revolution in Africa?  It is an almost impossibly difficult question to answer, because of the very gradual beginning of the process: the initial trigger may have been very small. The first stirrings of different tools in parts of east Africa seem to be up to 300,000 years old, so by modern standards the change was happening with glacial slowness.  And that’s a clue.  The defining feature is not culture, for plenty of animals have culture, in the sense of traditions that are passed on by learning.  The defining feature is cumulative culture - the capacity to add innovations without losing old habits.  In this sense, the human revolution was not a revolution at all, but a very, very slow cumulative change, which steadily gathered pace, accelerating towards today’s near-singularity of incessant and multifarious innovation.

It was cultural evolution. I think the change was kicked off by the habit of exchange and specialisation, which feeds upon itself - the more you exchange, the more value there is in specialisation, and vice versa - and tends to breed innovation.  Most people prefer to think it was language that was the cause of the change.  Again, language would build upon itself: the more you can speak the more there is to say.  The problem with this theory, however, is that genetics suggests Neanderthals had already undergone the linguistic revolution hundreds of thousands of years earlier - with certain versions of genes related to languages sweeping through the species.  So if language was the trigger, why did the revolution not happen earlier, and to Neanderthals too?  Others think that some aspect of human cognition must have been different in these first ‘behaviourally modern humans’: forward planning, or conscious imitation, say.  But what caused language, or exchange, or forethought, to start when and where it did?

Almost everybody answers this question in biological terms: a mutation in some gene, altering some aspect of brain structure, gave our ancestors a new skill, which enabled them to build a culture that became cumulative.  Richard Klein, for instance, talks of a single genetic change that ‘fostered the uniquely modern ability to adapt to a remarkable range of natural and social circumstance’.  Others have spoken of alterations in the size, wiring and physiology of the human brain to make possible everything from language and tool use to science and art.  Others suggest that a small number of mutations, altering the structure or expression of developmental regulatory genes, were what triggered a cultural explosion.  The evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo says: ‘If there is a genetic underpinning to this cultural and technological explosion, as I’m sure there is .. .’

I am not sure there is a genetic underpinning. Or rather, I think they all have it backwards, and are putting the cart before the horse.  I think it is wrong to assume that complex cognition is what makes human beings uniquely capable of cumulative cultural evolution.  Rather, it is the other way around.  Cultural evolution drove the changes in cognition that are embedded in our genes.  The changes in genes are the consequences of cultural changes.  Remember the example of the ability to digest milk in adults, which is unknown in other mammals, but common among people of European and east African origin. The genetic change was a response to the cultural change. This happened about 5,000-8,000 years ago. The geneticist Simon Fisher and I argued that the same must have been true for other features of human culture that appeared long before that.  The genetic mutations associated with facilitating our skill with language - which show evidence of ‘selective sweeps’ in the past few hundred thousand years, implying that they spread rapidly through the species - were unlikely to be the triggers that caused us to speak; but were more likely the genetic responses to the fact that we were speaking.  Only in a language-using animal would the ability to use language more fluently be an advantage.  So we will search in vain for the biological trigger of the human revolution in Africa 200,000 years ago, for all we will find is biological responses to culture.  The fortuitous adopting of a habit, through force of circumstance, by a certain tribe might have been enough to select for genes that made the members of that tribe better at speaking, exchanging, planning or innovating.  In people, genes are probably the slaves, not the masters, of culture.

Friday November 20 2015

On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.

These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders.  Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:

It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.

And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.

AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees.  It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.

The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.

One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition.  I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).

I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.

What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.

I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.

Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.

Indeed.  There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.

Monday October 26 2015

I just sat down to do a BMdotcom posting, about some strange disruption inflicted earlier this evening upon the Royal College of Music by the London premiere of the new James Bond movie.  While composing this posting, I realised that it would do nicely for Samizdata, so there it went.  I don’t do nearly enough for Samizdata these days.

The posting was based on something that Goddaughter 2 (now a student at the RCM) told me.  And she also told me something else, this time not disturbing or of any public significance, but merely rather entertaining.

GD2 now inhabits a big building, full of rooms occupied by her and her fellow students.  Lots of rooms.  Lots of doors.  All the doors looking like each other.

So, one of the ladies in a nearby room to GD2 has a boyfriend staying the night.  Boyfriend needs a piss.  Being a relaxed sort of individual, he strolls to the toilet, naked.  It is deep into the night, and he expects not to encounter anyone, and he does not, at first.  But then, problem.  Which door is the door to the room of his lady friend?  He does not remember.  About four different wrong doors are opened, complete with people behind them, most of whom were surprised but amused, before the correct door is found.

If this was a movie, that would only have been the beginning of the mayhem and the reactions to being woken up by a naked man at the door would have been far more extreme than they actually were.  But for me, this was mayhem enough to be very entertaining.  Boyfriend wasn’t bothered.  Like I say, a relaxed sort of individual.  And no harm at all came of this little nocturnal drama.  Just a mildly entertaining blog posting, or so I hope.

Wednesday October 21 2015

imageIndeed.  It was front page news yesterday in the Evening Standard.  I’m guessing that the way Renzo Piano and Shardeveloper Irving Sellar have been emitting verbiage about how Paddington is now “soulless and has no life” may be what got this story onto the front page:

West London’s tallest skyscraper will be at the heart of dramatic plans for a £1 billion transformation of Paddington by the property tycoon who built The Shard.

Images of a 65-storey “skinny Shard” of apartments, offices, restaurants and a roof garden designed by Renzo Piano - the Italian “starchitect” behind western Europe’s tallest building - were unveiled today ahead of a public exhibition.

Irvine Sellar, chairman of Shard developers Sellar Property Group, said although Paddington was one of London’s most important gateways it had been overlooked for decades.

He said: “At the moment you only go to Paddington for two reasons - to catch a train or to see someone in hospital. It is soulless and has no life and yet it is only five minutes from Hyde Park and seven or eight minutes from Marble Arch.

“It is a fantastic location but it is stuck in a Fifties time-warp. We intend to create a place for people to go, where they will want to live, work, eat and shop.”

I imagine many current Paddingtonians actually quite like living in a “Fifties time-warp” that has been “overlooked” by the likes of Piano and Sellar “for decades”.

I of course love the idea of this new Big Thing.  I hugely admire Renzo Piano.  His new tower and its new surroundings, and in the meantime the process of building it all, will turn Paddington into the kind of place I will want to visit far more often than I do now.  And by 2020 there’ll be another London Big Thing for me to observe and photo from afar.  So I hope this goes ahead.  (Part of the reason for this posting is to remind me to check out that public exhibition that they mention.)

But these guys sure know how to talk about locals in a way calculated to piss them off.

Monday October 05 2015

Photoed by me last night, at Southwark tube station:

image

Next to the ticket barrier at Southwark tube there are a number of these little history lessons, of which this was my favourite.  This is the kind of thing you can usually chase up quickly on the internet, and find a fuller account of.  But, my googling abilities are such that I can find no reference to this fish-discouragement story.  Anyone?

Sunday September 27 2015

How much you learn from something that you just read depends not only on what it says, but on what you knew before you read it.  And for me, this short paragraph cleared up several big blurs in my knowledge of Olden Times:

The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable.  Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible.  Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could ‘make a hole in the wall of Babylon’.

That’s from the second page (page 8) of the first chapter of Agincourt, by Juliet Barket.

That bit in school history where they explained what a knight was and what knights did and how the knights did it … well, I missed it.  And ever since, everyone talking about such things has assumed that I knew it very clearly, when I didn’t.  It’s so obvious.  How would someone like me not know it?

Oh, I sort of knew it, from having seen a hundred films where film actors did this, in film battles and in film tournaments.  But I had not realised that it was a military innovation like the phalanx or gunpowder or the tank or the airplane or the atom bomb.  I had not properly realised that the essence of Knighthood was collective action rather than mere individual virtue, the point being that it was the former which required the latter.  And I had not realised that it was what won the Battle of Hastings.  Or, even more interestingly, I had not realised that it was what won the First Crusade.  (After which, I’m guessing that the Muslims then copied it.

Medieval society did not give rise to Knights.  The Knights technique of fighting gave rise to Medieval society.

I remember reading Tom Holland’s Millennium, and being presented right at the end with the result of the First Crusade, without there having been any mention (that I recall) of how a European military innovation was what won it.  (That doesn’t mean Holland does not mention this, merely that I don’t remember him mentioning it.)

So, at the heart of the European years between Hastings (1066) and Agincourt (1415 (when I now suppose the Knights to have met their nemesis in the form of the next big military innovation, the Archers (hence the picture on the front of Agincourt))) was a technique of fighting.  Like I say, I sort of knew this, but have never before isolated this fact in my head, as a Big Fact.  Instead, I have spent my whole life being rather confused about this Big Fact, reading a thousand things where the Big Fact was assumed, but never actually explained.

Why did I not correct this confusion decades ago?  Because, not knowing it properly, I had not realised what a huge confusion it was.

Juliet Barker on Knights of Old: A lot of history in one paragraph
On clapping in between movements at classical concerts
Tomorrow I will get out less
An extraordinary coincidence
Out and about with GD1 (3): Baritone borrows my charger
Out and about with GD1 (2): How mobile phones both cause and solve meeting up problems
Unusual bench?
Heaven aka the Barley Mow
High hair
An alien robot playing the cymbals and paps
Bad taste
More White Vans
White Van
Tweet?
I said it twelve years ago
Photoing at the ASI party
Cats – and technology
The Poppies (3): People taking selfies
On the problems of half-parking with a half-car
Roof party
ASI Boat Trip 7: Other photographers
Sacred architecture and profane roof clutter - a speculation
Organised water
Making sense of digital photography
David Byrne on the constraints of artistic form
Jane Austen’s naval brothers
Sidwell (and me) on selfies
Anton Howes at the Rose and Crown
Finding Rover app tracks lost dogs using facial recognition
Bad and good in bad weather
I’ve just been quotulated
Australian cricket is doomed! - or maybe not
Craig Willy on Emmanuel Todd
Google Nexus 4 wedding photography!
Emmanuel Todd links
Wedding photography (6): The Wedding and the Reception
Wedding photography (5): Photography!
Christmas Eve feast
Michael Jennings on why iPad photoing is not ridiculous
Piccadilly Halloween
America 3.0
Emmanuel Todd’s latest book - in English
A photo taken of a taken photo of the photo being taken
Meaning in sport
I can now copy and paste from .pdf files
Questions concerning the death of copyright protection on downloaded MP3s
Brianmicklethwait Dot Com headline of the day
The long and short of conversation - Hitchens on YouTube
Why do pregnant women now do quite a lot of driving of their husbands?
BrianMicklethwaitDotCom blog posting title of the day
The right to photograph
In Alicante
Blur
Talking with Toby Baxendale
Scrounging Englishmen and stories too good to check
Antoine Clarke talks about Facebook and Twitter – Guido and … Ian Geldard?
Barney Stinson on how gay marriage will encourage regular marriage
Tienanmen + Twitter = Teheran
MBA - necessary but insufficient
Google and dongle
The prevention threat
Is the contemporary art bubble bursting?
On autobiographical ruthlessness
Media bias as asset stripping
Antoine and Michael on what to do now
When three’s company but four’s a crowd
Not the same thing
“Japan is fantastic …”
Chivalry and the mad feminists
Mockery
It only takes One Rich Lunatic
Official bias
Why I prefer to live in a failing neighbourhood
Cricket misery
Twenty20 cricket on Sky TV
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
Signs of civilisation
Girls these days flashing their cleavages it’s disgusting don’t know what the world’s coming to …
Theodore Dalrymple on the menace of honest public officials and much else besides
He is white and he is poking fun at himself
The white stuff
The robotic future
Holiday
Probably not right - but definitely written
Chanelle and Ziggy - romance in the age of total surveillance
The drive to see smiles (and they have to be real)
The publicness of private life
Voluntary World 3: Transport Blog illustrates the Muggins principle
The idea that mental illness does not exist
The rights and wrongs of multiple marriage
Cricket is ruining the youth of India!
Emmanuel Todd (5): A CrozierVision podcast
Emmanuel Todd (4): From ideology to economic progress
Charm defensive
Alan Turing – dead earth and cold wires
Incognito
Evite makes sure I remember it
It’s only a Billion Monkeys if you count mobile phones (and then it’s far more)
Emmanuel Todd (2): The eight family systems
Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology
Blogging has arrived
“Publish it in your Blog!”
Search
Oscar Wilde defends society
Geek girl I like your thinkings - are nice - I want have sex with it
Tech talk mp3 with Michael Jennings
Patrick Crozier talks with me about Japan
A handwritten letter from Alex Singleton
I hate market research phone calls
Nice cementing
Phone glitch
Voluntary World 2: You’re on your own
On the spread of voluntariness
Changing the names of cities
Blogging fun and blogging profit
Billion Monkeys take pictures of themselves!
Charles Rosen on Richard Taruskin and on the socially unbound nature of some of the greatest music
Talking about my generation
Old days not perfect shock
It’s murder down there
When blog meant something different
Sacred