Sunday, 24 February 2013

Peak inequality?

Don’t forget that most people are stuck with stagnant or falling real wages. Upward mobility for a few hollows out the middle class and causes the social pyramid to become top-heavy. Too many elites relative to the general population (a condition I call ‘elite overproduction’) leads to ever-stiffer rivalry in the upper echelons. And then you get trouble...

...Three years ago I published a short article in the science journal Nature. I pointed out that several leading indicators of political instability look set to peak around 2020. In other words, we are rapidly approaching a historical cusp, at which the US will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval. 
Peter Turchin, thinks he sees a regular cyclical pattern in wealth distribution in the US, with inequality peaking at intervals of roughly a century and periods more evenly distributed well-being* peaking at a similar frequency in the troughs of minimal inequality, leading to reversals every half century or so. If he's right, the US is due to hit peak inequality in around seven years.

*As measured by the following indicators of well-being, economic (the fraction of economic growth that is paid to workers as wages), health (life expectancy and the average height of native-born population), and social optimism (the average age of first marriage).

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Iain Duncan Smith on work experience

I don't think I'm above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It's just that I expect to get paid for working.
... said Cait Reilley. That statement doesn't seem too complicated for somebody on a work and pensions secretary's pay grade to understand, but Iain Duncan Smith has responded by criticising 'people who think they're too good to stack supermarket shelves', suggesting that Cait's statement is way too hard for him to understand. The poor old codger must be getting a bit past it. As the the soon-to-be-ex-Pope almost said:
Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministerial responsibilities entrusted to me.

Time for Iain to step aside in favour of someone younger, I think. Since Cait Reilly seems able to express her thoughts far more clearly than IDS, perhaps she'd benefit from a work experience placement as work and pensions secretary - she could hardly do a worse job than the present incumbent.

And as for poor old IDS, his failing strength of mind may rule out anything too challenging, but I'm sure that, with the right support and careful monitoring, he might still be capable of stacking a few supermarket shelves without making too much of a hash of it.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Moderate religious extremists

A while ago, I was listening to the In Our Time programme about Epicureanism when this quote (which I've shared before) popped back into my head:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
Stephen Roberts

The Epicureans accepted the notion of gods. They were cool with the contemporary pantheon of divinities, but they had some radical ideas about the nature of those gods. Their ideas show how 'other possible gods' can be almost completely unlike the single, all-powerful, all-wise, loving, interventionist, moralistic creator/saviour God worshipped by the vast majority of today's believers.

Here's a taste of how wildly different 'possible gods' can be:

Monotheistic God Epicurean gods
He created the universe They didn't create the universe
He is made of some sort of spiritual essence that's different from the matter we know about They are made of atoms (like everything else in the atomist universe posited by philosophers like Democritus)
He is all powerful Their powers are finite
He cares about humanity, rewarding and punishing individuals according to merit They are non-interventionist beings, blissfully indifferent to human affairs

He can offer eternal life to humans

They are immortal, but are unable and unwilling to bestow eternal life on humans

The relevant Wikipedia entries on Epicurean views of religion and philosophy are a good place to start, if you want to put a bit more meat on the bare bones of my summary.

The Epicureans, with their do-nothing small gods, occupied one extreme of the theistic spectrum. Today's most successful and influential religions have staked out their theological position at the other extreme, with a Big God who created everything, can do anything and cares about everybody.

Because the Epicureans' gods lived in their own distant, blissful realm, neither blessing or punishing humans in this life or in the hereafter (which the Epicureans didn't believe in, anyway), Epicurean philosophy concentrated on the here and now, in maximising pleasure and minimising pain in this life.

Hostile writers from the big monotheisms later misrepresented this 'hedonism' as a weak-willed, mindless chase after fleeting sensual pleasures. Epicurean writings, though, didn't recommend the endless pursuit of such instant gratification. The real Epicurean philosophy of life stressed avoiding excess and the proliferation of unnecessary and artificially produced desires,* whilst cultivating moderation, friendship, mental tranquillity and the mental discipline needed to banish fear and pain.

The caricature hedonist might sound like Peter Stringfellow, but the real deal probably had more in common with a Buddhist monk (Epicureans were, according to some scholars, vegetarians and Epicurus himself was celibate, although he didn't impose this particular form of self-denial on his followers).

The two extremes of the theistic spectrum have fared very differently over the last millennium and a half.  It'd be hard (although worth the effort) to ignore the three and a half billion-odd Christians and Muslim believers on the planet today, but you'd have to search hard to find a single Epicurean these days. In fact, you'd have to search pretty damn hard to find somebody who could actually define Epicureanism properly - if pressed, a lot of people would tell you that it had something to do with a love of fine dining and vintage champagne (no wonder people get confused when "Epicurious" is the name of a foodie site and "Epicure" a brand name for deli products).

Part of this is down to the suppression of Epicureanism, which was seen as heretical by the dominant monotheistic religions, along with the deliberate misrepresentation of Epicurean ideas by various spin doctors of divinity. But that still leaves the question of why the 'possible gods' at one extreme of the theistic spectrum gained so few adherents, whilst the all-powerful monotheistic conception of God attracted so many followers.

Well, having the ear of the powerful can't have done monotheism any harm, but I think that the underlying reason why Big God decisively beat the Epicureans' small gods is even more obvious. Big God (allegedly) does far more stuff for His followers.

The small gods do sod all for believers. It's pointless praying to them, because they never answer your prayers. If you want to master the troubles of this life, you're on your own with whatever strength of mind and philosophical attitude you can get together. And when this life is over, well, there may nothing to fear because your consciousness will be gone, but that's less attractive to creatures with a hard-wired survival instinct than the inducement of eternal life in a state of bliss.

You can't accuse the small gods of is over-promising and under performing - they're never going to do anything for you, and that's made perfectly clear from the start.

Contrast this with the promises of eternal joy and infallible justice held out by Big God and you can see who's got the more compelling election manifesto.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
Revelation 21:4-6

Of course, the things people promise in order to get elected aren't always precisely the same as the things they actually deliver once your vote's in the bag, although it's hard to check whether an ineffable entity who moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, has actually delivered, especially when one of His key deliverables can only be verified once you're dead.

Of all the possible gods, people of faith seem to overwhelmingly favour the one who (via His representatives on earth) promises to do the most for them. Who'd have thought it?

Call me a nasty old cynic if you like, but this seems to sit rather uncomfortably with the idea that Big God's followers are selflessly displaying 'submission to the will of God.'  After all, Big God makes big promises, promises that - if true - would fulfil humans' deepest existential desires. Would humans really love Him for Himself and submit to his will if He didn't? Maybe the faithful have gradually dismissed all the possible gods who wouldn't deliver the things that humans most want to be true and retained only the one who faithfully submits to the will of humankind.

It'd be ironic if the unpopular, limited gods of Epicurus actually exist and Big God, with His huge fan base, doesn't. I've no reason to believe in gods, but I'm agnostic about the idea of intelligent aliens existing somewhere else in the universe. Entities belonging to a civilisation millions of years in advance of our own might seem like gods - like the limited gods of the Epicureans, anyway. Intelligence may be mind-bogglingly rare, but space is mind-bogglingly big, so who knows?  Real aliens might resemble the Epicurean gods in another way.

The Fermi paradox asks, 'if there are many planets in the galaxy capable of supporting life, and a few intelligent species who've had millions of years' head start to explore the galaxy, then how come they're not here already?' There are plenty of possible answers to that question - for example, that it's wrong to posit more than one intelligent species (intelligent life was such an unlikely freak accident that, even in a galaxy of billion of stars, we're the only example). But, just maybe, they are out there, living what we earthlings would consider a blessed existence, with powers we can only dream of, capable of contacting us, but, like the Epicurean gods, pretty much indifferent to our boring little Type I-minus civilisation.

*One of the less attractive aspects of the Epicureans' otherwise moderate and civilised philosophy of life (IMHO) was a mistrust of learning, culture and social and political engagement, on the grounds that these things would give rise to desires that would be hard to satisfy and therefore disturb a person's peace of mind (see the Athenian definition of an idiot).

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

'I expect to get paid for working' shock statement by pauper

I don't think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working.
Cait Reilly, who thinks that being ordered ro work for nothing in a Poundland store breaches laws against forced labour, a point of view apparently shared by Apppeal Court judges.

She expects to be paid for working? Did you ever hear of such a thing? The undeserving poor have become shockingly impudent of late.
'Olivia Twist has asked for more!'

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.
A Department of Work and Pensions spokesweasel was on hand to reassure respectable members of society that, whatever the judges may think, workhouse regulations will be amended to ensure that no urchin will receive an extra serving of thin gruel.

'It is ridiculous to say this is forced labour. This ruling ensures we can continue with these important schemes,' added Mr. Bumble Employment Minister Mark Hoban.

To be serious for a moment, Cait's clear and simple statement nails the lie about so-called 'job snobs' being too picky to do any work within reason. She walks the talk and stacks the shelves.

Unlike, say, highly the privileged pontificators on the front benches who have, more often than not, benefited from expensive private educations designed to ensure they never had to decide between an entry-level job and penury. People who would never wish such a choice on their own expensively-educated progeny. People with the means to parachute their little Tarquins and Jocastas into unpaid internships in professions that are now effectively beyond the reach of the bright kid from the local comp who isn't being subsidised by the bank of mum and dad. If you want to see job snobs, that's where you should start looking.

Happily, I find myself in complete disagreement with contrary Mary, Brendan O'Neill, who is reliably wrong about almost everything.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Knutsford city limits

The tacking and positioning here isn't that surprising, but this story just goes to prove that local news sometimes gets a bit bigger than stories about cats being recued from trees:
In the statement he said "Your MPs George Osborne, Edward Timpson and I, have fought hard to keep the [HS2] line away from Knutsford and Tatton, which we have been successful in achieving. Throughout the process we raised concerns about the line of route and raised the profile for a common sense solution, which I believe we have achieved."

The following day Cheshire East Council issued a retraction saying:

"In a press release issued yesterday (January 28) Cheshire East Council stated that George Osborne had fought hard to keep the HS2 rail link out of his constituency in Knutsford and Tatton.
"In fact, this is not the case and MP George Osborne had no say whatsoever over the proposed route of the HS2 link. We are happy to set the record straight."
From Wilmslow dot co dot uk

All together now:
You have to watch what you're putting down
In old Knutsford, oh Knutsford

Friday, 8 February 2013

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Last word on the debate surrounding the equal marriage bill. Conservative MP Gerald Howarth summed up social conservatives' objections to gay marriage when he warned, obscurely, of 'huge potential consequences.'

But what are these unspecified 'consequences'? The opponents of equal marriage talked for hours yesterday, but I haven't heard, reported in any of the news media, a single, plausible, scenario in which anybody, gay, straight, married or unmarried would be significantly damaged by this measure. How, for example, would letting gay people get married possibly hurt straight people who wanted to get married?

It's not as if gay people would increase pressure on the marriage supply until there weren't enough weddings to go around. This is not a zero sum game. Gay marriage won't rob anyone of their slice of the pie. It just makes the pie bigger, at no appreciable cost to anybody.  And if some religious bodies don't want to bless the big pie, they don't have to. What's not to like?

Opponents of the bill are in danger of looking as if they're motivated by prejudice and spite.

Which is probably why, in the absence of a convincing argument, Howarth fell back on the line that we shouldn't do this because there are far more important things to worry about ('the nation faces much more serious challenges which the government needs to address').

This all-purpose argument against anything you don't particularly want to happen at least has a germ of truth. There are always other vital issues out there competing for legislators' time and attention and you can't hope to change everything at once. In the real world, you need to prioritise and compromise. Up to a (very limited) point, Gerald Howarth could agree with the pro-equal marriage Nelson Jones, writing in The New Statesman:
But at a time when poverty is rising, the economy - to put it politely - becalmed and the NHS, the education system and the police in organisational chaos, you have to wonder precisely why for so many people same sex marriage has become such a big deal.
But I do tend to suspect that, when social conservatives insist that we can't possibly do x, because there are far more important things to worry about, their real motives have more to do with foot-dragging than prioritisation.

Here's an example of social conservative priorities, from outside the Westminster bubble. Posh sandwich purveyor Pret a Manger has been involved in a couple of controversies recently. Pret's management makes its low-paid employees jump, grinning inanely, through demeaning hoops for the privilege of a sub-living wage. The Wikipedia article gives a short summary of the company's intrusive management style:
Pret a Manger has been cited as being particularly vigorous in extracting affective labor from its employees. Affective labor (or emotional labor) is work which involves manipulating a person's emotional state. Pret a Manger demands go beyond traditional requirements for fast-food workers (such as courtesy, efficiency, and reliability) to such tasks as having "presence", demonstrating a quirky sense of fun, and exhibiting behavior consistent with being inwardly happy with oneself. Pret A Manger uses mystery shoppers to ensure that employees deploy markers of a positive emotional state.
There's a more in-depth look at life within the sandwich Stasi's quirky gulag of fun here. It would be hard to argue with Nick Cohen's assertion that 'whenever we go to work we leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship' in Pret's case.

You could say that Pret has issues. Treating its employees like the citizens of a police state run by clowns is issue one. A fairly big issue, in my opinion.

Issue two is comparatively tiny, (again, in my opinion - others are available). Pret got a few complaints about the branding of some of its crisp packets. The crisps in question were spicy tomato flavour, so the team of creatives Pret used decided to name this particular crisp brand the "Virgin Mary", after the non-alcoholic version of  the tomato-based Bloody Mary cocktail. This branding decision might, possibly, strike you as a tiny bit disrespectful if you were an incredibly devout, painfully thin-skinned Christian, unfamiliar with the terminology of non-alcoholic cocktails.

If you were of a campaigning frame of mind, which issue would you prioritise, complain about and try to get changed? A moment's possible offence caused to a very few people might be an issue, but I'd say, in the words of Gerald Howarth, that the company 'faces much more serious challenges' that it needs to address. People spend a good portion of their lives at work and their working conditions, (in particular feelings of autonomy, of being treated with a reasonable level of respect and of being in control of some aspect of their role) contribute to their general well being. Conversely, the absence of these things (not to mention a living wage) contributes to the unrelenting misery of the daily grind in an oppressive workplace.

No prize for guessing which issue was prioritised by campaigning social conservatives and God-heads with a social conscience (clue - it wasn't the big one). The unending day to day petty humiliations in the working lives of hard-working, low-paid employees, trumped by a bit of arguably tasteless branding on a crisp packet? When social conservatives accuse liberals of wasting time on unimportant issues to the detriment of 'much more serious challenges' I think there's a more than a bit of projection going on.

By the way, well done to David Cameron and George Osborne for sticking to their guns on equal marriage. I just had to write that down, because I'll probably never again be in the novel position of wholeheartedly agreeing with anything important those two do or say. 'Hurry while stocks last,' as they say (which is more than anyone can reasonably say about marriage).

Monday, 4 February 2013

Cheap power from revolting Tories

I think David Cameron should have pushed ahead with immediate measures to allow both gay marriage and tax breaks for married couples. I haven't been swayed by the paltry few quid I might potentially gain now that I'm wed, but by the potential for huge amounts of cheap energy that would be opened up by promoting both measures, thanks to a variation on the famous Buttered Cat Paradox:
So we can say that dropped toast almost always lands butter side down, and dropped cats always land on their feet under under most conditions. But in 1993, artist and quantum thinker John Frazee posed the question in OMNI magazine about what would happen if you were to attach toast to a cat's back -butter side out, of course...

 ...What would happen in such a scenario? Both the butter on the toast and the cat's feet would be attracted to the floor -or possibly the opposite side of both objects would be repelled by the floor. This conundrum became known as the Buttered Cat Paradox...

... Those who have tackled the problem as a thought experiment (meaning, no cats were harmed) have come to the conclusion that the buttered cat would stop falling at some point above the floor. Then, as the cat tries to orient its feet against the attraction of the butter to the floor, the cat would begin spinning -and never stop. The result could be called a true perpetual motion machine. 
 Summary courtesy of Mental Floss.

We could apply the same principle to reactionary Tory back benchers who are strongly attracted to the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideal of the nonthreatening, conformist nuclear family and simultaneously repelled by the idea of gay people being allowed to get married if they want to. Institute tax breaks for married couples and gay marriage at the same time, then watch 'em spin.

Tax breaks for normal, decent 2.5 kidders? Mmm ... lovely! Tax subsidies to help subversive perverts undermine the very foundations of Christian civilisation? Yuck! I think I'm going to throw up into my Daily Telegraph!

Spin, my pretties, spin! Once the Tory back benches have entered a state of permanent revolution, we just hook 'em up to the National Grid and Bob's your aunties' significant other. The lights need never go out in our time.

Low carbon, no hazardous waste, more sustainable than simply harvesting the energy from the meltdown of Mel Phillips' brain, no further case for wind farms and, therefore, a fifty per cent reduction in opinion pieces by James Delingpole...  ¡Viva La Revolución!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A superior class of metaphysics

... deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems.

The Reverend John Marcus Harston Morris wasn't really describing the Bible here, but talking about contemporary American comics, which he  considered 'skilfully and vividly drawn but morally reprehensible.' His response was to found the iconic Eagle comic which combined skillful and vivid illustration with an ethos of muscular Christianity.

Quote duly filed, along with the story of the anthropologist and the Catholic theologian, under "unconscious irony."

Friday, 1 February 2013

A word to our sponsors

A friend of mine was recently shushed by a fellow audience member for talking in the cinema. Fair enough, you might say, people should shut up and let others enjoy the film. Except this wasn't during the film, but during the adverts, for Christ's sake.

What kind of oddball tries to police a hushed silence, all the better to enjoy the hundredth repetition of some ubiquitous and deliberately annoying shill for a brand of insurance, deodorant or whatever? Maybe somebody with the same mindset as the guy asking this scary rhetorical question; 'Are Ad Blocking Browser Extensions Killing The Internet?' To be fair, despite his "OMG, they's KILLING teh Internets!!!" scare headline, he calms down enough to concede that they aren't going to kill the Internet 'any time soon', but that doesn't stop him doing a lot of finger wagging along the way:
Personally, I am not a fan of using the world “entitlement” as an insult. Yet it does seem to apply to many who choose to use an ad blocking extension to remove ads from their favorite sites. Ars Technica’s experiment, in which the site prevented visitors using ad blockers from viewing the site’s content, was an excellent example. While some fans were supportive, others acted as if Ars was withholding what was rightfully theirs.

This is the definition of obtaining something for nothing. Anyone who is choosing not to view the ads on a site is making a deliberate choice not to support the site in question, with a few exceptions aside (a handful of sites offer premium subscriptions which remove some or all advertisements)...

If you care about the sites you visit, and you want them to be successful, you should not be using an ad blocker. It’s that simple. Just say no to blocking ads! 
One of his supporters went even further OTT with the title of his opinion piece 'AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery – The Trifecta Of Evil.' The Trifecta Of Evil?' Heaven preserve us! Dude, if you think blocking a few ads on the Internet is evil, you need to get a few history books on your shelves, a few news sites in your bookmarks and a sense of proportion in your head.

On a superficial level, the self appointed Ad Police have a point. As I've said before, it's super nice when people create great stuff for free, but most people need to make a living, so we pay them directly for their good or service and accept that it's perfectly OK for them to market what they've created, for example, by advertising. A byproduct of this economic activity is sponsored content, be it commercial TV with adverts or web sites that are free to use and funded by advertising revenues.

So by blocking those adverts, you're KILLING those advertising revenues and selfishly breaking the contract whereby the content provider lets you enjoy stuff for free, on condition that you expose yourself to the adverts that pay for all that lovely content, right?

Well, not quite.  You see, there are two kinds of people in the world, people who divide people up into two kinds of people and people who don't people who find adverts really irritating and people who don't. These two types of people already existed in the antediluvian, pre-Internet world in which I grew up. Although it was an ancient and primitive world , we did have access to a few modern innovations that helped to pass the time when we weren't busy being chased by sabre-toothed tigers, or carving crude fertility goddesses out of mastodon ivory, one of these new-fangled inventions being commercial TV.

Now the thing about commercial telly in those pre-pay-per-view/subscription days was that you didn't pay for content (I know I'm stating the obvious, but this is leading somewhere). The advertisers paid for it, by paying for advertising space. Such channels, of course, still exist (in fact we've got a hell of a lot more of them, as a glance at the Freeview channel menu will confirm).

How did people interact with the ads on commercial telly? How do they still interact with them? Some are swayed by the advertising they see, or let it wash over them. But some behave in perverse and selfish ways, watching the programmes, then, when the ad breaks come round, flipping channels, taking a comfort break, getting up to make a cup of tea, or even talking to friends or family (the ungrateful bastards!). Consuming content for free, then blatantly ignoring the wonderland of lovingly-crafted inducements created for them by toiling teams of latte-slurping creative elves.

It happens and, in the absence of the Thought Police, there's no way for advertisers to force reluctant telly viewers to focus on their message (‘Smith!’ screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. ‘6079 Smith W! Yes, you! Pay attention, please! You can do better than that. You’re not trying. Stop asking your wife about her day at work and pay attention to the irritating dog that wants you to buy car insurance! That’s better, comrade!').

And that's the thing. People who ignore telly advertisements, because they're just not interested, are doing the same thing as people who choose to block Internet ads. The only difference is that they're blocking ads by simply doing something else, or by directing their attention elsewhere, rather than by making use of a piece of technology (although even that distinction doesn't necessarily hold any more, now that it's possible to record the programmes you want to watch on a hard disk TV recorder, then play them back, fast forwarding through the ad breaks).

You could come up with countermeasures to slip ever more adverts under the radar of confirmed ad-phobes, but what would be the point? If you're the sort of person who's sufficiently irritated by advertisements to install an ad blocker in the first place, being outwitted or morally blackmailed into removing it isn't actually going to make you buy more stuff (which, after all, is the point of advertising). You'll just grit your teeth and ignore the ads, rather than blocking them. That's what I'd call a lose-lose situation.

If we have to throw some blame around here, then I'd finger the advertisers for making advisements so uninformative and downright irritating that people take active steps to avoid them. That's just my opinion, but it's strongly supported by one fact, (aside from the very existence of ad blockers). As Matt "OMG, they's KILLING teh Internets!!!" Smith admits, 'a handful of sites offer premium subscriptions which remove some or all advertisements.' If letting people pay not to see adverts doesn't count as an admission that most ads are annoying rubbish, then I don't know what would.

Relationship advice for advertisers. Advertising is a form of seduction. You can sweet talk somebody who shows some interest into getting into a commercial relationship with you. But if the prospect says 'no' and keeps on saying 'no', trying to force them to notice you by the sheer attrition of all those notes, cards, karaoke ballads, crap poetry, suicide threats and broken hearts with the message 'I LOVE YOU 4 EVER' burned with weedkiller into the prospect's lawn, in letters four feet high won't work. You're not having a commercial relationship, you're just stalking.

In other words, if you want me to look at more ads, don't try to force them down my throat. Just try to make better - or at least less irritating - ones.

Getting back to the cinema, I don't know how many audience members agreed with the individual who wanted people to stop talking during the commercial break, but it's my guess that he was in a minority of more or less one. The weirdo.