Monday, September 27, 2010

Don't rock the boat

The chapter on 'social informatics' in Vlatko Vedral's Decoding reality (OUP, 2010) is an odd mixture of jargon and platitude. The attempt to apply basic principles of physics and information theory to the social world is not very convincing (and in fact doesn't do justice to important work, by economists especially).

Here is part of his lame conclusion: "Some sociologists are optimistic that the information age will lead to a fairer society that will improve everyone's living conditions, as well as narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Others are rather pessimistic, claiming that the new age will bring an abrupt end, a kind of phase transition, to present society (through all sorts of mechanisms such as increased crime due to the breakdown of families, global terrorism, global warming, and so on)." (p.108)

The notion of phase transition is nonetheless of some interest. In physics, phase transitions - radical changes in the way elements of the system in question interact - occur only in certain circumstances. In one dimensional systems (where there is limited scope for interaction) phase transitions are impossible. There are no general phase transitions in two dimensional systems either, though there is a particular arrangement which does allow a phase transition to occur. Generally, however, phase transitions only occur in three dimensional systems which allow more complex interactions. The classic example involves interacting H2O molecules: ice becomes water, water becomes vapor.

In the distant past, human societies were very local in nature. "One tribe exists here, another over there, but with very little communication between them. Even towards the end of the nineteenth century, transfer of ideas and communication in general were still very slow. So for a long time humans have lived in societies where communication was very short range. And, in physics, this would mean that abrupt changes are impossible. Societies have other complexities, so I would say that 'fundamental change is unlikely' rather than 'impossible'." (p. 104)

New technologies have changed all this. Now " ... we can learn from and communicate with virtually anyone in the world ... Increasingly ... we are approaching the stage where everyone can and does interact with everyone else. And this is exactly when phase transitions become increasingly likely."

But, of course, the nature of any phase transition is unpredictable, So Vedral ends the chapter with the vague comments on optimistic and pessimistic scenarios quoted above, and the observation that "[i]n a more interconnected society we are more susceptible to sudden changes" and so "we had better improve the speed of our decision making." And maybe the quality?

I can't resist quoting the final lines of this chapter in which he previews the next section of the book. " ... In order to understand the ultimate origins of information we need to take an exciting voyage of discovery. And this will take us into the realms of quantum mechanics, the true nature of randomness, whether teleportation is possible, and the question of free will and determinism. It's going to be a rocky boat, so hold on tight!"

Rocky boat?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rewriting history

Back in May I wrote a little piece called 'Out of my comfort zone' in which I touched on some ideas on the nature of the universe put forward by Seth Lloyd and - more recently - by Vlatko Vedral. Vedral's book, Decoding reality: the universe as a quantum computer (Oxford University Press) came out earlier this year.

In his review in New Scientist (there is a pay wall, so I can't give the link) Lloyd praises the book but also shows irritation that Vedral did not even mention Lloyd's book of several years ago on the same theme (Programming the universe). Lloyd also points out a mathematical howler which, as he saw it, was surprising in a leading researcher.

What jumped out at me in Vedral's book was an amazingly slipshod paragraph about Nietzsche which reflects badly both on the author and on Oxford University Press. It helps confirm my suspicion that books have become commodities - objects for sale - and the quality of the content is secondary. Scholarly values are out the window. (Vedral boasts of his 'streetwise' style; more worrying is the sense that he feels that historical truth doesn't matter.)

According to Vedral, Nietzsche " ... based the whole of his philosophy on the premise that physics implies that life is ultimately pointless, as eventually it must become extinct. The idea of absolute progress (the idea of progress to the point of perfection) must therefore ultimately be an illusion, in direct contrast to the ideas underpinning the evolution of life. Nietzsche thought that this conclusion is so difficult to live with that he needed to introduce the concept  of a 'superhuman' - an improved version of the human, able to come to terms with the fact that life cannot achieve absolute progress. Nietzsche, sadly, did not himself have the key attributes of his superhuman - he spent the last 11 years of his life in a lunatic asylum unable to deal with life, disillusioned and alone." (p.60)

Readers who know more about Nietzsche than I do can draw their own conclusions. I simply point out that the German thinker believed in an 'eternal return' - that life would ultimately repeat itself (in fact a scarier idea than extinction!). Also, he had an organic brain disease - he wasn't made insane by his philosophy; and he was looked after by his family after his breakdown, so did not spend the time in an asylum, and nor was he alone. He was so far gone after his breakdown that he could hardly be called 'disillusioned'.

These may be deemed unimportant errors, but they are symptomatic of an unfortunate attitude. It's a pity, because the book is worth reading. It is serving to crystallize some of my ideas, and I'll have more to say about it later.

Friday, September 17, 2010

In praise of the conservative consumer

Much social science is pseudo-science and the proportion of dodgy research is particularly high in business-related areas. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see the concept of conservatism featuring in a recent model of consumer behavior devised by researcher Ross Honeywill. According to a profile by Lucinda Schmidt, Honeywill sees the recent global financial crisis (or 'the great recession') as less significant a turning point than something that occurred about 20 years ago: the advent of a new economic order, and the rise of a new kind of consumer (the 'NEO').

"NEOs are constant consumers: confident, individualistic, creative, free-thinking and socially progressive. Many are under 40, university-educated, self-employed and buy for quality not price.

The other type, 'traditionals', are more comfortable in a structured environment, often have conservative social values and are driven by price and getting the best deal.

Consumers come from these two planets ... The distinction is not between those who have money and those who don't; there are wealthy traditionals and poor NEOs."

The key difference is in the attitude to spending: 'traditionals' are unnerved by uncertainty and have disappeared from the consumer landscape in the US.

Honeywill makes the point that a recovery will only occur when the 'traditionals' start spending again. This may well be, but I can't help feeling that the behavior of the so-called 'traditionals' seems both more rational and more sustainable than that of the NEOs.

In fact this 'socially progressive' new style of consumer who buys for quality might be seen to be behind the massive build-up of debt which caused our current economic troubles. Moreover, the 'constant consumer' will inevitably define life in terms of consumption, and quality of life in terms of product quality.

Traditional modes of operation - based on setting one's own goals and living within one's means - are not only more sustainable but more conducive to a larger - and ultimately freer - view of life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

English Jewish surnames

[Revised July 2011. See also 'English Jewish surnames revisited', March 2012.]

My late father had a special interest in Jewish history and a very positive attitude towards Jews - unlike his brother who was in this regard something of an 'evil twin' whose belief in an international Jewish conspiracy was unshakable.

My paternal grandparents and great-grandparents were either Roman Catholics or members of the Church of England and there was no suggestion of any awareness of Jewish ancestry. But, oddly, virtually all my father's friends were either Jewish (surnames: Pittman, Babel, Mossenson ...) or had surnames which are often indicative of Jewish ancestry (Miller, Bloomfield, Rees ...).

Even his barber was Jewish (of German origin) and, when Dad retired due to ill health, the hairdresser (whose shop was near his office) gave him a card with a touching note in which he referred to himself as my father's "devoted Freund."

I never talked to my father about these matters as I only began to take an interest in them after his death. Was he aware of the possibility of Jewish ancestry? I doubt it. Did his Jewish friends suspect that his family was Jewish or part Jewish? This is possible. In an early photograph my rather anti-Semitic uncle bears an uncanny resemblance to Franz Kafka!

In fact there are some surnames in my family tree - mainly on my father's side - which could indicate Jewish origins. Beck, Fisher and Langman seem the most likely.

English names have been adopted by Jewish immigrants over the centuries. The migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries are well known. Earlier waves of Jewish immigration are less well documented. Many descendants of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian peninsula settled in the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries and gradually assimilated into the Christian mainstream.

Some names are more likely than others to be associated with the possibility of Sephardi or other Jewish origins. Amongst the names of my forebears I am looking at in this regard - apart from the names mentioned above - are Davis, Lester, Harris, Michell, and also English, Pember, Russell, Sturgeon and Ward.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ten ways of being conservative

  • Politically. The current system is a shambles but, if we mess with it too much, we are liable to end up with something even worse.
  • Fiscally. Though debt has a crucial role to play in modern economies, over-indebtedness - especially on the part of governments - is threatening future prosperity. Fiscal conservatism should be less contentious than other forms of conservatism, as it is based on simple rationality and prudence rather than on subjective feelings or convictions.
  • Socially. Traditional ways of relating and communicating have proved their effectiveness. They are also to be preferred on aesthetic grounds.
  • Religiously. Religious fashions (like happy clappy Christianity) are anathema. Like social conservatism but with a metaphysical dimension.
  • Scientifically. Mainstream scientific opinion is taken seriously as a provisional best guess.
  • Artistically. Varies of course with the art and the context. The conservative likes (some) old art not because it is old but because it is good. Anything showy or meretricious is rejected. A painter like Mondrian, I would say, is deeply conservative.
  • Sartorially. There are fashions and fashions. The sartorial conservative takes heed of the slow underlying fashions and ignores the fads.
  • Gustatorily. Adventurous eating is seen as not only unnecessary and potentially wasteful, but as suspect - perhaps indicative of an empty mind (or worse). Ludwig Wittgenstein, in this as in so many other aspects of his life, combined conservatism with its opposite. He didn't mind what he was given for dinner so long as it was always the same.
  • Alcoholically. The right drink at the right time.
  • Sexually. Let's face it, sex and conservatism have been and always will be in an awkward relationship. Uneasy bedfellows?