Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Privacy, time and fairy lights

Just about everyone is communicating more - and in more ways - than ever and this naturally has an effect on our ideas of privacy.

More and more personal information is stored in data centers and much of that is potentially retrievable by anyone, but the very volume of data out there is perhaps our best protection. Most of the trivial stuff is lost and will never be retrieved - and, even if it was, what would it matter?

Breaches of privacy matter only when one's life is disrupted - for example when one's bank account has been tampered with, or one's friends alienated or offended, or one's house broken into.

As technologies change so do - and must - attitudes. Younger people are clearly less concerned about making information about (and images of) themselves public than previous generations were. There were always teenage exhibitionists, even if today's technologies allow exhibitionism on a much larger scale. The class clown has gone global, the school rebel is part of a worldwide protest movement.

But for every natural rebel or exhibitionist, then and now, there are sure to be many more individuals who have no difficulty maintaining their privacy and dignity and sense of balance.

Some changes are deeper, however. Technologies like the printed book and pen and paper encouraged silent, private reading and writing. And, significantly, the communication process is delayed in these instances and long periods of time elapse between the writing and the reading, months or years in the case of books, days or weeks in the case of letters or periodicals.

By contrast, digital technologies facilitate instant communication with peers in a context of high levels of sensory stimulation so that the private sphere of the silent reader is being crowded out.

This is the real problem for anyone who values minds attuned to slower-moving and important things, companions who sit quietly over a coffee, and who, when they talk, take you into a slower, deeper world where thoughts are more like grand orbiting planets than flickering fairy lights.

But then, fairy lights have their charm...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the sunny side of the street

A favorite recording of one of my favorite songs. The Benny Goodman Sextet with a young Peggy Lee.

Recorded exactly 70 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Have a merry Christmas and a sunny new year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The idea of Europe and France's idea of itself

I'm impatient to know what is going to happen to Europe. It matters to all of us, insofar as Europe plays an important part in the global economy, and it matters particularly to those of us who live in Europe, or intend to live in Europe, or who simply cherish an idea of Europe (for ethnic, cultural, intellectual or other reasons).

The Economist's Charlemagne gives a good account of the background to and the prospects for a new treaty. In fact there are two treaties being negotiated: the new intergovernmental treaty associated with the recent Brussels summit; and the not-so-new but yet-to-be-completed treaty setting up a permanent bailout fund (the European Stability Mechanism). These documents appear to be crystallizing not only a two-tier E.U. but also a two-tier euro zone (with debtor countries lacking veto powers, for instance).

But will the markets wait for the bureaucrats and politicians to complete their ambitious agenda of drafting and ratification? Will the temporary rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, prove to be adequate (in conjunction with other funding sources like the IMF)? In the absence of massive bailouts (which can create their own problems), it's difficult to see how heavily indebted countries will be able to come out of this without devaluation (which would entail exiting the euro zone).

Particularly interesting, in the light of my recent reflections on dealing with decline, are comments by Johan Van Overtveldt who, in a new book (The End of the Euro) singles out France for special criticism. "France's inability to accept gracefully its political and economic decline has produced additional tension. La grandeur de la France, once an undeniable reality, is now a thing of the past."

Recent statements by French leaders attacking the creditworthiness of the U.K. were so far beyond the pale as to indicate a degree of panic.

And no wonder, with the ratings agency Fitch saying that "a comprehensive solution to the euro-zone crisis is technically and politically beyond reach," France's triple-A status on the brink of a downgrade - and a French presidential election just a few months away.

One last quote. On a Sky News Christmas special pre-recorded last week, Sir Philip Hampton (the Royal Bank of Scotland's chairman) said he thought the banking system could cope with Greece's exit from the euro zone, but he had broader concerns about social cohesion, even in France. "France has got an unmatched history of getting on to the streets and making a big noise. I'm amazed the French have been so subdued. I don't think it will continue."

If the French do take to the streets, let's hope the Islamists don't hijack the revolution. That would be an interesting twist.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Getting real

I recently discussed Paul Krugman's views on the European crisis, and suggested that his ideological commitments may have distorted his analysis. Krugman argued that austerity programs would inevitably fail and lead to the destruction of democracy.

I note that Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg columnist, has also taken issue with Krugman's perspective. "There is evidence that austerity did lead to growth in the past," she writes, "and that it did not cause fascism."

Shlaes questions "the standard ... narrative of what happened" during the Great Depression which lies behind Krugman's views. She cites the example of Australian government cost-cutting in the early 1930s. "Australia recovered far faster than the U.S. ... [Prime Minister Joseph] Lyons may have praised Mussolini but Australia didn't go fascist."

I am not really in a position to argue on the basis of historical economic data or economic theory, but I can see that Franklin Delano Roosevelt has become a mythic hero for many liberals, and the New Deal an inspirational tale.

But inspiring narratives are just that - stories designed inspire (manipulate?), not to encapsulate historical (or any other kind of) truth.

History is complicated, there are no heroes, and the world does not owe us a living.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Paul Krugman on Europe

It's always salutary to read or listen to - at least occasionally - those whose ideological perspectives are different from one's own.

Sometimes it's simply a matter of being confirmed in one's current views. Like the time I read a political book by Noam Chomsky (whom I respected as a linguist). I was staggered at the degree of anger and irrationality and extremism evident in Chomsky's prose. I had begun the book with an open mind, ready to be convinced: I was wavering ideologically at the time and had no vested interest in any particular system (beyond some investments in equities which could easily have been put into something else if I came to the view that capitalism was bad). But I found there was a huge gulf between where Chomsky was and where I was. I have no idea how he got there, and I was damned sure that I wasn't going to go there.

Paul Krugman is another kettle of fish, a distinguished economist who is also a liberal polemicist. I recently read an opinion piece by Krugman on political and economic trends in Europe, suggesting that we should call "the current situation what it is: a depression." Even putting aside the (unresolved) euro crisis, lack of growth and high levels of unemployment is leading to immense anger and resentment (against Germany, for instance), risks to social cohesion and a clear move in the direction of authoritarian governments.

Last month, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development "documented a sharp drop in public support for democracy in the 'new E.U.' countries." Hungary, for instance, a country with a turbulent and tragic history, is in dire economic straits. According to Krugman, it has "suffered severely because of large-scale borrowing in foreign currencies and also, to be frank [Krugman acknowledging his ideological position!], thanks to the mismanagement and corruption on the part of the then-governing left-liberal parties."

This led to Fidesz, a center-right party, winning an overwhelming parliamentary majority last year. But now Fidesz, by a series of constitutional and legal measures and media control, seems to be moving towards authoritarian rule "under a paper-thin veneer of democracy." Krugman sees what is happening in Hungary, "in the heart of Europe," as a sign of things to come on the troubled continent. As he puts it, the breakup of the euro may be the least of Europe's worries.

My concern is that Krugman's ideological preoccupations may be distorting his analysis. He is hostile to German-inspired attempts to encourage austerity, suggesting that such an approach is leading to the death of democracy and to authoritarian forms of government. But the crisis was caused, at least in part, by profligate government spending (exacerbated in some countries by their participation in an ill-conceived experiment in monetary union). And something like the pragmatic German model may be the only alternative to fascism or whatever forms of nationalistic collectivism are currently garnering support.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dealing with decline

Niall Ferguson and many others have made the point that the United States, like other once-dominant nations before it, is in for a very difficult period of adjustment. That is, if the combination of its massive public debt and shifts in the global economic center of gravity play out as expected, and America's international preeminence is relentlessly eroded.

The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is around 100%, and it's well known that public debt levels above 85% of GDP are a drag on growth and also carry other, more dire, risks - as recent credit downgrades portend and as recent events in Europe have illustrated.

Of course America never had an actual empire like many of the preeminent nations of the past, and so will be spared the dramatic indignity of surrendering territories and dealing with mass immigration and other such phenomena that are associated with the end of an empire. Though long-held perceptions and expectations are not easy to put aside, the lack of an empire will make the process far easier, not only in practical terms but also in terms of saving face. The decline in power and influence could be seen as a voluntary return to policies of relative isolationism and non-interventionism.

The French writer Henry de Montherlant - an aristocratic conservative - faced head-on and accepted the patent reality of the decline of France in the inter-war years, though he felt the pain of it keenly. Others, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, continued to believe in France's greatness, even after the debacle of 1940, even after the disastrous Algerian war, even now ...

The style and antics of the present French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is explicable only in the light of France's glorious past, and the mismatch between his pretensions and the reality of France's current position in the world is a source of amusement to many.

Britain's decline has been, if anything, even more painful and traumatic than that of France. In the post-World War 2 period, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann reflected the attachments and preoccupations and regrets of the English middle class. Behind the mock xenophobia and comic aggression of this little piece (from a performance in New York) lies ... Well, you be the judge.

A final thought: it strikes me that unsympathetic observers of David Cameron's actions at last week's Brussels summit will see him and his eurosceptic supporters - quite unjustly, of course, at least in respect of Cameron himself - as having been motivated by something like the sentiments being satirized here by Flanders and Swann.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Genetics and political orientation: some further thoughts

Let us assume that - as the research (which I discussed briefly in a previous post) seems to indicate - our political and other values are heavily influenced by genetic and genetic/environmental factors and even reflected in brain structures. What consequences flow from this?

First of all, it will make one skeptical about one's own political beliefs and values. As with someone 'born into' a particular religion, skepticism is definitely called for. But, just as my being born into a particular religion does not mean that the doctrines of that particular religion are necessarily false, so my having a genetic predisposition to believe or value certain things does not mean that these things are not true or valuable.

Even if our political beliefs were completely determined, this would not necessarily reflect on their truth, rightness, viability, plausibility - on their value and worth in other words. But are value and worth matters which can be objectively assessed?

I would suggest that the policy prescriptions of the right or the left or any other political perspective or orientation can be assessed in various ways. Whether particular methods or policies work in practice can be tested (and history can be seen as a record of such experiments). Science can be brought to bear on factual matters, from biology to economics. But basic values - such as whether to value equality over prosperity and individual freedom, etc. - seem not to be amenable to objective assessment.

Another lesson one might draw from the research is that people are different - every brain is unique, of course, but there are also differences which reflect general patterns of thought; and consequently changing someone's mind about a deep ideological issue will not be achieved simply by setting out a logical argument. Of course conversions occur, and people change their own minds (though often, as one of the commenters on the linked post said, as a result of much reading and reflection).

But presumably conversions occur when the new ideology is compatible with underlying brain structures, in other words when elements of that ideology are already present in a latent form. Given the research results, unconscious constraints and unconscious proclivities and tendencies clearly shape the possibilities for individual belief and orientation.

Knowing this, one would not try to convert everybody to one's own way of thinking, but rather accept that many would not be able (without major mental re-engineering) to value the things one values and so think the way one thinks about social issues. One would concentrate on those whose basic values were compatible with whatever social philosophy one was seeking to promote.

Unfortunately, much argument and debate is entered into with the assumption that we all have a more or less identical faculty which we call 'reason' - a kind of logic machine in our heads which determines our views. But - leaving aside areas like mathematics and formal logic - this is not the case. Our thinking is bound up with feeling and with (often unconscious) values. The research results undermine the view that debate and adversarial discussion are truth-seeking activities. There could be a more limited role for discussion, however, in helping those who have certain predispositions to develop a conscious and coherent social philosophy which accords with those predispositions.

It would be nice if we could have a workable dual or multi-choice social, political and economic system, so that we could all just gravitate towards the option we prefer; but unfortunately capitalism needs to be a universal system if it is to work properly. A dual capitalist/socialist (or free market/collectivist) system will fail because the wealth-producing (capitalist) part will always face increasing demands to subsidize the collectivist component.

In fact this is arguably what is happening today. Most Western countries, though nominally capitalist, have large public sectors which are major employers and providers of welfare. A dual (private/public) system operates in many areas of society: there are private schools and public schools, private hospitals and public hospitals, private health insurance and public health insurance, self-funded retirees and retirees on state pensions, and so on.

And - surprise, surprise - public debt is jeopardizing the future of many Western economies and threatening global prosperity.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Meaning and information

I don't remember meeting him, but, when I was a child, we often used to drive past a house belonging to my father's old colleague, 'Sticky' Glew. (My mother had been introduced to him, and had trouble deciding how to address him. She wisely opted for 'Mr Glew'.) It amused my father that his friend had written a dissertation on 'the meaning of meaning'.

"For thousands of years," writes Seth Lloyd (in his book, Programming the universe (Vintage, 2007)), "philosophers have tried to determine what 'meaning' means, with mixed success." (p. 24)

Lloyd's work (in quantum computing and quantum communication systems) is based around the technical concept of information. But strings of bits and so on mean nothing in themselves: they are meaningful only if they can be interpreted. "Meaning is defined only relative to a scheme of interpretation ..." (p. 25)

"Consider the string of bits ... : 1001001 1101110 0100000 1110100 1101000 1100101 0100000 1100010 1100101 1100111 1101001 1101110 1101110 1101001 1101110 1100111. Interpreted as a message encoded in ASCII, this string means 'In the beginning'. But taken on its own, with no specification of how it is to be interpreted, it means nothing other than itself." (p. 25) And, of course, 'In the beginning ...' is interpreted according to the conventions of the English language. As Lloyd points out, natural languages are rich in ambiguity, which is "a key aspect of poetry, fiction, flirting, and plain everyday conversation." (p. 27)

But sometimes, in order to understand basic concepts - like meaning - it is useful to strip away complexities and ambiguities and look at simple models, as Wittgenstein did in his account of language games. Imagine a simple language game in which a builder says "Block" and the assistant hands him a block, or "Slab" and the assistant hands him a slab. The meaning of each expression is to be found in the action the expression provokes.

Lloyd relates Wittgenstein's idea to computers and computing. "The meaning of a computer program written in a particular computer language," he writes, "is to be found in the actions the computer performs as it interprets that program. All the computer is doing is performing sequences of elementary logic operations, such as AND, NOT and COPY ... The computer program unambiguously instructs the computer to perform a particular sequence of those operations. The 'meaning' of a computer program is thus universal, in the sense that two computers following the same set of instructions will perform the same set of information-processing operations and obtain the same result." (p. 26-27)

Meaning, then, is interpreted information. We don't need a theory of meaning such as philosophers have attempted to build. Philosophy (most notably the philosophy of language and metaphysics) has drifted into unproductive areas reminiscent of scholasticism in which intellectual work is done without first ensuring that there is an important intellectual task to address.

Of course, the word 'meaning', like many English words, can be used in different ways, and a careful analysis of the context of use will reveal subtle - and not so subtle - differences. One sense of the word - rather different from most of the others is 'general significance' or 'point' or 'purpose', as in the sentence, 'My life seems to lack meaning.' I have not been talking here of this generalized kind of meaning, but of the ordinary - and primary - uses of the word in relation to information and communication. And, understood as interpreted information, it seems to me a perfectly clear and unmysterious concept. Trying - as some philosophers do - to make a big issue of what they call 'aboutness' or 'intentionality' (which doesn't mean what non-philosophers think it means) constitutes unnecessary mystification.*

The remarkable advances in computing and information and communication technologies during the last 70 years have thrown up many real problems of a fundamental nature, but they require scientific knowledge (not just knowledge of formal logic and philosophy) to address. In particular, the parallels between thermodynamics and information theory are clearly rich in new problems which would benefit from informed reflection. For example, all matter and energy is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, but all matter and energy - everything there is - is also subject to the laws of information. Information theory appears to be a more fundamental and all-encompassing theory than thermodynamics (which can now be seen as just a special case of information theory).

Though I doubt the value of much recent philosophical work in the areas of language and meaning, some very important foundational work has certainly been done by philosophers, philosophically-inclined mathematicians and logicians. The key advances were made during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The work of George Boole, Giuseppe Peano, David Hilbert, Bertrand Russell, A.N. Whitehead and many others provided the conceptual tools which made the development of the electronic computer and sophisticated communication technologies possible. Claude Shannon's development of what he called a 'mathematical theory of communication' and which has come to be known as information theory was based largely on the work of George Boole.

Information has come to be seen as physical - it is no longer seen as abstract, disembodied and unquantifiable. It is always tied to a physical representation: a mark on paper, a charge, a spin, a sequence of bases in DNA. Information processing occurs not just in computers and brains but throughout the physical world.

In 1961 Rolf Landauer came up with a principle with (it is said) startling implications: that one essential information processing operation (erasure) cannot occur without causing heat to dissipate into the environment (thus increasing the entropy of the universe). The processing of information is a thermodynamic process (just as thermodynamic processes are informational) and erasure is an irreversible operation. Negation can be reversed by a second negation. Addition can be reversed by subtraction. But erasure cannot be undone.

I will resist the temptation to discuss the implications of Landauer's principle (which I believe are not good!). I am a layman in these matters, but the role that information processing seems to play in every aspect of nature intrigues me. I am trying at least to understand the fundamental principles, and to relate the sort of thing one learns within the context of philosophical logic - e.g. that there are any number of alternative systems of logic - to the apparently more constrained context of real-world information processing.

* Much philosophical work in recent decades in areas such as ethics, metaphysics, the philosophy of language and even logic has been done by people with a commitment to a religious view of the world (or at least with an anti-physicalist orientation), and has been motivated (I believe) by an attempt to undermine physicalism and to save a space for the spiritual (broadly interpreted). Such a motivation does not invalidate the work, but I personally don't think a convincing case against physicalism has been made.