Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Monday, 17 January 2022

The party of law and order

... does not actually care a damn about law and order. An obligatory rant on the current state of Westminster.

We've seen how rank-and-file Tory members can be stark raving mad before. Like how they were willing to implement some form of Brexit even at the cost of the destruction of their own political party, a bonkers but at least perversely principled stance*.

*Whether they would actually follow through on their professed stance is another matter, but personally I highly doubt it.

Now we're seeing a desperate attempt to cling to power purely for its own sake, with no higher calling or motivation whatsoever. The Prime Minister broke the rules ? Perhaps the rules were too harsh, says Jacob Rees Mogg. He's apologised, so we need to move on, says Liz Truss. Right, so breaking the law is irrelevant then. Taking responsibility now means nothing more than that you have to apologise for your offences and not actually suffer any real consequences at all. That kind of responsibility is for the little people, not, ironically, the people who have to make the rules themselves.

I do not believe in the absolute nature of the law. That is not to say that it should be applied arbitrarily, and it especially doesn't mean it should apply differently to someone based on their major demographics : ethnicity, age, gender, religion, wealth etc. should have no bearing on punishment... except wherein any such features are actually pertinent to the law being broken. A rich criminal could, perhaps, expect a judge to deliver them a harsher sentence for the repeated theft of money than a very poor one stealing for the first time out of desperation. But refining and generalising on this is a task for another day.

For now, it is enough to realise that there is no inconsistency or hypocrisy in saying that those who are setting the rules should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. It's not about their wealth or class, but about their unique level of power. Proportionately, those with the most power of all should be held the highest standards possible. This is not to say that all mitigating circumstances should be ignored completely, just that they count for less. If you make the rules, you should make a special effort to adhere to them and lead by example.

What beggars belief to me is not so much that the Tories broke the lockdown rules - lots of people did that, and were rightly fined for it. Even for this they should suffer harsher penalties than the man in the street, but what really gets me is the storm of lies and gaslighting by which they seek to escape the fate of the little people. It's a bad thing to break laws designed to protect public health, but in some ways I find it far, far worse that those holding high office would choose to lie about their behaviour afterwards. How can you be said to be "taking responsibility" if you first put forth a series of lies, evasions and denials before being compelled to offer a paltry non-apology and declare that that's the end of it ?

What I do not understand is how anyone could actively want a known serial liar to be at the heart of government. To me this just makes no sense at all, but plenty of Tories - even if Boris is indeed eventually forced out - are willing to declare this openly. I don't get it. If someone has proven themselves untrustworthy, how can you possibly trust them ? And if you can't trust them, how can you possibly think them worthy to decide rules which affect your own life ? Do the rules just not matter at all to you ? What in the hell is it about Boris that you like so much ? Is his piss-poor tendency to deceive (because he is not at all good at it) actually somehow an asset ? Do you admire his strength of character in putting himself before the truth ?

This is bordering on a fascist level of elitism. The Tory party has always been a lot more morally flexible and more concerned about winning than ethical principles, but Boris is taking this to new levels. At least previously when they were found out, most of them had the decency to resign. Most of them realised that you can't be seen as a party of law and order if you yourselves do not obey the law. That's not to say that things were any better behind closed doors than they are now, but at least they had the modicum of decency not to openly flout the law in full view of the public and brazenly try to excuse the inexcusable. And least they didn't rub their elitism in people's faces. At least they tried to pretend that there was a line that was not to be crossed. There was a social contract of sorts, even if it was very one-sided.

If the Tory party suffers from a total lack of moral backbone, Labour if anything is beset by too much. It is straightforwardly absurd to compare Keir Starmer's drink with his evening meal in a protracted meeting with the multitude of pre-planned Tory socials. It was never about the fact that Tory MPs had alcohol, but the explicitly and exclusively social nature of the gatherings - be they after work or entirely separate from it. Nobody ever said, "no alcohol in private meetings". Nobody ever said, "no food during work meetings". Nobody said, "you must split up for every moment you're not discussing work."

Tory attempts to deflect here are gaslighting and whataboutism, which are somewhat bizarrely trying to paint their opponent as being far more interesting than even his most ardent supporters would ever suspect. They know their own behaviour did not merely bend the rules but abjectly and repeatedly broke them, so they're trying to distract. This is ridiculous. Labour didn't even come close to breaking the rules, and anyway it's the government who are in charge, not the opposition - so the importance of establishing what the Tories were up to is much, much more important. And yes, if it did come to light that Labour had behaved similarly, I would want similar consequences. As it is, this looks a bit like saying, "Yes, I'm a murderer, but that man said a rude word, so we're basically just as bad as each other". Even if we lived in a bizarre word where that was true, it wouldn't excuse the murder.

What's worrying is where this goes next. Will the Tory party clean itself off and at least try and get back its veneer of respectability, or will it go into Trumpian levels of populism ?

Right now, it's screaming towards the latter. And yes, actually there are respectable Tory MPs, but that the self-proclaimed party of law and order doesn't immediately eject its lying, gaslighting, evasive, cowardly, scumbag of a leader is damning. For all that the law can't be absolute, there are clear examples of black and white in amongst all the shades of grey. A party that does not realise that breaches of the law this egregious, this frequent, and this callous, are unacceptable in a functioning democracy is not a political party at all. It's a mob.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Review : Power and Thrones

Dan Jones seems best known as a TV historian, but he's a damn fine writer : far more purposeful and analytical than his TV shows might suggest. Of what I've read, his The Plantagenets is a clear winner, describing in gripping detail the life and times of and English dynasty that's shedloads more interesting that the poxy old Tudors (sorry Lucy Worsely, but it's true). There he covers how medieval kings won loyalty by divulging political power in exchange for military and/or financial support, and why King John's efforts to retake France were doomed by much more than battlefield prowess or lack thereof. He balances carefully between letting the text speak for itself and outlining the broad conclusions. And he's not afraid to pronounce judgement, without coming across as hopelessly biased either.

Power and Thrones is his latest offering, a weighty tome coming the whole of medieval Europe - from the fall of Rome to the birth of Protestantism. Jones' approach is to select a variety of specific events that are representative of the general trends, so rather than getting a breakneck speed account of a thousand years of history (which would average out to about two years per page), we actually get some considerable detail. It's an excellent, very well-balanced approach that never lacks for readability. Never before have I encountered the revenge of sacred chickens, or heard how St Martin exorcised demons from cows and set fire to the Emperor Valentinian's buttocks.

My favourite aspect is the analogies. If Jones has a goal here, it's to show that both the circumstances of the past and the very people living through them were remarkably similar to those of today - not in detail, of course, but nevertheless in general. We might think that the myriad of social institutions in which we participate have an instrumental role in shaping our behaviour, and they do... but the parallel responses to ostensibly very different situations are interesting.

For example, offsetting. In the modern era this is synonymous with climate change : it's pretty unavoidable for all of us to have to burn at least some carbon, but we try and atone for our sins by paying other people to plant trees on our behalf. In the medieval era, the unavoidable activity was sin itself, especially of the hack-thy-neighbour-and-steal-his-land variety. Instead of a fearsome planetary response, they feared divine wrath. Hence the evolution of monasteries to offset the sin of the wider world, quite literally by praying it all away. Monasteries, in some ways, are not so very different from the aviation industry. Or perhaps, as Jones suggests, to multi-national tech corporations, having power and influence far beyond their physical locations.

Political parallels are of course ten-a-penny : from the "build back better" approach of the Emperor Justinian, to concerns over mass migration or the fragmentation of Europe into a plethora of petty kingdoms; censorship in universities*; or crusades against heretics as foolish as any "war against abstractions... see, in our times, the War on Terror, War on Drugs, etc." But in popular culture too, with Arthur and Roland being the superheroes of their day, and sports : with jousting described as a cross between polo, gambling, rugby and cage fighting. Jones does a commendable job, perhaps better than anyone else, of making the people of the past feel just like us were it not for their different conditions. Despite concentrating heavily on the great and the good, it's a marvellously de-romanticised tale of basically normal people. The ineptitude of modern politicians begins to seem a lot more understandable when set against the idiots of the past, who have plagued us since time immemorial.

* Jones is quite clearly not one of the libertarian "free speech" ilk, and the comparison is interesting. The importance of actually having good-faith discussions and speaking truth to power, and not just saying things because you want to offend people, is sometimes overlooked. 

Possibly the most interesting comparison is the invention of the printing press. Suddenly information could be distributed at massively larger rates at low cost. As with social media today, the effects were complex and unpredictable. While initially the sale of indulgences were a boon for the Church, when Luther's theses went viral, the result was just the opposite. And it was this, Jones argues, that brought about the end of medieval Europe and instigated the transition to the modern world.

Jones is careful not to push this analogies too far. If I have a critique, it's that if anything he's too cautious about this. A bit more development on this underlying themes would have been most welcome : I would have liked for him to venture a thesis on what defines the similarities and differences to our ancestors. It feels a bit like there's something deeper under the surface that Jones never quite reaches for, which is a shame. But should he ever decide to do something a bit more explicitly about drawing parallels and lessons from the past, I would be all over it.

Not that this really spoils anything. As an introductory overview to medieval European history - and it's pretty well exclusively European - this feels as good as anything you'll find anywhere. I'm going to give this one a solid 8, maybe 9/10 - excellent stuff, does exactly what it says on the tin, but just a bit too limited in intent.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

More money, less problems ?

Although I think it falls flat at the end, I do think there's value in this economic narrative about post-WWII America. It's long, but an easy read, worth reading its entirety.

To summarise into a ludicrously short form : America regenerated itself after the war by fostering a culture of credit and consumerism. Credit allowed returning soldiers to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, making and selling the things to each other that they suddenly wanted. Essentially, giving them a bunch of money meant they were heavily inclined to spend that money back into the economy, fuelling jobs and economic growth, in a sort of virtuous cycle. Inflation spiked, but temporarily. Cultural biases against debt heavily declined, because debt could and did pay for itself. Equality was an implicit and readily achievable goal. This first part of the piece is, I think, very nicely done.

Later - and I think here this lacks any explanation as to why or how - the economy mutated into something that was still booming, but less and less for the average man in the street and more for an elite. Exactly what economic choices were made that facilitated this are unfortunately lacking (Niall Ferguson gives a interesting but limited look at this in relation to the big tech companies, however). But the valuable point made is that Americans still had an expectation of equality even though it was now essentially impossible to achieve. Consequently, coupled with a culture of debt being quite acceptable as a path to prosperity, this helped fuel the credit crunch, with consumer spending on things they couldn't possibly afford running rampant. It should probably be noted that many things they now couldn't possibly afford were things they had every damn right to expect that they could afford, like healthcare and education. It's hardly all a burning desire for avocado smoothies and designer handbags.

(I do wonder about a possibly cultural difference between Europe and America on this point. We make fun of people trying to get above their station, because peasants know full well they can't possibly compete with the aristocrats, so to speak. Trying to keep up with the Jones' is an individual phenomenon, not a widespread lifestyle choice. But this is probably drawing the narrative too far : again, I suspect the bulk of the burden lies in a desire to rightfully expect the essentials to be affordable, not the luxuries.)

This rise in inequality is undeniably a problem, and a whopping big one. But I think the conclusion here that this is a large part in the rise of right-wing populism falls flat. It's easy and tempting to say that income equality => unjust treatment => desire to fix things by desperate measures. But that just doesn't seem to be what the numbers are saying, yet we keep insisting on saying it. In 2016, Trump won the election thanks more to higher earners than poorer ones (though, if I recall correctly, this may not be true in every state, but for big-picture narratives this doesn't matter so much). Although Brexit was won primarily from poorer voters, those switching from Labour to Conservative were actually happier about the decline of industrial Britain than those who stuck with Labour. Paradoxically, perhaps those remaining Labour actually did so out of a sense of small-c conservatism, but clearly, those switching to Tory weren't trying to rebel against the changed reality.

My suspicion is that an integral part of the rise of right wing populism is information driven, not economics driven. It is far too simplistic to suggest that just having more money would fix this. This is not to say that we shouldn't have greater income equality (we emphatically should), just that that would fix different problems. Nigel Farage is very, very rich, yet the King of Brexit is a racist buffoon : resources are important, but they are hardly the whole story in political morality. And nor is this to say that there might not be something to this link between equality and politics - there probably is. But the connection, I suspect, is more complex than this article portrays. Grand narrative pieces like this are valuable, but should be treated with caution.

More research is needed.

Friday, 3 December 2021

A different shade of red

Whenever I encounter people on social media who describe themselves as "traditional leftists", I often come away confused. They tend to bang on really quite a lot about how much they're traditional leftists but spend most of their time disparaging women, which is rather strange. They might espouse concern for worker's rights, but don't seem to have much a problem with attacking minorities - a trick not all that dissimilar to fascism.

So there is certainly plenty of diversity among those who self-identify as the left*. An excellent summary piece of a specific type of disagreement among lefties can be found here, which I think provides a good basis for understanding what's going on (though others disagree). In brief, I think there is a particular subset of the so-called "woke" who are not really determined to fight oppression and intolerance, but just to hurt people : when someone repents for their moral shortcomings, they still go on attacking them. It's one thing to find views abhorrent, but quite another to utterly dismiss anything someone says about any topic because you disagree with them on one particular subject.

*It's worth mentioning also that left and liberal do not automatically go together : in the Czech Republic, left tends to mean full-blown Communism, whereas in the UK it tends to mean vegan hipster students.

This, though, is a big topic, and I shall largely leave it for now. Such a subset is, I think, anyway rather small, and its importance massively overblown by the right. Today I turn instead to this very long, detailed study examining how the views of the traditional British Labour voter have shifted over the decades. While day-to-day politics and individual characters is and are important, it's easy to avoid seeing the forest for the trees. This study attempts to zoom out and see what are the large factors at work driving the changes, and, because it's from Tony Blair's institute, to work out a strategy for Labour to get back in the game.

It must be said that some of this is obvious. Labour needs clear policies ? That's nothing that literally everyone hasn't been saying for months. People don't like Corbyn ? It's only a wonder that the disaster of the 2019 general election didn't happen in 2017.

But much of it isn't obvious at all. While the decline of the working class is pretty apparent, the changing social attitudes of what remains of that demographic are rather surprising.

1) The working class isn't what it used to be

Trade unions, along with other local organisations, represented Parkin’s “institutionalised forms of deviance” that played such a large part in the local communities of Labour’s industrialised heartlands, dominated by specific industries with large workforces. In these heartlands, the disappearance of so many big industries has undermined the culture of working-class solidarity, and so diminished the appetite for challenging the status quo and the establishment... today’s working-class voters are :less likely than middle-class voters to join a trade union; less likely to have jobs in workplaces with more than 100 employees; less likely to be left-of-centre.

In so far as there are class differences, there are slightly more middle- than working-class voters who fit the traditional stereotype of unionised, left-wing voters with jobs in large workplaces. That said, the differences are small. Now that Parkin’s “institutionalised forms of deviance” have disappeared, so too have gaps in these traditional measures of class difference closed.

Not only has the working class severely shrunk, but those who are left don't hold the traditional views anyway. So Labour going back to its roots isn't going to work, because the roots have gone. Similarly, the decline of the Red Wall, far from being a recent development, has been ongoing for decades - it only looks like a sudden collapse because of the electoral system. The regions had atypically high Labour support decades ago, but have since undergone regression to the mean :

Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership accelerated the process towards the end of the 32-year period, but the red-wall bonus had been shrinking for 20 years; indeed, most of it happened before either the Brexit referendum or Corbyn’s election as party leader. In fact, the long-term political trajectory of the red-wall towns has been towards parity with England overall, not away from it.

The losses of the red-wall seats need to be considered in a wider context. They reflect Labour’s national failure to respond effectively to the economic and social changes of the past 50 years. This failure looks greatest in the red-wall towns simply because the changes there have been the greatest...  Our findings suggest that Labour will fail, and probably fail badly, if it tries to regain power simply by seeking to revive its working-class appeal. The reason is not just that the number of working-class voters is now too small, but that their lives today are far less like those of their (usually) working-class parents, and far more like their middle-class contemporaries.

In other words, it's the voters that have shifted, not that Labour is going in a different direction.

A small caveat is that some class differences do remain :

Despite these figures, it is wrong to say there are no significant class differences. Two do persist: in housing and education. Tenure is still linked to party choice and social attitudes. Working-class homeowners are far more likely than those who rent their homes to vote Conservative and to say that our welfare system has created a culture of dependence.

2) Where have the voters gone ?

Perhaps a more serious problem is that there has been a failure of confidence in social policies :

Far more people in almost every group think they pay more in taxes than they receive from public services and benefits. This applies to full-time workers, both blue- and white-collar, to the over-65s (despite NHS care and pension payments), and to families with children (despite the NHS and education benefits). Only among those whose household income is less than £14,000 are the two figures similar. Social class makes virtually no difference... These figures feed into the right-wing narrative that for the provision of everyday needs, government is more of a problem than a solution. This means that Labour’s task is to revive trust in not just the party, but in politics.

Unfortunately there isn't past data for this question because this would be fascinating to trace. After a decade of savage Tory austerity, with ambulance waiting times routinely in the hours during a pandemic, and tens of billions thrown recklessly at an dysfunctional track-and-trace system, is it any wonder the public don't feel they're getting value for money ? The reason they think so might well be very simple : they're not. So this does not necessarily represent a failure of belief in strategy, only a failure resulting from a corrupt, incompetent implementation.

But where have voters gone ? Largely, but by no means exclusively, to the Tories :

Of the 11.5 million lost voters, just half switched to the Conservatives in 2019. Put another way, four in ten people who voted for Boris Johnson had, at some point, wanted a Labour government. Labour also lost 2.5 million votes to pro-European parties: the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru. These voters should not be ignored in the attempt to win votes back from the Conservatives.

Why have they left ? The switch to the left-leaning parties is readily understandable (but for subtleties, consult the original article), that to the Tories more surprising :

There is no consensus about the impact of long-term changes either on the country as a whole or on specific areas. These changes were defined as a decline in old industries, factories and jobs, and growth of new jobs, businesses, goods and services. Voters who switched to the Conservatives are actually more positive about the changes than voters who stuck with Labour.

Somewhat encouragingly, there has not been a widespread public move away from socialist policies - if anything it's gone the other way :

In 1989, after a decade of Thatcher’s economic reforms, the public divided 47 per cent to 39 per cent in favour of a socialist rather than capitalist society. Today, voters as a whole prefer socialism by 48 per cent to 29 per cent, with the number of don’t knows climbing from 14 per cent to 23 per cent.

Which would again suggest that socialism isn't really the problem. The answer seems to lie in marketing.

3) What do voters think of Labour ?

Voters have some rather definite perceptions of Labour that are at odds with what they want :

While only 8 per cent of those switching to the Conservatives describe themselves as “very” or “fairly” left wing, as many as 48 per cent apply that label to the Keir Starmer-led Labour Party... Former Labour voters tend to support capitalism and reject collective welfare in larger numbers than those who have stayed loyal to Labour, but a) socialism and collective welfare remain fairly popular, and b) age makes little difference. The explanation for Labour’s problems with voters aged over 45 does not lie here. The party itself is the problem: it has haemorrhaged these votes, especially in the past few years, because it is seen by many of the voters it needs to win back as incompetent, out of touch and obsessed with what right-of-centre commentators describe as “woke” causes.

Many of those voters who switched to the Conservatives believe that Labour fails to share their concern for ordinary working people and pensioners. There is a 40-point gulf between the 52 per cent who are keen to help pensioners and the 12 per cent who believe this group is a priority for the Labour Party. Instead, these voters think the party cares far more than they do for immigrants and non-white Britons as well as the LGBTQ+ community.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with caring for minorities : quite the opposite. And I'm not quite sure where the image of Labour as "wokeist" comes up, except perhaps from the profoundly dysfunctional Corbyn era. Regardless, Labour need hardly resort to Tory racism or misogyny to win votes : it's rather a matter of prioritising and messaging. Labour can and should institute reforms to help minorities... but at a time when the entire country is suffering, those groups should not be put front and centre of its campaign message*. In support of this, of voters who returned to Labour, mostly their priorities and their perceived priorities of the party are in close alignment.

* Prioritising them might be morally laudable, but it would also be useless. Without actually getting into power, you can't do anything for them.

But the report stresses that we shouldn't read too much into this. Policy and perceived priority do matter. But even more important than this is perception of confidence :

It is clear that Labour’s perceived incompetence was a major cause of its loss in 2019, especially among those who voted for the Conservatives. Among those who voted Labour in 2017 but not in 2019, only 25 per cent say that Labour is competent these days, while 60 per cent say it continues to be incompetent. This is arguably the most important single indicator of Labour’s continuing failure to overtake the Conservatives when it comes to voting intentions.

It should come as no surprise that Labour voters who have maintained their support for the party have a reasonably good view of its competence, but a negative view of the Conservatives on this issue. (It should worry Labour, however, just how many of its loyalists still say the party is incompetent 18 months into Starmer’s leadership.)

Though I have reversed this section of the narrative from the report. It argues that Labour is perceived as incompetent due to its flawed policies and priorities, so these have an indirect but more damaging effect on its electability than the policies themselves.

My guess is that there's a lot of residual baggage from the Corbyn era : not just because of Corbyn himself, but also his entire team of idiotic ideologues. Starmer has made a lot of progress, but the lack of clear policies has hampered this - in particular, a simple, basic policy with an obvious vision behind it. And an additional difficulty is the need to present that vision without sounding like a loony, which was Corbyn's utter failure.

(It's probably worth remembering Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, who is going for a very left-wing agenda indeed, but has crucially managed to sound extremely boring. You can't really accuse someone of being a Communist dictator when they look like a hamster and have all the charisma normally associated with a piece of toast. Mind you, just being boring isn't enough, and there are genuine cultural differences between England and Wales.)

We also do seem to be seeing more of the shadow cabinet lately, which is very welcome. I think Starmer's overall strategy of prioritising getting the Labour house in order is probably a good one - yes, there's some messy in-fighting along the way, but the previous incarnation was effectively opposition by committee. It needs clearer direction and greater unity than that, which certainly means kicking out the hard left. Doesn't really matter if you or I agree on the previous policies or not - that group were catastrophically unelectable. Change is necessary - there's no point being in politics if you're perpetually out of power. None whatsoever.

5) Where do Labour go from here ?

Uphill, obviously. While Labour at the time of writing are slightly ahead, to get a majority they require a rather thumping lead over the Tories which they're as yet nowhere near. And getting that will be difficult. But there are grounds for optimism : though their traditional voter base has gone, a new one has arisen that presents opportunities :

Asked which two or three groups from a list of nine that the government should help the most, voters across what used to be the class divide selected “ordinary working people” as the top choice followed by the poor and pensioners – some distance ahead of all others.

Importantly, it doesn't really matter how you slice the data - those three groups still come out as top priority. 

Voters of all stripes want a government that helps ordinary workers, pensioners and the poor, but too many think Labour prefers to defend minorities instead of tackling Britain’s everyday economic and social problems. It’s not so much that these target voters are obsessed by the cultural battles that Labour is doomed to lose. Rather, it is that Labour has gained the reputation of fighting the wrong battles by choice. It risks the most damning of political verdicts: irrelevance to people’s daily lives.

Being a left-leaning liberal does not mean having a fanatical obsession with minorities, which is what "woke", rightly or wrongly, has come to mean in the minds of many. Nor does it mean abandoning progressive policies, still less liberalism itself. There is scope for Labour to climb the still daunting mountain to electoral victory, but it's got to do a lot better than the schoolyard politics of Corbyn's day. 

As in decades gone by, Labour does not need to dilute its liberal values, even when they are opposed by the voters it seeks to attract. Such values become a liability only when they are seen to override Labour’s economic and social priorities... if Labour can reframe these issues as economic and social challenges, in which current government policies damage people’s everyday lives, then Labour has the opportunity to develop policies that are both progressive and popular.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Review : The Last Duel

Ridley Scott is either going very grumpy old man, or very cleverly calculating old man. See, the only reason I saw The Last Duel is because I read an interview where he was bitching about how his movie was failing in the cinemas because of millennials being glued to their smartphones. He also said that Disney did a fantastic promotional job, and this had me rather... puzzled. I'm a millennial, and this movie, it turns out, is right up my alley - and I wasn't previously aware of anything other than the title.

So the only reason I watched even the trailer was because of Ridley Scott complaining. And far from some 18th-century swordfight as the title would suggest, it's about a medieval joust. With knights in shining armour charging into rivers and beating the crap out of each other. While I might watch the former on TV, the latter has definite cinematic potential for me. Throw in that it's all about the search for truth, and this ticks a lot of boxes for me, so much so that Disney's promotional campaign clearly messed up somewhere... but anyway, off to the cinema I went !

And of course : lots of millennials are not unruly teenagers but are now approaching 40. Also, feckless old people, get this : moronic teenagers tend to grow up. So just sod off with the anti-millennial bullshit already - your generation wrecked the planet, idiots.

And... it's a great film ! For some reason medieval France looks gloomier and wetter than Wales, but that's not a bad thing. The more epic battle shots shown in the trailer are, though very impressive, also very short, so don't go in expecting a war story because it isn't. This is a smaller-scale story that happens to feature soldiers, so it doesn't skimp on the battles where necessary, but it also doesn't try and force them in unnecessarily. Every single scene serves a clear purpose.

The story is based on real-life events told from three different perspectives. In each retelling, the differences are subtle - as in reality, most disagreements are relatively minor. Characters exaggerate themselves and each other, but the major events generally still happen. Some things all three of them agree on completely. Very satisfyingly, it's not a heavy-handed approach where everyone views themselves as flawless and each other as hopeless, but much more nuanced. No character emerges smelling of roses even according to their own story. Especially noteworthy are the scenes that are omitted in each version, making it deliberately impossible to corroborate certain events. The viewer has to think for themselves, but is never overwhelmed or confused.

While I normally try and avoid major spoilers in reviews, in this case I don't think I can. So if you don't want to know anything crucial, stop here. I'll leave you with my summary rating of 8 or possibly 9 out of 10. Thoroughly excellent. Scroll down if you want more.

Right then. If you don't mind spoilers, the story concerns the rape of a young French noblewoman. First, we get the story from the perspective of her husband, then the rapist, and then finally herself - which the film alleges is the truth, as the author of the original book asserts.

The husband views himself as a model of chivalry : bold, daring, impetuous, yet devoted to his wife and attentive to her needs. While he does make mistakes (sometimes big ones) he always tries to admit his wrongdoing and recovers swiftly. He feels ill-treated by his social betters, yet tries to do right by them - only standing his ground when he feels his honour demands it. When his wife tells him she was raped by his onetime friend while he was away, he does ask her quite angrily if she was telling the truth, but very quickly comes to her defence, prepared to risk everything (as it turns out) on a noble cause.

The rapist's perspective is somewhat different. He views the husband as kindof a silly figure : brave, and a good fighter, but not very bright and quick to anger. The most notable scene present in this section, not featured in the other retellings, is that the wife was essentially flirtatious with him once, even hinting at an actual affair, so there is something of a tendency to suggest he might really be in love with her. But the rape scene itself is brutal, and could not, under any circumstances, in any way whatsoever by anyone at all, be mistaken for anything other than the detestable assault that it is.

The wife, it turns out, views her husband as an oaf. He's not exactly cruel (at least by the admittedly lousy standards of the day), but shows her very little affection - in marked contrast to his own perspective, while she is essentially the one holding his household together. When "they" decide the best course of action is a trial by combat, he says, "I have a plan", whereas in her version it's "we have a plan".

Her perspective is much the most interesting since it covers the initial trial and the final duel. There are a lot of nods to.... certain modern demographics, who think that a woman can't get pregnant if they experience orgasm ("it's just science !" says a lawyer). And it's in her perspective that the awful consequences of failure are revealed : if her husband dies in combat, she will be burned alive for slander. She wants justice for herself, but has to face the appalling choice of this risking the life of her unborn child. This makes her husband's initially skeptical reaction somewhat more understandable, since the consequences of failure are truly extreme - yet in her version, he reacts not by merely becoming angry, but actually throttling her. It's a brilliant blend of conflicting tensions and interpretations.

I won't state the film's conclusion, but it does have one. It rounds off in a satisfying way, while still leaving the viewer with plenty of difficult questions. It's not at all your traditional historical epic, but presents the past in quite a different light (and with tip-top cinematography, especially during the climatic duel itself). The characters feel much more real and believable than in most historical movies. I mean, Gladiator is undeniably stonkingly good, but Maximus is hardly your average solider. The Last Duel takes the historical genre in a very unusual, very topical, and very welcome direction. It's almost enough to make me forgive Ridley Scott for that terrible Robin Hood movie.

So yes, Scott is right to be angry that this movie isn't doing well. It's a great film which will no doubt benefit from a re-watch, since I've almost certainly misremembered the details. I'm also adding the original book to my reading list.

All the same, the real reason for cinematic failure is surely because it came out at the time of No Time To Die and Dune, both of which were much more heavily anticipated. Not feckin' smartphones, for heaven's sake. Which just goes to show that even directors making brilliant films about the truth can also, on occasion, also just be Bloody Stupid.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

I'm happy with my Covid passport, thanks

To follow-up on a previous post, Covid passports are now being actually used across Europe. I've been checked a few times in restaurants in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Each time, I felt considerably more comfortable about being in a crowded space knowing that everyone around me had some substantial level of immunological protection. 

So I continue to think this is a very good idea. As was blindingly obvious, checking the passes is not some unbearable burden the hospitality industry would have you believe - it is no burden at all. It takes all of five seconds to check a pass, and virtually every pub, restaurant, nightclub or any public venue involves a much longer interaction with the staff than that anyway. 

Likewise, having seen objections from the industry that "it's not for restaurant owners to ask about the health of their customers", I just think that in the case of a highly contagious and dangerous disease, this is irresponsible lunacy. I mean, so you'd be willing to let someone in and spread the virus around, would you ? Why in the hell would you want to do that ? I'm baffled. Maybe you think that knowing in advance that someone has the disease, i.e. quarantining them once already known is different from not knowing their status ahead of time (innocent until proven guilty and all that), but this is almost literally playing Russian roulette. Knowing that the virus is running rampant, and having easy and affordable access to testing and/or vaccination, it doesn't make any sense to me that you'd rather just take the risk instead.

This is a bit different to the regular case of knowing that any customer might be a potential murderer, which no-one goes around checking pre-emptively. For starters, the number of people actually prepared to murder complete strangers in cold blood is many orders of magnitude smaller than the number with Covid, so the risk/benefit calculation is quite different. Moreover, murders don't propagate exponentially. They don't threaten the entire health system of an entire country. There are legitimate grounds of presuming everyone to be, in a sense, guilty rather than innocent in the case of a highly contagious diseases that they can't directly control - your personal character isn't being criticised, it's just taking a precaution much as you would take similar safety measures against hurricanes or landslides.

Finally, the objection that they somehow threaten personal liberty is pure fantasy - of the kind that J. R. R. Tolkein would have spat on. Covid passports don't contain anything except your immunological status. They are not some mysterious back door into a draconian society in which only government-approved cronies would be allowed to participate, because that idea just doesn't make any sense.

Fortunately this is having the desired effect : vaccination uptake is finally increasing here. Which frankly shows what a bunch of selfish idiots people tend to be. Tell them they should get vaccinated because it will help stop other people dying and they're all whingy about "rights" and "personal liberty" and other made-up excuses - and they are excuses  - but tell them they need it to go to the pub and they're literally queuing down the street.

Likewise, the health sector. The news routinely reports on how people being laid off because they won't get the damn vaccine is going to cause staff shortages, but what they never ask is why these people are even in the health sector at all. I mean, why would you - excepting the small number of medical exemptions - work with vulnerable people you're ostensibly trying to save and not take the five minutes needed to get vaccinated ? Do you actually want to murder them ? I genuinely don't get it.

The Atlantic has a nice overview of Europe's strategies. Generally this seems to be proceeding much as you might expect : people are content to follow the rules, they just won't go out of their way to go any further. The fraction of people yelling about how Covid passports are evil who actually aren't prepared to put up with them is very, very small, because the whole objection is based on nothing whatever of any substance. There is a hardcore of genuine lunatics and misguided ideologues, encompassed by various sorts of hangers-on, people who are generally angry anyway, who tribally associate themselves with others but don't actually believe in the cause... just as the leader of Insulate Britain doesn't want to get his home insulated or some "anti-vaxxers" have indeed been vaccinated. See, the age-old and genuinely important question "lives or liberty" doesn't really apply when your loss of liberty is so minimal as to be essentially fictitious. 

People tend to be armchair bigots and heroes alike. They are happy to rant and rave, and some of them even believe in what they're saying. But the number who are prepared to go much more than waving a placard around is remarkably small. And, sat at home writing a blog, I certainly don't count myself an exception to this by any means.

Some countries are going further than I originally stipulated. The Czech Republic is now saying that you need a vaccine and isn't accepting a negative test as an alternative (with exceptions). Austria is going as far as compulsory vaccination. This is going several steps beyond a mere Covid passport - we now have true vaccine passports and even more. And... I think I'm okay with this.

True, as the Atlantic notes, this may drive polarisation - but my suspicion is that this is true largely or only of the hardcore, who are damn hard to reason with anyway. There isn't much of a rational counter-argument that anyone can come up with against people who would prefer to go to the pub than save their granny. Yes, these people have an important right to protest, but that doesn't mean we have to listen to anything they say. So if harsher measures increase vaccination among the reluctant and/or lazy, and only cause a backfire among a miniscule fraction, that seems all to the good to me. Moreover, we'd had compulsory vaccination for nigh-on 200 years, and it does work. As noted last time, what is required by law is perceived as necessary, whereas what isn't is seen as an optional extra. It is not - if done properly - that people simply cow in fear of the law as Tory ideology dictates. The BBC has a very nice, very detailed piece explaining this. 

This leaves the important question : why aren't passports having more of a direct effect ? In the Czech Republic, they haven't been used much for very long, but in Wales they have - yet case numbers there remain high. My guess is that they don't cover as many holes in the Swiss Cheese model as needed, due to a combination of lack of enforcement and lack of requirements as to where they're required (which Wales has taken steps to address). And of course, they don't stop private gatherings of any kind, nor can they be required for access to essential services. 

Does that matter ? Yes and no. Clearly they are not a silver bullet. If not properly used they can give a false sense of security, just as it's folly to think of vaccines as the only layer of protection needed. We should still be enforcing social distancing, mask wearing, and using home office wherever possible even with vaccine mandates. 

So, we have to temper our expectations of what passports can do. They can't give us total normality back - vaccine and test efficacy isn't high enough for that, and not even the most diehard enthusiast would insist on them being required absolutely everywhere. But they can help in reducing the outbreak while allowing some aspects of ordinary life back. Surely, that makes them worth having.

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Review : The White Ship

A short review because this is not the sort of book which needs a lengthy ramblings.

Charles Spencer's The White Ship is a an excellent little history of the life and times of Henry I, one of England's more forgotten kings. Oddly, we remember William I pretty well - everyone grows up learning about the Battle of Hastings, the Harrowing of the North, the Domesday book, etc., but we aren't told anything at all about what happened next. Which is a shame, because it turns out the answer is "quite a lot, actually".

Spencer's book begins with a brief recap of the Conquest before diving headlong into its main topic. Despite the title, its real focus is very much on Henry. We see him grow from a high-ranking but unimportant teenage noble into the archetype of medieval kingship. There are plenty of interesting diversions along the way, but everything revolves around Henry.

This is very much your traditional sort of history book, concerned almost exclusively with the politics of the high nobility. Ordinary folk don't get much of a look in, at least not with any kind of agency (Diane Purkiss does this much better). Nor does Spencer offer anything of real insight as to why things happened in the way they did (as Dan Jones does excellently), or any analysis of the larger forces at work (e.g. Michael Scott). And he doesn't much mention how reliable the narrative is given limited evidence, something Marc Morris deftly made into an intriguing virtue when considering the Conquest itself in more detail. As for rhetoric, Spencer doesn't hold a candle to the magisterial Tom Holland.

And yet... crucially, Spencer doesn't try and do any of those things. He plays to his strengths, presenting a complex saga of innumerable characters in a clear, concise, yet lively and vivid way. What could have become enormously and tediously confusing is instead rendered as a lucid, page-turning adventure story, full of shock plot twists and complex, multi-dimensional characters. The result is an absolute gem of a little book - a brilliantly told tale that deserves to be better known. "Game of Thrones but in real life", says a cover quote. That it surely is, despite the War of the Roses being well-known as one of the inspirations for George R. R. Martin's tale. A screen adaptation would easily have all the elements needed for grand success : epic battles, struggles, villains, betrayal, blood... and sex all over the place.

I give the book an extra point because it does something elemental that most historians forget : bibliographic notes are at the back, additional points of interest are footnotes at the bottom of the page. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to have these mixed at the back, so you have to keep flipping to see if there's anything interesting worth reading when 90% of the time there isn't. Big kudos to the author on that one.

I have to withdraw a point, however, because the book is too short. Unfortunately, this isn't because it's just so well written that I wanted it to be longer, but because it genuinely ends too early. Though concise, the life of Henry I is described in some detail. We get a wonderful picture of Henry as a complex man, a battle-hardened promiscuous warrior but who was also concerned with learning. He even created the Exchequer, so-called because the original accounting was done on a giant checkerboard-painted table as a mathematical counting aid (Spencer isn't afraid to have lengthy diversions where necessary, and handles these well). We see Henry's turbulent life in all its rich details as his fortunes waxed and waned, from his obscurity to gradual, grinding triumph as he beat his many enemies into submission with military force and genuinely clever diplomacy. All this is very well done.

After the sinking of the White Ship, a disaster which cost Henry dearly at the height of his power, the narrative continues as he struggled - successfully - to claw his way back to dominance. Most rulers simultaneously suffering the sudden loss of all their most important supporters and their only heir would be flattened, but not Henry. Sheer force of will seemed to see him avoid becoming yet another tragic failure, ending the last 15 years of his reign apparently secure that his daughter Matilda would become England's first sovereign Queen.

It's the bit after Henry's death I take issue with. While you couldn't quite say Spencer glosses over the Anarchy, his description is far too short. Though he doesn't offer any of the sort of general trends that other authors identify, in most of the book it's at least very clear why specific events happened the way they did. Not so in this final quarter or so. It feels a bit like he had a word or page limit, and really this section should have been at least twice as long. Quite honestly I'd have been happier if the whole book at been doubled in length, but even another 50 pages or so would have done wonders. In particular, Matilda's retreat from England is never explained, which seems a bit like saying that the Spanish Armada was defeated without bothering to mention why.

This oddity aside, the book is excellent. Interesting enough, the author's bio is incredibly short, mentioning only that he worked for NBC. In fact, he's Earl Spencer, younger brother of Princess Diana. Well, regardless of the shenanigans of his adopted family, he's an excellent writer, and I'll certainly look out for his other books. 

Overall I give this one 8/10. It's great, albeit too short, de facto sequel to Marc Morris' Conquest, which I would recommend reading first. But where Morris brings new life, important details and uncertainties to an often-told tale, Spencer unearths an undeservedly forgotten and under-rated king. Conquest was a much-needed retelling, but for me at least, The White Ship is a whole new story.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

The Godless Gaps

I wouldn't normally bother commenting on articles about cosmology and God, but this one is written by the inestimable actual cosmologist Ethan Siegel, so I'll make an exception.

My broad take is that science is in some ways agnostic and other ways antitheistic. Science presumes that observable natural phenomena can in essence explain themselves, that we can discover the mechanisms at work that explain the observable world through observation and testing. Following on from the previous post about knowledge, proposed explanatory mechanisms gradually transmute into observable facts. What begin as untestable or even apparently unknowable ideas are slowly brought into the realm of direct observation. 

For example, atoms were once just a purely philosophical speculation - no-one had any idea of their size, still less if they could ever be measured. There was nothing much of a physical, observational reason to suggest them at all. Later they became a more detailed theoretical construct that helped explain specific observations and made testable predictions, but only in recent years have they themselves become directly observable. The shape of the Earth underwent a similar change, as did the existence of the planet Neptune, evolution and the Big Bang - albeit with rather more uncertainty still hanging over that last one.

Obviously not everything has undergone this full process, or science and philosophy alike would be dead in the cold earth. Gravity has transitioned from being able to explain existing observations to being testable experimentally through interplanetary probes, but that which causes gravity is not yet a direct observable. Particle physics also has reached a stage where testing ever-smaller scales is becoming impossible with currently technology. Past developments might caution us not to assume that such capabilities will be forever inaccessible, so we might perhaps be more charitable to string theory and the like : just because it might take phenomenal energies to test is no real grounds to doubting its validity, only its experimental verifiability. 

At the same time, it might indeed be fundamentally impossible to directly observe the "fabric" of spacetime. Nothing is cut and dried. There might, perhaps, always be gaps.

Science has to presume that those gaps are not, however, the realm of God. It presumes that there must always be another aspect to reality that we have not yet discovered or interpreted correctly, such that observable phenomena are ultimately able to explain themselves. The difficulties posed by competing models and alternative interpretations only indicate that a subject has not yet reached the stage where it can be subject to direct observational test, but there are areas in which this has been achieved. The crystal spheres will not return. The Earth will never be shown to be flat.

So science is strongly antitheistic in this sense. Allow even the slightest possibility that "God did it" and the crack becomes a gaping hole that undermines, if not demolishes, the entire edifice. God could be suggested as the explanation for the tiniest anomaly or the smallest deviation from theory, much as "aliens" are frequently invoked by the less religious. No, where science finds a gap, it has to be content with - and even takes delight in - labelling it as an unknown. It denies that any presently inexplicable phenomena is the work of God.

But this is not the same as denying God itself. Denying each and every specific instance is still not the same as denying the general principle. At last it's time to bring in Ethan :

If you think about it rationally, it makes intuitive sense that something cannot come from nothing. After all, the idea that anything can come from nothing sounds absurd; if it could, it would completely undercut the notion of cause and effect that we so thoroughly experience in our day-to-day lives. The idea of creation ex nihilo, or from nothing, violates our very ideas of common sense.

But our day-to-day experiences are not the sum total of all that there is to the Universe. There are plenty of physical, measurable phenomena that do appear to violate these notions of cause and effect, with the most famous examples occurring in the quantum Universe. As a simple example, we can look at a single radioactive atom. If you had a large number of these atoms, you could predict how much time would need to pass for half of them to decay: that’s the definition of a half-life. For any single atom, however, if you ask, “When will this atom decay?” or, “What will cause this atom to finally decay?” there is no cause-and-effect answer... In fact, there are many interpretations of quantum mechanics — paramount among them the Copenhagen Interpretation — where acausality is a central feature, not a bug, of nature.

To assert that “whatever begins to exist must have a cause” ignores the many, many examples from our quantum reality where — to put it generously — such a statement has not been robustly established. It may be possible that this is the case, but it is anything but certain.

He also makes an interesting link between determinism and causality. Now I believe that everything must have a cause, and that if quantum mechanics says otherwise, this is pointing to some gap in our understanding, some incompleteness (rather than wrongness) in our science. But I'm not sure I'd subscribe to the idea that causality means the Universe is entirely deterministic. And I'm not at all sure how science can robustly accept the idea of acausality, or whether the whole concept of infinite time even makes any sense. That all... doesn't sit right. More on that in a future post, maybe.

Ethan goes on to note that the Big Bang theory does not necessitate a singularity - in fact, inflationary theory forbids it. 

Whereas a Universe filled with matter or radiation will lead back to a singularity, an inflating spacetime cannot. Not just “may not” but cannot lead to a singularity.  Remember, fundamentally, what it means to be an exponential in mathematics... That’s what inflation teaches us: our Universe, for as long as inflation went on, can only get smaller [going backwards in time] but can never reach a size of zero or a time that can be identified as the beginning... To assert that “the Universe began to exist” is completely unsupported, both observationally and theoretically.

Again, as before, a “Universe that came into existence from non-existence” is a possibility, but it is neither proven nor does it negate the other viable possibilities.

So cosmology suggests that the Universe didn't have a beginning, and therefore there is no need for causation to invoke it. And you can hardly have a Creator without a moment of creation. On the other hand, there are many caveats to that : these are theoretical models which hardly have the same rigour as the shape of the Earth, and nothing in them explicitly forbids a creation event. Nothing explicitly says the Universe cannot have begun at a singular point in time but of finite size and other physical conditions, i.e. to begin the same inflationary process as we observe, but with a discontinuity only in time and not in space. But let's push on a bit further first :

 [The necessity of God] is only defensible if you define God as “that which caused the Universe to come into existence from a state of non-existence.” Here are some examples that show why this is absurd.

  • When we simulate a two-dimensional Universe on a computer, did we bring that Universe into existence, and are we, therefore, the God(s) of that Universe? 

  • If the Universe’s inflationary state arose from a pre-existing state, then is the state that gave rise to inflation the God of our Universe? 

  • And if there is a random quantum fluctuation that caused inflation to end and the hot Big Bang — the Universe as we know it — to begin, is that random process equivalent to God?

Although there would likely be some who argue in the affirmative, that hardly sounds like the all-powerful, omniscient, omnipotent being that we normally envision when we talk about God. If the first two premises are true, and they have not been established or proven to be true, then all we can say is that the Universe has a cause; not that that cause is God.

Here I must disagree, because I would be one to argue in the affirmative - in fact I find it strange that anyone would argue otherwise. If I create a simulated Universe, how am I not that Universe's version of a God ? I am omnipotent with regards to that simulation. With respect to that simulation, I have all the supernatural powers of a God - I can even be regarded as eternal, since I can alter the flow of time in that "universe". True, in my world I will age and die, but that's not the case from the perspective of any entities inhabiting my simulation - and for them that's all that matters. To them, I have characteristics which are literally and fundamentally beyond their comprehension or imagination.

Likewise, I think it's perfectly valid to describe the cause of the Universe as God. That argument is discussed at length in both Spinoza and the Upanishads. The definition of God needn't be confined to a traditional Western version. One version of God not as a moralistic beardy busybody but as a prime mover is that God is the solution to the infinite, the ultimate and final cause, the unknowable solution to the mystery of inescapable discontinuities. E.g., God is that which can create itself, or what causes eternal existence. Such concepts are ungraspable by the human mind, which God, by definition, is beyond. Personally I like this conception of God very much (which is not to go so far as to say I agree with it, mind you).

To return to Ethan :

In any scientific endeavour, you absolutely cannot begin from the conclusion you hope to reach and work backward from there. That is antithetical to any knowledge-seeking enterprise to assume the answer ahead of time... In particular, you cannot posit an unprovable assertion and then claim you have “proved” the existence of something by deductive reasoning. If you cannot prove the premise, all logical reasoning predicated upon that premise is unsubstantiated.

It remains possible that the Universe does, at all levels, obey the intuitive rule of cause-and-effect, although the possibility of a fundamentally acausal, indeterminate, random Universe remains in play (and, arguably, preferred) as well. It is possible that the Universe did have a beginning to its existence, although that has by no means been established beyond any sort of reasonable scientific doubt. And if both of those things are true, then the Universe’s existence would have a cause, and that cause may be (but isn’t necessarily) something we can identify with God. However, possible does not equate to proof. 

While I think science is antitheist in presumption, I think it is equally important that it be agnostic in potential. It should by default assume that God is not the answer. But if it rejects any possibility of God whatsoever, saying that God cannot exist because everything is physics, then that is circular and unscientific - just as it would be equally unscientific to use God as an explanation for everything.

It is quite sensible in everyday life to reason by induction and inference, to assume that patterns hold beyond their initial observations : lions are dangerous, therefore other animals with sharp teeth can also be assumed to be dangerous. But we would be wrong to hold this as proof. We would ordinarily be quite prepared to have our ideas subject to revision by new data. With any mystery, science should seek an explanation other than God, and indeed should reject the possibility that the answer is God... unless there is active evidence to the contrary. If a miracle-working deity descends from the clouds, at some point it becomes pretty silly to reject the possibility that it is in fact a divine supernatural being.

But is this notion of a Prime Mover just another sort of gap - the kind that science is forbidden from filling with God ? I would argue no. Where there are gaps in knowledge, such as not knowing if the hypothesised Planet Nine exists, science cannot invoke God. But here we have a gap of an altogether different kind, one that is arguably unavoidable : a gap unbridgeable by human thought. Can anyone ever comprehend a timeless or infinite existence ? No. It is not a matter of increased computational power, but something of the most fundamental kind of impossibility.

Just as the beings in my own personal simulated Universe couldn't understand my reality, so we could not understand God. This means the possibility of a simulator-like God is not impossible but rather reinforces the point that there is no reason to expect the simulation to be anything much like our observable reality. This is true even in our own simulations : we render them in a way that looks familiar, but the actual mechanics of what's happening in the computer - electrons moving around inside a chip - bears no resemblance to, say, the motion of a gas cloud or the fluid dynamics of an ocean. So our simulator God would be no less supernatural, after a fashion, than our traditional divinity - even if from the perspective of God itself, God is nothing very special. God might be a sort-of glorified computer programmer, yes, but this is to misunderstand the differences between a simulation and reality. God might well also be something utterly incomprehensible to us. Nothing about observable reality can give us any clue either way, unless God itself decides to intervene.

Science, then, is often antitheist but it is also profoundly agnostic. And perhaps most importantly of all, it should be apatheistic - to the unbiased observer, it does not matter if the evidence indicates a divine entity or otherwise. Whether God is the fundamental cause of two atoms colliding does not matter when it comes to understanding the mechanics of the collision. For science, God is not dead, just irrelevant.

Monday, 15 November 2021

I Know What You Knew Last Summer

Here's a nice Aeon piece about another favourite philosophical conundrum : what is knowledge ?

There would seem to be two broad aspects to this : how we actually evaluate data and how we should evaluate data. Like it or not, we tend to let emotions and a host of biases influence how we respond to new information, which makes it extremely important in deciding what's the correct, rational approach that our biases are obscuring.

Science posits at least a partial answer to the latter. Facts, at least, are relatively easy in the scientific world view. Facts are that which is established by repeat observations by multiple independent observers that give consistency using different observational methods. The more of those criteria you meet, the more secure your data point. At a purely practical level, above some threshold it makes sense to accept some things as hard, certain facts. True, measurements always have instrumental and fundamental limitations, but for everyday life it's often perfectly safe to drop this and use "certain" when we really mean "as confident as we can ever be".

Models, though, that’s where it gets tricky. It’s under-appreciated that wrong models can still get highly specific details right  And even where they appear to be wrong, sometimes this can only be due to a host of implicit assumptions that were overlooked. So while one can apply the same basic conditions of truth to models as one can to facts, the evaluation is always more difficult. Consistency with one model does not automatically imply inconsistency with another.

But, while nothing can be absolutely certain in the strictest philosophical sense, once we accept some common, practical restrictions as to what we mean by “knowledge”, a kind of certainty can be happily recovered. And this applies to models too, e.g. the shape of the Earth makes testable predictions and can be legitimately described as both model and fact. While I like very much the analogy described here that a model posits explanatory mechanisms which are unknown or even unknowable, with science only concerning itself with purely measurable phenomena, this is not always true. It's an extremely appropriate analogy for forefront, novel research, but it doesn't work well at all for more established findings. You can't really say that atoms are uncertain anymore, or that evolution is just an idea. Those models are also things we can say we know are true, within any useful definition of knowledge.

But... who has to know things ? There things get even more difficult. I always like the health warnings along the lines "it is known to the State of California that this chemical causes cancer", as though there were something extraordinarily special about California that was beyond the ken of mortal men. Clearly, California is not the fount of all knowledge. Here we come into a headlong crash as to who and what we can trust :

There is the larger question of what justifies our beliefs, and there is the narrower question about how justification factors into the life of a thinking, enquiring person. For internalists in epistemology, my belief cannot be justified unless its justifier can somehow be appreciated by me. Externalists deny this; they say I can have a justified belief even if I can’t check whatever makes it credible. 
Is this an academic debate? Absolutely, but I don’t think it’s merely academic. True, you’re unlikely to learn about internalism and externalism unless you’re taking upper-level philosophy courses. Nevertheless, what’s up for grabs are rival conceptions of ourselves as knowers and enquirers, and which conception will take precedence in the theory of knowledge. When we ask the hard questions about our fallible intellects, where should we start? What’s our foundational picture?

Perhaps these question deserve better outreach ? More simply put, the question would appear to be, "can I trust an expert in a field I myself don't understand ?". My answer to which is "no, never completely, but always more than I can trust my own assessment." Of course, deciding that they're an expert in the first place raises a whole other layer of difficulty. So how do we get at some basic, hard level of knowledge with which we might judge this ?

Some aspects of this appear to be quite silly :

I have a justified belief about where my dog is because I had an experience reminiscent of the sounds of her feet. And the experiences themselves need no justification, since they are, as the philosopher Roderick Chisholm put it in 1966, self-presenting. They make themselves known. And how could they not? What could be more luminous and manifest than conscious experience?

Well, opinions differ. Wilfrid Sellars articulated a lasting difficulty for the self-presentation idea: raw experience isn’t fit to justify...  If you ask me: ‘What reason do you have to think your dog is nearby?’ what good is it to indicate my unrepeatable, inarticulate inner episodes? What good is a certificate of authenticity that can’t be shown? I couldn’t even cite my experience to myself, because as soon I have the experience, it’s gone.

Seen as how all our perceptions are internal and subjective, this would seem to be utterly daft : you could raise the same objections to literally anything, and have no foundations to any sort of knowledge at all. To build on a recent post, it would seem self-evident that whenever we talk of knowledge, the applicant conditions must involve sensory perception. We cannot possibly talk of knowledge in a framework totally independent of perception, even if perception cannot be all there is to it. 

So, hearing the dog provides good evidence for the presence of a dog, and in ordinary terms that evidence is more than sufficient to constitute knowledge. The chance that we're being deceived in some way is ordinarily so low as to be negligible, and we can ignore this possibility until we have direct evidence that this is the case. Normally we would anyway have perceived that the wider circumstances are the same as usual except for the sound of the dog, so we'd actually have good grounds for believing that no-one is out to trick us. We'd only go around actively worrying about someone trying to fool us with recordings of dog noises if a) we had other reasons to suspect someone, b) we were super paranoid, or of course c) we're in a philosophy class discussing knowledge. Those are the only three possibilities.

Every internalist view, even weaker varieties, says that justification has to be accessible from your perspective. Justification always comes from inside. But what is this accessibility? It’s usually imagined as something you could have from the armchair, reflecting on your thoughts, so if you’re justified in believing anything, you can find that justification here and now by looking within. Reflection becomes the means of justifying your beliefs, and that places a huge burden on the shoulders of reflection. 

...anyone not sufficiently reflective can’t have justified beliefs. We often talk about what very young children know, even before they learn to talk, and we say that our fellow creatures know things too. I might tell you about an eastern phoebe that knows and remembers where her nest is, but can’t tell that one of her nestlings is a cowbird.

Internalism captures the hard rigour of philosophy and science, where proof and argument are the coin of the realm, but when we start taking the credibility of the beliefs of children and nonhuman animals seriously, it comes up short. They typically do not or cannot reflect, so internalism would have us deny that they can have justified beliefs. The externalist says: ‘So much the worse for internalism.’

The argument here isn't quite clear to me as to whether the author means to say that animals do or do not know things. We might fairly say that children, animals and stupid people alike all just have opinions (or unjustified beliefs), not knowledge. As do very clever people outside their comfort zone too, or perhaps only very weak justification. Correlation isn't causation, but correlation does provide evidence - it's just not the whole story. Only a belief having sufficiently rigorous justification might count as knowledge, but we needn't have certainty in all things in order to act. A songbird doesn't need the same qualitative kind of knowledge as an architect to build a nest. It isn't really necessary to say that a child "knows" the Earth goes around the Sun for them to be able to repeat it parrot-fashion; their knowledge is at best crude compared to a qualified astronomer, and more akin to an opinion - it just happens in this case to be correct.

The article goes on to an alternative method of justification :

You can form justified beliefs based on what you see while having no insight into how vision works, or even into the overall reliability of your visual system. For reliabilism, justification flows from the reliability of the process, not its accessibility to consciousness. Hence, reliabilism is an externalist theory, not internalist.

Without the burden of accessibility, externalism can account for the credibility of non-reflective thinkers, such as birds, dogs and toddlers. Frank Ramsey once compared beliefs to maps, so if we model thinking on the production of and navigation by inner maps, it makes sense why we would bring our fellow creatures into the fold. Every thinking thing needs to find its way through environments where the locations of food, friends and enemies can change. So when we’re thinking about credibility and justification for the beliefs of such creatures, we’re interested in what it takes for those creatures to succeed. They need senses that put them in contact with the world. They need reliable processes to lean on.

These two proposals don't appear to be so at odds to me. I, as I thinking being, can form conclusions and beliefs based on pure correlation - I will have rather weakly justified opinions, but opinions nonetheless. If the correlation is very good, with a slope close to 1 and a small scatter, my justification is reasonable, however imperfect it may still be. But I can also go a step further and posit explanations for the correlation - in addition to, rather than instead of, considering the degree of reliability, I also reflect on what's going on. Reliability would appear to be one possible aspect of justification, not a fully-fledged alternative to it.

Another internalist argument has given externalists more trouble... In the first story, you use the certificate to make a decision, and it gets you what you wanted. In the unhappy version, you use the certificate to make a decision, exactly as before, but it goes wrong due to no fault of your own...  If you made the right call in the happy case, then you made the right call in the unhappy case. Externalists have struggled to explain why my beliefs in the good and bad cases seem to be on equal footing. 

Which recalls the famous Picard quote : "It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life." You can correctly evaluate data, but if that data itself is flawed, so will be your conclusion. This would seem to be equally problematic in this "internalist" view as well, because ultimately all external data is evaluated and interpreted internally. You can't form a conclusion from pure reflection because you'd have nothing to reflect on. 

So would knowledge count as knowledge if it was later disproved ? I guess not. All we can decide on is the best method of evaluating information, not the Absolute nature of reality itself. Every finding, in the strictest sense, is provisional, even if many are so firmly established that questioning them would be insane. You can evaluate information correctly and still reach a wrong conclusion - there is only better and worse, not true or false, which are really linguistic conveniences rather than being Really True.

Ultimately, the only way to verify anything is with more data. There is no system of knowledge in which you're constantly and consistently deceived in which you can magically reason your way to the truth. Descartes couldn't possibly overcome his evil demon through thought alone - he would need to peek behind the curtain, so to speak. 

Likewise, if you want expert-level knowledge for yourself, the only surefire way is to actually become an expert. Most of the time, most of us have to make do with something lesser, placing trust in those who seem somehow competent and trustworthy. What we can all do, however, is to do a minimum level of investigation to check if basic things that distant experts are saying is verifiable and sensible. If you can't make it to becoming an expert, or even an amateur, at least do some basic checking besides evaluating personality and character. At least try to do as much as you can. If you don't do this - if you place your faith in an "expert" purely on the basis that you like what they're saying, or even worse because you think they're a nice person with good hair, then you can still have an opinion, but it risks being worse than merely wrong. In all probability, it won't even be valid at all.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Making Meta Beta Feta Data

I put down a few thoughts on Facebooks' "Metaverse" project back when it was announced, but given that they're really going all-in on this lately, I think I'll jot down a few more. For this, I watched the keynote speech by developer John Carmack at Facebook Connect and read a transcript (because I honestly can't stand the sight of his ugly head) of an interview with Zuckerberg.

I'm at least as conflicted about this as I am about billionaires funding space travel. Human space fight is an intrinsically and highly valuable experience and I'm convinced we should be supporting this as much as possible, over and above robotic probes. The recent race for re-usable rockets has done more for this than any government projects since the Apollo era, the hopelessly expensive Shuttle project notwithstanding. All the same, this doesn't mean that the leading proponents of this aren't generally a bunch of self-entitled, exploitative, profit-mongering jerks. It is a great and bitter shame to me that these people have tainted what should be an inspirational and unifying human endeavour, something that we should see as a goal of improving life for all of us on Earth, not to allow some elitist twats to try and escape it.

Facebook's VR project is even worse. The company is, simply put, a bag of dicks, and Mark Zuckerbot has all the empathic awareness of a mad robot hell bent - literally - on world domination. Yet I love their Oculus products and use my Quest headset on an almost daily basis. I am... conflicted.

Let's start with the practical aspects. The "metaverse" is not a great name, but it is adequate. It appears to refer to this blending of multiple realities : the ordinary real world, the purely virtual world, and the use of augmented reality to combine the two. The idea appears to be that these new, virtual worlds would become as integral to daily life as the conventional world of flesh and stone. So I'm fine with the name, despite the inevitable deluge of hilarious memes.

Even Facebook is not so ambitious as to think it could dominate every aspect of this metaverse, and is even proclaiming that it doesn't want anything like a walled garden - but it does want to become a key player in it. Still, is this goal even achievable, or desirable ? The timing of Facebook's announcements is certainly more than coincidence given recent scrutiny, but this does not mean it's a doomed gimmick - not by a long shot.

I like very much Carmack's analogy of mobile phones. He made this comparison for two reasons. First, that practically, mobile phones have become highly successful and replaced a slew of different devices. Access to a metaverse could potentially offer similarly staggeringly profitable benefits, but I'll get back to that in a moment. Second, he notes that there are plenty of lapsed VR users, who bought a headset but rarely or never used it - a phenomenon not seen in phones*. So to some users, the device effectively has negative value : they already have it, they paid money for it, but they're actively choosing not to use it. Clearly that has to change for a metaverse to become feasible.

* Carmack is worth listening to, I think - he's quite honest about the practical problems, even if he does seem to buy into the "only connect !" mantra.

I think mobile phones are an excellent analogy for another reason : thresholds of convenience. We had mobile phones back in the 1980s, but hardly anyone had one. They were large, cumbersome, expensive, silly executive toys. I don't doubt they added value to their users, but that came with such high non-financial costs that their eventual explosion as a market wasn't at all obvious or inevitable.

An anecdote may help illustrate this further. When I was ~12 I remember reading a technology magazine that boldly predicted we'd eventually all have mobile phones. The magazine depicted them, rather oddly, as pendants we would wear everywhere, though we might have to move in range of antennas in order to make an actual call : outside of this they'd be no more than pagers. And I remember thinking that the magazine's depiction of someone making a phone call on the beach was very silly - who in the world would want a call on the beach ? Ridiculous ! Likewise, no-one seemed to predict the success of text messaging : why would anyone prefer this to an actual conversation ?

So I'm wary of claims the metaverse will add the necessary value Facebook thinks it will. It might just be a silly gimmick, this is entirely possible. All the same, it might succeed. It would be foolish to dismiss this possibility based on the limitations of current headsets or past 3D flops like cinematic movies (in particular, the latter are a qualitatively different experience than true VR).

Hence, thresholds are key. Carmack notes that once the Oculus dropped its price by $100, sales spiked. Likewise I think this applies to convenience too, more than it is about actual functionality. If you could immerse yourself in a 3D world, or augment the real world with 3D, lifelike imagery, as easily as you can currently say, "Hey Google", why wouldn't you ? If wearing the necessary device was no more burdensome than a pair of ordinary spectacles, if you could do this comfortably for the entire day so that its features were available when you needed and could instantly be dismissed when not, why would you choose not to have this ? Why would you choose not to opt in to this larger, enriched world ? To allow both your existing 2D content and a new world of 3D content together however you wished ? It would be like denying yourself access to the entire internet or every public library. Sure, some parts of the internet are best avoided, as are (presumably) some libraries. And some people do indeed choose to avoid both, but their numbers are negligible. The vast majority to not deliberately deprive and disadvantage themselves in such a way.

(Carmack leans toward the software aspect of the VR as being more important for increasing value than hardware. I have some sympathy for this : for myself, the iDaVIE app is almost to the point where I would use VR routinely for work. But for truly mainstream use, I think we're still at the point where hardware needs to improve before developers will be interested in writing programs to use it.)

Of course, these thresholds gloss over a wealth of practicalities : how to make the glasses visually appealing, how to have a long battery life, how to deliver high-end performance, what level of graphical fidelity would be acceptable as a minimum standard, etc. My point is that if you could create such a device, it's hard to see why any ordinary person wouldn't want it. So I do think the metaverse in principle has every shot of going mainstream. We all use smartphones to the extent that making them even more convenient and powerful definitely would add a great deal of additional value, not least in having far more engrossing conversations and fostering more productive collaborations than in primitive Zoom calls. 

I could spell out a rosy vision of an augmented reality lifestyle, where one routinely has 3D calls with distant relatives and gets to experience distant places without the high-energy demands to actually visit them; where one replaces phones, computers and screens in general with a pair of lenses. I could wax lyrical on the utopian possibilities... I think it not outrageous that a metaverse, using data, could even help us making better feta cheese (hence the silly title), or other ordinary activities where the internet doesn't normally come into play. 

In short, just imagine an activity, and try and imagine how augmenting this could help - what you could do if your imagination was as clear as day, and accessible to anyone you chose to share it with. Most activities have possibilities in such a case, I think. Not all by any means, but a hell of a lot.

But alas, this is Facebook, so we all know such grand utopian visions aren't worth dwelling on. I only mention them to point out that there are potentially enormous positive aspects, just as there are with Facebook itself. It would be foolish indeed to pretend there aren't : Facebook wouldn't have so many users were it not doing at least something right. So burying one's head in the sand isn't going to help. Furthermore, while I doubt this sort of system is going mainstream in the next five years, Facebook seems quite determined to plough billions of dollars into this. Even - especially! - if you don't buy in to the benefits, it's worth being at least concerned about the possible next big crisis in social media.

We all know by now that Facebook is horrendous, so I trust I don't need to spell this out for anyone. I do not believe Zuckerberg at all when he claims he's so passionate about social media or fostering connections between people - his company seems to have a single overriding goal in all things, and enriching human existence isn't it*. But at long last it seems the great political blocs have realised that having such huge profiteering being driven and governed by anger-inducing manipulative news feeds isn't a way towards a utopian dream, and have stirred themselves away from the trivial question of whether regulation needs to be employed towards the much more difficult questions of what, how, and how much.

* While interesting, I do not much agree with this piece on how social media doesn't lead to echo chambers or polarisation : yes, by getting people of conflicting views together it does expose that conflict, but it does exactly nothing to help and often clearly makes things worse.

Questions about whether social media companies should be treated as publishers remain difficult, in my opinion. I think of social media as something wholly new, possessing attributes of all sorts of older media together with something radically different. It is neither like someone organising a town hall meeting nor like a postal service delivering a latter. It has aspects of both, coupled with the extraordinary capability of reach fantastically large audiences in an interactive way that is simply impossible elsewise. 

Rather than wondering whether they are publishers or not, we need entirely new terminology - and new regulations to go along with it. Social media has given rise to memes and deepfakes, and this sort of art as communication is only going to get orders of magnitude more common in a metaverse.

Similarly, painting Facebook as a villain, though - and I can't stress this enough - is very, very easy, it may not be all that helpful. Just saying, "don't use it" clearly doesn't work. Profiteering is a fundamentally amoral, not immoral, activity. For this reason the actual metaverse is more likely to be closer to dystopian than utopian (think DRM problems writ large), but that doesn't mean to won't be desirable enough for people not to want it - or indeed to make its use a practical necessity for everyone else. The threshold of quality standards needed to make a profit is not the same as the threshold to ensure everyone has a wonderful time, which appears to be the foundational myth of the free market.

So is the metaverse coming or not ? I lean towards "probably, but not yet". Maybe in five years we might have a high-end device capable of the sort of features needed, but it won't be affordable. My suspicion is that VR will remain something of a niche activity for several more years, though it may well go to console-scale mainstream when it comes to gaming. Among my friends, this is almost the case already (and I've never even interacted with any of them in VR).

Unfortunately this means it's going to have to continue to put up with the usual sort of idiots who criticise anything they themselves can't see the immediate and instantaneous value of. And if VR can't make good on the convenience criteria, then it may well eventually go the way of 3D televisions - the doubters do have a point. But against this, the immersion of VR is just too much fun, the potential for education too great. The doubters aren't so much wrong as they are very narrow-minded. And if we do reach a full metaverse, it won't - most assuredly - just be because the likes of that twit Mark Zuckerberg told us to : it will because we deemed the costs to be worth the genuine value offered. We should be prepared for a much more sophisticated response to this than simple Luddite rejectionism : if it works, we won't be able to put the genie back in the bottle.

The party of law and order

... does not actually care a damn about law and order. An obligatory rant on the current state of Westminster. We've seen how rank-and-f...