Sunday, 25 February 2007

The Daily Mail Said...

The Daily Mail gets a lot of people riled in Britain, and with good reason. It positions itself as a conservative-leaning newspaper, but actually spends much of it's time descending into tabloid-level drivel. They rant about immigration, about the death of Routemaster bus in London (forgetting that the Routemasters were stinky, uncomfortable, loud and not a little dangerous), about the death of some idealised version of Britain that never really existed.

Case in point.

What's curious about this is that they have a comments facility at the bottom of the article, but they don't let all comments through. I suspect in fact that they don't let most comments through, only the ones that mostly support their position, or provide weak-sounding rebuttal that serves to preserve an illusion of strength. It's the same trick that Fox News uses in the US to provide its ironically titled "Fair and Balanced" coverage of conservative issues.

In contrast, the Guardian allows any and all comments through (they only remove those that readers report as offensive). Much of the time you will see as many unflattering responses to an article as flattering in any of their blog posts. This is a great practise to use because it engages the audience and provides some real reaction. It is also why free media inevitably trumps controlled media.

I'm happy that in this world a paper like the Mail can air its viewpoint, but if they mean to start a debate, or even just pick a fight, then they should open their comments to all and let the fight happen. To screen comments is deception. What are they afraid of?

For the record, here's the comment that I posted to them for the article above.
I don't expect it will be published:

"This is a pretty pathetic list of whinges. Buses, disabled people on the telly etc. Please.

There are valid complaints about the state of Britain (The high tax issue, case in point), but to wrap those into "don't let the darkies in to our village" is to actively defeat your own cause without anyone else doing it for you.

Things change. Populations shift, older buses break down, life moves on. This notion that there was some Britain back in the 70s where everything made sense and everyone knew their place is just the stuff of childhood fantasy. Back then there were oil crises, the winter of discontent, actual racism and the IRA.

So a few things have changed along the way. Boo Hoo. So we've come to realise that treating where we live as an environmental tip might not be such a good idea. Oh the horror. So we've come to realise that the country is in fact not entirely middle class white people. Whatever shall we do?"

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Conjuring Sense

So the 9/11 conspiracy seekers have made it all the way to a disparaging documentary on BBC2, which officially places them in the cranks category of the media landscape. And this is good, for the country-sized gaps in their logic, evidence, and willingness to disregard facts that don't fit their narrative is very sad. It makes me think that some people really don't have anything better to do with their days than construct elaborate fantasies.

However, it makes me think about the need for narrative. It's no great revelation that our culture is rife with stories, but what is interesting is our seeming need to construct narratives for ourselves to try and "make sense" of that which is senseless. I see this a lot in my professional and private life.

I've seen friends revise their stories, journalists alter an article, work colleagues try to paint scenarios in different lights and a variety of other events that are essentially narrative building. A corporate CEO might just as easily convince himself that he was destined to run a company, choosing to ignore or re-interpret the fact that he got his MBA due to a lucky break from an academic tutor. Everything must be made to fit our sense of "sense".

So what is "sense"? Narratives are constructed of many parts, with heroes and villains, acts and so on. This structure, however implicit or hidden, creates closure. The hero gets the girl. The bad men are punished. Life always finds a way etc. Closure is the feeling that an issue or question in the mind is fully answered. It then does not bother us any more. We fully understand it.

History is littered with many examples of this instinct in action. As a schoolboy, I was taught a grand narrative of Irish history, which basically laid out a three-act drama of "The Normans invaded, they became the English and brutalised us for 800 years, we kicked them out 1916 ra ra". We were taught the idea of a cycle of revolution that eventually threw of the yoke of oppression, but in reality this narrative is nonsense.

The narrative around World Wars 1 and 2 are likewise turned into the stuff of epics and heroes, Nazis and Holocausts. Many of the events are absolutely true, but the "sense" of them, the closure that they provide, the narrative, is bunkum. In reality life was as complex back then as it appears to be today. We have collectively chosen to forget the parts that don't make sense.

It is therefore a natural response for us to try and create closure where none is apparent. The story of how some guys flew planes into some buildings because they were told to leaves many unanswered questions. It seems to have no great start nor finish, so we construct one. We do it officially, via such documentaries as "The Power of Nightmares", and we do it unofficially, via "Loose Change". TPON has the benefit of proper research, but it is creating the opening of a narrative (of how fundamentalists have come to rule the world), and that gets our emotions involved. LC is almost complete and utter fabrication and deliberate mis-reading, and likewise is trying to breed emotion.

And maybe emotion is what it is all about. Dry accounts of fact do not remain in our memory. Emotions leave great echoes in our minds, but information does not. Maybe our quest for sense, and for narrative, is a quest for a genuine emotion, a sense that the feelings we have are legitimate and right, and we are ourselves heroes after all.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Take a Breath

Now you too can pause in the middle of one of my lengthy blog essays with the power of Dog Ears. Basically, it's a simple doohickey for Firefox which lets you mark a bit of a page to return to later. So you can trawl all my old essays and writings and take a god-damn breath every once in a while. Sweet and neat.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

XYZ for president

One of the defining themes of our times is the death of the idea of a career. Previous generations used to adhere much more to the idea of a long-term job, but in the 80s and subsequent years that idea was undone (probably for the better) by the idea of the entrepreneur. Nowadays this is reflected both at the top of society, such as an actor who gets to be governor of California, and also at the personal level, such as my parents who have both engaged in successful later-career shifts.

Is it good or bad that this is the case? Certainly while it can be liberating for individuals to change their directions, the question of experience comes into it. The profusion of a general management class is a case in point. As part of our society, the manager with the MBA who moves from organisation to organisation is a regular. You meet them wherever you go.

However, a regular complaint filed against the MBA types is that they have no direct experience of the industries that they are called in to manage. The MBA itself is like a gold card into an exclusive club (and it's not easy to attain), but once you're in, well you could go anywhere. You could be managing a paper factory one year, a school the next and car company the year after. The belief pattern among the hirers here is clearly that general project management skills are what matters, while specific field experience don't so much.

Is this the truth? An instinctive part of me thinks that I think hospitals should be run by doctors who have also trained in management, for example, because they will combine both the high level thinking and planning with the low level understanding of what a casualty ward is actually like on a Friday night. They would also likely have a considerably more informed eye toward real quality control rather than target-based control. Experience counts.

The problem with the person who has no front-line experience, but only management, is that they live in the abstract. Many a well-intentioned games producer who has come in from the outside has no real understanding of why some tasks must be undertaken in a certain way owing to the human factors involved, and they tend to fall back on abstraction. Abstraction, or Excel Bingo as I've heard it called, is the mistake of believing too much in numbers without knowing what those numbers mean. Abstraction is what leads to ideas such as the man-month, the measure of code productivity and so forth. (The problem of a manager who is purely from the trenches and has no broader experience is equally as bad by the way, in case anyone thinks I'm advocating a socialist revolution).

In particular, I feel that government has become too generalised. Various secretaries and ministers regularly get shifted around from department to department, often remaining in those positions for less than 2 years at a time. In so doing, the executive branches of government become highly abstracted. In the past, it seems that these departments relied very heavily on their civil service people who, though being highly political in a back-room sort of way, knew their fields in great depth. Those people are now devalued.

A common side effect of Excel Bingo is that it also creates the impression in the mind of the player that they just need to redefine problems to solve them. The impression of numbers comes to matter more than the action that those numbers require. Ultimately, abstraction leads to the impression that only numbers can be trusted, and that a field expert who tells the manager that something simply can't be done based on gut instinct is regarded as not being broad minded enough.

I think that this trend is what led Britain and the US into a variety of political scenarios, up to and including the war in Iraq. When numbers can be manipulated and yet still trusted over the experience of those who have devoted long years in both the pragmatic and the project management, then you have a problem. When a military advisory council is harangued for not casting the problems in a new light - and then blamed for their failure - then you have a problem. Ultimately, in taking the sense of long-term career out of society, we seem to have lost a great deal of respect for wisdom, and it's breeding a considerable quantity of foolishness.

At least that's how it appears to this fool's eyes.

A flowchart of ignorance


If there's anything that illustrates why I think fundamentalist empirical atheism is really in trouble, this is it. It's not that I mind the caricature (I don't really), it's the lack of comprehension that it unintentionally displays. I really don't see how a movement that prides itself on what are frankly primary school-level arguments intends to ever be taken seriously. A better picture would be a far more byzantine one on the left with entries for "politics", "consensus building" and "obtain funding" and other, you know, realities of the scientific community (rather than the fairy story of logic shown above), and on the right, just a big question mark and the sentence "We have no idea what these people do" on the other side.

See, here's what's actually going on: hero building. Lots of the empiricals (I really can't bothered to type "fundamentalist empirical atheists" any more, so "empiricals" it is) are of the opinion that they need a cool story. Every other faith has one, they think, so they need one too. So the story they have is that of a big bang and evolution universe, the facts of which are pretty clear and well understood and mostly provable to at least a consensus level. But the image of how it's presented, with the noble Buddha-like scientist serenely following a path of reason and evidence without a trace of ego through the riddles of the cosmos....

Well that part is just bollox really, and we know it. Plenty of scientists are belligerent, political, passionate kooks, just like everybody else. Many of them are introverts, many of them are all too human in the face of large pay-cheques, many of them are actually half mad and some of them are addicts. Einstein was a great man and a supposed ADHD case, Newton believed in magic, and Turing topped himself. Just like the rest of the world.

So can we please stop with the romanticising of scientists into priests?
It'll only lead to no good.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Death to Gadgets!

No, really.
Death!

The Long Tail and Politics

The Long Tail is the idea that in any market there is a mainstream that buys into key releases and a niche selection of individual interests. Niche buyers in total outweigh mainstreamers, but are disunited. They are therefore ill-served in areas where distribution and available display space are a factor. This applies to, among other things, shops, television channels and video rental. In any market in which the display space is constrained and distribution is expensive, the tendency for a business is to jetison niche buyers or charge them extra to cover the cost.

The upshot of this is that most markets are not ruled by majority interest. They are led by plurality interest. In music there is a vast range of styles and artists, yet all the high street stores tend to carry the same range up front, plus maintain a back catalog of discounted stock and a few also-ran gems, depending on the available space. All of these stores are chasing the coveted 14-22 year old youth market because they are responsive to MTV, charts and their media magazines in a predictable manner, and they are the largest music-buying minority (a plurality).

The result? The actual majority is dis-satisfied with the state of modern music but it doesn't have the unity of interest to throw economic weight to change the status quo. The plurality is reliable but the majority is not. Under the retail scheme, the majority are simply not served. This thinking has recently influenced me a lot when thinking of politics. In British and American politics, plurality also rules.

In Britain, any party seeking to govern generally needs to acquire 35-40% of the vote nationwide. This is because parliament is elected on the "first past the post" system, which is essentially the idea that the candidate with the most votes in his constituency is elected, even if those votes do not constitute a majority. Parliament itself is democratic, but the process of getting there is only partially so. By focussing on the largest plurality, parties get elected, just as when music stores compete, they compete for the largest plurality.

In Britain, the largest plurality is known as "Middle England", and Middle England's priorities are generally fairly conservative and anti-tax. At the rough end is the spectre of the Daily Mail readers, who represent the most ardent ME'ers, but on the soft end, ME largely constitutes the concerns of suburban middle class people. Their concerns are petrol prices, house prices, security and a variety of other issues. They are obsessed with how much tax they are paying largely because they believe that they see nothing back from it, and they can tend toward the isolationist and sovereignty obsessed.

The fact that this plurality is the biggest means that all of the main political parties (except maybe for the SNP) put ME's concerns over everything else. A good example is the health system and the rail system. In Britain, the NHS has popular support across the country, but Middle England, ever obsessed by taxes, wants to know how much it will cost because it believes that it never uses it anyway. The rail system, which surely must rank as simultaneously the most shambolic and expensive in the western world, is a source of daily frustration to millions, but Middle Englanders drive and so have no interest in public money being used to subsidise or fun it. Council tax is hated across the country because of the disparity it creates, but Middle England does not believe that it should pay more because it doesn't see the value of helping degenerated communities. Middle England also believes prison is the only place for criminals and regards social rehabilitation as essentially nonsense.

In the US it seems to be even worse. US politics tend toward the conservative primarily for three reasons. One is the large plurality of the small town middle class, and first-past-the-post voting (Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted into his first term as governor with less than 30% of the vote).

The second is the break-down of states, which creates an elected upper chamber of vastly disproportionate interests. Tens of millions of Californians have two senators, but so do only tens of thousand of Montanans. There are far fewer urban states than there are agrarian ones, but far more people live in the urban areas than they do in the agrarian ones.

The third is the involvement of politicians in administrative positions that they really should not be in, such as electoral commissions to draw boundaries for Congressional seats. This solidifies gerrymandering.

And so on. Politically speaking, this is the result of systems that do not account for the Long Tail. In Britain, the fact is that voter apathy is now very high because voters do not feel that they have the power to initiate change. They don't. Worse, apathy reduces the actual number of votes needed for someone to gain a seat, thereby pandering further to the plurality. In the US, the skewed proportions of the Senate, electoral districts and excessive political involvement in administration creates a divided Congress that most of the country regards as ridiculous (which is why they have such a focus on the Presidency).

What the plurality in the music industry, Middle England and the American Midwest have in common is that they are generally ignorant. That is an awful word to use, but what I mean is that they do not concern themselves with the specifics of the wider world to any great depth because they have no real need to. Neither do many of the smaller social groups. Another trait that they have is that they are easily led. In the US, the Oprah and Martha generation can and do follow what they see on TV and treat it as gospel. In Britain, the irrational obsession with acquiring property (which drives the housing market) is driven by local-level tradition. The music kids buy whatever singles they see in the charts, remaining blissfully unaware of 99.9% of the rest of the musical world.

In business, pandering to a plurality is probably no bad thing. In politics however, it's dangerous to democracy when a smaller group of people can effectively dictate agendas for larger groups. It leads to a devaluing of the swing vote and breeds entrenched positions and entrenched candidates. It also robs political parties of any significant differences from one another and tends to turn campaigning into a theatrical exercise with no substance. Everything becomes about who has the largest base.

This is something that has to change. In the twenty first century, when we have freedom of information and opinion on a grand scale, combined with accessibility to niches that never really existed before now, politics itself is looking more and more anachronistic with every passing year. Politicians are in danger of losing their overall legitimacy, giving way to more serious sedition or even separatist movements as smaller groups grow frustrated with their disenfranchisement.

Being Irish I am of course quite the fan of the single transferable vote, but many feel it is asking too much of an electorate to fill in numbers on a list rather than make their single mark. Another system is that of run-off voting, where voters vote in two or more stages, with eliminations. This seems popular in the world of Pop Idol and Big Brother because it is fairly simple and does lead to majority elected candidates after a fashion. Or we could go for something altogether more dynamic, such as participatory democracy via the web. That only creates a new divide however between the digitally literate and those who are not.

Whichever system is used, the real challenge is gaining the broad popular support that ensures that the same plurality that has been accidentally enfranchised is not then the only voice being asked to approve or disapprove of it. The challenge remains daunting, but for countries to function in the modern world, this writer believes that they can't do it while their political systems do not reflect that world. Long live majorities rather than pluralities.

Guns, Germs and Videogames

Browser based games are the future?

Friday, 9 February 2007

Ya Da dadada Ya Da dadada

I'm off to New York. The Big Apple. The middle of everything. Man-Hat-Tan. I'm pretty excited, posting and packing in a sort of medley of activities while trying to remember the reservations, passports and all the other bits of paper that will take us over yonder. It'll be my sixth visit to the US and my second to NYC, this time with a lady on my arm.

I'm hoping for a combination of fun and relaxation. As many of my friends have remarked lately, I'm sounding a bit glum all around these days, what with the depression and all. Hopefully this break will at least be exactly that: A break.

See you all next week.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

DRM and writers

Taken from coverage of Steve Jobs' wish to rid the music world of DRM.

The thing with DRM and the internet is essentially split on two sides. One is that hardware makers want the world to use their devices as much as possible. The other is that the media owners want to earn some money by actually getting paid. The argument with music in particular is increasingly becoming one of focussing on tangibles instead of media. Just as the freely viewable music video essentially became the driver for the sales of albums, so the cheap (or free if you're inclined to pirate) music files become the driver for sales of concert tickets. Subscription to rental services and such also cover the gap for video, which will likely continue to do well.

My problem is where exactly does this logic go for writers. Once the world has finally cottoned onto e-book readers (and it's only a matter of time) or other similarly handy devices, writers are in real trouble. While book sales afford good money for some, and some are making their way with self-help blogs, news sites, ads and the like (except for successful screenwriters, who can make a fortune), fiction writers in particular look likely to be boned in the new world order. Why?

Well, simply put, there is nothing easier in this world to copy than a text file. Whether it be the Lord of the Rings, Ulysses or Aesop's fables, text is easy peasy to pass around. Tiny file sizes, standard character sets, the works. It's a serious worry for many I would imagine because writers don't tend to spin a lot of income out of performances, nor subscriptions, and information kinda wants to be free. When sitting on a simple-to-use reader, it really will be free. What happens after that?

Any ideas?

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Labels

I have an annoying tech support issue and I find Blogger's help/contact supprt pages impenetrably dense (I just want someone to email to fix something). The problem is this: Some of my labels are not showing up in the sidebar, particularly for my early posts. I had exactly the same problem with American Hate when I set that up a couple of months ago, but it seems to have resolved itself. Does anyone else have the same problem and know what to do about it?

The Mystery of Dogmatic Atheism

I read this article today, which basically makes the case for the idea that consciousness is an illusion, and reasonably interesting. However one quote in partiular grabbed by attention, and it was this:

"The biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul."

I found it ironically funny more than anything else, as it's essentially a dogmatic statement. This is something about the current vogue for an empirical atheism: It often descends into the very dogma that it declares itself opposed to, and so articles on the subject really become attack ads rather than actual debates.

Dogmatic atheism is becoming more and more a reactionary movement rather than a progressive one, and I dislike that every bit as much as reactionary conservatism. Both have one shared trait, which is an absolute refusal to debate on open terms, and instead resort very quickly to pejorative terms and dismissive frames of reference, and so waste everyone's time in a shouting match.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Entrepreneurs and the games industry

A short rambling on why entrepreneurship is good for the games industry. Enjoy

Sunday, 4 February 2007

The Greatest Show on Earth

New post on particleblog today discussing the idea of direction and videogame development.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

The Golden Adonis



The Golden Adonis is my lady Jayne's name for one Mr Caruso. Quite apt don't you think? She maintains that it's purely platonic between them, but I'm not so sure. She spends night after night ogling this modern day king of the one-liners... Should I be scared?

Friday, 2 February 2007

I knew a fella whose name was Joyce

It's the 125th birthday of James Joyce today, and also the 85th anniversary of the publishing of Ulysses. Joyce towers over modern Irish writers in the same way that Shakespeare towers over English playwrights, and Tolkien over fantasy writers. It is hard to escape the orbit of someone who was so fiercely talented and inventive (and also quite a character in his own right, well aware of his own genius etc). There are other great Irish writers of course, but not many of them regularly receive the "greatest novel ever written" accolade from critics. No wonder Roddy Doyle got so pissed off with him eventually.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Mayomi Gone?

So it seems that either Mayomi has completely fallen over, or the site has tempoarily gone off-line. Whichever it is, it shows the real problem with online web apps from small companies. You can never fully trust that their owners won't go out of business, and that can cause tremendous issues. All that being said, I still trust that Google's offerings will remain intact, and I'm becoming quite interested in Zoho's developing suite of applications (especially their forthcoming Notebook application). For the moment, I'm moving my mind-mapping over to bubbl.us instead. Just hope it doesn't go extinct as well.

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