Waste to the Top

Humans are interesting creatures, we are animals that need a certain amount of resources to survive and then again some more resources after that to make life easier, or just less likely to collapse after a trial.

But on the other hand we’re social beings which brings with it a competition innate to nature as much as hunger which drives us to greater social standing. To prove that social standing is important one only has to look at how stress can be measured by how big your house is compared to the houses near to where you live. Think about it for a second, not your house compared to all houses, but your house compared to your immediate neighbours.

So we have this drive to prove ourselves to our peers. That we’re just as good if not better than everyone. This might explain why most people think they’re better than the average for driving, it’s just a part of the whole ego and social standing system.

We also live in a world of terrible waste. I should say, it’s not the natural world that’s wasting, it’s the human world that is using more earths than earths per year and those earths only furnish a tenth of the people with SUV level consumption.

I think that these two things are linked. The passion for proving your place in the social order and the huge amounts of waste. It certainly makes sense that we’re always hitting the upper buffers of what’s available to exploit and never seem to have enough. Because our frail egos depend on having more and proving more. We’ve encouraged this system of waste, with advertising that targets the social climbing “aspiring nature” of consuming products and the way governments want to keep people happy with more and more consumption… this is especially dangerous with energy.

What’s ironic is how egalitarianism has caused some of this. Think about it, in the past if you wanted social stature, you’d fight for it and earn actual titles and patronage or demonstrate piety, politeness or intellect. But when we dismantled all alternative social standing devices to make everyone equal, what we did was leave the last man standing to dominate. That last man of inequality is of course capital. So money and specifically ability to purchase largess becomes the only way to show others your standing. Not to say largess is a new thing, oh lord no, but now it’s pretty much the only thing.

As an environmentalist this is all frightening. And I’d dearly like to think of ways to change the way we talk about and think about the issues of waste.

And I see some movements over the years. More people take pride in recycling, or reusing supermarket bags.

But I think we have to go further, much, much further. Entire nations have to somehow change what national pride is based on and what each person inside considers important for their social position. A full 180 would be using the amount of resources you’re not wasting as a mechanism, you can see these in those letters you might get from your water or gas company comparing your usage to your neighbours.

But that doesn’t have to be only way to show standing. We could get all the ego buffs we ever could want online, the social standing of being the best, most police, most rational debater. Or the most helpful contributor. Or perhaps the best player in Wesnoth. It doesn’t actually have to matter and you don’t need to get really deep philosophically. It only needs to be something you can compete it, something that’s visible to you and your neighbours and if it includes your actual physical neighbours, so much the better!

What do you think? What would you use to show you’re better than everyone else?

The Dictator’s Handbook is Self Falsifying

I’ve been reading “The Dictator’s Handbook” this week, a recommendation from CGP-Grey (youtube) and a damn good one. It’s a description of how people who want power, get power and how they keep it once they have it. I won’t go into the nitty gritty, but suffice to say that it has a lot of good things to say about murdering people to get what you want.

The idea I want to explore in this blog post is using understanding, and “Life the Universe and Everything”. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; in the story we are told:

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory mentioned, which states that this has already happened.

This is why in the story the answer to the question of Life the Universe and Everything is “42”, but that the question itself was unknown. Knowing both question and answer would cause the above self destruction/recreation and it’s imperative that the characters never find out both.

The nature of understanding in that universe is thus that it is not just non-understandable, but deliberately evasive. The rules of the game will change as soon as you know the rules of the game. Not in some god like way of keeping you in the dark deliberately, as if the universe had agency, but because somehow what you know is tied to how things work.

So how does this relate to Dictators?

Well the book is so good at explaining the mechanics of the interpersonal relationships in ruling a country or business that it may change the behaviour of people who have read the book. It may change their behaviour enough to actually make the book’s premise false. Not that it’s false when you haven’t read the book, only that it’s false when you have.

But, this make one giant Saturn sized assumption. That it is possible to change how you act in a certain circumstance given this knowledge. If it’s not changeable, then knowing it doesn’t matter and no amount of self-help or ingenious insights into the human condition will change our society. But the book’s preface is that knowing the rules that rulers rule by can help improve society, so it expects behaviour to be changeable and if is then someone somewhere will figure out how to exploit this new behaviour.

Once you have the sort of second order exploit, you get a very complicated dance between people who understand, people who do not understand and people who want to exploit either group.

Hence the mechanism described in the book will “instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable”. Thanks Douglas Adams.

To drive this idea a bit further. This in my mind creates two quantifiably different types of truth. That which is understandable but unchangeable is solid or foundational truth. Like Mathematics, knowing 2 + 2 = 5 and why doesn’t allow you to change it’s truthfulness. Then there is mutable truth, where knowing how and why something is true allows you to manipulate it into falsity. This is especially true in biological and social sciences where adversarial mechanisms are in constant flux.

What do you think?

Total Aid

In politics, I’m not happy. As the world becomes politically harsher, crueller and more self serving; we hear and see the heart breaking plight of millions of Syrians and others fleeing their war-torn countries.

Someone recently asked me what the difference is between the wars we have today and the First and Second World Wars. Apart from the global nature of the wars, the Syrian war is different because it’s not Total War. This concept involves the participating countries dedicating every part of their military, economic and civic power into fighting the war. This was very different from past wars, where non-combatants didn’t usually get slaughtered, far away factories didn’t get bombed and neutral nations didn’t get invaded for resources.

There’s pressure from both sides of the Atlantic to increase the amount of our country’s power dedicated to fighting Russia, Syria, whoever else. In the name of democracy, or in the name of survival. I’m just not sure it’s helpful for the two western countries doing the least for Syrians to be the ones advocating more violence.

For example. The UK Government is under attack for it’s position that foreign nationals should pay for all National Heath services. Including pregnant women from Syria. At this stage, anyone from Syria can hardly be said to have a country where you could send the bill, anyone who is missing a safe home country should be helped by the health system in the UK and anywhere else in the word. Not just emergency care, but pre-natal and other care too.

Instead of Total War and partial war I’d like to propose the concept of Total Aid and Equivalent Aid. The Later is simply that in times of crisis, we can mobilise our countries to fight, not fight with violence, but fight with compassion. To give everything we have to help, protect, heal and stabilise the people and structures that the crisis is threatening. This doesn’t have to be war, although the Syria crisis prompts me to consider this.

One would imagine us taking in Syrians in large numbers, to take the risk that a rare minority will be criminal or idealogical. Our security and police services ARE strong enough and competent enough to help too and I see no reason they should be missing from a plan for Total Aid. Health care, education, social support and basic structural support can come from all quarters of society, from all classes and all means. Your country needs you, to help another country.

Once mobilised, we our support and teaching would leave many people and their organisational structures able to go back and rebuild (if possible) or relocation and rebuild. It’s easier to rebuild if you have a social structure that’s not torn apart and the friendships and good will created by reaching out and embracing our brother country in whole would lead to better relations even surpassing idealogical and religious tensions.

We would also be leading by example and showing how strong we are that we can help so well and with so much good. Until the crisis is put to bed and the world as a whole can move on.

OK, so maybe you’re not convinced by Total Aid, maybe the troubles in the world could get so great that we need to think about our own lot. For you I offer option two. Equivalent Aid. That is, under agreement, treaty or convention a country will not spend money or take action with military violence without committing the same scale of operating and budget to helping survivors cope with what we have wrought on them.

I’d consider this the bare minimum human effort. The point at which a country goes from being a good country to a bad country. We are far from the point of spending the kinds of trillions on aid that we would have to to meet this target. But if we want to bomb places, if we want to invade things and generally mess up the place. Then we should at least be ready to pay for helping put some of it back together with equal force.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Talking to Friends about things

I have a family who aren’t religious. Some of them might go to church, and if they do, they’ve never mentioned it. Others are spiritual, in that they search for ways to understand the world and try to come to grips with everything through a non-academic social philosophy. This is important for most people, but I think especially important to the poor and working class who quite often see their lives twisted capriciously by unknown forces.

On the other hand, I’m a skeptic. A rationalist who has done a bit of philosophical reading (enough to be embarrassing at least). When I was younger I was much more hard line about my rationalism, anti-god, anti-fairy, anti-mystical thinking. I was righteous as only a neerdy teenager with a degree in wikipedia can be. And it did put a strain on my relationships with family. Although to be honest, most of my family at pretty kind to all sorts of odd thinking and my rationalism didn’t seem mad or anything, just one of many colours available in the pallet of local family philosophies.

As I’ve aged and consumed more understanding about skeptical thinking and pro-social philosophy; the two have often been at an interesting contention. How to be rational enough not to get taken in by gimmicks and snake oil, but social enough not to sneer and demean friends and family who have taken to believe in those things.

Over the years I’ve learned that there is an important factor about humans that is important to understand… we take shortcuts. A lot of them. When I say I believe in science, science based policy or health care, or that I trust the data, this is a shortcut. I haven’t gone into all the data, I haven’t read the papers and done due diligence. I’ve trusted that the network of trust I have between the people involved and the ideas we share is enough that my modest reading with my small contributions in critique is enough to be far more confident than my personal data has any right to make me.

A peer group with a shared set of ideas that embellish trust. That sounds like a tribe, a community of people who have created a in-group. And being part of that in-group makes me feel things, positive things when we socialise and anger when I feel it’s threatened.

But peer in-groups are exactly what my ginseng drinking family and friends have too. Just like me, they take short cuts too. There’s a trust there between the people involved and the understand about how the world works. I might claim that it’s moving away from what is true to what is not true, but that won’t change the social dynamics. And just like me, they will feel good when their ideas are verified and angry when those ideas (or people) are threatened.

So how is it even possible to challenge notion when almost anything you say will result in either anger, frustration or a heavy rolling of eyes? I think it is possible, but only if one focuses on two specific points.

Firstly, the social aspect is important. The closer you are to someone, both physically and kinly, the better the chance is that your reasoning will be seen as helpful and not destructive. Having constructive conversations that aren’t about ourselves being verified as right, but about breaking the ideas down as a social activity between friends and then seeing what results are built back up, can I think go a long way to preserving friendships despite radically different views.

The second is to be stateless. By which I mean, you can’t go riding into battle all kitted out in skeptical pennant banners flying. Your ideas are yours and you shouldn’t stand behind a peer group while trying to discuss a contrary idea. That just turns it into a fight between your self-assigned clans. Which you can’t win, because your tribal leaders aren’t here to make peace or barter terms and you aint no hero ready to let your friendship fall on the sword of truth.

Besides, no one ever changed their mind because someone shouted the truth at them.

What do you think? How do you talk to people with drastically different perspectives?

New Labour

I come from a North English town, a family that strongly supports Labour and a community that believes in traditional Labour values.

The recent turmoil in British politics has me activated. I’ve been thinking about lots of things and people are probably not surprised to hear that I support Corbyn. In the same way that I support Bernie Sanders here in the USA.

But I’m also trying to be critical of all this politics, because Science based Policy is something we desperately need in many places. When Gove started tearing into the education system in the UK, the process was driven by arrogance. The assumption that Gove and friends knew better than any body and were ill prepared to try to experimentally define policy. They didn’t define what results were being sort, have any exit in place for a policy that’s failing and what kind of remuneration is available for policies that fail and leave people worse off.

I’m still very much a socialist in the European sense and I’ll continue to believe that people are mostly good, mostly do better working together and caring for people is not always a bad thing. But I want to be just as critical of socialist policy as I would of neo-liberal policy. I’d like to see that any assumption about what policy might work, might be thought deeply about and all policies not be held quite so inflexibly to heart. Because we might find that it’s just not doing what we think it is.

How strong would we be if we could fail without fear.

Men Need to be Feminists

There are many men who believe that they can not or should not be feminists. That is to say, they believe the movement to bring women’s equality in social, legal and economic forums is a concern that is the responsibility of women. Or some kinder and gentler men believe women would not like men to be mansplaining their issues. Forcing their way into a women’s only club with that self-righteous upright chin of the all knowing men.

But, I believe they are wrong and I will explain my reasoning here.

The goals of feminism is fundamentally a problem of and for men. A society of cultural norms and mores which we as men benefit from, but rarely understand. It’s not the job of women to find our inner demons, our abuses and unkindnesses and explain and then campaign for us to change our ways. No. That wouldn’t and doesn’t work anyway.

Any group of people have their ways of doing things. Their memes, their protocols which have been passed down from father figure to son figure. This is what makes us a social group with tendencies and values which while not strictly true, are often just so. Men are a social group, often with ideas about how things ort to be.

It’s our responsibility as men to be introspective and look critically at these and how they reflect in our actions. Our ways of doing things. We need to understand that we are sometimes and often wrong. Women have told us there is a problem, that they suffer in ways that we don’t recognise. That’s really as far as they can take it. And yet, so far, we have refused to take the baton of responsibility from them and carry out a full audit of our social place and the way we act and treat the people around us.

I believe that some of these ideas that many men hold are the ideas that need to change in order for equality to spring forth. These ideas can’t be changed from the outside by women. Instead they must go through the full process of reflection, where one understands there is a problem, discovery where new ideas that challenge the old are sought and found and then a violent battle between the old and new ideas must take place where both are destroyed in a process that gives birth to new, stronger ideas which are internalised.

It’s this processing of new ideas which I can see happening. Sometimes the new ideas are forged in hatred, the wrong idea at the wrong time and result in a symptomatic backlash against the progress of equality. But while some men find hatred others will find their way to greater enlightenment winning their internal battles. It is the men who find peace and fraternity with the goals of feminism who must not let their hard won ideas rest in their heads, but speak out and actively encourage them in other men. Cheat on the test for their brothers by giving them the answers to their own internal equality exam. Not just for those men, but for women, boys and girls too. So we propagate the best of what we have worked out.

In order for this to work, we need not just women fighting for their rights, but men fighting for their own change and their own social group’s change in attitudes and common ideas. Maybe it will take generations to forget the old ways, to uproot the very deep notions and general practices which often were created back when aggressive sexism was the norm. But they must be removed because they are unjust and it is our backyards that these injustices stem.

We are Men and OUR ideas need to change. Help me challenge them.

NHS Reform & Other Privatisations

With the passing of the NHS reform bill in the UK last week, I’ve been reflecting on the discussion that went on between the conservative supporters and almost everyone else in the country who was deeply worried about any bill which would seem to meddle with a system that was fairly ok and doing quite well.

The frightening proposition is that health in the UK would be privatised. Not just like the system in the USA, but having to possibly pass through a system far worse in order to finally be dragged towards the regulated compromise the Americans have found themselves in.

The point we’re told from conservatives over and over is that capitalism and corporate business practice can bring many efficiency gains to the way health businesses operate. Competition is sighted as a key mechanism to achieving this result. Much needed capital could be found in the private sector and the whole system would be closely monitored to make sure it kept on curing people and setting broken bones.

But, as readers of my blog will know, I’m not really attached to any particular mechanic in achieving what we wish to happen in society. If a privately capitalised, for-profit business which takes it’s organisational strategy from Cadburies really is the best was to set up a hospital, then so be it. But on the other hand if you believe in capitalism in your heart, but not in your head; then one’s politics might be driven towards operational and funding mechanics which might be ill fitting. Politicians who probably aren’t evil or even that naughty, get confused by positive bias and fallacies from popularity and especially group think and persistent ideas.

Really thinking about the simple rules which allow such a mechanic to work well enough to provide all those great examples isn’t simple. Let’s start with a simple rule of markets: ‘Buyer must have the option not to buy’, do we think that health is something we can opt out of? Do we get a choice not to be saved if we’re in an accident and picked up by a private ambulance? That’s the unsettling thing about the USA’s ‘fairer’ health care bill, forcing people to buy products isn’t right there and it wouldn’t be in the UK either.

Here I’d like to slide into a wider concern. Health is something of an important system, without this service the economy would be very quickly loosing people to illness and injury. The pain felt in the USA is not just by individuals, but keenly by companies big and small. They often pay for some or all of the health coverage for all their employees because having employees without health care would be detrimental to their own operation. So clearly some functions are so important, that organising them collectively has great benefits.

Then there’s competition. Is it a good thing? Well the first thing to ask is what competition hopes to achieve. In market terms, competition is a group selection process which hopes to push forward the fitness of each organisation as it strives to out bid other organisations for available resources, other organisations that can not claim enough resources are deemed unfit and are allowed to fail. This system of evolution does require (system-wide) a larger amount of resources to invest. In organisations which will fail and organisations which will perform activities outside of their core function to innovate. It’s a bet on the future which requires a trade off between cost today and expected organisational innovation tomorrow.

But with a system like the NHS, which will always be tightly controlled. Will there be added resources to cope with this new evolutionary requirement? Will there even be the flexibility to change the organisation in such a way as to find new and brilliantly innovative organisational methods?

Then I see we have a combining. If I like the idea of competition, does it follow I have to swallow private capital funding too? So often we fail to be able to articulate well when we’re talking about funding source and the organisation’s market forces. The lack of distinction and separation of the two probably doesn’t allow us to come up with more interesting rules or more innovative funding ideas. Although it’s amazing to think that the Government of a G8 country, can’t seem to put the money together for anything any more.

In conclusion: When the government says they want to privatise a working public service, what they probably mean is: “We don’t have the money to make it better and we don’t trust the current public sector operators to know their job well enough to improve it’s operation.” and not “We have some added cash to turn this inappropriately publicly operated function into a number of well functioning business concerns.”

Burger Analogy

Aaron Toponce has just written a blog post about online services and how he doesn’t view proprietary online services as a problem. The analogy he uses is that of a Burger joint where the meals and service are excellent and all the recipes are trade secretes.

I wanted to take a moment and explain why a Burger fast-food restaurant is a very poor analogy with proprietary online services. I don’t want to go into whether online services are good or bad, as always that’s an exercise for the reader.

What’s the best way to show a bad analogy? Make it look silly: Imagine if eating where like facebook.

  1. Food can only be eaten if you’re with 100 of your friends
  2. Everyone only dines at a single restaurant for their entire lives
  3. You can’t eat at home, because 100 friends wouldn’t fit and they don’t like your cooking anyway
  4. The recipes aren’t just trade secretes*, their copyrighted. Attempting to describe the taste to someone else can get you 10 years in jail under the Diners Millennium Copyright Act.
  5. There is only a single burger place in every country
  6. Because of network effects it operates a total monopoly on what people eat
  7. The service is tailored for the lowest common denominator
  8. And it poisons every customer because it can effectively leverage it’s size with the FDA.
  9. Half of your friends you eat with every day constantly want you to play the burger game and do so by kicking you in the shin under the table.

These are just some of the silly results that come out of trying to fit the idea of ‘restaurant’ into the idea of ‘software on the Internet’ there could be more.

I think my point here is that proprietary software, including proprietary services are anti-social. Not just rude, when taking into account the network effects. With monopoly mechanics we end up with systems which control us instead of the other way round and the only solution we’ve found as a society to extract ourselves from tar-babies like Facebook and those that came before is a total and aggressive cultural shift from one product to another. A revolution where your job is to convince your friends and family to stop using MySpace.

It’s tiring being a revolutionary for a corporation.

Ultimately I resent being required to use certain products and I resent having to resent my friends and family because they’re using certain high network effect internet-garden-esk services and require me to join them. I shouldn’t need to feel that way and no company should be allowed to insert itself into society in such a way as to make the choice between freedom and friendship an either-or proposition.


* Ironically recipes can’t be copyrighted, they’re public domain as soon as they’re published. Embellishments and prose can be though, so don’t go copying recipe books with copy and paste.

What to do about Moral Uncertainty

We human beings can be wrong; in fact we’re more likely to be wrong than right because we do not have the ability to know everything. The problems we have with this limited knowledge is that it leads us to think we’re mostly right almost all of the time. (go watch the video linked, it’s really good)

And as Kathryn explains in the video above, even when we’re wrong, it feels just like we are right until we have the realisation of being wrong and then the shame and emotional trauma begins… So what to do with morality? That most important of personal philosophies that helps us decide how to treat our fellow human beings. The very ether that bases interaction and decider of trust and reciprocation?

I attempt to accept the fallibility of the data I have available. I do my best with what I know so far and attempt in every way to be defensive about causing harm. This defensive stance requires that I trust a set of moral beliefs which I may not be able to thoroughly prove before I act on them.

For example I support Free Software. For me it’s a moral choice, to deny users ownership is morally bankrupt in my current world view. Of course I could be wrong; it may be that denying users ownership doesn’t actually harm them in any significant way. At which point my assumptions about the moral vanguard of Free Software would in and of itself be wrong and wasteful.

I have some data to guide me in making my decision though, it’s not all guesswork. Personally experiences have shaped how I see code, my socialist roots teach me that the working-class should politically resist further rents and propriety, whether from housing, tools or software. My views on liberty push me towards any system that breaks down large centralised organisation and authoritisation and towards distributism.

With those feelings I can make my conclusions, but of course these are not the kind of experiences that most people have to guide them. So what do I conclude? If you’ve watched the video you should see that assuming other people who come to different conclusions are ignorant, stupid or malevolent isn’t quite the best way to approach interaction with other human beings.

So talking more about Free and Open Source with most people really allows me to challenge my own conclusions as much s I try and educate and help other people further their understanding.

Your thoughts?

Video: Why Free Software Matters

This is my response to some very good comments on my last video entry which I felt should be addressed with another vlog entry.

I’ve attempted to explain why Free Software is politically important, as much as open source is important to creators; we must be supportive of Free Software for user reasons and not just consider our own hacker culture issues.

Video Problems: Go directly to the video on blip.tv here and download the source mp4 here.

Personal: The reason for begging your indulgence with the video blogs is that I’m inspired to practice my speaking skills in order to further eliminate my stammer. From a young age I was bullied and called names and I have gotten much better since, but seeing The Kings Speech really brought it all back for me.