22 December 2007

Blair's Conversion

What's the problem with Blair becoming a Catholic?

Some people have problems with Catholicism, either with the church policies, or with doctrinal questions, or with the notion of a political leader of one country being under the authority of a religious leader in another. But only a few people; not enough to matter.

Some people have problems with religion itself. But only a few people, indeed I suspect a majority of British politicians would confess one denomination or another.

Some people have problems with the fact that Blair, as Prime Minister, apparently had some kind of informal attachment to the Catholic Church, without making it public or official. Now we are getting closer to the issue, but by political standards of hypocrisy, this is still very minor stuff.

The real problem for the British is that to take religion so seriously that one would change denomination is just icky. It's OK to have a religion, but, as with a sausage, one shouldn't care or take too much notice of what's in it. That makes people uncomfortable. Part of that is a reasoned objection to the sort of behaviour that might result from taking religion seriously, but I think mostly it's just that worrying about the details of religion is in bad taste.

Even atheism is frowned on for the same reason. I previously held that one who does not positively believe in some specific idea of God should be considered an atheist, since they are not a theist. But I was wrong. The British distrust declared atheists, because atheists take religion too seriously. It's like being vegan, only worse -- there are, arguably, immediate practical justifications for veganism, but there is no practical justification for involving oneself in the details of religion to the extent necessary to call oneself an atheist. It is much more decent to just go along with whatever public aspects of religion fit one's social activities, while utterly ignoring any inner content, like everyone else does.

I've been moving in this direction a long time, but I think now I better understand why. I will in future be vaguely non-committal about my religion, because anything else shows poor taste.

15 December 2007

Climate Controversy

I'm really worried about the possibility I'm deluding myself about climate. I see something like this, and I'm so certain that it's basically correct.

I don't think there's another case of new science shooting so rapidly into politics that scientific conventions have huge political relevance. Nor do we have new research being shoved into school syllabuses within two or three years.

This immature science is being accelerated in this unprecedented way for political reasons, and I feel justified in opposing it for political reasons.

On top of that, there's the group effects. Like Pauline Kael allegedly not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon, I don't know anyone who believes the full orthodox media view of climate change. That's not entirely true, but the exceptions are people who I wouldn't believe if they told me it was raining, never mind what the weather will be in 50 years.

I tell myself that for every one of these people, there are several equally qualified who disagree; I know that there is dishonesty on the sceptic side as well as the alarmist side, I am fully aware of my own political bias, and yet I'm still not even able to take seriously the proposition that the argument is settled.

I reckon I'm in the top 1% for intelligence, and I certainly know a thing or two about computer modelling, but what possible basis can I have for the conviction that I am right and a whole lot of experts are wrong? I don't even have a degree in a physical science.

At least this isn't some metaphysical question. The issue is likely to be resolved in my lifetime, one way or the other. I'm looking forward to it.

Democracy and Entertainment

Yesterday's bit on the greater resources of television current affairs departments compared with political parties was more of a question than an answer. I'll try to work out what it means.

There are a few caveats:

  • The money that is spent on news programming includes things like studios and cameras as well as developing the content to put on them.
  • MPs get paid by the government, which is extra resource to the parties not counted in their budgets.
  • The civil service plays a role in developing policies for the ruling party.
  • Political parties have an incentive to be vague about policy, whereas media organisations can afford to be more specific and clearer - they gain more by being provocative than by being right.

Nonetheless, I still think that Channel 4's policy on higher education is the product of more research and investment than went into the Labour party's. MPs are paid to be MPs, not to develop policy, and the civil service has its own goals and constraints and is not under the control of the Labour party.

What does this mean?

First, I should be less sceptical than I have been about the "power of the media". I have always felt that, since the media is constrained to doing what gets it audience, its independent influence on policy is small. However, if what it needs to do is to provide some alternative policy with which to challenge politicians, but it has relative freedom to choose which alternative to develop, then its independent influence is greater than I thought.

Next, why is it the case that we (as a society) invest more in reporting politics than we do in politics itself. Either something is seriously screwy, or we value politics as entertainment more than as a way of controlling government. Or both.

I think it's quite clear that the population does treat politics mostly as entertainment. The resemblance between Question Time and Never Mind the Buzzcocks is too close to ignore. If someone arrived from another planet and had to work out which of the two concerns how the country is governed, I think they might find it tricky. (I think they get similar numbers of viewers). There are even hybrids like Have I Got News For You to make it more difficult still.

Further, I think voters are correct to see politics primarily as entertainment. Since my attempt to construct an argument that voting could have a non-negligible probability of affecting an election - the infamous correlation dodge - died a logical death, I am left with the usual reasons for voting - primarily how doing it makes me feel. Those reasons apply equally well to voting for Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing.

In conclusion, I think our system of government is one which selects leaders and policies as a byproduct of the entertainment industry. This might not be a bad thing: the traditional alternative is to select leaders and policies as a byproduct of the defense industry, which I don't think is obviously superior.

Basra Update

I'm paying close attention to how Basra develops, not because I have a particular strong opinion on it, but because I don't. I can make suggestions and interpretations, and wait and see if things turn out in a way that makes sense.

The lastest article from the BBC says that two thirds of residents of Basra city interviewed in a survey overwhelmingly think that things will improve when British troops leave the province.

"The majority of those questioned felt that once provincial control was handed over to local Iraqi security forces, the security situation would begin to improve."

The problem is that I don't know why they think this. Do they think that local security forces will have greater legitimacy when not attached to occupying foreign troops, and will therefore be able to keep order more effectively? Or do they think that the security forces will act more competently without the influence of the outsiders? Or, conversely, do they think that local security forces will become irrelevant without the British Army behind them, and that other organisations will take over responsibility for security, and do a better job of it? That wasn't asked in the survey (full pdf is linked from newsnight page here.

For what it's worth (and why should I claim to know more than the 16% of Basra residents who answered "Don't know" to the survey?) I suspect the first answer is true. I think until the troops actually leave, there will always be some doubt among the locals that they ever will. Resolving that doubt will have a beneficial effect.

The other point on the BBC yesterday was about the apparent growth of extremism in the region.

"Many residents told the BBC that militias have tightened their grip in Basra since the last British troops pulled out of the city in September, after months of relentless attacks.

"They accuse Shia militias, including the Mehdi army of Moqtada Sadr, of a campaign of intimidation and violence, particularly against women."

The key thing to remember here is that religion does not create sectarianism so much as sectarianism creates religion. The reason why extremists are shooting improperly-dressed women now, rather than ten years ago, is because, with a power struggle in the offing or in progress, religion matters now. To disdain religion today is treason in time of war.

If the power struggle goes away, so will the extremism (possibly with some lag).

13 December 2007

News and Politics and Money

I get news mostly from online newspapers, and I tend towards the barest reports. As a result, whenever I see television news, I'm shocked and put off by the heavy slant it carries.

But my shock this evening was more than usual. Watching Channel 4 news, what struck me for the first time was that Channel 4 appeared to have a more clearly defined and clearly expressed position on the issue they were reporting than did any of the politicians they were interviewing.

But why should that be surprising? Channel 4 has more resources to devote to policy than does any political party. Channel 4 spends 54 million pounds a year on news, documentary and current affairs programming. The two main parties each spend something like 10 million a year, but most of that is spent not on "content", but on content distribution - posters, leaflets, etc.

British political parties' policies are being constructed on an almost totally amateur basis, compared to the media - and I think it shows. There are think tanks, but I don't think they turn over tens of millions a year.

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from this. In the US they spend a lot more on politics, but don't seem to get noticeably better policies. But my attitude towards politicians when I hear them is likely to change.

Reference for channel 4 finances: http://www.channel4.com/about4/annualreport/annualreports/index.html page 47

06 December 2007

Torturing Robots

Interesting piece on boingboing about some robotic toy dinosaur called a Pleo.

I'm impressed with the robot's behavior. It snuggles when you hold it. It falls asleep when you cradle it. It gets frisky when you scratch it under the chin. It's much more lifelike than Sony's discontinued Aibo.

So when I watched this video of a couple of guys from Dvice torturing the Pleo and making it whimper pathetically, I felt uncomfortable, even though I knew it was absolutely ridiculous to feel that way.

I don't think it's ridiculous. It's not rational to be upset by seeing animals or strangers suffering, but most normal people are that way, and we like to think that the people around us are normal like that. This irrational attitude is naturally quite blurry, and I would be less comfortable in the company of those who enjoyed even simulated suffering.

That drives my view of animal rights: I don't care whether any given species does or doesn't feel pain. I don't think it's an important question, and I'm not sure it's even a meaningful question. I care whether the animal appears to feel pain.

If you could miraculously prove to me that cats don't feel pain and that mushrooms do, it wouldn't change in the slightest my attitude towards those who kick cats or pick mushrooms.

Revealing bit of geek history: the ZX81 manual contains the following code example:

10 IF INKEY$ = "" THEN GOTO 10
20 PRINT AT 11.14; "OUCH"
40 PRINT AT 11,14; " "
50 GOTO 10

It's introduced as "for fun"

The identical code appears in the ZX Spectrum manual, (with the typo fixed in line 20; the dot should be a comma), but with the introduction "for sadists"

(The program displays OUCH in the middle of the screen while any key is depressed).

Somewhere between 1980 and 1982, they had doubts about how much fun it was to cause simulated pain to an 8-bit computer.