26/12/2014

what I said to you in 2014

I reviewed a huge number of things because I was unemployed (Oliver Sacks, China Mieville, Clive James, David Foster Wallace, David Graeber, Ed Glaeser, Daniel Haybron). I argued against a new popular kind of intellectual puritanism. I set out my consequentialism, which tries not to squash other goods than justice (DRAFT!). I talked about my life goals in the context of death and politics (DRAFT!). I calculated the highest wage a strict consequentialist can keep for themselves. I thought about the net-negativity of most jobs. I made a playlist that tries to get you to save yourself. I tried to dress up my maths education in ordinary transcendent meaning. I wrote a poem in pseudo-SQL. I reviewed Rousseau, LeGuin, Giddens, Fukuyama, Gleick.

I made a scrapbook of semi-scientific thoughts. I made a scrapbook about epistemology and harm harm harm.

I reviewed Chomsky's sloppiest book. I wrote a poem about the impulse of criticism. I wrote a poem about the former. I reviewed Gellhorn, Anscombe, and discovered Gwern, which is something you should do right now. I made a scrapbook about utility functions, Mandarin insults, Avogadro, and the two careers. I wrote a long case for and against Scottish independence. I list various features of Java that annoyed me but aren't that bad.

I made a scrapbook about computers, pain, education. I wrote a post about a certain Swahili proverb which is also a mini-playlist and an affirmation of the life to come.


Previously: 2013.

10/12/2014

On the saying "Alisifuyejua, limemwangaza", Roger Scruton, and Stephin Merrit


"Alisifuyejua, limemwangaza" is a Kiswahili proverb meaning "the sun shines on the one who praises it".* I like it a whole lot; it says a couple of things about human happiness. (I admit there's a suggestion of positive-thinking woo to it — as if the world responded causally to devotion — but I encourage you to discard that in favour of the following):

    1. People are the loci of value; value is produced by the interface of minds with certain parts of the world; it is not written into just us or the order of things.

    2. Receptivity, responding to stimuli, is needed for value to exist.**

    3. Misery can destroy much of the lived world.

Other things I take it to not be saying: "Fake it til you make it"; "misery is the fault of the miserable"; "hope is enough to be happy". (The conditional is: if not receptive, then not value. The amount that our receptivity is under our control is the key question. But it will take some odd psychology work to capture that particular variable.)


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But is generalised levity possible, or desirable? There is an old current of thought dead set against it (I call it "lacrimism", to go with the ancient but newly motivated doctrine "deathism"). Roger Scruton can always be counted upon to piss in the beer with style: he believes that ubiquitous wonder and joy is either impossible or would make us swinish idiots, "a kind of postmodern individual" he doesn't want to be seated next to at a dinner party:

Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is... The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.

There is reason to listen to this, but more reason not to heed it. Not least because lacrimism is self-fulfilling: if no-one believes that it is possible to have good life without suffering and vice, it can never become possible. This sounds idealistic, but I think its counter-quietism is inherent to science:

the greatest enrichment the scientific culture could give us is... a moral one... scientists know, as starkly as any men have known, that the individual human condition is tragic... But what they will not admit is that, because the individual condition is tragic, therefore the social condition must be tragic, too... The impulse behind the scientists drives them to limit the area of tragedy, to take nothing as tragic that can conceivably lie within men’s will....

- CP Snow



Scruton as Merritt's protagonist.


* (Or more literally "Whoso praises it, is in sunshine".)

** I think you can sensibly distinguish 'receptivity to good' from hope, and hope from expectation. Or, I hope so.

(There's an actually interesting political-theory discussion of being receptive as the key to most good things here.)

15/11/2014

multifarious miscellany



Stable breeder in Conway's Game of Life. Original author one 'Hyperdeath'


One of my computer science lecturers does philosophy in passing while discussing superficially unphilosophical things like Harvard vs Princeton and the gubbins of molecular computing. (Molecular as in Hofstadter's comment: "Looking at a program written in machine language is vaguely comparable to looking at a DNA molecule atom by atom.") It is gigantic stuff:

  • "People always define computers as 'data-processing machines' - which they are not and cannot be, because data are mental events. Machines process representations - and all this is is us using the physical world to help us with the mental world we have such limited range within (usually to help us with the physical world we have such limited control over). (This is also why the infinite cannot be properly represented, because there is nothing usably physical for the purpose.) (In the reified field that gets called "Computing", we happen to use voltages to represent mental events, but I seriously encourage you to consider computing less narrowly; you will never be right, otherwise.)

    Human language being what it is, the category error of "data" as data representation has by now been thoroughly inscribed. We - the truth - lost. So you'll hear me say that 'the system is processing data'. But I don't mean it."

  • "We write programs* with a program** which feeds a program*** that produces the usable program**** - and all of these are running on a metaphor for a machine^."

  • "Transmission is strictly limited by each component, of course. If you send a message faster than either the transmitter can pulse, than the channel can discretely convey, or the receiver-decoder can parse, it will be lost, or useless, or worse. (Faulty data is worse than no data because it deceives us.)"

  • (If you consider the message a thought, the wire human language, the decoder your poor interlocutor!)

  • "You might think that your high-level source code is a long-winded way of handling data. In reality - that is, in the processor..."

- Lewis Mackenzie


* Source code.
** Editor.
*** Compiler.
**** Executable.
^ Operating system.


*******************************************************************




Consequentialism makes morals all a matter of policy decisions, and so every individual person a government (a government of themselves). This stance appalls a diverse set of people in slightly different ways - but for now I just want you to notice that this is Hobbes' Leviathan metaphor ^^ backwards.

(Similarly, consider the noble literal meaning of "constituency": the term wants us to think of a political seat as constituted of its constituents; the seat is supposedly nothing without them.)

(Tenuously related: Luciano Floridi's exciting idea of people as 'multi-agent systems', in unibus pluram. Everyone a bunch of pieces lashed together and with all the usual crippling information asymmetries and moral hazard of such organisations.)


****************************************************************


Hard ideas I use without really understanding them (that, is, without strictly knowing their definition or the full dynamics of their components):
  • “Distribution” (in statistics)
  • “Object” (in programming)
  • “Deixis” (in linguistics
    - 'indexical' in philosophy)
  • "Twistor" (in physics)
  • “Being” (in anything)
  • Free play” (in France)
  • “Mind”
Loads of people understand the first four, so there is hope. And the last three may be entirely meaningless, so there is hope.


****************************************************************


At uni I became very worried that getting really invested in any field would block one's understanding of most of the world, cos, well, 'if all you have is a hammer'. Some excellent jaded people have coined words for this: trained incapacity, professional deformation, or, most dramatically, occupational psychosis.

The thought was that each field only gets at one piece of reality*, and that the assumptions of fields may prevent you grasping results in others (in some way above just the study of one taking up your time for the others). Since people are bad at changing their minds, and soon get tribal about their field, I worried that people would go through life with one methodological lens, the exact one based on a near-arbitrary decision taken as a teenager (enrollment). And this would be absurd.

As it is I needn't have worried, because the sheer indifference of my peers prevented such high methodological concerns.** Even the Arts kids – who should really possess some passion or grand programme, given the economic opportunity cost of their choice of programme*** – showed minimal affinity, with most never speaking in tutorials and scarcely reading anything. (Larger evidence for this suspicious economism below.****)

Glum hypothesis: Professional deformation isn't a problem, because what people actually do upon graduating is sell their books and try to never think about it ever again. And they prosper.


* My kind are supposed to accept but one whole world with a future grand reduction of all things to fundamental physics. But an equally crunchy alternative is offered by Turing's notion of levels of abstraction: just as there's no question of motion without a set frame of reference, it might be that there's no talk of explanation without a specified level of abstraction. The physical, the social, the mental and the formal all seem to occupy different LoAs (though I'm very open to the idea that the last two might end up the same one, as in e.g. this bold jaunt).

** A striking instance in the first week of class: The lecturer, a world authority on Dickens, read out the Want and Ignorance segment from Christmas Carol, and then wept openly at the front of the lecture. The chatter on the way out was just bemused and dismissive. Two lads in the row behind me laughed.

*** e.g. Page 29-30 here, Page 8 here.

**** e.g. UNESCO reckon that 32% of the right age bracket enrolled in some kind of formal higher education in 2012; but only a tiny fraction of that number sign up for the same content when it's free but with no big formal certificate at the end. (And 90% of that tiny fraction actually drop out.) Something like 17% of all Americans have a degree.

Actually, I can believe that 17% of all people are somewhat intellectually engaged - after some knowledge for knowledge's sake - but they maybe don't overlap much with 'degree-holders'.


****************************************************************


No human has ever been a rationalist, not on the harsh definition (‘Person who lets nothing but evidence determine their beliefs and follows up the rest properly’). So we say ‘aspiring rationalist’, or ‘approximating the rational’. Somewhat less than maximally perverse.


****************************************************************

Isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life & sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, & the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.
- Philip Roth


The root of the word 'happy' is the word 'hap' (that is, luck). i.e., They were once regarded as the same, i.e. There was no way to make yourself happy; you just had to be very lucky to be happy. And still?


****************************************************************

The motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfilment and professional conscientiousness. The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these — in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it. That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance. Except in rare psychopaths, we attribute it to the will.
- Mary Midgley


So for instance belonging enables ostracism; thought enables illusion; empathy enables apologism; irreverence enables shallowness; security enables complacency; curiosity enables weapons; independence enables loneliness; pure reason enables monsters; taste enables snobs; gumption enables evil.


****************************************************************


New HMHB album! This has excited me so much that I spontaneously came up with some chorus lines for the next one:

  • "I'll unseat your helpmeet with Peartiser 'n Kopparberg..."
  • "Cheapest ostrich burger inside the M25!"
  • "Ruby Wax has an MA in Mindfulness! Well that's okay then!"
  • "...and I wish that no-one else ever gets any wishes."


*************************************************************


Quarreled with a humanist friend who upheld some of the old good stereotypes of AI villains: computers with explosive cognitive dissonance, beaten by the fundamental gaps in logic itself, or the fundamental gulf between logic and the world, or by getting stuck in perverse optimisation. Thus human superiority is regained: it lies in our 'paradox-absorbing crumple zones'! (In humans these are located all over the head.)

But... default logic exists, and floating-point numbers do very well at modelling the arbitrarily precise without preventing serial computations, and we already have agents which satisfice (although). Fine it is probably impossible to make a functioning computer unfazed by logical errors; however, an intelligence running on a computer is not necessarily a computer (just as I am not exactly my brain).

Real AI villains could be more terrifying still: they might eradicate us without hatred or even any active intent. The nightmare is being destroyed because beneath notice, irrelevant to the quest to make paperclip all that is.


*************************************************************


What does programming do to programmers?

Not many people are trying to find out, if this lacklustre thing is an accurate summary of the field. Well, computer science is what Taleb calls ludic, an artificially understandable and predictable domain.* So there's definitely a sense of power involved. You solve a hundred tiny problems a day, make consequential decisions that get instant feedback, and you operationalise the abstract so to better paw at it.

But it is also banal. In isolation each line of code is laughably simple - stripped of all hauteur and connotation and ambiguity. To force oneself to think like this, 8 hours a day... Breaking up one's thoughts like this could make for unripe thought; what if working at low levels made it harder to skip up to high levels. (In CS, "high-level" means "closer to human language", roughly. Ha.)

Paranoid null hypothesis: Speaking to machines comes at the expense of speaking to humans.

Luckily, and whatever the stereotype wants you to picture, this doesn't happen reliably: clear thought is clear thought in whatever language, and reductionism has magnificence in. The cosmically important lesson of the intellectual toy Conway's Game of Life is that sophistication and uniqueness result from a tiny number of wholly mechanical elements. (And how!)

* Though obv it floats in the broken world - consider things like the Intel FDIV bug.


************************************************************


I had an idea about the durability of knowledge, an idea which has been covered better under 'the half-life of facts'. Knowledge* can be fragile in a few ways:

  1. Because of error: that is, the field is immature and produces bad predictions. (Conversely, theories that cover enough of the domain to defang or incorporate anomalies are durable). (Epistemic fragility)

  2. Because the token of the knowledge, the psychological instantiation of the fact, is hard to retain. (Psychological fragility).

  3. Because the relevant part of the world actually changes its behaviour. (Ontological fragility)

(Type 2 is just one's memory width meeting abstraction meeting complexity, plainly. But it goes a bit deeper - consider the way that Alzheimereans retain musical ability well into their loss of self.)

Type 3 is a defining feature of social systems: basically anything involving people will have this recursive ontological instability ("Hey, they're treating us like animals! Let's shit on their floor!"). It is the other reason that 'hard' social science is impossible (the first being that you can rarely experiment properly and so can never really unpick causal variables).

Why care about this, philosophically? Well, because as long as you have an idea of your phenomenon's ontological durability, type (1) is a pretty good measure of a field's maturity!


* Yes, yes, I'm equivocating: I mean here "what is taken to be knowledge, the best unrefuted explanation" rather than "absolutely true correspondence between mind and reality".



02/10/2014

Been reading, Q3 2014




The basic tenet of multiculturalism is that people need to stop judging each other—to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful… The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macramé. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor and begin pumping bullets into Westerners.

- Neal Stephenson

to say that love is what motivates most of us who are neither complete bastards nor distracted by secondary concerns such as “what other people will think” – to say this is not to say anything very neat or tidy. But that too is as it should be.

- the Unknown Anti-Ethicist


Why not write down what you’ve been reading?

Well, it’s pompous. It also adds a loud implicit audience - yourself - who gawks over your shoulder and interrupts to say what they fucking think. (Fiction benefits from leaving behind such gremlins as your tutors and yourself.) There’s also some pressure to rush the reading and keep up with yourself. Also, forcing out reviews of things is a recipe for banality and witless caution (see any newspaper with a small review staff). And, of course, time spent writing is time not reading.

5?/5: First time, potential vade mecum.
1/5: No.       4/5: Got to me.
2/5: Vitiated.       4*/5: Amazing but just once, probably.
3/5: Skimmed.       
3*/5: Mind candy.       5/5: Encore.




JULY

  • Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (2009) by Eveline Chao. Actually I was - but only because my laoshi was a saucy linguistics grad who warned me not to practice the tricky phoneme or on the street, or ever to shout “3-8!”. Anyway this is dead funny and valuable for understanding the place’s otherwise inaccessible working-class or web or queer registers – and as a way of generally not seeming like a prig. So: language is fossilised sociology; Chao excavates what would take us decades. She begins with slurs of all sorts, but doesn’t list any homophobia – claiming it isn’t a well-rooted hatred there (…). There’s loads and loads of ableism, though. Gets more serious as it goes, with whole chapters on gay culture and web ‘activism’ (恶搞 is ‘evildoings’, lulz). This turns up details like the infallibly hilarious “potato queen”. I also loved her decoding the ancient innuendoes: 云雨 (clouds and rain), 鱼水之欢 (the fish and the water, happy together), 余桃 (sharing peaches), or “playing the bamboo flute” or “bamboo harmonica”. (BTW, the title term is 牛屄 – ‘Cow-cunt’ – and means “Awesome!”.) 4/5 for subcultures.



  • Capital in the 21st Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty. Well then! Long separate blog review in the works. Was swooning by the end of the preface
    To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage of being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.
    He's understandably keen to emphasise his ideological hygiene - but, as the Tory media correctly noted, the act of paying attention to inequality is itself a weakly left-wing act. With a few more diagrams and boxed definitions, this would make an excellent intro macro textbook, gentle and empirically obsessive as it is. Policy chapter is superb an' all. Weighed down only by (forgiveable) overstatement of its own achievement (“the fundamental laws of capitalism”). Lot of redundancy - whoa-there steady-now summary paragraphs every few pages - but I suppose that's what you need to do if you aim to be understood by policymakers. 4*/5. [Library]



  • Deaf Sentence (2008) by David Lodge. Gentle, silly-solemn, but limp campus novel. Examines middle-class middle-age without angst, despite the narrator’s being very hard of hearing. There’s a sudden tokenistic Auschwitz section which gets about one page of build-up and is soon left behind (when the actual plot revives itself). Its affairs are less farcical, ambitions less contemptible, plot less unabashedly neat (though there is this: “Perhaps one day we’ll turn up in a campus novel” – “God, I hope not”), and I miss all that of Lodge. 3/5. [In one sitting]



  • Even As We Speak: Essays 1993-2001 (2002) by Clive James. The last twenty years see James taking his dark intellectual turn to the history of totalitarianism, and bringing it into everything, everything else, dragging Hitler and Stalin around like the stations of the cross. His long excoriation of Daniel Goldhagen is angry, entertaining, and an education in itself. (The question the two men are at odds over is, “How could civilised, literate, assimilative Germany Do Such Things?” Goldhagen says: because they – all Germans – were eliminationists just itching for an excuse. James’ answer is complex, but puts due weight on the simplest explanation: they did it because a single word of dissent meant death, for any of them.) James is a bit obsessed by his chosen field tbh – Hitler references turn up in his sunny, giddy Sydney Olympics pieces! Then there’s his ornately maudlin account of his acquaintance with Diana Spenser. (I spent a little while trying to pigeonhole his politics recently – this non-republican, anti-Marxist, pro-American-culture hobnobber – and decided it is wrong to call him right-wing. “Democracy is really valuable only for what it prevents…”) Funny, profound in places, but his late themes had solidified already and are covered better in A Point of View and Cultural Amnesia. 3*/5. [Library]



  • The Rhesus Chart (2014) by Charles Stross. Brave, for a writer of taste to write a vampire book, these days. But then in a sense Stross doesn’t give a shit, since he has written a vampire book in which the vampires are literally high-frequency investment bankers who become vampires literally because of high-frequency investment banking. Then there’s his occult computer science (“Magic is a side-effect of certain classes of mathematics… Sensible magicians use computers.”). Stross is the only writer I know who depicts the corporate/bureaucratic way of life, as well as just its deadening language. Millions of people now spend much of their lives within a structure encouraging this mindset; we need art that knows its vagaries and petty circumlocutions and administrivia. So, extra half-point for detailed solidarity with the office drone. And the TVTropes reference. 3/5. [Library]


  • Reread: Collected Poems (1988) by Philip Larkin. Of the consuming fear of death, sexual frustration, impostor syndrome: Britain. (In fact this is the apotheosis of male British misery: Housman, if he was honest about his appetites; Lawrence with a sense of humour; Auden plus even more jazz.) He was forever overawed by lack of control over his life; we are left with his superlative control of form. Motifs are well-known: the hostile wind heard from the cold attic; the diminishing of strength; the fall of desire - without a matching fall in the desire to desire; the conviction that age is not running out of time, but running out of self. These are not moans: he loves jazz and booze and other things that make death recede. He’s vulgar, and wields it, but never as a punchline; what starts with “Groping back to bed after a piss” will end with the universe:
    The hardness and the brightness and plain
    far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
    Is a reminder of the strength and the pain
    Of being young; that it can’t come again,
    But is for others undiminished somewhere.
    There’s too much in this volume. I mean that as criticism of its editor, not as expression of Larkin’s o’erflowing sublimity. But that too, actually: “Sad Steps”, “Aubade”, “For Sidney Bechet”, "No Road", and “Continuing to Live” are among my favourites. By ’72 his bitterness and fear had overcome his basic kindness, and he dried up, leaving doggerel for mates and nasty biz like “The Old Fools” or “The Card Players”. And yet even after three years of this came “Aubade”. I avoided the juvenilia, perhaps even out of superstitious respect. 5/5.





AUGUST

  • The Good Women of China (2002) by Xinran. Ripping, horrible portrait of patriarchal suffering – but undermined by the editing process; the narrative she ties the various cases of abuse, suppression and loss is too neat for my jaded nonfiction hopper. (I apologise if she just had a very cinematic few years as the most famous woman in the country, bearing witness, but the coincidences make it difficult to take it too seriously. I don’t actually doubt that the interviews happened, nor that she received the aggregate worry and misery for millions; so I’m not sure which part I’m taking issue with. The unnatural dovetail. China comes across here as a little village where Xinran was wise mother, and all distant rumours burst into her life. (Maybe my reaction is just a cheap defence mechanism against the thought of an 11 year old repeatedly giving themselves pneumonia to avoid their rapist father and other such tales of ordinary madness.) Nothing in the text matches the simple implicit horror of the hanzi on the cover: “nu” (female), nu+er (female + housework = woman), hao (female + son = good, The Good). Even granting that it is much easier to see oppression in cultures other than your own... 3/5.



  • In the Beginning was the Command Line (1999) by Neal Stephenson. Classic, cynical cultural history of popular computing. Also a noob-friendly guide to breaking free. (As such it's a love letter to GNU: “Linux… are making tanks… Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free… It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against more modern products. But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.”) If you’re like me (human?), you need metaphors and binary distinctions to get abstract stuff, and Stephenson has them coming out of his ears, which sometimes leads to stone-tablet patronising tone*.
    Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces.”)
    An amazing writer, though: he finds program comments "like the terse mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes." In tech, 15 years is a full geological era and a half*, so some of his insights have taken on a sepia hue (e.g. “Apple are doomed because they are obsessed with hardware”). But astonishingly, most have not – and how many other tech articles from the 90s are still worth a single minute of your time? 4/5 for noobs like me.
  • * He uses this very metaphor in this short essay.



  • Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Fooled the World (2009) by Barbara Ehrenreich. Sharp, sharp! Blames the grinning tendency in its many forms – the New Age mystic sort, the New Age pseudoscience sort, the self-help, motivational, pink ribbon, megachurch, and positive psychology forms – for much suffering and tastelessness, including the whole 2008 financial crisis. And she writes with sardonic muscle:
    I felt at that moment, and for the first time in this friendly crowd, absolutely alone. If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal taste, then what kind of reality did she and I share?… To base a belief or worldview on science is to is to reach out to the nonbelievers and the uninitiated, to say that they too can come to the same conclusions if they make the same systematic observations and inferences. The alternative is to base one’s worldview on revelation or mystical insight, and these things cannot be reliably shared with others. So there’s something deeply sociable about science; it rests entirely on observations that can be shared with and repeated by others… It is a glorious universe the positive thinkers have come up with, a vast, shimmering aurora borealis… It’s just a god-awful lonely place.
    Was a bit disturbed by her personal impressions of the legit psychologists (Seligman’s profiteering and evasiveness, the apolitical blitheness of it). 4/5.


  • I, Robot (1940-1950) by Isaac Asimov. So sunny! So clumsy! (“His dark eyes smoldered.”) So misanthropic! (The humans call the bots “Boy”, who call humans “master”.) So warmly cool! 3/5. (The story ‘Evidence’ is 4/5.)



  • Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise of Living Alone (2013) by Eric Klinenberg. This research is very important – tracing the ideological roots of normative pairing, looking at chimps and orangutans and showing the deep flaws in the research that claims that married people are on average happier. But that’s all covered in the preface, and Klinenberg’s prose is canting and repetitive – after chapter 4 I could not stand any more of his interviewees’ corporate self-conceptions and language (“I needed this in order to grow as a person”). It is wholly cool and righteous to live alone; but talking about it this way is revolting. 3/5, once you’ve absorbed the headline.



  • Cash (1997) by Johnny Cash. Oh no! Just a list of sentences, and bucolic, undirected sentences at that. The origin story is obviously compelling, and the Sun records bit is tasty. But he fails to say anything very interesting about the road, the drugs, or the country Scene which he so resents, nor the amazing Rubin work which brought him back his immortality. There are flashes of spirit (“As I’ve often said, I grew up under socialism, and it saved my family”), but otherwise this is one long Acknowledgments page. 2/5.



  • The End of an Old Song (1957) by JD Scott. Good, nasty coming of age story of some Borders boys, one diffident and Carawayan, one coiled and voracious. The narrator's one distinguishing quality is eloquence about his friend, and for once this device is not taken for granted – people remark on his skill at describing and paeaning Alastair. He reuses certain idiosyncratic, ear-worm words – “illimitable”, “aviary” as an adjective for a woman – to great effect.
    “She’s English.” I said.
    Alastair made a Scotch noise in the back of his throat.
    Annoyed at the conclusion – there’s an Oxfordian twist that I resent. But the details make it – rationing, the Scotch cringe, the good, miserable wages of sin. 4/5.



  • Hyperion (1997) by Dan Simmons. Starts terribly, with the broody protagonist playing a grand piano outside in a storm. Also, despite being set in 3200CE or whatev, it makes a gauche number of leaden references to the culture of C20th Earth. But the structure (6 tales from 7 travellers, from Chaucer) and the sheer variety of styles and themes soon kick in and drag you through its delicious cyber-goth intrigue. The poet character is fucking annoying, but he’s meant to be. (The key problem of metafiction: to write a great poet character, you really have to be a great poet yourself. Nabokov was, but even he dodged the issue by making Pale Fire about a flawed poet.) At one point it implies that Keats’ poems were retrocaused by the schemes of time-travelling AIs, which is a thing that must be admired. 4/5.



SEP

  • Government Expenditure Review Scotland 2014, and the Dunleavy Report, and the McCrone Report, and the Stiglitz Currency Advice, and the Fucking News (2014).



  • Why Moral Theory is Boring and Corrupt (c. 2009) by the Unknown Anti-ethicist. …And redundant, procrustean, and worse than nothing to boot! Interesting iconoclasm uploaded to the Open University unsigned. Their criticisms of thought-experiments and the absence of real emotional phenomenology from academic ethics are not unprecedented, but the constructive answer offered here is: “instead of calculation or logic-chopping, just love”. There are no hatchet jobs on humans here; the axe is for concepts and methodology. (Singer is cited as an example of what not to do, but not cruelly.) I think their attack on the psychological possibility of having a Master Factor ethical life by holding apart the criterion of rightness from the deliberative procedure is the only key wrong part of this; but if you disagree, then you may well never have to read moral theory ever again (just novels instead). I wonder whether they really couldn’t publish this under their own name. Anonymity has certainly suppressed interest, which, given this paper's power, speaks very ill of the ability of philosophers to transcend social pressure. (PhilPapers records just 97 downloads for the paper.) 5?/5.



  • The Atrocity Archives (2001) by Charlie Stross. Four books in, I’m starting to get annoyed at every character sharing Stross’ fondness for naff nerd references at moments of high drama. But it took four books. So! Nazi mages, Turing as founder of scientific magic, and some very rigorous nonsense – e.g. the killer gaze of the Medusa is modernised as a quantum observer-effect in which the collapse of a super-position adds protons to carbon nuclei, forming silicon(!) Cosma Shalizi calls it ‘mind candy’, which is perfect. 3*/5. [Library]



  • In the Light of What We Know (2014) by Zia Haider Rahman. Two globish co-dependents of unequal intelligence but equal mawkishness take turns at monologue, for ages and ages. One’s oracular, the other Boswellian, which means that both talk about the nasty past of the oracular one, Zafar. Everyone’s always trying to educate everyone else, without invitation. Tragic, panoptic, and handles critical C21st problems – neocolonialism, quant finance, the ineffectiveness of NGOs, the nature of the transnational élite that administers all these things. But also dull, overwritten and clumsily polymathic (characters can be found over-reading, variously, Gödel, Middlemarch, the birth of Bangladesh, the Brit-pop band James). The book is aware of its pomp – there’s a long discussion of sincerity as virtue and vice, a raging attack on Anglophone Indian literature, and Zafar quotes more and more as he disintegrates, suggesting that the book’s larding of quotations is a knowing prop. But while I don’t know whether it’s Zafar or Rahman that the book’s clumsiness is rooted in, I don’t have to, to know that his conceit of desperate knowledge didn’t take root in me.

    I shouldn’t say panoptic: there’s only one woman in this, really, and we don’t see much even of her except as deceiver and appalling vehicle for privilege. Chapter 14’s good – a big bickering, drunken dinner with Pakistani elites, and there are details to admire throughout (Zafar broods over microaggressions, and some of his apercus are sparkling – like his characterisation of maths as “thinking without the encumbrance of knowledge”, or his likening of a good essay to “a good dress – long enough to cover the important bits, short enough to be interesting”). Last, very superficially: there are no speech marks, and this deadens the dialogue for me; it makes everything look past-tense and snarky. (Ok sure this works incredibly well in Blood Meridian, but only because all the men in that are wholly dead inside). Will Self minus electricity; Coetzee minus originality and 12-gauge philosophical calibre. Speaking as a pompous generalist and an inveterate over-writer… 3/5.



  • Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated by Olena Bormashenko. Ah, great! Earthy, economic sci-fi; aliens visit, ignore us entirely, and soon leave, leaving behind only transcendent junk and horror-film phenomena from their little picnic. Prose is lovely and plain, translated with subtlety (we get “scabby”, “sham”, “mange”). The ordinary, crude protagonist Red is scrabbling illegally to provide for his mutant family (the Strugatskys use cash and cash pressure amazingly, grounding the whole cosmic fantasy in commerce, crime, exploitation). Every time Red gets cash, he throws it away – in someone’s face as an insult, in someone’s face as a distraction to evade capture, or just away. No explanations except bureaucratic filler; no salvation, just dumb defiance. A really nice original touch is that Red interprets the body language of his friends in extreme detail – a scratched nose means, to him, “Whoah, Red, be careful how rough you play with the new kid”. Also notable for being a Soviet novel set in mid-west America, evoked very, very well. And the Russian Soul bubbling under their dismal economics rings out without catching in the barrel:
    HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE; LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!
    4/5. [Library]



  • Gave up: Another Country (1952) by James Baldwin. Doubtlessly important, but formally and lyrically grim. Impossibility of interracial love among racism, impossibility of calm for anyone with any really big plans, impossibility of sexual satisfaction, impossibility of peace for a manly man, impossibility of finishing the damn thing. [Library]



  • The Signal and the Noise (2013) by Nate Silver. A nice surprise! He's very pleased with himself (as well as being pleased with the Bayesian methods he owes his success to). But arrogance can be earned. (A minor peeve: the hot topics "data science" and "big data" are really just good old Victorian statistics with a sprinkling of Silicon Vally fairy dust. But don't tell anyone I said so, or my wage will drop 30%.) 4/5. [Library]



  • Reread: The Pleasures of the Damned (2009) by Bukowski. The anti-social phallocrat waves his pen in the wee small hours – yet often manages beauty. It’s a Best-of, but actually not his best. Bukowski is Springsteen after Rosalita, Mary, Janey, Sandy, Trudy and the rest have either moved town forever to get away from him, or died. 3*/5 and 5/5



  • Big Java – Late Objects (2013) by Cay Horstmann. And again I sign away my mind’s dirigible dilettantism for a whole damn year. I got a lot more out of Codecademy and being shut in a room until I eventually produce working code, though. 2/5. [Library]


Among the taller wood with ivy hung,
The old fox plays and dances round her young.
She snuffs and barks if any passes by
And swings her tail and turns prepared to fly.
The horseman hurries by, she bolts to see,

And turns agen, from danger never free.
If any stands she runs among the poles
And barks and snaps and drives them in the holes.
The shepherd sees them and the boy goes by
And gets a stick and prongs the hole to try.
They get all still and lie in safety sure,
And out again when everything’s secure,
And start and snap at blackbirds bouncing by
To fight and catch the great white butterfly.

- John Clare


29/09/2014

presumably unnecessary ambiguities in Java


[WORK IN PROGRESS, noob bashing welcome]



Its specification allows accessibilities to conflict.
  • Java lets you control how much of your program can access any given variable or class. However, the default level of accessibility doesn't have a closed specification, that is, it can be 'overloaded'; this causes problems when you have more than two packages and mix certain accessibility modifiers with inheritance between them. (The problem with the linked case is that it's syntactically correct and but the resulting output varies depending on the compiler you use. This matters not for the small number of programs it cockblocks or crashes, but because compiler writers are scarily devoted and prescient, so to see them failing to resolve ambiguity is a blow to human pride and existential security.)


Escape characters and directories
  • You can't use certain directories within strings, cos backslash is used to mark escape characters and the beginning of Windows directories (e.g. for the unicode escape command '\u', "C:\\users\\unnameable"). The same problem goes for a few other slashed letters, but less seriously for them, because they are only processed within strings unlike '\u'. A rule like "never begin directories with these lower-case letters" would plug it, but for why in the first place?


Type system
  • Strings are objects that can be given literal values like variables. Strings can be both initialised and printed, unlike every other object (in what I had taken to be the essential feature of objects, like a ruddy fool). They're also created like variables, not like objects:
    (not
    Object str = new Object("Hello World");
    but instead
    String str = "Hello World";
    )

It makes numbers hard.
  • I haven't seen a good explanation for why the int/double divide requires so much casting and ambiguous operation (ambiguous at the human level, that is; the compiler don't give a fuck).

  • Also doesn't compare integers properly, if they are of an interval of more than 255 (?!)


Symbol pedantry
  • '*' is the operator for both multiplication and wildcard-all.

  • '%' is the operator for both modulo and format specifier.

  • More seriously, '/' is the operator for both integer quotient and floating-point quotient. This does produce silent stupidities.

  • 'System.out' is the name of an object awaiting a method, even though dots always demarcate the end of an object name everywhere else.
    [EDIT: Turns out that 'out' is the name of a static variable, so this isn't pointless. Still needless though.]

  • '//' begins a single-line comment ("Compiler, ignore this line") or is just one forward-slash if it's within a string ("Compiler, the following slash is text").*



Apart from the academic problem with overloading accessibilities, these aren't a big deal - in particular, the symbol ones are only serious ambiguities for humans, since they do get caught at syntax check - and in particular, millions upon millions of Java applets work really well a whole damn lot of the time. But - just sayin' - this gig is still all about humans.



* A simple solution to the unicode escape problem above might be to make "\\\u" the accepted syntax for directories beginning 'u', but it didn't work in the Eclipse compiler.

08/09/2014

the Scotland question


(c) "The Ship Comes In", JD Fergusson (1931)



The dark dry questions are breaking heads.
And what have the red and blue to do
with that dark river in which we swim?"

- Iain Crichton Smith




In case you haven’t heard, the Scottish questions are “Why independence? Why the Union? Who needs to prove what?” People usually get fixated on just one issue – whether fear of new borders, fear of the Euro, fear of losing arms jobs, boo the monarchy, boo the expenses scandal. I've tried to get all pros and cons into view; as a result, this post stretches on. If you refuse to sit through 4000 words of amateur political analysis, please skip to the punchline here.

I was undecided before writing this. This time last year I was dead against independence, on the grounds that nationalism is 1) bullshit and 2) dangerous bullshit. That’s still true, but the first thing to notice is that supporting independence doesn't make you a nationalist. (That sounds obvious, but everyone makes this mistake all the time, e.g. Guardian here.) The second leap to make is that being for independence needn’t entail any hostility to Britain, England or the peoples thereof – just a higher opinion of Holyrood’s potential than Westminster’s. The good arguments for independence are about the state of the UK, not the nature of ‘the Scots’.

The past few weeks have revealed enormous eejits on both sides, and having eejits on your side is a very unpleasant experience. This is the price of having any political opinion (or none).

The burden of proof is on everyone. I've had a hell of a time trying to see clear the economics: both sides distort the issue. But there’s more at stake than economics! If £1000 either way is all that determines your attitude to your governance for all time, then you deserve all the abuse you get about being wee, penny-pinchin and low. Since the economics are somewhat vague, and since the ethnic and ‘historical’ cases for independence are as empty as they are repugnant, most of the question is answered on the back of your predictions about the political and cultural effects of a Yes vote.

The 'Scotland question' breaks into many: the budget question, the currency question, the debt size question, the EU membership question, the defence question, the health question, and so on. I split them further into inherent obstacles to independence (like concerns over the budget balance) and artificial obstacles (like the currency brouhaha, or the threat from Spain). The reason to put less weight on the latter is not because they can’t be very real problems, but because the alternative is to allow arbitrary threats to destroy good options, to let an antagonist pretend that failure was a consequence of the attempt to change matters. ("Look what you made me do.")



THE POLITICAL CASE

I’ve kept my eye on Scottish nationalism, watching and waiting, distrusting it, expecting it to reveal its true dark heart. But it never has. For 25 years, Scottish nationalism has been a civic, social-democratic, multicultural movement. Nationalists have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they opposed Trident. They have openly campaigned for more immigration. … Nationalists promote and engage with the EU. They advocate sustainable energy, land reform, arts funding… the list goes on.

- Iain Banks


When we had… parliament men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi stanes when they werena gude bairns – but naebdy’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.

- a character of Walter Scott's



Scotland is defo a distinct nation – but identity alone is a poor argument for anything. Who cares if the abstract authority 'Scotland' gets more power, or gets richer? We care about the situation of people, not ideas – and ideas are all a nation is. Rather than Nation, Polity's the thing: the aggregated will of people on the topic of their own lives. Do people living in Scotland want different things from the rUK? Less cruel policies, an actual constitution, something less tangible? There is strong reason to think so.


  • What’s wrong with the UK? A great many of the most important things, by European standards. We’re an extraordinarily unequal society, the seventh worst in the OECD, by income. (And in case you didn’t know, there's evidence that extreme inequality has a more negative effect on health and well-being than some epidemic diseases.) Third worst green energy record in Europe. Sixth–lowest pension in the entire OECD. Fourth-worst wage decline since 2010. Top quartile for size of gender pay gap. Third-highest housing costs. The tax system is stupid. We also seem to be the first country to be investigated by the UN for systematic abuse of the rights of disabled people (austerity, innit). Less straightforwardly, we also tie up billions of pounds in nukes, and punish the poor for the mistakes of the rich. Then there’s the parliamentary process, which is the root of some of this, and deserves its own box.

    Evidence: please see links; none of them are from nats, I think.
    Significance: Huge.


  • What’s wrong with UK politics? Well, there’s no constitution, and this probably does allow heinous bullshit to go unchecked, not least in that Britain isn't inherently committed to any human rights beyond the Magna Carta; parts of the upper house are still medieval, with considerable feudal and religious powers; the royals can legally and covertly impede due process at will; power is still overwhelmingly concentrated in a mostly-hereditary elite; the financial background of our election campaigns is almost as mucky as America’s; the voting system is extremely conservative and props up a fairly corrupt two-party seesaw, and also makes regional balance of power impossible. The two large parties are at the same time homogenised and partisan. (For homogenous, see here for the track record of our most recent "Left" option. For "partisan", we might note that in Britain, coalition governments - the norm in world democracies - are feared and called "hung parliaments".) Westminster also has a second-order problem: the whole system is intensely resistant to change; thus we cannot make new decisions about our decision-making with less than a 30-year run-up, and even then it will fail several times.

    Evidence: The above are all matters of public record.
    Significance: Large.



  • Does Scotland suffer a democratic deficit? Yeah, sort of. The 2010 result ("more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs") looks more dramatic than it is (first-past-the-post returned just one Tory MP out of 59 Scottish Westminster seats – yet a Tory government has executive power. (Though let’s not dignify first-past-the-post and mention that they actually got 16% of the vote.) The electoral argument for independence is:
    1) Scotland’s voting record shows it to be a distinct polity;
    2) Distinct polities should be allowed to entirely determine their own policies,
    3) therefore independence.
    Evidence: Mixed but on balance lately yes, 50%.
    Significance: High.


  • Is Scotland a distinct polity, though? It's ambiguous, I'm afraid. How long does a deficit have to last before it counts? (Little known fact: in 1955, more than half of Scots votes were Tory.) Based on a sense of injustice, I'm going to say that 34 years is enough.


  • Would independence make a difference? What policy powers would Holyrood actually gain? It really could change things. British politics change far more slowly than Britain does. Scotland already votes with Proportional Representation, rather than the horrendous First-past-the-Post, so one giant barrier would be overcome immediately. And we could immediately opt out of TTIP's horrendous stealth privatisation of the NHS. And there’s no reason it should suffer from Westminster’s conservatism about Westminster. And if we take the White Paper at all seriously, it says it’ll protect welfare, shift the nukes, shut Dungavel and institute universal free child care. (see below for affordability, though)

    Evidence: N/A.

  • Independence would decentralise power: would this do any good? Localism is a good, simple civic principle: the less distant an authority is from its jurisdiction, the more informed and less arbitrary it's likely to be. (Tories are generally all for decentralisation; I wonder what those cases have in common that this case lacks?)

    Evidence: Not much. It makes sense, and would be nice if it were true. But when considering the overall efficiency, consider that localist regions have to duplicate departments, and maybe lose certain economies of scale. And Holyrood is already relatively powerful, and has its own class of racketeering inefficient buggers. (I should stop talking - there's just not enough data. Anyone want to run a regression of population size against Freedom House rank?)
    Significance: Medium.

  • What will happen to the UK? (The English Scotland question.) Politically, a rightward lurch, and so a Lab-Lib coalition at best in the next election. This will be the sad result of the UK becoming horribly more democratic at the same time as Scotland does (59 fewer seats means more power for each remaining). Could inspire the Welsh nats to try and get out. Economically, energy dependence and a 6-9% cut in headline GDP – though the new gas reserves will hold it up, at the cost of yet more fracking disaster. (But note that this was happening anyway.) Some punitive action? Final thought: Scotland likely to improve, England likely to stabilise after a dark period. (For instance, Ukip's majority demographics - the old, white, uneducated - are on the way down.)


  • Isn’t Holyrood just another political class? Same shit, different accent? Yes, but less so. You can compare the class background and gender balance of Westminster (23% women MPs) and Holyrood (34% women, 1.5% nonwhite MSPs) here and here. And, besides: Holyrood is easier to reform than the HoC and HoL.

  • Is the devolved union unfair on England? Ah, cunning. Three main sources for the suspicion: 1) Scots are seen to receive more stuff (but this doesn't take into account the oil); 2) tuition fee inequality, of all things, stirred up the most popular dissent against the UK since Thatcherism; 3) our MPs can sort-of vote twice, and on some exclusively English affairs.

    Evidence: How likely is it that Thatcherites would prop up something which cost them net billions? (Up-to-date discussion of the rUK's current account here.)
    Significance: Low.


  • Is the referendum a matter of Liberation – that is, the human right of national self-determination? (I only ask because James Kelman says so.)The classic independence argument is to gain representation and escape oppression. The UN Charter, 1:1:2: "The Purposes of the United Nations are...To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples..." I'm not convinced by this where no genuine oppression exists. Scotland has the right proportion of Westminster seats, an amount of policy control, and, in the last hundred years, a more than proportionate share of figureheads. So it’s not an existential or colonial thing.

    Evidence: Above.
    Significance: Low. Who cares about nations in themselves?


  • What happened to devo max? Bad things. Both politicians saw that it would win, and colluded to squash it. This may prove to be one of those great booboos in history, for Cameron - his Suez.


  • When will we get our republic – actual independence? One thing at a time. Demanding everything supplies us nothing.


  • Will Alex Salmond rule forever? Independence parties are often horribly long-reigning (LDPJ, ANC). But even following a Yes, the SNP has to contend with a great many Scottish people’s deep suspicion of Salmond. Most of the Yes voters I’ve talked to aren’t SNP supporters, except insofar as they are the only major party offering proper education, healthcare, anti-anti-immigration, and anti-Trident.

    Evidence: Mixed, some cause for concern.

    Significance: The raging contempt and fear Salmond inspires would apply to any powerful separatist, so the opinion doesn’t really have content. Witness the things Salmond has been called in mainstream outlets.


  • Isn't nationalism toxic? Ethnic nationalism certainly is, and other types can be. (‘Nationalism’ means a bunch of things – 1) a sentiment of shared identity with people who have roughly the same cultural upbringing as you; 2) a political movement based on the idea that the feeling (1) is what makes States legitimate; the bullshit type 3) unreflective loyalty to your ruling state; and the irredeemably bullshit type 4) ethnic nationalism – the idea that only certain white Scots whose parents were certain white Scots are Scots, which no-one with any sense has anything to do with. Also, when you say ‘nationalism’, many people seem to hear 5) ‘supremacism’ – the idea that your people are objectively superior to all other people. But if you’ve ever met any Scots I seriously doubt you’ll be able to think supremacism is the thing at hand.)

    However much I think of type 2 nationalism as an odd and creepy mistake, as an historical vehicle for positive reform, nationalism is up there with the greatest: science, organised labour, and feminism. Who would call the ANC a malign force in their country? (OK, until recently.) We call those who support independence on policy grounds civic nationalists. Some of the Yes votes will be emotional ones, born of deluded historical resentment. I think equally many will be 'No' out of deluded Unionist nostalgia - the classic British love of something merely because it is old. Has talking to one another about it grown too boring and violent?

    Evidence of toxic Scottishness?: Not much. There are a couple of tiny, ridiculous ultras like Siol nan Gaidheal, but Jacobitism and blood-and-soil Celtic stuff long ago faded to cute symbolism. And, as a community, the Gàidhealtachd are mostly nice romantic lefties. Only about 50% of people even prefer Scottishness as an idea, let alone support ethnic supremacism.
    Significance: Low. Even the bigots could be voting the right way for the wrong reasons.


  • But I hate the SNP so much . Well, fine: there are plenty of reasons to, what with their fundamentally opportunistic grab-bag of policies, the cuts to corporation tax, helping to shoot down devo max, their proposed monetary union to a volatile toy of speculators, cutting flight tax, their giving in to the UK's shoddy financial regulation. But unlike literally everyone else in power, they're not privatising the health service, education, or the arts, nor have they given in to nasty anti-immigration paranoia. Allowing for the risk of a couple of triumphal terms in office as the public’s reward to them; their share of the electorate will decrease upon independence, because their only distinctive platform will have been served, and Scotland’s voting system makes small parties and regional concerns much more relevant. (That's the idea behind a new political culture: we make the SNP one among several ok options).

    Evidence: Your feels.
    Significance: Low.


  • But borders are bad, man! In this day and age we should be coming together rather than putting up walls! Very wise-sounding. However, this particular political border will have no reason to limit movement of people - (Scotland needs immigration) - and is actively seeking a stronger EU. Take heart.



  • What will happen if we vote no? There have been a number of tasty pledges from the No camp recently (increasing in precise proportion with the Yes share of the polls, duh.) One of the stronger arguments for independence has nothing to do with the merits of the Yes case. It’s just the very simple point that, in the event of a No vote – that is, another 25+ years until the next referendum, and with only one seat in the entire country – the Tories will have absolutely no reason not to pummel Scotland with cuts.

    Evidence: N/A
    Significance: Save yourself, you fools.


So the real question stands revealed as "Will independence be good for people?" (Not just Scottish people.) Adding up the points marked as ‘medium to highly' significant up there, we get a strong case for independence. (All the Yes campaign needs to argue is that independence is more likely to improve governance than the compromised parties and self-perpetuating institutions of the union are. After that, well, change stimulates change.)

If the aim was total self-determination, then the independence we're offered – same monarchy, same currency, same NATO, same speculative finance – is very far from that. But it might well be a step forward: this means that 1 in 12 British people will have a chance to improve their lot, with little probable loss for the other 92%, except of course loss of face.

(Some melodrama for you: A German friend listened patiently to a rough version of the above, and said, "You really think they will let you secede?" I blustered a little – saying that this is Western Europe! we have the Edinburgh agreement! and all. He replied simply: "Tell that to Ireland.")



GEOPOLITICAL CASE

  • Will the UK drop out of the EU next year? Is that bad? Thanks to protest voters setting the Tories’ agenda, there is a serious risk of it. It would be very bad; Scotland relies on an easy flow of European investment, and gains a lot from the EU. (As does the whole UK, actually, but there’s no reasoning with some people.) More: the departure of Scotland's MPs would make the remaining rUK MPs more likely to leave the EU. (This is the best argument against independence.)

    Evidence: Medium-high. UKIP’s startling EU success hasn't subsided much, as was expected all summer up until about yesterday.
    Significance: Very high.


  • What will happen to Scotland and the EU? Accession or Amendment? There’s actually no precedent for what will happen; both cases require the invention of legal instruments to deal with iScotland. Supposedly Spain would drag their feet so as not to encourage Catalunyan independence, but they have to say that (just as the Westminster parties have to say that they’d reject a Sterling monetary union).

    Best case: Rather than invent laws on expelling EU citizens, Scottish membership is fast-tracked via “treaty amendment”. (The main thing putting pressure towards this case is that the EU has to ensuring the status of the ~158,000 foreign EU citizens in Scotland makes me incline to Amendment scenario.) When you combine that pressure with the fact that the post-Yes talks should be Important legal backing for this detailed here.

    Worst case: France, Spain, or Belgium block Accession unconditionally (membership votes must be unanimous).

    Meh case: A new Accession application is demanded. (Average length: 4 years - though 3 years for already-compliant states, and note the small sample size in that link.) Vetoes from the anti-separatists have to be bought, at some underhand cost or other. Scotland stays in the Union until then. (Depending on how the domestic post-Yes talks go, we might place the date of separation from the UK at the same time as the EU join date.)

    A nicer consequence: Scotland should gain twice the MEPs afterward; Scotland has 6 where Ireland has 12, with the same population.

    Evidence: Basically none, because all we have is the non-binding, non-legal word of politicians.
    Significance: Very high.



  • Given globalisation, is there even any such thing as national independence anymore? Ooh, look at you reading a book from the 90s. There is less, but still lots if you have a decent tax base, food security, and energy independence. (Scotland has that last one three times over, incidentally.) All the Scottish parties are for "IndependenceinEurope". So Scotland would integrate hard into Europe. God knows if that'd be enough, or what terms the EU would demand.

    Evidence: Meh.
    Significance: Low.


  • But won’t the UK lose its place on the world stage? For that to be an argument against independence, you have to show that Britain is in general a good force in the world. I leave it to you to judge whether the lethal blessings of Korea '50, Falklands '82, Iraq '91, Kosovo ’99, Sierra Leone ’00, and Libya ’11* are enough to make Britain losing power projection a bad thing, given Vietnam '45, Mau Mau '52, Iran '53, Suez '56, Lumumba '60, Aden '63, Ireland 4eva, Pinochet 4eva, the handling of Bosnia ’95, Afghanistan '01, and the gigantic atrocity Iraq ’03. (Also basically all of our wars before 1939 (except Napoleon?)? On balance, slightly defanging Britain is a good thing (though that move dishonestly relies on NATO keeping Russia checked).

    Evidence: List of modern British conflicts. Though perhaps this is more relevant.
    Significance: Low.


  • * I have since been convinced that the humanitarian case for bombing was largely fabricated, and that intervention has had a plethora of very bad medium-term effects.


Scotland’s greatest natural resource is, of course, not being near to Russia. (By land.)



THE ECONOMIC CASE

    A small country may sometimes do better economically if it is independent than as a region of a larger state. Until the recent financial crisis, from which it still suffers, the Republic of Ireland illustrated this. Back in the 1950s Ireland's GDP per head was only about half the UK average; yet by the end of the century it had fully caught up. The ability to tailor economic policies closely to its needs can give a small country a better chance of success than the one-size-fits-all strategies of a larger state. Even if fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policies are constrained by the need to have regard to what is being done in neighbouring states, there is much more freedom to use these policies than is available to a regional economy in a larger state.

    - Gavin McCrone



  • Would Scotland be able to maintain current public spending? So much marsh gas! Like most developed countries at the moment, Scotland runs a budget deficit (that is, that the state spends more than it makes in tax. (The Yes people sometimes say we're really slightly in surplus, citing the oil, and pointing to Scotland's very high per-capita GDP, in a fairly dishonest non-sequitur - deficits depend on the difference in spending vs tax, rather than wealth level alone.) The stats are a little speculative; annual oil revenue does vary a lot. I use the most reliable publication, the Government Expenditure Review Scotland (GERS). Here we go:

    • Scottish public spending (2012-3): £65.2bn.
    • Actual Scottish tax receipts 2012-3 (if you include 84% of oil revenue): £53.1bn.*
    • Prima facie deficit: £12.1bn
    • Why this isn't the actual deficit: 1) Last year's oil tax yield was £2bn less than the recent average**; 2) Scotland seems to subsidise UK defence by £0.5-£1.5bn (based on what it spent and what the table at the bottom of this Parliamentary report suggests about what actually accrued to Scottish defence: from 2002 to 2008, £8.26bn of benefit for £15.8bn of contributions. Corroborated in a few sources; p.14 here, the Telegraph here). Not sure if this includes the £400m unwilling contribution for Trident); 3) Scotland's share of border controls is about 0.13bn. They make much of the scrapping the marriage tax-cut, and how inefficient Whitehall is, and how expensive border controls are, but these couldn't amount to more than £1bn. Most of all, though: the UK's debt servicing has sapped around £2bn a year from Scottish taxes (and actually £4bn last year). What is it, then? Well, all those savings but the oil and defence are wholly speculative, but something around £8bn*** could easily be true, and would place Scotland.

      * Though 2012 was a bad year for oil prices. Figure should have an error bar of plus or minus £6bn, if you're using it for any other year; oil fluctuates a lot. (Oil tax revenue in 2008-9: between £11.5bn and £12.5bn. 2011-2: £5.5bn to £7.5bn. Again, though, this isn't a dealbreaker because oil is only 15%-20% of tax revenue, and because the fluctuations have never taken Scotland's per-capita revenue below another UK country's in the last 34 years.)

      ** From BBC chart: (£5bn + 9.3 + 9 + 7.8 + 12.2 + 6 + 8.2 + 11.3 + 6.3bn / 9 = average of £8.3bn per year, and so a £2bn shortfall in 2012-3).



      ***(£12bn deficit, minus £2bn for an average year's oil yield, minus £1bn for UK defence underspend, minus say £1bn for disproportionate debt servicing. Let's leave out the other interesting claims to be safe.)


    • Actual deficit: Doesn't really exist as an object of analysis yet; ask again in two years.


    The first few years could be rough from the putative credit downgrade and lack of an oil fund to smooth out falls due to low oil prices. I place no real confidence on oil being enough in the absence of proper progressive taxes.

    Last point: Scotland's deficit is persistently smaller than the rUK's, and will probably remain so, after the short term; it's just scaremongering to assume that deficits are instantly destructive, or destructive of small countries in particular.

    Estimates for the overall initial situation: McCrone (yes but at risk); IFS (no, and a 1% deeper deficit after independence), CIPFA (yes given good fiscal manouevring).
    Significance: Very high.



  • Could Scotland afford the SNP's childcare, pension and immigration pledges? Answer is the same as ever: not without decent taxation, of course. (Also assuming we save on guns by entering a strong military union with someone or other.)


  • Universal childcare: The SNP didn't actually say any figure, but e.g. Sweden's amazing one costs £11.2bn ("2% of GDP"), or £1150 per capita = £6.1bn for Scotland. (Though note the arguable economic surplus from such programmes.)
  • Pensions: SNP ;
  • Immigration: False dichotomy, since immigration controls impose extra costs relative to the economic benefits.



  • How does Scotland make money? Oil (volatile but only 15% of tax income), finance (a liability built on the American model), whisky (owned by Diageo and Campari), tourism.



  • How much oil is left? This is the most obfuscated, but also the most legitimately uncertain question. There's actually a full order of magnitude of uncertainty around what's left (remaining revenue "£120bn to £1.5tn" - geology, innit) but a prudent interval for 'years of oil left' might be 30-40 years (OBR figures, cited here). After that: Scotland has a ridiculous amount of renewables potential, which obviously isn't as marketable, but would be fine if the world gets its finger out about a carbon tax.


  • What should we use as money? Sterling formally, Sterling on the sly, the euro, or a New Quid? Frankly, the options aren't great; with the first three, you lose control of monetary issue (and so gain a default risk); with a new Scots pound you have to swallow a largegilt rate hike to get investors interested and leads to either low growth or an import price hike.

  • A Sterling monetary union:
    - Pros: No setup cost, no transactions costs with rUK (saving £200-500m annually), no gilt hike, and it puts a bound on the volatility of the borrowing and trading price. Some representation in the BoE, so some power. A BoE safety net, with some qualification.
    - Cons: Monetary policy will still serve London! The safety net would be limited (English taxpayers would only agree to the one-sided bailouts when the bank failure looked contagious). Price still volatile (since Sterling is a toy for speculators), financial regulation wouldn’t change (since the hefty measures all go through the central bank). Undermines independence from the start - Mark Carney's warning is not at all just spin and despair.

    A Scots pound:
    - Pros: Sovereignty: actually appropriate monetary policy for the first time ever. (Also, some mad neoliberals reckon a non-currency Quid would be 'free' of meddling monetary policy, and think this would be good.)
    - Cons: New currencies trade badly, so Scots borrowing costs rise. The Scotch financial industry would take a hit, because a systemic failure like 2009 couldn’t be bailed out by the state. Still pegged to Sterling, in all probability.

    The Euro:
    - Pros: No transactions costs with Eurozone. A German safety net (with fiscal strings attached).
    - Cons: Loss of macroeconomic control. Bit more volatile than Sterling, safe only as long as the Eurozone grows. Very unpopular among people who only read newspapers.

    Sterling without monetary union
    - Pros: No setup cost, transactions costs.
    - Cons: JESUS NO. No safety net, we hand Westminster enormous economic leverage. There is some suggestion that EU member states can’t use currencies informally, anyway.

    Finance really isn’t my field, but if my estimate by eye is right, I actually recommend the Euro. That said, I at last understand the cleverness of the SNP's "say 'informal Sterling' over and over unlike they crack" strategy. Westminster may have to cave on currency union, because the political cost of refusing monetary union will be high, due to 1) the market panic over the idea; as Krugman* says, informal union would be terrible for the rUK too, as this week's markets suggest, and 2) the transactions costs ("£500m", when the Treasury are spinning them up) will surely be viewed as self-inflicted economic damage by the likes of the CBI, who quite often get what they want.

    * He's right enough on the macroeconomics - but he misses the game theory side (the SNP counter-bluff) entirely.


  • But even if you get Sterling, you'll immediately have lost independence! I actually don't think Sterling union is best, but assertions about that union precluding independence "in any meaningful sense of the word" simply doesn't follow. Even given likely fiscal concessions, Holyrood would still gain full control of taxation, immigration, EU relations, industrial policy, and still opt out of TTIP's NHS marketization. More importantly, it'd be free of Westminster's life-sapping party-seesaw and centuries of accumulated cruft. In the self-same vein: to say "ruled by Brussels" as a necessary consequence of Eurozone membership is melodrama.



  • How much debt would we be in? If the UK’s total debt (£1.4tn) were split per capita, we'd take home about minus £115bn, a 78% of Scotch GDP*. This would entail an annual servicing burden of about £3.4bn, assuming interest rates don't freak out for any length of time. (The SNP’s threat to just ignore the national debt was a retaliation over the pound embargo; in practice it would only be funny for a very wee while, because it could make Scotland’s future borrowing expensive. (Though note that markets have since mostly forgiven Iceland, after they failed to honour foreign credit.)

    Evidence: Mrnrhr.
    Significance: High.
  • * Scottish GDP (2014): £148bn. (£115bn debt / £148bn GDP = 77.7% debt.)


  • How much more will borrowing money cost? New countries never get the highest creditworthiness ratings, because track record. The rest depends largely on the currency we opt for. The 'Big Three' global credit rating agencies disagree: Moody's indicated an "A1" rating as an estimate for iScotland's initial rating, two grades below the UK's current "Aa1" rating. This translates to very roughly a 1% hike which I think translates to a big £1.2bn extra on the annual debt service**. S&P were reticent, but state that AAA* is achievable - i.e. one grade higher than the rUK (p.3 in that link -though if you dig in you'll see they assume a formal Sterling union for that) . As far as I can tell, Fitch haven't published anything, except to say "it won't be AAA".

    Evidence: Good; those three agencies have serious performative power in setting markets' disposition toward things.
    Significance: Medium.

  • ** My "£3.4bn" debt servicing figure from above assumes the same interest rate as the wider UK (about 3%): £115bn debt times 0.03 a year. If Moody's is right, we might be paying £115bn * 0.04 = £4.6bn.


  • AAAAA! The markets! Won't somebody think of the markets! First of all: the market skittishness is another reason to think it'll be too politically expensive for Westminster to reisist a formal Sterling union. But over and above all that mere tactics: it is a seriously bad shout to base your politics on the conservative hysterics of markets. (Example: Iceland wasn't doomed as a result of Icesave; it had a couple of years of unrest.) Fine, we've no choice but to exploit them, good policy will very often not serve them. Sterlingisation (rather than independence) is scaring the market. You know what else scares markets? Proper taxation, regulation, competition, refusal to marketise basic goods - i.e the basis of any government worth the name.


  • What will it cost to set up the 'new' government? Contrary to the Treasury’s recent outright lie, about £220m. (Dunleavy says £150m-200m, but notice his report has no mentions of the planning fallacy, nor "overspend", "overshoot", so I'm hedging.) Evidence: The Dunleavy report. Significance: Low.

  • Will Scottish businesses flee? Meh? A couple have moved headquarters, and since risk-aversity of this sort always shows its face early, they're likely to be the worst of it. (I imagine this is the logic behind the SNP’s tax cut plan.)


  • What about transactions costs? (“The United Kingdom forms a single market of over 60 million people. There are no borders, customs checks, administrative or accounting procedures on the movement of labour, goods or services. ”) This – the new tariffs, customs, quotas – is the main route that retribution from the rUK could flow. The Treasury has estimated the annual costs to UK (iScotland + rUK) at as much as £500m. Luckily, though, an often-overlooked fact about cut-throat economics comes in here: it is just very bad for a country to have an economically depressed neighbour. Rich neighbours visit you, buy your stuff, and don’t export (all that many) violent young men; the UK has an inalienable interest in Scotland succeeding. So things probably won’t become too bad, unless the rUK electorate demand blood. And, again, note that these costs would be self-inflicted economic damage, and so comes well under the "artificial obstacles" rubric.


  • Would Scotland tackle inequality any better the UK does? Hard to see how we could do any worse, short of blowing up the HMRC.
    Evidence: N/A.

    Significance: Very high.


  • If it had its own currency, could Scotland even bail out its own banks?
  • No - liabilities are 13 times GDP - but nor could the UK, since the combined liabilities of all UK banks is 17 times the whole country's GDP, well beyond any precedented IMF or private liquidity intervention. However, other small countries with their own currencies get by fine, just by regulating their banks properly. The EU will offer some stability, and ideally there would be an oil fund too.

    Evidence: Good, against it being a grave problem.
    Significance: Medium.



  • Could Scotland afford an oil fund? Not at first.


  • You’re messing with a system you don’t fully understand! A good general rule – one of the few economics has ever come up with: don't mess with an economy unless you have very good reason and a good idea of what your intervention will do ten steps down the line. But as it happens, we do have good reason; the reasons above; and I think I've shown that the costs will be limited.


Economic conclusion: I don’t trust the field of economics enough to answer this with much confidence. But, barring obstruction on the part of the rUK – which isn’t likely, for self-interested reasons – Scotland will very probably be no poorer. Now go look at things that matter, as much.



THE CULTURAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL CASE

What is our ‘culture’ made of? Sporranry, alcoholism, and the ludicrous appropriation of the remains of Scotland’s Celtic fringe as national symbol… a sickening militarism… these are the pathetic symbols of an inarticulate people, unable to forge valid correlates of their different experience.

- Tom Nairn


In heated pub debates, people sometimes try and make a Historical case for independence – “wir bought and sold for English gold” – but if this is phrased as anything other than a moot legal case study, the argument is just dumbass tribalism. There is evidence of some corruption in the original union – but the origins of the thing are irrelevant; we’re talking about what’s wrong now. And what’s wrong now (q.v.) is very different from then (national bankruptcy, outright bribery, military threat, the Alien Act).


  • But I like Britain! Well, it's not going anywhere. It's the UK we propose to leave.


  • Will independence ‘give Scotland confidence’?
  • What on earth does it mean to live in a confident country? Will our diplomats make eye contact at last? Will our TV presenters refuse to speak standard English for American guests? Will our capercaillies dance longer? Sure there’d be a short-lived collective buzz, but to base a vote on a more extensive boost reeks of wishful thinking. But! it will give policy-makers confidence; the psychic gains will come, if they come, from better policy, particularly as goes squashing inequalities. But that takes years, and receives no thanks.

    Significance: Psychologically, after year one? I've no idea. Politically, legislatively? Absolutely significant.




  • Aren't Scots mostly the same as the English? Oh aye – mostly.



  • Will independence boost Scottish health, through a sense of empowerment? An interesting one. Scotland’s general health is mysteriously low, even when you factor out the vitamin D deficiency, sugar, fat and heroin. But it’s a stretch to fill this epidemiology gap with a general political malaise. However, again, inequality causes poor health, and, again, independence might improve health via that.

    Evidence: The placebo of National hope has not been much studied, as far as I can tell.
    Significance: High!



  • But it would be really sad if the UK broke up! I like it a lot. All I can say is I think you’re letting yourself more fond of ideas than people, there.



  • Will Scottish art flourish afterward? Argument: 1) Scotland's culture is highly distinct, 2) Political independence leads to cultural empowerment. There’s also the consideration that public arts bodies have generally been administered by people with no knowledge or affinity for Scotch art. Alasdair Gray claims that the gains will come from more Scots being in curator and funding council positions - but again, I just don’t see the link. Arts people are already painfully relativist and cosmopolitan.

    Evidence: None whatsoever; it already is. (Sorry National Collective!) Look what happened to the Scottish novel and poetry after ’79, when there was no Parliament, when Thatcherism was on the march, when the SNP was tiny and ridiculous! It’s just as likely that the loss of “socio-cultural tension” would make art go limp. (“People sang the Ballads not because they were Scottish, but because they were fun. If they still are, they will still be sung”)
    Significance: Probably low.



  • Will Scotland become racist (anti-English) as a result? I think the extent of anti-English rancour is overstated: something like 8% of the population of Scotland is English, and yet overt racism is very rare. There are at least two forces counteracting - the first effect, which would count against racism, is the relief from the 'unhappy marriage', for both Scots and English. Then there’s the distancing effect of A Border, which could I guess lead to nastiness, though rivalry and jibes seem more likely to me. I don't know which force will win out and neither do you. Civic nationalism has been the blessed rule: arguments have been overwhelmingly economic ones.



  • What about the BBC?! Um, we keep licensing exactly as it is? Plus a couple of naff SBC channels? (This is one of my mates' main arguments against, believe it or not.)
    Significance: No.



  • One real opportunity to mature: in an independent country, Scots won't be able to blame the English for their problems any more. (Assuming no retribution...)



    **************************************************************



    Once upon a time... the wan green island was split inty twa kingdoms. But no' equal kingdoms, naebdy in their richt mind would insist on that. For the northern kingdom wis cauld and sma'. And the people were low-statured and ignorant and feart o' their lords and poor.

    - Liz Lochhead's Corbie



    Scotland is full of resources, institutionally dense, and culturally defibrillated. All you need to add to that for a half-decent nation-state is popular will. And on that matter we'll soon see. (I suppose it is nationalistic to hope that our nationalism be less venal and destructive than other people’s?)

    To be frank, the dominant factor in how independent Scotland will do, at first, is whether other countries punish Scotland. (This leads to a funny contradiction: to the extent that you believe the British state is amoral and suboptimal, you’ll be voting Yes – but that very same evidence should make you scared that they’ll punish independence, so you’ll vote No. To break the circle, I suggest you decline to let intimidation determine your future.) But there is reason to think it won't be all that. The strongest conclusion is that independence is unlikely to be worse than the status quo, and has some chance of being a great deal better. That'll do.





    Stracathro service station, (c) "Dauvit Horsbroch" (2005)