While enjoying my traditional Saturday morning bludge, I seem to have stumbled on an unusually rich treasure trove of internet links, each capable of sparking its own chain of reading and contemplation that could keep me going all day. It’s not standard practice at the Faustusnotes School of Propaganda to simply post up links, but in this case I’m feeling so inspired by the material I stumbled on that I thought I would put up a little linkfest; plus, of course, my own commentary. Here, then, are a few things that interested me on this Saturday morning, that I think might also interest my reader(s).
Gaia theory’s inventor blames it all on NASA
James Lovelock, who invented Gaia theory in conjunction with Lyn Margulis, is retiring from his career as a “freelance scientist.” The Guardian has an interview with him, which goes to show may things – including, possibly, confirmation that scientists should retire at 65 like everyone else, because they become increasingly kooky as they age. Maybe at a faster trajectory than non-scientists. Lovelock, who in addition to Gaia theory also appears to have been responsible for saving the ozone layer, is revealed to be a supporter of nuclear power and opponent of wind-farms, even though he is a strong proponent of AGW theory and famously claimed that
by this century’s end “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”
a claim he has now retracted and replaced with “2ft a century sea level rise” (he has bought a cottage by the coast). He also supports fracking, a fairly controversial energy source to say the least and one that probably would have run into a great deal more opposition in the UK this summer if they hadn’t happened to just experience the wettest spring since Noah. In defense of fracking he has some virulent thoughts on German energy policy, with which I largely agree, but I think he’s out of whack with the carbon budget predictions when he talks about fracking: switching to gas alone is not enough to meet our carbon budget targets, we need much lower carbon energy sources than that, and if we can’t fall back on nuclear power then we really, really need to find something that is even lower carbon than gas. I’ve not really got an opinion either way on fracking but it seems unduly risky, and while it may be a useful way to buy some time, I strongly suspect that at least in Britain it won’t have any effect on the carbon budget – it’s just an alternative to Russian gas. Lovelock also seems to be a fan of theories of group selection, which I thought had long since been dismissed.
Anyway, the spectacle of Gaia’s creator advocating tearing up the earth – and his advocacy of moving everyone into megacities, air-conditioning them, and not worrying about the environment at all – suggests that Lovelock’s interpretation of Gaia theory isn’t very soft and fuzzy. Interestingly, though, in describing his career he suggests that he would never have come up with the theory if he hadn’t worked at NASA:
when I got a letter from the director of space flight at Nasa I was gobsmacked. I realised I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as a civil servant, and I didn’t like the idea of having everything planned right up to my retirement. My boss [at the National Institute for Medical Research in London] said I’d be a fool to ignore it and out of all that, ultimately, came Gaia.
There you have it! I’ve always suspected that NASA with their pictures of earth-rises and their extensive work on global warming are really just a pack of hippies. Lovelock has confirmed it. Get these smelly, hairy space-telescope waving lefties away from government funds before they turn us all into gay abortionists!
A subversive school lunch blog sticks it to the man
The Guardian features a very sweet story about a blog, NeverSeconds, started by a nine year old British (Scottish?) girl that has run afoul of its local council and created something of a social media storm. In addition to being a really cute and interesting read, the blog is a really good example of how different blogging is as a medium, and how at its best it can really create new forms of cultural interchange. The blog theme is very simple: Martha Payne, the author, takes a photo of her school lunch and posts it on the blog with a review. It started as a writing project but quickly became a social media phenomenon, and soon she was being sent photos of school lunches from around the world. Told about how a German university has several canteens and a wide selection of cheap food, she writes:
I like all the choices you get at University but it would take me a long time to decide everyday!
The selection of foods from around the world that one can see in her blog are really fascinating, because it’s easy to see how much healthier the rest of the world eats than do the British – even though Martha’s food choices are much, much healthier than when I had reheated chips with mayonnaise for my school lunches back in the 1970s in Britain. You are a lucky girl, Martha, to be getting chicken fajita’s in a British school lunch!
Anyway, eventually her blog came to the attention of the school authorities and then the council that supplies the lunches. The results are visible in her sad little post, “goodbye,” in which she tells us
This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.
Such a cute and plaintiff little post, that attracted (at time of writing) 2,261 comments and 1,019 google plus ones. About one in five of the comments are people saying they have complained to the council about the request not to take photos. Even Jamie Oliver has gone into bat for her. By today, the council had reversed its decision and she will be allowed to continue posting food reviews. The Guardian article has more information about what happened, and certainly makes the Council look very stupid, but the story ends well and the council have even admitted that they got it wrong. Which is good because this simple little project tells us so much about food and school life around the world, all in a simple and powerful format.
The Mathematical Impossibility of Central Planning
Cosma Shalizi, who is sometimes referred to as a statistician, has a fascinating post at his website that outlines the mathematical challenge of central planning and takes apart the work of a chap called Cockshott who claims to have proven that central planning in the Soviet Union was feasible. The claim is that by collecting certain information one could turn the task of planning an economy into a linear programming problem that would have been soluble in the Soviet era. Shalizi’s post on his own site is a response to comments on another post at Crooked Timber which is a beautiful and elegant description of the mathematical impossibility of Soviet-style central planning. Commenters there are describing it as one of the most amazing posts on the internet and I’m inclined to agree: from the title through the initial disclaimer to the notes at the bottom, it’s a work of art. The logical construction is also very nice: starting by representing central planning as a perfectly plausible problem in linear programming, Shalizi shows that it would have been prima facie impossible in the Soviet era, or even now; he then goes on to develop more complex aspects of the problem, including discussing how simplifications of the linear programming problem throw up their own linear programming problems that are equally intractable. For example, one option to simplify the linear programming problem would be to assume it only needed to be run for a given assortment of goods (that we could at least determine what outcomes people want, and then program the economy to produce them at maximum efficiency). About this, Shalizi observes:
Kantorovich had a way of evading this, which was clever if not ultimately satisfactory. He imagined the goal of the planners to be to maximize the production of a “given assortment” of goods. This means that the desired ratio of goods to be produced is fixed (three diapers for every towel), and the planners just need to maximize production at this ratio. This only pushes back the problem by one step, to deciding on the “given assortment”.
We are pushed back, inevitably, to the planners having to make choices which express preferences or (in a different sense of the word) values. Or, said another way, there are values or preferences — what Nove called “planners’ preferences” — implicit in any choice of objective function. This raises both a cognitive or computational problem, and at least two different political problems.
The cognitive or computational problem is that of simply coming up with relative preferences or weights over all the goods in the economy, indexed by space and time. (Remember we need such indexing to handle transport and sequencing.) Any one human planner would simply have to make up most of these, or generate them according to some arbitrary rule. To do otherwise is simply beyond the bounds of humanity. A group of planners might do better, but it would still be an immense amount of work, with knotty problems of how to divide the labor of assigning values, and a large measure of arbitrariness.
Notice here that we haven’t even touched on the obvious political and moral problems of the program – it’s just computationally infeasible. And we haven’t yet discussed the problem of non-convexity in the programming problem.
Shalizi also seems to be implying that a lot of the practical solutions to the linear programming problem – so-called “shadow prices” or decentralization of the programming tasks, or decoupling of programming problems within industries – either directly resemble a move towards a market economy, or assume the necessity of developing a market economy to fill the gaps created by the simplification of the programming tasks.
Finally, Shalizi goes on to a discussion of the problems of solving this programming problem through a market economy, and points out the limited extent to which functional economies actually resemble the free markets that many neo-liberal market fetishists see as the most efficient way of solving this optimal allocation problem. The final section describes in quite pretty language the reality that decision-making in modern societies can’t follow any one ideology or system in achieving its best outcomes:
A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision or through other institutional arrangements. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.
It is, as Shalizi says at the beginning, a long and exhausting post, but it is singularly elegant in its destruction of the central foundation ideas of Soviet planning, and fascinating for doing so from a mathematical and technocratic, rather than a moral or socio-political, framework. In this sense I think it takes on supporters of central planning at their own game. It also leads to some fascinating discussion in the comments, for example about how central planners could possibly handle the problem of as-yet-undiscovered technology and how to optimally seek it. Well worth a read on a bludgey Saturday morning!
The ethical challenges of photographing drug-using Russian parents
Again from the Guardian, a fascinating article about the challenges facing Irina Popova after she released photographs from an exhibition about the lives of two drug-using Russians and their daughter. Popova, a professional photographer, stumbled on the family in St Petersburg and lived with them for two weeks, photographing their ordinary lives. The pictures can be viewed here, and show two adults living chaotic and irresponsible lives that many would judge as being unsuitable for a child; but she became accustomed to them and learnt to see love and kindness in amongst the chaos; when she put the pictures on show in an art gallery, she and the director drew very different conclusions about their meaning, but they won a prize. However, when she put them on her homepage they attracted a storm of criticism, as if she herself were somehow responsible for the lives of the people she photographed. The Guardian observes about the criticism that
The story of the photos raises a number of fascinating issues: about exploitation, voyeurism and embedded reportage; about the moral responsibility of a photographer or any artist who deals in non-fiction; about the differences between images seen in a gallery and images posted online; and about the meaning of informed consent.
I would add that it might also say something about the quality of criticism that online material attracts – largely knuckle dragging fools, I’d guess. This exhibition is interesting to me because it bears tangentially on the world that I researched in the first half of my career, and people’s response to that world (drug addiction, poverty, chaos and marginalization) even when it is caring and concerned for the object’s humanity can show a remarkable degree of judgment and anger. The people in these photos often serve as ciphers for the viewer’s own judgments about the social order, how people should live, and what responsibilities these two individuals owe to the state and society or their child. The article itself shows how even the best intentions of those who intervene may not be in the best interests of everyone involved: a campaign to remove the daughter to an orphanage would probably hurt everyone involved, and it’s unlikely that the people demanding such a radical move understand any of the elements of the story the way that the photographer (or the adults involved) does. The photographer herself shows a strongly conflicted view about what “should” be done about the family she lived with, or how they “should” be living. When I look at the photographs I see a family on a bad path, but who clearly love their child, and I think Australian child protection generally tries to work on the assumption that a loving family is best, even if the adults in that family are not perfect – but the article suggests that the judgmental voices on the internet think that they can tell what is best from nothing more than a few pictures on a website.
This story covers a complex mix of issues that will surely serve to get everyone screaming at each other, but for added joy we can enjoy the commenters below the line, reducing it all to their own personal biases. My favourite is comment four:
What hath Putin wrought?
That’s right, every decision that these two punks made is Putin’s fault. None of it lies in a much more complex problem of social systems reproducing themselves through family structures, in alcohol abuse or just the simple human problems of raising a child when you’re poor and uneducated and living in a world where you don’t want to or can’t work in the fields that are on offer. It’s because Putin shot a tiger. Or something. This is the kind of commentary that proves we need (in the words of the Daily Mash) a separate internet for people who comment on newspaper articles.
Fortunately, however, we do have this internet with all its wealth of Saturday morning fascinations. And so the afternoon has already come around and I’ve done nothing. That, my friends, is the best kind of Saturday.