Author Archive for peter

Notes from Underground

For any fifth millennium readers, here are some incidents and observations from London’s Underground:

  • Northern Line, Bank branch, heading north, Saturday 2016-04-09, 21.35: A dozen drunk young women board the train at Old Street, all but one dressed as elderly women, with wigs, granny glasses, handbags, etc.  One is dressed in pyjamas and a dressing gown – presumably she is the bride-to-be.  Several carry large plastic penises.  They are loud and boisterous, but good-natured.  The gentleman sitting opposite, a dapper man in his 60s with a thin moustache, dressed in a suit and tie, with a flower in his lapel and a silk handkerchief in his top pocket, awakes from his slumber. It turns out that he too is drunk, and, in a loud Irish accent, he engages the women. Banter is exchanged, and there are smiles and laughter the length of the carriage. The women detrain at Kings Cross, the Irish gent following them.  Was that his planned stop, one wonders?  What does it say about our culture that a young person seeking to act trangressively dresses as a very elderly person?
  • Northern line, London Bridge station, northbound platform, a Friday evening in February 2014, around 23.30: the platform is empty apart from a group of 8 men in suits and ties, in their early 20s, huddled in a close circle with arms around one another. They are taking turns to ingest something, each throwing his head back as he does.
  • Northern line, Charing Cross branch, heading south, a station between Euston and Embankment, a cold winter’s morning in winter 2012-2013, all the seats in the carriage taken, but the aisle free: a passenger stands up to detrain as the train stops. Apparently his gloves had been sitting in his lap and these are thrown off in different directions as he stands up. He does not see this and moves to leave. Both gloves are caught superbly by other passengers seated opposite and on different sides of him, and one of these passengers shouts at him. He turns and both gloves are thrown back to him.  He catches both and shouts his thanks. The scene looked choreographed and rehearsed, so perfect are the four arcs of the flying gloves and the catches.



Ends and Means

I have just read the memoir of Michael Hayden, USAF General and former head of both NSA and CIA. The book is interesting and mostly well-written.  It appears, as much as such a memoir could be, honest and truthful.

The torture of detainees undertaken by CIA personnel took place before Hayden was Director, so he could absolve himself of it completely.  But, as he did while Director and subsequently, he defends strongly and bravely his CIA staff, who acted under what they believed were legal orders and within what they believed to be constitutional limits.  This defence is admirable.

How one could imagine that torture would be legal under a constitution which prohibits cruel or unusual punishments remains one of the great mysteries of our age.  Hayden, however, also defends the torture itself.  He does so on grounds of effectiveness, grounds which are demonstrably, and which have repeatedly been demonstrated to be, spurious.  It is no good Hayden, or any other official paid by the public purse, saying “trust me, I know”.  We live in a democracy, and we need, ourselves, to see the evidence.  It has not ever been provided, at least not definitively and uncontestably.

Such a defence is essentially that the end justifies the means.  As a Roman Catholic, Hayden should appreciate the counter-argument that rebuts this defence: that certain means may vitiate, or irredeemably taint, the ends.   So, even if using torture were to be more effective than not using it, we still should not use it.   We should not because torture is contrary to our values as a humane, civilized, society, respectful of  human dignity, and using it undermines any claims we may have to moral superiority over our terrorist enemy.

Like players cheating in sports, support for torture shows what sort of person you are, and what values you consider important. Hayden seems like an intelligent, thoughtful, and humane person, so it is a great pity that he, and others in the Bush 43 administration, came to view torture as acceptable. Not everyone in CIA thought so, which was, indeed, how we citizens came to learn about the secret detention camps and the torture in the first place.

Reference:

Michael V Hayden [2016]: Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.   New York: Penguin Press.




Paris life

SpringFlowersParis2016.jpg

HenriPoincareTombMontparnasse




Brussels life

Composition-xi-van-Doesburg

Composition xi by Theo van Doesburg at Bozar.




Teleology Watch

I wonder about New Scientist magazine.  A recent article on plant evolution is encased in a teleological argument:

“Plants have evolved forgetfulness to wipe out memory of stress”

An entity may do action A which has consequence X. But that is very different to saying that the entity did action A in order to achieve outcome X. The theory of evolution makes no assumptions of intentionality. Indeed, quite the reverse – the classical Darwinian theory assumes that outcomes of evolutionary processes (whether non-detrimental or not) are the result of changes (eg, mutations) that happen apparently by random chance. Only with epigenetics and modern Lamarckism is there perhaps a role for non-random changes.

Moreover, evolution is a theory at the species level and across time. It makes no sense to talk about evolution of an individual or of a single generation. Yet only individual plants and animals have any intentionality.  Who or what is the entity that could have an intention for a species to evolve towards a certain goal? The entity would have to be both a cross-individual and a cross-generational collective. Ain’t such a thing, at least not in the material realm.

 




Brussels life

Officers' Mess, Arsenal Prison, Brussels

Restaurant Le Mess, Brussels, Belgium.




Possible Worlds

This is a list of movies which play with alternative possible realities, in various ways:

  • It’s a Wonderful Life [Frank Capra, USA 1947]
  • Przypadek (Blind Chance) [Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland 1987]
  • Lola Rennt (run lola run) [Tom Tykwer, Germany 1998]
  • Sliding Doors [Peter Howitt, UK 1998]
  • The Family Man [Brett Ratner, USA 2000]
  • Me Myself I [Pip Karmel, Australia 2000]

On the topic of possible worlds, this post may be of interest.




Blockchains are the new black!

Harper-Charley

In late 2014, the first edition of DevCon (labelled DevCon0, in computing fashion), the Ethereum developers conference held in Berlin had a dozen or so participants.  A year later, several hundred people attended DevCon1 in the City of London.  The participants were a mix of pony-tailed hacker libertarians and besuited, besotted bankers, and I happened to speak at the event.  Since New Year, I have participated in a round-table discussion on technology and entrepreneurship with a Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, previewed a smart contracts project undertaken by a prominent former member of Anonymous, briefed a senior business journalist on the coming revolution in financial and regulatory technology, and presented to 120 people at a legal breakfast on distributed ledgers and blockchains. That audience was, as it happens, the quietest and most attentive I have ever encountered.

For only the second time in my adult life, we are experiencing a great dramatic sea-change in technology infrastructure, and this period feels exactly like the early days of the Web.  In 1994-1997, every corporation and their sister was intent on getting online, but most  did not know how, and skills were scarce.  Great fortunes were to be made in clicks and mortar:  IBM took out full-page ads in the WSJ offering to put your company online in only 3 months and for just $1 million!  Today, sisters are urging investment in blockchains, and as much as $1 billion of venture funding went to blockchain and Bitcoin startups in 2015 alone.

The Web revolution helped make manifest the Information Society, by putting information online and making it easily accessible.  But, as I have argued before, most real work uses information but is not about information per se.  Rather, real work is about doing stuff, getting things done, and getting them done with, by, and through other people or organizations. Exchanges, promises, and commitments are as important as facts in such a world.  The blockchain revolution will manifest the Joint-Action Society, by putting transactions and commitments online in a way that is effectively unrevokable and unrepudiable.  The leaders of this revolution are likely to arise from banking and finance and insurance, since those sectors are where the applications are most compelling and the business needs most pressing. So expect this revolution to be led not from Silicon Valley, but from within the citadels of global banking: New York and London, Paris and Frankfurt, and perhaps Tokyo and Singapore.




Coffee with an Economista

Francis-cafe-Jermyn-Street




Alice Nampitjinpa at Temple

TempleStationLondon20160125

Workmen replacing the wall tiles at Temple Underground Station in London have temporarily revealed patterns on the concrete walls that bring to mind the sublime optic minimalist art of Alice Nampitjinpa. For a limited time only. Guaranteed to make you homesick for Australia.

Below is Nampitjinpa’s Tali at Talaalpi (1998).

TaliAtTalaalpi1998