Things I’ve seen recently

Lunchbox

Lunchbox is a love story, of sorts. A lonely woman, with few outlets outside her home, connects with a man who mistakenly receives the lunchbox meant for her husband. This is an anomaly in Mumbai’s highly efficient, interconnected lunchbox delivery system (it’s a thing).

It may be an anomaly, but it opens a communications channel between a crusty old office worker, and a young woman looking for something to change in a life that isn’t fulfilling. You’ll be unsurprised that they find tenderness in communicating with each other, that the crusty old man is humanised somewhat, and connects a little more, and the young woman finds the courage to step out into the unknown.

It’s a tender, well-presented movie, and it doesn’t feel overdone. Well worth it.

The play that goes wrong

The play that goes wrong is delightful. There’s a play, which is well performed. But the real theatre is watching the poor struggling actors attempting to perform a play, as the set falls apart around them – at first slowly, and then at an accelerating rate.

The delightful comedy is in their struggle to improvise, to respond, to the cruelty of a universe that doesn’t want to let them finish a line without a prop or piece of the stage giving way.

Well worth it.

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Articles

A few random things:

  • James Fallows writing in 2003, in an interesting reflection on whether Rupert Murdoch pursues expansion of a media empire for political or economic reasons:

… some aspects of News Corp’s programming, positions, and alliances serve conservative political ends, and others do not. But all are consistent with the use of political influence for corporate advantage. In the books I read and interviews I conducted, I found only one illustration of Murdoch’s using his money and power for blatantly political ends: his funding of The Weekly Standard. The rest of the time he makes his political points when convenient as an adjunct to making money.

Despite the overwhelming opportunity Amazon and Netflix provide, a duopoly is not a democracy. The biases of the people who curate the experiences on these services could dictate the shape of small-scale moviemaking for decades to come.

  • Myths over Miami is a harrowing piece about the stories children believe when everything around them is unjust.

Books and articles

Other minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses, and cephalopods in general, are fascinating creatures. If you haven’t read about giant squid, you should, right now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

That’s before we even get to octopus escapes.

Given such an intriguing topic, I was excited to read Other minds. What was disappointing was that Peter Godfrey-Smith did so little with the topic. The book is largely a recap of evolutionary theory. Which is interesting and important, but doesn’t say much that’s new, and was probably covered in too much depth. The most interesting part here for me, was that he recaps briefly some of the evolutionary theory on ageing, which I hadn’t come across before.

There’s a little bit of a recap here on consciousness, and different theories (see the quote below that references a theory that’s very reminiscent of the ideas put forth in The Ego Tunnel).

But for the most part, the only thing that Godfrey-Smith talks about that’s new is Octopolis, a fascinating site where octopuses display much more social behaviour than had previously been spotted. But Godfrey-Smith doesn’t tell a fascinating story, and for the most part is cautious about drawing out deep conclusions from the research at Octopolis.

All in all, it’s a useful overview, but Other minds ultimately is an uninteresting book on a fascinating topic. If you’re out to read about theory of mind and cephalopods, I’d wait for the next book.

… an octopus has three hearts, not one. Their hearts pump blood that is blue-green, using copper as the oxygen-carrying molecules instead of the iron which makes our blood red …

In birds like pigeons, each retina has two different “fields,” the yellow field and the red field. The red field sees a small area in front of the bird where there is binocular vision, and the yellow field sees a larger area that the other eye cannot access. Pigeons not only failed to transfer information between eyes; they also did quite badly at transfer between different regions of the same eye. This might explain some distinctive bird behaviors … hens approached … an object in a weaving way that seemed designed to give the different parts of each eye access to it. That, apparently, is the way the whole bird gets access to the object. The weaving gaze of a bird is a technique designed to slosh the incoming information around …

What we experience, in this view, is the internal model of the world that complex activities in us produce and sustain …

The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes

This is a paper by Reagan, Mitchell, Kiley, Danforth and Sheridan Dodds.  It’s based on their ‘hedonometer’, the guts of which is:

… the 5,000 most frequent words from a collection of four corpora: Google Books, New York Times articles, Music Lyrics, and Twitter messages, resulting in a composite set of roughly 10,000 unique words. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, we had each of these words scored on a nine point scale of happiness: (1) sad to (9) happy …

They then ran a large body of stories through their hedonometer:

We extracted and analyzed the emotional arcs of 1,722 novels from the Project Gutenberg corpus using sentiment analysis, and found six common shapes …

There’s more detail in the paper, but they argue that there are six basic shapes that emerge consistently:

  • Rise (‘rags to riches’)
  • Fall (tragedy)
  • Fall-rise (‘man in a hole’)
  • Rise-fall (‘Icarus’)
  • Rise-fall-rise (‘Cinderella’)
  • Fall-rise-fall (‘Oedipus’)

Intriguing stuff.

TV shows and books

In a few quiet moments, I’ve been watching some TV.

Iron Fist – is really, really bad. It fails basic questions of story telling – what is it that Iron Fist guy really wants? Is it to mope around, in general? Who really knows, because all of the characters wander round having these random conversations without trying to achieve any clear goals. The fight scenes are worse than you’d expect.

Lovesick (also listed in some places as Scrotal Recall) is hilarious. Laugh out loud hilarious. It is a story of a young man named Dylan, who gets chlamydia. He has to call everyone he’s ever slept with (at least, within the last several years), tell them the news. He uses it as a chance to revisit. Throughout, theres a ‘will they / won’t they’ vibe about Dylan and his best friend, Evie.

Dylan is an utter wet rag, and the TV show is worse for him being a character in it. Ted Mosby at least managed to be interesting, and to occasionally take decisive action trying to achieve particular things. Dylan, by contrast, is a disorganised bum, who wanders around taking absolutely zero action, and floating along with whatever happens to him. In real life, this is the guy who you have to kick out after he’s slept on your couch for three months, eaten all your cereal and not even offered to pay rent. The closest he comes to a goal or direction is signing up to a course because someone at a bar played a word association game, and the pointed out to him that he had a strong reaction to gardening. He is the personification of a wet rag. Somehow, though, implausibly, every woman he comes into contact with finds him charming, and he ends up sleeping with a large number of them. This is particularly implausible because he’s such a nob; in one scene, he ends up meeting up with an ex. When she tells him he was awful, he doesn’t listen, or apologise – he just tells her she was wrong, and that it was all wonderful. It wasn’t, mate. You’re a nob. I’m tempted to try and use this as a reflection on the broader state of society, and the lack of liminal rites of passage to help drifters know when to grow up, but I can’t be bothered. Dylan is the case study of a teenager who still wants to lie around in his socks and underwear all day.

His friends are hilarious and interesting, though, and they redeem the show. It’s worth watching just to see the hilarity of their antics, and the script writing, which is great.

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin is an interesting piece of writing. It tells the story of a group of Chinese scientists. It turns out that the strange phenomena they’re trying to understand are because aliens are coming to earth, and have been communicating. Those aliens come from a planet with three suns, that struggles to predict weather and temperature, and hence they’re keen to get to the paradise of predictability that is an earth atmosphere.

Liu Cixin has a fascinating imagination, and tells a genuinely intriguing story. There are interesting characters, complex sci-fi questions, and some decent plotting. For me, the major drawback to the book was the writing. Now granted, there may be quite a lot that I’m missing in the English translation. But it felt very abrupt and rushed to me. Scenes that could easily have been a chapter are meted out in a few pages, or paragraphs. This rush through the material lets Liu Cixin cover a lot of ground (in the first novel, a secret organisation dedicated to advancing alien life is formed, ruptured, faces internal conflict and then defeated in the space of a few chapters). But it feels very … superficial, and it doesn’t draw you into the story. It feels very much like you’re reading an interesting set of questions that Liu Cixin wrote, rather than losing yourself in the story.

It’s not that he can’t write well. There are some short passages that are evocative and beautiful. It’s just that he seems to dole them out, at a rate of about three or four per book. The rest is a rapid scan through a hurried storyline.

Worth it if you like good sci fi, but be aware of how it’s written.

More media pieces

There are always going to be other analyses of particular aspects of the recent US election. The media angle is one I find particularly interesting – and this piece by the New York Times Magazine, with a focus on relationships between CNN and Trump, is fascinating. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/magazine/cnn-had-a-problem-donald-trump-solved-it.html

Bartels and the state of democracy

Unequal democracy: The political economy of the New Gilded Age by Larry Bartels

Unequal Democracy was written in 2008; strange to think that’s almost a decade ago now. I started it before Democracy for realists, but finished it second. As with most of his writing, Bartels seems to have a habit of bogging down in inordinate numbers of tables, and quoting randomly from different pieces of commentary in the media to illustrate his argument. It makes the book feel a bit patchy.

Bartels focuses on inequality, and the relationship between economic inequality and political outcomes, and vice versa. He finds that Democrats substantially boost incomes for low income earners, but the reverse isn’t true for Republicans. He also finds that there are some issues where strong public support hasn’t been clearly reflected in decision making, or takes a long time to be reflected – minimum wages and estate taxes are his two examples.

He concludes with a reflection on what this means for democracy. In line with Democracy for realists, below, he concludes that economic outcomes impact politically, and that the prognosis isn’t good.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Democracy for realists, but it’s an interesting piece. Worth it if you’re looking for something a little more in-depth on political economy.

Economic inequality is, in substantial part, a political phenomenon …

On average, the real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans.

My analysis in chapter 4 identifies three distinct biases in political accountability that explain much of their success. One is a myopic focus of voters on very recent economic performance, which rewards Republicans’ surprising success in concentrating income growth in election years. Another is the peculiar sensitivity of voters at all income levels to high-income growth rates, which rewards Republicans’ success in generating election-year income growth among affluent families specifically. Finally, the responsiveness of voters to campaign spending rewards Republicans’ consistent advantage in fundraising.

First, voters are myopic, responding strongly to income growth in presidential election years but ignoring or forgetting most of the rest of the incumbent administration’s record of economic performance.

Rather than contributing to accurate apprehension of that fact by conservative and liberal observers alike, political awareness seems mostly to have taught people how the political elites who share their ideological commitments would like them to see the world.

… it would be a mistake to characterize public opinion as a primary impetus for the major shifts in tax policy. At most, public opinion was a resource to be used-and shaped-by elites in their own policy struggles.

… increasing economic inequality may produce increasing inequality in Political responsiveness, which in turn produces public policies that are increasingly detrimental to the interests of poor citizens, which in turn produces even greater economic inequality, and so on. If that is the case, shifts in the income distribution triggered by technological change, demographic shifts or global economic development may in time become augmented, entrenched, and immutable.

In Aristotle’s terms, our political system seems to be functioning not as a “democracy” but as an “oligarchy”. If we insist on flattering ourselves by referring to it as a democracy, we should be clear it is starkly unequal democracy.

Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels

The title says it all, really. Or says the key bits. This is a disconcerting read, and a detailed one. Achen and Bartels set out to show that many of the intuitive ideas we have about democracy may be incorrect; and not just mildly inaccurate, but wildly wrong.

Their book is thought provoking, and disconcerting. I’m not an expert in the field, so I won’t comment on whether their data and conclusions are right – I’ll leave that to other political scientists. But as a reader, it was certainly interesting and challenging.

Bartel seems to have a habit of going painstakingly through detailed figures from surveys and regressions, that could perhaps be better summarised, or put in an appendix. It makes for exhausting reading if you check every number. It may prove that as with Reinhart and Rogoff, that his detailed work is subsequently proved wrong. I’m not planning to check.

But regardless of their presentation, Achen and Bartels argue that not only are voters poor decision makers (often inconsistent), but that a key theory (retrospective voting) is also wildly incorrect, with retrospection focussing only on the recent past, and including factors that may be completely outside political control.

From there, they argue that voters often decide based on identity – which seems fairly plausible. Their discussion of what the practical implications of that are is intriguing.

There are two particular illustrations that stuck with me. One is the shark election – how a series of shark attacks impacted the 1916 US Presidential election. Another is their chart showing a relationship between democratic responsiveness and fluoride uptake – jurisdictions that had more frequent elections were less likely to have fluoride in the water.

If you’re interested in political theory, this is a thought provoking read, and well worth it.

Thus, the book resulted in a kind of intellectual conversion experience for us. Much of what we had believed and trusted turned out to be false. To be faithful to the evidence and honest with ourselves, we had to think very differently …

The folk theory of democracy celebrates the wisdom of popular judgements by informed and engaged citizens. The reality is quite different. Human beings are busy with their lives. Most have school or a job consuming many hours of the day. They also have meals to prepare, homes to clean, and bills to pay … For most, leisure time is at a premium … Without shirking more immediate and important obligations, people cannot engage in much well-informed, thoughtful political deliberation, nor should they …

The psychological indeterminacy of preferences revealed by these “framing effects” … and question-wording experiments calls into question the most fundamental assumption of populist democratic theory – that citizens have definite preferences to be elicited and aggregated through some well-specified process of collective choice …

As a blueprint for government, the folk theory [of democracy] is hopelessly flawed. Primaries and referendums with no admixture of party or legislative influence exemplify the failure. Overlooking “the elemental necessity for organized leadership in a democratic politics” … has produced a mishmash of heightened responsiveness to popular impulses, behind-the-scenes elite influence, and self-defeating choices stemming from the limited political expertise and attention of ordinary citizens …

An even more fundamental problem is that voters may have great difficulty accurately assessing “changes in their own welfare.” Proponents of retrospective voting have routinely assumed that voters know when “thugs make neighborhoods unsafe” or “polluters foul food, water, or air” as Fiorina puts it. But that is by no means obvious. To the extent that voters’ assessments of their own well-being are erroneous, retrospective voting will succeed much less well in selecting good leaders and in disciplining them to pursue voters’ interests …

In most recent scholarly accounts, retrospective voting is a natural and rational feature of democratic politics. In our view it is natural, but not so obviously rational. Indeed, blind retrospection of the sort we have documented in this chapter seems to us to provide a significant challenge to the conventional understanding of political accountability in modern democracies … Our analysis suggests that “blind” retrospection on the basis of overall well-being, with no consideration of the impact of government policies on that well-being, is very unlikely to provide much in the way of effective accountability, notwithstanding the fact that it may be “rational” in a narrow sense. Voters ignorant about evidence and causation, but supplied with a tale of incumbent responsibility, will punish incumbents whenever their subjective well-being falls below some fixed standard, regardless of whether or not their pain is in fact traceable to the incumbents’ policies …

Blind retrospection afflicts us all. It is the inevitable consequence of bewildering social complexity and human cognitive limitations-limitations that the rise of democratic government has not altered. The conventional account of retrospective voting, minimalist as it is, fundamentally underestimates the limitations of democratic citizens and, as a result, the limitations of democratic accountability …

… for thinking about democracy, rational choice liberalism is a scientific error …

For most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgements about where “people like me” belong. They do not always get that right, but they have much more success than they would constructing their political loyalties on the basis of ideology and policy convictions. Then, often enough, they let their party tell them what to think about the issues of the day …

… each party organizes the thinking of its adherents. A party constructs a conceptual viewpoint by which its voters can make sense of the political world. Sympathetic newspapers, magazines, websites, and television channels convey the framework to partisans. That framework identifies friends and enemies, it supplies talking points, and it tells people how to think and what to believe … For the voters who identify with a party, partisanship pulls together conceptually nearly every aspect of electoral politics … In fact, the more information the voter has, often the better able she is to bolster her identities with rational-sounding reasons …

Most of the time, voting behavior merely reaffirms voters’ partisan and group identities. They do not rethink their fundamental political commitments with every election cycle … In the political sphere, the most salient groups are parties, and the self-justifications that sustain group life are primarily grounded in-and constructed to maintain – partisan loyalties. People tend to adopt beliefs, attitudes, and values that reinforce and rationalize their partisan loyalties. But those loyalties, not beliefs or ideologies or policy commitments, are fundamental to understanding how they think and act …

… from the viewpoint of governmental representatives and accountability, election outcomes are essentially random choices among the available parties — musical chairs … This bloodless change of government is a great deal better than bloody revolution, but it is not deliberate policy change. The parties have policy views and they carry them out in office, but most voters are not listening, or are simply thinking what their party tells them they should be thinking. This is what an honest view of electoral democracy looks like. It is a blunder to expect elections to deliver more …

In our view, the most concrete and potentially important benefits of elections are not those envisioned in the folk theory. First, and perhaps most obviously, elections generally provide authoritative, widely accepted agreement about who shall rule … Moreover, in well-functioning democratic system, parties that win office are inevitably defeated at a subsequent election … This turnover is a key indicator of democratic health and stability … electoral competition also provides some incentives for rulers at any given moment to tolerate opposition …

Yet more books

The circleby Dave Eggers

I enjoyed The circle. It flows well, and has an interesting feel to it. And while I don’t think it’s likely to prove a timeless classic in the same way that 1984 has, for example, I think it’s a really interesting attempt to think through what a universal flow of information, and the accompanying lack of privacy, looks like.

I think one thing that Eggers does well is to try to be sympathetic to the people who are diving in to the system – the ones who are in favour of recording and broadcasting everything.

I don’t agree with everything Eggers argues – there are powerful uses for social media, particularly in enabling people to have lateral conversations that were previously impossible. But it’s worth thinking through some of the issues he’s thinking about.

Also, for what it’s worth – I’ve picked out particular quotes because I think they’re interesting, but that isn’t an endorsement.

At times it can feel a little belaboured (particularly the transparent deep sea shark that eats everything, and the debates that Mercer and the protagonist have), but it’s still definitely worth a read.

‘… I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication …’

‘… Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai …’

Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off-campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world. The Circle was helping to improve it, she knew, and so many of these things were being addressed – homelessness could be helped or fixed, she knew, once the gamification of shelter allotment and public housing in general was complete; they were working on this in the Nara Period [a building on the company campus] – but in the meantime, it was increasingly troubling to be amid the madness outside the gates of the Circle. Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies – on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community …

‘… I mean, it was like setting up a guillotine in the public square. You don’t expect a thousand people to line up to put their heads in it …’

‘… Now, you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and access to it? They want everyone to have a Circle account, and they’re well on their way to making it illegal not to. What happens then? What happens when they control all searches, and have full access to all data about every person? When they know every move everyone makes? If all monetary transactions, all health and DNA information, every piece of one’s life, good or bad, when every word uttered flows through one channel?’ …

‘… Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know-they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.’

Manufacturing consentby Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

I’ve been reading a bit about the media recently. I wanted to read a little about the political economy of the media, but this is one of the few that I found. I’d love to read a few others.

I didn’t read the whole book – I focussed on the theoretical chapter at the start of the book; the rest seemed to be largely examples working through the implications of the theory.

Essentially, Herman and Chomsky argue that a set of economic imperatives operating at a few levels ensure that a media ecosystem will tend to obscure particular points of view or issues. This isn’t to say that it will be completely effectively, but that there will be a systematic bias in how information filters through different levels in a media ecosystem.

It’s an interesting argument. I’m looking forward to reading more on media theory when I get the chance.

The propaganda model, and the institutional arrangement that it reflects, suggests that the same forces that preclude competition among the parties on issues on which the major investors agree, will also dominate media choices and rule out “mass deliberation and expression” on those issues …

We have long argued that the “naturalness” of these processes, with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework  of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalized press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship …

The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news “filters,” fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism …

… an advertising-based system will tend to drive out of existence or into marginality the media companies and types that depend on revenue from sales alone. With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers’ choices influence media prosperity and survival. The ad-based media receive an advertising subsidy that gives them a price-marketing quality edge, which allows them to encroach on and further weaken their ad-free (or ad-disadvantaged) rivals …

… The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media “democratic” thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income! The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that they buy and pay for the programs –they are the “patrons” who provide the media subsidy. As such, the media compete for their patronage …

The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held … “only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy” …

In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that that provide this subsidy become “routine” news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers …

… a propaganda model suggests that the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state …