The Free Press

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The events of the last week, and the intervention of number 10 and the Metropolitan Police in the last couple of days, surrounding the Sir Kim Darroch leak affair, has got my libertarian hackles up no end.

For Neil Basu to wade in and effectively threaten freedom of press, allegedly at the behest of the government, is very worrying. I would hope that enough heavyweights (including both prospective PMs) weighing in on the matter in support of the press should mean that the issue will die down quickly.

The press should always be free to print what they want. We don’t always have to agree with what they write, and they should always aim to be responsible in their activities, but reporters should be able to take the facts as they see them (accepting that they will never be complete) and draw their own conclusions from them. Combine that with editorial choice, business models, cognitive biases and marketing targets, within the context of a free market, and you should end up with something for everyone. This is as it should be.

The moment the government get involved and try to either suppress reporting to control its output, we’re all in trouble. Filtering events, true or otherwise, and promoting specific narratives, not only shows an arrogance on the part of those trying to control things, but is also an insult to the people they are trying to convince. You might get away with it in totalitarian situation, but it’s much harder and you’re going to look fairly daft in a democracy like ours.

The press should be able to report what they like, when they like. If they get it wrong, and they often do, they usually self-correct as more information comes to light. We all know that any paper should be taken with a pinch of salt. I like to read both the Telegraph and the Guardian most days as I think that somewhere between them, once you filter the biases, you get more to the core of the bigger matters.

History Lessons

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There’s a great discussion on today’s Spectator Podcast (and a linked article in this week’s Spectator) around Sahil Mahtani’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek idea that 25% more students with Norman family names go through Oxbridge than those with Anglo-Saxon names, which leads to the Norman descendants earning significantly more through their lives. He argues that if we are to follow the logic of reparations for past crimes and misdemeanours of colonialism, the Norman families should be taxed and money shared amongst the Anglo-Saxons.

In the podcast Sahil defends his position against that of Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, who argues that there is a definite causal link between the old days of colonialism and slavery, and, in particular, the demand for Haiti to repay exorbitant amounts of money to re-attain it’s independence in the early 1800s, which it only finished paying in 1947, and the high levels of poverty there today. She argues that there is a direct and tangible link, her observations being based on ‘compassion and logic and common sense’.

This is the sort of rational/logical thinking that I believe is inherently dodgy. How many decisions and actions have been made by many hundreds or even thousands of people in Haiti, that has got them to where they are now, some 72 years after the final payments had been cleared? We can never know that amount of detail, just superficial simplifications which will always have gaps (which our minds are very good at filling).

Now, I don’t know what the reasoning is for Nadine’s trail of thought and I’m certainly no expert on the history of Haiti, and it may be the provable that there is a direct link between the poverty we see today in Haiti and the fact that they were crippled with debt until 70 odd years ago. But with our old friend the Extended Order ever lurking, I don’t believe that it could ever be that simple to know the hearts and minds of everyone who has led Haiti in past 70 years and have apparently failed to get their people out of poverty.

It probably sounds a bit harsh of me to say all this, but I think there is a danger in looking at history and drawing logical conclusions based on the evidence found. I do like to read and listen to historical books and arguments, but I always wonder a) is this really the full picture (because unless you are superhuman, you could never really take in all the detail, even if you were able to ascertain it)? and b) what is the agenda (because there will always be one; whether the author intends it or not, their unconscious biases will come out)?

I did very much agree with Nadine that, instead of trying to put some figure on reparations, we should be more forward looking and, post-Brexit, look to re-establish and build the links with countries such as Haiti, to work with them to get them out of poverty in a positive way. I would hope that with the amount of money we spend on foreign aid, we are already doing something towards it, but building trade with these countries could bring all kinds of untold benefits we’ve yet to imagine for everyone involved.

The Outrage!

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It would appear that my ‘admiration’ for Labour’s cunningly devised Brexit stance was slightly misplaced in its attribution of credit. According to Ruth Davidson today in the Telegraph, the plan was nothing to do with any Labour MPs at all, but the brainchild of a coalition of leaders from the five biggest Labour supporting Unions (Unite, Unison, the GMB, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and USDAW, the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers).

These brave minds, who clearly know a lot more than the Labour Party itself on how it should run it’s own affairs (amazing where £6.5 million of union members’ money will get you), apparently closed themselves in a room on Monday, formulated the plan and ordered Jeremy Corbyn off to the shadow cabinet for rubber stamping on Tuesday.

As Ruth Davidson points out, this complete negation of democracy appears to have at least initially gone unreported, or at least kept quiet long enough that no-one cared enough when it did break. And, yet, had this been the Tories, all hell would have broken loose.

I completely fail to understand just how something so opaque and, while corrupt is possibly too strong a word, it can’t be that far from the mark, can happen. I can only think that Labour MPs are so against any idea of free speech or liberty, and/or so in fear of the leadership, that they accept this fait accompli against all they, in their various factions, have fought for over the past few years.

If I were more left-wing in my outlook, I’d say it was outrageous, but I’m not so I merely shrug and move on.

Email is dead

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I had an interesting conversation with a colleague at the coffee machine today, who confided in me that their inbox was becoming unmanageable (the colleague, not the coffee machine). This is a trend I’ve noticed with more and more people deluged with email and struggling to cope with it. And yet, despite various attempts to to try take email to the next level (Google Wave, anyone?) there’s still no viable contenders for the next generation of communications tools. Email is, as ever, King.

But in this day and age, it’s just not sustainable. Unless you are extremely bored and/or efficient, methodologies like Inbox Zero just fly straight out of the window. I do try to at least read all of my emails, but I know a lot of people that are happy to let the unread emails stack up into the thousands, which I can only imagine is demoralising at best to be faced with that little nugget of information floating about on you screen.

I think over the years, I’ve tried most of the ‘newer’ communications and collaboration solutions: Slack, Basecamp etc. But unless your entire work ecosystem is also using the same system, it falls flat on it’s face, and you always revert back to emails. Even Trello can managed from your inbox (badly). Email is ubiquitous, and that’s the problem.

In fairness, some companies have tried to make it a half-decent experience, particularly Google, and from a marketing perspective, email is a very good way to get your message out there (as long as it’s in a nice safe, GDPR way – I’m no fan of the EU, but GDPR was at least an attempt to do the right thing, even if it was a huge pain in the derrière to comply with it).

It’s got to the point now where some people I know have just given up on their inbox completely. I’ve always been an advocate of getting up off your backside and walking over to someone and talking to them if you can, or picking up the phone if you can’t (and you’ve got over your phonophobia). Perhaps we should all try to start having email free days instead, once a week or even more, rather than once a year in August (which is a bit pointless). Think I might suggest that at work…

Email is dead… long live the conversation!

(And yes, the irony is not lost on me should you be a new visitor and been presented with a email subscription box! I refer to my comments above about marketing, then scuttle away hoping no-one notices…)

Fudge no more?

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And so the glorious fudging of Labour’s stance on Brexit appears to be coming to an end with Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Labour Party members saying that, in essence they will oppose any deal that the Conservatives generate, but if they win an election, they will ‘renegotiate’ a new deal. Quite what they think they can renegotiate that Boris the next Conservative leader can’t that actually looks like properly leaving, I don’t know.

Mr Corbyn goes on to say that ‘whoever becomes the new Prime Minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or No Deal, back to the people in a public vote. In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal’.

He tries to placate leavers saying that ‘a customs union [and] a strong single market… is a sensible alternative’. Last time I looked, that was just being part of the EU, without any of the benefits of being a member, and I think most people know that. Presumably, they are banking on people to reject it in a second referendum, which by that point will be so ridiculously one sided as to not even be worth worrying about, the options being, 1) Remain and 2) Remain in a really daft way.

What’s more interesting is that the Labour leadership do, finally, seem to be bowing to pressure to go all-out remain (albeit in a clever way); the threat of the Lib Dems just becoming too much for them. While they fudge it (there had to be a bit!) by saying that they haven’t decided on their stance for any possible election, the wording is strong enough that it would be fairly hard to renege on this stance if there is, as is becoming more and more likely, a fairly sharpish snap election once Boris the new PM is in number 10.

I suspect Boris Johnson’s more hard-line stance will also be another factor in this, as well as the diminishing opportunities for Grieve and co. to try to stop a no-deal Brexit with today’s amendment not being selected again.

Meet El Presidente

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The EU council’s overly long-winded debate to choose a Commission president made a bit of a mockery of its own convoluted structures. Tim Stanley wrote an interesting piece in today’s Telegraph about how these structures of the EU are designed to be deliberately confusing and long-winded as to obfuscate the fact that a small cabal of leaders are calling the shots. It’s these structures that I’ve always had an issue with.

In essence the EU is made up of the Council, the Commission and Parliament. The Council decides, the Commission encodes, and Parliament negotiates and approves. Sounds like a sensible structure, until you realise that it’s designed in a way that, for the most part, is completely unnecessary and cannot hope to keep things together as they move forward.

As Tim argues, most Remainers want the same as the Leavers. We all love the vast and wondrous continent of Europe with its multitude of languages and cultures. Most would want free movement and free trade with all of these people. But to wrap that up in some ideological governmental structure, while noble, is flawed and I cannot see how it will be sustainable, as Western Europe languishes in liberalism, while Eastern Europe becomes generally more dictatorial.

Something will have to give sooner or later. I suspect Ursula von der Leyen will have her work cut out in the next five years.

The Gap

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There’s something that’s been bugging me for a few weeks now, and only this afternoon as my family and I watched the Red Arrows roar about over the English Channel, did it really strike me what it was.

In Incognito , David Eagleman goes to great lengths to show that the subconscious is a mass of unknowable stuff, but it’s mostly rules and regulatory stuff, that we don’t need to know because it’s either pre-programmed into our DNA (breathing, learning etc.) or we’ve taught ourselves by repetition (driving a car, playing a musical instrument etc.)

What is singularly lacking in Incognito is any discussion about creativity. Who or what are ‘the little men downstairs’ that Stephen King writes of, that generate complex stories apparently from thin air? I don’t know how many times I’ve sat down to write a blog post with absolutely no idea what I’m going to write, and yet fifteen minutes later I’m busy finding an appropriate image for something that appeared as if by magic from my finger-tips. And what about those ah-hah moments (for me, usually in the shower) when an idea manifests itself so fully and completely that there’s no way I could have thought it up instantaneously? But yet I did.

There must be some kind of computational machinery in there too, something that is working at is own pace, quite often, and doesn’t always deliver when we’d like it to, but there nonetheless.

I recently found some old notes; I’m not sure why I’d even written them down, but I suspect it was some time last year when I was reading about and doing a lot of meditation. The notes were mostly trivial waffle around Big Data, but I did ask two pertinent questions: 1) Does the subconscious have rules? (Thanks to Incognito we have the answer to that one), and 2) Does creativity come from the gap between the word and the non-word, the conscious and unconscious?

I have no idea about that one, but somehow it feels right. We spend too much time in our conscious minds, and meditation does allow you to learn to move away into a more balanced state of conscious/sub-consciousness. Is the gap between them bridgeable? And at what point does an idea developed in a system that doesn’t deal with language, make the leap to one that we can formulate in words? It’s all a bit of a mystery that definitely requires more exploration.

Blind faith

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Diving back into Dominic Cumming’s epic blog post, while taking a sidelong look also at Alastair Heath‘s piece in the Telegraph yesterday, I noticed an aligning of ideas that answered something that has been bothering me for a while now.

In Dominic’s post, he quotes Bret Victor on the quality of political debate that often goes on these days. The bigger picture, as Dominic points out, is that the quality of information being presented to MPs is woeful at best, which is worrying when these people are often making life and death decisions, that can have ramifications for generations to come.

Victor, talking of many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in climate change, says: ‘And why trust them? Their rhetoric is catchy, but so is the horrific “denialist” rhetoric from the Cato Institute and similar. When the discussion is at the level of “trust me, I’m a scientist” and “look at the poor polar bears”, it becomes a matter of emotional appeal and faith, a form of religion.’

This quote really struck a chord with me, and has been bouncing around the old cerebellum for a couple of days now.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Alastair Heath writes about how left and right often misunderstand each other because they emphasise different core moral values. He writes:

‘The seminal works here are the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, as well as his more recent The Coddling of the American Mind. As Haidt points out, there are six main moral intuitions: fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The Left judge almost everything by the first two – and don’t really realise that there are moral intuitions other than their own, fuelling their anger – the Right by the last four, though they are usually more aware of the first two, which makes them more puzzled than angry. Such self-awareness is a key differentiator between Lefties, conservatives and libertarians.’

This was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. The reason being that having immersed myself so thoroughly in Hayek for the past year or so, certain things didn’t feel quite right, and one of them was his argument that intelligent people tend to be socialists because they are intelligent and rational, and if you are intelligent and rational, you can’t accept that you don’t know everything.

Yet, the level of debate I’ve had with a lot of people around Brexit has been of a similar poor quality. Now, I know that I said here before that the part of the brain that deals with decision making doesn’t deal with language, so it’s often hard to articulate why choose to like what we like. That said, it is usually possible for us to at least come up with something, even if we feel it doesn’t really do it justice. There is usually something rational we can salvage from it.

And yet, with Brexit, the two camps have definitely taken each of their core values and run with them at a visceral level, not really thinking things through logically at all. And so we find those in the remain camp in a situation of almost loathing people in the leave camp. I suspect this is because their core values of fairness and justice have been mortally affronted by the result. Those who adhere to the latter for end up perplexed as to the amount of vitriol they sometimes receive, as they adhere to the other four codes, that allow them to be somewhat more tolerant of people who disagree with them (though, not always!).

The problem is that in both cases, rationality has gone out of the window. As Dominic says, both parties need to up their game in terms of proper objective arguments based on sound contextualised data to make the best decisions.

As Hayek argues, the extended order operates somewhere between instinct and reason. In recent years, many, particularly on the left, have shied away from rationality and taken refuge in instinct. This is the thing that has confused me for a while. I expected these rational, intelligent people to have the answers as to why they voted to remain, and yet they didn’t. More often than not they had nothing but, ‘You’re wrong, you’re an idiot.’ End of argument.

It reminded me of a very young and naive me, in my days of being a bit of a God-botherer.

In that context, it almost feels like socialism has moved away from being the rationalist’s home to being the believer’s home. It’s become a religion. And many of the key issues of our day, including Brexit, climate change and veganism have also taken on the blind faith qualities of religion, with an anger to rival some of the fiercest fundamental Christians or Muslims.

Strangely enough, I’m writing this on the train, and have just looked up to see a headline in the Evening Standard, ‘Now to we have a nasty left to match the nasty right?’

We need to find the middle ground again, and the start of that is proper, well informed, rational debate based on the latest techniques in data modelling and forecasting. Not only that, we need to start telling some proper stories to reflect the truth in these facts and figures. Time to bring on the actuaries?

Red Teams at the Ready

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Quite a few people over the past three years have admitted to me that the only reason they voted remain in the referendum was that they felt that those in Westminster and Whitehall were too useless to actually be able to carry a leave vote out.

I always felt this was a slightly pessimistic view of life in SW1, but after reading Dominic Cummings’ latest magnum opus of a blog post, you have to wonder if they didn’t have a point.

Dominic’s post is in equal measure inspiring, irritating and downright jaw-dropping (and for varying reasons, as well). His essential argument is that the Civil Service is so far behind the curve in terms of the latest ideas in analysis and prediction, and that the cabinet are so woefully under informed, that they might as well just plunge billions of pounds straight down the plughole and go home.

He goes into enormous, but very interesting detail, about the latest movements in data modelling and analysis and how it can be used well to drive the country forward with top-class decision making. It’s long (his argument for being so open and giving the ‘competition’ too much information is that they wouldn’t possibly read a 10,000 word blog post to find out anyway), but it’s worth a read if you are at all interested in just how poor the government processes are, and how good they could be if anyone there could be bothered.

What’s most fascinating, I find, is that ultimately what Dominic is advocating is looking for ways to map parts, if not all, of the extended order in unique an interesting ways. It would probably be meaningless to try to create a wholistic view of everything, even the summary would be incomprehensibly complex, but if we could focus on certain areas that are still vast (economics, climate change etc.) and try to tame those in a sensible way, we could make some amazing advances.

I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t a fools errand, but it’s certainly fascinating, and it’s not like we don’t have the computational power to start breaking into these things and making them comprehensible enough to base decisions on. It’s an area that I will be looking into quite closely in the next few weeks and months. Funnily enough, I might know a fair few people who could help Dominic out, but more on that later.

Kicking your can

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I see Labour have kicked the can, as is the general rule of thumb with all things Brexit these days, a little further down the road in terms of coming out as the anti-Brexit party.

It still feels like Tom Watson and his gang are hedging their bets on an early autumn general election. The first thing that Boris or Jeremy will face as PM will almost certainly be a vote of no-confidence in the Government, and the remainer Conservatives, at least vocally, seem happy to bring down their own government rather than face the possibility of a No Deal Brexit (AKA the Boris Brexit, despite his protestations that it’s his plan C).

Whether these rebel Tories will vote with Labour or not, I guess depends on who wins, although I’d be amazed if Boris didn’t win, and that Labour didn’t immediately carry out the no-confidence trick (or shortly after the Brecon by-election).

Labour really must think that by alienating a big chunk of their electorate, they stand a chance of regaining the votes lost to the Lib Dems to make up for it. I don’t see it personally, I see that as more ‘suicidal’ than a No-Deal Brexit (not that either is particularly what anyone wants).

Labour would only be able to regain those they perceive to have lost to the Lib Dems in the EU elections, and I doubt many of them would seriously consider voting Lib Dem in a General Election anyway. I can’t see many Lib Dems jumping ship and switching over to a Marxist-led Labour party, just because they decided to become anti-Brexit.

What makes the logic even more spurious, is that a recent poll split people roughly 28% leave with no deal, 29% leave with a deal and just 43% revoke Article 50. By my reckoning that indicates a growth somewhere in the region of 5% for the pro-Brexit camp (compared to the Referendum).

I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn in senses that the keys to No. 10 are only just out of his reach; making a stand against Brexit may just snatch them away from him. It will also encourage the Tory membership to be more inclined to vote for Boris, and usher in more chance of a No-Deal Brexit, the one thing Labour are trying to stop.