Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Monday, August 31, 2015

Lying about lines



This widely-known experiment originally devised by Solomon Asch is usually presented as demonstrating the power of group conformity. A brief review of the experiment can be found here.

Does the experiment demonstrate conformity?

Yes but one could also turn it around and say it demonstrates the power of lying. Each experimental collaborator lied to the subject about how they perceived those line lengths. Lying about lines was crucial to the experimental design. So Asch’s experiment also demonstrated the dynamics of group lying, how certain situations may persuade some people to assent to the most obvious lie, in spite of the evidence of their own eyes.

Were the subjects lying to themselves as well as the rest of the group?

Afterwards the subjects were interviewed and those who made false responses gave various reasons for doing so. They presumably knew they were giving false responses even though they were participating in an experiment. For all they knew, their false responses might have ruined the experiment, but still they lied.

Did they really know they were giving false responses? If so what do we mean by “know”? What we observe is that in different circumstances these subjects exhibited different behaviour. In the interviews they admitted their responses were false – different circumstances, different behaviour. That’s all we observe.

So what would we say if the subjects had never been interviewed afterwards, if the different circumstances had never occurred? In a sense it doesn’t matter because what we are interested in is the behaviour, not hypothetical possibilities going on inside the subject’s head.

We are social animals and a group’s preferred modes of language and behaviour may exert a powerful hold on its members even to the extent of lying to the rest of the world. When we add in the endlessly subtle and deceptive resources language has to offer, how even the most blatant distortions can be obscured by evasive words and phrases, then it is easy enough to see how lying can become a feature of any group. Even those with a diffuse international membership.

EU referendum anyone?

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

1975: we were warned

Tony Benn, 27 May 1975

Congratulations and thanks to The Boiling Frog for scanning a 1976 study of the previous year's Common Market referendum. What is clear is that the sovereignty issue was buried in a heap of other, more temporary concerns (including the oil crisis and inflation), and biased and personalized media coverage.

Plus a consciousness among the media bods of the risk of boring the voters, which opens another debate on whether democracy is really able to deal with complex matters.

Back to bias: Peter Hitchens has pointed out the way the Yes and No pamphlets differed in their treatment:

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/08/the-1975-common-market-referendum-campaign-documents.html

- but that the truth was there if we cared to look closely:

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/08/there-was-no-excuse-for-thinking-the-common-market-was-just-a-free-trade-group-in-1975.html

... which was even less obvious in the 1970 General Election that preceded Heath's move to get us into "Europe":

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/08/what-the-main-party-manifestoes-said-about-europe-in-1970.html

I wonder whether the campaigns and coverage will be any better in the lead-up to the promised 2017 Referendum?


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Saturday, August 29, 2015

No black scorpion


But if you ask me what is the good of man, I cannot mention to you anything else than that it is a certain disposition of the will with respect to appearances. 
Epictetus

Many dreadful events unfolded in the nineteen thirties, events which changed the world, but something else was unfolding too, a certain pragmatic clarity of outlook with more subtle consequences. Or perhaps there were no consequences at all. Perhaps that’s the point.

No black scorpion.
In 1934 behaviourist B F Skinner attended a dinner where he sat next to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. After Skinner had explained his work on behaviour to the great man, Whitehead remarked “Let me see you account for my behaviour as I sit here saying ‘no black scorpion is falling upon this table.’”

Next morning Skinner began work on his book Verbal Behavior, in his view his most important book. An account of language in terms of stimulus, response and reinforcement, it took him twenty years.

Language, Truth and Logic.
In 1936 philosopher A J Ayer published Language, Truth and Logic, a short and accessible philosophy book which rattled the teeth of the staid world of philosophy. In later years Ayer rejected much of it as wrong, yet for most of us it is near enough, a starting point, an engaging account of what makes sense and what doesn’t, what a personal philosophy can do for us and what it cannot do.


Skinner was 30 and Ayer 25. Young and keen as mustard. Both were empiricist in outlook, believing that what we know of the world is mainly derived from what is observable. Both were interested in the way we use language, knowing how deceptive it can be. Skinner was interested in how we use language to mould our personal and collective behaviour, Ayer in how we use it to deceive ourselves and others.

Unfortunately there is a problem with the essentially straightforward approaches used by both men to tackle the endless complexities of the human situation. Vested interests, hierarchies, the power of politics, authority, academia, status and money all benefit from otherwise pointless complexities.

There is another glass ceiling apart from the one we hear so much about these days. Cause and effect are all very well in their place, but allowing such ideas onto the hallowed ground of politics and power is a different matter. Everything would have to change. Everything would have to adapt, to accommodate the cold blue light of reason emanating from even the lowliest peasant, from even their children. Whatever next?

When Ayer and Skinner were young men, science, engineering money and optimism were helping to transform their world into what appeared to be a better place, not merely physically better but intellectually better too. The stultifying deference of centuries appeared to be crumbling away before an onslaught of merit, education, curiosity and cool reason.

Perhaps the onslaught still goes on at a slower pace, but the horrors of war intervened, diverted our attention into less useful directions. Other imperatives and influences choked off anything which might damage the status quo. The imbecilities of popular culture began to take hold. The mindless thump, thump of popular music, mawkish sentiment, idiot lyrics and faux rebellion.

The embarrassing crassness of celebrity culture grew and grew as mass communication grew and grew, as the technology of influence became cheaper and cheaper. An endless diet of dumb piped into almost every home via millions of radios and televisions.

Ayer and Skinner were revolutionaries in their way. If we had listened, if we’d absorbed the essence of their message then perhaps in time we’d have learned to control the world. But we didn’t. And we won’t because of the sheer weight of pressure to bend the metaphorical knee, swill the beer and dance round the maypole just as our medieval forebears did.

Democracy and mass education went nowhere because how could they go anywhere? The peasants would have to get up off their knees, throw aside the beer mug, burn the maypole and that would never do. So we have cheap wine instead of beer, cheap food, cheap jobs, expensive homes and mass voting instead of democracy. Maybe our suspicions should have been aroused as the franchise grew because surely a vote wasn’t worth anything if millions could have it for nowt.

As for education, no doubt it serves its purpose but we aren’t about to teach the radical stuff which so enthused Ayer and Skinner eighty years ago. We aren’t about to teach kids how to think clearly, how to slice through the mental shackles because in the end it still doesn’t suit the way we are, the way we seem content to remain.

Behavior used to be reinforced by great deprivation; if people weren't hungry, they wouldn't work. Now we are committed to feeding people whether they work or not. Nor is money as great a reinforcer as it once was. People no longer work for punitive reasons, yet our culture offers no new satisfactions.
B F Skinner

It seems that I have spent my entire time trying to make life more rational and that it was all wasted effort.
A J Ayer

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Education

Look at the first five minutes of this (thanks so much, JD) (for the impatient, from c. 3:30 on):

Mother told by her father to sacrifice everything for a good education for her children... 1944 Education Act... grammar school... competitive ethos... grant to go to University... free public access to museums and art galleries...

Sir Roy Strong - son of a commercial traveller... Sir Peter Hall - son of a railway station master...



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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Drugs, games and talent

"90% of the adults I know are on drugs because of what they think is the normal stress of life. Here I am counting the doctor-prescribed meds, the binge-drinking on weekends, the medical marijuana, porn, tobacco, wine before dinner, or even the exercise addiction that gooses the body to release feel-good chemistry." - Scott Adams: http://blog.dilbert.com/post/127569040096/digital-distraction-syndrome#ixzz3juvGloFN

Dumb kids go for drugs, my brother tells me, but modern temptations - e.g. computer-based role-playing games - trap the bright ones. His daughter knows several lads who were thrown out of college because RPG stopped them working.

Actually I think clever kids go for drugs and booze and all the other vices, too. Horace's "Genus irritabile vatum" (which I would paraphrase as "excitable creative types") often try to fight fire with fire, adding more stimulation to an already over-stimulated mind. Writers are infamous for the indulgences that have often burned up their gifts.

A combination of academic dilution and anti-elitism, with a cornucopia of distractions for the young, could lead to poor harvests of the talent we need to sustain our civilisation.


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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Who licks old china?



Only the simple and the humble were abroad at that early hour: purveyors of food, in cheerfully rattling carts, or hauling barrows with the help of grave and formidable dogs; washers and cleaners at the doors of highly-decorated villas, amiably performing their tasks while the mighty slept; fishermen and fat fisher-girls, industriously repairing endless brown nets on the other side of the parapet of the road; a postman and a little policeman; a porcelain mender, who practised his trade under the shadow of the wall...
Arnold Bennett – Sacred and Profane Love (1905)

The photo shows a porcelain coffee pot made in Bristol in the 1770s and as you see it is not quite in pristine condition. An old repair uses metal staples and wire inserted into holes drilled into the porcelain. Bennett’s Italian porcelain mender would have employed the same technique. 

I recall an expert telling us that the staples were inserted hot so that when they cooled they contracted and clamped the pieces together. A skilled job, especially when we consider that where staples were used in this piece, the holes were not drilled all the way through even though the porcelain is very thin.

Missing bits appear to have been filled with plaster which you may be able to see in the right hand image just below the lid. These old stapled repairs are quite common, especially for old Chinese porcelain. Presumably the owners still wished to display the piece even though its value would be much reduced. Was the servant responsible usually dismissed I wonder?

Today a restorer would take out the staples and begin all over again with modern adhesives and resins. The repair would not be easy to see without close inspection, as we discovered on a couple of occasions before we learned to be wary.

One way to tell is to lick suspect areas with the tip of the tongue which is sensitive enough to detect slight temperature or texture differences between porcelain and resin. The teeth are able to detect slight differences too. Any dealer will know what you are up to.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Circular



Dear Golden Roof Investor,

You may have heard that the Chinese stock market has undergone a minor bout of turbulence in recent days. This is to be expected in such an exciting, where-it’s-at market and is not a cause for alarm for anyone with the Golden Roof Investment Trust.

Although the whereabouts of our CEO Mr Wun Awei has been the subject of much scurrilous press comment, be assured that he is diligently seeking new opportunities. We intend to contact him in the very near future to discuss these opportunities plus a range of other options he may wish to consider.

Meanwhile, our advice for all investors in the Golden Roof Investment Trust is to sit tight while current disturbances are brought firmly under control by the Chinese authorities.

In addition to this exiting news, you may be interested in a new investment opportunity, the Platinum Roof Investment Trust for which you should already have a prospectus. Remember - you take the risk so we don't have to.

Yours sincerely

Richard Dastardly (Acting CEO)

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Corbyn and the clowns

source

There appear to be two broad possibilities emerging as folk frantically try to predict the outcome of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. Two broad possibilities, disaster and blessing, each with a range of nuances:-

Unmitigated disaster.
Corbyn will be an unmitigated disaster for Labour, causing it to split into progressive and modernist factions leading to the rise of an alternative mainstream party.

Mitigated disaster.
Corbyn will be an electoral disaster for Labour in the 2020 general election but the party will make the best of it and will not split into progressive and modernist factions.

Mixed blessing.
Corbyn will be a mixed blessing for Labour, leading it to rediscover its core principles and reject the baggage of impure socialism left by Tony Blair.

Unmixed blessing.
Corbyn will be an unmixed blessing for Labour, leading it to rediscover its core principles, reject the baggage left by Tony Blair and triumph in the 2020 election as the only party of principle.

However things turn out, the only real pleasure in watching the political circus has always been the clowns. Jeremy Corbyn is a gift to jaded political palates. Whatever one thinks of him, he has surely exposed his leadership opponents as clowns merely by being straightforward.

What a brilliant wheeze eh? It’s all great fun too - they should do it more often.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Puppet politics

I keep asking what exactly is meant by "Left" and "Right", which are used more as labels in political argument to cut discussion short before it becomes intellectually awkward. Here's a suggestion:

I think we need to move on from the Left-Right way of seeing. Tony Blair could just as easily have stood for the Conservatives that his father had supported. It is about power, and both sides of that specious divide love it.

Immigration suits the businessman - cheap labour supports his profits while an expanding population creates additional demand. Ironically the Socialists may be cutting their own throats by going along with it, as the economically poorer countries from which many of the immigrants come have traditional ideas about family and community and may agree with British Conservatives when the latter preach that you should look after your own and not have to pay higher taxes for layabouts to whom you are not related.

As inequality of income and wealth increases, the most fortunate are in a position to detach themselves from their native lands and float about the world like the inhabitants of Laputa, escaping taxes and regulation and increasingly, using their servants in the political assemblies below to change the rules on both to suit themselves. And of course they are also co-opting the Fourth Estate. I have long said that this nexus of business, politics and the media is becoming the new pan-European (perhaps global) aristocracy. "Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (Let others make war; you, fortunate Austria, marry)."

I suppose they also hope to escape the dangerous social consequences of the instability they create, but perhaps like the ancient Mayans they will discover they are more dependent on their inferiors than they had assumed.


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Monday, August 17, 2015

Andy Burnham's eyebrows


A search of Google images suggests many folk are particularly interested in Andy Burnham's eyebrows. Hardly surprising in my view because these are not party leader's eyebrows, not inspiring eyebrows. 

These are gloomy eyebrows, sorrowful eyebrows, eyebrows where disaster is expected as a matter of course and success isn't. Of course they may be right.

source


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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Some richness of the spirit



Here's a quote which made me pause for a moment while reading a pile of Poirot short stories I never got round to before.

‘You seem,’ Poirot said, ‘to be well acquainted with the culture of the marrow?’

‘Seen gardeners doing it when I’ve been staying in the country. But seriously, Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to’ – his voice sank to an appreciative purr – ‘an easy-chair in front of a wood fire in a long, low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read:’ he quoted sonorously:

Μὴτ ὃ αὐτε xυβερνὴτης ἐνὶ οὶνοπι πόντῳ

νῆα θοὴν ιθύνει ἐρεχθομένην ὰνέμοισι

He translated:

“By skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens

The swift ship buffeted by the winds.” *

Of course you can never really get the spirit of the original.’

For the moment, in his enthusiasm, he had forgotten Poirot. And Poirot, watching him, felt suddenly a doubt – an uncomfortable twinge. Was there, here, something that he had missed? Some richness of the spirit? Sadness crept over him.


Agatha Christie - The Labours of Hercules (1947)

* Iliad

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Thursday, August 06, 2015

Across a meadow

Charles Cotton's Fishing House


Yesterday we enjoyed a short walk through Biggin Dale, Wolfscote Dale and Beresford Dale where ravens soar and croak and grey wagtails flit around the waterfalls, where Beresford Hall used to be and Charles Cotton’s Fishing House still stands on the banks of the River Dove. 

The picture was taken near to the Hartington path, across a low-lying meadow full of mead wort or meadowsweet as the fishing house is on private land. For over three hundred years Cotton’s little place has watched the river amble past its door.

Charles Cotton (28 April 1630 – 16 February 1687) was an English poet and writer, best known for translating the work of Michel de Montaigne from the French, for his contributions to The Compleat Angler, and for the influential The Compleat Gamester[2] attributed to him.

Fishing hereabouts is still private as it presumably has been since Cotton’s day. So that’s a few centuries isn’t it? Yet the river and its beauties are probably all the better for a spot of privacy. Imagine how peaceful it must have been even in the seventeenth century far from all the strife and turmoil.

Yet for all his obvious love of peace and the attractions of nature, there are colourful aspects to Charles Cotton’s story. He wrote an epitaph for "M.H.", a prostitute he seems to have held in high regard, considering their relative positions so to speak. In a local antiques shop we saw a plain seventeenth century chest with the initials MH carved into the lid. Coincidence presumably, but I didn’t ask.

Epitaph upon M.H

In this cold Monument lies one,
That I know who has lain upon,
The happier He : her Sight would charm,
And Touch have kept King David warm.
Lovely, as is the dawning East ,
Was this Marble's frozen Guest ;
As soft, and Snowy, as that Down
Adorns the Blow-balls frizled Crown;
As straight and slender as the Crest,
Or Antlet of the one beam'd Beast;
Pleasant as th' odorous Month of May :
As glorious, and as light as Day .

Whom I admir'd, as soon as knew,
And now her Memory pursue
With such a superstitious Lust,
That I could fumble with her Dust.

She all Perfections had, and more,
Tempting, as if design'd a Whore ,
For so she was; and since there are
Such, I could wish them all as fair.

Pretty she was, and young, and wise,
And in her Calling so precise,
That Industry had made her prove
The sucking School-Mistress of Love :
And Death , ambitious to become
Her Pupil , left his Ghastly home,
And, seeing how we us'd her here,
The raw-bon'd Rascal ravisht her.

Who, pretty Soul, resign'd her Breath,
To seek new Letchery in Death.

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Monday, August 03, 2015

A thing

source

Sir Frederick Pollock was an interesting cove. From Wikipedia

Sir Frederick Pollock, 3rd Baronet PC was an English jurist best known for his History of English Law before the Time of Edward I, written with F.W. Maitland, and his lifelong correspondence with US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was a Cambridge Apostle...

...Together with his younger brother Walter Herries Pollock, he participated in the first English revival of historical fencing, originated by Alfred Hutton and his colleagues Egerton Castle, Captain Carl Thimm, Colonel Cyril Matthey, Captain Percy Rolt, Captain Ernest George Stenson Cooke, Captain Frank Herbert Whittow.


A man from a vanished era. 

Sir Frederick also found time to write book on the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. As one would expect, the book is thorough, erudite and much of it based on Pollock's personal perusal of original Latin texts rather than translations which he tended to distrust. The result is a formidable yet quite readable book with a number of interesting observations such as:-

A thing is a group of phenomena which persists. Herein is its individuality, its title to be counted apart from the surrounding medium.
Sir Frederick Pollock – Spinoza, His Life and Philosophy (1880)

This is Pollock’s modern take on an idea of Spinoza’s. Strict materialism doesn’t work because as Pollock says, a thing must have persistence to be counted as a thing. It must be a group of phenomena which persists. Otherwise it is no thing – nothing. If we take the material universe and try to purify it of all that is not material, if we try to shake out all the abstractions, then we run into difficulties.

The most ephemeral fundamental particle must have persistence to count as real, even if it only exists for a zillionth of a second. Otherwise it is merely theoretical and not quite real. In this sense, persistence seems to be as fundamental as physical reality without itself being physically real.

One could see it as one aspect of the problem of being both an observer and part of what is observed. We have to use abstractions, but we are part of the universe so the abstractions are too. We are in the universe and the universe is in us and we cannot stand to one side because there is nowhere to stand.

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