23 August 2010

The case of the missing cortex

• A columnist for a certain right-wing newspaper, formerly a member of the il-liberal elite but now (as all good ideologues must) having converted to post-liberal moaning in her old age, has come up with a solution to all our ills: parenting classes for everyone. Marvellous.
I would like to suggest my own panacea. Subcontract everything, including but especially the upper echelons of government, out to the Indian subcontinent.
Americans are swallowing their pride and learning that the subtle art of ‘managing’ in the old-fashioned sense — i.e. getting people to do actual useful work — has passed from West to East, and we should probably swallow ours too. Many basic US services are already outsourced to Indian consultancies in India, but it now appears they are even being outsourced to Indian consultancies in the US, with simple indigenous folk (Americans, I mean) doing the grunt work. [1]

Tata [India's largest private company, now with a large facility in Cincinnati] has hired some 250 graduates of Ohio State University, the University of Cincinnati, and other nearby schools. Soon the facility may employ as many as 1,000 Americans doing back-office and technology outsourcing for U.S. health-care companies and local governments.
It cannot be lower salaries that are producing the competitive advantage in this case, so one must assume that managers from India bring a skill set which Americans themselves can no longer reproduce.
What the Indian managers have not cottoned on to yet, but which I expect they will in due course, is the possibility of employing American non-graduates. Not only could these be paid lower salaries, leading to further cost savings, but they are liable to be less pretentious and less imbued with campus-derived mediocratic ideology, and hence likely to be significantly more productive.
How have other countries managed to retain a work ethic when we in the West have not? That is the question which all those claiming to be concerned with issues such as employment, training and our future position in the global market should ponder long and hard.
Also, if there are still ‘family values’ being practised and transmitted anywhere in the world, it is more likely to be there than here.

All Cretans are liars. Here is an illustration of bad logic.
A) The average annual salary of Surrey residents is £2000 higher than the national average. [2]
B) Therefore there is a monetary benefit of living in Surrey equal to £2000 p.a.
C) Therefore it is reasonable to apply a special tax to people living in Surrey, as a partial payment for this benefit.
Mutatis mutandis:
A) On average, the total post-degree earnings of those who are bright enough to go to college, and who choose to do so, are £150,000 higher than the average total lifetime earnings of non-graduates.
B) It must have been the college experience that generated this differential.
C) Therefore it is reasonable for the state (on behalf of universities, you understand) to make graduates hand over a percentage of this differential, on top of any university fees.
— I have seen this crazy logic employed by people who are economics graduates (and who are said to be “brainy”). This suggests that the benefit of a degree is certainly not an intellectual one. [3]
Whatever next — a window tax? A tax on individuals, proportionate to the number of healthy limbs? I think our bankrupt and desperate government should stop prevaricating with ruses that any fool can see through, and simply come clean and do a Geldof (“just give us your #@! money”). [4]

• Recently publicised on EaziLeaks.com: secret documents revealing that —
1) wars are messy, and occasionally involve serious breaches of etiquette;
2) governments often sanitise and gloss up reports of how their military operations are faring;
3) bankers sometimes indulge in dodgy dealings, and try to get around intrusive legislation;
4) heads of organised religions are often — though not always — members of those religions themselves;
5) certain furry mammals habitually dump waste in areas of ecological importance.
EaziLeaks founder Jolyon Sabusé asserts, “the public has a right to know these things, regardless of secrecy laws”. Many broadsheet journalists agree that these revelations are genuine “game changers”.

What are we going to do about Sherlock?
Sorry sir?
Sherlock Holmes. The franchise has come up for renewal and the BBC has offered us the project. Poisoned chalice if you ask me.
But aren’t classics all the rage these days?
Only if you can crank them up into sexy soaps. Think about it: older man, single, reclusive, nearest thing to a significant other is another man; story predicated on the guy’s supposed intellectual superiority. What are we supposed to do with that?
Couldn’t we make the homoerotic subtext more explicit? “Sherlock and John”, that kind of thing?
The punters wouldn’t go for it. And the Daily Mail would go ballistic. No, we have to think of something else.
Why don’t we set it in BBC-world?
BBC-world? What’s that?
Contemporary Britain, as seen through the eyes of a not very bright young person who has watched a lot of American crime series. If you take a cross between Torchwood, EastEnders and Holby City, you’ve more or less got it.
It sounds a little Russell T Davies. Isn’t that a bit last year?
Oh no, viewers can’t get enough of it. It’s perfect accompaniment to curry and beer. Also, I think we may gradually be brainwashing people into believing Britain is really like that, with the possible side effect that it actually is becoming like that. You know, fantasy driving reality.
Keep talking.
Well, we would have terrific camerawork, to make today’s London seem as exciting as Conan Doyle’s. I see dazzling shots, moody lighting, obscure angles. Of course, the whole thing would have to be infused with postmodern irony, we can’t have it taking itself too seriously.
Okay, that could work. How do we sell it to the kids?
Well, we’d have the characters texting like knives, for a start. And, oh, viewers will be able to see the texts superimposed on the screen!
Sounds a bit naff.
Honestly, sir, you have no imagination. Young people and the 40-going-on-17 crowd will love it.
Well, I’ll leave the details to you. Now, for Sherlock himself I think we will need some serious updating, if he is to fit your image of London-cool. Jeremy Brett was prissy and kind; I am thinking of someone with a bit more public-school hard. You know, conceited and vicious, who will think nothing of stepping on your face. Also, he must seem younger — the Brett character would just seem sad now.
That sounds good, but then for Watson you couldn’t have the usual sensible, responsible type — it would be too much like his dad.
You’re right, we shall need someone a bit more cute and quirky.
Hmm, a callow and arrogant eternal teenager, with a cuddly humorous sidekick. At the end of each episode, we can show them walking off together like Butch and Sundance.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come out more like Pooh and Piglet.
We’ll people it of course with the usual cultural stereotypes: cool punks, bossy black policewomen, bankers who are w...
Yes, yes, I get it. Now, presumably we can make the most of the drug thing?
Oh no, the current guidelines won’t allow that.
Damn. Booze? Fags?
Sorry. The best we can do is nicotine patches.
Nicotine patches? For crying out loud.
Anyway sir, I think we have the ideal recipe to replace Robin Hood. Perfect for the kids. I assume they’ll put it on at the weekend, around 5? Or maybe 7?
No. It all sounds a little tame to me, we need to add a bit of edgy. We’ll get them to put it out after the watershed. Viewers will think they’re going to get cocaine, viscera and brutality, and by the time they notice the deficit they’ll be hooked on the cool visuals and the two lovable mavericks.
Brilliant, sir. Trebles all round?
Don’t mind if I do.

• I do not often link to blogs these days, not because I am too grand but because I do not have the time to keep up with them. I do not have the time, not because I have become a busy global celebrity, but because making money from markets, post-mediocratisation of the financial system, now requires two or three times as much mental input as it used to. You think there is a reasonably normal uptrend in force in, say, the global equity markets, then one day they just decide to drop, oh, ten percent in the space of 45 minutes. No explanation given, except that someone somewhere had a “fat fingers” issue with their online sale of Procter & Gamble shares. Excuse me? No doubt the omniscients at Golden Sacks know what is going on, but the rest of us are left feeling baffled.

• Re blogs, here are a couple I encountered recently. First, I gather that a former teacher has taught himself economics and now, without formal economics training, makes macroeconomic forecasts with greater success than the average highly paid 'economist'. No surprises there, then. The other blog I came across was via an amusing reflection on the laser in Physics World. The laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is 50 this year, and its history shows that controversy in academic research is not a new development. Ted Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories can fairly be credited with being the winner of that particular innovation race, yet most of the glory went to people at Bell Laboratories and continues to do so.
In the reflection referred to, Captain Doctor Brunhilde von Doom-Boots mourns the decline of the laser’s status from supervillains’ weapon of choice to convenient home device.
... perhaps the laser’s demotion from its evil-weapon perch has come because it is no longer cutting-edge, obscure, inaccessible technology. CD players may retain a little yellow sticker saying “Danger — laser”, but no-one quivers at pieces of hi-fi equipment pointed in their general direction. Worse still are the health applications ... for Machiavelli’s sake, a significant proportion of the population even save up to have their eyes irradiated with our old superweapon! And that’s not even including the more frivolous medical uses. One simply cannot wreak havoc with a dermatology tool. You might as well menace people with an exfoliating pad.

For a while, I tried incorporating lasers into other superweapons. Lasers on rods launched into active volcanoes; genetically engineered superwarriors who shoot laser beams from their fingers; sharks with lasers à la my colleague Dr Evil; tidal-wave generators that would launch pods of shark-mounted lasers at coastal cities…after a while it just got ridiculous. I had to accept the difficult truth that lasers had been left behind, and I with them. It was time to retrain.
The May issue of PW, containing the full reflection, and other (more reverent) articles about lasers, is available for download via this page. Hopefully we shall soon be reading more of Cpt. von Doom-Boots’s work. Satiricality is a rare gift which should not be wasted.

• Could someone please pay me (and my colleagues) a salary? It has been some years since I last had one, and I am starting to experience a little nostalgia for the advantages. I feel there are things to which I should be applying my cognitive skills other than guessing the direction of the Footsie.
Here I am, blogging for my supper (no supper comes), occasionally playing the clown, when I could be helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge. If the people who batted on about wasted resources [5] as justification for various proposed additions to the social engineering machine really cared about waste, they would take seriously the lost contributions of academic exiles like me. I suspect (of course) that they do not really care about waste, and that they would in fact make an excellent addition to my table of phoney motives.
I keep reading about people with a lot of money who do not seem to be doing anything very original with it. A few of them have even started admitting they do not enjoy it. Some of them devote a fraction of it to causes that strike me as dodgy. Surely there are more interesting ways to relieve yourself of burdensome capital than intervening in politics or building yet another state hospital.
Note to any millionaires [6] reading this: there is a pressing need for the return of private patronage. As you may have gathered, academia (which never functioned much as a support mechanism for radical innovation) has become bogged down in ideological correctness, red tape and all the other consequences of over-expansion, standard dilution and general collectivisation. It now functions as — well, all kinds of things, but not as an engine for progress. Frederick Forsyth put it quite nicely, in a puff for the book, when he referred to the “politically correct pseudo-intellectuals who now infest what used to be British academia”. Genuine progress requires independence from constantly having to prove things to other people, and psychology of a kind that one may as well call ‘impersonal’.
Incidentally, I trust it is superfluous to mention that this blog is not intended to represent samples of my academic work. It is an advertisement, and therefore strives to entertain. This is hard enough work in itself, and I therefore allow myself the liberty of writing about whatever happens to interest me. The style is impressionistic, if I may use so fancy a term, rather than highly researched or deeply analytical.

• The changing content of The Mail continues to hold the fascination. Recently the flavour seems to have been metamorphosing yet again. Now, on the one hand, there is a more cultured tone, gently mocking. (I do not know where they got this from.) At the same time, there is also more of a sense of contemptuous populism, of impatience with a phoney political double act. It is all “call me Dave” and “weirdo Lib Dems”.
One also occasionally senses a note of desperation, as of people waving while drowning, which may of course be common to the newspaper industry as a whole. “I married a Marxist!” “I slept with a rock star!” These colourful flares capture the attention, but only for a short time.
Mr Murdoch’s brave decision to charge for access to the more intellectual parts of his newspaper empire is to be applauded, but I fear the experiment will fail. Fleet Street is in trouble, and it knows it.

Titbit for investors. Do plummeting bond yields herald the end of the world? Not necessarily, if the trend towards decoupling continues, and Asia becomes the engine of global growth. Take a look at a chart of Indian bonds, if you get the chance. (The one of the 2017 8.07% issue, for example, will make the point.)

• I found the BBC’s Sherlock mildly enjoyable, although — as with most productions in this genre — I was left with a slightly unpleasant aftertaste, sort of like “I’ve mislaid part of my brain, where is it, can I have it back please” [7]. Visually it was stunning, to the extent that many of the stills would be capable of standing alone as works of photographic art. (I liked the teapot scene at the start of ‘The Blind Banker’.) This is getting to be a feature of many modern TV productions (imitating a similar phenomenon from the movies) but unfortunately, as in this case, plot and characterisation rarely match the brilliance of the camerawork.
There were touches of genuine cleverness here and there. I found the scene in the first episode, where we were led to believe it is Moriarty when in fact it is Sherlock’s brother, dramatic and witty. Co-creator Mark Gatiss made a suitably creepy Mycroft, and would have been equally effective as Moriarty. A shame they could not find a Sherlock to match Gatiss’s character, rather than the slightly nasty overgrown schoolboy type which Benedict Cumberbatch portrays. (Not that I have anything against overgrown schoolboys per se.) But that, I suppose, would have been too threatening. The current Prime Minister — a man who is a bit too un-blokey to suit modern Britain — is threatening enough, in spite of taking so much care to be inoffensive as to barely have a visible personality at all.
At least Cumberbatch has charisma, which is obviously essential for any dramatisation of the Conan Doyle detective. So it could have been much worse: the BBC could have done what they did with Jesus in The Passion, and made one of the most fascinating figures in literature into a worthy bore. I am also grateful that the production was remarkably low, for a contemporary crime series, on the viscera-are-cool ethos that marred some similar things like Torchwood.

• A word of advice for those journalists or other cultural producers who receive one of this blog’s very occasional non-critical mentions: take it in good part. It is considered bad form in web world to respond to a plug from an ideologically dubious site by reactively [8] writing something that is supposed to prove your ‘liberal’ credentials. You should try to feel secure enough not to let it rattle you.

• Sometimes I suspect that the humour of this blog is a little too subtle for a modern audience, and this makes me sad. I feel some of the irony may be lost on readers educated in the ways of pseudo-rationality — to the extent they have been educated at all rather than merely indoctrinated. Sometimes messages may be read into what I have written which are not really there. A type of cognitive bias or illusion, I suppose. [9]
Looking at other purportedly humorous columns and websites, some by persons describing themselves as “sultan of sarcasm” or “king of snark” — though frankly I find their output indistinguishable from dozens of others’ — I see it has all become very much of the sledgehammer variety, including in (formerly) respectable global magazines.
I suppose there is always the option of dumbing for the sake of popularity. On the other hand, I see some point in dishing up the occasional bit of intellectual diversity. Some good may come of generating material the point or solution of which is not immediately obvious, even if it gives some of my audience a mild headache. As I once said to a reader: please do not come here to have your prejudices reinforced, there are plenty of other good sites for that.

The ideas expressed on this blog derive much of their inspiration from the writings of Celia Green. Newcomers to her psychological/philosophical thought are advised to start with Advice to Clever Children. Her first book, The Human Evasion, though perhaps the most astonishing of her works, and certainly the one which has attracted most popular attention, is liable to misinterpretation.

1. via James Dines
2. Figures made up for the sake of illustration.
3. For the less quick: you may be familiar with the scientific concept of a control experiment. In order to determine whether the earnings differential is an effect of doing a degree, rather than both being effects of a common cause, you would have to do a comparison with a group of equally bright and equally ambitious people who do not go to university, and strip out any irrelevant effects, e.g. prejudice against them on account of their barer-looking CVs. (This admittedly would be difficult to do.) If you found that they earned just as much on average as their graduate counterparts, you would have to conclude that the financial benefit of the degree experience was zero. And you might in that case, as a young person, be well advised not to bother with it, given the current exorbitant price tag.
4. See Live Aid. I watched it at the time and am pretty sure he did say it, or something very similar, though he now (it appears) claims he did not.
5. The volume of guff in this vein produced by ‘experts’ to provide ammunition for engineering during the New Labour era was staggering and horrific. In due course I intend to perform autopsies on some of this nonsense, in order to shame certain of the academics and other professionals involved. Top of my hit list is the ludicrous Leitch Report, which was used to justify coercive ‘education’ for 17-year-olds on the basis that nebulous skills, supposedly available only through further compulsory state schooling, were going to be essential in the ‘new economy’.
6. Yes, I do mean you Mr Fundmanager, and you Mr Siliconvalley (among others).
7. I must add that the Granada series did not have this effect on me, though the plots were often preposterous, as was of course true of the original Conan Doyle stories as well. By "this genre" I mean 21st century drama series that are meant to be 'cool' and 'fun' e.g. BBC's Torchwood, Robin Hood, but also ITV's Demons and Marple. Americans are good at them too, though for some reason theirs tend to be a little less brainrotting even when on the face of it they are more puerile — Ghost Whisperer, Psych, that kind of thing.
8. My use of the term "reactive" does not find support from the current Oxford Dictionary, but it has had currency for many years among my colleagues and me, and a term is certainly needed for something which has become a very common phenomenon. Someone is being reactive (in this sense) when they behave in a way that (a) is triggered by what another person has said or done, (b) is ostentatious, (c) would not have been done by them normally, at least not in that particular way, (d) is intended to have an effect on the other person, usually negative.
9. Perhaps this is why Celia Green’s writings are so neglected. Her points seem to be too refined for contemporary tastes. It is obviously not a matter, in this case, of insufficient intelligence, since her style is pre-eminently clear and her arguments compellingly simple. Perhaps it is just that the combination of clarity and depth is one which the modern mind finds difficult to cope with. Readers these days seem to expect depth to be served up with impenetrable jargon and excess verbosity, à la Baudrillard.