Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"A home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls"

Superb SATC2 annihilation.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

According to Simon Critchley, it's a silly person who doesn't have to punch a clock, and has ideas that are of no practical relevance but that are seditious and dangerous because... Socrates, hemlock and stuff. Which I suppose is accurate in at least the case of Simon Critchley.

In case you think I'm lying, lets take this point-by-point:

He was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well. Some witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a joke at Thales’ expense — that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. Socrates adds, in Seth Benardete’s translation, “The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.”

So philosophers are people with their minds on higher things which the hoi poloi don't understand. But get this:

But as always with Plato, things are not necessarily as they first appear, and Socrates is the greatest of ironists. First, we should recall that Thales believed that water was the universal substance out of which all things were composed. Water was Thales’ philosophers’ stone, as it were. Therefore, by falling into a well, he inadvertently presses his basic philosophical claim.

Best I can tell, that makes no sense. Falling into a well has, as far as I can see, zero relevance to the claim that the world is composed of water. I suppose you could charitably say that a man who believes that water is the essence of all things should spend more time looking at water and less time looking at the sky, but even that's pretty damn tenuous. And he didn't actually say it.

It doesn't get any better:

But there is a deeper and more troubling layer of irony here that I would like to peel off more slowly. Socrates introduces the “digression” by making a distinction between the philosopher and the lawyer, or what Benardete nicely renders as the “pettifogger"...

By contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity...

Indeed, it might tell you something about the nature of philosophical dialogue to confess that my attention was recently drawn to this passage from Theaetetus in leisurely discussions with a doctoral student at the New School, Charles Snyder.

I'm not sure that tells us something about the nature of philosophical inquiry, so much as lends weight to a lot of people's prejudices about academics who don't do science being pretentious wankers with too much time on their hand who could do with a funding cut or two. As an academic who doesn't do science, I'd like to request that Simon Critchley be first in line for that sort of treatment.

And finally this:

Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect for social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous. Might such dismal things still happen in our happily enlightened age? That depends where one casts one’s eyes and how closely one looks...

Nurtured in freedom and taking their time, there is something dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once. This is why many sensible people continue to think the Athenians had a point in condemning Socrates to death. I leave it for you to decide. I couldn’t possibly judge.

I'm prepared to be wrong about this, but I'm not actually sure it's true that anyone does "think the Athenians had a point in condemning Socrates to death" which would explain why Critchley, who usually can't stop himself from dropping names, confines himself to the weasel words "many sensible people." He is using Socrates as a sort of philosophical everyman here, so maybe he's trying to make the point that he, Simon Critchley, is a philosopher who frequently annoys people and is therefore also "politically suspicious, even dangerous." In which case someone should really disabuse him of that notion fast.

So, on behalf of sensible people everywhere: Don't worry Simon, no-one thinks you're remotely dangerous, and you aren't going to be killed. We just don't really want to listen to you.

All this by way of introduction to The Stone, which is the New York Times's new philosophy forum. So far there's only Critchley's introduction up, but the plan, apparently, is "to discuss issues both timely and timeless." Which of these labels best describes Critchley's contribution is left for readers to decide, but I'm going for "timeless" - masturbation is as old as humanity itself, and and while it may sometimes be philosophically timely to do it in public, I don't think Critchley's really there yet.

There's no "i" in public

Slightly delayed reaction, but this is the first chance I've had to vent...

Some of the most infuriating post-election analysis has involved repeated reference to what “the public” have decided [1]. This would suggest that the voting population is mentally conjoined by way of some vast pulsating shared consciousness [2]. Now I'm all for monism in small doses, but I'm not entirely convinced about this whole giant mind conception of the UK's voting population.

Commentators have, for example, bleated about “the public” deciding to punish MPs by denying any one party a clear majority – which would suggest that people voted for a particular party not because they agreed with that party's policies and wanted them to be in power, but rather, because they somehow foresaw how every other member of the public would vote and then voted accordingly to ensure no single party got too many votes. Perhaps there was a mass UK Voters conference where “the public” voted on how they would vote so as to stick it to those dastardly MPs. Oh god, there was and I wasn't invited! Still, there's no “i” in public. Oh, hang on...[3]

[1] The same infuriation is incited by financial reporting such as: "the markets don't like uncertainty". It makes the markets sound like a wuss that needs to man up.

[2] members of a facebook group

[3] Try typing in "the public decided" into google and have a look at their track record on decision-making. It will soon become apparent that the public is a moron.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

And what next for development policy?

Sometime last year on this blog, we reviewed the Labour and Conservative green papers on international development. Jayne reviewed Labour's 'Building a Common Future' and I gibbered on about ‘One World Conservatism’. No one looked at the Lib Democrats consultation paper on international development. I don’t think even they did.

Despite not waxing lyrical about One World Conservatism, Jayne and I both agreed the conservative green paper was the fresher document and had more ideas in it – at least I think we did.

Andrew Mitchell, the conservative MP, is the new Secretary of State for International Development meaning we're likely to see a lot of those ideas I looked at in One World Conservatism turned into policy.

As proposed in the Conservative green paper, we'll get some of the standard policies such as increasing aid transparency and commitment to raising the aid budget to 0.7% of GNI - although there's no time frame for achieving this and some new ones.

There'll be a root and branch review of the 108 countries that receive aid from DFID designed to focus aid and make it more effective. Aid flows to countries like China that are deemed to have sufficient resources to cater for their own development needs will be cut back. I'm not sure how many countries this will affect given China is almost unique in this respect.

There'll be anti fraud officers introduced to tackle corruption on 'UKaid' projects with a direct telephone lines set up for people to report graft.

As part of handing power back to the people - I find this idea amusing, we vote for a government only for it to give us back some of the power we voted to give it - the 'My Aid Fund' which should be £40 million in its first year, will give us all the chance to vote on where and how aid is spent. Yes. It warms the heart a little.

Overall, there’ll be a lot of continuity within DFID, some new policies will be introduced but mostly to stamp conservative colours on international development rather than to make any radical changes to DFID which was one of the most successful government departments under Labour.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Fantasy Cabinet, anyone?

My heart has sunk so many times over the last few days that I'm not sure it's worth picking it up again... first the exit poll, then the real result that looked frighteningly like the exit poll that none of us believed could be true. And then Nick Clegg said it was the Tories right to have the first bash...

Smart move there. The noble thing, the morally right thing. The wrong thing for Britain, but the right thing to do. Damn him for being a better person than I would be. Doesn't solve the problem of leadership though.

Labour didn't win the election because we don't believe Gordon Brown deserves to be prime minister.
Conservative didn't win because David Cameron simply should not be prime minister.
Lib Dem didn't win because we don't believe Nick Clegg can be prime minister.

And now, we're stuck with having to find one who's not even going to have authority on his side of the room. The government is fucked.

Given that, maybe we should live in an idealistic world, just for a second... the next months, possibly years are going to be a nightmare. The job is an impossible one. So why not just throw caution to the wind and do something a little bit crazy...

I suggest, make Caroline Lucas PM.

Now come on, bear with me... she can't be any worse than the rest of them. Think about it. We need someone to arbitrate, bring people together, find a common ground and a way through. Why not her? She has so little to lose. Yes she lacks experience, but don't they all? Stick a good cabinet behind her and it could be alright.

Make Vince Cable Chancellor (obviously), leave David Miliband as Foreign Secretary, and stick a couple of decent Tories in around Education and Health and Transport and Rural affairs and things like that where they can't do too much harm. Cameron might have to have the dep's position, Clegg could go in as home sec, and Brown, should bow out gracefully and take Mandelson with him and Hague too whilst he's at it. The rest would fall into shape with a good balance of skills and experience and political allegiance.

Have a bash, see what happens, let them all have a really good go and sneak in a bit of electoral reform. Call another general election early in the new year and I bet we'll have a decent majority then.

It could work you know, and at this point, what have they got to lose?

Friday, May 07, 2010

In which the author opines on electoral reform from a position of ignorance...

So the Tory plan for electoral reform consists of re-jigging the boundaries to make sure they're all more equal sizes? Because, you know, the old ones were unfair.

I can't be the only one who sees a flaw with that plan: if you're worry is that districts are unequal, you're either going to have to stop people moving out of their electoral districts, or keep changing voting boundaries in order to keep up with their movements. So assuming they don't want to institute Chinese-style population controls, the Tory plan for voting reform is essentially to have the Parliament redraw the boundaries every five years or so. To think that was a good idea, you'd not only have to be the sort of tit who pretends to believe that the Tory sense of British fair play will stop them from gerrymandering the fuck out of the boundaries this time, you'd also have to believe that every party ever elected from now until the end of the British Parliamentary system is going to be cut from the same cloth.

Any takers on that one?

FAO: Andrew Neil and the Tory party

If there's no overall majority, then obviously we're going to have a Prime Minister who hasn't won an election. So its stupid to rule people out of the position on that basis.

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