Thursday, 15 May 2014

Quackery of Investment


This is what everyone is actually doing. You are just seeing if your system/model is better than the oppositions. It is like a poker game where the key is finding the other person's system. Once you get ahead (Goldman-Sachs) then you always win because you can always raise the stakes until the game is too rich for the opposition (Lehman Brothers).

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Player Piano

I have just finished reading Player Piano. It has some very memorable speeches and some very brilliant observations about people, but it is part of a cycle. We face the same dilemmas now. Do we want an automatic world? Would we be happy living a life of leisure while the machines do everything?

This machine Utopia has been coming ever since we invented machines, and it has been strong since the beginnings of the industrial revolution. The push-back is just as old. Vonnegut is telling the story of the Luddites campaigning against the automated looms and spinning frames. This was fictionalised by Samuel Butler in his novel Erewhon. Now the push is towards letting computers run our lives. This has been the inspiration for a lot of science-fiction authors. My favourite is Frank Herbert who wrote about this conflict in his Dune series. There the humans rebel in the Butlerian Jihad (a nod to Butler) and the machines of Ix are replaced by human computers enhanced by drugs - the mentats. But you do not need to look to science-fiction to see the rise of the machines.

Today I stood at the station listening to the automated message telling me that the next Circle Line train would leave in two minutes as I watched it leave as I go too late to the platform. Then the electronic screen told me I had 9 minutes to wait for the next train, before 3 minutes later the next automated message told me that the next train had just left Royal Oak and would be there in 2 minutes. As the echo of the message died away the next train arrived. Two minutes is shorted than I remember. At least I got to work a little earlier than I had anticipated. There I found a parcel from an online book-seller (not that one) that had been despatched by machine from a warehouse labelled and managed electronically. I was surprised by the contents as I couldn't remember ordering a teen fiction novel about a dancer. So I checked my order and it was supposed to be a textbook on epidemiology. So this is what we get with our technological, quality assured lives. The machines aren't going to take over the world anytime soon.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Meaning of Inequality

I have not found a more moving and motivating expression of inequality than this from Goran Therborn's "The Killing Fields of Inequality" p1.

Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody's human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from main-stream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What is Education For?

It struck me that in "Western" society we have lost all direction. We no longer think about a good life, we just think of a life full of things. We have become obsessed with stuff and we have forgotten about happiness, except to think that more stuff will make us happier. Only when we know what we want can we use education to help give everyone what they want.

So if we don't know what we want, what perhaps do we value. We value experiences, perhaps even more than stuff. So is education fundamentally about experiences?

Could we define education as giving you access to experiences, or as something that enables you to have experiences? If you cannot read, then you cannot share the experiences of all those others who have written their experiences down. So perhaps literacy is fundamental to education and governments certainly make it one of the core targets. Being able to express your experiences and share those of others means that education certainly depends on being able to teach people to express themselves.

What about other skills such as the practical and vocational? If I am to experience what it is like to be a concert pianist then my education has to enable me to have that experience. I need to train until I reach the level where that performance becomes a possibility. If I want to understand advanced level mathematics then I have to share the experiences of all the mathematicians that have played a part in developing that theory. I have to be given the tools to access that experience.

There is also an indirect effect on the experiences that I have access to which relates to our excessive materialism and our focus on earning power as a product of education. That is we need money to access some experiences. I need to be able to pay to fly around the world and see different cultures, or to go skiing or to see the opera. But there is then the question of how this vocational push to education should be balanced.

So perhaps this is a good model of what education should be for. The question then becomes what should be core to education. What does everyone need to be able to experience the world and what parts of education are specific to the individual. Literacy and communication are possibly the essentials, along with some basic maths to make everyday life easier (adding and multiplying, areas and volumes but not much else). Then there is a place for art and literature, history, philosophy and technology and some guiding points of science and politics. But this would be an education focused on the experiences that the individual wants to access. It would be life-long learning as we change where we want to be and what we want to do. Perhaps this would be real education.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Second reply to a negative review of Collini

I need to explain by giving my own story why this review is so wrong and so flawed. This is someone who is a throw-back to the golden (but internally rotten) age of universities.

I have taught in a new university from the 1992 group, a Russell group university and currently teach at a former "crappy" poly from the 1 million group. I can say that each are different and none are faultless. The 1992 group university was where I got my degree and my PhD and became a lecturer. I was later made redundant from one of the expensive science departments because of the politics of R.A.E. and because of a business minded appalling New Labour Vice-Chancellor, who I still strongly dislike and because of whom I shred the alumni newsletter the moment it comes through the door. After this I moved to a university that at the time didn't have to say it was probably the best in the world because it was the best in the world. I had some good experiences there and learnt a lot, but I also learnt that the academics although smart were no different to myself and I never felt that they were special. They had a good social network and some were inspirational as teachers and researchers. But other were mediocre and the political fighting for funding and position was vicious. I then worked for a short while for a government lab before deciding I definitely miss the students and going to a former Poly with a distinguished history. I really like the teaching there and it is where as a teacher I make a difference. Sometimes the students are frustrating and it can be a struggle but I had never enjoyed my classes as much. So I have unlike Collini tried all the different levels and the egalitarianism does not mean that dim people get degrees. It means that less privileged people get an opportunity and we do not waste the most valuable resource - human talent.

Reply to a review of Collini's: What Are Universities For?

THE GOVERNMENT wanted the growth - not academics and certainly not Oxbridge. But do you want an unequal world with a self-replicating Oxbridge elite that runs the country? Do you want any egalitarian changes? Do you want to return to Downton Abbey? If not then you have to provide access. It could be selective and remain at 6% but then you have to remove the social background factors that lead to public schools dominating the places because of their coaching. 

Francis Galton was father of eugenics but he also discovered something else - the law of regression. This is an absolute law. It means if I am cleverer than average my children are likely to be closer to the average than I am. Conversely if I am dumber than average then my children are likely to be cleverer and closer to the mean. This applies to most human properties - height, intelligence, ability in business etc. So inheritance of privilege and access is actually a CATASTROPHIC waste of real potential. The Robbins report said that university should be for all that can benefit and as Collini says why should we think that 45% or 50% can benefit? But why should we think that those who get the most opportunity of getting to university under the old selection criteria are the best and most likely to benefit? 

That is the challenge we face. So the money and expansion is a diversion to deal with the chip on shoulder "taxpayers" who are not graduates who seem to think that university is a three year skive of partying (only for the Bullingdon toffs). It also assumes that academics are with their heads in the clouds "weighing rainbows" (this was Swift's attack on them in Laputa). The truth is that like roads and museums universities are a social good and we should pay for them and university funding should not be afraid of the demon taxpayer. So if you can find a better way of making sure the people who really should go to university can do then you can challenge Collini's views. For me the best solution is a graduate tax for all graduates - not future but past. Oddly the politicians who are mostly university graduates who had their education paid for by fees, and who could claim unemployment benefit during their vacations and who really did live the life of the lazy student did not see it this way.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Was the First World War necessary?

The BBC is holding a debate between Max Hastings (for Britain joining the war) and Niall Ferguson (against Britain joining the war). So it got me thinking to where I sit, and it is a very complicated position.

So first for me you have to take the two world wars together as the second was a continuation of the first, because of the badly implemented peace treaties after the first. They were a half way house that left some of the Empires intact while dismantling the others and caused the rise of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Japanese fascism. The reasons for this were the unfairness of the treaties to these nations in particular by ignoring their needs or in punishing them. So keeping it to asking should Britain have fought the first world war but looking at the outcomes from both world wars not the first singly is how I would make my argument.

Fergusson is right that without Britain entering it would have been a short war with French and Russian defeats in months or a year at most. There would have been a much lower loss of life. It would have been the Franco-Prussian war part II with a Russian excursion. Whether this would have been enough to trigger the Bolshevik revolution you cannot know. Russia would probably have continued its sequence of small revolutions but it might have developed into a constitutional monarchy. Although given the last Tsar's beliefs and the nature of Russian politics at the time I doubt it and so an eventual revolution would have happened, although probably not as soon. This would also have been more likely contained like that in France 150 years before, especially with a bulwark of a strong Imperial Germany. France would have lost some territory and the great game would have been reset with its inherent instability after the end of the congressional system that had regulated affairs between the powers since Napoleon and with the growth of the US.

It is the growing super-power desire of the US and Germany that would have been challenging to deal with. The US had already had colonial excursions fighting the Spanish to free Cuba and the Philippines and they had plans for a conflict with the British Empire. Canada was a particular embarrassment while it remained British. How the US would have dealt with a short French/Russian German/Austrian war we cannot say except there would have been no push for National Self-Determination. There would have been no League of Nations and they could have returned to isolationism or want to open the world to their trade. This trade war would most likely have become a hot war between the US and the old closed trade Empires protecting their interests. Britain would have been the main target for the US and Germany might have used this conflict as an opportunity to push ahead with its own imperial ambitions.

Luckily this never happened and the first world war was the catalytic moment for the end of empires. Although the victorious empires were slow in their retreat the British lost the desire to be the world police force and superpower. They wanted the trappings of being a world power but not the commitments and so the sun was starting to set. It would take the second world war to make this change irresistible but as I said you cannot easily separate the two wars.

What is also important is the social changes the war brought about with the weakening of the aristocratic elites and growth of the power of the working classes and of women. The wars were a huge push for social equalisation and expansion of the franchise. Again this was not an instant change and there were fits and starts along the way but the wars ended the social status quo that had existed since the end of the Middle Ages.

Finally the war created global government. Firstly through the weak League of Nations then through the still impotent UN but more importantly though the EU, world bank, what is now the WTO and the other bodies of international cooperation. Empires were closed and protectionist exploitative and dictatorial. Too many people in the world had no voice, no position and no hope. The wars created international law, they humiliated the Empires, they showed eugenics and racism to be fundamentally wrong and they shaped the modern socialist democracies.

So in conclusion with foresight and for the good of the status quo if you are a neo-liberal Imperialist (like Ferguson) it was a war Britain should not have entered. So I do not agree with Hastings that it was a war that Britain had to enter because it was a war of good, truth and justice against evil. It was not a war to save Europe or the world from a dark age of German/Austro-Hungarian domination. From the British Imperial perspective of that time there was not a lot of difference between the evils of both sides.

But with hindsight it was a war that changed the world immeasurably for the better. The two world wars have been the catalyst to huge social change, world government, the end of aristocracy and of huge movements toward equality in education as well as resources. There is still a long way to go and there are always steps back as well as progress but without these wars the social unrest and internal wars would have cost many more lives and we certainly would not be living in the world that we live in. So we have to thank the millions who died in both world wars for their sacrifice to create this world, but we must not let the current political generation exploit their memory for their own jingoistic and nationalistic views. We must not retreat from the equalisation and world government that the wars brought. So we have to reform and strengthen the UN. We have to make the EU more representative and respected and we have to stop the growth of isolationist nationalism we thought that we had vanquished with the wars.

I was inspired to write this my three books:

  • Mark Manzower - Governing the World
  • Goran Therborn - The Killing Fields of Inequality
  • Ian Goldin - Divided Nations