Friday, 30 October 2009

For She Herself Has Said It

Hillary Clinton Sees Some Tax Dollars - US Senate portrait, public domain
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is concerned that her Pakistani hosts have failed to grasp the nettle of good governance, and reminds them of the high purpose and duty for which democratic societies entrust their representatives with the sovereign power:

"We (the US) tax everything that moves and doesn't move, and that's not what we see in Pakistan."

That sure explains Pakistan's little handful of problems at present.  I'm ashamed I never thought of it.  I had some childish intuition that they might have something to do with a civil society sufficiently dysfunctional that making a living by taking other people's stuff off them, was far too easy in comparison to getting paid for producing stuff they wanted.  But of course, the counter-intuitive truth is that it is not easy enough for the power-classes in Pakistani society to take other people's stuff off them!  Thank you, Secretary Clinton, for straightening me out on that one.  With statesmustelids of this calibre at the helm, surely it will be morning again in America soon.

Of course, the sea-green incorruptible Clinton can be partly excused for allowing so alien a concept as actual governmental corruption to slip past her logic whilst she has her eye on higher and better things.  She does, after all, have one valid point.  If the Pakistani government wishes to spend $7.5 billion it does not have, on making its people's lives better in its usual inimitable fashion, it would perhaps better behoove it to raise it from its own manor than from hers.  Know what I mean, .gov?  The alternative of not spending it at all is, of course, quite unthinkable.

Because as the Secretary warns us, the Pakistani authorities will soon be saddled with a new and dreadful burden:

"You do have 180 million people. Your population is projected to be about 300 million. And I don't know what you're gonna do with that kind of challenge, unless you start planning right now."

Another 120 million mewling, puking, useless and helpless dependents for the hard-working productive powerhouses of Islamabad!  What a horror, what a pollution, what a collective monkey on the bureaucracy's back!  Imagine how much paperwork they will generate just by getting born!  This dangerous invasion of Pakistani State territory by hordes of uninvited and unscheduled Pakistani people must be stringently and expensively managed by any means necessary.  For who will plan and give meaning to so many lives?  Who will procure them the simple needs of existence, or provide the tax-base with which to prosecute them all for selling unauthorized chapatis?  Eh?

Oh, wait a minute...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Destiny's Childishness

Destiny, by J W Waterhouse - public domain; thanks to jwwaterhouse.comWhen I were nobbut a young whippersnapper, I believed I had a Destiny. Not, you understand, a supernatural Destiny – my mysticisms have never leaned in that direction – but a sort of mixture of responsibility, ambition, and brain-bestriding conceit. The precise things I was going to do varied with time, but by gum I was going to do them Big. Science, art, politics, love: impossible and despicable to imagine acting on any scale less than the positively heroic!

Pretty good going for a hereditary dormouse and accomplished dreamer? Well, eventually I got up, and eleven o'clock was kind of late to be saving the human race on a wet Tuesday, and anyhow I had a thumping hangover and an overdue assignment about the evolutionary strategies of starfish. Tomorrow was plenty of time for the chores. Several iterations of this strategy have led directly to the present state of Planet Earth. I can only beg my guests' indulgence for the swirly fermentations slithering around Gaia's great washing-up bowl, and the drifts of questionable smallclothes and used pizza-boxes currently disfiguring the Chintzy Sofa of State.

These tasks I must now pass on to the fresh-faced heroes of the rising generation, whilst my mature powers are bent on graver and less glamorous duties. I do so in full confidence that most of them will pass the test at least as well as I, and refrain from doing anything truly horrible to their fellow-humans such as 'saving' them.

For most of us do, thankfully, grow up in the end. Not, I trust, out of hoping to achieve great things! These forty-two winters have not cured me of that, and I hope the next forty-two will do no more. But that implicit worship of Greatness as an idol in itself - that greed to have a Destiny, of which everybody else is necessarily Fated to get the sticky end – is one of those childish things that can be put away to everyone's benefit. Not all childish things can. A solemn judge or stodgy manager who is too consciously grown-up to play at being Flying Purple People Eaters with his kids of a weekend... has perhaps not put the right part of his childishness in the cupboard, in order to become the proverbial man. Like the worshipper of Destiny, he is so anxious about being Big that he is in danger of shrinking from all the really serious things in his life.

That is comic when a body is four years old, and it can be so at fourteen, but it is sad or even tragic at forty. A really great character – one who is too magnanimous ever to stoop to littleness – will play Flying Purple People Eaters in a heartbeat, if so inclined, because worrying about how big they are is so absurdly beneath them. And I am thinking that a similar rule might apply to those who can't stop concerning themselves with their Greatnesses and Destinies.

So although it is mostly indolence and frivolity that have disqualified me from the race to become what is called a Great Man, I don't think I have too much to reproach myself with on that score. After all, if I'd been more energetic and focused before I was also sadder and wiser, my Destiny might have led me to become so poor, ephemeral, and pusillanimous a thing as a Cabinet Minister.

What a sorry little fate that would have been!

Monday, 12 October 2009

When to Be One of the Crowd?

Lemming - public domain image, Argus fin on Wikipedia CommonsThis quote from Terry Pratchett came up on Samizdata recently:

The intelligence of the creature known as a crowd, is the square root of the number of people in it.

and the criticism it received in the comments set me thinking.

Now on the face of it, Pterry does seem to have nodded here. The intelligence of a crowd goes up, according to his formula, with the number of people in it. This doesn't accord too well with what I've seen of mass human behaviour. Such other classical formulations as

The IQ of a crowd is equal to the IQ of its least-intelligent member divided by the number of individuals in the crowd.

whilst maybe harsh, provide a more familiar picture of what happens when humans devolve into a mob.

But two thoughts prevented me from immediately buying into the general criticism. Firstly, Mr Pratchett is, like me, an individualist and honourary member of the great caprine nation. Secondly, he is noticeably smarter than I am. Since this does not, offhand, seem like the sort of mistake he would be apt to make - I wondered under what circumstances he could be right.

And then it hit me, with considerable force, that a crowd is not at all the same thing as a mob. Consider the difference between the crowd in Covent Garden on a balmy summer evening, and the mob that will gather there when Katie 'Jawdown' Price and Peter 'Panopticized' André perform their globally-syndicated reconciliation duet of Darling Let's Have Another Baby in that very same location. In the first case, we have to speak of large numbers of individuals positively revelling in their various opinions and agendas; in the second, only one agenda is in force and only a narrow range of opinions will be held or appreciated. Significantly, only one of these evenings will be crawling with coppers and stewards. It will also be the one that features me shooting myself in the head with the aid of a hastily-procured illegal airgun and a large box of Maltesers, but let that pass.

Can we narrow it down further? Is there more to this than individuals merely being smarter when incidentally crowded together than willingly mobbed-up? Can a crowd in itself be smarter than a mob? Or - as the Pratchett quote demands - actually smarter than its component individuals?

Yes, it can, I say; and it can in principle be very nearly be quantified how much. There is an angry mob waiting with some worse news around the corner, but we'll get to that presently.

If you independently poll a large number of rational agents each with partial knowledge of a subject, and go with the majority result, then you will certainly do better than by asking any one bog-standard agent, and quite possibly will do better than by asking an expert one. This apparently trivial observation is sufficiently counter-intuitive that James Surowiecki's bestselling The Wisdom of Crowds, and the hip modern gurus of crowdsourcing, can dazzle quite remarkably by flashing it about. Their ultra-democratic perspective on decision-making begins as a simple consequence of probability theory, and is powerful right up to the point that the agents cease in any way to be independent.

The Wisdom of Crowds is rather light reading, but it is worth the bother because the author is no mere huckster, and dwells extensively on the Vox Pop Oracle's very special failure mode. This is called an information cascade, and occurs when members of a 'crowd' fail to add their private opinion to the pool, because they prefer to go along with the majority opinion among the prior contributors. So no further information is added, and the crowding of opinions ceases to add up to any further wisdom. At its worst, this may lead to the valid and well-informed opinions of large numbers of people being changed to their hurt, because the snowball got rolling in a benighted region of the Alps where it is unknown how many beans make five, and now of course a million Frenchmen can't be wrong. I suggest that when people get thus swept up by the snowball, they have joined the collective organism known as a mob, which grants not wisdom but stupidity in proportion to its size.

I can't stress enough that this is no mere herd instinct, but an inherent problem amongst groups of rational agents who have no way of knowing how far each other's opinions are really independent. If I have a factual belief on which I will bet that I am correct with estimated probability p, and I believe that some random Joe Sixpack is only likely to be correct with probability q, then there is some number of Joe Sixpacks whose united probability of being correct will exceed my own, and it will be rational for me to defer to their collective wisdom. But this is only true if each additional Joe is bringing his own sixpack of wisdom to the party - rather than just another empty vessel. And if I am not very canny, I may get Joe rather badly wrong.

Add to this the herd or social dynamic of conformity - whereby people adopt dominant positions chiefly for comfort, gain, or fear of harm if they dissent - and the problem of the mob becomes evident with a vengeance. Again, it is idle and foolish to dismiss those so influenced as 'sheeple' or some such blow-off. A lot of people behave this way because, for them, it is usually the rational way to spend their time and clout - and their gut instincts are always ready to remind them of the fact. The reason they have those gut instincts is because they have frequently proven right!

Which is, of course, no defence against marketers, demagogues, and other predators who have learned how to game them.

It seems to me that reluctance to go along with the crowd is generally a conservative gambling strategy. It tends to eliminate the large gains to be made from crowdsourcing one's judgements, but also the large losses from falling over an information cascade without a barrel.

Contrarianism - actively going against the crowd by preference - is not conservative at all: it is betting specifically upon the crowd's ignorance, and implictly on the likelihood that it has devolved into a mob and is doing the funky lemming. Like going with the crowd, it is a high-risk strategy unless the gambler knows something the crowd doesn't. Specifically, whether it is a crowd with common sense or a mob with a common delusion...

I am temperamentally somewhat risk-averse myself, and tend to suspect populations at large of great sheepishness. According to this analysis, I am therefore quite rational in my general stubbornness and slight tendency to the contrarian. The analysis must be right, then!

(La-la-la-LAH-la, I can't HEAR you...)

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Knock-Down Drag-Out

...fight, in which justice, for once, came out hilariously on top!

It seems that a couple of drunken yobs on a night out in Swansea decided it would be a really fun idea to beat up a couple of glammed-up cross-dressers in passing.

Two cross-dressers who were also, as it happens, cage-fighters.

The predictable and seriously righteous sequel can be found here.

Best of all, the merry men who defended themselves with such bravura and quelled the public nuisance but good - were not the ones who got nicked for it! Lord, I love it when that happens.

I can't think of a smart sign-off line that is half so entertaining as the story itself, so here's a link to a video of the ever-magnificent Cyndi Lauper 's Ballad of Cleo and Joe. Like this whole episode, it is about a guy of the cross-dressing persuasion, and kicks some serious arse.