On arbitrary distinctions when both do fine

In general, I hate loaded distinctions. In an interview with the BBC, Ursula Le Guin said how SF (her preferred term for science fiction) had a distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sci-fi, where it is inherent in that conceptualisation that nobody wanted to write ‘soft’ sci-fi. Often these kinds of distinctions imply a certain superiority of one approach to another. Quantitative over qualitative, theoretical or pure over applied, real skills over soft skills. Another distinction I absolutely hate is when people say ‘I’m more a numbers/words than a words/numbers’ person. To me this latter attitude suggests of a fundamentally and intellectually limited individual. How does one explain the beauty of J.S. Bach to such a person, or Schoenberg, who combine the formal with the emotional.
 
One thing I like to try and do is combine an aspect of theoretical knowledge and make it applied to my life. I may have talked about the learning method I developed in my teens which helped me memorise music and other things (which I no longer use), but I’ve always enjoyed the prospect of making a system that tries to work for me. I’ll introduce two such concepts which I’ve tried to apply in organising and approaching my life.

Plasticity

Plasticity in a most general sense is the notion that being able to cope with new and different situations as opposed to the routine and familiar, creates new pathways of thinking and learning. Part of this comes from the cognitive sciences while I came across it through my meanderings in philosophy of psychology. Maybe one day when plasticity is thrown out of the science books as hokum I will sound hopelessly eccentric.

As a person who is obsessed with routine, coming across changes and unfamiliarity can be difficult. One thing I do is every month I set a task to do something completely different and unfamiliar. This might involve going to a new place that i don’t know, talk to people in a place where I know nobody or do something completely out of my regular experience. I find personally that it helps my sense of resilience to unfamiliarity and it also opens new thoughts and options to me. Sometimes there are routine behaviours that we commit to, such as staying on the left side of the road whenever I walk a mile to the tube station, and instead go on the right. I become aware that routine tasks involve less thought and new tasks can involve a bit of anxiety because of its lack of familiarity.

One way in which I try to overcome anxiety and unfamiliarity is to purposely dive into it in a controlled way. I have a one situation per month quota, but lately I’ve exceeded my monthly target. Which is nice.

Formal approaches to decisions

Another ongoing story of my life is the way in which I try to use decision theory and innovations in operations analysis (they are overlapping academic areas) to work on short term and long term decisions. You might call this my way of following Kant’s dictum of formalisation as a desiderata for scientific reasoning. I have created a scheduling system which uses a variety of cues and schema which I have created that denote priorities, goals, and other kinds of classification.

The notion of a decision matrix is a formalised and idealised way of weighing decisions in as explicit a manner as possible. Formal models of reasoning is an area that I don’t understand terribly well but I have found some notions quite useful. I have found that as an approach to life, having a plan and then commiting to it saves a lot of thought and effort compared to deciding an outcome before each action. I do this in a variety of ways: sometimes when I go to the gym I don’t take my wallet with me, this avoids any temptation, or decision process of ‘shall I get something on the way home?’, this decision process was also inspired by Homer’s Oddessy and the part where Odysseus put wax into his ears to avoid hearing the Sirens.

To think that the insight of Homer has come full circle to becoming part of this formalised notion of rationality pleases me, it also answers to that limited person who would ever say ‘I’m more of a current affairs person than an (sic) history person’. There are many rational connections to be made in the world, limited mainly by your imagination and your prejudices. My use of decision matrices in planning my daily life has brought some success, but it’s still a work in progress. The fact that it is still process of refinement also reminds me of Kant’s notion of the regulative a priori.

Michael

Reasons I am looking forward to the Skyfall film

Lately I’ve seen lots of posts acknowledging the cultural phenomena that is James Bond and his series of films. Surprisingly few of them are critical and I was expecting more critical insights. Is it perhaps old hat to point out how demeaning it was to portray women as accessories and objects to save? Not least the brazen way that Bond dealt with them, or the crass one-liners (and we are NR are fans of one-liners). I tolerated the James Bond films and thought of them as nice films for a bank holiday weekend, or the kind of thing to watch in the quiet period of a Hen weekend when my friends are all getting ready for the evening after an afternoon of go-karting/paintballing/airsofting/guitar smashing/insert as appropriate’. It’s quaint and gives an amusing look at the past and the kinds of values of what aspirational gentlemen wanted, although it seems its not just

The reasons I am looking forward to Skyfall are almost entirely apart from the fact that it has a 50 year film history. I am a big fan of the new ‘rebooted’ Bond. I enjoy the ambiguity of his inner strife with (spoiler alert) his feelings for Vesper and the way in which he may or may not still have been mourning her loss. There is a vulnerability to that which makes the character relatable not as a man but as a human being. I also like that its a darker story, less of the comically amusing gadgets or gimmicky villains or evil plots, but arguably the villains and world of the Craig period occupy a world that is more familiar to the present. I like how Judi Dench’s M has little tolerance for the old style of Bond-ing with his promiscuity and apparent lack of concern for protocol. It looks almost more like a modern intelligence agency. What better image for the public sector than a female director (albeit a fictional one).Darker stories are relevant for darker times, and it is nice to know that the institution of Bond films can adapt with that.

Antisophie.

The farce of (Social) Class

The other day I was channel surfing to find the latest episode of some television show on my set top television box, and while browsing, I saw one of those inumerable television programmes where a television presenter is assisting a married couple to buy a home somewhere nice and rural.This made me painfully aware of class. Today in Britain we are living in multiple and often separated social-historical narratives. The Olympics have shown that determination can show that anything is possible, but the evening news shows there’s a lack of opportunity. The Paralympics showed that disabled people can demonstrate feats of amazing endurance, mental fotitude and physical ability, but have severely limited job prospects or financial stability to live independently, irrespective of their condition. If we believed in the narratives of the media and other social forces around us: the right qualifications, training and hard work can take you up the ladder; but the audience is always right and people who go ahead are those that ultimately we as a whole pick, like a talent show winner or the one who is most popular.

I see these as crass contradictions tearing apart the consistency of a culture. We are all familiar with some or all of these kinds of narratives, the thing is, we may accept some and not others, or we occupy a space in which some of those don’t apply. Culture is a mass, different worlds occupying different spaces, these spaces are ideas and ideologies. Living in multiple social bubbles suggests a sense of separation from others, which can happen but we also can come across in our workplaces and other social spaces those of difference. This painfully aggrivates that there is a notion of class at play.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which some psychologists and to another extent, some philosophers have pointed out the roles of cognitive bias as a way of affecting our decision making. There has been helpful highlighting of gendered prejudices against women through the research on Implicit bias led by a few philosophers (Saul, Stitch inter alia) which shows how cultural prejudices come into play in our decisions and beliefs. There’s recently a word that has come into awareness of how men in academia behave in a patronising way to women, presuming the former’s correctness, its’ called ‘mansplaining’.

Until maybe about a year ago, the notion of priviledge was something I never considered. There seems to be this discord that I can’t quite put my finger on, about how people these days speak of equality because they fail to accept that in some fundamental sense, it is unthinkable to accept that the reality is a tyranny, a tyranny of politeness and affable discrimination. It’s not the kind that is obvious in everyday face-to-face, but its the kind that is shown by statistics when we look at gender and ethnic representation in senior management. Its the kind we see through bivariate and multivariate analysis of factors like income bracket or what kind of degree a person has. There’s something deeply wrong and uncomfortable about the narratives we play by where people speak of ideals and values but how they act and how social facts do not accord with that reeks.

One of the recent cultural jokes in the country is how the Chancellor of the Exchequer highlighting the importance of changing government spending uttered a phrase  which suggests that class has a real presence in Britain today, and the doublespeak involved with our discourse on aspiration and equality. The phrase uttered was ‘we’re all in this together’, which was interpreted by many as a farcical notion that there is little confidence in the Government because some are better off than others. It was even used as an ironic slogan in a tube advert a few months back.

I’ve presented a meandering of thoughts, a musing, hardly a systematic presentation of thoughts. I normally leave that to Michael and Antisophie to be more organised with writing things. There is something that smells and it lingers in British society. Something that seems deeply inconsistent, highlighting rhetoric against reality. The reality becomes obscured if it is indistinguishable from such rhetoric, and I am beginning to find reality difficult to identify with so many differing constructed social messages. Something seems deeply wrong with the notion of class. I haven’t even touched upon cultural capital. But I’ve pondered enough for now.

Sinistre*

Antisophie’s words: tic-words and ending a sentence with ‘so…’

Since we at the blog have a ‘Reading’ theme series of posts about the overly lofty kinds of books that we read together at the Noumenal Realm. I thought that I would make more light hearted observations of the world around me by having trying to make my own series of posts, namely about words that I hear repeatedly in public, in private conversations or in the media. I’ll call these Antisophie’s ‘Words’, plus I’ve done something like this already throughout the years.

Tic-words, or filler words

I was practicing the clarinet with Destre a while back and I was tuning my Bb Clarinet. It had been a long time since I’ve picked up a clarinet and I was not confident about playing after so long. I thought that the instrument was in tune and so I said to Destre ‘It’s sort of an A [as in concert A]’, to which he replied angrily: ‘It’s not ‘sort-of’ an A’, it IS an A!’. With that comment it tied with a conversation that we had previously about the ways in which people use filler words or what I might like to call tic-words to fill gaps in otherwise empty or underconfident self expression.

I’m sure you’ve all heard it all before, unless you are buried under Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, this form of speech is so prevalent that I am guilty of it. Destre is not guilty of it and never stops reminding me so. It’s the thing that people do when they say ‘sort of’ all the time, or ‘like’, or ending a sentence with ‘really’.

In these contexts, the words don’t mean anything. That is why I find these expressions so problematic. In the 20thC it was said that the use of the word ‘so’ as a synonym for ‘very’ was an indicator of decline in the English Language. An example of this is when Joey Tribbiani in the sitcom Friends said to Chandler Bing: ‘you are so wearing that bracelet’, after giving the latter an unwelcome gift. The meaning of ‘so’ functions as an emphasis or term of distinction. There is nothing distinct however about the candidates of filler words.

The problem I find about these filler words is mainly that its infectious. So (sic) much so that I  end up mirroring the vocal tics of people after a while. I have heard Guardian Journalists in podcasts endlessly using these filler words and it makes them look like amateurs. It also has the contrary effect of making them appear sufficiently young enough to be relevant to their audience (I read a bit of music and fashion journalism).

I might sound like a stick in the mud, and the litmus test for this would be if expressions like ‘sort of’, ‘like’, or ‘really’ appropriate a meaning. The term ‘really’ might have a new appropriated meaning that is legitimate. It is often said after something in a matter of fact way as if to communicate sincerity or factual honesty. For example:

    “I think the Brogues would be much more apt for a date, really”

My concern with these terms, as Michael hints on in this article about the word ‘trolling’ is that it can be used to appropriate something largely different to its canonical meaning, and insofar as it does the meaning of the term changes, but if a term is used ubiquitously in too wide a context, that adds nothing to the meaning of a statement, then it is filler, and unhelpful English.

Postscript: so…

One other thing I absolutely hate is when people use the suffix ‘so’ at sentences to communicate some kind of enthymeme which is usually loaded in the sentence, but not inherent within it. Also as I see it as a tic-like behaviour but not exactly so, I am infuriated by the prevalence of it. The thought of it is particularly arrogant in that it claims to be an assertion yet what the conclusion of what is said through ‘so…’ is not explicited in words, it makes neither a completed thought nor a a completed sentence.I think a visual example of this would be apt, so…

That’s just not Cricket: notions of decency and cultural values

 

Over the past few weeks the BBC has put out a series about the cultural character of the British, presented by Private Eye’s Ian Hislop. One thing that really interested me was how the notion of British Character has a cultural history. Namely, those things that we take for granted such as a commitment to fair play, notions of politeness or sentimentality have a large part of expression and grounding through cultural and historical events. Whether this is say the philosophical work of Locke on the emotions, or the kinds of stories that were spread of Admiral Nelson before his death, our attitudes and moralising do tell us a lot about our time.

Jimmy Saville Moral panic in retrospect

Concurrently in the contemporary news, there is a moral panic about a dead man, namely how the broadcaster, DJ and philanthropist, Jimmy Saville has a variety of allegations, more and more seemingly revealed of his sexual misconduct with minors. The idea of a moral panic is a sociological notion, where a percieved threat is permeated through culture. Very often these percieved threats are more from hearsay or individual stories, rather than wholescale statistical analysis. In other words, there is often a disconnect between our percieved threat and the actual calculated risk.

Perhaps the recent stories on Saville are completely unlike a moral panic in the sense that we are referring to past events that already happened. But as more allegations arise, and the moralistic judgments we have on him come from across the board of the entertainment industry, broadcast media and even politics and healthcare, I think there is something very panic-like about this issue.

Britishness

There is something exceptionally British about this story. The outcry of the indecency of what happened shows our public standards and intolerance to child abuse, but there is also another dimension: the suggestion that many people heard rumours and a culture of silence about sexual harassment shows a tension between two values: the value of deference, which is something that the British are typically considered to have towards certain authorities; against the cultural value of critique and its importance.

The British media have an international reputation for leaking scandals, (and it seems, covering them up). I consider this to be a value, the value of an individual working in a public department who reveals financially wasteful processes, or corruption. The commitment to fairness and adherence to the rules. Lately it seems to me that there is a tendency to slay sacred cows. This year saw a great deal of scrutiny over the News Corp executives following the evidence of phone hacking. It makes me wonder whether there are fewer things that are immune to criticism in the public sphere.

The other side of criticism: censorship

In wider news there have been a variety of stories about people getting in trouble for Facebook comments, online harassment and twitter abuse. So much so that the definition of ‘trolling’ has a public of being outright offensive, as opposed to being a nuisance. What about activities such as going on a Nickelback Youtube video and saying ‘THIS IS TRUE HEAVY METAL!’ or Black Metal song pages on Youtube arousing the ‘more kvelt than thou’ brigade about some semi-coherent discussion about music and ideology. These are perhaps offensive, if you are say, a Nickelback fan or a Trve black metal afficionado, but hardly criminal.

In the cases where there is a sense of moral indecency about online comments and harassment. such as the horrible case of Amanda Todd, or malicious comments about recent deaths on RIP pages, there seems to be a set of legal precedents towards prosecution in the UK. In the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of attention about the Reddit page ‘Creepshots’ where many defenders have acknowleged that while it may be ‘immoral’ and psychologically indecent to pursue the kind of public voyeurism that is involved; it was seemingly not illegal if they followed certain minimum criteria about photographing people without their consent or awareness.

Moving forward

Criticism seems to have these extremes and a particularly primed response may lead us to being overly sensitive. It is certainly right to blow the whistle on the child abuse that Saville did, and if there is a case at the BBC or any other news media that purposely overlooked his indiscretions then they are accountable. Deference in his case no longer applies to dilute wrongdoing. On the other hand, the case of being overly sensitive about people claiming to be offended as a way of silencing others does not help a conversation. It also is not conducive to discussion to have gratuitous and purposeful attempts at an emotional reaction of say, grief or disgust by trolls that ridicule those who have died, but is that criminal?

It looks like as we navigate through these issues, we will find a new sense of cultural identity, maybe a sense of Britishness or a more internationalised cultural sensibility mediated through online communities.

tl;dr

I think its definately a good thing that there are less institutions and people immune from criticism. But I don’t think the enlightenment values of old accounted for internet trolls.

Michael