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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Punishment for London's Looters

"Thefts not involving violence should be punished by a fine. Whoever seeks to enrich himself at the expense of others should be deprived of his own. But, since this is ordinarily the crime only of poverty and desperation, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property...has left but a bare existence ...the most suitable punishment will be that kind of servitude which alone can be called just - the temporary subjection of the labours and person of the criminal to the community, as repayment ...'

Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments (1764; Paolucci's translation)

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Underdetermination of Personality by Experience

The general idea is this. Experience is just like any fact in that it is open to an indefinite number of interpretations.

In science, it is a commonplace that theories are underdetermined by data - the data have to be interpreted. C.S. Peirce calls the process of getting from data to theory, "abduction". The same idea comes up again in the work of W.v.O.Quine and philsophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

In one kind of language learning theory, it is also a commonplace that children can only make sense of their linguistic environment - what is being said to them and around them - by bringing to it quite a lot of interpretive ability, including the ability to extend their own language skills by heavy use of analogical thinking ("Look, three sheeps!)

In another kind of language learning theory, the linguistic experience of the child is thought of as triggering theories or interpretations which yield working internal grammars. Just as Peirce thought that "abduction" only works because we are in some way attuned to the world we live in, so Chomsky thinks that internal grammar-building is heavily constrained by our pre-tuning, our biological inheritance, even if this is later modified (shaped) in informal and formal educational settings.

An adult person's personality is, at least in part, the product of their childhood experiences. Some people think that it is entirely the product of experience. But even if this is so [I don't think so, but let's assume so], experience has to be interpreted. Unless there is one unique way in which individuals are pre-tuned to interpret experience, then the same experiences can yield different personality results just in virtue of the way they are interpreted. The very same experiences which produce a mean personality in one individual may make another person generous.

This is not a question of "free will". It is a question of what the (growing) individual makes of their experiences. Some - probably most - of this making will be unconscious (triggered, if you like) but at least a small part will be reflected upon.

But even the unconscious part is not entirely predictable: whatever pre-tuning (whatever bioprogram) we start off with, it is not so rigid as to preclude divergent responses to the "same" situations. For this, we may be grateful.

Ed Miliband to Cut Student Fees, Raise House Prices, Give Out Free Bus Passes

The Best I Can Do at the moment is not very much.

My interest in British politics is at an all-time low. The fate of the eurozone, the Middle East and Afghanistan seems much more important, as does the prospect of a scary Republican US President.

Into this world steps Ed Miliband like some blundering would-be comic who mumbles last year's jokes

We will raise something. We will cut something. This is what he thinks politics is about. That's what he's been told. He's been told that the thing to cut is student fees. His joke-writers think this will raise a laugh - I mean, a Hoorah - in Middle England. They have also whispered in his ear that it will snooker the Lib Dem leadership and play well with their Party base. It is the politics of the smoke-filled room, just without the smoke.

Miliband is unlikely to get the chance to cut student fees and in the unlikely event that he does, well, by 2015 we will live in a different world and the Pledge will be forgotten. Did we say that? Oh no, we meant ...

It's not only grim up North London. It's pretty clueless too.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Will Greece run for longer than Agatha Christie's Mousetrap?

I get the feeling that the Greek tragedy is being played out at such length that it is bound to end in farce, not to mention some more deaths on the streets.

Really, it is now all about protecting the interests of those banks, like BNP Paribas, whose very highly-paid and supposedly very highly intelligent suits thought it was a jolly good idea to buy lots of Greek bonds, thus encouraging the Greeks to take advantage of their stupidity and issue even more bonds.

At no point, as far as I can see, were the Greek economy, Greek tax revenues, Greek budget surpluses growing at the kind of rate which would make it possible to service the debt, let alone repay the money. The suits at BNP Paribas clearly did not feel it necessary to look into such matters. I guess they assumed that in case of difficulty, they would be bailed out. This, unfortunately, is a reasonable assumption. We can't have bankers having to pawn their suits.

So both Greece and the bankers were taking each other for a ride. They both deserve to fail.

My humble suggestion is that we should stop feeding the bond market. Governments should not normally run budget deficits and, indeed, should run surpluses in order to pay down existing debt. If the volume of accumulated debt is just too vast for repayment to be feasible, then governments should default and vow never to borrow again.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Make-Up and Body Maintenance

Many years ago ... I was talking to a student writing a Ph. D. on make-up (cosmetics - lipstick, eye shadow, that kind of thing). I remember arguing that perhaps the notion of "make-up" has to be understood in relation to a base line of "body maintenance" and that, over time, the same act can shift from one category to the other - more precisely, that what was once (superfluous) make-up becomes (required) body maintenance.

As a child, in the early 1950s, I once watched an elderly woman feeding the squirrels in a park in Bournemouth. She was a bearded lady - she had a straggly white beard. Even then she must have been eccentric to have not shaved it off; today, she would be extremely eccentric or worse.

The standard for body maintenance for women is now much higher than it was fifty years ago - women, and not just young women, are expected to remove hair from upper lip, chin and so on.

Fifty years ago, body maintenance for men and women did not (I think) include use of deodorants or after shave - though shaving creams used by upper class males were often perfumed and can still be purchased in the right shops.

But men did use hair cream (Brylcreem, Trugel) and the passing of this category of make-up provides a case example of change moving in the opposite direction from the norm: it now seems to us an ill-conceived form of make-up, simply necessitating the use of anti-macassars (as once provided by British Rail).

In contrast, men never used perfume then, though now they do.

Minimum standards have changed. Clothes which once were changed weekly are now changed daily: socks, underpants, vests, shirts. Hair is washed daily, not weekly. Showers are taken daily rather than baths weekly. Teeth are brushed more frequently. All this within the space of fity years.

The standard for self-neglect has consequently shifted. A grubby shirt collar is now enough to signal it in a man.

The minimum standard acceptable at work has also shifted, though at the same time it has become les conformist. It is now more important that you wash your hair than that you have a short back and sides.

Very soon, the stink of cheap tobacco hanging round someone will lead to them being considered unemployable.

You get the idea. It's easy to expand on this - and even write a jolly interesting Ph. D. If the focus was on standards of body maintenance in Great Britain, the title could perhaps be From Godliness to Cleanliness.


Added 24 July 2018: Material  from this Blog post is incorporated into the chapter on "Lipstick Semiotics" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016, freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Bring Back National Insurance!

Here in the UK we get bank statements and mortgage statements but we never get a National Insurance statement. We should.

I just finished reading Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land an elegant essay but really too bland to review in its own right. Like many well-meaning critics vaguely to the Left he would like us to be equal enough to feel that we are all in it together. Right now, in the UK and USA, we live in a very unequal world dominated by zero-sum gaming and free riding.

My own modest proposal to reverse the trend is to relaunch the idea of universal and compulsory National Insurance.

You would get a National Insurance number at birth and your parents would start paying in for you; when you take over responsibility you would continue to pay for the rest of your life. After all, private firms don't start giving you free Travel Insurance when you hit 60. Instead, they increase the premiums.

What you are paying Insurance for would be set out in your National Insurance contract. An annual National Insurance statement would show you what you had paid in - and what you had taken out.

Insurance is basically a way of dealing with risk and hazard. National Insurance should primarily protect against the risks of ill-health and unemployment - one hundred years ago, that was the main intention.

I am not sure it should be a pension scheme since pension schemes ought to involve investment and, ill-luck aside, everyone will end up wanting a pension. But National Insurance could be combined administratively with a contributory state pension scheme.

So once a year you would get a National Insurance statement:

Paid In £abc

Received Back:

3 visits to GP @ £x per visit
1 visit to Accident and Emergency @ £y
1 month's unemployment benefit @ £z

Administrative charges should be shown in some kind of globalised way, reckoned at a percentage of the insurance premiums. That would be an index and test of government efficiency.

People would get into the habit of carrying their National Insurance card and even remember their NI number.

The alternative to such a scheme is to abolish the idea of National Insurance altogether and pay for everything out of general taxation.

The problem is that general taxation is resented precisely because there is no transparency and accountability. It all goes into a big pot which is then fought over by government departments. Some people have privileged access to the pot - for example, Prime Ministers when they decide they need a war to boost their standing or when they want to roll out the red carpet for the Pope.

My suggestion only makes sense in a more equal society otherwise it turns into a form of regressive taxation. It requires that there be a high minimum wage and high income tax threshold combined with a cap on salaries and other earnings.