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Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People?

‘I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.’ That supposed shibboleth of the turn-of-the-century captains of finance, whose unrestrained pursuit of profits led western economies to the brink of collapse less than two decades ago, provides a suitable refrain to this review of the financial services industry.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Surveying today’s political landscape, it’s easy to suppose we’re approaching a precipice. Passionate intransigence divides societies into blocks which, even where decidedly secular, are rallied around with religious fetishism. It seems that ideological boundaries are increasingly hardening, poisoning the political dialogue, preventing constructive discourse and contributing to almost maddening levels of senseless blustering.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt investigates the concept of morality and shows how differing political groups can reach such disparate conclusions from the same starting point. Gradually building up his argument, Haidt succinctly retreads a lot of territory covered elsewhere in more detail, but which is vital to understanding his standpoint.

Of particular importance is the idea that morality has little if nothing to do with rational thinking. The human mind reacts intuitively to situations at a very basic level, leaving our cerebral rationality running to catch up when it comes time to explain ourselves. Moral reasoning is almost a misnomer; moral intuition is at the core of our decision-making. What this means at a basic level is that people tend to react to statements with their guts, and later defend those reactions with their minds. In politics, this is epitomised by the kind of debate you find on populist media stations, like this example from LBC’s James O’Brien (also available on their website should YouTube receive a letter):

Moving the goalposts

In the exchange, Brexiteer Ashley is asked to justify his strongly held position. Pinning down his argument is like trying to catch an errant moth flitting around a brightly lit room. It’s all those EU laws the country won’t have to obey. Which laws? Well, it’s not so much the laws, as how political the discussions are in Brussels. Politicians talking politics? Well, it’s not really the politics, it’s the uncontrolled immigration. From outside the EU? Well, if Britain were no longer in the EU, it would be better able to integrate the immigrants. Err… right.((I’d argue that’s why you shouldn’t ask people a stupid question, but that’s a debate for another post.))

It makes for amusing radio, but for O’Brien it’s an exercise in futility. This kind of spiralling debate has no end, because the fundamental impetus for the decision wasn’t arrived at rationally, but rather – at least judging by the responses – morally. Tear down the edifice stone by stone if you will, the invisible foundations go much deeper, and cannot be struck by logic’s hammer. When every vestige of rationality has gone, the argument generally reverts to something along the lines of ‘I don’t really know, it’s just wrong.’

Where the book gets interesting is where Haidt investigates the different reactions to moral issues amongst people of different social backgrounds and political persuasions, and attempts to weigh their stances up on a six-axis matrix. This ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ measures the axes of care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion and sanctity versus degradation. While as human beings we are all affected by these, the differences between us are essentially down to our weighing and valuing these axes differently.

An interesting theory, though his ultimate conclusion seems to be the laudable but rather yawnable axiom that people need to understand where the other party stands and find the middle ground. A laudable suggestion, but one which doesn’t really do anything to help solve our intractable problems: as Theresa May might one day realise, a half-baked Brexit is about as likely to please all parties as a half-aborted baby.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife’s Head for a Hat

What happens when we are no longer able to recognise objects, but there’s nothing wrong with our ability to see? When we lose our sense of self and no longer feel the body we’re in? When the concept of ‘leftness’ is severed from our reality?

Oliver Sacks describes cases involving all these issues and more in a classic survey of ‘losses’ and ‘excesses’ in the human brain. The patients are a fascinating array of characters each suffering from such unusual problems that the symptoms seem almost comical. The eponymous man who failed to identify his wife’s head suffered from a form of visual agnosia, leaving him incapable of identifying objects, although his visual acuity was not impaired. Another sufferer had lost all ability to form new memories, and indeed was stuck at some point in his past, incapable of progressing past that point.

In a similar vein to Phantoms in the Brain, these eye-opening cases teach us much about the inner workings of the brain, they also encourage reflection on what it really means to be human, how our sense of self and perception is far more illusory than we really feel comfortable believing, and how little we really understand about how our cranial chemical factories really work.

If there’s one major detraction from this book in my eyes, it’s probably the fact that it’s written in English. The neglect the language has been shown by science leaves it so singularly pathetic at describing medical issues that we’re left with a gobbledegook of foreign words, even where Sacks tries to make the subject digestible for the average reader. Proprioception, for example, is a fascinating concept, and one so familiar to all of us that it’s amazing we don’t instinctively expect it to belong to that elite club of five senses, yet you won’t find me slipping the word into casual conversation any day soon.

On a side note, his descriptions of aphasia rather reminded me of my own feelings when learning a foreign language; that severe headache caused when trying to ram an idea down a set of neural pathways far too small to accommodate it.

[Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash]

The Blind Watchmaker

Blind WatchmakerWhat is it about the theory of evolution which makes it so difficult to comprehend? Why does it require a leap of faith for many people to understand? And why do they feel they need to believe in evolution in a way they never would with, say, gravity?

Having finally got around to reading The Blind Watchmaker this year, one remark really stuck in my mind, when Dawkins turned to describing the human experience in terms of units. The way we perceive the world around us is intrinsically bound to the way we encounter it. We consider time, for instance, within a fairly specific range. Once we go beyond that range, our natural, indeed evolutionary faculties are incapable of perceiving the world outside those bounds with any degree of accuracy. That’s not to say we hit a brick wall when we step beyond that range. We’re still perfectly capable of contemplating the meaning of extremely long or short timescales, for example. We can measure them, compare them, calculate them; we can analogise and use metaphors. But we are far from being able to really grok what they mean.

Take things on the shorter end of the scale. Seconds are easily counted. We’re capable of working out how long a particular journey will take us, able to estimate how much faster it will be if we’re travelling by bicycle or car. But break the second down and it soon stretches into the theoretical. The speeding bullet or the flash of lightning travel far faster than our perception allows. Sometimes we can physically sense the difference, such as when a crack of lightning reaches our eyes before our ears, but beyond that, these events exist beyond our realm of experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, most of us find it difficult to measure things even in years. When did we move house? Was it three years ago, or four? When was that holiday to Cyprus? Five years ago? Six? We usually find little memory tricks to work out the answer, supporting our assumptions with unrelated facts (‘it was the year Jane started going to school… the Olympics were on in Beijing…’) Or we end up relying on physical evidence to corroborate the facts.

Where Dawkins really hits the nail is in how we view chance. With average lifespans under 100 years, we think relatively little of crossing roads, driving cars, climbing ladders or changing light bulbs. Accidents happen, people injure themselves and even lose their lives doing such mundane activities every day. But that only ever happens to other people. The risks are small; so small that we’re willing to take them on a daily basis. Experience teaches us the difference between perceptible and theoretical risk, the difference between the overt perils of grabbing a hot pan without oven gloves and the insidious hazards of an unhealthy diet.

Yet what would happen if we were to have natural lifespans in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of years? Those relatively slim chances of being fatally injured while crossing the road would suddenly have an entirely different dimension, given the number of times you do this in a lifetime. All of those otherwise hidden dangers, the risks we acknowledge without really understanding them, would become as clear to us as those overt dangers, since most people would come a cropper before reaching the natural limits of their lifespans.

The point is that our ability to contemplate unlikely events soon passes from the sensible to senseless. We grasp the chances of tossing heads, the likelihood of a rainy day in July. But beyond a certain limit, even the little sliver of rational thought in our minds gives way to thoughtless instinct. That one in a million chance becomes indistinguishable from impossible. A typical argument used against the theory of evolution runs along the lines that scientists have been trying to recreate the origins of life in the laboratory for decades. All their best efforts have been for nought, ergo that theory cannot possibly be true. Dozens of scientists in dozens of laboratories having been trying for dozens of years to reproduce an event that happened (at least) once across billions of planets in billions of solar systems over billions of years.

The numbers are staggeringly large, making them indistinguishable from impossible. And if not downright impossible, at least so perishingly unlikely that only with blind faith could you believe it to be true?

[Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash]

The Numerati: How they’ll get my number and yours

The NumeratiRecent springs and bounds in technology have opened the floodgates to a wealth of information that once required millions of man-hours to collect, collate, evaluate and assess, if indeed it ever happened at all. Now all of that can be handled, stored and processed by computers, constantly being fed by millions of users who are often happy to give up snippets of their information for the tiniest of benefits. But what hidden potentials lie waiting among those mountains of bits and bytes? And who are the people forging the algorithms to find those golden nuggets?

That’s what Stephen L. Baker attempts to sort out in The Numerati, a neologism he has coined for the computer scientists and mathematicians getting their hands dirty with our data. The book takes an admirably thematic approach and looks at developments across a broad spectrum of society, covering ways in which advancements have and will affect the worlds of work, commerce, politics, medicine and romance. As we increasingly rely on modern digital technology in every facet of our lives, using websites and mobile phone apps to shop, watch films, hire services, chat with friends and find romantic partners, the ways in which our data is gathered and used should become of paramount importance to us, issues which Baker repeatedly attempts to underline throughout this book.

Unfortunately there are two major problems with the way in which it is put together. The first is the nature of Baker’s writing. The journalistic style which works well for a five-page article – leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow as he explores a specific thread – soon becomes tiresome when padded out into the length of a book. Each chapter feels like a separate article treating the same subject from a different angle, covering the same issues in another light, and bound together for this collection. As a result, it feels like the author is often repeating himself, hammering on about the same points, whilst spinning out his yarn with frivolous descriptions of what colour tie his interviewee is wearing or what flavour coffee he’s sipping whilst waiting for his next meeting. There is an inordinate amount of filler here in what is only a slender volume.

Yet the far greater criticism of this book is the fact that Baker doesn’t really understand what he’s writing about. This may sound like harsh criticism, but it’s all part of the disarmingly honest style which is supposed to appeal to the casual reader. Baker is certainly up front about this, and I was in no way expecting the pages to be decorated with mathematical formulae. However, the author has a genuine admiration for the work his Numerati do that borders on an almost medieval fear: he treats them as if they were dabbling with arcane black magic that regular mortals would never be able to comprehend. The description of these wizards and their work thus comes across as being very superficial, and fails to deliver any meaningful content to readers who might be even vaguely familiar with the topic.

To give the author his due, his treatment of the subject is sober and balanced, pointing out the need for caution and vigilance when it comes to privacy issues and the anonymisation of data. At the same time, Baker points out the limitations of mathematical models, and the potential for mistakes in the statistical handling of large data sets. Yet he also emphasises the untapped benefits behind the collection of medical data, or for companies and employees alike in being able to combining the skills and traits of the workforce intelligently, and shows how each of us is willing to give up our as much of our personal information as necessary when it comes to finding romance.

Overall, Numerati is a somewhat wordy summary of the direction big data is changing the world in many areas. It touches on the hidden benefits that may be tapped in the future, as well as the dangers of indifference when it comes to issues of privacy and limitation. However, the chatty, journalistic style leaves this already slim work rather thin on the ground in terms of delivering information, and many people with a vague interest in the subject will learn nothing of novelty. Finally, the author’s reverential treatment of his genius Numerati, and perhaps ingenuine lack of understanding for what they do, leaves the book feeling like a case of the blind trying to lead the blind.

[Photo by Paul Bergmeir on Unsplash]

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