Archive for the ‘TWOS’ Category

So, I went to see Chris Morris’s takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review – it’s desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny – one of the markers of Chris Morris’s work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can’t manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard (“It’s not a cupboard! It’s a small room!”, he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader’s wife as a nurse – she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers’ self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it’s as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band – it’s Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan – one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a “Paki banchut!”. (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar’s eyes – the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces “SHOPPING”, with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He’s a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he’s really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris’s worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption – he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he’s the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It’s also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he’s by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children’s social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley’s chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed’un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn’t mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers – a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades’ martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong – accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar’s official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie – several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it’s a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report – it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.

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F-Secure Labs’ blog points to Cyberwar is Bullshit. I say yes! And I point you to Evgeny Morozov‘s cracking 10-step guide to cyberwar fearmongering. Follow his simple plan and you’ll be able to spread arrant drivel to the underbriefed with the best of them. I especially like:

2. Begin the story in Estonia, with a reference to its 2007 attacks; make sure to play up the “E-stonia” tune and how the entire country was under online siege for a month (never mention that rioting in the Estonian streets was much more devastating and that the actual online siege lasted for twenty minutes at best). Setting the story in Estonia would also help to play up the Soviet threat that never really left the country. Blame NATO’s impotence, praise Skype’s genius, quote non-existent local Web entrepreneurs who lost all their savings in the 2007cyber-attacks.

See here.

5. Find and quote industry experts with the biggest possible conflicts of interest – preferably those who make their living thanks to the public paranoia about cybersecurity. Make sure you give them enough space to quote their latest anti-virus solutions and consulting services. Since nobody important would talk to you on the record anyway, nobody expects your quotes to add any value to the article. Remember: it’s all about the metaphors. Ideally, find “unbiased” experts who have never been to Estonia or Georgia, don’t know the language, have gathered no data of their own, but who think that cyberwar is going to destroy us all (unless their firm is selected to help us save us from the evil hackers).

Again with the vendors.

Never mention any connectivity statistics for the countries you are writing about: you don’t want readers to start doubting that someone might be interested in launching a cyberwar on countries that couldn’t care less about the Internet.

Beijing: the world’s most hacked city.

The big prize is alluding to a secretive summer camp on cyberwarfare, where hackers from Russia, China, Iran, and Israel get together to share tricks.

The Dr. Evil theory, a significant net contributor to global stupidity.

Update: Try the simple plan on this story.

Tim Ireland’s new project is more necessary than ever. It’s not quite achieved the same degree of punch and professionalism that the daddy of tab-bashing blogs, BildBlog offers readers of Germany’s biggest newspaper, but give them time. (This also bothers me. When I started this blog there were one million blogs, of which 50,000 updated on average daily. Now their numbers are beyond counting, and the top 50,000 churn out far more than before because so many are professional. I can remember when the only pro was Josh Marshall.)

Anyway, this didn’t seem to interest TSL despite my desperately flagging it, but it’s possibly the most Orwellian piece of writing in the history of British journalogasm. Link, if you can stomach it.

AN Iraqi terror boss is demanding legal aid to sue the MoD — over PORN left in his jail toilet. Ahmed Al-Fartoosi — blamed for the deaths of dozens of Brits — is to sue the Government for tens of thousands of pounds. On top of the loo claim, Fartoosi — accused of leading the fanatic Mehdi Army and masterminding a bombing campaign against Our Boys in Basra — wants “substantial damages” for:

HEARING porn videos being played on a soldier’s laptop;

BUMPING his arm and thigh when being put in an armoured vehicle; and

LOSING sleep in his cell due to noise and lights from a corridor.

Fartoosi — represented by anti-war lawyer Phil Shiner — also moaned his solitary confinement room was too hot.

Fortunately there are also newspapers that don’t aim for a reading age of seven (I’ve actually collapsed some of the paragraphs in that quote, if you can believe that). So…

Fartoosi was detained for more than two years, including nearly six months in solitary confinement. He was arrested in his Basra home in September 2005 and released late last year after British forces agreed to an Iraqi-sponsored deal with the militia.

He says he was beaten with rifle butts and blindfolded before he was put in a tank. For 12 hours he and his fellow detainees given no food and were prevented from going to the toilet.

He says he was taken to the British base at Shaibah, on the outskirts of Basra, where he spent 72 days in solitary confinement in a small cell with no ventilation, though he says he was provided with three cooked meals a day. On the third or fourth night, he says, soldiers brought a laptop and placed it on a window sill just outside his cell.

“After a short period of conversation in English it became clear to me that the DVD was showing porn. It was playing at the loudest possible volume. Thereafter for the next month the porn movies were played all night.”

So, when the Sun says he “bumped” his arm and thigh, they mean that he was beaten up with the butt of a rifle. When they say he lost sleep, and heard porn playing back on a laptop, they mean he was deliberately deprived of sleep as an interrogation tactic – one which is banned by Army doctrine on the handling of prisoners, by the way.

Note also that the “porn found in a jail toilet”, a comparatively puny charge, somehow got promoted into the lede, thus pushing the sleep deprivation down into the bottom end of the story. (After all, do you think you were meant to read any more than the first par?) Of course, associating it with a toilet tends to lend a sort of fnarr fnarr quality to the whole thing as well.

Nobody has any business writing like this. You might wonder as well what the Sun thought it was doing being “STAGGERED” by Colin Stagg’s compensation; let’s not forget that the Met is currently prosecuting another suspect in the Rachel Nickell case…the guy whose DNA was all over the crime scene. We can be as certain as anything in the law that Stagg is innocent; we’ve got the DNA after all. So what is their major malfunction? Can it be that they just like arbitrary state power?

Bonus catch: this week, they also managed to report the horrible fate of a boy who fell off a block of flats he was trying to climb down to get away from his enemies with the strapline “BROKEN BRITAIN HORROR”; they are always so keen to churn out victim porn (see the Stagg story), but you have to wonder whether his relatives really wanted to be conscripted into a party political broadcast for the Conservative Party.

OK, so I’ve been off line quite a bit due to a weird perversion called “moving house”. This means that my constituency MP is no longer Philip Hammond, which almost makes it all worthwhile by itself. Hammond was one of the most annoying features of living in wonderful Runnymede & Weybridge; an immensely self-satisfied and superbly mediocre greaseball who was invariably unhelpful on every occasion I had any dealings with him.

For some strange reason, Hammond has risen to a mysterious prominence in politics as Shadow Chief Secretary of the Treasury. Now this is no small thing; the Chief Sec is probably the most-underestimated job in government, being the gatekeeper for the Treasury’s dealings with all other government departments. So it is a sad comment on the shallow Conservative talent pool that it is filled by a waxwork like Hammond; in more normal times, he would no doubt botch the job and be dropped, but for various reasons entirely beyond his or anyone else’s control, the economic and more importantly financial climate has left him with an open goal. If you’ve seen Kes, it’s his Brian Glover/Bobby Charlton moment.

As far as I can make out, the only reason for Hammond’s success apart from the desperate shortage of alternatives is that he can be relied upon to repeat predetermined talking points without stumbling over often. He is, as the essay at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four would say, literally a doubleplusgood duckspeaker – one who quacks out the party line without the least deviation. This may not be much of an achievement; you could, after all, replace him with a simple Python script without much trouble. But he’s done well with it.

The problem is the content of the duckspeak; after all, duckspeakers will always be with us. Hammond insists on reciting that “Gordon Brown failed to repair the roof while the sun was shining”; this appears to mean that the budget deficit ought to be lower, or something. Leaving aside that everyone, always, believes that if only they were in charge the budget deficit would be lower; it just isn’t true. Public debt as a percentage of GDP is significantly (about six percentage points) lower than it was in 1997. If the roofing is not complete, then Brown at least put on quite a few new slates.

National Debt as % of GDP, 1997-2008

National Debt as % of GDP, 1997-2008

But the problem is worse; what on earth is the Conservative proposed macroeconomic framework? What would they consider as sufficient roofing? Indeed, what on earth was it all these years? I can’t remember that the Tories ever promised to run a primary surplus during the period 2002-2008, and the only policy of theirs I can think of that was explicitly intended to reduce public debt was William Hague’s half-bright brainwave of using radio spectrum sales to fund the universiti….hold on, that wouldn’t have reduced the public debt, would it? Hague came up with it because he didn’t agree with the Government using the UMTS 2.1GHZ band auction to reduce the public debt.

Not that telcos in 2001-2 would, or even could, have bid that kind of money for spectrum; they didn’t have it. They never will bid that kind of money again, either, as anyone in the trade could tell you. Which is a pity, given that I think Hague’s brainwave is still part of the Tory platform. The Tories do not appear to have any idea what fiscal rules they will use, if any.

Complaining about the Tory legacy (if the roof needed fixing, perhaps it had something to do with the PSBR running between £28-46bn for each of the last three years up to 1997? Just a thought) is widely held to be a pathetic tactic; but you’d be wrong. It was only this spring that a government warehouse – the so-called Work in Progress Store – that had held the backlog of unresolved immigration files since 1994 shut down without fanfare, as Michael Howard’s legacy was finally processed and transferred to the archives.

But they are very good at repeating utter bollocks over and over again.

OK. Remember a few months ago, the Sundays were briefed about one of Tony’s eye-catching initiatives – to launch a magnetic levitation high-speed rail link from London up to Scotland?

Well, if it ever had any substance, it’s now a dead parrot. And so are all maglev projects, which should bring a hearty cheer from everyone who cares about good technology. Wanna know why? Get your looking gear round this Eurotrib thread. Not only did the new TGV rip through its own record by cranking up to 356 mph, it got within 6 mph of the record for a maglev vehicle. That’s seriously fast for something running across the lumps and bumps. That’s as fast as an early-model Spitfire.

And it kills off the only real argument for maglev – speed. So why do I hate maglev?

It’s a classic case of bad technology, for the same reasons the NHS NPfIT is, and for the same reasons Tony Blair fell for it. John Waclawsky said that there are two kinds of technology, the kind that provides a direct benefit to the end user, and the kind that’s designed by people who think they can see the future. These, he said, are also known as success and failure.

The only way you can start doing maglev is to take a Big Tough Decision to spend kajillions and tear up the whole rail infrastructure. Anything short of that is still going to cost a fortune, but won’t make a profit or give any realistic feedback on whether or not to go ahead. Further, you can’t get any benefit from doing some of it – it has to be all or nothing, because it doesn’t integrate at all with the existing system.

For example, if you put in an upgraded, LGV-standard line from London to Doncaster, even without building it any further, you’ve already hugely increased the speed of the service, and freed up the old main line for freight. And if that worked, you can just keep building. But if you start a maglev project – you’ve got to go all the way before you get any benefit whatsoever, you can’t run services on from the end of the line over conventional tracks or the other way round, and you can only upgrade by pouring another zillion tonnes of concrete.

Given that it involves a completely new alignment, you will probably also need to terminate it out of town (airports were suggested for the ECI mentioned above), which means you’ve got to deal with hordes of passengers getting from where they live or work to the terminal. Do something sensible, and you can run the trains right into London.

But the good news is that it’s New, it’s Expensive, and it’s Centralised. Like second-generation nuclear power and monster government databases. And there is something about this stuff that managerialists can’t resist – it takes a lot of managing, after all.

Thinking about it, I’m struck by an analogy with the creationist quackery of “irreducible complexity”. You can’t have a little nuclear industry, or a modular national identity register, or a progressive roll-out of maglev. They have to spring into being, complete in themselves, fresh from the Designer’s drawing board.

But it doesn’t happen like that. If it can’t evolve, it’s probably useless. Think process.

OK. Remember a few months ago, the Sundays were briefed about one of Tony’s eye-catching initiatives – to launch a magnetic levitation high-speed rail link from London up to Scotland?

Well, if it ever had any substance, it’s now a dead parrot. And so are all maglev projects, which should bring a hearty cheer from everyone who cares about good technology. Wanna know why? Get your looking gear round this Eurotrib thread. Not only did the new TGV rip through its own record by cranking up to 356 mph, it got within 6 mph of the record for a maglev vehicle. That’s seriously fast for something running across the lumps and bumps. That’s as fast as an early-model Spitfire.

And it kills off the only real argument for maglev – speed. So why do I hate maglev?

It’s a classic case of bad technology, for the same reasons the NHS NPfIT is, and for the same reasons Tony Blair fell for it. John Waclawsky said that there are two kinds of technology, the kind that provides a direct benefit to the end user, and the kind that’s designed by people who think they can see the future. These, he said, are also known as success and failure.

The only way you can start doing maglev is to take a Big Tough Decision to spend kajillions and tear up the whole rail infrastructure. Anything short of that is still going to cost a fortune, but won’t make a profit or give any realistic feedback on whether or not to go ahead. Further, you can’t get any benefit from doing some of it – it has to be all or nothing, because it doesn’t integrate at all with the existing system.

For example, if you put in an upgraded, LGV-standard line from London to Doncaster, even without building it any further, you’ve already hugely increased the speed of the service, and freed up the old main line for freight. And if that worked, you can just keep building. But if you start a maglev project – you’ve got to go all the way before you get any benefit whatsoever, you can’t run services on from the end of the line over conventional tracks or the other way round, and you can only upgrade by pouring another zillion tonnes of concrete.

Given that it involves a completely new alignment, you will probably also need to terminate it out of town (airports were suggested for the ECI mentioned above), which means you’ve got to deal with hordes of passengers getting from where they live or work to the terminal. Do something sensible, and you can run the trains right into London.

But the good news is that it’s New, it’s Expensive, and it’s Centralised. Like second-generation nuclear power and monster government databases. And there is something about this stuff that managerialists can’t resist – it takes a lot of managing, after all.

Thinking about it, I’m struck by an analogy with the creationist quackery of “irreducible complexity”. You can’t have a little nuclear industry, or a modular national identity register, or a progressive roll-out of maglev. They have to spring into being, complete in themselves, fresh from the Designer’s drawing board.

But it doesn’t happen like that. If it can’t evolve, it’s probably useless. Think process.

Bacon Butty piles on to one of the notions I criticised here. Food miles are, if anything, less useful than embodied energy as a policy target – after all, a whacking 22 per cent of CO2 attributed to UK food transport originates from sea and air transport. Obviously, the first place to start, especially as something like 33 per cent is attributed to trucks within the UK and zero to rail transport.

It’s also worth remembering that one of the reasons for the supermarket airfreight phenomenon is that the airlines found they had spare capacity on aircraft coming back from various places in Africa. As any trucker could tell you, a backload is pure profit, as the costs are covered on the outward journey. To put it another way, it’s no net increase in CO2 emission unless the route would otherwise be uneconomic and – this being the airline business – politically closeable.

Final thought? Forget all the intermediate interventions, and use the tax that gets to the cause of your problem. But it’s becoming a major political line of discourse that environment/energy issues are a question of consumerism, or rather, inverted consumerism. (Consider Martin Wight’s typology of international relations theories – Revolutionism, Rationalism, Realism, and Inverted Revolutionism. The last was pacifism.) Stop buying stuff! Better – buy expensive stuff that shows your moral character!

But looking at the data, this is ridiculously ineffective. What works is rockwool. That, and lithium-ion batteries, wind turbines, and incremental improvements on a range of other technologies. Not flying, or not buying airfreighted (or perceivedly airfreighted) goods, will do us no good at all. So why is Diddy Dave Cameron so keen?

My chippy reckoning is that it’s class. Anything involving changes to infrastructure or buildings will piss in a lot of Tory pools, from Grecian dukes discovering new laws of atmospheric chemistry to oppose wind power to nifty resellers flipping buy-to-lets in the M4 corridor, and make a lot of sparks very happy, and these things do not please Dave from PR. It’s the technocracy, stupid.

It’s a pity that Gordon Brown insists on taxing the poor into moral enlightenment.

Over the last few months, I’ve done a succession of posts which can be read under the tag TWOS, for the war on stupidity, which explore various forms of ideology and consensus. More related posts will be tagged as I go. But is this just an exercise in pooflinging? Beyond tirades about managerialism, Tony Blair, bad engineering, and other stupidity-generating institutions, does TYR offer anything? Daniel Davies, of course, would argue that poo-flinging is indeed enough, for a variety of reasons.

He’s right, up to a point. After all, when the forces marshalled behind incredibly bad ideas are so powerful, who would want to waste time discussing alternatives when you could be concentrating your fire, or rather poo, on the enemy? And his rationale – that most people can identify the flaws in a proposal, but coming up with ones that have fewer requires ability – is reasonably persuasive.

But I think this doesn’t go far enough. Stupidity in organisations is like noise in information systems. Claude Shannon worked this stuff out at Bell Labs in the 1940s, when he theorised that the factor governing the informational throughput of any communication channel, all other things being equal, was the error-rate. Therefore, for a given bandwidth, the fastest link is the one with the better error-cancelling procedure.

We can see similar processes at work throughout the natural world, and throughout society. Evolution, markets, debate – these are all processes that create a big pool of errors, and then use a stupidity-elimination process to sieve out the least silly. Then shuffle, recombine, iterate, and destupidify. The persuasive force of this is well shown by simple computer simulations – like this one, ICE, which aims to defeat the argument against evolution from irreducible complexity. ICE sets a simple challenge, to catch as many randomly dropped balls as possible using crosses on a grid. Its organisms are randomly-generated, then tested and ranked in order of fitness. Then they are recombined, with random changes, and the whole thing is run again, with those below a threshold level eliminated. Evolution is visible within two or three iterations.

So, here we are at my first point. The Redwood consensus, as we identified in this post, relies on the creation of anxiety about security issues that the core executive of the state can offer relief for, as a substitute for anxiety about economic issues that the state will offer no relief for. It further assumes that a managerialist elite consensus knows what to do on all issues.

Clearly, this is highly stupidogenic. Managerialism relies, after all, on the use of pseudo-scientific methods to enforce compliance with the managers’ a priori beliefs. The deliberate exemption of a large sector of the political sphere from normal debate is at the heart of the consensus – UK-US relations, control of drugs and borders, the workplace. Where de-stupidising processes are not at work, stupidity accumulates.

Therefore, we need a more hostile memetic environment.

But that’s not all. If we want faster memetic evolution, as well as sharpening the stupidity-remover’s blade, we need to increase the size of the pool of errors behind it. I’ve said before that I can’t understand why conservatives, and for that matter right-libertarians, think that innovation is best encouraged when the cost of failure is maximised and the barriers to entry high. Consider the experiment Jonah Lehrer describes here, in which monkeys were raised in three environments of varying richness. Poverty of experience had visible effects on the monkeys’ brains. Interestingly, though, the benefits of a richer childhood showed diminishing returns – above a certain point, the monkeys derived no further benefit.

Now think of society. Can anyone seriously argue that a few percentage points shaved off Bill Gates’ income would deter any significant innovation? Can anyone seriously deny that a few tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have a seriously beneficial effect on a significant number of children in, say, Africa? (Bill Gates certainly wouldn’t, after all, as he is giving substantial amounts of his money to them.) Just as importantly, trying to do anything new needs space, time, and freedom. And, as we pointed out, there is a sense in which greater equality is greater freedom.

But wait. Isn’t this contrary to our first principle? Might there be some awful social failure mode concealed in a left-libertarian utopia? You’d be right. If there’s one philosophy that has achieved more than any other and is still to cause any pyramids of skulls, it’s scepticism.

Now, scepticism may not tell us very much about what to try, but it does have a built-in stupidity-reduction process. Even if you’re a fascist, if you are a coherent sceptic you won’t be able to do too much damage. Whatever your ideology, it doesn’t matter, so long as you get your methodology right. Rather than thinking about end-states, utopias, and anti-utopias, wouldn’t it be a more robust practice to think about processes, methods, and principles that minimise stupidity and maximise creativity? Another lesson from evolution is that incremental steps towards problem-solving are more likely to hit the target than revolutionary change.

This brings us back to the importance of negativity as a creative force. If democratic participation, evidence-based policy, and other nostrums are to have any meaning, they must have one vital feature – they must be able to force the government, the management, or whoever to change course. This is what Tony Blair’s friends fail to realise whilst havering about “engagement”, “community” and other pabulum – it won’t gain anyone’s trust whilst the only result of a negative answer is that Blair’s office sends out millions of e-mails to tell the citizens that they are stupid.

One of the most important reasons we need stupidity-removing institutions is control lag, coupled with the salience heuristic. As a rule, people overestimate the importance of the loud, the obvious, the dramatic, and the immediate. Equally, they find it difficult to manipulate anything when the response to their actions is delayed or ambiguous – an excellent example is Goodhart’s law. Lag tends to cause exaggerated control input – the longer you wait, the greater the temptation to press the button again. (Two words: John Reid.) The end result can be a positive feedback loop, with the deviations getting bigger and bigger as you struggle to get ahead of the cycle.

It’s another reason why politics should be difficult. It’s also an argument against hierarchy. John Boyd’s concept of the OODA loop, drawn from his experience as a fighter pilot, argues that in any competitive activity, the actor with the fastest process of observation, orientation, decision, and action will win. Boyd argued that this implied a flatter command structure for the military, among many other things. Similarly, David Stirling originally thought that the SAS’s four-man teams would prevent a leader emerging in each. Empirical data shows that small teams capture most of the benefits of aggregating information. At a lower level, lag and information loss are always less the shorter the link. People who actually do the job usually know how it works, and anyway will find out first if they are wrong.

To recap briefly: ideas are not the problem, as they will be generated in conditions of freedom and maximised horizontal exchange. Stupidity elimination is the problem. Hierarchy is the problem, management is not the problem. Final goal targets are not the problem, psuedo-statistics is the problem.

And most importantly of all, if we’re serious about a new left-wing consensus, we ought to install it on top of a sceptical operating system.

Over the last few months, I’ve done a succession of posts which can be read under the tag TWOS, for the war on stupidity, which explore various forms of ideology and consensus. More related posts will be tagged as I go. But is this just an exercise in pooflinging? Beyond tirades about managerialism, Tony Blair, bad engineering, and other stupidity-generating institutions, does TYR offer anything? Daniel Davies, of course, would argue that poo-flinging is indeed enough, for a variety of reasons.

He’s right, up to a point. After all, when the forces marshalled behind incredibly bad ideas are so powerful, who would want to waste time discussing alternatives when you could be concentrating your fire, or rather poo, on the enemy? And his rationale – that most people can identify the flaws in a proposal, but coming up with ones that have fewer requires ability – is reasonably persuasive.

But I think this doesn’t go far enough. Stupidity in organisations is like noise in information systems. Claude Shannon worked this stuff out at Bell Labs in the 1940s, when he theorised that the factor governing the informational throughput of any communication channel, all other things being equal, was the error-rate. Therefore, for a given bandwidth, the fastest link is the one with the better error-cancelling procedure.

We can see similar processes at work throughout the natural world, and throughout society. Evolution, markets, debate – these are all processes that create a big pool of errors, and then use a stupidity-elimination process to sieve out the least silly. Then shuffle, recombine, iterate, and destupidify. The persuasive force of this is well shown by simple computer simulations – like this one, ICE, which aims to defeat the argument against evolution from irreducible complexity. ICE sets a simple challenge, to catch as many randomly dropped balls as possible using crosses on a grid. Its organisms are randomly-generated, then tested and ranked in order of fitness. Then they are recombined, with random changes, and the whole thing is run again, with those below a threshold level eliminated. Evolution is visible within two or three iterations.

So, here we are at my first point. The Redwood consensus, as we identified in this post, relies on the creation of anxiety about security issues that the core executive of the state can offer relief for, as a substitute for anxiety about economic issues that the state will offer no relief for. It further assumes that a managerialist elite consensus knows what to do on all issues.

Clearly, this is highly stupidogenic. Managerialism relies, after all, on the use of pseudo-scientific methods to enforce compliance with the managers’ a priori beliefs. The deliberate exemption of a large sector of the political sphere from normal debate is at the heart of the consensus – UK-US relations, control of drugs and borders, the workplace. Where de-stupidising processes are not at work, stupidity accumulates.

Therefore, we need a more hostile memetic environment.

But that’s not all. If we want faster memetic evolution, as well as sharpening the stupidity-remover’s blade, we need to increase the size of the pool of errors behind it. I’ve said before that I can’t understand why conservatives, and for that matter right-libertarians, think that innovation is best encouraged when the cost of failure is maximised and the barriers to entry high. Consider the experiment Jonah Lehrer describes here, in which monkeys were raised in three environments of varying richness. Poverty of experience had visible effects on the monkeys’ brains. Interestingly, though, the benefits of a richer childhood showed diminishing returns – above a certain point, the monkeys derived no further benefit.

Now think of society. Can anyone seriously argue that a few percentage points shaved off Bill Gates’ income would deter any significant innovation? Can anyone seriously deny that a few tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have a seriously beneficial effect on a significant number of children in, say, Africa? (Bill Gates certainly wouldn’t, after all, as he is giving substantial amounts of his money to them.) Just as importantly, trying to do anything new needs space, time, and freedom. And, as we pointed out, there is a sense in which greater equality is greater freedom.

But wait. Isn’t this contrary to our first principle? Might there be some awful social failure mode concealed in a left-libertarian utopia? You’d be right. If there’s one philosophy that has achieved more than any other and is still to cause any pyramids of skulls, it’s scepticism.

Now, scepticism may not tell us very much about what to try, but it does have a built-in stupidity-reduction process. Even if you’re a fascist, if you are a coherent sceptic you won’t be able to do too much damage. Whatever your ideology, it doesn’t matter, so long as you get your methodology right. Rather than thinking about end-states, utopias, and anti-utopias, wouldn’t it be a more robust practice to think about processes, methods, and principles that minimise stupidity and maximise creativity? Another lesson from evolution is that incremental steps towards problem-solving are more likely to hit the target than revolutionary change.

This brings us back to the importance of negativity as a creative force. If democratic participation, evidence-based policy, and other nostrums are to have any meaning, they must have one vital feature – they must be able to force the government, the management, or whoever to change course. This is what Tony Blair’s friends fail to realise whilst havering about “engagement”, “community” and other pabulum – it won’t gain anyone’s trust whilst the only result of a negative answer is that Blair’s office sends out millions of e-mails to tell the citizens that they are stupid.

One of the most important reasons we need stupidity-removing institutions is control lag, coupled with the salience heuristic. As a rule, people overestimate the importance of the loud, the obvious, the dramatic, and the immediate. Equally, they find it difficult to manipulate anything when the response to their actions is delayed or ambiguous – an excellent example is Goodhart’s law. Lag tends to cause exaggerated control input – the longer you wait, the greater the temptation to press the button again. (Two words: John Reid.) The end result can be a positive feedback loop, with the deviations getting bigger and bigger as you struggle to get ahead of the cycle.

It’s another reason why politics should be difficult. It’s also an argument against hierarchy. John Boyd’s concept of the OODA loop, drawn from his experience as a fighter pilot, argues that in any competitive activity, the actor with the fastest process of observation, orientation, decision, and action will win. Boyd argued that this implied a flatter command structure for the military, among many other things. Similarly, David Stirling originally thought that the SAS’s four-man teams would prevent a leader emerging in each. Empirical data shows that small teams capture most of the benefits of aggregating information. At a lower level, lag and information loss are always less the shorter the link. People who actually do the job usually know how it works, and anyway will find out first if they are wrong.

To recap briefly: ideas are not the problem, as they will be generated in conditions of freedom and maximised horizontal exchange. Stupidity elimination is the problem. Hierarchy is the problem, management is not the problem. Final goal targets are not the problem, psuedo-statistics is the problem.

And most importantly of all, if we’re serious about a new left-wing consensus, we ought to install it on top of a sceptical operating system.

Via comments at Our Word, Rob makes this excellent point.

It’s always struck me as a serious tactical mistake for those on the left to argue against laissez-faire on the grounds that it deprives people of economic security, because this hands a powerful rhetoric of liberty to the right, who basically only care about it for rich people. The sensible thing to say is that what redistributive transfers to is redistribute freedom: money is general all-purpose means to doing things, and taking it from one person and giving it to someone else doesn’t of itself create or destroy freedom, but redistribute it…

The point isn’t conceptual – freedom from want is probably a kind of security – but practical or political: rhetorically, saying something is a kind of freedom is pretty powerful. Stripping the libertarian-right of a quasi-monopoly of a discourse of freedom would be, I think, a generally good thing.

I’ve never understood a particular point of conservative discourse, which is that a) it’s good that people should take risks, start new businesses, invent things etc and b) this can best be achieved by worsening the consequences of failure. I entirely agree with the first half of the point, but it’s the second I don’t get. If you work in the kind of organisation where you get told “It’s not your job to use your initiative!”, you’re not unionised, and the consequences of being fired are maximally dreadful, you’re unlikely to have any good ideas.

I think this point is getting increasingly important. I don’t believe any more, if I ever did, that nationalising a lot of stuff is going to help anything – it’s not the differences, but the similarities, between big hierarchical organisations in the private and public sectors that are impressive. And frankly, I don’t expect much from Blairism-and-water politics. Says Chris Dillow:

why, if a centrally planned economy is a stinking idea, should a centrally planned company be a good one?