Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Rise of the Hedgehogs

Remember the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall? No? Well, here it is:

"Boy, if life were only like this". We rarely get the chance to call people on their opinions. Especially when it comes to opinions about the future. Rather than pulling out Marshall McLuhan from behind the scenery, I sometimes want to pull out a younger version of the person speaking. "Three years ago, you said x would happen but it didn't. Care to justify yourself to yourself?"

One man has got close to doing just this. Philip Tetlock is a US social scientist who asked experts (academics, journalists, policy makers) to make political, social and economic predictions about the future as part of an experiment. What would happen in the Soviet Union? In Europe? In South Africa? And then he waited to see if they were right. He began doing this in the mid-1980s and the results were published in Expert Political Judgment.

He noted a few interesting things:
  • Experts are not that good at predicting complex phenomena. On average, they did better than chance. They did better than university undergraduates. They did not do as well as formal statistical models.
  • Some factors that you might expect would make people better at prediction did not. It didn't matter whether they had a PhD or not. It didn't matter how many years of experience they had. Whether you were male or female didn't matter. It didn't matter whether they had access to classified information. It didn't matter whether they were left wing or right wing ideologically speaking.
  • There was a slight negative correlation between the amount that an expert appeared in the media vs. their predictive performance. So the more that you see someone on TV, the less you should trust them. However this was a weak relationship.
So what did matter then? What makes someone a better predictor of the future than someone else?

So it turns out that it matters how you think about things. Tetlock distinguishes between "foxes" and "hedgehogs". Hedgehogs are:
Thinkers who know "one big thing", aggressively extend the exploratory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display  bristly impatience with those who "do not get it", and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters.
In contrast, foxes are:
Thinkers know many small things..., are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible "ad hocery" that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess...
Who does better at prediction? Well, the foxes win here. Not only do the foxes do better at prediction but  they were more likely to change their minds when events did not occur as expected and they less likely to engage in hindsight bias - i.e. misremembering both their own predictions and those of their rivals in a self-serving way.

Some hedgehogs do not view this apparent failure as a bad thing. One think tank resident told Tetlock:
"You play a publish-or-perish game run by the rules of social science... You are under the misapprehension that I play the same game. I don't. I fight to preserve my reputation in a cutthroat adversarial culture. I woo dumb-ass reporters who want glib sound bites."
These findings depress me. They don't depress me because I don't approve of fox-style thinking. I do. They depress me because fox-style thinking feels like it is out of fashion at the moment. Hedgehogs seems to rule the world. The recent behaviour within the US Congress and space given to Trollumnists in the Australian press are two examples. Of course, as a fox, I'm willing to accept that I might be wrong.   What do you think? Are things that bleak? How do we make the world a foxier place?

Source: scpetrel

Monday, August 15, 2011


For me, hell is a 90s indie disco in an English provincial town, at about 00:30 in the morning on a Thursday. Someone has just spit cider and black on my jacket and I can't find my friends. There's a leering face a few inches from mine yelling the lyrics to "Breakfast at Tiffanys" by Deep Blue Something*. Or it could be a mirror. I don't know any more.

*No, I am not linking to this.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Party Hard

The missus bought us tickets to see Pulp at the Horden Pavilion a couple of weeks ago. We only seem to see bands from the 90s these days. Admittedly she goes out to see a wider range of artists but I just can't be arsed. An insufficient number of rock venues offer table service. Middle-aged griping aside, Pulp soundtracked my early adulthood and their songs generate an range of responses in me as emotionally conflicted as the songs themselves.

My first exposure to them was back in the summer of 1993 when I saw them perform a trio of sweaty-palmed ditties on the telly. They were odd bunch. The guitarist and bass player were duking it out in some kind of "sexycool rock perv" competition under the careful gazes of the drummer and keyboardist. The guitarist with his flicky hair and occasional violining and Travolta-esque stances. The bass player grinding away at his instrument like he's just been released from solitary confinement and it's the first welcoming thing his groin has encountered. In most other bands, either would have been within groping distance of victory. However, both were doomed to runner-up status in the "sexycool rock perv" stakes by the antics of their singer.

Jarvis Cocker's stage presence was/is unique. Simultaneously warm and confronting. One minute cracking jokes with the audience (entertaining us, charming us, seducing us, the minx) and the next, ludicrously enacting his songs with high kicks, poses and the witchy waggling of his fingers. His whole, lanky body seems to consist of joints. Lyrically, he's obsessed with sex and relationships - with a preference for the grubby, dysfunctional and ill-fitting. It's a mark of his skill that he can fashion memorable stories from such a limited palate. And two of Pulp's most memorable songs (the two highlights of the evening for me) are not about sex so much.

Common People did include the offer of sex but it's a vitriolic anthem about the rich slumming it, about class, about getting it wrong and about being an outsider. Everyone in this song ends up an outsider: the girl from Greece who fails to fit in, the common people who watch their lives slide out of view, and the narrator himself - who may be called "common people" but doesn't relish that trajectory at all. And yet in indie discos across the land it became a communal anthem, feted by exactly the kinds of people that it mocked.

Sorted for E's and Wizz was another song narrated by someone on the edge of things, another outsider. This time it was the 80s/90s rave scene that gets pulled apart in story. The communal myth of the party ends and the narrator is left in field, alone and ****ed up. It's not an anthem, it's a queasy come down of a song.

Pulp's sound and Cocker's lyrics are consistently and deliberately "ill-fitting". Not quite right. This put them apart from their Britpop peers. Pulp could never write an anthem as vacant as Wonderwall or as calculating as Girls and Boys. For me this makes them all the more loveable.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I have no idea why the UK riots happened

Let me start off by saying that beating people up and/or robbing them is bad. Burning down other people's property and businesses is also bad. Are we agreed on that? Excellent.

I spent the first 28 years of my life living in the UK and 4 of those years were in London. So it was depressing to see parts of that city going up in flames. However events such as this rarely trigger just one emotion and after the depression faded, it was replaced by curiosity. How and why did the riots happen the way they did? And what does this mean for preventing a repeat of them?

I'm not a newspaper columnist, so I don't claim to have all the answers at my fingertips. Instead I have a whole bunch of questions:

  • Who were the rioters and the looters?
  • What prompted them to start acting up?
  • How did they communicate with and influence each other?
  • Did the actions of the police hinder or help the situation?
  • What role did on-lookers play?
  • What led people to stop rioting and looting?
As tempting as it might be to blame one cause ("criminality", "cuts") that fits a particular view of the world, events like this tend to have overlapping causes (whys) and mechanisms (hows). If you have a ready-made answer then please keep it to yourself. If you have an interesting question then please add it via the comments.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


A few weeks ago, this documentary on Daniel Ellsberg was shown on Australian TV. Two moments stuck in my mind.

1. The first is this warning that Ellsberg gave to Henry Kissinger when the latter went to work at the White House. The behaviour that Ellsberg describes is a kind of intellectual arrogance based on access to privileged information. This might be possible to paraphrase (in the manner of Lord Acton) as: All secrecy tends to corrupt and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. This does not mean that we can abolish secrecy (any more than we can abolish power), rather that we have to put in place safeguards against its power at both the personal and institutional levels. Easier said than done.

2. Later on in the documentary, after Ellsberg has gone public and faces trial, he expresses dismay that the newspaper and TV journalists were not talking about the documents that he had brought into the public domain but rather the "Ellsberg saga". He had ended up becoming the news, which is the last thing that he wanted. The soap opera of capture and trial was easier to write than the murky history of American involvement in Vietnam. Of course, that would never happen today.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hiding in Plain Sight

The internet geeks among you may have heard of this web site called "Wikileaks". I only heard about it the other day through my hair stylist. The things the kidz* get up to these days.

Everyone seems to have become very excited about it. Julian Assange holed up in an English mansion, Bradley Manning losing what's left of his mind, various American politicians calling for the assassination of a foreign national**, web commentators saying why Wikileaks is either brilliant or terrible. The contents of the cables themselves seem to have faded from view and we are left with the soap opera - which, let's face it, is so much more exciting than trying to understand geopolitics.

I tend to come to things a bit late. I'm a bit slow, a bit "special needs". However it now seems to me that Wikileaks is a red herring. A massive and spectacular red herring - more of a red whale in fact - but a distraction none the less.

It's generally assumed that governments hide stuff from their citizens. And this assumption is correct. Governments hide stuff because: some information might allow other states (or commercial entities) to take advantage of them; their citizens have a right to privacy; it might make senior officials and politicians look bad; it's simply what they've done for hundreds of years. Some of these reasons are more justifiable than others. We should have a long conversation about that sometime but not here, now.

What is interesting to me right now is that governments aren't always very good at hiding stuff. In fact, most democratic governments have to make copious amounts of information available by law. You don't even have to trudge to a dusty library these days, it's there on teh interweb. It may not be in an accessible format (*cough* Marrickville Council) but it is there. Now there is still plenty of important stuff kept locked away but we should begin with the information that is publicly available.

In contrast, the media has an obsession with hidden information. This obsession is akin to lazy students who want to break into the filing cabinet that contains the answers to the exam. The answers must be hidden away somewhere, written in a document entitled "Our plans for world domination and public deception", probably formatted in comic sans. And if they aren't, well it just sounds like too much work. Better still, governments could tie us to a nuclear weapon and then recite their evil plans at length, before a minion's ineptitude*** allows us to escape and foil their dastardly plan. And then we can get laid to the soundtrack of Shirley Bassey****. I blame Watergate but what do I know.

For me, the work of Open Australia and Planning Alerts is more important than Wikileaks*****. What can we do with what is hiding in plain sight?

*And by "kidz", I mean men in their late thirties.
**Julian Assange seems to be a fairly extreme anarchist/libertarian. As such he is profoundly anti-government. He probably has more in common with those on the US hard right, the very people who are calling for his death, than they realise.
***An inept public servant? The very idea...
****I have no idea if that would work in practice.
*****Perhaps we should call Open Australia terrorists. With their "Apache" servers and their "HTML".

Monday, May 10, 2010

cold case rondel

The signs are better set in stone
Than memories that fizz in glass.
First as tragedy, then as farce -
A light laugh cut into a groan.

A single moult of hair, not mown,
Found in among the buds and grass.
The signs are better set in stone
Than memories that fizz in glass.

I broke each tooth but lost a bone.
Send me to the back of the class.
Because of you, sharpeye smartarse,
I'll end my days in dark alone.
The signs are better set in stone
Than memories that fizz in glass.

What is a rondel?