Complexity, context dependency and the (difficult) ascent of man

I read an article with an attractive title recently. “Complexity and Context-Dependency“.  It’s not very good, but it raises an important point that is important to what I call the psycho-pathology of disciplines and it puts me in mind of something I’ve thought for a long time about policy and politics. I don’t have time to do this subject justice in this post, but thought I’d try to put down a marker.

The paper argues this.

We may look down on other animals, perceiving that they have a biased and limited understanding of the world, but somehow assume that we don’t have analogous biases or limitations that we cannot somehow overcome. Surely this is merely another example of anthropocentric arrogance. That we have had some notable successes at understanding our world and even a systematic set of approaches that has been shown to be useful is not sufficient evidence to assume a lack of limitations and biases.

This astonishing assumption takes many forms in philosophy and discussions about the scientific method. One such is that somehow simplicity is a guide to truth. That is, that simplicity in a model or theory has advantages other than the obvious pragmatic ones (pragmatic virtues are such as: being able to analyze/solve it; being able to have good analogies with which to think about it; needing less data in order to parameterize it; and being able to compute it).

Another version is that everything somehow must be simple if only we can find the right way of looking at it, or formalizing it. It is true that frameworks such as Newtonian Physics are relatively simple (though I doubt many in Newton’s time would have thought so), and using this, many useful models and reliable predictions can be obtained. . . .

I am not going to spend time arguing the above points here. Rather I will consider the case under the anti-anthropocentric assumption, that much of the world around us is organized in a way that is beyond adequate modeling in a sufficiently simple and general manner for us to cope with. . . . Under this, admittedly pessimistic, view the phenomena that are simple enough for us to understand in a scientific manner are the exception – the exception to be sought and struggled for. Under this view, we should make the greatest use of the strengths we have, and seek to acknowledge and mitigate our limitations. Under this view a “Science of Complexity” makes no more sense than a “Science of Non-Red Things”, since both red objects and simple systems are the exception rather than the rule.

Why is it that we can see political benefits from the hyper-connected world produced by Web 2.0 in undemocratic countries but no big apparent improvements in democratic countries? Continue reading

PM’s Science Prize: Nobel Prize preferred but not necessary

A highlight of my calendar I have to say – since I inadvertently morphed into Mr Innovation and they started inviting me.

Did you have an absolutely fantastic science teacher? Now’s the time to get them some recognition.


We are seeking nominations for Australia’s national science and science teaching awards, which are offered to Australian citizens or those who hold permanent residence status in Australia.

·        The $300,000 Prime Minster’s Prize for Science

·        The $50,000 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

·        The $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

·        The $50,000 Prime Minster’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

·        The $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

These prizes are a key element of the Inspiring Australia national initiative to recognise and reward the achievements and successes of Australians in the sciences.

Please share this information with your networks and associates – The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science relies on nominations from across many sectors of our nation, to reward and recognise the outstanding achievements of our Australian science researchers and science teachers.

Closing Date: 27 April 2012, AEST 5.00 pm

Further queries and contact -



Archiving Government websites: Should it really be this hard?

When I did the Government 2.0 Taskforce, one of the subjects that was earnestly discussed was archiving of government sites.  It’s a big problem in government. I could never see why it should be a big problem. After all you can look at anything written on ClubTroppo since it started.  We haven’t spent any huge amount of money to deliver that kind of functionality, haven’t burned any midnight oil. But IT people in government told that it’s very expensive to keep web pages live. I have no idea why but they swore black and blue that it was.

Anyway I recently sought to track down the results of Obama’s less than spectacularly successful community brainstorming on open government when he came into office. (The top two suggestions for promoting open government were legalising marijuana. The other big thing was releasing Obama’s birth certificate.) Anyway I emailed an American friend who’d been in the White House at the relevant time – now back in academia – asking for any write up of the program and she told me there was one in a 2009 annual review of operations.  But it’s gone from the website and no-one has been able to find it in a couple of weeks. This is 2009!

For another project I was also looking up the old Power of Information Taskforce in the UK.  Here’s Tom Steinberg’s blog entry announcing its release.

I’m delighted to announce that the review I’ve been working on with Ed Mayo and the Cabinet Office has launched today. You can get the official PDF version here or my friend Sam Smith’s annotatable version that he just threw together.

I clicked on the first link and it went through to here.

Which was promising. It said this.

This snapshot taken on 25/11/2010, shows web content selected for preservation by The National Archives. External links, forms and search boxes may not work in archived websites. Find out more about web archiving at The National Archives. See all dates available for this archived website 

Object moved to here.

Alas, it wasn’t there either and I was diverted to a Cabinet Office Page Not found signal – as you can see for yourself if you want to click on the link.

Meanwhile one of the things that the Power of Information Taskforce and Review did was to publish using commercial blogging platforms. And everything using that remains safe and sound. “Sam Smith’s annotatable version” that Steinberg says Sam “threw together” refers to on his blog is still there, safe and sound. Likewise the Government 2.0 Taskforce published to its own url using WordPress software, and it’s still there too, it’s cost to government would be the same as the cost of Troppo to those of us who run it – the cost of the domain name registration, which is about $30 a year or something, though the cost to government of maintaining the UK’s Power of Information review, which is a sub-domain of is exactly zero.

So it still eludes me why, with all the resources to hand, governments make it quite so difficult for themselves.

Clairvoyance in the commentary box: a vignette from the psychopathology of modern life

I remember being at a wedding reception talking to someone who was 70 odd.  I asked them whether in their day it was normal for the bride and groom to put the tip of the knife in the cake and then beam at the cameras for two or three minutes – celebrities on their special day. Sure enough, back in the day, the camera was at the service of life life or was most of the time, not vice versa.

Today I’ve noticed a similar, subtle but profound difference in the zeitgeist. Listening to the Australian Open commentary it’s extraordinary how much psychologising goes on. Now filling in all those hours with chat is probably quite difficult, but the current formula (or perhaps it’s just a formula built around Jim Courier’s style) is endless speculation on what the players are thinking/feeling.

“Take us inside Novak’s mind Leyton” says Jim, and sure enough Leyton does his best in the role play. Roger Rasheed is on hand in hushed tones in the stands telling us what it’s like. He’s right there you see. Well so are Jim and Leyton, but he’s so close he has to speak quietly – and of course that means he can get even further inside the players minds. (Quiet – Roger is trying to hear the players thinking.)

And it turns out that whoever is asked to take us inside a player’s mind really can!  They just say what they reckon the player is thinking – though it seems pretty likely they have no more idea than anyone else. Bruce McAvaney is into this schtick like a rat up a drainpipe of course and is endlessly asking Jim “So what would he be thinking as they change ends”.  Continue reading

Missing Link Friday – Australia Day etc

Katie’s Australia Day – Brazilian style! Food blogger Katie Quinn Davies’ Australia Day recipes.

Australia Day from afar: "One of the most surprising things for me to experience out of Australia was people saying–even in the American South!–Australia’s really racist, isn’t it?" Queen Emily, Hoyden About Town.

Drunks draped in flags: "the path that took us here is a complex one. Music festivals, drinking binges, the crystallisation of fears and resentments, the navel gazing over Identity, all that is part of the road, as well as politicians." Kim, Larvatus Prodeo.

The view from Menzies House: Tim Andrews celebrates Australia Day with a whinge about lefties and "self-appointed intellectual elites".

Be as Australian as you want to be: "Let us be frank: anti-racist prejudice is the worst kind of prejudice at all. It denies freedom of expression; it denies freedom of conscience; and most heinous of all, it denies courage." Ben Pobjie.

John Passant reports on the tent embassy protest: "Soon about 200 of the demonstrators moved from the Tent Embassy commemoration to the café to tell Abbott what they thought of him …" En Passant.

Steve Kates on the protests: "I must tell you my disgust is unbounded. We tend not to jail such people, but that is in the way of more fool us than anything." Catallaxy.

Missing the story: The press gallery "shine the light almost exclusively on the confected battle between tweedle dee and tweedle dum – the figureheads at the top of decaying political parties that everyone outside the inbred Canberra vortex can see are just shells of organisations pretending to believe in something beyond power itself." Mr Denmore, The Failed Estate.

Michael loves Heather: "She’s a saint. A princess. A fairy queen. A beautiful, kind, intelligent. imaginative, brave young woman with a wicked sense of humour and a shipload of empathy." Michael Stuchbery gets married.

One year on: "How do you grieve for someone who hurt you profoundly, repeatedly, and tore your family apart? Who was also deeply intelligent, cursed with mental illness, incredibly funny, and when he could be, loving?" Imogen, raw/roar.

What’s So Special about America’s 1%? "If we’re all embedded in a fundamentally unjust, exploitative global economic structure, it’s hard to see why the American 1% should be especially salient." Will Wilkinson, The Moral Sciences Club.

Social justice … Tea Party style: "A common trope for conservative policy intellectuals is that they want to ‘means test’ the welfare state – reduce its availability for those with high wealth and income and focus it on those with the least wealth and income. But the Tea Party base wants the opposite – they are opposed to a welfare state for the poor, young people, undocumented workers and other groups they think are undeserving." Mike Konczal, Rortybomb.

Dogs against Romney: Why is everyone talking about Mitt Romney’s dog?

Blog readers survey: Peter Chen is conducting a survey of blog readers. You can find the survey here: Australian Blog Readers Study (via Andrew Norton).

Gizmodo loses it: Google has not turned evil (at least not yet . . .)

What a load of old sensationalist nonsense. I’m seriously starting to worry about Giz. If I want to search anonymously there is a thing called an anonymous tab. And I don’t log into my Google account outside work because why would I? – My phone is logged in.

That’s how the first commenter responded to this piece in Gizmodo accusing Google of being evil because it – wait for it – shares identity information between functions. That’s right, Gmail can now share information with Google search with Google + and on it goes.

This is supposed to be some attack on our privacy. Well there are very nasty things Google can do to harm my privacy. Those things would be telling other people things it knows about me that it could reasonably expect that I might not want them to tell them.

But it doesn’t do that. It is just using all the data it has to further improve improve the adds and other services it provides me. WTNTLAT? *

My point is, as I said here, privacy law, and privacy activism should be focused wherever practicable on stopping conduct that actually threatens privacy – ie where that information is provided to agents other than the one that has the information in the first place. It always pissses me off when I have to wait to be read some stupid thing which tells me my voice is going to be recorded “for quality purposes”. If it’s for training purposes they can protect my privacy by making sure the recordings don’t get leaked and by destroying them after the couple of weeks it was necessary to hold them to use them for the entirely benign purposes of quality control.

And remember, although Google is probably mostly thinking of optimising advertising here . . .

  1. making advertising relevant is a source of considerable value to the world and
  2. there are lots of other ways that the data might be able to be used to simply provide improved services to people – such as search, prompting connections with others, or with information of relevance to users, task management and all the other things that I can’t think of.

So broadly speaking, and with the caveat that I’ve not researched all this in great depth, I submit these views to you O Troppodores and Troppodillians.

* “Define: WTNTLAT” doesn’t generate any answers in Google, so we’re on the ground floor here Troppodores. This could be Troppo’s big break – our own little footnote in the English language, our own corner of the universe.

Bailing out British Leyland – The Iron Lady’s feet of clay

British Leyland devoured billions pounds of taxpayer’s money before it was finally broken up and sold off. According to New York Times journalist Nelson Schwartz the Thatcher government’s bailout "remains the classic example of a futile government intervention."

Mrs Thatcher was unable to resist the car maker’s insatiable demands for cash. According to Schwartz, her government ended up handing over £3.6 billion (£11 billion adjusted for inflation) to keep the factories open. "On any rational commercial judgment, there were no good reasons for continuing to fund British Leyland", she concedes in her autobiography. The company was a high cost, low volume manufacturer in a world where low costs and high volumes were essential for success. So why did she do it? The "political realities had to be faced", she says, "BL had to be supported":

I knew that closure of the volume car business, with all that would mean for the West Midlands and the Oxford area, would not be politically acceptable to the Cabinet of the Party, at least in the short term. It would also be a huge cost to the Exchequer — perhaps not very different to the sort of sums BL was now seeking (p 120).

As political scientist Fiona McGillivray explains, no government could afford to allow British Leyland’s huge plant in Longbridge to close:

Continue reading