Sunday, 14 January 2018

Is cousin-marriage bad for civil society?

Interesting how this question was asked in the first place but the answer is revealing:
This paper tests the hypothesis that extended kin-groups, as characterized by a high level of cousin marriages, impact the proper functioning of formal institutions. Consistent with this hypothesis I find that countries with high cousin marriage rates exhibit a weak rule of law and are more likely autocratic.
Democracy and a liberal society require family to be open not closed. If your culture deems family, and especially family honour as paramount and seeks to maintain family autonomy then you get more consanguineous marriage (with all the attendant issues). The authors here see how the ending of this pattern in Europe allowed strong non-family institutions including, in the end, democracy. This is a lesson that modern day Pakistan needs to learn:
Two months ago, a council of village elders ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl, whose brother had been accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Raja Ram village in central Pakistan. Shocking though it is, the case is no aberration. Revenge rape, honour killings, and the exchange of women are some of the routine ways through which disputes are resolved.

Far from outlawing these councils, Pakistan’s National Assembly shocked the country by seeking to give these councils quasi-judicial powers earlier this year. It passed a Bill providing legal and constitutional cover to jirga and panchayat systems, in an bid to ensure speedy resolution for “small civil matters” and free the formal judiciary of some of its burden.


Saturday, 13 January 2018

How Dungeons & Dragons changed the world...

Mark, from his place in France, has written about computer games. But first he tells us where it started:
I suppose it started at uni, with Dungeons and Dragons. This role-playing combat and treasure-hunting game is based on a map, figurines and rolls of the dice. And lots of rules, looked up in a book, for how armour, weapons, magic spells, and everything else in the fantasy world actually work. (How much time, magical energy and money does it take to develop a micro-fireball oven?) We'd collect together of an evening around the boards, dice and a considerable amount of beer, and play through the night.
To which I respond: Boards? Figurines? Before settling down and remembering the thousands of hours I spent playing the game. And playing didn't just involve turning up for a few hours and rolling some dice (well, absolutely thousands of dice if truth be told) - we also created the dungeons from scratch including new monsters, traps and fiendish puzzles. I once designed (I think that's the term we use these days) an entire assassin's guild complete with its constitution - my career direction was set even then!

The idea that you could create a functional model place into which players could bring their own imagination, creativity and very large two-handed swords may seem unremarkable in this age of on-line gaming, but back in the 1970s Gary Gygax's innovation was quite the opposite - remarkable indeed. Never before had there been a game that put those childhood make-believe games into its system. And, though there'd been plenty of team games, Dungeons & Dragons was the first game to have both team and individual competition - you worked with other players to slay monsters, solve puzzles and run your fingers through the loot while acting as an individual player. D&D even provided a framework - the alignment chart - to allow such individualism to range across all the variations in human character.

D&D begat a host of other 'role-playing games' (RPGs) from Traveller, which involved romping about in space, through other fantasy games like Runequest, and even a Japanese samauri game called Bushido (with by far the most over-elaborate rule book). RPGs were designed based in the wild west or capturing the incipient madness in H P Lovecraft. All these took the same model - create a character, place that character in the game when he, she or it interests with other players, and explore scenarios created by a 'game-' or 'dungeon-master'. But, while each of these games picked up flaws in D&D, the basic combat and magic system remains hard to beat (and the basis for combat systems in a pile of popular computer games).

For me, the biggest thing about D&D was - and is - the character you create as this is central to the game's ethos (not, of course, that slaying bug-eyed monsters controlled by evil priests isn't fun). I wrote about it some while ago:
What you have is a cardboard cut-out character that would suit the typical Hollywood blockbuster based on some comic book. But this is Dungeons & Dragons and you can do better. Your level one male ranger (OK you chose that because you fancied Aragorn maybe) has to round out by interacting with the other players - perhaps he's a bit grumpy when he doesn't get his way, maybe he never buys a round, or has a tendency to quote bad poetry. While doing this, of course, you have to stay alive which means you need to co-operate - even with the righteous lawful good cleric.

By the time Aerosmith (or whatever your ranger's name is) has survived to be 4th or 5th level, you know what he's like, how he'll respond to other sorts of character, his foibles and preferences. And with his recently acquired Sword of Daemon (+2, +3 vs evil things from hell) you have a real character. For sure, some of the character is the player themselves (we aren't all Constantine Stanislavsky, after all), but you'll have wrapped your mind round how to develop a character. And the wonder of this is that, for all there's a dungeon and a dungeon master controlling the game, the success or otherwise isn't just about the quantity of goblins slain or giants hacked to pieces but about having created, with a few others, a game within that game.
Looking back it sometimes seems childish to recall long conversations about what an imaginary character might do in a given situation - indeed, I'm sure that the worldly folk who though D&D was naff would make this point strongly. The thing is, however, that those conversations explored - through the medium of a game - a pile of concepts (what we mean by good and evil, the search for power, the benefits of collaboration) that would otherwise only get considered in the abstract. You learn more about evil by asking what a supposedly evil character would do than through argument, however reasoned. And it isn't simple, you quickly get past kill everyone and take all the gold (although I've done that too).

Dungeons & Dragons stretched the boundaries of the game (or at least the formal game - children had always, and still do, play games of imagination, what we'd now call RPGs) by allowing fantasy, in its widest sense, to arrive into the board game. The game became about personality, conversation, survival and growth rather than, in the old board game sense, winning or losing. Nobody dies when boys play cops and robbers but the idea of death is there as is questioning what is right and what is wrong. The child giving her dolls names, characters and roles does the same and we see it as a valuable way for that child to explore what it is to be human.

But, when children get to big school or thereabouts all this childishness has to stop. Games are either an entertaining means of passing time or else a simple matter of who wins and who loses. Outside drama classes and the school play there's none of this role-play and even the drama class wants you to be the person the playwright wants you to be not the role you want to try out. In the 1970s, for a bunch of mostly boys, mostly a bit nerdy and dorky, Dungeons & Dragons allowed them, without embarrassment, to play those games of imagination again. By making the games of young childhood fit with adult themes, D&D reinvented what grown-ups understand by a game, helped pave the way (along with complex war games from the likes of Strategy & Tactics) for computer gaming, and placed imagination right back at the heart of play where it belongs.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

"You're fat and your food's a joke" - elite attitudes to out-of-town dinners

So you head off to the big city from rural America. Anything is better than the dull world of backwoods Indiana - you even write a screed saying how dreadful the old place was. And then you find out what people in the shiny city think of folk from your backwood:
Friends at work one day called her over to ask about Cracker Barrel. “It’s just like a chain restaurant we go to treat ourselves,” Ms. Cronkhite said.

A co-worker jumped in: “It’s this really white-trash restaurant that overweight Midwesterners go to.”

Then came the invitation to join some friends at Butter. The San Francisco bar is decorated as a sendup of rural white America, complete with the front end of a Winnebago RV. The menu included such cocktails as the Whitetrash Driver, vodka and SunnyD; Bitchin’ Camaro, spiced rum and Dr Pepper; and After School Special, vodka and grape soda.

“It was, all of the sudden, in my face,” Ms. Cronkhite said. “Things at home we thought were nice or parts of our culture were treated with open scorn and disdain and like a joke.”
This attitude is commonplace (and not new either) - here's Aesop from about 600BC:
A country mouse invited his cousin who lived in the city to come visit him. The city mouse was so disappointed with the sparse meal which was nothing more than a few kernels of corn and a couple of dried berries.
The disdain of city dwellers for the culinary choices of folk from the sticks is reciprocated but there's still a tendency to see those upcountry, working class dishes as an ironic joke, something a bit naff or, worst of all, unhealthy, unpleasant muck. There is a snooty distaste from our metropolitan elite for Wetherspoons, Harvester and other pub eateries selling Sunday lunches, cheap steaks and jumbo fish all washed down with beer, cheap white wine and Coca-Cola. We're better than that is the tone and you're fat is the message.

To some in that metropolitan elite all this is just a bit "Brexit-y" - scotch eggs, corned beef, cheap lager, sandwich spread, spam, value baked beans and, of course, salad cream:

It's not, however, about Brexit just that leaving the EU acts as a sort of conduit for some of that snobbish disdain - typified by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown using 'shops filled with pie and chips' as a sort of anti-Brexit dog whistle, a position so snobbish that Iain Martin's conclusion is the best antidote:
This shows that Vote Leave missed a trick in June 2016. If they had promised on the side of their bus that Britain post-Brexit would have “shops full of pies” I suspect that Leave would have won the EU referendum by a bigger margin. If chips were also provided, it would have been a landslide among British men.


We weren't members of the EU back then....

I've always found that, among arguments against Brexit, the one that says 'Britain has historic links to Europe' the most bizarre. Here's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown lecturing us about it (but don't pay too close attention to the facts as they're a tad dodgy):
London was built by Romans when they occupied and controlled the land. Vikings settled in England in AD 373. By the 13th century, our market towns bustled with French, Venetian, Flemish buyers and sellers.

Dutch and German brewers supplied beer to Brits. The Black plague of 1348 killed almost a third of Britain’s population and Europeans flooded in to fill labour shortages.

Do most Brexiters realise that despised and persecuted French protestant refugees helped set up the Bank of England? Or that in the Tudor and Stuart periods, European artisans, scientists, artists and inventors settled in England? Several members of the Royal College of Physicians were German; Austrians taught at Oxford and Cambridge, the father of the great engineer Isambard Brunel was French and so on and on.
We could, of course, go on to note the contribution of that Englishman, Alcuin to the court of Charles the Great, how Byron, Shelley and others traipsed around Italy and Greece having a fine old time while writing the occasional poem, and the tales of many merchants, soldiers and scientists.

But that's missing the point. All this stuff - the trade with Europe, the foreigners who came to live in London, the high end tourism of the Grand Tour - took place without us needing to be welded into the iron lung of the EU. We managed all this collaboration, co-operation and trade without any blocs, pseudo-democracy and officious regulation.

There are arguments for and against us leaving the EU but citing stuff that happened hundreds of years before it even existed (and where the idea of European unity consisted of one or other megalomaniac dragging armies across the continent) really isn't a good one.


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Maybe writing stuff people want to read would be a start?

Literary fiction - those celebrated but unread books that all the chattering folk recommend to each other - is struggling:
Finally it’s official: literary fiction is in crisis, and writers across the land are burning the midnight oil in their garrets, teaching or slogging away in unrelated jobs to keep the fire ablaze in the grate. This Dickensian picture was revealed by Arts Council England today in a report that suggests it may have to shift its funding priorities in order to save a population whose economic and cultural solvency has been chipped away over the years.
We're told (although there's no actual evidence presented) that publishers used to be lovely sorts who allowed authors advances that didn't "earn out" because of "literary value that could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing". And we're also told that there's no let up in us buying and reading books - we're just not buying 'literary fiction'.

Apparently though, saying things like 'try writing stuff that people want to read' isn't the right response - we should instead be subsidising publishers so those penning angst-ridden novels filled with meaningful dialogue and incisive social commentary can carry on doing so despite the fact that only a few close friends opt to read the books.

In the end there is a huge gulf between what people read and the endless self-referencing of the literary fiction advocates. Here's Neal Stephenson - an author, a very good author, who writes some of that terrible 'genre fiction' so disdained by the literary cognoscenti (and The Guardian's Associate Editor, Culture):
I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.
Yay for science fiction!


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Of course....

Your want more creativity and innovation? Here's how you do it...
"...the emergence of city institutions protecting economic and political freedoms facilitates the attraction and production of creative talent."
I'd have thought this was pretty obvious - not funding, not institutions, not 'cultural strategies', just giving people the chance to do, say and think the things they want to do, say and think.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

Statistics are altogether too bourgeois for the public sector elite

I've been thinking for a while about Graeme Archer's article on how 'getting' statistics is as important as 'getting' Shakespeare yet people still, in that giggling way, exclaim how they were never any good at maths.
There is no “either/or” between words and numbers; at the same time, of course, there is. CP Snow’s two cultures exist, most clearly in the words/numbers dichotomy, but only because we structure them into existence through conscious decisions about how to educate our young. It’s a human choice, not a law of the universe. Good with words or good with numbers is a story we tell about ourselves, and like all stories it has its heroes, and villains.
Now I'm a social scientist (if I'm anything properly academic) who once gloried in the title of Research and Planning Director and I recall a number - see what I did there - of stories about folk dumbfounded by maths and stats. We once prepared an analysis of customer geography for a knitting wool company (sexy, eh!) based on a simple index and had to spend the first twenty minutes of the presentation explaining what indices were. And when I did my 'Research Methods' module for my MSc, we were told to avoid quantitative research because (I summarise) maths is hard and you don't need to do it.

Such is the reality of a world where my personal experience of buying a railway ticket is a better guide to policy than statistics explaining why I am an outlier in buying such an expensive ticket. Or where - as I put it in a debate at last year's Battle of Ideas:
We’d reckon on uplift in response of around 2X or maybe 3X compared to a random selection. Great until you realise that the response to random was around 0.2% - all that clever technology means that, instead of getting ignored by 998 out of 1000 people, you only get ignored by 994.
Only the 2X or 3X gets reported not the actual numbers even though they tell us we needn't fret so much.

Statistics matter yet the extent to which we understand them or appreciate them is troubling. I recall being told - in very definite terms - that my comments on the relative poverty line were wrong because I was using the median household income not the mean and "median isn't an average". This is despite the fact that median is the right measure where there's a lower bound (i.e. you can't have a negative household income - which might come as a surprise to bankrupts).

The thing with Graeme's article, however, is not that people don't know enough maths and statistics but that they are proud of this fact. And, you know, I might have just found a little glimpse at the reasons why this is the case - numbers, counting, accounting are terribly bourgeois things. Here's a chunk from a chapter in Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality (the chapter is entitled 'Aristocrats Scorned Measurement'):
In England before its bourgeois time Roman numerals prevailed. Shakespeare's opening chorus in Henry V...apologises for showing battles without Cecil B. DeMillean numbers of extras: yet "a crooked figure may/ Attest in little place a million/ And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, / On your imaginary forces work." The crooked figure he has in mind is not Arabic "1,000,000" but merely a scrawled Roman M with a bar over it to signify "multiplied by 1,000": 1,000 times 1,000 is a million.
McCloskey - like Graeme Archer - quotes Samuel Johnson (albeit a different reference):
"To count is a modern practice, the ancient method was to guess; and when numbers are guessed they are always magnified."
And that modernity was, in Johnson's time, the advent of Bourgeois England - Capitalist England (although McCloskey would be cross at the sloppiness of this latter designation). Before this time, accounting was a grubby thing of merchants, pursers and bursers not something the great and good should be bothered with. Indeed, McCloskey goes on to note that, prior to 1803, students arriving at Yale were expected to be fluent in Latin and Greek but not to be qualified in arithmetic. Such mundane things as statistics were beneath such grand folk.

We appear to have come full circle with quoting poetry and qualitative (for which, usually, read anecdotal) analysis given greater credence than any sort of proper measurement, analysis and appraisal based on statistics, probabilities and other scary number-crunching things. As Simon Jenkins disdainfully put it (when it seemed his basic statistical knowledge was found wanting):
I seriously doubt this poll, since it implies that two-thirds did know the answers. All on whom I tested it failed, including myself. Nor could they see the point. With one voice they replied: “That’s the sort of thing you learned at school.” So what is the point?
What were the sorts of question? Calculating the mean, median and mode - terms used every day in the Guardian where Jenkins writes. The area of a circle. And even long division and multiplication. Not even GCSE maths, not much advanced on what we'd like an eleven year old to know. We don't need to know this stuff, say the bookish elite, it's smelly maths.

Yet how can you know whether government policies - reducing poverty, improving health and so forth - are effective if you've no idea how the things we're reducing or improving are measured? I'll tell you how - we use anecdote, stories. So, rather than look at the statistics we relate the tale of someone's grandma or how a single mum is struggling on benefits. We sometimes gather together several of such stories and embellish them with commentary from 'experts' relating their own understanding based on further anecdote - or 'qualitative research' as they like to call it.

Statistics, maths, measurement, accounting, calculation - these are the tools of the capitalist, the merchant, the city trader. Thing to be disdained and dismissed in favour of our, often pre-judged, opinion founded on at best a reasoned assessment but more commonly on a collection of tales. We might then hold our noses and wander into the world of maths seeking out some numbers that seem to match what we've found from our tales. People compare apples with pears, use percentages when the numbers are too small for this to make sense, and calculate means when the bounds make the mean meaningless. Journalists - often with the title Science Editor or Health Correspondent - present headlines that bear no relationship to the research they report on. Not because they want to mislead but because they've no idea what 'statistical significance' means let alone what a p value is.

Hardly a day passes without us witnessing people in powerful and influential positions dismissing the evidence of statistics in favour of anecdote and conjecture. And, so long as people can respond by quoting Disraeli - lies, damned lies and statistics - without being laughed at, there is little chance that we'll see the proper use of measurement in the formulation of public policy. Meanwhile, out in the world of markets, capitalism, trade and investment, people have no choice but to use measurement and statistics, without them they would fail. For the public sector elite, however, such concerns are just too bourgeois and instead they make policy inspired by stories in the Guardian or Daily Mail.