Mother knows best

I was reading Nassim Taleb’s book, Skin in the Game and it had an interesting intersection with an episode in Michelle Obama’s biography.
Taleb argues that we should pay a lot of attention to what our grandmothers would say, as this cultural knowledge has been built up over successive, successful!, generations. I wouldn’t argue this knowledge is perfect, and it may be specific to a context that doesn’t exist anymore, but we should certainly pay careful attention to this generational knowledge and at least lean towards sticking to the old methods.

Then in Michelle Obama’s biography (p25) she described how she hated eating eggs and asked her mother why she had to eat them.
‘for the protein’
well doesn’t peanut butter also contain protein,
‘well, …., yeeeees’
So can I swap my eggs for peanut butter and jelly sandwich,
Mrs Richardson, knew that eggs were good, but she clearly wasn’t a nutritionist (why should she be?).
As I’m quite interested in nutrition, I know eggs are a source of complete protein, which peanut butter is not. Eggs don’t contain sugar, which jelly/jam does and most importantly, eggs (the yolk) are an important source of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, of which there are approximately non in peanut butter and jelly (jam). These fats and vitamins would be far more important than the protein.
So eggs are important and Michelle might have been healthier sticking to inherited cultural knowledge, eating eggs over peanut butter.
Now as Michelle got two degrees from top universities, evidently with pretty much peak mental development, her growth was probably not too badly damaged, and as she hated eggs she was happier, and peanut butter is delicious. I’m not saying you have to eat eggs (you do though), just that we can see that her arguments looked sound but were actually based on incomplete knowledge. Michelle’s mum also didn’t have the specific knowledge, but it seems it was embedded in her cultural knowledge (feed eggs to your children).
Later in the book Michelle Obama was saying how great her Dad was, for example he never complained when his wife fed him liver and quietly ate it. Liver is the most nutritious food there is! This wasn’t some penance, or some spousal rite of passage, it was the best thing he could have eaten.

There is so much interesting stuff in Becoming and so many bigger issues in there, it feels a bit much to pick out this one intersection between this book, another book and my interests. But I think it does show that we don’t always know what we know or why we know it and culturally embedded knowledge, should be carefully considered. I think cultural knowledge can also be wrong, I’m not saying blindly obey it, but at least listen carefully to what previous generations did (and eat your eggs and liver).

Shame is actually kind of a good thing if used carefully and not evilly

Recently I just read the book Is Shame necessary? by Jennifer Jacquet. I was a bit in two minds about it because I’ve read Brene Brown talking about how awful it is to be shamed, so I thought the answer was ‘of course not’. Turns out the answer is actually ‘Yes, as long as you do it right, also climate change might be a bit a problem’.

Jacquet contrasts shame and guilt, Shame is what is imposed on you from the outside, guilt is what you impose on yourself from the inside. But then she points out: if we want people to change their social norms, their idea of what is right and wrong, then guilt, by definition can never do that. It can only maintain social norms that already exist.

Then we switch to discussing a case study of some change we need to bring about: fixing climate change. Here Jacquet points out that given the huge negative externalities of climate change, a few people making an effort in their own homes, can never fix the problem. If the motivated 10% go out and buy electric cars, ok that could help if that promoted development of electric cars and green electricity till they become cheaper and better than petrol cars and petrol, but not otherwise. If people decide to buy dolphin friendly tuna, that doesn’t actually stop a lot of people not caring and still killing dolphins. Plus they could over fish the tuna leaving nothing for the rest of us.

Further Jacquet points out that when ‘big-tuna’ said, ‘fix the problem by voting with your wallet’ they took away our power to fix the problem by voting with our votes. This message strips us of our citizenship and reduces us to mere market players. The market wants us to leave things up to it, but really, why should we if we don’t want to? Why can’t we, as citizens, decide how we are going to fish and what values should be upheld (‘dolphins are great’). Are we a market economy (using markets as a tool) or a market society (where market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour). Obviously we are the second one but I’d like us to be the first one. (Sandell also discusses this very well).

She then points to some examples of bad shaming and says, isn’t it more the norms people are being held to is wrong, rather the, necessarily, the method used to uphold those norms? I was pretty much convinced by this.

So then we get to Jacquets Seven Habits of Highly Effective Shaming. I feel a bit bad (see what I did there) putting them out here in one list as you should really read the whole book and not my summary, but I’m hoping this will pique your interest or reach the people who wouldn’t read the whole book. But really go read it:

The people doing the shaming should actually be the victims of the behaviour they are shaming.

So if the behaviour only hurts you (food delivered late), don’t try to shame them by telling all your friends, let that one go and focus on the behaviours that hurts you and all your friends (air pollution).

Only bring the big guns (shame) when there is a lot of work to do.

I.e. use shame when there is a big obvious gap between what we people should do and what we expect from them, not just a bit of a short fall.

Use shaming when there is nothing else

I actually have a personal anecdote about this one. Back in the day of e-mail petitions that got sent round from your friends, I was asked to write to the police about a women who had murdered her two children, to demand something. ‘You know what?’ I thought, ‘the police have got this’. The person has been apprehended, she’s under arrest, we have courts and laws and judges that know what to do. This is in hand. I didn’t need to shame that women, or the police. But many times there are no laws that will step in. The banks didn’t break the law when they crashed our economy, or when they poured money into the housing market and drove up house prices in an arms race. There was no law that said they couldn’t spend their bailouts on bonuses… shame was the only tool we have.

The shamee has to care what the shamer thinks.

If the person you try to shame, doesn’t care what you think, you are stuck. So it’s best of people are shamed by their own community, for example a black newspaper calling out non-voters who were mostly black, or Greenpeace targeting seafood practices of Trader Joes fish suppliers because their customers were more likely to care what Greenpeace thought (apparently I don’t know much about social class in US supermarkets). However, then do also give the person being shamed a chance to reintegrate. If someone was bottom of Greenpeace’s list, they can also move to the top and then boast that they hit number 1 on the list.

The audience should trust the source of the shame

So revolving doors really cut down on who can shame. If a TV station airs a piece critical of the Koch brothers (billionairs most people haven’t heard of) but a Koch is on the TV station board and a TV exec shows them the piece before it is aired and allows them to comment… not very credible. And apparently Russian CEOs would only resign or change if British or US paper shamed them, not a Russian one. There might be a virtuous circle to this. People might seem trustworthy because they shame people.

Target your shaming carefully

We don’t have time to sign a million petitions. We need to target shaming to the most important behaviour. Ideally someone could draw up a list. For example, we’ve wasted a lot of time worrying about boiling kettles with just the right amount of water in, but apparently (I’ve lost the reference) this only saves as much energy as not driving for a few seconds. Total waste of time to worry about that. Find the pivot point and hit that with shame. For shark fin soup with many suppliers (fishermen) maybe hit demand (restaurants). For rainforest clearance, when the companies doing it don’t care, hit the nine banks profiting, for companies in a pension fund, target those ones in which the pension fund held over $2million in stock. For tax avoiders hit the people who owe most.

Think through the implementation

How can you get the most bang for your buck? But also make sure you’re not being evil. There’s an example of how a possible drunk driving shaming method claims it works, but is also quite soul destroying, with no respect for human dignity. This is drawn out in the next chapter on internet shaming that suggests a) corporations are better targets than people as they are not people and don’t have human dignity and b) they are probably far more powerful and a far more useful target for change.

So all very interesting. Shaming is a useful tool which partly rests on a discussion each society has, as to what is public vs private data, and, because it requires an audience, shaming will always be a moving target as people change what we care about. Also we should probably do something about climate change.

The old story of continuing snobbery.

I recently read The New Book of Snobs, A definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery by DJ Taylor and I was quite disappointed that it was the actual thing it said on the cover, and not the book idea I had in my head.

My take on snobbery is that it’s about pre-judging people on something other than merit, or their value as a human being. We have, perhaps a fairly natural, tendency to like things that are more familiar, so we can get locked into only hanging out with other similar people and as that is how people find and get jobs and careers, it tends to define what jobs and lives are available to people. (I’m not saying people are only getting jobs because of who they know, I’m saying the jobs you think to apply to comes from your social background). So assuming all the above, I think snobbery stunts lives. Also are different classes really different ethnic groups? according to a non-English anthropology friend: definitely not, I still think there could some useful ideas there.

So the book I’d like to read is: how can I recognise and work on my own snobbery and how can I become more inclusive and how can we change our institutions and society to be more inclusive, with particular reference to class?

This is not that book.

This book does discuss class a bit, but then gives up the discussion with the line, that because all our literature talks about snobbery , if we didn’t have snobbery we wouldn’t have literature. (I’m sure other less snobby countries manage somehow!). This argument essentially boils down to: its ok to make our lives miserable, as long we can write serious literature about it, it’s a good trade-off. When I was growing up and reading comics about poor exploited orphans most of the stories where set in Victorian times. So it’s totally possible to have good stories without human misery in our own society.

After that the book just slips into comfortable groove of vignettes which seem like they were already written and published before and just stuck on to make up the number of pages (I could look it up, but I haven’t). The problem with these vignettes is that they really buy into the superior attitude of the narrator. The high class mum with the lower class daughter, the couple invited to the literati dinner party, they don’t learn anything, they just get an extra appreciation of how dreadful it is to not be them and go back to their own lives. And I don’t think it’s an unreliable narrator thing, we the reader, don’t learn anything either. So rather than learning more about other people and broadening our horizons we just reinforce our own stereotypes.

I‘d recommend Kate Fox’s Watching the English over this, while it equally isn’t aimed at ending all the pernicious effects of snobbery at least it describes class differences in a far less judgmental way. Or the book I read after writing this: Darren McGarvey’s, Poverty Safari, is a much more interesting and useful book about class.

Mindless eating

I’ve just read Mindless Eating and it’s pretty interesting, though I’m not sure if agree with all of the premise.

The premise is we can stop getting fat by eating less and we can change our environment to make that happen without our noticing it and feeling deprived (obviously I agree with that part). In fact this is where Dan Ariely says free will comes in (Behavioural Economics Ate my Dog). We tend to rather blindly follow cues from our environment, and never notice the extremely powerful effect it has on us (countless food related experiments in Mindless eating) yet we can control our environment. And the good thing is, once you have done the upfront thinking, considering and planning to set up your environment, you can relax and mindlessly follow your new ‘rules’ (also the point in Willpower).

Brian Wansink researches how much we eat in various set ups. They have experiments in labs (which look like living rooms) and fake restaurants, with hidden scales everywhere to weigh what you eat.
I liked the one about portion sizes, where if you give someone 200 M&Ms in a bag they will eat an average of 73 in an hour but if you give them a bag with 10 bags of 20 M&Ms people will always finish a small bag, but they will eat less of them averaging 42 M&Ms. So if you want to buy in bulk you should always portion out helpings into smaller containers. So we might want ‘one’ of something (or three!) but the the size of that ‘one’ is quite flexible. I’ve found this myself with a tray bake birthday cake cut into squares which were further cut into triangles. I would have been perfectly happy to eat a square, but one triangle was one piece so I ate just one piece.

Though the book has lots of good useful strategies to eat less without feeling you are eating less, in some ways I felt the book was at cross purposes to a healthy diet because it doesn’t use my strategy. It discusses how to snack less when watching telly, but it never considered whether, maybe, we should just not snack! (to be fair it does discuss how not to snack before dinner). Because not being able to stuff our faces with sweets at all times will make us feel deprived. In fact the people in the book are faced with such a barrage of snacks (all unhealthy) you really understand how difficult it is for people in the US to eat sensibly.

This reminds me of Gretchen Rubins’ book Better than Before on how to foster good habits. One method is abstinence, avoiding something altotether, may be easier than moderation. And having ‘bright line’ rules for what you do and don’t eat can protect you even in this super-food-saturated environment. So rather than putting your snacks into small bags, you could having a rule of ‘no sweets’ or ‘only have sweets as an actual pudding after dinner’ or (my rule) ‘no snacks, except almonds or birthday cake (about once a fortnight), but also eat proper meals so you are not hungry. Faced with the absolute barrage of junk like the people in the book, I could feel how my rules would protect me and simplify my choices (just say no. I’m not saying it wouldn’t take a bit of willpower, if I was faced with the vast amounts of snacks, like the people in Mindless Eating I’d probably end up faffing more, but abstaining would protect me from the snacks).Dilbert Limit to potato chips a human can eat

I wonder if the obsession with snacks is a US thing. In one case they said that when ‘European’ researchers joined the food lab they were surprised that they could do experiments at any time of day because people were willing to eat at any time, while those researchers were used, at home, to only do food experiments at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Even Hercule Poirot agrees:

Alas that one can only eat three times a day. If one partakes of the 5 o’clock one doesn’t appreciate the dinner with the proper quality of expectant gastric juices. And the dinner, let us remember, is the supreme meal of the day.

When is your deathday?

Funnily just as I was joking about the website from the IT crowd where you enter all your details and it gives you your deathday (3pm Thursday if you don’t eat your greens, also the motherless ovens is driven by Scarper Lee’s impending deathday), I’ve found out that we can all access the system the GPs use to calculate our risks of cancers or heart disease (caveat caveat, don’t use it without your doctor…). The GP one sits inside their system and can safely use your data on your GPs database. The one we can use just sits on the website and you have to enter you data yourself, but it’s a really simple one page checklist. On the symptoms checklist, out of 19 options, blood comes up 7 times depending on where it is. It’s as if random bleeding is a bad thing. The postcode is used to estimate your deprivation. It could be an idea to compare the numbers you get with the numbers your GP gets. If your numbers are lower perhaps the GP is missing some family history. Also, who would have thought that difficulty in swallowing is more of a risk factor than a family member with type 2 diabetes and a family member with breast cancer put together? Who even knew difficulty in swallowing was a thing? These three risk factors give you a sprinkling of frowny faces on the overview panel if you are 68, but not if you are younger. The moral of the storey is that staying young is the best way to avoid cancer, it’s also good for Hollywood careers, so really, we should all follow Orlando’s example (not Bloom).

Though I was a bit dismissive of caveats above it’s interesting to note that though the system was built using (anonymised) data from 2.5 million people, it is still only sensitive enough to give meaningful risks for the ‘big 10’ cancers (the ones on the list when you click calculate) and it’s not good for rarer cancers (yet, adding more data will help). Also the tool is created with data from 25-80 year olds, so is only suitable for those age groups (I’m pretty sure bleeding randomly is bad whatever your age though! Get that checked out).

My impression of how useful a tool like this is, is influenced by a tool to predict genetic causes of diabetes (e.g. MODY). While the overwhelming majority of diabetics are now Type IIs and Type Is are next (their pancreas has been knocked out, most likely by the immune response to a mystery virus), there is a small category of people whose diabetes is caused by a mutation, and if you can identify these patients, it may change the way they are treated. For example some people just have a tiny stunted pancreas. Giving these people drugs to squeeze out more insulin from the pancreas probably won’t work and they should probably go straight onto insulin. Some people have a permanently higher blood glucose, but the body works perfectly well to maintain that higher level. A bit as if your body thought your body temperature should be 38 degrees. It is crazy hard to bring these levels down, and luckily it seems to be unnecessary, these people seem to be at no greater risk of long term conditions. so these ‘diabetics’ need to not be treated. And best of all is the condition setting in before six months (before you have a functioning immune system that could kill your pancreas) where you have the blood glucose sensing system, you have the insulin producing system but they are not connected. They can be joined back together by massive doses of sulphonylureas (basically a pill) which will eliminate your need for testing your blood sugar and injecting insulin. Almost a ‘cure’ for this tiny minority of a tiny minority. The point about algorithms here is that Prof. Andrew Hattersly who has led the research into these conditions, who can safely be considered an expert on genetic causes of diabetes has tested himself against the algorithm he built and he found the algorithm can guess better than he can. So swing on over if you’re diabetic and have family member with diabetes and want to review yourself.

So with this endorsment for one algorithm, I’m inclined to believe a different one can probably at least flag up useful pointers.

This can further be tied to the outguessing machine described by Poundstone in Predicting the Unpredictable. The machine was built in a pre digital age (the ’50s) and by simply remembering whatever you guessed the last two times a given option came up (with a 16 bit memory), it could consistently outguess anyone. Because (from Thinking Fast and Slow) multiplying lots of small numbers in our head is not a major human skill, so leave it to the algorithms.

Build character, without doing something you hate.

I was just reading Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney, which I enjoyed a lot. For some reason I had very good willpower while I was reading it. They take the idea that intelligence is supposed to be a good thing in life, but that actually ‘resisting the marshmallow’ or willpower also has a really strong correlation with ‘success’ (listed in the link). And that willpower is much more amenable to practise.

They point out that ‘willpower’ is the same thing you use for decision making and resisting impulses and we have limited supplies of the stuff. So starting 10 new years resolutions, that each require willpower, is impossibly hard. Do one at a time. They describe Franklin, who helped inspire Gretchen Rubin’s approach to her happiness project. He had a list of 13 values and each week he’d focus on one, slipping behind in the one he’d done in the previous week, but hopefully doing two steps forward in each focus week and only one step back in between, so that:

“On the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the Endeavor, a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it”.

The funny thing is that the recommendations end up really supporting religion. Lots of religious practices, meditating every day, praying every day, praying five time a day all add up to practising willpower. It seems that anything you do because it’s the right thing to do, whether or not you feel like it, is practising willpower. Or you could say that because you don’t feel like it you build character And the work done here gives you strength to do more good things in a virtuous circle.

Calvin and Hobbes build character

They also mention that the more tidy our environment, the more self control we have. In the study they quote you can be offered some money now, or more money in a week. People in tidier surroundings are more likely  to choose to wait a week.  This is funny as Gretchen Rubin studied the effect of clutter on happiness, pointing out that clutter is all over the popular press (blogs) but is not studied much, yet keeping clutter under control is an essential, foundation, habit so around 2011 the science caught up.

It might seem really obvious but I’ve also realised that reading about something, helps you think more focusedly on that subject. So while I was reading stuffocation, I decluttered (even thought the book is only partly about that) and while I was reading Willpower, I was keeping better habits. This suggests that constantly reading different books on the same subject can be useful at practising that subject, even if the books are not adding any new information. Even though I’ve decluttered reasonably well (though not as well as if Marie Kendo really came round to my house to say are you sure that brings joy to your life), it seems that reading a decluttering book every quarter would be a good way to inspire you to keep on top of things. Finally an excuse to get more of these books.

The final sentence is to point out (despite the Calvin and Hobbes strip) that I don’t think it is at all necessary to do pointless tasks to build willpower. In life and in the world, there are enough useful tasks that need doing, and helpful habits that can be built up, there is no need to build character just for building characters sake. Build character by building a habit of something useful and worthwhile (writing blogs?).

Was that something about how to beat the stock market?

In my previous post I mentioned that one of the unpredictable things Pounstone’s book can predict is the stock market. As the whole thing runs on people (not numbers) that sounds quite doable.

The advice is

  1. buy index funds
  2. use their special patented method to figure out when to sit out of the market and keep your investments in cash, and when to buy back in (they fall down on the patented part by describing the method for free)

Poundstone doesn’t explain the first step, though Pete Comley does in his excellent book Monkey with a Pin. This book was inspired by the observation that 85% of fund managers don’t beat the market. Hence the value of index funds, which are the market.  When I first found out what an index fund is a few years ago I naively thought it was a new invention that would devastate the city. If people can get the same or better results for less money why wouldn’t they? I guess if psychics can earn money, and if there are whole professions where the experts guess right less often than chance, the fund manager doesn’t have to worry.

So Pete Comley pointed out the very important point that half of the ‘growth’ of the stock market is just inflation. Perhaps ‘just’ inflation is unfair. Inflation proofing an investment is pretty useful. Though Pete Comley showed that if you put cash in the highest interest account you could find, once  a year, then over the last 20 years (not including current low rates) you would actually also beat inflation.

So if you invest £17,250 and 23 years later you have £27,500, that looks like a respectable 4.2% per annum gain, but if inflation averaged 3.5% that was really only a 0.7% gain. Comley further calculated that overall per annum return on investment over the last century, after subtracting out inflation,  is 5% and average investement costs are 6%, giving overall returns of minus 1%, which would look perfectly respectable after inflation, say,  4%.

So beating inflation is not to be sneezed at. Actually since reading Monkey with a Pin I think Poundstone is the first person I’ve read who discusses the value of markets after adjusting for inflation.

If fund managers are not beating the market and the market is going up anyway because of inflation, which you get for ‘free’ just by owning unmanaged shares, then the next step is to minimise costs.

If you have an index fund of the market that is going up 5% a year with 0.5% annual fees (the maximum you should pay for an index fund, you might get a little less) and you compare it to a fund that is consistently beating that index (the market) by 1% a year, 6% overall, but which charges 2%, then I don’t even need to plot the graph to show you that lower fees are more important than small gains.

I like graphs so I’m going to plot it anyway.

Index fund returns

See how compounding interest doesn’t make much difference for the first 10 years and takes off after 20 years. But look at the huge difference when costs are 0.5% (red) vs costs of 1.5% (green). A mere extra 1% knocked almost a quarter off the final income. And while the expensive hedge fund at 2% interest and 20% of profits (purple) did beat the index fund, it would have to beat the market by 3% consistently for 30 years. Good luck finding a manager who is in the top 15% for 30 years running and who won’t retire in that time.

There are a lot more to the costs that I didn’t discuss (if the market goes up by 5% and fees are 0.5% you get less than 4.5%)and I didn’t even get round to the superspecial unpatented Poundstone method to beat the index funds. That’ll have to be another post.

Why I’m getting rid of my reward cards (I’m only a little paranoid)

I just finished reading William Poundstone’s: How to predict the unpredictable. It turns out we are actually quite predicable. Each chapter covers one topic and finishes with tips on how to win at e.g. rock paper scissors, tennis and the stockmarket (check out the table of contents on amazon ‘look inside’).

One point is that we really have no clue what random looks like, If you map 50 coin tosses as black and white squares, the random one (middle) looks fake and the fake one (top) looks random. In the random set, each coin toss has a 50/50 chance of being different from the previous one. In the one we think of as random, there is a 75% chance the next block will be different from the previous one. We have to go up to a 90% chance of a colour change (bottom, ) before we begin to think it looks fake.

Looks Random Sept2015

This is the law of small numbers. A pschological trick making us think the rules that govern large numbers (50/50 outcomes of 1000 coin tosses) will also govern small numbers (not really, there’s a pretty high chance of not getting a 50/50 split in 5, or 10, coin tosses).

Next up is passwords and PIN numbers, with estimates that 11% of the population uses 1234! If you found a debit card, and tried the three most likely PINs (1111 at 6% and 0000 at 2%) you’d have a hair under a 1/5 chance of getting the right number.

The tip for passwords is to find a random password generator, generate a few passwords and find one that is easy to make up a story to help you remember. Then only use it for a few important secure sites and not every time some online form asks you for a password. Personally I’m so sick of account names and numbers I’ll stop right there rather than sign up to another one. I’ve been reduced to buying theatre tickets by phone, which was actually just as easy.

Poundstone did fall down on one aspect. He describes the Target campaign where they looked at the buying habits across 25 products and found they could tell when someone was pregnant almost to the week (the list included suddenly buying certain vitamins and scent free lotion). They would then send these women flyers for baby stuff and as long as they mixed it up with lawnmowers, so the women didn’t know they had been targeted specifically, they were happy to start the new phase of their life as a Target shopper. The story includes the angry father of a sixteen year old, who then found out she really was pregnant.

Here Poundstone says the new predictions challenge not only privacy but also our illusion of free will. But I disagree, it is definitely a privacy issue. Target even agrees re adding the lawn mower ads ‘as long as the pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on‘.

It’s an interesting grey area. It is not unreasonable for the shop to have records of your buying habits, but putting them together gives them data you don’t want them to have. Maybe the moral here is pay attention to an upcoming need for new laws, get rid of your reward cards, and pay cash rather than card. I’m reluctant to do the second, but then I never do spend the points, so I’m putting it on my to-do-when-I-get-round-to-it list. Though I did just sign up to the Paperchase reward card, I’m hoping there is a limit to what they can figure out from my stationery spending. The second requires planning and effort, but is something I aim to do more often than not (I’m also going to put a big sign on my back saying ‘suitable mugging target’). The first one is on the back burner. I’m hoping someone else will set up a campaign group and start lobbying MPs to ban shops scanning our faces, recording everything we do in them, saving that data and paying attention (via algorithms) to all the data.

Finally, make sure you delete your cookies before shopping on line, you’ll probably get better prices.

Ugh, why is living in the future so tedious.

Do what’s nice and/or what’s right

I just read Terry Pratchett’s A Blink of the Screen, and only just now discovered his series with Stephen Baxter, the Long Earth, this was one of my favourite short stories on a topic I love (many worlds, though I am mildy freaked out by the idea in New Scientist last week that there might actually be many worlds. I’m happy with this idea in fiction, not so much in reality).

The story that made me think most was about Granny Weatherwax (the deleted scene from The Sea and Little Fishes). She is respected but not liked, because she does what has to be done.
So when several children were murdered she saw the guilt in the murderers mind (also where the bodies were buried), got him to confess and saw him hanged, which was a better fate than he would have got without Granny Weatherwax as the villagers were really quite upset about the child murdering thing.
Yet then, in the story, the villagers began to think, well maybe he wasn’t such a bad chap, what if Granny Weatherwas made him confess (technically she did).
So Granny Weatherwax ended up as the bad guy in this story, getting lots of dark looks.

But thinking about it there is something she is doing wrong. By organising/commanding the villagers to execute the murderer, she took away their sense of agency and ‘self’ determination. She made a decisions for the villagers, which she should have made with them.

The villagers should have had a chance to decide for themselves what to do with cool heads, it is explicit that in the heat of the moment they would have horribly killed the murderer. Talking over the issue with cool heads they might have decided to go ahead and execute the murderer, but it would have been their decision. Or they might have decided some alternative form of penance was appropriate and he might have been able to live and possibly redeem himself.
It is a pity, just because it is a fantasy world, to throw all ethics out of the window and ignore the non-death penalty we have chosen to live by in real life. Ironically Terry Pratchett usually subverts this trope. In Small Gods he explicity refused to kill off the torturers, saying it would be harder, but better to redeem them.

Anne Fine’s characters also set up this dichotomy between being nice and doing the right thing, arguing that all niceness is based on spinelessness and the people who do the right thing (care about seat belts in cars) will always be disliked.

However, I think/hope this dilemma (be nice or do what is right) is a false dichotomy. The problem was not in executing the murderer, it was in making the villagers decision for them. Even if you know the answer and the discussions are long and tedious, you end up with better decisions that everyone can get behind (not necessarily that they agree with).

Robots: better than neglect

I’ve just been reading Sherry Turkle‘s book Alone Together, why we expect more from technology and less from each other. It’s a good contrast with Jane McGonigal‘s Reality is Broken. The latter is all about how games can bring out the best in us, the former about how technology is not a universal panacea (Ok those two things are quite separate, I could have drawn a description that would have depicted the two positions as complete opposites but I didn’t).

Though Sherry argues that the effects of modern technology on children needs to be more carefully thought out, I was struck by the parents checking their e-mail so constantly that the children never feel they get any attention. Robots (hypothetical for now) are preferred because

“A robot would remember everything I said. It might not understand everything but remembering is a first step. My father, talking to me while on his Blackberry, he doesn’t know what I said, so it’s not much use that if he did know, he might understand.”

A robot would cook me a proper dinner and not give me  cereal for supper.

Speaking of robots that will exist sooner, to look after elderly people, Sherry pointed out that we seem to be starting from the assumption that, even with unemployment through the roof, we will not have the time and resources to have people looking after older people, so we should give them robot companions and robot nurses. But as Sherry quotes Apppiah: the options are shaped by the question, we need to challenge which question is posed and ask what care we want to provide.