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Tuesday 9 July 2024

The Morning After The Fourteen Years Before

I need to say a few words about the other highlight of last week, the UK's general election.

In years gone by I've stayed up into the small hours watching the election coverage. It tends to be quite fun listening to all the different kinds of election speeches. Some are vacuous, some are unhinged - Peter Mandelson's "my enemies will taste my inner steel !" polemic comes to mind for the latter. And of course you have all the analysis, commentary, the silly graphics... it's an unusual excuse for a late night, one which doesn't happen very often.

The last few, though, my heart wasn't in it. Politics in the UK has become too depressing, the results too much of a foregone conclusion. Well at least this time the result was a foregone conclusion but one which finally went in a good direction.

I got myself nicely ensconced in my hotel room. Plenty of tea, plenty of snacks. No alcohol, which was an oversight on my part but probably a wise one, what with being in the middle of a conference and all.

My plan was to stay up pretty late, just enough to get a sense of where things were going. If it had gone the other way, quite honestly I don't know what I would have done. Quite probably, and I'm not being rhetorical here, cry. The mood of the country has been so dead against the Tories for so long that for them to retain power would be an abomination.

What actually happened was that by around 3am (local time), after some actually quite decent interviews, analysis, and endless fun watching Jeremy Vine slowly wear himself out jumping around the swingometer (and various incarnations thereof), it was pretty clear that there would be no great upset. Two cups of tea could see me no further so I went to sleep... for about an hour. Then I woke up, saw the news, saw that results were coming in thick and fast : LABOUR GAIN... LABOUR GAIN... LABOUR GAIN... LABOUR HOLD... and so on, and I couldn't get back to sleep. So up I stayed until the end. I saw Starmer's victory speech, I saw Rishi concede, I saw Jacob Ress-Mogg and... heeheheheee !.... Liz Truss lose her goddamn seat.

I also saw Jeremy Vine still swinging hard (if a little more slowly) at well after 3am.

And of course there was the inevitable oddity, the crazy results bucking the trend with TORY GAIN. Which made no sense, especially for poor Jonathan Ashworth, who I've liked very much throughout his career in opposition. He deserved better. Unfortunately, politics is random enough that a few inexplicable curveballs like this are part of the process.

The main result, though, was exactly in line with expectations. The Tories haven't suffered an extinction level event (that was never very likely) but by God they've taken a body blow. The Lib Dems have deservedly resurged with avengeance. Reform have shown themselves up as the useless protest vote that Farage parties always are. The Greens and Plaid have made at least a little progress, while the SNP - in perhaps the biggest surprise of the night - have truly collapsed. You'll recall I said exactly this possibility right back in 2015, when everyone else suspected that the SNP surge marked a permanent sea change in Scottish politics, that once they were in so deep, it would be very difficult to get them back out. 

To me the lesson was different, that politics can be potentially very unstable indeed, and that large majorities can flip to large minorities if a party isn't careful. Fortune's wheel is ever turning... the system is one always on the edge of chaos, predictable only if it sticks to its own rules. The SNP took their new-found dominance for granted, to their ultimate cost.


But of course the real result is that huge Labour majority. I have to confess, of course, to being biased. This is the result of which dreams are made (second only to the ultimate goal of a Labour - Lib Dem coalition), giving power back to the sensible, grown-up, boring people. I couldn't be happier. To me it's a eucatastrophe, an unexpected (well, not so much) anti-disaster of astonishing good fortune, a real opportunity, at long last, for the country to heal itself. To pick itself up after 14 years of Tory shenanigans (especially the last five of the utmost stupidity), dust itself off, and look everyone else squarely in the eye and declare, "Why yes, actually there was a reason we used to be renowned for our political system, bitches."

In short to me the result was absolutely joyous. I walked into the conference with a spring in my step and my head held high, although by the afternoon the adrenaline finally began to wane and I started to crash. But it was a truly cathartic moment of the utmost delight, even something approaching bliss.

I've said enough out my quasi-adoration of Starmer's Labour here and here (and probably elsewhere) that I don't need to, ahem, labour the point.

Sorry, I'll see myself out.

But I just want to add one small but important point. In terms of actual politics, I'm firmly on the left. I believe in a big strong welfare state acting as a safety net, liberal in its social policies (guaranteeing freedoms in a utilitarian sum, acting with as light a touch as possible to impose the smallest restrictions for the biggest gains) and socialist in its economics (government providing all the essential services, but leaving non-essentials by and large to run themselves, intervening only when absolutely necessary). 

In terms of the way I think politics should be done, however, I'm a centrist. I believe more in the process than the result. I believe that while my own opinions are valid, and some fraction will be correct, the same is true of everyone else. Well, nearly everyone, probably not Liz Truss. I'm not joking here : as I've said rhetorically, you simply cannot reason with pathological liars like Johnson or the delusional like Truss. Nor does this work with the politically feeble like Sunak, who find themselves craven to their own party and chronically unable to lead. A reasoned argument with someone who refuses to make up their own mind gets you nowhere.

Most people don't lie at these extremes of personality types, though unfortunately they seem to be disproportionately represented in politics. But when you clear out this lunatic asylum, this squawking henhouse of nonsense, I believe discussions are the ultimate answer. That a decision formed by consensus is by far the most secure. When you combine independent conclusions formed in good faith, then and only then do you get the best decisions possible, not from any one ideology or perspective, but from many. So while of course I want to see the policies I favour enacted, more important to me is to see this process of serious discussion taking place. To see people getting together, genuinely engaging with each other rather than shouting each other down, compromising when necessary, forceful on occasion, but always listening.

This is why I'm a Starmer superfan. I know, I know, people say he isn't inspiring. Fuck 'em. I've said it before and I'll say it again : this kind of boring, sensible politics is the best thing I've seen happen (politically) in my entire adult life. The idea that you can turn on the television and there isn't a political crisis, that politicians are actually working to solve the problems rather than create more of them to (largely subconsciously, I think) enrage and divide voters... Good God, can it be true ? 

Starmer, to be sure, doesn't have the easy charm even of Sunak (in his own greasy and cringe-worthy way, but nevertheless, he gives slick answers much more comfortably in television situations than Starmer), let alone Blair. But if he delivers on results, this is a skill he may not lead to learn. He's generally good enough to get the job done, interview-wise. And he understands perfectly a key lesson of Blair, that voters judge in aggregate*. Individual incidents, however overblown by the media, don't really matter, it's the sum whole (and, crucially the feelings it engenders) that really matters come voting time.

* And many others as well, especially that leadership involves saying no to your own side. If you don't do this, if you don't impose some direction on the group, you'll end up going nowhere and being visibly weak.

So in the rest of this post I want to cover three things. First, I'll look at the electoral strategy that got us to where we are now. Then I want to say a little more about why I'm optimistic that politics, at least so far as actual policies go, is likely to get significantly better given the immediate actions Labour have taken in government. Finally, I'll end on a bit more of a cautious note as to how it may be difficult to retain this kind of attitude in the future, and how we must always be on guard against a return to factional chest-thumping politics where believing one's ideology is considered more important than getting anything done.

1) When The Hurly-Burly's Done : Why The Tories Lost And Labour Won

It's pretty obvious why the Tories lost : they were shite. Not only were their pledges shite (and racist), but they failed to deliver on any of them. Johnson, in short, broke them, turning them into a confused quagmire, a dastardly mix of anti-woke culture wars mingled with populist and at times even socialist policies that were largely unworkable. Johnson, in his pig-headed way, cared not a jot, driving them into both a hole and wall at the same time, if that's metaphorically possible.

From this any sort of recovery would prove near-impossible in the short term. Johnson, a traditional tribal politician, had the peculiar attitude of not actually standing for his own tribe. This kind of rampant megalomania is not common in British politics. What Johnson in effect did was to set all the Tory factions against one another, each thinking that they were the true voice of the Conservatives, each equally determined to fight their corner and each unwilling to back down. The result is that it transformed the notoriously disciplined party into something little better than a bag of screaming cats.

One particularly stupid cat, however, briefly assumed the mantle of authority. But Liz was too stupid and her beliefs too crazy to assume anything more than the mantle, not the authority and control itself. By doubling down on Boris' approach of total tribalism in support of unworkable policies, but having absolutely no appeal to other segments of the party (still less among the general population), she was doomed. But she did enough damage in her less-than-lettuce tenure to make recovery all but impossible for Sunak. 

Such a feat would have required a political genius of the highest order. Starmer, with his quiet but ruthless expulsion of dissenters, could not have done it : such things take time Sunak was not gifted with, nor did he seem at all interested in building a power base. People drone on about how Starmer doesn't stand for anything (or at least they used to, see below), but what in the world Sunak's famed "plan" was ever supposed to be was something I could never make head nor tail of.

The Tories made themselves unelectable. The Labour party made itself look boring... and safe. Gone were the anti-Semitic overtones of Corbyn, along with all his other pro-Russia, anti-NATO, ambivalent-EU stupidities. There was just enough radicalism in Labour to make everyone curious (federalism, abolishing the Lords, Great British Energy) but not enough to be a concern (e.g. not cancelling Trident a la Corbyn). True, they didn't adopt anything really radical. There was to be no hint of UBI, a four-day work-week, precious little about proportional representation, and no hint of re-joining the EU. But in this softly-softly approach they gave their opponents not a single piece of ammunition to use against them. If they weren't daring enough to face the arguments head-on, they also weren't stupid enough to fight battles they couldn't possibly win*. As I said, Starmer doesn't have the easy charm needed to carry this off.

* Yes, polls show people are now against Brexit, but it would the utmost folly to assume another referendum would be anything other than a repeat of the last disaster. You can't undo such things at a whim. You need a detailed campaign strategy, one that must be carefully formulated to avoid the mistakes of the first attempt.

It's worth bringing in some counterfactuals here though. Had the Tories been in a better position, would Labour have adopted a different strategy with a more radical, risky agenda ? It's possible - we can't know for sure. It's also possible they never would have elected Starmer to leader at all. One can play endless counterfactual games, but the one that strikes me as most relevant is in relation to Reform. There's no doubt Reform hurt the Tories pretty badly, though as to exactly how much I await detailed statistical breakdowns. Would Labour still have won without Reform ? It's absolutely a valid question; to say that Labour weren't proposing good enough policies to inspire people (given the low turnout) is by no means a claim without foundation, though I'll avoid committing to an answer for the time being.

But... let's consider what might have happened had Labour still been in the doldrums of their pitiful 2019 state. This, I suggest, would have been an absolute disaster in which a major Reform breakthrough might have been a real possibility. By playing it safe, failing to unify the right against them, Labour not only ensured their own landslide but also neutered any chance of Reform gaining a meaningful parliamentary voice. This was, unequivocally, the right election strategy for the right time. It remains to be seen if and how they'll adapt to the no-doubt different circumstances of the next election.

A pertinent point being exaggerated quite properly by satirists but taken too seriously by the less credible political commentators is how bad Labour's share of the vote was. In terms of delivering a win, the absolute share of the vote doesn't matter, and Labour knew this. What matters is that their share increased hugely relative to the Tories. We've now got a huge Labour majority because they are the most popular of the parties, simple as. That's the system we've got to work with and that's the game of electoral calculus they very successfully played. Absolute numbers don't factor into it.

Whether this is inherently fair or not is something I'll return to at the end. For now, I'll just say that it clearly is possible for small parties to make big gains if they work within the existing system rather than insisting that it should be something else and campaigning as though that were already the case. The Lib Dems did very well indeed precisely because of that (as did the SNP in the past). As for Reform, their poor performance indicates that either a) they're too stupid to understand how the system works, in which case they probably don't deserve to be in parliament anyway, or b) they really are all about the protest politics, not interested in any actual power but simply having the chance to rant and rave and wallow in their own sense of petty entitlement and victimhood. 

Sadly we still have to put up with this twat. Oh well, you can't have everything.

Which leads me to my final point in this section. Throughout, the Lib Dems were very careful to target Tory seats where they were polling well, not Labour. What we have is a de facto combination of tactical voting and even, to a degree, a progressive alliance. It's not sold as such, there are no open statements of collaboration with Labour (save an open invitation to intellectual property theft). What such movements have failed to realise in the past, I think, is that this kind of direct, rub-your-noses-in-it approach ends up being the kind of "being told what to think" attitude that people don't like. People are happy enough to listen to arguments aimed at persuading them. But this attitude of entitlement that of course you want to vote for me to get these guys out, of course you already agree with our agenda... that winds people up the wrong way.

Telling people, "here's the evidence for X" is generally okay with most people. Telling them, "and here's why I adopt position Y in response to this" is usually fine too. But being told simply that you must believe Y in response to X, must feel something that you don't already actually feel, that you must simply be a bad person otherwise... this doesn't work. Progressive alliances turn people off, I think, when they're so explicit because they make this inherent assumption that of course it's what people want even when it was never on their agenda. Instead, this much more implicit and totally informal approach has delivered real, tangible gains in part because it avoids all of this almost culture-war aspect to the whole argument.

2) Reasons To Be Cheerful

I mean, apart from the stonking great Labour majority, which is more than reason enough.

Labour have said for some considerable time that they were in talks with the movers and shakers behind the scenes, putting them in a position to take advantage of power the moment they attained it. And this appears to be emphatically true. They proceeded from a presumption of actually being in government, a very different prospect from being a party of protest. And so while too many wrote their manifesto pledges off as being unambitious or "not radical enough", this looks very different in the dawning light of actual power. We've seen immediate action on almost all of their major pledges, and even some which were barely mentioned. Barely a week into the new administration we've seen :

Perhaps most emblematic of all is a commitment from Starmer to work with those of any stripe (albeit this is easier because now their are far fewer politicians on the right). The dramatic tonal shift away from conflict and brow-beating to one of collaboration is not something that should be underestimated. May, for instance, pathologically insisted that "Brexit meant Brexit" and completely ignored the beliefs of Remainers. Starmer returns to a time-honoured approach of at least pledging to govern for the whole country and not just the party faithful. "I will fight until you believe again", he said, echoing a sentiment he expressed very clearly throughout the campaign. Thanks largely to Johnson, trust in politics has collapsed. The idea that politicians might actually say what they mean has become something of a novelty.

And this is why, I think, people weren't all that impressed by the manifesto, even though it contained some extremely ambitious pledges. People expected yet more climbdowns and u-turns and judged it accordingly : on that basis, it does indeed look weak. The problem is of course that when you lose trust you can believe anything, pervert any statement to mean what you want it to mean. Things look very different when those commitments actually materialise. And to repeat from a previous post, yes, of course politicians have to lie sometimes, there's just no other way of working together. But not all lies are the same by any means : lies about who you like and who you don't like are the necessary grease of the political machinery; in contrast, saying the machine is a typewriter when it's actually a clock is of a different order. Lies about people and lies about policies are not the same.

But I'm getting carried away. None of those things have actually been delivered yet, because it's been a full four days since Labour assumed office. Nevertheless, to be shown to be already beginning the work needed is important. And of course, it would be foolish to assume that every policy will be delivered exactly as stated and on time and on budget. No government is that saintly. For certain, there will be corruption, scandals, and stupidity, That's the nature of the game. The test for the government is how it deals with this, how it seeks not to eliminate such occurrences (a fool's dream) but to actually and significantly reduce all this compared to the shitshow of the last fourteen years. And of course in how it responds when these things occur, how it defends or suspends the accused, how swiftly it responds or doesn't respond.

3) Reasons To Be Cautious

Which brings me to my final theme. The small voter share is, undeniably, a source of concern for the future. It's not anything to get into a blind panic about, not something to declare the results invalid over. But it should give any reasonable politician pause for thought : we're seen as the better choice by far, might think Labour, but it's a pretty low bar. The rapid turnaround of Labour's fortunes might yet be matched by a similar feat by the Tories. Unlikely, to be sure, but quite possible.

In years gone by the Tories too had this presumption that they were "the natural party of government". Consequently they formulated policies which were by no means very nice, let alone desirable, but were at least workable. They were things that, quite unlike bridges from Scotland to Ireland, could actually be implemented. They knew they'd have to deliver to at least some some extent on what they promised, so they didn't promise everyone the Moon when the rockets weren't available.

What this shifted into was entitlement. And in this sense this is quite a different outlook. Instead of merely assuming that they would be in government, they assumed they deserved to be in government : come what may, no matter whatever bullshit they spewed forth, they deserved it not because of whatever nonsense they said but simply because of who they were, that they were fundamentally better than the little people. Sensible, cautious presumption became the height of arrogance. Policy became unworkable nonsense.

The message for Labour is manifold. They have to actually deliver on their promises : not everything, not perfectly, and not exactly on time and/or budget either, but the goal of perfection must ever be their aim. Contrary to a media which exaggerates every slight miss as a major and totally unrecoverable failure, the public's standards are not so ludicrously high. But they must still aim towards... let's call it core delivery. Then they have to avoid the sense of entitlement which causes policy to drift from pragmatism to nonsense. It's honestly quite hard to envisage this happening to Starmer, but power can corrupt the best of us; if he's truly wise, he'll leave before it gets to him. And with a thumping majority, maintaining parliamentary discipline will be tough.

The other note of caution is of course Reform. Or rather, their combined vote share with the Tories, which exceeds Labour's overall (though not Labour plus the Lib Dems). We shouldn't be too gloomy about this : in the seats which Labour actually targeted for winning, their swing away from the Tories was far more dramatic than the national average, proof positive of the importance of a disciplined and controlled election campaign strategy. Nevertheless, that the country has still not yet decisively rejected the absurdity of the Tory mindset, and some have even embraced an even more hardline variant of lunacy in Reform (however much that may have been a protest vote), should absolutely be cause for concern. Especially combined with that low turnout. Labour won the election, but the battle for hearts and minds is going to need to pick up a gear.


The cause for celebration is very real. A push towards cheaper, more secure, green energy, a movement towards fixing the NHS rather than just blaming the staff, towards closer alignment with the EU if not reintegration, towards more devolution and local powers rather than total fragmentation, and best of all a push towards real dialogue and discussions... all this looks pretty good to me. Gone too is the Tory party's grim parody of diversity (let's pick racists of different ethnicities to prove we're not racist !), replaced with a Labour party committed to actually delivering egalitarianism and opportunities - which has already gone down badly with transphobics like Rowling. 

Replacing all these idiotic culture wars with productive discussions ? Yes please. All this may not deliver everything I'd ideally like, but if tempered with realism, then these expectations aren't unambitious either. The reasons to be cheerful outweigh by far any reason for cynicism.

The question arises, of course, as to whether the result is fair giving the disproportion of seats in relation to votes. Here I will elaborate on things I've been saying for years. We have representative democracy, and FPTP delivers on both aspects of this. It's an absolutely valid way of selecting local candidates to be your ambassadors to parliament to speak on your behalf. It's also democratic in that its tendency to return large majorities mean you can be confident that the party elected will have few fetters acting against its pledges : it will try to enact its policies as stated, and not have to water them down in a coalition.

This is not to say that proportional representation wouldn't be a valid solution either, however. It really depends on what you want your system of government to be. If it's ensuring everyone has a voice, then PR is the better choice. If it's more important to represent local communities, FPTP is better (though, a ranked voting system would be better still, and arguably a sensible compromise between the two). The difficulty is that neither of these perspectives has any strong intrinsic claim to be the better option either morally or pragmatically. There simply isn't any one right way to implement democracy, no single solution to how a country should be governed or decisions formulated (the difficulties of balancing the need for both local and national governments is something elaborated on at length in Isabel Hardman's excellent book).

Starmer's lack of a clear ideology has caused difficulties, but Laura Kuenssberg (of all people) mentioned the intriguing phrase of "moral socialism". Which, as she pointed out, could have been purpose-written for a Guardian headline. But might this phrase have actual value ? I've pontificated about liberal democratic socialism, trying to maximise both social freedom, political choices, and equality of resources all at once, an ungodly phrase for an awkward balancing act. "Moral socialism" at least rolls off the tongue a lot more smoothly. 

Starmer himself doesn't seem to think like this. He just wants to fix things. 

Fair enough, but for a lot of people, having some comparative ideological framework is of tremendous help. Starmer tends to assume, I think, that everyone is like him, that when a solution is clear to him that everyone else gets it too - a minor weakness which is an occasional annoyance, but he'd do well to learn this at least when communicating his intentions*. But I shall leave aside the thorny question of how much the system itself matters, to what extent can good people deliver good results in a bad system and vice-versa.

* For instance, in one of the debates, the fact that his two-stage (stop the gangs, process those already here) scheme would easily cut illegal migration far more than Sunak's Rwanda farce was easily lost in the verbal fog. Starmer doesn't seem to realise that implications aren't always equally obvious to everyone.

I believe in credit where credit is due. For all the scantily-clad villainy of their statements during the campaign, Rishi Sunak and Jacob Rees Mogg both gave very gracious concession speeches. If they'd only adopted such attitudes a little more during their terms of office, perhaps I might have been more sympathetic and trusting towards them. 

See, make no mistake, I despise the Tories. Loathe them. But I concede that, if brought back as a halfway-sensible, respectable party which would at least regrow its moral backbone, it would at least have some uses. Somebody is needed to hold the government to account. Somebody needs to provide a counterbalance, to act as a reminder if nothing else then at least why the alternatives are worse. Getting that important balance, maintaining that vital tension and stress in the system, the drive to do better or else we'll end up with that lot, is not at all easy. More difficult still is, to my everlasting exasperation, getting the majority to see that some choices are, quite plainly, utterly stupid. 

This though is an altogether bigger challenge, and for now I think I shall be content to accept the fact the government is not only "not a shitshow", but actually intent on delivering its promises. At the very least, there's the hope for a better tomorrow which we've not had in a good long while. And that is no small victory.

Monday 8 July 2024

Perambulations in Padova

With the pandemic now firmly relegated to the status of The Event, it's time for another travel post.

Truth be told I submitted a couple of abstracts to EAS 2024 just on a general feeling that I probably should try and go to conferences once in a while, rather than any unsated travel-lust. Which meant, as per usual, that I booked all the flights and accommodation later than I probably should, but it all worked out in the end.

As it transpired, this was a really good conference with no less than three full days dedicated to stuff I'm directly interested in, but you can read all about the science highlights over on Little Physicists. Here I'll just do the travel bits. Knowing nothing whatever about Padova except that it was close to Venice (which I missed visiting when I was in Bologna last year), I decided to go the Saturday before and return the following Sunday. That gave me two full days of exploration, or closer to three because I arrived pretty early on the Saturday.


My flight over was absolutely uneventful. The only annoyance is that there aren't any direct Prague->Padova flights, so I went through Venice and took a bus – an easy 40 minute trip and you buy the ticket from a vending machine. Instantly on leaving the airport the heat made itself very much known, something which was to get worse before it got better. The bus ride itself was forgettable : you don't see anything of Venice itself, the Italian countryside is flat nondescript farmland (the area around Bologna is somehow more picturesque), and the parts of Padova the bus goes through aren't the nicest. Which will unfortunately be something of a running theme here.

Somewhat annoyingly, the left luggage at the train station wasn't open. Nor was the hotel/apartment office that day*, which meant I had to drag my thankfully-not-heavy suitcase and somewhat-heavier backpack around all day. 

* Keys were placed in a deposit box on the street, for which I was sent the code and a series of nice clear pictures explaining exactly where everything was and what to do.

A literal rainbow bridge ! A building nearby had a huge "Pride" banner hanging from the upper floors, so I presume there's a connection.

Part of the historical bits of the University, I think.

One of the main squares, taken on the Sunday morning. On the Saturday it was full of people.

One thing I immediately noticed was the tourist density contrast, which is much higher even than in Prague. That is, there's a distinct tourist route : deviate from it even a little, and the population density crashes. I've a feeling in Padova this might align with the places the locals actually inhabit as well, but what's striking is that the empty parts are really empty. And something about the place deadens the sound, so get away from the main routes and the streets turn silent.

Still, by a little after 2pm, after having explored Padova for a good three hours or so, I was extremely conscious that it really was quite astonishingly, ferociously hot. It was only 31 C but if someone had told me it was 41 I'd have believed them. I'd been consuming liquids all day like it was going out of fashion but quite honestly the heat felt to me to be – and I don't say this lightly, pray remember the name of the blog ! – worse than the tropics. Maybe it was that "baked in" feeling of the heat radiating from the stones, coupled with the humidity, I don't know. But it felt like it was eight billion degrees and humid enough to drown a fish.

Whatever it was, having seen the message that the key would be available "before 3", I went and collected it a little after 2:30. Being close to the train station the area... wasn't the best. It's not that it's run-down, though it's hardly the tourist scene either. It's that there are a lot of large street gangs hanging out there most of the time, and as far as I could tell, this seemed to be the case only in this particular and very small area. The main activity here for the youth of today is to hang out on the steps of the streets. Why this is appealing I've no idea; I imagine conversations going along the lines of "what about going to the cinema bro ?" followed by "nah mate, gotta hang out on the steps cos that is where it is AT !" or suchlike.

So far as I could tell the area isn't actually dangerous in the "seriously don't go there" sense, but it's definitely intimidating. The presence of numerous open shops, little old ladies going about their business, and other people walking around staring at their phones gave me some confidence that random crime isn't something to be overly-concerned about, at least.

Compensation for the scuzzy area came about by way of the hotel itself. This was a sort of apartment/hotel, with individual rooms but with two shared bathrooms and one kitchen. The company's called CleanBNB and it was indeed commendably clean. Even better, the air conditioner was fabulously, gloriously efficient. In less than an hour I'd reduced the indoor temperature from 29 to 21 C. This was bliss, and the pattern for the other days was to retreat here whenever needed.

Or in other words, finally I understand the point of a siesta. 

The first evening I managed to get the external roller shutter stuck and couldn't figure out for the life of me what I'd done, so had to make do with a rather bright interior (the next day, I realised a handle on the shutter itself had got lodged at the top, and I was able to dislodge it). Other than that it was comfortable enough and surprisingly quiet in the night. I tried to avoid arriving back too late, but from what I could see, the street urchins mostly disappear by around 10 pm or so. 

The restaurant scene in Padova is not a patch on Bologna. That first night I even had... a bad lasagne. In Italy. Shock, horror ! Luckily for that place (deep in the tourist zone) they did a mean Cuba Libre. But finding restaurants was a struggle; often I made do with a big lunch and limited myself to snacks in the evening. When I did go out, though, the staff were invariably friendly. Usually I was even offered a student discount ! Alas, that ship has sailed...

I decided that evening that doing Venice the next day would be frankly silly. The heat in Padova was bad enough; in Venice the humidity would surely be even worse and the crowds unbearable. So I decided to do more of Padova instead, now of course sans suitcase. I forced myself to walk at a snail's pace to avoid working up a sweat; this helped quite a lot, but even so, there are limits. Padova is (as long as you avoid the train station) a perfectly nice place to explore, with the need to proceed with all the urgency of a glacier helping to compensate for its small size.

My first glimpse of the old astronomical tower, of which more later.

That day I decided to visit a few of Padova's tourist attractions : the Palazzo della Ragione and the civic museums. The Palazzo is a spectacular medieval hall which claims to be the largest in Europe; Wikipedia claims otherwise but it certainly feels very impressive. It's worth spending a good quarter of an hour or so walking around listening to the audio guide's explanation of the frescos, but you don't need much more than that unless you're an art enthusiast. It's also surprisingly warm inside, unfortunately.

The civic museums, I have to say, aren't great unless you speak Italian. Everyone speaks English but the number of explanatory signs in English is very small indeed, often just one small panel in a room of dozens if not hundreds of artifacts. So I'll skip over these entirely, except for the highlight : Giotto's 14th-century masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel. The building from the outside is utterly nondescript, easily mistaken for a 20th century church. I asked the guide about this and she wasn't exactly sure, but presumably heavy restoration work (or perhaps more accurately described as reconstruction work) must have been done to the exterior. 

The interior, however, is altogether more impressive. So determined are the Italians to preserve the paintings that you spend 15 minutes in an airlock for reducing the humidity, strictly limiting groups of visitors to 25 at a time. Sensibly they use this time to show you a video describing the history of the chapel and the significance of the paintings. You get 15 minutes inside to look around a take photos, minus the flash, of course.

The Conference

The next day it was time for the conference, in an extremely modern and climate-controlled building*. No frescos, just 1500 astronomers, the usual sort of "look at our cool telescope !" booths and so on. Tea breaks... well, it claimed to be Twining's English Breakfast, but it wasn't my idea of a good cuppa. Delicious biscuits though, and very plentiful. Lunch was mainly a burger van that had set up outside, which was surprisingly decent fast food (and not at all the usual sort of grubby side-of-the-road variety, even if it was hardly healthy).

* Though fortunately it cooled down considerably mid-week, and remained so until the weekend, which was still not as bad as when I arrived.

I shall pass over the science here and skip ahead to the social aspects. The first was a concert with a small orchestra playing (what else ?) The Planets, with visuals shown on a gigantic LED screen, mostly real images with some visualisations and animations. I was much looking forward to this, but my experience was somewhat marred by a couple of... incidents in the day. 

That morning I decided I needed breakfast, and not knowing the conference venue sold croissants, I went into the centre. Going down a side street very close to the tourist region, I made the mistake of answering someone addressing me - well, you never know, often people are just asking directions, and I don't like to fob people off unless I can see this is obviously a discussion I want to avoid.

Well, it was weird. "Can you help me ? I'm looking for something, something for my baby", said the man, proceeding to direct my attention to a small sign he held up, which was of course in Italian. It's hard to think of a more obvious declaration of "I'm trying to scam you" than this, so, "Sorry, no", I immediately said, and walked off. 

This has happened to me hundreds of times over the years and there's nothing unremarkable about it so far, apart from the weirdness of the request and the fact it was 7:15am – not exactly peak scam time ! He called after me, which is still nothing unusual. But he was persistent. When it got to, "Sorry ? Why sorry ?" I started to feel more uncomfortable. When it got to "Hey, boy !" I was not at all happy. And when he then proceeded to call to his friends I was walking past, who then in turn proceeded to call out to me as well, I was positively nervous. I ignored them completely, kept on walking at my usual brisk pace and made straight for the nearest café, which was, fortunately, the very one I was aiming for anyway.

That rather put me on edge for quite a while. It wasn't an empty side street and there were plenty of open shops (it was only just outside the centre at this point), so I doubt anything would happen... but you don't know. Now I'm quite familiar with the rules of social engagement being markedly different, for example, in America than Britain. I mean we Brits are not necessarily unfriendly or untalkative, but we don't stop to chat to complete strangers – that tends to be an immediate sign of a scam to us. But when it's obvious someone is trying to scam you and really starts to press the point home, that's rather unpleasant.

What made it worse was when I went out that evening to the concert, it started raining. So I had to go back for my umbrella, and on this occasion the gang hanging out on the street corner decided to block my path. And that's literally all they did – I simply asked to go through, and they let me. I retrieved said brolly and proceeded without further incident, but it gave the evening a distinct unpleasantness about it. Again, it's just hard to know how to adapt to different social rules : is this just greater exuberance and talkativeness, as with Americans, or a precursor to some sort of threat ?

As it happened, when I got back around 10:30, they'd all gone, perhaps rained off or perhaps just following usual behaviour, I don't know. There were no further such incidents for the rest of the trip, barring the occasional "Ciao" from random passers-by which I stoically ignored.

The concert was very pretty though. The orchestra weren't the Vienna Philharmonic but they were good enough, and the acoustics in the room were great.

The next day was the conference dinner for anyone who could afford the €90 (!) fee, which I wasn't going to shell out. So I'd signed up for the free tour of the astronomical tower instead. This was originally a medieval prison, complete with (so the sign and guides claim) a trapdoor underneath one of the later telescopes, down which prisoners were thrown into the dungeon. It fell into disrepair until the 18th century, whereupon it was converted into an observatory. It's well worth a look around – I would actually have liked more time to read the signs, a luxury not afforded to us as part of the conference

After touring the tower it was time to topple the Tories and I stayed up the whole night watching the election coverage, of which more in a future post. Last time I stayed up all night at a conference I spent the whole time getting drunk; this time I survived the morning on an adrenaline rush from seeing the last fourteen years of corrupt stupidity and no small doses of abject racism all done away with; scantily-clad villainy replaced, I have good reason to hope, with common sense and decency (well, we'll see).

That was the morning. In the afternoon I began to crash, but somehow I made it through. I slept, needless to say, like an especially happy and contented log. I'd been grinning from ear to ear like an idiot all day, but come on.... fourteen years. This was a historic, seismic moment, one I wouldn't have missed for anything.


That brings the conference socials to a close, but I still had a full day left. After umming and ahhing, I finally decided that Venice was so easily accessible (30 minutes and €5 by train) that I had to at least see it, being able to immediately retreat if it proved necessary.

It didn't. I loved it instantly. It's a wonderful little city, for the most part delightfully charming and quaint, peppered with bits of the truly spectacular. Following my favourite strategy of "wandering completely at random", I begin in the less touristy parts. Contrary to what little expectations I had, the canals aren't a gimmick, they're everywhere. A huge fraction of the streets do indeed simply have water instead of roads. There are no cars anywhere : you either take a boat or you walk, those are your only options. Hundreds upon hundreds of adorable little bridges connect the smaller streets, though the numbers of bridges for the larger streets are much lower.

The view immediately from the train station.

Contrary to my expectation, large parts of the city are empty of tourists. And this is a bit silly, because while there may not be anything spectacular in these districts, they're still absolutely charming and a lot of fun to explore.

Even along the main waterfront where you can see the next island over, where you walk past some pretty monumental cathedrals, the number of people was extremely small : a handful along the length of a street, no more than that.

In most cases there's a pavement running alongside the water but not all. Sometimes bridges go directly from building to building. Not all streets connect to each other, making it extremely easy to get lost. I did this quite a few times, but all the streets are short so you can't really get totally bewildered. 

I need not give too many photos of the ungodly number I took because honestly it all looks like this. All of it, everywhere, charming street after charming street. There are a few parks and larger spaces, but not many. And of course in the tourist spots (of which there are plenty) the streets are indeed very busy. Mercifully the sea breeze kept it for the most part to a bearable temperature, though in those parts which were open and exposed to the sun, it soon felt much hotter than the reported 26 C. Again, if you'd told me it was 36, I'd have had no reason to doubt it. 

Still, only parts of the city are truly baking and enormously overcrowded, but by no means all of it all the time. In fact only a few "choke points" have really unusually heavy pedestrian traffic; for the most part, it's no worse than any other popular tourist destination. What helps a good deal is the relaxed, convivial atmosphere of the place. And someone told me that there's no air conditioning in the cafes, but this was simply false. I had a very nice seafood risotto in a random café I wandered into, where I was able to happily decompress and cool down to a bearable temperature, before completing my circuit of the island in the afternoon.

Since I didn't go in any of the museums, I'll wrap this up with a photo-dump. I saw the Bridge of Sighs but I haven't included it here because that was the one thing where I just didn't see what all the fuss was about. The only "sigh" it should elicit is one of confusion that it's especially famous. It's nice enough, but with Venice it's the collective whole rather than any one particular must-see feature that makes the experience worthwhile.


Some canals are considerably larger than others. While Venice might not have as many canals as Manchester (reputedly), it certainly has a lot nicer ones.

Some things are clearly just for tourists, as they should be. I even heard a violinist playing the "Just One Cornetto" song, and if I hadn't I'd have been hugely disappointed.

The Arsenal. Definitely a place where I'd like to wander through the museums if I had the time.

By mid-afternoon the heat and 25,000 steps were at last taking their toll on me, and by about 3 (hours later than I expected) I was back on the train to Padova. Venice is somewhere very high indeed on my list of places to visit again. I despise heat and crowds separately and the combination is anathema, but here I will say that a) both of these can largely be avoided, at least a good fraction of the time; b) Venice is so damn nice a place that it compensates for it.

Venice is also famous for having problems of water erosion. And here I want to grab a civic official and throttle them, pointing at the nearest high-speed multi-story yacht and yelling "WELL THERE'S YOUR FUCKING PROBLEM MATE !". They may have banned cruise ships, but there doesn't seem to be any kind of speed limit, and giant yachts are still a thing. Even in British canals, which have no more than narrowboats, speeds are limited to prevent bank erosion even though the banks consist of mud and totally uninteresting plants; in historic, beautiful Venice, boats much larger and much faster are common.

The next day, a final few moments of drama. Just before exiting the motorway for the airport we hit gridlock. This was due to a motorbike accident, where I was able to see the driver lying the floor, his head bleeding, but moving and being attended to by other drivers. Bits of bike were scattered all over the road though the bike itself looked largely intact – that driver, I suspect, could have ended up in a far worse state. In complete defiance of the stereotypes the locals had swiftly organised to divert the traffic past the accident. Police and ambulance services hadn't yet arrived.

Finally, my flight to Dusseldorf was delayed, which had me worried about my connecting flight. Needlessly, as it turned out : the Prague gate was almost directly adjacent to the arrival gate from Venice, and in any case the connecting flight was itself delayed. So a short flight later I was back home only half an hour later than planned, and all was well.

Saturday 18 May 2024

A Theory of Human Nature


Over on Decoherency, I recently posted a couple of book reviews that have very different takes on what makes people tick. First, Rutger Bregman's largely idiotic Human Kind has it that people are, when you get right down to it, an absolutely lovely bunch of racists and everyone would be much happier living as a monkey in a war-ravaged jungle. The whole notion of private property has led us all down the dark and miserable path of civilisation and everything was pretty much hunky-dory until about 1800 for some reason.

Yes, really. 

Thanks to Bing Image Creator, Bregman's horrific dream can finally be realised.

Secondly, Christopher Browning's incomparably superior and more disturbing Ordinary Men postulates that people can be moulded into committing appalling acts even when they're not raving ideologues, such is the power of group conformity. He doesn't address the grandiose issues that Bregman does, and his much narrower claim ends up being far more watertight as a result.

What I want to do here is essentially expand on Browning's idea and follow it through, such as I can, to a broader conclusion. I already mentioned the basics of this in the Bregman post but I feel this needs a deeper exploration.

I claim that the old lunatic witch Maggie Thatcher was exactly wrong : that rather than there being no such thing as society, we are society

When Bregman set up a choice between humans as essentially nice or nasty, I say he missed the trick that perhaps we aren't hard-wired to be anything, that what we learn is only ever what other people and circumstances teach us, under the limitations of what our brain can handle. Our nature isn't some standard, fixed-from-birth characteristic. The choice between nature-or-nurture is a false one : our nature is our nurture, and we are shaped to an enormous degree by the culture of those around us.

So it's time to try and justify this. Throughout, I'll also be drawing on Damon Centola's Change, which examines how our beliefs shift in response to those of others, and David Eagleman's Live Wired, which looks at the tremendous (but not unlimited) flexibility of the human brain. To my shame, these are both easily among the best books I've read in the last five years but I haven't got around to blogging them. I've also suggested these ideas in passing before, not only the review of Human Kind, but also here and somewhat more tangentially here, and probably quite a lot of other places too.

Refining the Question

The old nature/nurture question is undeniably an interesting one. What are people really like ? What are our innate abilities and tendencies, and what do we have to learn ? What can we deliberately change about ourselves, and ultimately, how can we most effectively harness this to create the best possible society ?

Well, I'll leave that last one largely unanswered. But at least I can present my case that human nature is heavily dominated, in every important respect, by our changing cultural influences, and we are not fixed to behave in any particular way. Nothing that happens is inevitable and we aren't doomed to perpetual warfare because we're a "shitty species" or any of that cynical, self-defeating nonsense that's perversely popular in some quarters.

One manifestation of this I frequently see is a paranoid belief that everyone has an agenda about everything, that nobody does anything just because they believe it's a good idea. Everyone, the logic goes, is out to manipulate everyone else the whole time. And this is just not true at all, even (especially !) about people and companies who do dumb and unpleasant things.

This is not to say that our innate nature doesn't exist or is of no importance, be that our genetic makeup or other physical/biological factors influencing our development. Hardly. These things undoubtedly do have roles to play, sometimes very important ones. Nor am I saying something along the lines of the stupid wishful-thinking aspirational rhetoric that "you can do anything if you put your mind to it". This is nonsense which sets us up for disappointment when we realise that actually no, we can't all be virtuoso pianists or professional footballers, no matter how hard we try or how many hours we put in : not the proverbial ten thousand, not even a hundred thousand. 

There's no shame in this. Quite the opposite ! If you insist that people haven't succeeded because they haven't tried hard enough, chances are that it's you who's the problem.

Well, on the other hand...

What I'm saying is more that society, not individuals, can be shaped with near-infinite flexibility, and each person living in that society could have had very different roles if they'd lived elsewhere. They weren't destined to become a web designer or a lawyer any more than they were a cave painter or a pyramid-builder. This may sound trivial, and hopefully it is. Which is why we need to go a little deeper. 

Let's begin with one of the most obvious examples of continuous and uncontroversial change : technology. 

They Don't Build Them Like They Used To, Thank Goodness

Consider life in Britain today, in the early 21st century. We have entire fields of industry based around the world wide web. People create art, music, play sports, socialise, all entirely digitally. They invest money in portfolios of digital industries, argue over digital crimes, and beyond the web technology remains omnipresent. Music uses electronic instruments, we make notes on digital tablets, explore virtual worlds, use advanced drugs to treat and cure diseases, have robots perform surgery... technology is everywhere

And, crucially, it's very different from what we had even 25 years ago, never mind 50 or more. I remember digital media stored on cassette tapes and played back on analogue black-and-white televisions. Today, I get most of my exercise with immersive virtual reality apps, an experience easily closer to Star Trek's holodeck than the clunky experience of my childhood ZX Spectrum.

I've seen these in museum's for crying out loud... oh GOD I'm fucking old.

This is not a rant against people spending too much time online or some other grumpy-old-man bollocks. Not at all. I like most of these technological marvels (even if I don't care a jot about bloody TikTock) : I remember yearning for experiences which are now routine and it still feels like something wonderous. At least, some of the time. 

Anyway, my point is the change. Whole fields of endeavour are commonplace today that didn't even exist within recent living memory. The idea that someone could be a professional web designer would never have occurred to anyone when I was 10, because such things just didn't exist for normal people. You'd have had more luck betting on a career in Ceefax

The Times They Are A-Changing

It's not just technology of course. The further back you go, the more different society becomes in all ways. There are some startling similarities in even the most distant ages to be sure : the fake adverts of ancient peoples as shown in Horrible Histories in jest may well, I suspect, be more accurate than they intended. Even so, options have fundamentally changed. Once, becoming a monk or a scribe was relatively normal. Today they barely exist, alone with knocker-uppers and a host of other lost professions

Plato noted that while not everyone might be able to play the flute very well, everyone who had at least some teaching was better than anyone who had none. We learn from each other – that's one of our greatest strengths (a rare moment of insight from Bregman) : genius ideas are slow and rare to develop but propagate rapidly. Consequently, the lived experience of a Victorian, a Roman, a Celt, a hunter-gatherer would all have been radically different. Technology plays a key role here. It's a fundamental part of our existence, not something we do as a sort of glorified side-hobby.

And yet far more crucial still are INFORMATION and RESOURCES. Those, I claim, are the two pillars on which human society is built. Knowledge of how to interact with the world, how to harness what it can provide, is crucial, but it goes the other way too : with more resources at our disposal, more money to fund more powerful telescopes, our beliefs shift – perhaps only minor matters of technical detail in the short-term, but whopping great moral beliefs over longer periods.

A common objection is that despite this, societies continue to act in basically the same ways. This is ludicrous, as any former Soviet bloc nation will readily attest to. Societies have been egalitarian, hierarchical, fundamentalist, rational, despotic, democratic, all in varying degrees (and not always easily distinguished). Are there common themes, pointing to an underlying human nature ? Yes, perhaps, but there are also profound and dramatic differences across cultures throughout history. To say the Aztec were basically similar to the Athenians is profoundly stupid.

Or consider another approach. If we were to take a random person from history and raise them in our society, few would be surprised to see them become a lawyer or a fireman or a checkout assistant. Nobody would expect them to become a Viking or an alchemist because why the hell would they do that ? Society determines how people express themselves, not their genetics. There's simply no way that anything as specific as the desire to become a trireme helmsman could be genetically encoded.

Image credit : me !

What genetics and/or other innate factors might well bestow are tendencies : personality types, preferences and latent base abilities. If I myself were born in another era, perhaps I might have been a monk* or a scribe, but I think it's far less likely I'd have been a warrior or an athlete. I've never had any inclination towards those activities : reading and writing are my forte, not hacking people with axes or running around after a windsock... wait, that's greyhounds. You get the idea. I don't say those are impossible, just considerably less likely.

* I'd have been a fucking fantastic monk, locked up all day with naught but books to read.

This is why I say culture dominates. It's exemplified brilliantly, like so many things, by SMBC :

To me this alone is the perfect TLDR version of this post. How can anyone say humans are innately good or bad when comparing medieval and modern Sweden ? IT. DOESN'T. MAKE. SENSE.

The Times They Are A-Teaching – Mostly

Of course I have to acknowledge that there are some limitations to this. We are after all creatures of flesh and bone, not ethereal angels able to reconfigure themselves at will. We do have some restrictions – we can't grow antlers just because we want to – but I think it's worth being quite skeptical about any attempts to infer what those precise limits actually are.

For example, female mathematicians were common until men decided that wasn't women's work. People can generally accomplish what they want to achieve, but only if you let them and only if you teach them correctly. What they want in the first place is trickier. Learning styles may well be a myth but learning preferences certainly aren't. Conversely, teach anyone anything badly enough and I guarantee they won't like it. So to say that because we see more of demographic X in profession Y is to entirely miss the point : it doesn't indicate a natural desire or tendency any more than the pyramids suggest a natural Egyptian propensity for bricklaying.

So how far does this go – what sort of limits do we have ? To take a really extreme angle, was Hitler destined to become a leader or a tyrant ? I say no, but was he destined to become a massive cunt ? Yeah, probably, though it's not a clear, cut-and-dried case. Consider also the crazy "fake heiress" lady, whose parents seem pretty despondent and bewildered about why she turned out the way she did. Some people just do their own thing, in spite of environment, just as some historical princes have gone on to become utterly useless and despicable even though they had the finest teachers money could by. Natural tendencies do exist, and dominate nurture in some individuals, but these are the exceptions rather than the norm. 

I thought it was time for a more colourful metaphor, dammit.

Are there some innate tendencies that transcend societal boundaries ? Almost certainly yes. It would seem very strange if, given our obvious biological differences (height, weight, reproductive organs, hormones etc.) there weren't some pre-programmed differences. Sexuality may or may not be one such example, though it's worth noting just how radically different the rules of attraction can be in different cultures : some modern-day tribal people use chalk and feathers to look sexy, or even deliberately scar themselves or lengthen their necks

It's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the contestants of Love Island would be seen as particularly attractive in all cultures around the world : this is just our Western bias in thinking that we're somehow especially normal. This isn't to say that the different conditions for attraction aren't real – not at all, but they are, in a sense, manufactured. Just like Love Island, then.

And that to me underlines the main point. I'm not seeing any indication that in anything which really matters, culture is anything less than overwhelming against these innate effects. Any genetic differences are utterly irrelevant in the face of the cultural onslaught : look, for example, at how open the ancient Greeks were about homosexuality, and how sexual and gender attitudes have varied so profoundly and radically across geography and time. It may or may not have actually altered the attraction that individuals felt towards each other (though I think it very probably did) but it has certainly altered how they were able to express themselves, which, in the end, is what really matters.

Morals vs. Mathematics

So we can alter our specific beliefs, including morality, almost infinitely. What looks pants-dropping attractive to one person can, to another with a different upbringing, look repugnant. Even so, we surely do have some hard limitations that society can't alter very much, some basic clay that it can mould and shape but never create.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that you can make seemingly normal people into murderers, in the right circumstances (see also this, but also this for how they can become heroes). But it does not follow you can make them into mathematicians. 

Of course, it's also possible to be a murderous mathematician – or indeed much weirder combinations.

My suspicion is that our base abilities are probably innate or set by very early experiences, or both. We cannot increase them, at least not all that much : culture governs how we express them, not what they are. I've speculated a little about my own intelligence limits here (and see also links therein), noting that there can be limits as to how many things we can store in our head at once and how rapidly we can process them.

Nevertheless, today we can become astronauts and airline pilots, jobs which simply didn't exist in previous cultures. Yet there were surely people who had the requisite base natures even thousands of years ago. Culture gives us the particular skills, mental tricks, and factual knowledge needed to fulfil the available options. It shapes our abilities to a huge degree : crucially, the "ordinary men" of Browning's book never did anything like their horrific acts in the German forests of the 1940s ever again.

But if the effects of culture are dominant, they aren't unlimited. Morality, specific factual beliefs, these are nearly 100% due to external knowledge, and these are extremely important. Other things, however, are natural. I just don't think I could ever have become an elite athlete or a great actor or political leader : these things are just not in my nature or temperament. Similarly, specific desires are environmental, but low-level ones perhaps not. For example the base desire to run around as opposed to the higher level enjoyment of running around while playing football. To simply want to run around is a very primal desire, to want to kick a ball with a carefully-defined set of precise rules requires something else.

All skills and preferences can be improved with, and are subject to, training and society, but I think we cannot make genius any more than we can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. We can give genius the best chance to express itself just as we can suppress its abilities to impact anyone (e.g. locking a professor up in a dungeon versus giving them a healthy grant and a team of well-trained postdocs) but there are some things each of us can just never understand* : there's maths I just can't do, will never be able to do no matter how hard I try, even if I was motivated.

* I sometimes wonder if this works in reverse, if there are some things which only make sense if you're sufficiently stupid which clever people will just never be able to comprehend. And stupid people, I'm sad to say, seem to be more easily persuaded by stupid arguments than clever people are by clever ones. This may go a long way to explaining why people in large groups tend to be so damn thick.

Of course, this is definitely not a coded plea to the grant agency to support my application.

Trends across all cultures and history may indicate hard-wiring but even here these patterns are difficult to discern with any certainty. We may, for instance, also have innate beliefs rather than abilities, or at least broad personal preferences that shape our more precise beliefs. This can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for example in the case of gender : you're only good for raising children, so the thinking goes, so that's all we'll teach you => voila, there go the mathematical talents of half the species due to lack of training ! 

Here I'm especially remembering Live Wired, and even if you see a neurological difference, you can't immediately assume this is the result of nature and not nurture. The brain is far too flexible for that, capable of adapting itself to use different pathways in a matter of mere hours in some cases.

What about measured intelligence though ? For example I.Q. is inherited, but I.Q. tests are, in my view, heavily overrated. They're probably not meaningless, they do indicate something, but they're nowhere near as important as people seem to think (despite innumerable, highly patronising answers on Quora professing that the highest I.Q. people just look down in baffled pity at us dim-bulbs). For example, Richard Feynman's I.Q. was about about the same as mine, and while I can happily declare that I've never molested anyone (unlike Feynman) I also can't claim to have his genius either.

Still, I.Q. tests do raise the issue of the fundamental nature of intelligence. For example, as I mentioned, how many bits of information we can process at once, and how rapidly, are probably determined more by nature than nurture. Nurture instead dictates what sort of problems we can understand, how we express our abilities and preferences. We can learn and share our beliefs for simplifying problems but our base ability levels probably can't be shifted very much, even if they're not fixed completely. So at least from the health-of-the-species perspective there's no point in worrying about whether I.Q. levels are changing (be that upwards or downwards), simply because culture is changing and therefore so will our answers to the questions : it indicates nothing much at all about base ability.

Arguably there's no such thing as a true, singular sort of intelligence : it is fundamentally a merged construct of latent natural ability and social expression. Without latent ability, we can't understand what complicated words or equations mean. But what sort of complicated words we choose to create and use, what sort of mathematical notation we adopt, this, like morality, depends on society.


This, then, is my take on humanity. We're born with certain natural abilities, preferences and biases. I myself have quite a distinct personality to my sister, and the same seems generally true of all other families, even if they may have more than a passing similarity to each other. Nature definitely has an effect, be that genetics, development in the womb or our very early life, or other biological factors beyond our control.

But after that... our nature is to be whatever our nurture shapes us to be. As evidence for this I cite all of human history. Societies have varied massively, both in their demands of their own members and how they've treated outsiders. Sure, there are common trends here and there, but there are also massive differences that go far beyond any mere "window dressing". Viking society was by no means Egyptian society but with longhouses instead of pyramids : the differences are much more than skin deep and reflect profoundly different world views. Rather than this all being the result of the abstract notion of private property, as Bregman absurdly asserts, it seems much more likely that it's the result of geography, climate, population... a host of factors. Society shapes itself.

The really tricky question, then, is how much agency do we have over this ? Can we choose to be a society of IKEA-loving furniture junkies as opposed to Frenchmen-bashing marauders, or are we trapped by the structural confines of our societal networks ? I don't know. Society always changes, often more rapidly than we give it credit for. Like the old "frog in a jar of milk", perhaps it's only more important that we try to change rather than expecting success. Of course this is a horrible cliché, but it's certainly better than giving up in cynical, nihilistic despair. The lesson of history may not be that the moral arc always bends towards justice, but it certainly doesn't teach us that we're irredeemable either.