In Our Time

An excellent and clearly stated 55 minute account of the Salem Witch Hunts (.mp3 link, extended version), by the long-running BBC Radio In Our Time series. It’s optimistic in the sense that it’s a very timely and clear media intervention in the public debate, and as such it shows the way in which lessons from the past can be brought forward in a way that may avert present tragedies.

The programme’s only mis-step was at the end. When one of the guests, Simon Middleton, very casually drew a passing parallel with the 1950s anti-communist hunts in America. He seemed to imply that American anti-communists of the 1950s were also battling a total phantasm, in the same way as the people at Salem where. Rather than communism being a very real death-cult that had — by the early 1950s — killed about 20 million people, recently stolen America’s nuclear technology, and which was then in the process of starting to kill another 60 million in China and elsewhere. There is now good historical evidence of large and high-level infiltrations of communist agents into America and Europe from the 1930s-1960s. And we have as yet barely seen the bulk of the Russian files — there was a brief period where some Soviet archives were open to the west, but apparently we only saw papers discussing Soviet relations with the formally arranged overseas communist parties. (These papers, among other things, confirmed the persistent ‘Moscow gold’ accusations of the 1970s and 80s, showing that significant parts of the far-left in the UK were indeed bankrolled from Moscow). Even more damning in recent years was the release in the USA of what are known as the ‘Verona’ documents (decrypted Soviet cablegrams). Sadly the more sober of the ex-KGB types in Russia have probably had time, by now, to purge their archives — but there may yet be more revelations to come from there (if Putin ever goes and a more liberal regime comes to power).

One glib notion often heard of 1950s anti-communism is that: “well, the Communist Party had very few members in America at that time, so how could they be a threat?” This ignores the very well-known fact that the Party in the U.S. preferred to keep both its fellow travellers and (of course) espionage agents at a distance. It didn’t want either to actually join the Party. This helped to maintain the Party’s internal ideological ‘purity’, and kept the shade of suspicion away from their active supporters (thus making them more useful). It is ridiculous to assume that a local branch of the Communist Party would have directly controlled high-level undercover agents — such as those spying at the heart of the Manhattan Project or working as ‘the right-hand man’ of the German chancellor. That many American anti-communists were often paranoid and mis-directed is now obvious, but the threat they were facing was not a phantasm.

It’s all getting Pinker!

A long Steven Pinker article in Slate, on why “The world is not falling apart: The trend lines reveal an increasingly peaceful period in history” (free to read), complete with abundant graphs…

“Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from “experts” with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.

There is a better way to understand the world. […] An evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits. It would calibrate our national and international responses to the magnitude of the dangers that face us. It would limit the influence of terrorists, school shooters, decapitation cinematographers, and other violence impresarios. It might even dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”


The latest Seminars About Long-term Thinking at The Long Now is Philip Tetlock on testable methods of Superforecasting the future (.mp3 link)…

The pundits we all listen to are no better at predictions than a “dart-throwing chimp,” and they are routinely surpassed by normal news-attentive citizens. So Philip Tetlock reported in his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgement — and in a January 2007 Seminars About Long-term Thinking talk [which has lots of details on the ‘foxes vs. hedgehogs’ debate]. It now turns out there are some people who are spectacularly good at forecasting, and their skills can be learned. Tetlock discovered them in the course of building winning teams for a tournament of geopolitical forecasting run by IARPA — Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. His brilliant new book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, spells out the methodology the superforecasters developed.

Here’s a sample of the dart-throwing doomist chimps…

“A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.” — The Observer newspaper (Sunday version of The Guardian), 22nd February 2004.

City as classroom

Mita Williams has just published an interesting long article surveying the history of the ‘city as classroom’, which arises from a one-year sabbatical. I was very interested to read that…

In either 1976 or 1978, a year before or after the City as Classroom, Marshall McLuhan paired up with Robert K Logan, a physics professor from the University of Toronto, to write a book on the future of libraries [but] That work was never published, and the only excerpts I’ve seen of it online are from an Australian art magazine called Island [# 140]. Of that excerpt, less than 500 words were excerpted online.”

I’ve always rather liked the quietist anarchist notion of ‘city as classroom’ (inspired by Colin Ward, A.S. Neill et al, in the UK, and McLuhan and Illich et al in the USA), in which six bright kids would be educated by roaming as nomads around their city in the company of an enthusiastic personal tutor. Each little band of learners would have a licence to go anywhere and talk with anyone in the city, just following their meandering interests and curiosities over the months and years. Observing and absorbing at first, most likely, but then also getting involved in the organic life of the city as their talents develop.

It seems a pity that this relaxed and personal small-scale model (so very different from an afternoon’s coach trip of 60 kids + fussing assistants to their local museum) isn’t tried, even for a few weeks in summer each year. If it is happening somewhere (other than among the children of the hyper-rich, with their personal tutors and nomadic lifestyles), then I’ve not seen it reported on. Such open nomadic pedagogic bands seems to me to be even more feasible today, now that we’ve been unchained from physical libraries and classrooms by digital tablets + and all the other open online educational resources.

I’ve always been less enamoured of the parallel and rather lumpen organisational ideas that involve wheeling a shelf of books into the street or setting up a ‘summer school’ library under a tent in a public square. Such a pseudo-radical gesture by a monolithic organisation seems to have become rather redundant now, though I can see the potential value of micro autonomous book-swop stands, just so long as they don’t just get trashed/neglected. The one such activity that does still work in cities is to take the gallery outside, showing exhibitions of large scale pictures on permanent weather-proof stands sited in public squares.

Ridley on The Munk debate

Matt Ridley now has an online version of his opening statement for the recent “Humanity’s best days lie ahead” debate, one of the Munk Debates series. Good stuff, though I’d say he needs to find an alternative for that tired Woody Allen quote that he uses a lot — it probably confuses as many in an audience as it enlightens.


Malcolm Gladwell’s counter-argument to Ridley seems like a futurist’s odd extrapolation of the Precautionary Principle, with a dash of the notion of unintended consequences…

“one cannot classify a phenomenon as a success unless one can establish that its long-term benefits will outweigh the long-term risks it generates and the damage it wreaks.”

Which is unanswerable, in its own terms. But Gladwell gave an example, which suggested that he objects to the global economy rapidly taking millions out of poverty, because he thinks that the nouveau middle-classes will produce gross pollution and over-consumption of the ‘smoggy Chinese city’ type.

Yet I would say that the West has already been though that same historical process, and as a result we have developed a myriad of financial and ecological tools to deal with such problems in fairly short order. I’ve seen it happen — I live in an English Midlands post-industrial city, that was basically a giant industrial cinder-heap in the 1970s and one of the most polluted places in Europe. In just 35 years it has been radically greened and made verdant. The world is also highly likely to develop even more effective and cheaper tools for industrial clean-up and consumption mitigation in the near future.

As Matt Ridley has pointed out in podcasts, once a developing nation’s population gets to a certain income and educational level then their children start to care deeply about the environment. Any politician who then wants to be re-elected has to start cleaning up rivers and re-planting forests. This process is likely to be speeded up, even in heavily corrupt nations, by high-powered social media tools. It may even be that many people in developing nations will eventually have genuinely useful jobs in actively cleaning up and stewarding their landscapes — a further twist that would complicate Gladwell’s argument. Such a notion gets even more complicated when one considers that an African in Kenya may soon be able to tele-operate a tree-planting robot in the Lebanon, via fast satellite Internet.

Gladwell’s companion speaker de Botton seems to have been on somewhat firmer ground, stating that gloomy pessimism about the future helps humanity to avoid future threats. There’s something in that point, in a world where even a small future war might involve a crippling cyberwar alongside the use of biowar attacks via drones. Or in a world where failed socialist policies might still derail enough emerging economies to cause a global depression. But isn’t there a vast psychological and economic cost to maintaining our current set of interlocking pessimisms, surrounded as they are by a shrill chorus of alarmist sirens? Is it worth the human cost, simply in order to prod a few funders into dealing with what are mostly large-scale and slow threats — most of which are probably going to be solved anyway in the fullness of time and progress?

de Botton also seems to implicitly assume that it will always be impossible to train a mass of people to sift the real threats from the faux / politicised / over-estimated threats, and to grade the threats according to their genuine probability, scale and priority. He also implicitly assumes that it is impossible to reform the media’s relentless desire to focus on bad news and pessimism, something which has become its own self-fulfilling prophesy.

Future Visions

Launching in a few days, Microsoft’s own science-fiction anthology Future Visions. Leading SF science fiction authors had access to Microsoft’s research labs and scientists, and were inspired to write new…

“visionary stories exploring prediction science, quantum computing, real-time translation, machine learning, and much more.”


David Brin
Greg Bear
Jack McDevitt
Seanan McGuire
Nancy Kress
Ann Leckie
Robert J. Sawyer
Elizabeth Bear
A short graphic novel by Blue Delliquanti