28 January 2013

21 January 2013

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19 January 2013

On the subtext of sheer legibility

I recently bought Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: how good people turn evil (London; Rider, 2009 978-1-84-604103-7) If the author's name is not familiar, no matter; it is a 35-years-on account of and reflection on the iconic (for once the adjective is I think appropriate) Stanford Prison Experiment.

In total, it is 551 pages. I'm not going to read it all. I may at most raid it, for quotations or anecdotes or apercus. I bought it because I ought to have a copy.

The experiment, for all its faults (see inter al. Jones and Fowles, 1984 --their critique is not listed in the references) was one of the most important events/contributions/somethings in social psychology in the 20th century, and it has been covered in scores of articles and books (and attempted TV replications) ever since.

I'm not sure that anyone will actually read the book--although it has made it to paperback (the hardback was published in 2007), and Zimbardo has popped up on serious chat shows since it came out. Most people who buy it will already know what it is about, and students who need to know what it is about will encounter it second-hand through textbooks or wikipedia. But like me, they may well buy it. And that is what matters if you are a publisher.

There is the now-common note on a spare page at the end about the typeface (Photina). What it does not say is that it is set in (at a guess) 8 point text on 10 point line spacing (leading). 10pt on 12pt is probably the standard for such a text. This type-setting amounts to an admission by the publisher that they want to print as cheaply as possible (as few pages as possible), because they know that purchasers will not (on the whole, of course) be bothered about the legibility of the text.

My respect and sympathy to Zimbardo; this has been a major effort involving--as I can see from dipping into the first half of the book which deals in detail with the experiment, and the links with other literature in the second half--years of effort. And it has been put out on a gift model*. That's insulting. It may provide another dynamic to explain "how good people turn evil"...

Jones K and Fowles A J (1984) Ideas on Institutions: analysing the literature of long-term care and custody London; Routledge and Kegan Paul **

* I'm sure that the marketers have a more sophisticated analysis, but as I see it, selling something as a "gift" means that you would not buy it for yourself, and you don't expect it to be any use to the recipient, but its  (monetary) value is probably exquisitely calibrated to match the social (or business) value you attach to the relationship.

** This reference is genuine (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?) But, within the academic game, it is not likely actually to be followed up, so it matters more as a proxy for academic respectability than for its substance.

17 January 2013

On empathising with the NRA...

Like most people (I hope) on this side of the pond, I've been appalled by the Newtown massacre, and the (US) National Rifle Association response. (I'm not linking to sources on the main story.)

My very mainstream RSS feeds have been full of the gun control spat (I won't dignify it as a "debate"); the virulence and viciousness of some of the comment streams has been appalling.

Many of the gun lobby arguments have been cloaked in appeals to the second amendment to the US Constitution, the exegesis of which has been argued about endlessly.

OK. But. I get suspicious about (to me) disproportionate passion. In practical terms, the "right to bear arms" (leaving aside the rest of the amendment) for purposes other than hunting and vermin control is an appeal to a situation in extremis. Yes, I can understand how it fits with a culture of self-sufficiency in the expansionist era of the nascent USA, when transportation was slow and there was no faster medium of communication, and the rule of law, and law enforcement, was tenuous at best. And in many respects in the "fly-over" states of the mid-west, sheer geography still matters even now.

I'm not going to get into big empirical arguments--I haven't got the firepower, as it were. But I hypothesise that much of NRA support comes from relatively low-population-density area, where gun-owners really do feel safer for having a firearm to use in --however unlikely-- extremis.

And if that is the case, I can understand how frightened they may be at being compelled to give them up, and how they may well see every step in the direction of control as a step too far. Because they are right, that in the initial stages of such reforms, it will be the law-abiding minority whose gun privileges (not "rights") will be curtailed, whereas criminals just will not care or comply.

President Kennedy got it right in another context, "those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside". The USA is in the position of having to carry on riding the tiger, because there is no way to dismount. Glad I don't live there.

14 January 2013

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06 January 2013

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  • Will Gutenberg laugh last? (Rough Type: Nicholas Carr)  "...sales of dedicated e-readers are falling sharply, and suddenly it seems possible that reports of the death of the codex may have been exaggerated. So why might e-books fall short of expectations? Here are some possibilities..."

01 January 2013

On having a regressive 2013...

It sounds more than merely routinely curmudgeonly not to extend bland "best wishes" for the New Year, but let's get real. It's not going to work, for absolutely everyone.

However, the probabilities are clearly in favour of next year not being as bad as last year if 2012 was miserable. But nor will it be as good--if 2012 was brilliant.

The overall trend of the system is regression to the mean. The bad gets better, but the good gets worse (see Kahneman, 2011 ch. 17).

That of course does not preclude spikes. They are the spice which inhibit our inevitable descent into bland entropic goo.

So it goes (Vonnegut, passim) at the level of the system of the universe.

But subsystems can buck the trend (temporarily).

So have a happy new year! bearing in mind that may be at the expense of someone else's miserable one...