Friday, December 17, 2004

Cassandra cries again

But still they bring the wooden horse through their gates and into their city. And now the the European directive on software patents is another step closer to being adopted.

And on the same day we hear there will be no more debate on EU patents directive draft we get in today's Register:
Autodesk and Microsoft have signed a cross-licensing agreement that will give each company broader access to the other's patent portfolio.
This agreement is part of a larger effort from Microsoft to extend its intellectual property portfolio. The company has several other cross-licensing deals already signed, including agreements with Cisco, SAP and Siemens. According to CNET, it is currently in talks with more than ten other companies, and wants to sign up to 30 more deals over the next five years.

And what is the Cassandra Syndrome?
a term applied to predictions of doom about the future that are not believed, but upon later reflection turn out to be correct. This denotes a psychological tendency among people to disbelieve inescapably bad news, often through denial. The person making the prediction is caught in the dilemma of knowing what is going to happen but not being able to resolve the problem.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Supper with Matt Wates (without the Sextet)

This band needs a website!

Sink or swim time for mini_CSS

I contributed a small grammar for parsing CSS to Grammatica - I always wanted to use a parser generator and the experience was just as mindwarping, challenging and satisfying as I'd hoped.

Unfortunately the owner of the project I'd hoped might use the CSS parser came up with a different solution, but I wrote mini_CSS in my own time, it works surprisingly well (eg no problem parsing the stylesheets for the wonderful CSS Zen Garden) and it seems a shame to waste it, so time to let it loose into the wild, to sink or to swim.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The opposite of torture

I've been doing some random reading to try to work out what makes a good story, in impro and in life, and bought Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning on impulse from a bookshop.

I'm far from expert in psychology, but this book's 200 pages gripped me as Bruner explained exactly where he feels the Cognitive Science revolution went wrong, and where it could and should be going.

Bruner blames the power of the computational metaphor for the new science's seduction - "very early on, for example, emphasis began shifting from 'meaning' to 'information', from the construction of meaning to the processing of information." By contrast, he seeks to rehabilitate folk-psychology and culture as an appropriate level for understanding humans. He argues that it is impossible to understand human psychology independently of the culture in we live, and have indeed evolved to live; that our culture provides the values and categories by which we explain the meaning of our acts and words; that folk psychology deals with the "beliefs, desires, intentions and commitments" that most scientific psychology dismisses, and that folk psychology uses narrative for "resolving conflicts, for explicating differences, and renegotiating communal values".

He illustrates this with a case study in which the Goodhertzes, a blue-collar family from a Brooklyn neighbourhood, were invited to talk about themselves. What emerges is a narrative about narratives - a desciption of how the Goodhertzes pride themselves on eating together round "the big round table" at least once a week, how anything can be discussed there, and the stories they tell that express and embody the difference between the intimacy, trust, mutual aid, forgiveness and openness within the family against the harsher values and "street smarts" required for success in "the real world".

Although the book is written as a work of persuasion it is studded with notes and references that outline a wealth of follow-up reading. One fascinating if somber note is to Elaine Scarry's "The Body in Pain", which describes the power of pain, as in torture, to obliterate our connection with the personal-cultural world and to wipe out the context that gives direction to our hopes and strivings - in a way, to render humans in reality as simple as most scientific psychology models them.

This made me wonder what would be the opposite of torture? Up to now I'd have assumed pure pleasure, but on reflection being a lab rat with electrodes stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain could be almost as ruthlessly coercive. So where can I find a more personal, cultural opposite of torture? Perhaps in the details and the meanings of everyday life, like the way I feel looking at the black plastic herb pots on the window-sill of our Brixton kitchen. My lovely Hungarian mother-in-law, Maria, gave us some paprikas, home-grown in Pápoc. Éva planted some of the seeds, watered and cared for them, and now we have green wisps stretching innocently towards the tower blocks of the Loughborough Estate, several bearing buds and one tipped with an as-yet pale red item which will eventually, all being well, ripen into a tongue-scaldingly hot paprika. Is this an opposite of torture in a Jerome Bruner sense? I think so, I hope so.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The morality of a good wife swap

I enjoyed an American episode of Wife Swap the other day. There was a real contrast between the wives, Jodi the heiress with her multi-nanny family and Lynn the self-employed, hands-on mum. The satisfaction of seeing Jodi and Brad overcoming their initial antipathy to become good friends was balanced by the real-world failure of Lynn and Steve to get on.

Wife Swap can get stuck in the obvious UK class warfare rut, but at its best the participants overcome prejudices and preconceptions, and learn to value their relationships and other people in general over the more superficial attractions of ostentatious consumption, ideological correctness, or slobbing out.

I think that humans hunger for morality. I don't agree entirely with Chesterton that "[W]hen people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything", but I do think that when people stop taking their morality from authority they'll look for it everywhere else in life, discounting the didactic, seeking whatever is vivid, real and shared.

Wife Swap is a perfect match for these needs - the basic conflict in each episode may be a setup, but whatever happens next is down to the participants. The values and personal skills that emerge are perfectly suited to a secular, diverse society - real, non-vacuous and admirable to believers and skeptics alike. It can only be a matter of time before Wife Swap appears on the Today Programme's Thought for the Day. And why not?