More Things Can Happen Than Will Happen

I have concluded that a lot of poor decision making and thinking happens because people do not understand the concept ‘more things can happen than will happen.’

They are people who claim they understand risk and probability, but nothing about how they go about things suggests that this is in fact the case.

It is a problem with men particularly. The specific way in which they do not get it is because they have a desire for events to prove them right, or to be ‘right’, in quite binary ways. Dogmatic statements, ex cathedra, and a rather moody, cynical or sceptical manner when it comes to other scenarios are a giveaway of this psychology.

[Later insert]: I meant to say that I think it is to do with the exertion of power and its importance to many men. I wonder if being right is less important than being able to impose ‘being right’ on others. That includes minimising or in some other way diminishing the occasions when an outcome differs from the prediction. It’s not just that forgetfulness of when you were wrong causes this, it’s also a useful personal and (projected by those in power onto an organisation) institutional method of maintaining your rightness. You can impose that forgetfulness on others, or make it costly for them to call it out.

There are other methods of preserving rightness that go along with this:

  • Constant caveating, so that you can always point out you were right really
  • Aggressive assertion of extremely binary views, but chaotically and varying from time to time, even within the sentence-memory of, say, a meeting

It’s extraordinarily psychologically and institutionally unhealthy.

This post in part prompted by a footnote to Helen deWitt’s excellent short story My Heart Belongs to Bertie.

I began reading obsessively about statistics and probability. Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk was one inspiration; he says: “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” Analysis of probability seemed more compelling than ever for fiction; I spent endless hours grappling with R, a programming language with strength in statistical graphics.

R is open source, and it has come a long way since I first downloaded the DMG.

What hasn’t changed, I think, is the gap between people who see why understanding chance matters and people who just don’t get it—people who don’t see why this is crucial to the most basic questions of ethics. I have more glamorous plots in my portfolio than the primitive efforts on display in this story, but the philosophical issue was what I hoped to bring into the open.

DeWitt, Helen. Some Trick (pp. 41-42). New Directions

(I mentioned in the previous post my second happiest birthday, and in fact this specific story has a direct connection with my happiest birthday, in that it was published in an art gallery exhibition catalogue that I picked up visiting the deserted exhibition on my birthday. One of the exhibits was a stack of the catalogues. The story was one of the pieces in the catalogue.)

This sent me back to Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, which is a very good book, and which contains the sentence:

The Greeks understood that more things might happen in the future than actually will happen.

Bernstein, Peter L.. Against the Gods (p. 64). Wiley

The subject is in the news again with the imminent publication of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future and the general salience of effective altruism.

# January Artefacts

I took a run up at Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson at Christmas but ended up with some small frittering on kindle fragments, bookmarked articles from 2021 and The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. And some golf game on my phone.

I drank too much at the weekend and ended up scraped and ashamed and becalmed. And now at the tail end of that feeling – less bruised, less shamed – find myself in the perfectly receptive mood to read Anniversaries.

Before reading Anniversaries I had bought:

  • Patrick White’s book on Johnson – The Sea View Has Me Again
  • Twenty twenty by Luke Ellis

The latter constantly quotes Anniversaries and I realised how attractive the quoted sentences are.

I was unconvinced immediately by the Ellis but it sent me back to Anniversaries and now I find myself v happy in its company.

A January mood.

The Void

I’ve been struggling to find my centre. How I can add to the world and let it add to me. Covid has somehow reversed my relation to the world – a place from which I withdrew when I chose, when it was sufficient my mind, before Covid, to a place I am struggling to re-enter, how to reach that level of sufficiency, even though in some respects the daily engagement is the same.

Time to re-engage with the blog. Time to post more cooking entries. Time to write up my notebook, with glosses.

23rd December, a Wednesday

Yesterday, something reminded me of this quote, which I couldn’t place at first:

Vacuum, in modern physics, is what you get when you remove everything you can, whether practically or in principle.

Alternatively, vacuum is the state of minimum energy. Intergalactic space is a good approximation to a vacuum.

Void, on the other hand, is a theoretical idealisation. It means nothingness: space without independent properties, whose only role is to keep everything from happening in the same place. Void gives subatomic particles addresses, nothing more.

Frank Wilczek, from Edward Tufte’s Seeing With Fresh Eyes

Gloss

I’d made a very conscious effort to make my handwriting readable. It’s been atrocious ever since when, and had reached the stage where I couldn’t actually read my notes. This was the first entry in my notebook where I’d made a conscious effort to make my handwriting readable. It’s not good but it is readable.

new handwriting, notes

Other than that this is a terrible entry. ‘Something reminded me of this quote’ – what, you fool? what?!

I have no idea what caused the quote to spring to mind now of course, but re-reading it, I was struck by the notion of the void allowing addresses.

Draw analogy with cadastral addressing and structures: of course between the locations and boundaries there is terrestrial and mundane substance in the world, but between those addressed locations in their abstract plane, there is only a void. They are different addresses, but only a digit between them, or a line in a ledger.

The Matrix does this quite well with the address system for its human batteries: What lies between the individuals is different to what lies between them in their world. There the real world is cadastral, and the unreal world, apparently substantial.

During Covid lockdowns, we became our addresses, physical and IP, with a void inbetween. Homeless people were given interior shelter locations in the UK, a very good reminder we can do these things if we want.

Sentimental Revolutions

Reading the Blanchot essay From Dread to Language gives me the feeling I get when I read existentialism: that this sort of writing is no more than the fag end of Romanticism. As such there is a a sort of highly decadent awareness of the refinements of Romanticism, such that an entire serious essay can explore the minuscule and rarefied space between dread and language, with meaning.

But the whole reminds me of what CS Lewis says in his ‘study in Medieval Tradition’ The Allegory of Love: that romantic love, originating at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc is one of ‘perhaps three or four’ ‘real changes in human sentiment’ in history:

There can be no mistake about the novelty of romantic love: our only difficulty is to imagine in all its bareness the mental world that existed before its coming – to wipe out of our minds, for a moment, nearly all that makes the food both of modern sentimentality and modern cynicism. We must conceive of our world emptied of that ideal of ‘happiness’ – a happiness grounded on successful romantic love – which still supplies the motive of our popular fiction.

The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis

In this I think he is entirely correct. As anyone who has had to wade through this blog will know, I am very much a product of this Romanticism. I think in many respects it has been a great poison, a philosophical wrong turn, if it is meaningful to say that of something so long and deeply embedded and productive of so many things I love and of which I am made. I’m sure we would have found other poisons. Nevertheless.

My perception is that the self is now so heavily and transparently commoditised, and has, due to many forces, from the internet’s ability to allow people of common feeling and synthetically constructed identity to find each other, and from the increased questioning and exploration of gender and sexual identity, that we are coming out of a great tyranny of Romanticism and the Self, which is in the process of being liquidated. In this respect I feel like the opposite of the canary in the mine, more like a useless but sympathetic confessor of the old errors to the new generations: The Last of the True Romantics saying: ‘this is the nature of the gas which you must expunge so you may breathe and kill my confreres and the things I love’.

There will of course be a great deal of psychological suffering and social conflict born of this liberation. To lose the Self is suicidal – I mean that in a very compressed way of course – a way of saying entire edifice of psychological thinking is built round it. We should be thankful for yards Deleuze and Guattari have put in in this respect.

Apocalypses usefully describe the conditions of change by which the old world ends – oh fearful relativism! – and the new one begins.

This is not why I sat down to write this though. What other three or four ‘real changes in human sentiment’ do we think Lewis means? The word ‘sentiment’ must be relevant here. I might otherwise go for the turn from feudalism to global capitalism – Braudel memorably cites a 15th century(? iirc – i can never find the reference) muleteer on a road from one town to another as ‘the first capitalist’. Or the enlightenment and science coming out of the cauldron of the 17th century, again, the birth pangs of which are memorably collected in Paul Hazard’s wonderful La crise de la conscience européenne, 1680-1715.

But what are those real changes in sentiment (CS Lewis explicitly excludes Christianity’s role, at least in this formation of romance from the equation)? It feels like something must be coming from the industrial revolution, the sense of class belonging, the emergence of the middle class perhaps? Nothing so purely aesthetic as Romanticism though (oh yes of course it had its expressions within capitalism and colonialism). National identity perhaps?

Answers on a postcard.

A Place to Let the Words In

I ‘ve been struggling to find a consistent place to post the stuff I want to put words to.

First, I still read and have plenty of thorts about books and writing, which was what this blog was always for. In fact I’ve been reading more over the last year or so than I have done in a long time. But I’d begun to regard this blog as somewhat essayistic in character – serious treatments with actual conclusions, which held me back from posting stuff where I hadn’t reached my conclusions.

Second, I’ve found quite a lot of my mind is taken up with the topics of work and business, and quite a lot of the time I want to write about that as well.

Those two areas didn’t really co-exist in my mind, so I started to post the work/business stuff on linkedin.

I’ll probably carry on doing that – linkedin is horrible, but as a networking tool which means you don’t have to network it has high value – but it’s a bit constraining. There are things I want to say that don’t feel appropriate for that forum. It’s v much “views expressed here are necessarily those of a representative of my employer”.

Finally, tumblr, of which I was quite fond, feels like its time has passed, and I wanted a place to microblog a bit on lighter cultural encounters.

Why not all in one place? It should help keep the momentum going, and avoids those high barriers to expression such as ‘dunno which platform to post this’. And in fact as soon a I started thinking this way, I realised that these apparently different areas have been converging for a while for me; it was mainly the vector of the motivating input – the prompt – that had separated them out as categories.

So:

  • stuff prompted by books and words (litblogging – what I always intended any blog I kept to be)
  • stuff prompted by quotidian writing: business, broadcasting industry, politics &c (the linkedin stuff, but with less worry that someone at work is going to pull me up for talking about business bullshit and full luxury communism)
  • stuff prompted by what i’ve encountered out and about (tumblr – photos and frivolity)

And I’ll see how they rub up against each other.