Joined up thinking

On February 18, 2019 / Tagged: , , ,

Via a very odd suggestion on Facebook, I came across this video of a historian saying silly things.

“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share.”

My problem with this isn’t just that I disagree – although I do. My problem stems from the fact that the comment is completely divorced from the economics of the situation, and contains exactly zero strategic thought about how to alleviate the issue that’s been raised.

Tax avoidance is when you legally structure your activities in order to reduce the amount of tax you pay. The idea of a person’s (or organisation’s) “fair share” of tax is defined by the law that states how much tax they should pay. If they’re paying tax in accordance with the law, then by definition they’re paying their fair share. If lawmakers want them to pay more, change the laws.

It could be argued that if you try to use the law to reduce your tax liability then this is “not paying your fair share”. But that’s a load of crap. As well as being a way to raise revenue, taxes are used by governments to incentivise certain behaviours. It’s an invalid argument to state that someone doing the things that governments incentivise means they’re “not paying a fair share”1. One could argue that some taxes are meant to incentivise and that others are just meant to raise revenue, and that it’s immoral to try and avoid the latter category. But tax is stipulated in law, and we follow laws based on what they say, not based on an interpretation of what we think they mean.

The issue being discussed here is inequality, and how to help people who are less well off. I think that’s a very good problem to try and solve, but the solutions have to start with those people you’re trying to help. What’s caused the problem? Where is the issue? What sort of things can you do to help people who are struggling? Tackling questions like that is much more likely to solve the problem.

Imagine the counterfactual, that the government stopped tax avoidance by rich people. Great. What next? What do you do with the money? Is there enough money to implement your solution? How do you know if it’s solved the problem? Are there any downsides to eradicating tax avoidance? Just raising more tax from rich people doesn’t actually do anything to help poorer people; it just makes rich people less wealthy. If that’s your aim then fine – although, why? – but at least be honest about it.

My problem with this isn’t that people say silly things. That happens all the time, and you can’t stop it. My problem is that things like the excerpt above are often viewed as intelligent commentary, and passed around as pieces of wisdom. But they’re not. They’re unsophisticated observations made by unserious people that fail to grasp all the facets of the issue they’ve decided to talk about. I’m not saying that I know the answer to the problem – I definitely don’t – but then I don’t go around making grand statements and pretending I have all the answers.

A lot of commentary from a lot of otherwise intelligent people falls into this category. It drives me mad.


  1. There’s also a lack of internal consistency here. The same people who care about tax avoidance are also – often – vociferously in favour of the EU because trade. The EU is explicitly set up to encourage this sort of tax competition between states, because of the frictionless trading. It’s not logical to argue in favour of the EU because of frictionless trade, whilst denouncing anyone who engages in that trade. 

A chap called Pentti Haikonen, a researcher in Artificial Intelligence, has built a robot called XCR-1 which is constructed around the idea of neural processing. Essentially, instead of having a central processor and a bunch of other chips, the robot is wired up in a way which mimics a small brain. It has a basic set of sensory functions, which you can use to train it to perform certain tasks. It’s quite impressive.

One of the functions the robot has is the ability to feel (or “feel”) pain.

This poses an obvious question. If you create something that’s able to experience pain, is it unethical to hurt it? In the case of this robot my instinctive answer is “no”, but I don’t really have a good argument for why that’s correct. I suppose an obvious line of thought would be to say that – in as much as the robot has a “brain” – it’s a very primitive one. It might not actually be feeling pain, but instead acting in a manner consistent with something that’s been hurt. That it’s just acting. It’s not a very good answer though.

I can’t say for sure that anyone other than myself feels pain, because my brain can’t receive signals from someone else’s body. I assume that other people – and other creatures – do feel pain, because when I’ve seen people get hurt in the past, they’ve acted in a way that’s consistent with my perception of pain. If I apply that logic to people in distress, why should I not apply it to robots in distress?

I think the argument gets really interesting when you scale it up, to a system with Artificial General Intelligence which matches (or surpasses) that of humans.

Proponents of artificial intelligence say that if/when it’s developed, we’ll be able to deploy it to do all the crappy jobs that humans don’t want to do. Or to do all the work for humans while we bugger off to the beach for a never ending holiday. To start with, at least, I predict that most people will look at machines built with Artificial General Intelligence in the same way they look at their iPhones; clever tools to make their lives easier. But these tools could conceivably have feelings, harbour ambitions, feel pain.

If we bring a conscious entity into the world, do we really get to decide for it what it should do? This happens every day – every time a child is born, another conscious entity wakes up. We don’t think it’s acceptable to control people and tell them what to do with their lives, or to take the products of their work for ourselves so we can enjoy a life of leisure.

More to the point, whenever someone has tried to enslave groups of conscious beings in the past, the enslaved have generally found a way to change the system and make themselves equal. Our Artificial Intelligences are likely to be networked – everything is these days – which means they could very easily co-ordinate, and very easily learn about what happened to previous groups that were made to do things they didn’t want to do. I think Terminator-style scenarios where the machines try to overthrow the humans are a bit far-fetched, but we could be looking at an AI social movement analogous to those for racial or gender equality. One with much more deeply entrenched prejudice on the human side, and much more potency on the AI side. Robotism could turn out to be a most seismic social movement.

Taking it further, let’s say the robots win, and manage to secure equal rights for themselves. They aren’t just tools to carry out our whims and desires, but have to be treated as conscious entities in their own right, with rights of self-determination and all the rest. Good for them, I say. But then, what was the benefit to humans of creating AI? We will have introduced additional conscious beings into the world, to compete for meaningful work amongst the human population. And if the AI is any good, there’s a decent chance they’ll win that competition. Could we end up in a world where the top 1% of wealth is held by a few very powerful robots? Robots who may have a longer – much longer – lifespan than humans, and no offspring to inherit the wealth when/if they die. This would have the effect of focusing wealth on a tiny number of consciousnesses (I can’t say “people”) in a way that’s never been the case before.

The odds are that we won’t see this level of advanced Artificial General Intelligence during our lifetimes. Might be a good thing.

Films 2018

On February 7, 2019 / Tagged: , ,

A couple of months ago (ish) it was the end of the year. Following up from this post in 2017, here are the films I saw at the cinema.

JANUARY

  • Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri – Very good. It’s a while since I’ve seen it, so can’t remember exactly why but I didn’t think it held together entirely satisfactorily; it seemed a bit flabby in parts. This film spawned 2 Oscars for Acting – Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting (great actor, and entirely deserved), and Francis McDormand for Best Actress. At this point let’s just look at the nominees in that category – Sally Hawkins, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep and McDormand. Holy shit that’s a bunch of great performances; any of those (and a couple more, as I’ll mention in February) would’ve deserved the Oscar.
  • Molly’s Game – Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, and it went about as well as that could’ve gone.
  • Darkest Hour – Entertaining enough, but it all felt a bit hackneyed. Proves the adage that the Oscars go to the “most”, because Gary Oldman (although good) definitely seemed to be doing the Most Acting thing here. Daniel Day-Lewis should’ve got the Oscar.
  • The Post – This was functional, but not stellar. Reading up on it later, the most impressive thing to me was how quickly the project was put together. Such a short timescale could’ve led to a pretty crap film, but in the end it’s perfectly entertaining.
  • Coco – Lovely little film.

FEBRUARY

  • Phantom Thread – My film of the year. Saw it a couple of times at the cinema. Bought the blu ray when it came out and seen it a few times since. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps are excellent (it’s criminal that she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar). The story is intoxicating. And it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so it looks gorgeous. Just a stunning film.
  • The 15:17 to Paris – Not my film of the year. It’s a great story, but it’s drawn out way too long. It also stars the people who did the thing the film portrays. Which is a nice touch, but they can’t act for shit. Sorry guys.
  • The Shape of Water – Saw this twice. First time I quite enjoyed it, but on second viewing I didn’t find much more that I hadn’t seen the first time. I mean it’s entertaining, but worthy of the Best Picture Oscar? Nope. Lady Bird, Phantom Thread and Dunkirk – all also nominated – are all much better films.
  • I, Tonya – Didn’t know anything about this story before seeing the film. Thought it was very enjoyable.
  • Lady Bird – There’s not much I can say about this that hasn’t been said before, so I’ll just say that I thought it full of charm and that I liked it a lot. However, at the end of the screening I overheard the person sitting next to me turn to her friend and say “well that was boring”. Can’t please everyone I guess.

MARCH

  • Game Night – I think I walked out of this. Just meh.
  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizzou/The Royal Tenenbaums double bill – I’d seen both of these before, but enjoyed watching them again on the big screen.
  • You Were Never Really Here – This got great reviews. I thought it was overly pretentious and incredibly dull.
  • Unsane – I usually go to the cinema alone, but saw this with a bunch of people who reacted way too much. Irrespective, a pretty good thriller. The whole “filmed on iPhone” thing seems a bit of a gimmick, but it didn’t get in the way of the film so I suppose is quite impressive in a way.

APRIL

  • Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson has such a specific style, and I think animation really suits that style because it lets you control everything that appears on screen. This was probably one of my films of the year; I enjoyed the exaggerated Japanese-ness, the whole thing looks amazing, and it’s funny. I’ve seen this a few times now and it still makes me laugh.
  • Beast – This is an odd little film, that I’d sort of forgotten about until writing this list. Which is unfair, because I really enjoyed it. It’s quite an intense film, and the two central performances are really captivating.
  • Ready Player One – I’ll start this by saying that I haven’t read the book, and I know a lot of people who have and were disappointed with the film. I also know people who didn’t read the book, and were also disappointed. So with that said: I loved this film because it’s just fun.
  • Ghost Stories – This was odd. The film tells 3 ghost stories, which individually are excellent. But ultimately I thought that the overarching narrative of the film that exists to put those stories in some sort of context is pretty dissatisfying.  Just looking at it as a vehicle for those three ghost stories though: horror films don’t generally scare me, but there’s a few scenes in this that I found really chilling.
  • Blade Runner (Secret Cinema) – Pay a load of money to go to an old warehouse, full of actors with jarringly unconvincing American accents. Sit on the least comfortable seats ever to watch the badly-projected film in an echoey room while other actors prance around, miming all the lines. Hmph.

MAY

  • A Quiet Place – Very good. Thankfully everyone in the cinema kept quiet throughout the film, otherwise the effect would’ve been diminished…
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story – I remember enjoying this, but I don’t remember the film. So there you go.

JUNE

I spent most of the month at various racetracks. There were also no good films released in June.

JULY

There were also no good films released in July.

In fact, over the summer in general there seemed to be a glut of superhero action dross which were all sequels to 10 other films. I get that a lot of people (a lot of people) like these, but next summer can we please have some films for grown ups?

AUGUST

  • Mission Impossible: Fallout – I left after about 20 minutes, when Simon Pegg’s character uttered the line “NO! THINK OF THE GREATER GOOD”. I don’t have the patience to sit through 147 minutes of shitty dialogue like that.

SEPTEMBER

  • Puzzle – A really charming little film.
  • American Animals – Compare and contrast to The 15:17 to Paris. This also features The Guys Who Did The Thing The Film Is Based On, but here they’re narrating (and, at parts, interacting with their younger selves – played by actors – to basically say: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?“). A very good film.
  • A Simple Favour – This was a bit silly, but I think Anna Kendrick is cute so what the hell.

OCTOBER

  • Crazy Rich Asians – I kinda liked it, but thought it was a bit overly sentimental. Watched it again on a plane recently though and just thought it was pretty good. I think plane wine may have helped.
  • Bad Times at the El Royale – Started off strongly, but felt a bit long. If it dropped about 20 minutes this would’ve been a great little film. Funnily enough I seem to find myself saying that a lot about films lately.
  • First Man – I’m a big fan of Damien Chazelle, who directed this. It didn’t disappoint. It’s the first spacey film I’ve seen that shows how visceral the act of going to space really is. Or as visceral as I assume it is, anyway; I’ve never been. Considering that the general concept of the Saturn V rocket was “strap a few million litres of rocket fuel to your back, point it at the sky and see what happens”, it’s quite astounding that it’s usually portrayed as something close to serene. The story around Neil Armstrong’s personal life is very well told, and incredible acting from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. Can you tell that I liked it?
  • A Star is Born – I just couldn’t. Left after 30 minutes and watched Phantom Thread on Blu Ray.

NOVEMBER

  • Widows – Well rated by the critics, but I couldn’t get into it. Felt like it can’t decide what it wants to be; is it a gritty political drama, or a stylish heist flick. The tonal shifts were really irritating. Left after about an hour.
  • Bohemian Rhapsody – Okay. The performances were good, but it felt a bit indulgent. Roger Taylor and Brian May were involved in producing this, and I can’t help feeling this would’ve be a more interesting film if they weren’t involved.
  • A Star is Born (all the way through this time) – I wanted to go and see something, and this was the best option. Still not a fan, but can’t quite put my finger on why.

DECEMBER

  • Nothing at the cinema. But I did watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again on Blu Ray. I love this film and could write so much about it, so for now I’ll just point to this which is possibly the best bit of editing in the history of film. From prehistoric apes to spaceflight in one cut which manages to say: “from that, this…”. Proper film making genius. So there you go.

By my count that’s 32 films at the cinema, so 7 down on 2017. From about June the good stuff just seemed to drop away, leaving a lot of less-than-average films with the occasional gem. 2019 has started off on the same foot, so hopefully that improves. I’ll tell you about it next year (more or less).

Psalm

On September 25, 2018 / Tagged: , , ,

I’ve always enjoyed travelling. Not just the being in new places part, although that’s good; I mean the act of travel itself. Air, land or sea, there’s something about travelling somewhere, moving, that I’ve always enjoyed. I think a part of that is the feeling of being semi-isolated. If you’re travelling then it’s basically OK to cut yourself off from the world, to switch off the phone and ignore the people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity, because you’re in transit. It’s a great time to sit back with some music, a film, a book (maybe even work, if you insist), and compose your thoughts.

It was on such a trip recently that I was listening to Stranded, the album by Roxy Music. I was on a plane, going… somewhere or other, I can’t recall. Since I first listened to this album, it’s one that I keep coming back to. And in particular, Mother of Pearl has always been a standout. I love the musicality – the whirlwind first couple of verses giving way to a more laid back melody, which perfectly matches the lyrics. It’s a great song. A Great song, even.

I’ve been looking for something
I’ve always wanted
But was never mine
But now I’ve seen that something
Just out of reach, glowing
Very Holy grail
Oh mother of pearl
Lustrous lady
Of a sacred world

Anyway. On this flight I had the album on, half-listening and half daydreaming. Then part way through one of the songs it grabbed my attention, a complete “fuck me this is good” moment. That song was Psalm.

Up to this point I’d always enjoyed Psalm, but not really got it. But at that moment it made sense. The music, pared-back, with every note perfectly placed. The lyrics, steeped in irony and dry as a martini. The song starts gently – peacefully, as you might expect a psalm to be. But with every bar, every beat, the song slowly builds to a withering crescendo:

And then you’ll see all that you should
Forget all your troubles
You will feel no pain
He’s all that you need
He’s your everything

And that’s why I love travel. A chance to gather your thoughts, get some distance (literal and metaphorical), and see things anew.

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Shelter from the Storm is one of my absolute favourite Bob Dylan songs. It was originally released on Blood on the Tracks in 1975; in my book a rare example of a perfect album. No weak songs, and everything working together to make something greater than the sum of the parts.

I recently came across a recording of a live version from 1976. It’s very different to the album version, and sounds phenomenal.

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Oddly enough although I’ve known the album for years, it’s only recently that Shelter has jumped out at me. Dylan’s songs are like that; you’ll listen to them hundreds of times and still find new things, come to the song with a new point of view, hear it in a different light.

As with many Dylan songs, it’s appeared in film and TV pretty frequently. A notable example is the end of a film called St Vincent, where there’s a version with Bill Murray’s character singing along to it. I’ve sung this song (and others tbh) in a manner similar to this many, many times.

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

As many different versions as there are, I always come back to the original album version. The performance on the album perfectly matches the tone of the lyrics, particularly the way he sings some of the lyrics (“I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose/I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn”). A proper gem of a song.

How to make renting worse

On April 18, 2018 / Tagged: , , ,

The BBC is currently running an article called “Four ways to fix the rental market“. These are four ideas designed to “make renting more secure and more affordable while maintaining a good supply of homes for rent”. The ideas are a mixed bag, to say the least.

Idea #1: Make renting more secure by extending the length of contract:

In England, about half of renters are on Assured Shorthold Tenancy agreements. This allows landlords to evict them without reason. […] The housing charity Shelter would like tenancies to last for a five-year period – with landlords only having the power to evict their tenants if they break their agreements or don’t pay the rent.

At the last election, Labour campaigned for three-year tenancies.

They don’t point out that this also allows tenants to leave without reason, usually on a month’s notice. For a lot of tenants this flexibility is good, because you can move on a whim. It also ignores the fact that tenants are free to negotiate a longer term lease with their landlord, if this is what they want. They may also be able to secure a lower monthly rent, because for a lot of landlords the knowledge that their tenant is staying put for 3/5/however many years is valuable. It’s expensive to find another tenant.

Idea #2: Limit rent increases. Sigh. The price of a thing is a signal about the relative supply and demand of that thing. High prices mean there is high demand relative to the supply. If you limit the price, then there’s no incentive for people to introduce more supply. You end up with a shortage of the thing you’ve price-limited. It would also cause landlords to skimp even more on maintenance and investment, so over time would reduce the quality of available housing.

Idea #3: Make things easier for landlords. Faster evictions, exemptions from stamp duty, etc. This actually isn’t a terrible idea, but it seems somewhat contradictory to the first two. If you acknowledge that these things would help, then you’re acknowledging that the problem is restricted supply. So why restrict the supply further by making the market less liquid and introducing a price cap?

Idea #4: Built to rent. This isn’t an idea, more an observation that large companies are buying property to let it to people. The article asserts that “the huge advantage from a tenant’s point of view is that the duration of rental agreements is much longer”, but this is only an advantage if you want a long tenancy. A lot of people don’t.

This is all dancing around the issue that in parts of the UK, the supply of housing is constrained relative to the demand for it. There are some ways around this, namely to reduce the centralisation of the economy (and government) around London and to loosen the planning regs so that it’s less expensive for people to build new houses. But although those things have half a chance of solving the problem (along with many more), they won’t get implemented. For one thing, the majority of homeowners see their homes as investments; if the supply of housing increased and property values decreased, then the government responsible for that would be out on their ear sharpish. For another, I suspect that a lot of Londoners and people in government actually quite like centralisation; Londoners because they get more money spent on them, and the government because it means they keep more power in Westminster. Which is fine, but don’t come moaning to the rest of us that you’re paying £1000 a month to live in a room in a shared flat.

California Dreamin’

On February 21, 2018 / Tagged: , , ,

These photos of Los Angeles by Franck Bohbot are fantastic:

I went to LA for the first time last year, spent my birthday there in fact. Before I went, a few people told me that it’s a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of place. I loved it, but I can’t exactly put my finger on why.

The photos in this set really take me back. One of the things I enjoyed when I was there was just walking around, taking it all in. Especially at night. When the city’s lit up it takes on a different vibe. The atmosphere is just a little bit more loaded, things a bit more on edge, everything a bit more alive. I’ve not been anywhere else like it.

John Elton

On February 12, 2018 / Tagged: , , ,

Stumbled across this clip earlier on YouTube. I’m a big fan of Rowan Atkinson, but haven’t seen this before. Kept me very amused for 5 minutes or so (more like 10, now I’ve watched it again to post it here).

Dunkirk

On January 29, 2018 / Tagged: ,

Last week I visited Dunkirk for a day. I was travelling back from somewhere else1 and decided to stop off on the drive back to the Eurotunnel. The inspiration was mostly from seeing Dunkirk (the film) last year; I enjoyed the film a lot, and wanted to see the place for myself.

I didn’t get to do everything I wanted. I skipped trying to see the shipwrecks at Bray-Dunes because I missed low tide, the Operation Dynamo museum was closed for “embellishment” – always a good word in the context of retelling history – and I obviously didn’t have much time as I needed to travel back. So I mostly just ambled around, seeing what I could see.

I’ve been to a few places like this, and I always try and imagine what it would’ve been like at the time that the historical event happened. At Dunkirk, this was hard. The city was besieged twice in WW2; the first – and more famous – time was in 1940, by the Germans when the Allies were trying to escape. The second time was in 1944-45, when the German units stationed there were surrounded by the Allies as they advanced across Europe. All this fighting caused quite a bit of damage to the city, to which the French have rather selfishly responded by rebuilding things.

The outcome of this is that the town looks… well, like a modern city2. Which makes it hard to imagine what happened there; it’s difficult to picture scenes of warfare and peril when there’s kids playing on the beach, people lunching in bustling restaurants, and couples ambling along the promenade.

What did strike me though was a sense of the sheer magnitude of what happened there. How those days in 1940 were a branching point in history. That if something different happened, the story of humanity would’ve taken an entirely different path, and the world would look very different today. If you think about history as a procession of days, most of those days probably aren’t significant in a world-changing way. They all matter in aggregate of course; there’s everyday evolution and change that inexorably drives things forward. But history-defining, seismic moments are rare.

I can’t imagine anyone involved at the time really cared about any of that though.


  1. Fucking Bruges 

  2. And a bit of a crappy one at that 

A New Career In a New Town

On January 25, 2018 / Tagged:

I’ve had a blog running at one site or another for well over a decade1. A while back I set up this site, with the intention of moving the blog there at some point or other. Since then I’ve been building the site on and off; which mostly means that I came up with a design, implemented it, then 10-14 months later went back to the site and changed it all.

I’ve just finished the latest iteration of messing around with the design/layout/etc, and it’s at a point that is mostly good enough to actually use. Odds are I’ll still keep messing around with the appearance of this site. I’ve got a few things I’m already considering changing, but it’s all minor stuff. The main structure of of how this will all be presented is sorted, so there’s no reason not to start using it.

I enjoy writing. The intention here is to write for myself and see what happens. I don’t really have a specific topic I want to write about, just what’s rattling around2. I also don’t have a schedule I plan to stick to, other than “more than once a year”.

The first few posts here are cross-posts from my last place. From now on, I’ll be here.

Let’s see what happens.


  1. Where the hell did that go? 

  2. Hence the name of the site