tiistaina, huhtikuuta 28, 2015

Otsikointia

Törmäsin sattumalta tällaiseen listaan ohjeista hyvien otsikkojen kirjoittamisesta.
http://eioototta.fi/absurdius-tuo-vanha-ystavamme-muurmanskista/
Samassa ymmärsin miksi minua ärsyttää otsikointi niin monessa lehdessä; tämä lista antaa suorastaan ohjeet ärsyttävään otsikointiin! Juuri tämä on se syy miksi harvoin luen lehtiä, koska en kestä lukea otsikointia pidemmälle. Katso erityisesti kohdat 4, 5, 6 ja 8.

  1. "Muuta tavalliset sanat kiinnostavammiksi." Myönnetään "kiva" ei ole hyvä sana otsikossa mutta ei siksi että se on tavallinen vaan siksi että se on epätarkka. Tavalliset sanat ovat parhaita jos ne kuvaavat tarkasti sitä mitä haluaa sanoa. Itse asiassa, tavalliset sanat ovat parempia kuin monimutkaiset tai harvinaiset sanat, kunhan ne ovat tarkkoja.
  2. "Muuta epätarkat sijamuodot ja sanat terävämmiksi." Tämä on Kortesuon ohjeista ehkä lähimpänä hyvää ohjetta. Epätarkka ilmaisu on huonoa kirjoittusta. Pasiivimuotoiset otsikot (ja muut lauseet) ovat harvoin hyviä koska ne ovat epätarkkoja.
  3. "Vältä yhden sanan otsikoita" Tämäkin vielä menettelee, juuri sen vuoksi että yhden sanan otsikot ovat usein epätarkkoja. Mutta yleissääntönä sanoisin että lyhyempi otsikko on parempi kuin pidempi otsikko. Siksi minun sääntöni olisi että otsikon pituus on parhaimmillaan se lyhyin muoto missä sen sisältö on vielä tarkka.
  4. "Lisää otsikkoon persoona" Nyt päästään ongelman ytimeen; jos tarina oli jo ennestään kertomus omista kokemuksista tyyliin "Minun kesälomani" (tämä on huono otsikko ihan muista syistä), niin siihen tulee persoona automaattisesti eli sitä ei tarvitse siihen erikseen lisätä. Jos tekstisi aihe ei ole subjektiivinen alunperin, niin persoonan lisääminen otsikkoon saa sen vaikuttamaan subjektiiviselta ja vain tämän yhden henkilön näkökulmasta kirjoitetulta. Toisin sanoen, persoonan mainitseminen otsikkossa rajaa tekstin kapea-alaiseksi ja poistaa mahdollisuuden yleispätevyyteen. Jos siis tekstillä on minkäänlaista tarkoitusta laajentua yleispäteväksi informaatioksi, on henkilön mainitseminen epätarkkaa ja tekee siitä siksi huonon otsikon.
  5. "Pelaa välimerkeillä". Otsikko näyttää heti keltaisesta lehdistöstä repäistyltä ja sensaatiohakuiselta. On tunnettu tosiasia että sensaatiojournalismi vääristelee asioita tietentahtoen, joten se on lähtökohtaisesti epätarkkaa. Älä pelaa välimerkeillä. Piste. 
  6. "Käytä väitettä tai jopa provokaatiota" Ibidem. Jos haluat irroittaa asioita asiayhtedestä samalla tavalla kuin huonolla, eiku, anteeksi, keltaisella lehdistöllä on tapana, niin voit toki käyttää väitteitä ja provokaatioita otsikoinnissa. Samalla tulee selväksi että tärkein kohderyhmä tekstillesi ovat perussuomalaiset.
  7. "Käytä alkusointua elävöittämään latteaa otsikkoa" Tähän neuvoon voisin melkein yhtyä. Toisaalta tämä temppu on niin tavallinen että se lähentelee kliseetä, joten sitä pitäisi välttää. 
  8. "Kokoa vaakakuppirakenne" Jos tekstisi on luonnostaan kahden asian vastakkainasettelua, niin tämä otsikkomuoto on toki automaattisesti mahdollisuus. Mikäli tällainen vastakkainasettelu ei ollut ensimmäinen ideasi, on todennäköistä että käyttämällä vaakakuppirakennetta syyllistyt väärän dilemman tyyppiseen argumentaatiovirheeseen. Väärällä dilemmalla tarkoitetaan vastakkainasettelua joka on esimerkiksi joko 1) epätäydellinen eli asettaa kaksi vaihtoehto vastakkain vaikka muitakin vaihtoehtoja on olemassa tai 2) virheellinen siten että vaihtoehdot eivät ole lainkaan toisiaan poissulkevia. Toisin sanoen, vaakakuppirakenne tuottaa useimmiten epätarkkoja tai virheellisiä otsikoita. Väärän dilemman tyyppiset otsikot ovat luonnollisesti tavallisia sensaatiohakuisessa lehdistössä, joten jos haluat töihin Seiska-lehteen, niin voinkin jo poistaa sinut valmiiksi Facebook-ystävistäni.
  9. "Käytä intertekstuaalisuutta" Huomaa tässä että Kortesuo käyttää sanaa intertekstuaalinen, joka on melko harvinainen sana, niin harvinainen, että hän joutuu sen merkityksen ensin selittämään. Hyvä otiskointi olisi tietysti sellainen jonka kaikki lukijat ymmärtävät ilman erillistä selitystä, mutta se on nyt sivuseikka. Pohjimmiltaan tämä neuvo on kuitenkin hyvä. Viitaukset ja riimit voivat olla erittäin tehokkaita. Niissä piilee kuitenkin suuri vaara. Ei ole lainkaan helppoa löytää sanontoja tai laulun sanoja jotka kaikki tuntevat mutta jotka eivät otsikossa kuulosta kliseeiltä, aivan kuten Kortesuon antamissa esimerkeissä käy. Eli jossain harvinaisessa tapauksessa kyllä, useimmiten, ei, älä käytä interteksuaalisuutta.
  10. "Käytä avainsanaa, joka aktivoi lukijan" on Kortesuon kymmenennen neuvon otsikko, mutta neuvon kuvaus kertoo että otsikkoon kannattaa laittaa termejä joilla ihmiset etsivät asioita verkosta. Tässä on siis vertausvirhe: Avainsana ei aktivoi lukijaa, vaan hyvin valittujen avainsanojen avulla aktiivinen lukija löytää tekstisi. Hyvä hakusana on usein myös erittäin kuvaava termi asialle jota kirjoitat, joten se on tarkka termi. Mainitsinko jo että mielestäni hyvä otsikko on tarkasti asiaa kuvaava otsikko?
  11. "Absurdius, tuo vanha ystävämme Muurmanskista" Huumorin käyttäminen asiallisessakin tekstissä tai otsikossa on aina tekstiä piristävä piire. Siinä mielessä neuvo on hyvä. Mikäli kuitenkin absurdi vitsi otsikossa vie lukijan odotukset tekstin suhteen harhapoluille, on otsikko huono. Kortesuon antamat esimerkit ovat myös hyvin pitkiä otsikoita asioille jotka voi ilmaista tarkasti myös kompaktissa muodossa.

Syy siihen että vastustan niin vahvasti kaikkia epätarkkoja ilmaisuja on luonnollisesti siinä että minun taustani on tieteellisessä kirjoittamisessa, missä tarkkuus on eräs tärkeimmistä kirjoittajan hyveistä. Minun silmissä epätarkka on hyvin lähellä virheellistä tekstiä. Ihan vähimmilläänkin epätarkka kirjoittaminen sisältää vähemmän informaatiota kuin tarkkaa teksti, ja se antaa mahdollisuuksia väärinymmärtämiseen.

Luonnollinen vasta-argumentti on toki että Kortesuon tarkoitus on tehdä mielenkiintoisia otsikoita jotka houkuttelevat lukijoita. Minusta Kortesuon tyylilaji kuitenkin lähenee sensaatiohakuista klikkikalastelua, kuten tämä otsikko jonka löysin tänään yle.fi:ltä "Stephen Hawking puhui yleisölle live-hologrammina, ja sitten hän sanoi jotain nerokasta". Apua. Yäk. Voit sitten valita kumpaan ryhmään haluat kuulua, klikkikalestelijoihin, vai meihin muihin.

Lopputulos on joka tapauksessa että Kortesuon ohjeet antavat hyvän pohjan mikäli tarkoituksena on karkoittaa minut tekstin lukijakunnasta.

perjantaina, lokakuuta 25, 2013

Feminism

This is a dangerous topic. Say anything non-conformant about feminism and you'll be labelled a chauvinist. Therefore I feel the need to start with a disclaimer: For the record, without any reservation, I support equal opportunities and equal compensation for equal efforts.

Recently, I had a Heureka-moment related to the concept of "pink-collar occupations", or in Finnish, "naisvaltaiset alat", or simply, occupations where women are in a majority. The idea I had is to replace gender-words with some other identifier such as ethnicity or sexual preference. After all, given that gender-labels are legitimate descriptions of an occupation and practically all persons can be identified by both gender, ethnicity and sexual preference, then also ethnic- or sexual labels should also be legitimate. Consider therefore occupations where gays are in a majority. What thoughts and emotions does that concept induce in you? At least I feel pretty uncomfortable with the concept. "How dare you label an occupation as a "gay" occupation?" Or even better, think about occupations where /insert-your-preferred-ethnicity-here/ are in the majority, such as pool-care-takers. WTF? I get angry just be writing the sentence. "How dare you imply that pool-care-takers are mainly /insert-your-preferred-ethnicity-here/?"

How is it then somehow not-politically-incorrect (=politically accepted) to talk about pink-collar occupations?

How would I then go about discussing inequality in the work-place? Consider, for example the following ideas:
  • I would much rather discuss the problem of companies hiring alpha-males for leading positions when they, according to evidence, are not the best once for leadership positions. Since alpha-male characteristics are more likely to appear in males than females, then males appear more likely in leadership positions, thereby creating the appearance of gender-bias, when in fact it could just as well be a bias for the stereotypical alpha-male.
  • I would also like to discuss why occupations dominated by alpha-male characters (corporate leaders, banking etc.) have higher average compensation in form of salaries and benefits? Conversely, why does care- and educational-occupations have lower wages than say, occupations within advertising, commerce and even engineering? After all, this distribution of wealth is not fair, judging by, for example (several other ways of judging also exist), utility and for the welfare of mankind.
  • While engineering studies are marketed to females with success stories from other females, studies show that an average-female-story would be much more effective, since success stories create a impression that ladies need to be super-humans to be successful within engineering. So the problem is that engineering studies are not marketed in a realistic way, which should actually be worrying also from the male-perspective, because that leads to educating also such males to engineers who are not well-suited to be engineers. That is, males are tricked to become engineers even when that does not fit them.
  • New studies show that young adult males nowadays have a desire to, or feel a societal pressure to "look good". That is, young adult males are pressured to exercise to get fit and invest time and money on clothing. In other words, young adult males are increasingly treated as objects of visual pleasure, similarly as ladies have been objectified for centuries. This means that females do not anymore have the monopolistic right to be victimized through objectification anymore, but it applies also to some males. That is, the problem is not objectification of females, but objectification itself.
The last point perhaps summarizes my idea. I think it would be time to apply Occam's razor to feminism; let us not talk about female problems, but democratically, let us talk about problems. In other words, I think the term "feminism" is discriminating in just the same way as some ethnic or sexual-preference terms are used as degrading adjectives. So let us stop talking about feminism and start talking about equality.

sunnuntaina, kesäkuuta 16, 2013

Conformative statements

I just generated a new concept which I will call "conformative statements". It is a form of argumentation which I've been observing for some time already, but whose function I managed to pin point only now. Before going to its definition, let me back track a bit.
I've had this recurring conversation with a number of friends of mine about the preference of indoor versus outdoor (rock)climbing. Usually the argument I hear is "indoor climbing is terrible", to which I emphatically disagree and I'm always tempted to start throwing my counter-arguments, which my friends undoubtedly have heard all too often already.
Now consider an alternative argument from my friend: "I hate indoor climbing". My reaction would be very different. I would be / I am emphatic, feel almost a bit sorry (because my friend is unable enjoy something I happen to enjoy the way I do). But it is an argument we both can agree on. He does not like indoor climbing. I agree.
So why do I get ever so slightly upset by the former argument; "indoor climbing is terrible". Why is it different from "I hate indoor climbing"? As you might guess, the former is what I call a conformative statement. It is a statement that begs for conformance, it contains the presupposition that I will agree. Since I admit to having difficulties in conforming to things whose motivations are not clear for me, I immediately get an uneasy feeling when someone uses a conformative argument on me.
If someone would say a generally accepted truth or value, such as "genocide is bad", then I have no trouble conforming. However, I do not see why anyone should accept conformance with values whose motivations are not clear. Worse, in this particular example, I do accept that my friend does not like indoor climbing, but I happen to think that it is a weakness, not an inherent feature. He would not be less happy, if he were able to enjoy indoor climbing. His conformative statement thus not only begs for conformance, but which would also be detrimental to my happiness should I happen to conform.

perjantaina, huhtikuuta 12, 2013

I have problems

Just made a fantastic discovery.  A discovery, which is by far bigger and better than your average discovery. It's good. Trust me. The discovery is that: "I have problems." It's wonderful.

That is a good punch-line, isn't it? But really, it truly is a good thing to have however counter-intuitive it is.

The truth behind this statement is actually rather obvious. Not the usual kind of obvious, but the in-your-face kind of obvious. The way it goes is this: Behind every problem there is a solution. The catch is that you need a problem, to be able to find a solution. Perhaps you already see the obvious conlusion, no? I'll spell it out for you: Without problems, you cannot find solutions. Innovations are solutions. Ergo, without problems there are no innovations.

Want to be innovative? Yes? Find yourself some problems!

maanantaina, helmikuuta 11, 2013

Categorical imperative

<p dir=ltr>"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." </p>

I have for quite a while already lived by this philosophy, although admittedly, it is a difficult task. On one hand, I do think that this is the right thing to do. I mean, how could you do anything else? Do you really want to do something less than the best possible? Do you consciously want to avoid to do the best you would be able to do? Doing less than the best possible, is by definition less than good, or non-good, which its to say in colloquial terms, "bad". Do you want to do good or bad things? <br>
On the other hand, deciding what is the categorical imperative is a difficult task. The principle assumes that you know the right answers with certainty. How many things do you know with absolute certainty? I can't claim that I know many, yet we all have practical lives to live with an infinite amount of small decisions, we have to make choices even when we do not know the categorical imperative. For one, there are just too many choices that we could find the best possible choices to every one of them. But much worse, there are questions which land in the grey zone in between where no absolute rule can be defined. For example, consider the question of where to put the balance between freedom of speech and security of the individual. It is trivial to find examples where rigorous application of freedom of speech puts individuals in danger of life. Still, it seems clear that freedom of speech is a really, really important feature of civilized societies.
On a trivial level, how would you set the categorical imperative in the question of which route to take when walking to they office? The fastest, the nicest, the one where you might meet that nice person in whom you're interested in, the one which fits the weather, the one where the risk of getting mugged is lowest or the one with the fewest blue houses on the way? Claiming that you should choose the one that fits the situation best means you're avoiding their question. Or perhaps an even better, even more trivial question? What is the categorical imperative to which apple juice to drink in the morning? Supposing that the price, ecology, and taste is they same? It's just a too trivial a question that you would want to spend energy on finding the absolute answer, the categorical imperative to it. It's, like, who cares?
And that demonstrates the problem. In our everyday lives, we have just too many problems, too many questions that we could afford to spend the time to find the categorical imperative to each and every one of them. Conversely, demanding the categorical imperative to every choice, "which hand to use for opening the toilet door?", would paralyze us, make us unable to do the most simple tasks in life.
Perhaps the conclusion, the categorical imperative,  would then be that the mental effort should be saved for the important questions. Questions such as, "when to take up that difficult topic with your best friend, which is already hurting your relationship?" are the kinds of questions where you should find the categorical imperative and also act accordingly.

maanantaina, helmikuuta 04, 2013

Re: Trial by Media

In response to "Trial by Media" on Professors Blog.

As a background, I have been reading de Noli's blog for quite some time with great interest and I both sympathize with Julian Assange and support the cause of Wikileaks. However, I have become increasingly disturbed by the "barking-at-the-forest" approach of de Noli, as a contrast to 1) trying to improve things and 2) trying to understanding the causes of the problems.

In general, I do not think any one person is evil, save for some extremely rare criminally insane individuals. No, I think all people try their best to do what ever they perceive as best for themselves and best for their community. More specifically, I do not think that Swedish journalists, police and politicians that de Noli writes about are evil. To the eyes of an outside observer, yes, their actions do seem deplorable, incomprehensible and outright evil, but that is a difference in perspective. I am as sure as I can be of anything, that each and every one of the journalists, police and politicians de Noli writes about are doing whatever they can for the best of their country and themselves.

For one, I do not think that framing these people as madmen, will do any good. When people are subjected to an outburst, when they are called idiots or when they are screamed at, usually they either respond the same way with an outburst, calling you the idiot or scream at you, or then they completely ignore you. I think I have observed both responses in conjunction to Professors Blogg and quite frequently at that. What I have not observed so frequently, are calm and objective arguments. I do however appreciate de Noli's efforts towards objectivity.

More importantly, how can it then be that these inherently good people act in ways that seem like idiocy or pure evil to us? That is the real question! How is it possible that these good people do things that seem abominable?

What I call for is to look at the thing from the perspective of your opponent. There must be some reason that makes the good people act in a way that looks bad to us. My first suggestion would be their frame of reference. Think of a journalist who has done his job conscientiously for the past 30 years. He has dug stories, he has written articles and he has learned to know a lot of people. It is not a conspiracy, nor an organized mafia, it is his friends and colleagues, the people he has known for all those years. He is the god-father of some of their children and after his good friend had died, he walked his daughter to the altar in his place. They live in Sweden, the doll-house of Europe, where everything is a bit prettier and nicer than anywhere else. They know that and they are kind of proud of that, even if they lull themselves into a bit of an illusion. Every system degenerates over time, so did Rome, so did the Inca, ancient Egypt and USA, and so did also Sweden.

When you are in that system, it is hard to see that you are in the system. Because of such a long time of stability, all your friends and colleagues think more or less the same way as you. It is not that they would try to make consensus, or to force unity. It is just that if there are no immediate big problems, then the easiest way is to not rock the boat and just follow the stream.

Enter Assange. You cannot but admit, initially, there were some legitimate concerns both with regard to Wikileaks as also with regard to his personal affairs. As far as I know, the personal affair concerns turned out to be widely exaggerated, but with regard to Wikileaks some legitimate ethical questions remain that deserve to be discussed. It is not necessarily that Wikileaks would be bad, but questions such as "What responsibilities should the media take for their publications?" are important questions. The media itself does not seem to be capable of asking that question, perhaps because it is not a good way to sell ads, but someone should be asking those questions.

In any case, these initial, legitimate concerns rocked the Swedish boat. As Wikileaks did not fit any existing category on any level, it was easier to either ignore it or dismiss it by pointing out the potential problems with it. It was then that Julian, by either an ill-timed accident, or due to overly protective US foreign services (according to who you want to believe), ran into his personal troubles and the whole case escalated.

I have to repeat, I do not think that any party operated with conscious evil intentions. Even if you choose to believe that CIA organized Julian's predicament, I do think that their intentions are highly patriotic and that the operatives themselves think they have done nothing wrong. Likewise, I think that the Swedish government did what they saw best. Their first reaction was not to get involved, since they trust the Swedish police. In the beginning, it was not an act of submission towards USA, because they honestly (still) believe that the Swedish system works. As time went by, the political cost of changing positions grew. Acting for Wikileaks would naturally be an action against USA, and since the politicians have long good relations with their US allies, that would be difficult not only a political level, but on a personal level. Much worse, changing positions now would break the illusion that Sweden is somehow better than others, an illusion in which the politicians and journalists still live. Say, if Marianne Ny would suddenly drop her efforts against Assange, then she would be the one who is rocking the boat in Sweden. She would be the one who says, "Yes, we shouldn't have done that.". She is in a catch-22 situation. She can't win whatever she does - either she has to admit failure or enters a fight she cannot win - so she does the lesser evil, "do what we've always done".

What I am trying to say is that it is not the people who we should blame and it is not an organized mafia that we should blame. The problem is systemic. The people are caught in a self-supporting and self-reinforcing system, which limits their perspective and causes them to act in ways that we cannot comprehend. Attacking the individuals in the system forces them on their defense and makes them cling on to the system more desperately. Our attacks thus reinforce the system - exactly the opposite of our intention!

The question remains, what is the most efficient way to solve the problem? Name calling obviously will not help, since people become defensive or they ignore you. Framing somebody as an evil person also does not help, if you would ever again want the help of that person. What goes around comes around. You call that journalist an idiot today, she'll call you an idiot tomorrow, with the only difference that she has a larger audience.

My first suggestion is to give "the bad guys" an easy way out. It is not often possible, but when you can give someone the option of disappearing from the scene without loosing his or her face, let them disappear. It could be, for example, that the Swedish police suddenly "discovers" a rule which causes any open cases regarding Assange to expire. That would give Marianne Ny a way out. She would not have to admit error. She would, while lamenting the outcome, be "forced" to drop the case.

The second approach, which is close to what de Noli has been trying to do, is to report facts consistently and passionately. Professors blogg does not lack in either, but where I have to disagree, is the tone. Pointing out absurdities does not require framing people as evil persons. Passion does not equal or warrant emotional reactions to attacks. I am afraid it is a very Swedish attitude, but I would call for a "lagom" (well-proportioned) intensity approach. Our objective, if we are to succeed, must be to understand our opponent. Only by understanding the people in the system, can we help them understand. Our objective should not be to win, because that requires that someone loses, but to find steps which improve upon the current.

Finally, I must admit that I have not done my homework by far as well as de Noli does. My comments do not reflect any specific incident or writing on Professors Blogg, but rather the general tone and impression I have.

I hope this helps us forward.

- Tom Bäckström

The writer is professor at University of Erlangen, Germany, but does not claim any academic expertise in any area related to this text. This text also does not in any way reflect the opinions of his current, former or future employers, but only his personal opinions. You are free to redistribute the text as-is, without modification, as long as reference to the original and this disclaimer are retained.

sunnuntaina, tammikuuta 13, 2013

On Liberty - On Happiness

I am a Scandinavian and we, unlike the Americans, do not read John Stuart Mill as part of our general education. At least that is the image I have, as an outsider, of American education, but do correct me if I'm wrong. "On Liberty" is in any case a famous and central work of American political thinking, and since I thus had never read the work, the other day I thought that now would be a time as good as any to finally take a look into it. I must confess that I haven't come far on it yet, but it has already thoroughly impressed me. It is a very good writing and surprisingly current. It really deserves to be a classic. Simultaneously, it has raised a lot of thoughts and counter-arguments.

My first issue with Mill's treatment of liberty is that he treats liberty in a black and white manner. Mill asserts that maximal liberty is the goal, but that we need a government to constrain people from harming each other. That is, the goal of the government or society is not progress or happiness, but merely to prevent people from harming each other. The responsibility of personal progress is thus transferred completely to the individual. Suddenly I understand the philosophical origin of the American dogmatic individualism. The consequence that I do like is that this philosophy encourages or even forces people to take responsibility of their own life and does not allow people to live off the society. The problem is that this approach treats society the same way as western medicine treats people: by trying to remove illness, not by trying to reach health or happiness. Whereas it would be possible to design a society with the goal of reaching progress or happiness, Mill chooses to prefer a society which merely avoids ills. Simultaneously, I think it is obvious that all human culture is based on co-operation. All progress humanity has made, has appeared because we have specialized and thus become dependent on each other.
Still, it seems to have been always implicitly obvious that avoiding ills is not enough. Classic American quotes like "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" seem to confirm this. It is not about what the country can do for the individuals, but what the individuals can do for the common good. Naturally the element of the government protecting its citizens persists, since in the context of the quote the question was about protecting the citizens against a foreign military force, but that does not eliminate the common good aspect as a contrast to avoiding ill. Simultaneously it is interesting that such a central quote is also clearly against individualism and for socialism. The question is How can individuals contribute to the society?
In this context, it is also interesting to observer how Mill, already in the introduction, notes that there will always be those who think that the government should intervene less, and those that think it should intervene more. This problematic could not be more current as it seems that the republicans are today more dogmatic than ever about reducing government, while democrats try to look at the big picture and strive for progress. I feel that the problem is a consequence of Mill's philosophy, which takes liberty as an axiom, without further elaborating why liberty is important. Republicans accept that axiom as the ultimate objective without question, whereas democrats implicitly understand that we can achieve more than "just" liberty.
This leads to my main observation regarding the insufficiency of Mill's proposition. Mill only states that liberty is desirable, but fails to specify why liberty is preferable. Is liberty an ultimate goal in itself, which does not require further elaboration, or is liberty a proxy for some other fundamental objective? Choosing axioms is always a difficult question, since an axiom is by definition a truth accepted as obvious without argument. A good axiom can thus not be explained. Liberty, on the other hand, can be explained at least as a prerequisite for happiness. Happiness research has shown that people need to feel like they are in control of their lives in order to feel happy. It is not the only requirement for happiness, but it is important. Since liberty can be seen as a tool for reaching happiness, perhaps happiness is the ultimate goal? Personally, I do believe that happiness is the ultimate goal, but if you are not convinced, for the sake of argument, you can choose to see it as an hypothesis.
With the happiness-goal as an axiom, liberty becomes merely a subordinate tool for reaching that goal. It is an important tool - that is why it has so long been confused for the ultimate goal - and that is why the strict pursuit of liberty leads to so much problems. I have not yet found any similar arguments why the pursuit of happiness would lead to problems. The happiness-goals thus looks at least like a valid axiom.
A consequence is that the dogmatic treatment of liberty should be softened. It is not the ultimate goal. Simultaneously, observe that for happiness, strictly speaking, we do not need freedom, but only a feeling of freedom. In other words, an illusion of freedom is sufficient for happiness. Ethically, a Matrix-like world with an illusion of freedom within absolute control is naturally extremely problematic, but demonstrates how liberty cannot be treated strictly. The film Matrix does, though, demonstrate how problematic a freedom based on illusion is.
Another observation is that people need only an feeling of liberty, but I think that after some level of liberty, more liberty does not improve happiness any more. That is, there is a threshold level, after which people feel in control and after which increased liberty does not bring added improvements. In contrast, happiness is a measure were more is always better. I do not think, however, that absolute happiness is possible, because, for example, overcoming challenges is a good way to achieve happiness, but impossible without the risk of failure. It this an eternal goal, where improvement is always possible.
Still, I do have to admit that happiness is a problematic concept. For one, happiness cannot be easily defined or measured. But in that sense, happiness is no different from liberty. An unambiguous definition of liberty as the absence of restrictions requires specification of which restrictions we are liberated from - an impossible task. In addition, it will be difficult to decide how to weigh the happiness of the majority over the minority. But again, this is a problem shared with the concept of liberty; how important is the liberty of the majority in comparison to the liberty of the minority? Mill solves this by asserting that people should be free only insofar as that their liberty does not harm other people. In the same spirit, we could require that the pursuit of happiness is allowed only when it does not diminish the happiness of other people.

tiistaina, joulukuuta 18, 2012

Neediness

No, this post is not about relationships! At least if you don't classify relationship to material possessions to that category. The thing I do want to talk about is what we hear people often say "I need [insert your preferred material possession here]." For example, I have heard said, "I need a new phone", "I need a new camera", "I need a new job". Shudders.
I find it rather obvious that these people do not actually need the phone/camera/job, but that they want it. To state this is so obvious that it is a platitude. Yet most people say such things. I would think that the thing that so disturbs me is not so much the evident self-righteousness about it, but that it sounds to me like an excuse. There's nothing wrong with wanting a new phone. I bought one just a few days ago, because I wanted one and I love it. But claiming that I need one is just plain wrong. Saying that I need one would have been an excuse for buying it. "I need to stay in touch with my family (who lives abroad)". No. I want to stay in touch with my family, yes. Claiming that I need that phone equates to sucking for support from my friends. When I tell my friends that I need a new phone, I'm longing for reinforcement to my implicit decision to buy one, I'm sucking that support. And it is a trap. I just need my friends to not contradict me, I need them to be supportive, I need them to just talk about the different choices of phones. What I don't want is questioning my needs. Oh no. Questioning my needs would be an attack on me.
So framing the whole phone-question in this "I need it" context, I force them into supporting my implicit decision to buy it. And it is a decision that I have not dared to admit to myself. Otherwise I would not need to suck support for it. I would just say, "I am going to buy a new phone." No, I say "I need a new phone." Feels so much better, doesn't it?

This is the point in a post where I usually turn to the meta-level. What generic message can we learn from this? (Note for advanced users: Observe the meta-meta-level commentary here!) I have for a long time already been unable to decide whether I support or not this type of word-games. Yes, on the short term I believe that opposing the word "need" would transform attitudes of a lot of people to the better. But the real question is, does it have a lasting effect? Has the banning of the word "nigger" changed the attitudes of people to towards people of different ethnic backgrounds? (Observe here the laborious avoidance of mentioning any other specific ethnic groups). Banning the n-word certainly did bring awareness of the problems to a lot of people, but on the other hand, that certainly did not eradicate the problem. The connotation was transferred to the word "black", which is now also banned. Only when the assigned preferred politically correct term became too-long-to-use-in-any-practical-sentence, "of african american origins", did the ethnic  group loose a simple way for name-calling and was thus moved to safety.

This comparison between two n-words is probably a tad too grand and far-fetched. But what is then my opinion on the word "need"? Like always, my answer is awareness. (It has become a bit too much of a standard answer, hasn't it? But still..) If I could somehow raise awareness of the problem with the word "need" (and here, note how this blog-post is self-referential), I do accept that the word is not used in a strict sense. The lives of people are not depending on acquiring new phones and saying that they need phones does also not imply this. The logically strict interpretation "I need a new phone" = "I need a phone to survive", is just not what people mean. Despite the danger of paternalism, I do appreciate peoples need (!) for short-cuts, to use simple language instead of logically strictly correct expressions. And this does not disturb me, as long as it is not used to trick me to support their own fallacies.

torstaina, marraskuuta 29, 2012

Non-event feedback loops

I recently read an interesting blog-article about Non-event feedback loops in the context of mountaneering and avalanche safety. The concept is so important that it deserves a note here as well. As an example of such feedback loops consider a train-track which is close to your home. On your way to the supermarket, you can either cross the tracks or walk a longer way over a bridge. You have always crossed the track and because nothing ever happened, you don't think twice about it. Right? Boom.

It is not especially about trains, but it could be about traffic safety, or sharp knives, chemicals and electrical appliances in a family with small kids, or snow safety in the mountains.

It is strange how easily we become used to our habits. You look twice and listen carefully before crossing the train-tracks the first time. After a week checking your iPhone while running to the supermarket seems more important than the approaching train.

Simultaneously, habits release our attention to other tasks and allow us for getting more things done. So there is a benefit of some habits. The trick is to know when they are useful.

My one-size-fits-all solution is awareness. Crossing the train track is every time a choice. It is a decision that you should be aware of. You should also be aware of the factors influencing your choice. If you have always gone to the supermarket at 6pm, but today go at 7pm, perhaps the train schedules are different. Perhaps you have seen a construction work on the train tracks a few kilometers away which would change the way trains are routed.

What I am personally interested in is not actually the big things, like crossing the train tracks, but little, everyday habits, like the choice of taking a shower in the morning or the evening? I always take a shower in the morning, because it wakes me up and my hair is a mess after sleeping. But I also do sports usually in the evening and a shower after wards is, well, kind-of necessary. I have also always used to eat a good dinner in the evening, because I have always been hungry in the evening. Until one day I notice that I actually wasn't hungry in the evening, hadn't been hungry in the evening for years, and had gained a few extra kilos because I ate too much.

The thing I am thus advocating is a sensitivity, an awareness, to the little choices, like:
  • I have always kept my keys in my right front pocket
  • I have always eaten mysli for breakfast
  • I always took this route to the office
Perhaps what you have always done is perfect, perhaps it is not, but you don't know it until you become aware of that choice.

sunnuntaina, huhtikuuta 08, 2012

"The right one" and "happiness"

Being single, I have had plenty of opportunities to think about relationships in encounters with (single) ladies. A common desire among singles is to "find the right one". I'm sure we've all heard so many stories from people in relationships that "they just knew that it was right", "he/she is my soul friend", etc. that these images have in our minds has become a per-requisite for a relationship; it has to be perfect, otherwise it's not worth it. I must myself admit that I have in the past argued that I'm a person who sets high goals, I'm used to reaching pretty high standards and relationships are among the most important parts of life, so why should I compromise in my goals when it comes to relationships?
Now I have come to the insight that the requirement of perfection is here the step where I find a problem. In any other field of life it is commonly understood that a requirement of perfection will not lead to anything good. It is just a too high requirement, will therefore never be reached and because perfectionists still expect perfection, the failure to meet expectations leads to unhappiness. Relationships are supposed to be happy things, so what is going on here then? Still, could I look someone in the eyes and think/say "you're not perfect, but good enough?". Probably not.
Another perspective is to think about the way people communicate about relationships. Think about the social dynamic of the following setting; you sit in café with a few friends, when one of the tells about his new girlfriend, and how he "just knows that she's the right one". Now imagine the same story such that the new girlfriend is present as well. Especially in the latter context the story has a immediate effect on (and purpose for) the relationship as public declaration of commitment. Because the feedback effect is so direct, I would see it as foolish to take the statement on face value. Naturally it must be a slightly polished, better-than-real view that people give to their partnerships, because publicly advertising the opposite would have a detrimental effect on the relationship. "She's ok, I think I'll stay with her for a while.."
Quite recently, however, I came up with an alternative approach that seems pretty hard to beat. Instead of searching for perfection, I would argue that we should search for happiness. When I meet a potential partner, the right question is not "is she the right one?", but rather "would I be happy with her?". Somehow re-framing the question in this way takes, for me, the pressure out of the equation. Asking the "right one" question, seems to elevate the question to an everything or nothing level, while for happiness, a relationship is important, but certainly not the only component. Looking someone in the eyes and saying/thinking "I could be happy with you for the rest of my life" seems like a much easier thing to say than "the right one". At the same time, I don't see it as a lesser thing, or that it would somehow equate to selling-out, to accept lower standards, if you will. Being happy with you for the rest of my life, is no small thing. It is indeed spectacular. And since it includes many things outside the relationship, it is perhaps even a bigger thing then just finding the "right one".

At then end, a small disclaimer is necessary. I have stated the objective as "would I be happy for the rest of my life?", with an emphasis on the first person, me. Relationships always involve more than just one person, so some might argue that the right question would be "would we be happy...". However, on one hand, I can take responsibility of only myself, so including a partner in this question would include something that I don't have much control over and thus useless. On the other hand, if I had a partner who is not really happy in our relationship, then I could hardly be happy either, right? So choosing this egocentric approach is not really so egocentric after all, but only emphasizes the fact that I am alone responsible for my own happiness.

tiistaina, tammikuuta 03, 2012

Presidentinvaalit 2012

Yhtä ripeästi kuin vaalit lähesyvät, yhtä kiperä on ehdokkaan valinta. Pääongelmaksi muodostuu strategian valinta. Joudun nimittäin jaottelemaan ehdokkaat kahdella eri tavalla; ehdokkaat joilla on mahdollisuus menestyä, ja ehdokkaat jotka eivät voi voittaa, sekä ehdokkaat joita kannatan, joihin suhtauden enemmän tai vähemmän neutraalisti, sekä ehdokkaat joiden en todellakaan toivo voittavan. Ensinnäkin, ehdokkaita, jotka eivät voi missään tapauksessa voittaa, ei kannata äänestää. Tähän ryhmään arvioisin kuuluvan: Essayah (koska hän on äärikonservatiivi), Biaudet (RKP:n edustaja tarvitsee erityisen suuren nosteen voidakseen karistaa kieli-vihaajien taakan), Arhimäki (liian marginaalinen), ja Soini sekä Väyrynen (vakaaista kannattajakunnistaan huolimatta molemmilla on vähintään yhtä innokkaat ja kannattajia suuremmat vastustajakunnat).
Kahden viimeisen ehdokkaan kohdalla en kuitenkaan ole riittävän varma, ettei heillä ole mahdollisuuksia. Pelko on että heistä toinen, tai pahimmassa tapauksessa molemmat, selviävät toiselle kierrokselle. Soini ja Väyrynen nimittäin kuuluvat siihen joukkoon jota vastustan, yhdessä Essayahin kanssa. Kaikki he edustavat taaksepäin katsomista, pelonlietsomista, syrjintää ja heikoimpien sortamista. Jokaisella on tämän lisäksi omat erityispaheensa; Väyrysen hävytön systeemillä pelailu omaksi eduksi (Jalasmökki yms.), Essayahin anteeksi antamaton suhtautuminen seksuaalisiin vähemmistöin ja Soinin rotusyrjinnän hyväksyvä asenne. Näiden en halua siis missäin tapauksessa voittavan ja äänestysstrategia on valittava sen mukaisesti. Pitää siis valita kandidaatti joka voisi voittaa Soinin tai Väyrysen toisella kierroksella.
Hyviä kandidaateja on kolme; Haavisto, Biaudet ja jossain määrin myös Arhimäki. Kaksi jäljempää kuuluvat ei-voittaviin kandidaatteihin, joten jäljelle jää Haavisto. Mikäli toisella kierroksella olisi Haavisto-Soini tai Haavisto-Väyrynen, olen varma että Haavisto voittaa. Niinistöä ja Lipposta en erityisemmin vastusta, mutta minusta Lipponen edustaa turhan Kekkosmaista johtamistyyliä ja Niinistö edustaa juuri sellaista politiikkaa joka johtaa eriarvoistumiseen ja hän on sitä kautta osaltaan auttanut Soinin suosion syntyyn.
Mikäli tarkoituksena on luoda yhtenäisyyttä ja onnellisuutta, katsoa eteenpäin ja kehittää Suomea kaikkille paremmaksi, uskon että Haavisto on paras valinta. Ei siksi että hän olisi mielestäni täydellinen tai edes välttämättä paras kandidaatti, vaan siksi että äänestämällä häntä uskon äänelläni olevan eniten positiivista vaikutusta Suomen hyväksi..

Thoreau

I must admit that I've never read Thoreau, but yesterday I heard a quote of him: "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." Initially, it seems like a noble desire, but upon careful reflection, I must disagree. In most cases of course, I do agree, but there is always that one exception. Finding one is not too difficult; on my deathbed, I would much rather think that everyone loves me then than the truth (whatever it is).
It seems that this applies to everything. Every possible rule there is, there is at least one exception, which is not too difficult to come up with. Even if we can generate a good rule of thumb - always seek the truth - that is not enough for the philosopher. We "must" keep in mind the reason for the rule. There is always that one exception, where the reason for the general rule does not apply, where we are better off ignoring the rule or even doing the opposite.
Personally, my general rule that applies for 99.99% of the cases, if not more, is "strive for happiness". I believe that striving for truth is an important part of striving for happiness, and that that is the reason Thoreau thought that the truth is important. Because most people are most of the time better off and happier when striving for the truth.

(My new-years resolution is, although I don't do new-years resolutions, to find out if my claim about the origins of Thoreau's quote is true.)

tiistaina, joulukuuta 06, 2011

Independence day

In Finland, today is the yearly bank holiday known as Independence day. It is a celebration of attaining independence and considered a day of great importance in Finland. My attitude towards the day is, however, twisted.
First of all, I do appreciate the liberties Finns gained through independence and I certainly do appreciate the efforts of all those who have defended those liberties.A society which supports free expression and other basic human rights is important for the happiness and well-being of people, and gaining independence from Russia and maintaining it through WWII were really important achievements. But beyond that, I don't see much value in independence. Let me explain.
My biggest problem is the nationalism that is always associated with independence. Nationalism is always exclusive in nature, as opposed to inclusive. It is always "we" the against the others. Nationalism without the "others" would be meaningless and nationalism by nature thus promotes partisanship and supports conflicts. Moreover, independence in itself is exclusive in nature. "We" are independent of "them". Let them take care of themselves. Insofar as independence increases the amount of people that have access to human rights, then it is positive. But suppose Helsinki would like to become independent from Finland. Does not really make any sense, does it? (Although I can imagine some local politicians who would support the idea.) It would be an arbitrary division of Finland into parts. 
You could argue that separating Finland from Russia is a different case than Helsinki from Finland, since there is a distinct cultural difference between Finland and Russia. The argument falls apart when we realise that there is also a distinct cultural difference between Helsinki, with a city-culture, and most of the rest country, which has a more rural culture. So, the division into states is rather arbitrary. I do think that division of the world into states is useful in our time (that might change sometime though). Having a singular government for the whole world has a great risk of driving the leaders into corruption, which would be very difficult to disband if there are no counter-forces.
When observing the independence day celebrations (in Finland and elsewhere), we observe that a central theme is displaying the national flag and other national symbols. Here, notice the use of the word "national-". By using these symbols we emphasise the nationalistic as well as the exclusive character of the festivities. This is also the reason why right-wing extremists so eagerly embrace national symbols. It is "we" against the "others".
In conclusion, I would much rather celebrate a day of human rights, co-operation, equality, peace and democracy, than a day of independence.

lauantaina, maaliskuuta 19, 2011

On Accountability 2

In the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, I again have started to reflect on accountability. This time, I am thinking about the accountability of the general media and not only scientific publications. During my studies, I read two courses of modern physics, which would be in layman's terms nuclear physics. I have repeated this often, but I still contend that only after having studied modern physics did I learn to sufficiently appreciate my ignorance. In other words, only after having studied nuclear physics did I understand that I don't know by far enough to make any sensible statements about nuclear physics. It's just too difficult.

Now, having read plenty of news from Fukushima, I realize that most journalists do not share my appreciation of their own ignorance. The news are filled with statements that are to me obviously flawed, and which scare people that do not spot the flaw. In effect, the main news outlets are doing their best to spread panic and fear.

As horrible as the events in Fukushima are, I believe that we should refrain ourselves from making decisions based on emotion only, instead of facts and evidence based judgement. Spreading fear and panic is in this sense counter-productive. Fears should be considered in decision making, since it has a strong negative effect on the well-being of people, but it should not be taken as an excuse for ignoring facts and evidence.

My conclusion of this is, with respect to news outlets, that news corporations driven by economical motives do not have sufficient incentives to retain accountability. Spreading fear and panic sells newspapers, even if the news would be slightly inaccurate. It seems that this lack of accountability is a common theme in market driven corporations - it is, after all, lack of accountability that caused the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Likewise, lack of accountability caused the economic crash a few years ago. If thus accept that the capitalistic system is lacking in incentives for accountability, the question that remains is what we should do about it?

To me it seems that the only way to introduce accountability in world economy, is to change the rules of the game somehow. The most obvious choice is regulation. However, I fear that such regulations would be difficult to design and even more difficult to supervise. To be honest, I don't even have an idea where to begin. Personally, I would lay more hope in changing the rules on a different level, by opening things up instead of closing them down. I believe that enforcing transparency, not only to governments, but to privately owned corporations as well, that would be a good start. This would not, however, solve the problem with news outlets.

This is a problem that still eludes me. Especially now that the border between news media and private persons on the Internet has diffused, it will be difficult to enforce accountability. For traditional newspapers, it perhaps would have been possible to enforce a law that demands that facts should be double-checked. But with bloggers such rules become meaningless.

Right at this moment, I had an idea! What about a scientific validation service for news outlets? A service, that would employ scientific experts to validate the plausibility of claims made in a news story? Hmm. Have to think about that more.

lauantaina, helmikuuta 26, 2011

On Accountability

A word that I have come to stumble on with increasing frequency is "accountability". It is with pleasure I have seen its rise, not only because it often involves bringing justice, which is inherently good, but because it demonstrates a rise awareness of systemic relationships. Let me explain why.

A recent topic in Finland has been the quality of food. Many in the general public have bemoaned the low quality. The producers respond that their offerings match the demand, so the general public is to blame. In effect, both parties are pointing fingers at the opposite side.
Personally, I happen to agree with both sides. The quality of many products is shamefully low, but a depressingly large portion of people are primarily interested in the price, not quality. The public cries for accountability, but producers cannot commit economical suicide by raising quality without obtaining something in return.
A systemic analysis of the situation would probably most naturally begin by observing the incentives the producers have to improve the quality and the incentives the public has to buy good quality food. For the low-income people, there are no incentives. You eat what you can afford. This fact alone enforces the status quo. There is an obvious demand for cheap food and the producers main incentive is to meet the demand.
Here the cry for accountability is effectively a demand for a feedback system. Without going into how the accountability should be implemented, for which I do not have any clue, I would like to emphasise the importance of a feedback system. The demand and supply relationship is, in a narrow sense, a linear relationship, where more demand gives more supply. The demand for accountability, for a feedback mechanism, is essentially a desire to create another connection between supply and demand, that balances or counter-acts the existing relationship.
I find it important to realize that all parties in this equation currently already act in a way that is well-warranted, when observed in isolation. Each participant tries his best to do good in his local surroundings. That the outcome is bad, is not to be blamed on the individuals, but on the design of the system.

Another example is the famous and infamous Wikileaks. I honestly believe that US officials quite earnestly believe that they have been acting in the best interest of the people of USA all along, if not always "the world". From their own isolated perspectives, all their actions seem well-warranted and justified. The fact is, however, that the US has in secret done some horrible things (for a abbreviated list, see http://www.opendemocracy.net/ryan-gallagher/what-has-wikileaks-ever-taught-us-read-on). Although the US government is supposedly held accountable to the people of USA, the flow of information from the government to the public has been too weak. The government has not had any incentive to improve the flow of information, since improving would have made life within the government more difficult. What is needed is an independent party to control the flow of information. Wikileaks is one such independent party, although admittedly it has its faults.

Yet another example of a completely different kind is the scientific peer-review process. To obtain good quality science, we must have a mechanic for assessing the quality. Peer-review is the best mechanism we know of. Usually, peer-review is enforced in scientific publications, where any input must be subjected to examination of independent experts. Only when the experts agree that the input meets scientific standards of quality, is the article accepted for publication.
The standard way of implementing peer-review is anonymous review, where the independent experts are chosen secretly by the editors of the scientific publication and the authors never learn the experts identity. The purpose of this mechanism is to prevent undesirable feedback, that is, enable reviewers to express negative criticism without fear of retaliation. An undesirable side-effect is that the reviewers do not get any feedback for their comments. Again, the system is linear. Information flows only from reviewers to the authors.
An alternative is open review, such as exploited by Wikipedia, where commentary is signed, if not by name, at least by alias. (In on-line communities, an alias can become as valuable as a real-life identity.) In the open review model, a reviewer dare not submit careless criticism, because his own reputation is on the line. Only well-argued criticism can be presented, without a negative impact on ones own reputation.

In each of these cases, the usual level of dialogue is finger pointing, name calling and blaming the opponent for the problems that exist. I find such dialogue un-constructive and distasteful. Yet, the emergence of the word accountability, gives hope that people in positions of power would catch up on a systemic perspective, if not consciously, perhaps at least intuitively. Personally, I have today tried to start a movement within my own field of science toward increased accountability through open review. After all, I do not want to be just another "finger pointer", but I believe it is imperative to act upon what you think is right.