Back in the 1950s at the height of the cold war, President Truman got an alarming piece of advice from the scientists at his military think-tank, the RAND corporation. The Soviets have nuclear capability, they said, we have nuclear capability, better nuke them before they nuke us. This, according to game theory, their latest piece of mathematical wizardry, was the only rational course of action. While an agreement not to push the button would benefit both parties, cooperation is also the riskiest strategy because you stand to lose everything if the other guy gets in there first. Better, then, to act - and hang the consequences.
Game theory was the first real attempt to understand decision making in mathematical terms. Its architect, the mathematician John von Neumann, was influential at the RAND corporation in the 1950s, and an ardent supporter of the pre-emptive strike, based on his belief that humans act as "rational agents". Since then, however, numerous studies have shown that people simply don't behave in real life as his mathematical models predict. In the game called the prisoner's dilemma - which is analogous to the situation that Truman faced - the maths says that two rational players should not cooperate for a reward if they stand to gain a bigger reward by "defecting". That's because even though the game is rigged so that if both players defect the payout is minimal, it is in their interests to do so because they will receive nothing at all if their partner defects and they do not. Yet, countless repetitions of this game in psychology and economics laboratories worldwide reveal that if the same two players play repeatedly, their strategies evolve into a complex mix of cooperation and defection. Von Neumann got it wrong - people do not behave rationally...
Clearly we include social and emotional effects, not just material gains, when we weigh up the costs and benefits of various courses of action open to us as individuals. We recognise that defecting carries a social risk, especially when it takes place in public or in front of somone you know. The view now seems to be that von Neumann's view of rationality residing inside your head is wrong - it is in the interaction between people acting socially - and that social context has a huge impact on our decision making thought processes.
This is based on New Scientist 31/07/04 (subscription required). The article goes on to deal with brain imaging using MRI etc to investigate the thinking process. However these ideas of rationality in our social relationships also raises other interesting issues about politics. It seems to give the lie for example to the political view that we are selfish actors only looking out for ourselves and certainly to Margaret Thatcher's nonsensical statement that 'there is no such thing as society'
At last, by thinking of the time before she was born,
By thought and reason I drove the pain away.
Since my heart forgot her, many days have passed
And three times winter has changed to spring.
This morning, for a little, the old grief came back,
Because, in the road, I met her foster-nurse.
In 1995, the CPRE and the former Countryside Commission published some work on Tranquil Areas. This study used GIS to plot areas of the country that were for a minimum distance away from locations like motorways, power stations, airports etc. The definition of ‘tranquility’ is essentially arbitrary, but still gives a good picture of what happened between the early 1960s and the early 1990s.
According to the criteria a Tranquil Area lies:
· 4 km from the largest power stations.
· 3 km from the most highly trafficked roads such as the Ml/M6; from large towns (e.g. towns the size of Leicester and larger); and from major industrial areas.
· 2 km from most other motorways and major trunk roads such as the M4 and Al and from the edge of smaller towns.
· 1 km from medium disturbance roads i.e. roads which are difficult to cross in peak hours (taken to be roughly equivalent to greater than 10,000 vehicles per day) and some main line railways.
· A Tranquil Area also lies beyond military and civil airfield/airport noise lozenges as defined by published noise data (where available) and beyond very extensive opencast mining.
Not surprisingly, areas of tranquillity had reduced over that period. More importantly however the remaining areas had also become more fragmented.
In the 1960s the study estimated that there were about 92,000 sq km of ‘tranquil areas’, declining by 21% to the 1990s figure of 73,000 sq km. The average size of these tranquil areas declined much faster however from 193 sq km in the 1960s to 52 sq km in the 1990s – a reduction of 73%.
The criteria take no explicit account of visual intrusion however. It is probable that if this were to be included, the change between the 60s and 90s would have been shown to be greater and perhaps even more fragmentation. Even so, the data shows just how far the impact of urbanisation has spread across the UK. This impact is much more serious I think than any loss of land to housing and other urban development.
What seems most important is some form of recognition for the concept. Despite the efforts of the Countryside Agency and the CPRE, I am not aware of any Structure Plan or Local Plan that includes explicit policies designed to protect or enhance existing tranquil areas. In practice I don’t know if there is anything we can do to recreate tranquillity in the areas that have gone – I suspect not. That makes it even more important to protect the tranquillity we have managed to keep so far.
...When digging up a medieval floor for instance, you can pick out the bones of the same rat mixed up with other bones from animals eaten for food. All the rat's bones are there, though the left and right femurs are 3 metres apart. That means that when the rat died, its corpse was left there, entire on the kitchen floor. Nobody made the effort to throw it out of the window. Its bones were then then dispersed by people walking thorugh them. It shows that people didn't fear rats, they were used to them.
From an interview with the French archaeologist, crime writer and political campaigner Fred Vargas in New Scientist 312/07/04
In her blog about aging, Ronni Bennet has been posting a series about her mother’s death. Some of this I have seen on her Fotolog, but much was new. These posts are deeply personal but still have something to say for all of us.
Our society somehow manages to both ignore (or at least suppress) death while at the same time obsessively generating images of it on Film and TV and in the written media. Every action film, every crime thriller is filled with it, stylishly rendered into balletic action or gruesomely depicted with dismembered body parts and cartoon blood filling the screen. Look for example at the success of violent movies from the Wild Bunch onwards, or at the CSI franchise now all over TV screens. Generally such stylised deaths are anonymous – the victims’ only purpose is to die – crushed beneath the juggernaut of the storyline. We even use them as vehicles for humour.
For most of us though, when we meet with death it isn’t happening to some anonymous, faceless character or to some cartoon villain. It is happening to our friends, our children, our parents. It is immediate, painful, harrowing and often messy. When we use humour it is not to raise a laugh but as a defence against the truth. Sometimes it is the only way to tell the truth. This is in his way I think Pratchett’s message to us – death (sorry DEATH) is normal, death is banal. Philadelphia and La Traviata tackle death in different ways, facing it head-on
Sadly, such emotional honesty is too often missing from the depictions that fill our screens daily. We do not face death honestly by carving up bodies on screen. We face it by recognising the reality – as Ronni does.
Brian Micklethwait seems surprised that anyone should think large schools are not a good thing. I would have thought it obvious that small schools were an essential requirement for the pro-choice agenda he promotes.
In passing, I liked the idea from the US of converting one mammoth school into lots of small schools within the same building.
Small beer I know to many, and probably not done to remark on it, but this blog is on target for the 10,000th hit some time this week, (counting from when I installed StatCounter in February), with nearly 2500 of them in the last 30 days. The stats from TypePad, reckon over 13,000 hits overall.