The French have a word for it

I remember when I first encountered the word bonheur, the title of a film by Agnes Varda.This is usually gets translated in to English as happiness. But in French bonheur has a less nebulous sense than the English happiness; it is to do with fulfilment, with well being, with the pleasures of a good meal or pleasant surroundings or warm relationships with others. Practical useful pleasures. Very much the business of Purposive Drift. As Charles Eames put it, “the rewarding experiences and aesthetic pleasures of our lives should not be dependent solely upon the classic fine arts, but should be, rather, a natural product of the business of life itself.”
Now I have a new word, avenir. I learnt it from Harry Eyres, who in turn learnt it from the film Derrida. In the film, he says, “Derrida suggests a distinction (in the French language) between futur and avenir. Futur/future (as in planning for the future, future trends and so on) suggests a continuation or extrapolation of the present, running along the same lines or tracks. The beautiful word avenir, on the other hand, means what is to come, something potentially quite other, something we cannot yet know, but which might, just might, be the realm of justice and peace on earth.”
I like the notion of the future being seen as “‘what is to come, something potentially quite other, something we cannot yet know”. That is very Purposive Drift.

It must be something in the Zeitgeist

Following my last post on the Politics of Fear , I found two excellent related pieces. The first from the right leaning Cato Institute , �A False Sense of Insecurity?� by John Mueller (in PDF format); the second in the liberal Guardian, �The age of anxiety� by Madeleine Bunting . I include short extracts from both to give a sense of their flavour:
“Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.”
John Mueller
“We need to be much more aware of the corrosive impact of fear on politics and civil society. The ugliest and most powerful of political emotions, it short-circuits and distorts political debate. Once unleashed, it is very hard to reverse. Figures last week showed that while crime has fallen, fear of crime remains stubbornly high. Fear has its short-term uses for both politicians and the media but it delivers diminishing returns. One way to manage fear is to simply switch off: don�t bother voting or watching the news, try Wife Swap instead. Worst of all, fear gets displaced. It may start as an insecurity over a job, a worry over a pension, but it can end up as racism. Fear needs clearly identifiable enemies. As the global flow of people speeds up, and our cities and countries become more diverse, there is no shortage of material out of which to fantasise the enemies of our nightmares.
So when you feel afraid, question who or what has made you so – and why it was in their interests to do so – assess the risk, and always remember how much destruction fear ultimately wreaks on everything we call civilisation.”

Madeleine Bunting

The Politics of Fear

Richard Sennett is a very perceptive man. In a recent article in the Guardian he identifies a phenomenon underlying politics in the US, which I believe has wider implications for the rest of the world. As he puts it:
�…In the wealthiest country on Earth, the economic engine rouses Ricardo�s ancient spectre of uselessness; the class map is shrinking the number of people who matter, who are included. The new class map breeds fear, and the counter to fear is to assert that the old values matter. By shifting the centre of gravity, you assert your own value when confronted with conditions you can do nothing about.�
Reading Sennett�s piece, which I urge you to read with some care, I was reminded of an essay by Jock Young , � From Inclusive To Exclusive Society: Nightmares In The European Dream �, which takes a longer historical look at how we reached this phenomenon. In it he traces the move from what he calls the Inclusive Society, which was the major thrust of politics in the advanced industrial countries of the West from the end of the 2nd World War to some point in the mid-Seventies, to that of the Exclusive Society, which seems to head the political agenda now. As Jock Young says:
�If we picture contemporary meritocracy as a racetrack where merit is rewarded according to talent and effort, we find a situation of two tracks and a motley of spectators: a primary labour market where rewards are apportioned according to plan but where there is always the chance of demotion to the second track where rewards are substantially inferior and only small proportions of the track are open to competitors and there is always the chance of being demoted to the role of spectators. As for the spectators, their exclusion is made evident by barriers and heavy policing: they are denied real access to the race but are the perpetual spectators of the glittering prizes on offer.�
This agenda, seems to me, to be a recipe for disaster. The politicians, who play the game of amplifying the fears of those who sense they no longer matter or who may at some point may fall into that group, are like people fighting for chairs on the Titanic. Sadly, when I look at politics here in the UK and in the USA, those seem to be the majority of the political voices.
A small step towards moving us back to more inclusive notions of society and countering the insecurities that plague too many people�s lives would be to explore seriously the idea of a Universal Basic Income . Even a sensible widespread debate about the notion could be a means of shifting the point of gravity away from the politics of fear to a politics of why people matter. As Sennett has written elsewhere, �a regime �which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy�.

Go for the one that seems interesting

“Whenever I do things because I want to do it and because it seems fun or interesting and so on and so forth, it almost always works. And it almost always winds up more than paying for itself. Whenever I do things for the money, not only does it prove a headache and a pain in the neck and come with all sorts of awful things attached, but I normally dont wind up getting the money, either. So, after a while, you do sort of start to learn [to] just forget about the things where people come to you and dangle huge wads of cash in front of you. Go for the one that seems interesting because, even if it all falls apart, youve got something interesting out of it. Whereas, the other way, you normally wind up getting absolutely nothing out of it.”

I know this sounds a bit like following your bliss, but I think theres something much tougher and down to earth going on here. Read the rest of this interview with Neil Gaiman and I think you will see what I mean.

Just-In-Time Education

I am always slightly amazed at the way that relevant stuff just seems to pop up when you are working on a project. I say “slightly amazed” because by now I shouldn’t be surprised. But despite what I know intellectually it still seems like magic. Of course, the magic lies in what you notice and that depends upon what you are paying attention to at the time.
I was reminded of this the other day when I came across a conversation with Neil Gershenfeld in Edge, which was stuffed full of interesting ideas. What leapt out me was some something he said about just-in-time education:
“…You can view a lot of MIT’s instruction as offering just-in-case education; you learn lots of stuff in case you eventually need it. What I’m talking about is really just-in-time education. You let people solve the problems they want to solve, and you provide supporting material they can draw on as they progress.”
Now the concept of just-in-time education was just what I need for a little project I was hurrying through with little time for the research and the thought that seemed to be needed. Now the point I am making here is that is that I wasn’t looking for this concept. I didn’t arrive at it through careful research. In fact, I found it when I was distracting myself from what I felt I “ought” to be doing by cruising round the web. Perhaps this is yet another example of the importance of allowing yourself enough time to “drift”.

The Long Curve

Some years ago I went to a lecturer by Jacob Nielsen where I began to get very excited when he talked about the distribution of visits to web sites following Zipf’s Law. Putting it very crudely Zipf’s Law states that with things like words in a language or the popularity of web sites there will a small number that are used a lot, a mid-range that will be used a bit and a very large number that will used hardly at all. If you represent this as a diagram you have a very steep gradient on the left, gently tapering off as you move to the right. (There is a very nice example of this here) What excited me about Nielsen’s talk was his suggestion that it was in the more gentle part of the curve that the richest new commercial possibilities lay.
I was reminded of my original excitement when I read Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” in Wired. There is a lot of fascinating stuff here, including the diagram I’ve already mentioned that explains all the key stuff in one picture, but this extract may explain why I am bouncing up and down on my chair, mumbling, “the internet really does make a difference”.
“Chart Rhapsody’s monthly statistics and you get a “power law” demand curve that looks much like any record store’s, with huge appeal for the top tracks, tailing off quickly for less popular ones. But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks, which is about the amount of the fluid inventory (the albums carried that will eventually be sold) of the average real-world record store. Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero – either they don’t carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store.
The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.”