Monday, February 27, 2006

Economics as language

Another intriguing paper in the Post-Autistic Economics Review, looking at the idea that economics (like Lacan's unconscious), is structured like a language.

William Kaye-Blake, of Lincoln University, New Zealand, uses Tony Lawson's Reorienting Economics as a springboard. That book argued that the mathematical and deductive ontology of mainstream economics is fundamentally inappropriate for the complexity of human factors in any actual economy, and recommends critical realism as an alternative (a field in which, unsurprisingly, Lawson specialises).

Kaye-Blake extends this with reference to postmodern linguistic theory, where meaning is produced only by the differences between signifiers:
Every day, people use language to communicate even though the meaning of their utterances cannot be fixed until the end of time. We manage in spite of this linguistic indeterminacy. It is the same in economic behaviour: the value of the products one buys or the goods one produces is contingent. The product might not perform as advertised, it could break, it could be superseded tomorrow by something that works better and costs less. The goods produced might not command a high enough price to cover the cost of production, or demand could exceed projections and profits would be less than they could have been. Certainly, economic tools have been developed to deal with these uncertainties, such as demand management and insurance. However, economics is fundamentally open because the future is unknown; it could surprise us.

The basic argument, if I understand it right underneath the postmodern jargon, seems fairly obvious - that value, in the economic sense, is not fixed nor obvious nor entirely rational, and that there's a big difference between value and price. Unlike mainstream microeconomics, where a transaction is a definitive act, here it is like a brief conversation where the words just ain't enough:
the value of what consumers buy or producers create or traders exchange is not fixed in the present. Certainly, the moment of exchange establishes a price, but the value of goods and services in terms of utility or satisfaction or future profit streams is unknown until the future happens.

Interesting stuff. Not least because of the inclusion of a rather surprising reference while discussing postmodern views of 'openness':
They reflect complexity: multiple forces acting either on the surface of society or surging up from its depths; they are still deterministic. These forces, many though they be, determine the present phenomena. They are thus in fact closed, although complex. The methodological solution for social scientist is to develop better models that account for all the variables and forces, not to respect some notion of openness. This was the problem that Heinlein grappled with in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: if a computer could gather up more information and make more calculations of potential futures than mere humans could, it could plot a lunar rebellion much more effectively and be better prepared for contingencies. Predicting a complex system of forces requires more information, but it is in theory no different from predicting a simple system.

Robert A Heinlein as postmodern economic theorist? Don't recall that from Starship Troopers, though some of his fans seem to have found some other hidden depths.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Haunts of the Halifax Slasher

Just added to the main features section of the site is a long piece on some of the strangest incidents in the history my home town of Halifax, Yorkshire.

This essay was originally published in Strange Attractor Journal last year, and is presented here with some minor changes (I would still thoroughly recommend buying the original journal, as it's a gem, packed with the odd and inspirational).

The piece, Haunts of the Halifax Slasher, is something of a departure from my usual published work. It's inspired by some of my favourite writers such as Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, and Guy Debord's ideas of psychogeography and dérive - attempts to rediscover and redefine an urban environment through free-floating considerations of the specifics of local history and landscape. Following the examples of Sinclair and Moore in London and Northampton, I've concentrated on Halifax's long and colourful history of violence, hysteria, fear and loathing, as manifest on a walk around and into the town centre.

As the title suggests, the focus of the walk is the strange events of November 1938, when the town lived for in fear of the phantom attacker known as the Slasher (for an introduction to the case, see here). This spins off into other strange and terrible tales, from medieval legends of murderous monks, through the harsh law of the Halifax Gibbet, sundry riots and murders, to more recent incidents asssociated with far-right political activity.

The common thread through much of it is the ease with which rumour and irrationality, fuelled by ignorance, prejudice and social or economic uncertainty, can erupt into psychopathology. None of which is exactly unique to Halifax, but the town's distinct landscape and concentration of strange history makes for an interesting journey.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

New Ballard

A synopsis is now up on Amazon for 'Kingdom Come', the latest novel from the great JG Ballard.

The basic plot set-up is (perhaps overly) familiar from his other later novels such as 'Running Wild', 'Cocaine Nights', 'Super-Cannes' and 'Millennium People' - a personal inquiry into a mass-murder in some more or less self-contained community reveals deeper psychological truths about our wider society. But it's a formula that's mostly worked well. This latest one appears to continue the more explicitly contemporary political concerns of 'Millennium People' - the main question here being can consumerism turn into fascism?

Consumerism rules the lives of everyone in the motorway towns, but it is a form of consumerism that co-exists with an obsessive interest in sport and a perverted pride in English nationalism. Racist attacks on immigrant communities are widespread, and the sports meetings are virtually political rallies. Supporters clubs march through the streets, waving their flags and banners, waiting for a new leader to guide them to the promised land. The leader soon appears in an unexpected way.

Suburban psychopathologies are nothing new in Ballard, but an overt and specifically contemporary political element is becoming increasingly prominent in his work. As he said himself a few years ago, he's becoming more left wing as he gets older. To be honest, I didn't think that the political elements of 'Millennium People' worked that well, but it'll still be intriguing to see this new book. I can't think of any other major novelists tackling the current resurgence of petty British nationalism and far-right politics - does it really take a 75-year-old, with real personal experience of the fascism of WWII, to speak up?


Monday, February 13, 2006

Life in a 5-d hole

The current New Scientist has one of those intriguing articles on speculative cosmology, with US astrophysicist Paul Wesson asking - what if the universe was a five-dimensional black hole? (The full feature is sadly subscription-only online.)

The answer to what it would be like is that it would be remarkably similar to what we see. These 5-d ones aren't like the familar four-dimensional (that's three of space, and one of time) black holes - and by 'familiar' I mean that even if you don't have much of a grasp on general relativity, you'll probably get the idea from if you get too close to one, it'll suck you in, rip you apart, and not even your constituent atoms will be seen again.

These 5-d ones are much friendlier places to hang around. And handily, there's plenty of circumstantial evidence that suggests that the universe has at least five dimensions, otherwise it just shouldn't work in the way that it apparently does. A 5-d universe just wouldn't look any different to what we see as a 4-d one.

The most persuasive clue found by Wesson is that the universe (as it would be in a variant of the big bang model dubbed the 'big bounce', which seems to demand five dimensions) looks remarkably like a hypothetical five-dimensional black hole, if you look at a ballpark measure of their physical characteristics called the Kretschman Scalar. This measure basically measures the gravitational field at some point in space, and takes a variety of dimensional forms for different models - but in these two cases, it comes out very similar. As Wesson says:
It is conceivable that a bouncing universe and a 5D black hole could have identical Kretschmann scalars by coincidence alone, but given the number of parameters involved, it is very unlikely. Much more likely is that there is some kind of similarity between the two objects.

Intriguing stuff, that demands further investigation. Wesson throws in a coda illustrating the possible ramifications, albeit in a way that risks drawing in the astral-travelling crowd:
We are led to consider the idea of a set of "Russian doll universes", with each world embedded in another world of higher dimensions. There is as yet no way to know what we will discover when we probe these higher-dimensional universes.