18 October 2017

Passive Voice and Crime

This is a response to a Tweet that showed up in my Twitter stream a couple of days ago. We often speak about crime in the passive voice. And there's a thing about passive voice that will be clear to anyone who has learned Pali or Sanskrit - the passive voice has no subject. Which is why I prefer agent/patient to subject/object when discussing grammar.

In the active voice, a subject does an action to an object. In the passive voice an action is done by an agent to an patient. But we can and do use the passive voice without a subject, i.e. with just an action and a patient.

In terms of crime we can say things like:
"The woman was raped."
"A man was mugged."
"A child was run over."
"The official was bribed."
"The house was burgled"
This is a pretty common way of talking about crime. What's missing in all of these statement is the agent of the action: "... by a rapist", "... by a mugger", "... by the dangerous driver", "... by the developer", "... by a thief". And so on. Just because the verb is in the passive voice, does not mean that the action is not carried out by someone.

Similarly, there is a trend for people who have responsibility to skirt it by saying bullshit phrases like "mistakes were made". In which case we can always ask "By whom were the mistakes made?" Just because they shift to the passive voice, does not mean that we are forced to abandon the notion of a grammatical (and real) agent of the action.

Use of the passive voice without an agent is a problem to the extent that it shifts the conversational emphasis onto grammatical patient, i.e. the victim, the location, or the nature of the crime, while obscuring the agent of the action. Of course crimes happen to us, against our will, so the passive voice is designed for exactly these situations. But if we leave off the perpetrator of the crime, we may create an unfair situation.

Why? Because when we comprehend actions we typically understand them in terms of agents with motivations. And why is this? It's because the archetype for a willed action is our own experience of turning our head to say we've had enough milk. Or our first experience of grabbing something and pulling it closer. The archetypes in other words are our own willed actions.

So if we only mention the patient of the criminal action, then we leave a conceptual gap in which the victim (potentially) becomes the agent: i.e. we blame the victim. Someone has to make the action happen, and if the actual agent is out of the picture, then we look to the only other participant. Crime is emotive, and perhaps no crime more so than rape. If someone was raped, then yes, I think it is vital that we insist that it was an action carried out by someone.

In rape, resistance often makes things worse for example, because the assailant may become more violent and it both intensifies and prolongs the experience. Each case is different, but no woman ever wants to be raped, or "asks for it". That much has to be clear. And it ought to be clear in how we talk about it. But its not justice to hold a whole section of society to blame for the crimes of individuals. This is an important principle of our justice system: collective punishment is not just. I cannot be blamed or punished for crimes in which I am not explicitly involved in committing. I don't accept that just being a man makes me complicit in violence. I've been the victim of more violence than most people I know. Quite a bit of that was from women or girls, by the way.

With that said, I do want to continue to think more about the use of passive voice verbs in the way we speak of crimes generally. For example, with respect to the example of bribery, you may have thought, "hang on, the official who was bribed actively committed a crime by accepting the bribe." Yes, they did. The bribe was accepted by the official. Interesting, this is the passive voice, but in discussing bribery always seems to specify an agent. The verb is passive in this sentence, but it is clear who is doing what. So this makes it an interesting one to think about. For every crime there is a criminal.

It's important to specify the agent of the criminal action, especially in the case of groups who tend to be oppressed or disempowered. The story is not, to take a topical example, that some actor was raped, but that an actor was raped by Harvey Weinstein (allegedly). The criminal becomes the focus rather than the victim of the crime. Our justice system is skewed towards punishing perpetrators and so we have to identify them, or we consider that justice has not been served. A more restorative justice system would go about it differently and would require us to focus on the victims. 

A load of crime words are used in both the past active and past passive voice "he raped..." and "she was raped...". Similarly with murdered, robbed etc. We almost always talk about crimes in the past - unless we are in the process of being mugged or whatever.

Of course this is more difficult when the criminal is as yet unknown or as yet not proven guilty (as in Weinstein's case). But the thing about the passive voice is that it cries out to be qualified "by....". Which is why one amusing way to identify a verb in the passive voice is to see if following it with "by zombies" still makes sense. e.g.

  • The man was being pursued [by zombies]. Makes sense, verb is passive. 
  • The man pursued [by zombies] his dog. Doesn't make sense, verb is active. 

The person on twitter who inspired this little rant, was insistent that perpetrators should particularly be identified as men. To me this smacks of the old "all men a rapists" bullshit. A man might have raped a woman, and yes, it is usually a man, but actually the number of men who are rapists is pretty small. I have known many hundreds of men, and I know of one who was accused of rape. I'm not sure that anything is gained by emphasising the gender of criminals. In the case of violence, men are very much more likely to be the victims of violence than women are.

In any case, people sometimes say we should strive to eliminate the passive voice. When I looked at a few news headlines, I did not see much use of the passive voice. Many crime stories do use the active voice and of course are therefore forced to attribute the crime to someone. So maybe the prejudice against the passive voice is having an effect. In which case the original complaint might have overstated the problem.

On the other hand because we attribute crimes to someone, and are often lazy about the adverb allegedly, some people are splattered with guilt by association. The "no smoke without fire" fallacy. I have seen no evidence that anyone thinks that Weistein did not rape, molest, and pester women, though he has yet to be charged by the police, let alone appear in court to be judged. He is being tried in the media and punishment has already commenced.

On the other hand, when the police raided Cliff Richard's house, and tipped off the media so that they could film it, the man's reputation was severely damaged by the allegations. A crime was more or less deliberately attributed to him, when in fact, as far as anyone knows, he is innocent (false accusation is also a crime). Same with Paul Gambaccini, who was caught up in the same furore, but was always innocent. Accusations of child sex-abuse are extremely damaging, especially to someone who makes their living in the public eye. And that is balanced against the damage that sex-offenders cause if left unchecked (as they have been for decades in the entertainment industry).

So, even if we were to switch entirely to using the active voice, the way we talk and think about crime is not a simple matter. We usually have less than perfect knowledge and people are unreliable witnesses (both passively and actively).

There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. Especially when things happen to us against our will, the passive voice is exactly what we need to express that directly. If someone punched me in the face we could look at it in different ways. If I wanted you to empathise with me and perhaps comfort me, I might say "I was punched in the face". The focus is on me. But if I want you to get angry I might say "Phil punched me in the face." Now I am directing your attention to Phil. If you report this to your friend you (unconsciously) make similar determinations, i.e. who is the focus? What emotion am I trying to elicit? Who is to blame? And so on. A good deal of subtly is available to us by adding extra words, stress, and facial expressions to the mix.

16 October 2017

Technological Frogs

The universe as we know it, began 13.7 billion years ago. The earth formed out of the solar disc about 4.5 billions years ago. The first definite evidence of life can be dated to about 3.5 billion years ago. Mammals evolved a bit over 200 millions years ago, and primates about 60 million years. Modern humans first appear between 300-200,000 years ago, they left Africa about 100,000 years ago, settled in Europe about 40,000 years ago (having bonked a few Neanderthals along the way).

Electricity was discovered in the 19th Century. The triode amplifier was invented in 1906. TV was invented in 1927. The first electronic computer was built using vacuum tubes or "valves" in 1943. The transistor in 1947. Integrated circuits combining multiple transistors was invented soon afterwards but were not mass produced until the early 1970s.

The first TV broadcast in New Zealand was in 1960. I was born in 1966. I remember the manual telephone exchange where you told the operator the number you wanted and they manually connected you. I remember the first time I saw colour television (ca. 1972), and the excitement of a second TV channel in 1975. I remember my older brother getting an electronic pocket calculator ca. 1976.

The first personal computer based on ICs was marketed in 1977 (just 40 years ago). You had to assemble the circuit board yourself!

I first saw a personal computer at school in 1980 and learned to program it in BASIC and Assembly Language (though I realised that I didn't really enjoy programming that much).

Computers double in power every 18 months or so (Moore's Law). So my current PC ought to be roughly 17 million times more powerful than those Apple II computers at Northcote College. But with, like, a billion times more RAM and a trillion times more external storage.

When I was born, a single channel black&white TV was the most advance consumer electronics device I knew. An adult could just about lift one on their own.

Now a computer is my TV, record player, clock, telephone, camera, video recorder, tape recorder, library, teacher, publisher, recording studio, translator, etc. And I can carry it around in my pocket.

I worry a bit that we're like the apocryphal frogs being slowly boiled alive and not noticing until it is too late. And I think it is too late already.

14 October 2017

Deliberative Democracy

"When a sample of citizens is brought together, divided into small groups, and, with the soft prodding moderator, made to discuss policy, good things happen. The participants in these discussions end up better informed, with more articulate positions but also a deeper understanding of other people's points of view." Mercier & Sperber. The Enigma of Reason, p.309-10.


Last week on the radio, a BBC presenter interviewed Dr Carol Dweck. She was initially a child psychologist interested in why some kids succeed and why some fail (I'm leaving these undefined on purpose). She identified an important pattern that was predictive and found that it applied to adults as well.

She called the discovery "mindset". And it sounds deceptively simple. If you go at a problem with the mindset that you can learn then you will. It doesn't matter what the problem is, if you believe you'll make progress, then you will.

However, if you start with a fixed mindset that says you can't do it, then you won't learn, you won't make progress.

I sort of naturally have a growth mindset when it comes to certain things. I've taught myself to paint, play music, read Pāḷi and Chinese, and a bunch of other stuff, because it never occurs to me that I can't learn. I get interested and just work away at it. Nothing I've ever done was simple. I was never a natural at music for example. I sang incessantly as a kid, but so badly that my mum sent me to a singing teacher so that at least I would sing in tune (so she tells me). When I started playing the guitar nearly 40 years ago, I had no clue. I struggled with everything. I constantly made mistakes. But I just kept at it. I learned. I got better, slowly. It was hard. After 10 years I played pretty well. After 40 years I'm beginning to really understand the instrument. The learning never stops for me.

Now you may say that I have some kind of talent that perhaps you lack. But the research suggests that talent makes much less difference than we think. Mindset is is what makes the difference. Its the approach, that encompasses failure and is not destroyed by it, which makes the difference.

One of the upshots is that we should focus on process - an insight that keeps popping up. If you praise a kid, focus on what they tried, rather than what they achieved. Keep them excited about the process of learning rather the making praise contingent upon success. Ironically, if we make praise contingent upon success, then kids don't succeed as often. In fact they often give up.

How many times have we heard someone say "I'm no good at maths"? That is a mindset problem, not an inability to do maths. Actually, everyone can learn to do high-school maths - its just a matter of learning, and being convinced that learning is fun. If society or our teachers manage to suck the joy out of learning, this is not an indication that we are stupid. Yes?

And actually all along the way we fail. When you start playing the guitar or learning to drive or whatever, you fail every few seconds to start with. At the start, it's almost all failure. But you learn more from a failure than you do from a success; and if you learn then success starts to outweigh failure. If you are focused on *learning* then a failure is no big deal, because you learn more and actually enjoy it more. And with this mindset you succeed more often anyway.

A lot of people come to learn to meditate and the first time their mind wanders they say "I can't meditate" or "it's not for me". This is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset makes the mind wandering a fascinating learning exercise - you first of all realise that your mind simply wanders off without your permission(!), you start to understand why, you start to learn how to focus, and before long you are experiencing the incredible sensations of having a pinpoint focused mind. Then a whole new world can open up in which you use that pinpoint focus to examine your own mind. But only if you have a growth mindset, only if you approach it as something to learn, only if failure at first is not an obstacle to eventual success. Everyone can learn to meditate, with very few exceptions. Everyone would benefit from learning some basic meditation techniques, whether or not they want to take it further.

Learning goes on in a lively mind, it never stops. Every kid starts off with the lively mind. Staying lively has real benefits too. You are less likely to suffer dementia and other brain problems in later life. But you're also more likely to find meaning in what you do, because meaning emerges from being immersed in the process, not in achieving goals. Achieving a goal is a cadence, or punctuation point, in an ongoing process. And it is the process that really satisfies.

Very little else is satisfactory about my life and things have certainly not gotten any easier lately. But I'm still learning, still curious, still willing to take on new ideas and challenges. It's the process of learning that I love. It gets me out of bed each day and literally keeps me alive some days.

02 October 2017

Dunbar and Brain Size and Triratna

One of my colleagues wrote something, a little vague about the importance of the number 150 in human society, and since I have a long fascination with this, I thought I would write a brief introduction.

Dunbar and Brain Size

In 1992 Robin Dunbar published a paper in which he compared the average neo-cortex-to-brain-volume ratio in wild primates with the size of their social groups. There was a linear relationship which enabled him to predict that the average human social group would be 150.

Given that many of us live in cities with millions of people, what does this mean? It means that we use the most recently evolved parts of our brain to keep track of relationships - and to imagine how other people see the world, especially how they view their own relationships. This is an essential skill for a social mammal.

For example, all social mammals understand and operate a system of reciprocity. Sharing food, resources, grooming, guard-duty, or mates etc creates obligations for other group members. If I share with you, you have a social obligation to share with me. And vice versa. In apes and humans, we also keep track of obligations that are between third parties. I may share with you, knowing that you share with Devadatta and that way come into indirect relationship with Devadatta. Devadatta will probably notice that I share with you, and my reputation with him increases. Ans so on.

Humans can routinely track these abstractions into 4th and 5th order. Shakespeare could imagine how his audience would feel that Othello would feel about Cassio, after being convinced that Iago thinks that Desdemona loves Cassio; while we also know that Iago is lying. Shakespeare could imagine our tension as the story progresses. What if Iago is found out? What if he is not? This is part of what makes Shakespeare a great story teller.

Keeping track of these social obligations takes brain power. The more of our brain given over to keeping track of such things, the more relationships we can keep track of.

The Magic Number 

Dunbar predicted that on average the maximum number of relations humans could keep track of in this way would be about 150. And it turns out that the average community size in the New Guinea highlands, the units of Roman armies, and the average village size in the Domesday book (and a whole range of other measures) was .... 150.

But 150 is not the whole story. 150 is the size of an intimate community where everyone knows everyone's business. But we are usually involved in both smaller and larger groupings. If 150 is a tribe, the a tribe is usually made up from several clans of about 50 members. Clans comprise several families of about 15 members. Each person has approximately 5 intimates. These groupings may overlap. On the other hand tribes may be part of larger groupings, of 500, 1500, and 5000 and so on. The smaller the grouping, the more intimate and detailed, the knowledge; and contrarily the larger the grouping the less intimate and detailing the knowledge. The limits seem to go roughly in multiples of three, starting with 5 as the smallest.

What we expect is that, in a society of 150 people who live together, relying on each other, each will know all of the others, and who is friends and relations with whom. They will be intimately familiar with trists and disputes. And they will know who has what status under what circumstances.

In larger groupings there may be people we don't know. Larger tribal grouping may adopt symbols of membership with which to recognise other members. For example they may hang a strip of white cloth around their neck. They know that anyone who has one of these white strips is a member of the tribe. They can expect to have some basic values and interests in common, and thus are open to each other socially in ways they might not be with complete strangers. It may even be the case where the tribe mandates certain levels of hospitality are required. Some cultures require this even for strangers, when travellers are particularly vulnerable (as in the desert).

In larger groupings there are a number of ways of ensuring that every gets a say in how things are run. But let's face it, beyond 7 ± 2 everyone having a say is unrealistic. This is another magic number (aka Miller's Number) and relates to the capacity of our working memory. Groups bigger than ca 9, tend to schism into separate conversations, unless formal procedures apply.


With respect to schism, the 150 level is the limit of a sense of knowing everyone in a society living together on a daily basis. Much beyond it, and some of the people are going to start seemingly like relative outsiders. We don't know who they are friends with for example. This may explain why when humans meet who are part of a larger less intimate grouping, they often exchange information that establishes *who* they know. It's likely that some above average connectors know many more people, and across social networks. They are the glue that hold larger groupings together.

There is no absolute requirement to schism at any number. Schisms happen in small groups and large. But primates feel more comfortable with groups where they know the others. Being surrounded by strangers is often quite stressful for a social primate because they have none of the knowledge they need to know how to relate to everyone. On the other hand, being experts at empathy, primates pick up this info very quickly.

What tends to happen is that we are comfortable being relatively informal members of several larger groups, but prioritise our most intimate relationships and family.

The Order

The Order is complicated because most members of the Order are still enmeshed in other groups, particularly family. Even if there were only 150 of us, we don't live together as one community, relying on each other to survive. It is already a somewhat looser grouping than that, so the fact that it has crossed several thresholds (in total membership) is not a clear cut indicator of anything. Those who were around in the early days do tend to reminisce about how good it felt when you knew everyone. I would expect nothing less. But they all still had friends and family outside the movement too.

The Dunbar Number describes the dynamics in close knit societies living together. Beyond 150, such communities do tend to split into more manageable groups.However, it doesn't really say anything about the Order because we are not that kind of society.

Note that the more plugged into other groups we are, the fewer relationships we can track in the Order. And vice versa. Note also that pair-bonding makes no difference to Dunbar's numbers. Primates adopt a wide variety of lifestyles and these are secondary.


Dunbar's original article rapidly became a classic of anthropology and evolutionary psychology (the latter being Dunbar's main subject of interest). His predictions became known as Dunbar Numbers while he was comparatively young (he is still alive and working at Oxford University). If there was a Nobel for evolutionary psychology, he'd have won it for this discovery.

As a final caveat I would insist that Dunbar's numbers are theoretical averages, albeit with considerable empirical support. There will be a bell-curve on which individuals sit. Some will easily cope with 300 relations, some will barely cope with 50. There will always be outliers, but the existence of outliers does not alter the theory or the supporting empirical evidence of accuracy.

For further reading on the Dunbar Numbers and other concepts mentioned above, I very highly recommend "Human Evolution" by Robin Dunbar, published by Pelican in 2016. Aimed at a general readership, and highly readable, it nonetheless takes a cutting edge look at human evolution by incorporating Dunbar and his group's research on group sizes and theory of mind. Dunbar explains how we went from being general purpose apes, to highly specialised humans. How we solved the energy gap required by our big brains and big social groups through cooking, dance, laughter, and religion.

05 September 2017


In the new definition of reasoning, what reasoning is, is the process of finding reasons (justifications, rationalisations etc) for decisions made and/or actions taken. First comes the decision, then the reasons. It's always this way around for us, and unless someone enquires, we may not even have reasons for things we do, think or say. Unconscious processes guide all of our actions, but we are equipped to explain them to others if required. But we do this in a post hoc manner: reasons come after the fact and on demand.

Unfortunately, humans have biases in this department. For example, we stop searching when we find any plausible reason, we don't keep searching for the best reason. Unless we are arguing with someone who shoots down our reasoning. Reasoning is a group activity and solo humans don't do it very well.

When we don't have strong intuitions about a decision, it still better to go with our gut. When we stop to reason about a decision it drives us towards decisions that are easier to justify. But in the long run, such reasoned decisions turn out to be less satisfying.

One of the reasons we do this is to appear rational to our peers. This is a very important for humans. We are social and in the modern world appearing to be rational is an important aspect of group membership. Rational is defined locally, however. What is rational for the girl guides, is not rational for the Tory Party or the Hell's Angels or my family.

Rationality is being able to offer reasons for actions and decisions that one's peer group accept as being rational.

Sometimes when trying to fit into our social group we make decisions that seem less than rational to an outsider. "Would you jump off a cliff if they told you to?" Anyone who has heard this in earnest will know what I mean. As if happens my paralysing fear of falling kept me from jumping off cliffs, but it was a situation I faced in real life and yes, had I not been phobic, I would have jumped. I wanted nothing more than to jump off that cliff and be one of the gang. I did other brave things. Just don't ask me a jump of a curb, let alone a cliff. Although I was always fascinated by space, I knew at a very young age that I did not want to be an astronaut for this very reason.

An outsider may see this as irrational. But as human beings, it may be more rational for us to do some mildly irrational things that assure us of group membership because group membership is a long term survival mechanism. We evolved to live in groups.

While making irrational decisions may be suboptimal, losing my social status, let alone being ostracized, is a catastrophe. So there is a delicate balance that we all know. We allow ourselves to be pressured into conforming because instinct tells us that acceptance is more important than rationality. And this is true.

Or it was true 12,000 years ago in our ancestral environment. In that milieu, living as hunter-gatherers, satisfying the expectations of our peers, was probably a good rule of thumb for life. More so when we consider that our "peers" included the older more experienced members of the tribe.

So yes, people succumb to peer pressure. They behave in atrocious ways. But at the time, in their milieu, it may have been the rational thing to do, no matter how ugly it seems to us now. Until you're in the situation, you don't know how you'll react. This is why surveying someone's opinion of how they would react is meaningless. What we do in crucial situations cannot be predicted, especially by ourselves. Asking people about the trolley problem (where you can rescue 5 people by killing 1) for example is meaningless. No one knows what they would do in that situation.

All we can do is imagine that we have done something and how easily we can justify it. If we are further asked to explain ourselves, it will often change our answer, since we have to say the reasons out loud and watch the reactions of the person asking the questions. We get a better idea of how the justifications sound and we chose the best justification, which tells us what action we might do in that situation. I'd be willing to bet that there is no long term relationship between what we say we might do in these extreme hypothetical situations and what we actually do when it comes down to it. Although in more realistic scenarios that we actually have experience of, we can turn to that experience to guide us.

So rationality is not what we were taught. It is not what philosophers have classically defined it to be. Most solo humans are poor at reasoning and only reason well when arguing against someone else's proposed proposition. Reasoning certainly uses inference to produce reasons, but it does not help us find truth or make better decisions. It may help us convince people that the decision we have already made is the only decision they could have made, or the best one, or it may help us describe why someone else's decision is the worst one.

The problem with the classical view of rationality and reasoning is that it is completely at odds with the empirical evidence. It is a fiction maintained in spite of the evidence. The classical view of rationality and reasoning is so far past its use-by date that it approaches being intellectual fraud or hoax. What is actually happening is a lot less grandiose, a lot more banal, but it is what it is. We are what we are. Living a fantasy is the epitome of irrationality.

04 September 2017

Fermented Foods

I'm not into food fads. Not at all. But I am intrigued by a recent documentary I heard about fermented foods. Foods transformed by microorganisms are very common: cheese, wine, beer, yoghurt, pickles, soy sauce, etc. But in most of them, the bugs are either dead or we kill em.

Yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, blue cheeses, and other foods contain living microorganisms: bacteria and fungi (including yeasts).

Giving rise to the joke.

Q. What is the difference between yogurt and {country X that you wish to ridicule}? 
A. Yogurt has a living culture. 

And the idea is that these bugs take up residence and help make us healthy.

One of my great science heroes is microbiologist Lynn Margulis (d. 2011), one of the great scientists of the 20th Century. Margulis established that the mitochondria which live in all of our cells were once free living bacteria. She emphasised the role of symbiosis in evolution (in contradiction to the fetishisation of competition amongst male biologists). This has been one of the strongest influences on my thinking about the world: the importance of symbiosis, hybridization, communities, and cooperation. We are not only social animals, but in fact, we are colonies of cells, with many different symbionts living in our gut. A colony of colonies.

For many decades the existence of bacteria and fungi living in our gut, as symbionts, not pathogens was scarcely acknowledged. In the last ten years or so it has started to dawn on the world of biology that Margulis was on to something big. These intestinal flora are not passive hitch-hikers. They are actively involved in homoeostasis - the collection of processes by which we maintain our internal milieu at the optimum for life.

We now know, for example, that gut microbes participate in and contribute to our immune system. They are involved in processes that govern blood-sugar. And so on. Our gut is full of symbionts - a mutually beneficial association. Thousands of species of them and in vast numbers (perhaps as many as 100 of their cells for every cell in our body, though this figure has been challenged).

I think most people are probably aware that yoghurt has this reputation for repopulating the gut with healthy bacteria. But now expand that out to every food with living bugs. And keep in mind that the gut contains a community of bugs, all "communicating" and working together. Thousands of species are involved. And it seems the more the merrier.

I'm certainly not conducting a scientific experiment, but as part of an effort to eat healthily, I'm now regularly including sauerkraut in my diet and some soy-based yoghurt. The sauerkraut is a bit of an acquired taste, but tastes can be acquired with repeated exposure (like olives). And actually, sauerkraut is *very* easy to make so I might have a go at it.