Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

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The Marginal Myth

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about how the world works and what one must do in order to succeed. It’s become a source of minor frustration that much of this advice (though likely effective) comes from those whom I would not wish to emulate.

Put simply, the modern world rewards effort, but also ruthlessness. As the saying goes, “Nice guys finish last”.

People are catching on to the fact that the world is not a meritocracy—your circumstances make a huge difference both to what opportunities you receive, and your ability to act on them—but what I’m calling the Marginal Myth seems to be either unrecognised, or actively ignored (as with many other uncomfortable truths).

The Marginal Myth comes from the common practise of examining the “margins” of a situation in order to streamline (e.g. being able to produce goods faster and/or more cheaply).

“But wait!” you say, “That’s not a myth; it works!” And you’d be right. It’s more insidious and subtle than that: the myth is that this approach is always worth taking.

To cite another saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb nail”. So, when times are tough, people get bogged down in trying to work out where they can “economise”; governments speak of “belt-tightening”; a lot of emphasis is placed on “the bottom line”. We trim and squeeze the margins further and further, our blinkered focus not seeing the other drawbacks that don’t directly affect the magic number.

Using the example of a soda-making factory: profit margins are being squeezed by their competitors, so they have to economise. Various tweaks are made to the bottling process, after which they find to their delight that they can save a few cents a bottle. A seemingly trivial amount, but given the volume they produce it has a significant effect. Hands are shaken, new instructions given to workers on the floor, and the bigwigs head out for a celebratory round of golf. But…

  • Maybe there isn’t time to properly clean the machines between batches, leading to build-up of syrupy residue which attracts insects, leading to contamination of the product.
  • Maybe the cheaper supplier of ingredients is farming them unsustainably, creating environmental problems due to deforestation or use of pesticides.
  • Maybe making the plastic bottles slightly thinner leads to increased leaks, causing wasted and unsold product, and frustrating retailers.
  • Maybe no-one’s properly checking the bottles before they get boxed up anymore. Occasionally, one has the wrong label, or the label upside-down, or just skewed/misprinted. No disaster, but customers start having subconscious thought of declining quality and are more likely to try a different brand if it catches their eye.

And so on. Okay, I’m presenting worst-case scenarios here, but the thing about “belt-tightening” is that it almost invariably happens again. Whether because other economic pressures arise, or because some board-member who doesn’t know the factory’s address, let alone having ever visited, gets excited at the improvement and thinks if they do a bit more he can add a couple of feet to his yacht.

Easy changes are made, and everyone’s okay with that. All seems well. Further changes are made. People on the ground are under more pressure than before, but once they get used to it, everything will settle down again, right? When the next change happens, they suddenly realise things didn’t settle down again. Now they aren’t getting a pay rise for this year. Still, not a problem, right*? Next time, more drastic cuts are required. People may accept reduced hours/pay because the alternative is redundancy. Either way, there are (on average) less staff on the factory floor. Compromises get made. Mistakes creep in.

We’re viewing this as a quantitative adjustment—changes made cause numbers to be different—but at some, not necessarily predictable, point in the process, a qualitative shift can happen. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And it’s all driven by competition: the incredible, ephemeral “market” that makes companies and governments march to its drum**. It’s a commons dilemma where too many are placing no value on the long-term good.

There’s a story about a village that decided to hold a great celebration. Everyone in town was asked to contribute a bottle of wine into the vast barrel placed in the square, and that night there would be revels aplenty. But the blacksmith thought to himself, “I don’t want to pay for a bottle of wine, but if I add a bottle of water, there’s so much wine, no-one will notice”, so he did. Many others had similar thoughts, so that evening, when the mayor—with great ceremony—poured the first flagon, only water came out. All went home, chastened, the celebration cancelled.

Maybe we need to hold our glasses up to the light.


* People are less likely to complain at missing out on a bonus (pay rise) than suffering a penalty (pay cut), not realising that it’s effectively a pay cut given the likely increase in the cost of living (due to inflation and suchlike).

** There’s a lot of other issues I have with being driven by “the market”, but that will have to wait for later posts.

The Forgotten

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing anything (or at least, anything that isn’t a rant about plumbers). What I want to address today, though, is the disparity between what we view as significant or valuable, and what actually is.

I’ve encountered the same idea so many times, from people in so many different fields: “If I’ve done things right, no-one will notice. If I mess up, everyone will be glaring at me.” I’d even venture to suggest that the vast majority of jobs are like this.

Think of a rock star, strutting their stuff in a big stage show—lasers, pyrotechnics, the works. If everything goes well, the audience reaction will be “Gosh [band name] were well radical!”*. If the lighting display is out-of-sync, and the spotlight fails to follow the lead singer around the stage, everyone will be complaining about the technicians.

But just pause for a moment. Whether a concert goes well, or bombs, how many people are involved in making it work? Advertisers, ticket sellers/collectors, sound/lighting/sfx technicians, “roadies”, prima-donna wranglers, and probably heaps more, but all the acclaim goes to the handful of oddly-dressed bods on the stage.

This leads to two rather odd mental blocks relating to the actual cost and the perceived value of the performance.

Firstly, people complain about the ticket prices, insinuating that they would be cheaper if the guitarist was willing to only buy one new Lamborghini this year, apparently oblivious (unless they consciously stop and think about it) to all the behind-the-scenes folk who also deserve to get paid**. It’s not that people are unaware, but our brains will take the easy way out given half a chance (I recommend the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” for anyone curious about this phenomenon).

Secondly, regardless of how ticket prices get parcelled out, the few jobs that do receive attention also tend to receive significant remuneration. Think of the (exorbitant) pay-packets of famous athletes. They can (though not all do, to be fair, only those that reach a high enough level in a popular enough sport) earn hundreds of times what, say, a teacher does. But would anyone seriously argue that kicking a ball around on television is more valuable to society than teaching the next generation so that they can be content and productive themselves? Yet capitalism says otherwise, in one of its lies that western society has internalised: money represents value, ergo if you earn more money, you are more valuable.

What’s going on? Well, in typical fashion, we are measuring what is easy to measure and disregarding what isn’t. I’ve seen in pointed out that the reason a sportsman (and sadly, it is almost always a man***) can earn so much is because their performance works regardless of the audience—how many there are, whether they’re paying close attention or just watching for the atmosphere, etc. If televised, millions could be watching. For a teacher to do their job, they need to engage with each member of the class, which is just impractical once the class gets over a certain size****.

So, in a way, maybe this is a rant about plumbers. And everyone else doing those valuable-but-hidden jobs. Because I for one am very glad that you do what you do, and that I can take a shower without having to think about how the water gets there; this is a prompt to myself, as well as anyone else, that such things shouldn’t be forgotten.


* Maybe not in those terms. I may be showing my lack-of-hip.

** Please note that I am unaware of how much of the ticket price goes to the various parties. It may well disproportionately favour the performer(s), it may vary depending on the prestige of the act. But that’s a separate issue.

*** Again, separate issue. Important, yes, but this post is long enough already.

**** I make no claims as to what the feasible upper limit of a class size is—it probably depends on who both the teacher and the students are—but it’s certainly not in the hundreds, let alone the millions.

Prequelitis (and Related Ailments)

And in a burst of cosmic irony (God must have a sense of humour), despite what I wrote yesterday, I get randomly inspired and a post leaps almost fully-formed into my head (*ouch*).

For a while I was following the tv-series Gotham (a prequel focusing on not-yet-Commissioner Gordon’s experiences dealing with the messed up and corrupt state of the system), but realised after a while that keeping up with it was seeming more chore than entertainment. It had its moments, but overall I was finding it boring*; events were presented as being significant and dramatic, but it felt like nothing was really going anywhere.

It suffers from prequelitis: the condition where you are unable to achieve significant depth of drama because everyone knows how things will work out eventually. Some non-prequels even subject themselves to some degree of this through their framing device (for example, the narrator is relating their past experiences, either to another character, or to the audience).

Another example would be the Star Wars prequels—whatever happens, the audience already knows that Anakin will become Darth Vader, the empire will take over the galaxy, and that things will generally end up how they are at the start of A New Hope**.

The show apparently sprang from the premise “What if Gordon was the one investigating the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents?”, which is an interesting thought, but again, doesn’t really change anything about the status quo. As the saying goes, “If you’re going to flash, flash hard”****. Upend the established order. Embrace the alternative-universe take on the material. Make the inciting question something like “What if only one of the Waynes was killed?”, or “What if Bruce was killed as well/instead?”, or even “What if Batman is an actual vampire? Even a sparkly one—can you imagine it?—his costume covered with sequins. That would be hilarious!”

Be brave. Sure, the audience may not like it, but they won’t know what’s coming next. Even if everything else largely turns out as normal, starting off on a wild tangent primes the audience to expect the unexpected.


* I freely acknowledge that other people’s opinions may differ. Rose Red found it too grim/gritty, which is sadly the modern audience’s expectation for anything related to el hombre murciélago. Sadly, I don’t think the Adam West goofy camp, or even the Burtonesque kooky gothic, would succeed in the current climes, where anything not sufficiently serious is labelled a “guilty pleasure” or is only enjoyed “ironically”.

** There are various other problems [with the Star Wars prequels] that other people have already gone into in great depth. The only one I will mention (predominantly related to films) is the phenomenon of success → more money. Often what makes a film great is the effort that goes into working with/around limitations; lack of budget/technology forces you to really think about what is needed to make the story work, and how to do it. After the first film is a success, the studio throws money at any ___quels, with the result that the crew can become indulgent, and the resulting films feel flashy but insubstantial. There may be amazing spectacles***, but like cheap takeaway food, half an hour later you’re hungry again.

*** No, I’m not specifically talking about the ones you get for watching in 3D (though that is another example of the issue).

**** A cliché from the world of cricket commentary. Essentially, if you’re going to play a risky shot, don’t make it even riskier by being half-hearted about it.

1000 Words, part 1

There’s a picture entitled something like “Equality vs. Justice” that’s cropped up a lot on various sites. I haven’t linked it, because I don’t know the original source, but if you google that phrase you’ll likely find plenty of examples of it.

While pictures may be worth a thousand words, I’ll try to describe the gist in fewer: Three figures—one tall, one short, one average height—are trying to see over a fence to watch a game. In the first panel, labelled “Equality”, each has a box to stand on, but the shortest figure still cannot see over the fence. In the second panel, labelled “Justice” (or, in some versions, “Equity”), the shortest figure has two boxes and is now able to see, and the tallest figure has no box but can still see.

Something not conveyed by the “picture worth a thousand words” adage, though, is that there may be details or implications of a picture that are not apparent. For example, imagine a photograph of two men in suits shaking hands at a press conference; it can take on quite a different meaning and impact depending on who they are and why they are shaking hands. If it represents a peace treaty between your country and its neighbour, for example, it will likely provoke stronger emotions than if it represents a merger agreement between two foreign companies.

The equality/justice picture is cartoony and stylised—the importance is not who these people are*, but in their allegorical value. There are still some points to be considered, however.

Why the height differences?

Are they adult (tall), teen (medium), and child (short); or all adults? Essentially, are the differences between them temporary or permanent; a consequence of age, or genetics? If we wait long enough, will this problem resolve itself?

How were the boxes shifted?

Even if everyone agrees that there’s enough to go around, and the problem could be solved by redistribution, the manner of the solution still matters. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor can provoke feelings of resentment on the one hand, and inferiority on the other. There needs to be a conceptual shift as well—recognising that the inequality is not because the “haves” are inherently better or more worthy than the “have-nots”. People’s intrinsic value needs to be acknowledged as distinct from an assessment of their circumstances**.

More to come next time.


* They appear to be male Caucasians, but this is probably an artifact of the norms of the creator rather than any meaningful choice. Varying the group by gender or ethnicity might have raised unfortunate implications.

** If someone is of the opinion that someone’s value is entirely bound up in their circumstance, then they will disagree on this point. However, I don’t believe any rational people will hold that extreme an opinion, as that’s leading toward the unpalatable side of eugenics.

Getting a head-start

I was thinking about saying something about privilege (e.g. racial), but the engendered discussion tends to be somewhat… acrimonious. So instead, I’m going to talk about iPhones.

Western capitalism is purported to have two fundamental principles: egalitarianism (equal opportunities) and Darwinism (survival of the “fittest”). What’s not so clearly stated, is the way these principles conflict when you add momentum to the mix.

(All data sourced from wikipedia – it doesn’t matter if it’s not precise, the general trends are what I’m interested in)

Taking smartphone operating systems as an example, one can see both the success and the failure of the “free market” approach. Observe this graph of smartphone market share over the last few years.

Smartphone market share %

Initially (circa 2007), Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry ruled the roost; then the iPhone was released, closely followed by Android phones. They proved “fitter” than the incumbents, and so took over. You can argue about whether iOS or Android is better, but—as happened with Macs and PCs—less hardware restrictions has led to a bigger piece of the pie.

Other systems have tried, and generally failed. Even with the might of Microsoft* or Samsung behind them, they haven’t taken off anywhere near as well as the big two. You may argue that this shows they were “less fit”. It’s probably a fair assessment that Bada 1.0 was not as good as Android 2.2 Froyo (the most recent version when the first Bada phone was released), but it hadn’t been through eight versions/patches. It may well have been better than Android 1.0, but that didn’t matter because the “ecosystem” had changed by then.

iOS and Android took over because they did some things significantly better (to lapse into business-speak, they were revolutionary rather than evolutionary). I don’t know exactly what those things were, but it shows that the market is not as egalitarian as some would have you think.

It’s the same for a lot of different businesses; anyone may have the same opportunities to enter a particular market, but the same amount of effort will not lead to the same amount of success. Suppose two companies start producing a new widget—something completely new, never seen before. Company A is a start-up, whereas company B is a well-known multinational who have made decent quality gizmos for years. Regardless of the relative quality of company A’s widgets and company B’s widgets, company B can use pre-existing infrastructure and branding to create, market, and distribute, whereas company A is starting from scratch. Company A’s per-widget costs will be greater, and they don’t have the safety net of a strong trade in gizmos to fall back on. Company A cannot compete, and soon folds (or, if they’re very fortunate, gets purchased by company B).

Given such prospects, isn’t it reasonable for a government to invest in start-ups and other small businesses? The existing companies have such a head-start that to not do so would be to abandon small businesses to the Darwinian ferocity of market forces. And the world would miss out on a lot of new perspectives and innovations.

I leave readers to draw the intended parallels. 🙂


* Note that I’ve combined the figures for the Windows Mobile OS (which largely came from PDAs) and the more recent Windows Phone (as the latter superseded the former).