Wordle: Browns' conference speech 09

(Blowing a little dust off this blog with a cheap post. Now back to the thesis…)

Well, since I pondered the possibility of combining philosophy and twitter, someone has gone ahead and done it!

They went for ” best Twitter tweet-length philosophical argument”

Overall winner: Ordinary objects are mereological sums. Objects can change parts, so sums can too.  (by Mark Steen)

Carrie Jenkins announced her winner here, and the full list of awards can be found here, and the full list of entries here.

This might not be very interesting for you. In case you are interested, I don’t find the argument presented by Steen very persuasive. I’m sure you don’t care why.


At the end of the last post I flippantly mentioned that the Lottery is an easy way to take money from people who are bad at maths.

The Maverick Philosopher has recently posted about the poor evaluational abilities of The Lottery Player. In short he claims that they both overvalue and undervalue money:

The lottery player, therefore, overvalues money in that he thinks it will provide things it cannot possibly provide: happiness, satisfaction, meaning, love. But he also undervalues it in that he wastes it on lottery tickets!

Whilst I don’t think Bill is wrong here, I think there is an alternative way to view what is going on that sheds more light on the matter. My suggestion is that the lottery player undervalues what he or she now has, and overvalues what he or she might have in the future.

She overvalues a future possibility in two ways. Firstly,  she overvalues being in a position now that possibly she might win a lot of money in the future. She thinks that such a state of affairs is worth spending money on(buying tickets) to have now. I suggest that there is very little value in having this modal property (as philosophers would put it) i.e having the property that you might win the lottery in the future and become rich, given just how slim a possibility it is.

Secondly, she overvalues the sate of affairs in the future of being very rich. I think this for very much the same reason that Bill thinks this: it will not bring ‘happiness, satisfaction, meaning, love’ etc.

So she says ‘isn’t it great that I might win the lottery and become very rich?’ and I say no, its not that great. The chances are stupidly slim and it is not worth spending money on.

Then she says ‘wouldn’t it be great to win the lottery and become very rich?’. And again I say, no, not that great.

Ok, so what of undervaluing? The Lottery Player undervalues what he has now. He has a certain amount of money now, and a certain way of life that that money affords. He undervalues the riches that he currently has (and it is riches, relative to much of the world) by using some of it to try and obtain something else in the future via lottery tickets which are surely worth considerably less than he pays for them (given the above points).

It is a bit like the guy who ends every meaningful relationship that he gets into because the girl doesn’t look like the woman on the front of his Lads Mag. He overvalues the (very slim) possibility of being in a relationship with That Girl (it would surely disappoint) and undervalues the meaningful relationships that he drops along the way.

Who doesn’t like a brief maths problem now and then?

Marcus du Sautoy, writing for The Times Online, placed this conundrum at the end of his article:


Let’s play a game. I’ll keep tossing a coin until one of the following two outcomes occurs. If heads, heads, tails, appears first then I’ll pay you £20. However, if it’s tails, heads, heads, then you pay me £10. Should you play?


No. It is three times more likely that tails, heads, heads appears. There are four possibilities for the opening two tosses: heads, heads; heads, tails; tails, heads; tails, tails. In the case of heads, heads, I can’t beat you. You just have to wait for a tail to appear. However, in the other three cases you can’t beat me. The first occurrence of heads, heads must be preceded by a tail, giving me the win.

Now on the face of it, this just seems wrong, as a number of commentators pointed out. There are 8 possible outcomes for three coin tosses, and you will win 1 in 8 and lose 1 in 8, so you should play the game (taking £20 each time you win and giving £10 each time you lose).

The problem, though, is not that Marcus is wrong, just that he doesn’t do a great job of explaining his result. For the sake of those not convinced by his explanation, here’s my attempt:

The idea is that we just keep tossing until one or the other sequence appears. Now we both need two heads in a row to win. However, you need your two heads to be followed immediately by a tail. All I need is that a tail immediately precede the two heads. Hence the only way you can achieve your sequence without me achieving mine first is if the first two tosses are heads (ruling out the possibility of them being preceded by a tails).

The other three combinations of pairs of starting tosses will result in my win because the first two heads that appear in a row will have to have been preceded by a tails (otherwise they won’t have been the first two heads in a row). So I win three out of four times.

Ok, so perhaps that’s just what he said but longer, but an interesting problem all the same. Of course, there are easier ways of taking money from people who are bad a maths, like the national lottery.

twitter_logo_sThere’s still plenty of twitter buzz and hype, if you’re looking in the right place. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away quite yet.

Principally, the discussion seems to centre around questions about the point, or lack there of, of Twitter. Isn’t it just a distraction? Is it worth while? etc etc.

Paul Bradshawe at the Online Journalism Blog is all in a flurry about twitter, and making some excellent points while he’s at it. Some of these are drawn from there.

Apart from the fact that all this discussion ultimately helps twitter grow, there are a few issues particularly guilty of generating negativity.

One comes from the Twitter site itself where it principally sells itself with the tag

stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Sure, it’s simple, but it doesn’t exactly imply any serious use or depth. It sounds like: ‘trivial, and ultimately something you could do without’. Now, like the Metro free sheet, perhaps this is all Twitter needs to make some money, but it would not really be deserving of hype and acclaim.

Closely associated, but not propagated by Twitter itself, is the claim that ‘it’s just like facebook profile updates’. Elicited response: ‘err, so?’ Quite right.

Another source of curious negativity comes from the association with celebs. Those who think that many celebrities already make meaningless noise blindly consumed by a bored Joe Public will think Twitter is just another slimy tentacle reaching into peoples lives and distracting them from being themselves (or something similar).

The thought is that surely if Twitter is anything good it should amount to more than a new medium for celebrities to mouth off.

Thus there are plenty of quizzical whats-the-point questions to keep the debate up. What fuels the other side of the debate? Why don’t we just throw up our hands and say that it has no point? That it’s ‘dumb but fun for some’?

I think the answer is that Twitter feels like it has potential – something as yet mostly unrealised but glimmering and promising somewhere in the near future.

Quickly-breaking-news-stories and organising-large-groups-of-people  point towards this potential, but aren’t quite it -the it that many are anxious to be a part of but can’t articulate yet. That it’s unarticualed probably accounts for the fact that it is so often described as ‘answers to ‘what are you doing now?’ ‘ or ‘like facebook updates’ – and hence more quizzicle questions. The supporters want to say more, but they don’t quite know what to say yet.

I’ve enjoyed Twitter so far – it’s a bit like being in a small (but growing) exclusive club, like Facebook in the old days  – but have a lingering feeling that there really does need to be more of a point to the Tweets.

How can I make it purposeful? Both in what it put out, and in who I follow. Here’s a thought:

“Twittasophical: Philosophy in 140 characters.”

Since much of philosophy is about asking questions, it might sit well with some probing 140 character questions. Perhaps it should be called Philosophy140.

In the meantime though, I can try and make at least some of my tweets non-trivial, and keep looking, with all the others, for that elusive ‘it’.

I follow – 15

Following me  -12

Verdict in progress: Fun, but looking for something more.

See also:

A memorable piece of science reporting from the BBC:

While researchers often come up with overall estimates of the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe, it is a process fraught with guesswork; recent guesses put the number anywhere between a million and less than one.

Which, for your entertainment, is followed by

“It’s a process of quantifying our ignorance,” said Duncan Forgan, the University of Edinburgh researcher who carried out the work.

Indeed. Read the full post here.

The media hype continues:

Will it go mainstream? Almost certainly, yes. …This is the sort of service that could go ballistic in a recession.


I’ve posted a few tweets, and even had a reply from a friend who started to follow. I’ve also been trying out applications for easily reading and writing tweets. I’ve tried desktop app Twirl, which does the job but requires Adobe Air and is perhaps a little bulky for my needs.

Better is TwitterFox – a small plugin for Forefox that sits in the bottom bar of the browser and brings up new tweets at intervals of your choice.

I’ve set it to 30 minutes. A distraction from what I was otherwise doing every 30 minutes. Is this just more noise to take my attention away from being productive? Clearly if Twitter is to work, we need to find ways to ensure that it serves us rather than visa versa.

More twitter based activity: I set up facebook to update my status with my tweets, providing a potentially wider audience, and found the cogs were beginning to turn today when a friend at church asked about ‘Forum for Change’ – something I had tweeted (twittered?) about.

So far:

I follow – 8

Follow me  – 4

Verdict in progress: more interesting than I thought, a little worried about the distraction.

I’ve just returned from a day of discussion and networking at the Lowry hosted by the Evangelical Alliance (they’re not as scary as they sound)The Lowry Art Gallery at Sunset, Salford Quays.

I met a whole bunch of interesting people from business, media, arts, health, education and politics and we were given the opportunity to think and talk and dream about how we can be involved in changing society for the better.

How do we engage with the the society that we are a part of, the polis, rather than withdrawing into the individual? Through a recession do we find a safe cave and weather the storm, or use the opportunity to pull together and see what is common?

Not that these are easy questions to answer in practice, but they are made easier by connecting with others and having conversations and being inspired.

One of the most interesting things about the Obama phenomenon has been peoples positive reactions to a message of hope. If we believe what we see in the UK news, millions of people have felt a personal connection to that message, drawing them out of themselves and into political engagement.

Something that struck me from the conversations I had today was that we could probably do with a bit of that hope over here. We do satirical, we do irony very well, we do self deprecation, but what about a bit of hope that things could be better?

What would this hope look like? I don’t think it looks like the ‘national-lottery-it-could-be-you’ style hope that the media is so good at. ”TV hope’ you might call it: presenting an ideal, a better house, or better lifestyle, or better way to cook beef, held out as an unreachable prize while we sit on our couches and disengage, drool and get fat on chips.

Real hope surely has to connect with our own lives, our own stories, our own everyday selves, and those we know of who deserve better.

Welcome to the second instalment of my exploration into Twitter. twitter_logo_s

First up, I log onto to the website http://www.twitter.com and get an account.

This is as easy as any online sign up could be. What’s more, since Twitter is still quite young I get to use my actual name as a user name – geoffstevenson. That is a bonus. Good so far.

I also rather enjoy the site aesthetics – you can choose a design for your feed home page and they’re all pretty easy on the eye. I add my own picture.

I’m now a Twitter user and I’m offered some “well known” Twitter feeds to follow to start me off. I choose the no. 10 Downing Street feed. So far I’ve learnt that the guy who writes it is called Ian.

What next? I need some more people to follow. I must feed on their tweets. I go to facebook and see that a friend from my undergrad days uses Twitter, so I add his feed. He is an interesting person and will probably have some interesting things to say. “Fish and chips” he says in a tweet.

But who else to follow? I’m a bit stuck, and will have to do some digging around to find something. I obviously move in the wrong circles.

But enough of who to follow, what shall I say? No one is listening, so it doesn’t really matter. I break the ice with something banal:

“I begin the Twitter Trials. Follow my progress on http://www.40three.wordpress.com”

It feels a bit like speaking out loud to an empty room.


RSS My Tweets

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