One of my long weekend reads (alongside a detective novel – Death Before Evensong – and Metamorphosis, amazing memoir by Richard Douglas-Fairhurst about his diagnosis with MS) was Henry Dimbleby’s Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape. The three sections cover health, nature, and what to do. Much of the material it covers is in his terrific Food Strategy document, which the government commissioned and ignored. But here it is written in compelling manner – this is an excellent and anger-inducing read. In short, the food system is making us obese and diabetic (because processing food is so profitable and is under-regulated), massively contributing to global warming, the depletion of biodiversity and other environmental harms (fertilizer use, red meat eating), lacks resilience to shocks (including because of near-monoculture production), and is inhumane to animals and birds that are industrially farmed and processed.

The food strategy has many sensible recommendations, reproduced here, including the use of taxes to cut the use of sugar and salt, more free school meals, changing the approach to farm subsidies and land use, and starting to tackle the UK’s unhealthy food culture. It is not an easy task though because there are several policy aims and some trade-offs. The aims: better health, greater equality of nutrition in an unequal society, more nature-friendly farming and food trade/consumption, improved food security, better treatment of farmed creatures. For instance one implication of several of these is that food prices should be higher – but this works against reducing food inequality and shifting the British diet to a healthier mix. So while some policies are no-brainers (tax sugar in food processing!) others are less obvious.

The first chapter starts with obesity as a system outcome rather than a failure of individual willpower. Not the ideal read as one tucks into an Easter egg (where lack of willpower definitely comes into play). Still, I hope the book makes some impact – not least shaming the government into action despite the lobbying by the food industry.




What a spectacle

The subtitle of Alex Preda’s The Spectacle of Expertise is ‘why financial analysts perform in the media.’ I was interested because the everyday perception many people have of economists is shaped by seeing City economists talking about markets up, exchange rates down, inflation either up or down…. whereas of course most economists don’t do financial or macroeconomics. Yet the financial markets and commentary on them define the subject for so many.

Anyway, the book is rather interesting. It’s a sociology or ethnography largely based on fieldwork in Hong Kong, where there are many, many more financial programmes to be filled with expert commentary, and it seems that for many people working in the markets there is pretty much a full time career phase of going around the studios performing. The best known even get hired to advertise other products – a new hair conditioner being a ‘good investment’ for instance.

Prada describes the whole spectacle (yes, Debord, hello), a performance requiring a team – the expert talking head but also their research assistants back on the trading floor, the programme anchor, the producer and their team, the make-up artists and sound technicicans. All in the interest of selling more finance products and growing the sector. In the financial realm of exchanging digitised symbols, the embodied reality of a persuasive talker with good make-up and a Bloomberg screen accessible on their phone is central.


Not engineering

This week I read Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial, first published in 1969, and must confess to not knowing what to make of it. He contrasts ‘the artificial’ to ‘the natural’ but also more specifically applies it to complex systems designed to adapt to their environment, and compares arenas such as economics, management, and engineering systems. The point is then to analyse what properties they have in common, on the basis of information theory. The aim is evidently to present a common analysis of the various types of system considered. So far, so good. And as Professor Google tells me, the book was very influential in the design of computer systems and design theory more generally.

Beyond that? Well, I asked Bard, which said:

“The book argues that artificial systems can be studied scientifically, just like natural systems. Simon defines an artificial system as “a system that has been brought into being by human design.” He argues that artificial systems are not just imitations of natural systems, but are in fact a distinct class of systems with their own properties and laws.

Simon then goes on to discuss the various aspects of artificial systems that can be studied scientifically. He covers topics such as the design of algorithms, the nature of problem solving, and the role of heuristics in decision making. He also discusses the relationship between artificial systems and human intelligence.”

Very timely, then. But I’m hard pushed to summarise what the conclusions are, and allergic to the strong positivism of it. As readers of Cogs and Monsters will know, I think economic systems differ from engineering systems in important ways, and are not amenable to exactly the same kind of ‘scientific’ analysis. The ‘sciences of the artificial’ seem like they do well in analysis of algorithmic systems, but not so much – contrary to the claim in the book – for education, art and architecture, or indeed economics.