In the last few days I have been a little quieter than usual. Naturally, the Scottish referendum took up some of my time, an important matter which should attract the attention of the chattering and commenting classes. Meditating on such high matters took up my time, even though I wrote nothing about it. I also spent a little time commenting on a string of beheadings in the Middle East, which led to a radio interview which posed the predictable question “Why do they do it?” and my predictable answer “To terrify their opponents”. On Sunday I was further distracted by the notion, promulgated by The Sunday Times that the Cheltenham codebreakers are recruiting dyslexics (and dyspraxics, and the differently neurally abled) to give their own, very special perspective on what the enemy is doing, which could not be afforded by those able to read and write. Here is a little detail on this great matter:
A 35-year-old IT specialist by the name of Matt is the chairman of the dyslexic and dyspraxic support community at the listening post. He told the Sunday Times: “What people don’t realise is that people with neuro diversity usually have a ‘spiky-skills’ profile, which means that certain skill areas will be below par and others may be well above.
“My reading might be slower than some individuals and maybe my spelling is appalling, and my handwriting definitely is… but, if you look at the positive side, my 3D special-perception awareness and creativity is in the 1 per cent of my peer group.”
Baldly, the article claimed that Alan Turing was dyslexic. I think this is very silly. Can anyone direct me to the evidence? I have read what his Sherborne teacher said about him (“one of the two brightest boys I have ever taught”) and read some of his papers, in awe, and I see no such deficiency. By dyslexia I mean a specific reading backwardness once one has allowed for intelligence (so, in Turing’s case even a slight reading deficiency would potentially count as a disorder).
However, none of these matters of great import (or great distraction) have been taking up my time. Instead I have been dealing with a very local matter, in which I am one of the representatives of the locals against a wave of property-developing deep basement diggers, who are making lives a misery in central London. This is a very parochial matter. In one way or another it has taken up bits of my time for four years, and now that the planning inspection is underway, I have spent four days, of eight hours each, listening to the local Council’s timid plan for restricting such major works (one storey basements allowed, multiple storey basements prohibited) being torn apart by the (paid) advocates of the basement constructors. Very local, very technical and of interest to intelligence researchers only because the actual battle is being fought on narrow points of planning law, while the protestors are naturally wanting to complain on broad grounds of principle and human emotion. It involves having to explain to my bruised confederates that the Council has gone as far as it dares (central government is in favour of all forms of house building, whatever the impact) and that we have to rally round the lesser evil to get a modicum of relief. (A mild consolation is that the other side are said to have spent £500,000 in order to try to get their way).
As you know, I often look for real life correlates of intelligence. I had always assumed that anyone of any intelligence would turn to Great Matters. For example, changing the (unwritten) British Constitution after the Scottish referendum is a very taxing and great matter. It requires brains as well as considerable historical knowledge. Sorting out the Middle East: who to bomb/kill/arm/pay ransom to, is another intellectual challenge. Explaining to the general public that if dyslexia is given an all-inclusive, low re-definition then it ceases to have nosological significance is another worthy great intellectual task (I might try that one later). So, why spend any time on something small?
Local matters seem a distraction at such troubled times. Horrible as it may be to watch your walls crack because there is a bulldozer next door digging a basement, there is no intent to kill the neighbours, just to ignore them.
However, it may be intelligent to balance “global importance” against “probability of success”. The small stuff is worth sweating because you might be successful in achieving your aims. Put it at 1 in 150, but it is tangible nonetheless. 150 is said to be the fundamental modal size of human settlements and networks (more and it is hard to recognise everyone, and remember exactly how they have treated you), so that gives a rule of thumb. However, given that at most 4% of the populace are politically active in the most generous sense of that term, even in a small village you are probably having to convince only about 5 people, in order to swing that local group.
On larger matters, even with small populations the size of Scotland, 5 million is a big number to influence, and even the 200,000 activists a challenging number to convince. Sweating the big stuff may be a waste of effort. You will get excited, no doubt, and have a sense of importance, but a very low probability of impact. Somehow, the supposedly great matters assume a moral high ground: they pretend to rise above mere personal concerns. A beheading in a distant land must be of more consequence than a car crash in your own suburban street which has the same effect on a grieving family. Keeping up with the international news is seen as a duty, the local news an indulgent distraction.
Indeed, this may lead to a rule of thumb: activism about all social matters should be conditioned by a probability calculus, a cost benefit analysis of the issue itself, divided by probability of success.
Try sweating the small stuff.