An eerie sight

David introduces a new feature at Librarything:

“tagmashes,” which are (in essence) searches on two or more tags. So, you could ask to see all the books tagged “france” and “wwii.” But the fact that you’re asking for that particular conjunction of tags indicates that those tags go together, at least in your mind and at least at this moment. Library turns that tagmash into a page with a persistent URL.

I like everything about this, apart from the horrible name. As somebody points out in comments, it’s not a new idea – a large part of David’s post could have been summed up in the words “Librarything have implemented faceted tagging“. But I think this is still something worth shouting about, for two reasons. Firstly, they have implemented it – it’s there now to be played with, even if it’s got a silly name. Secondly and more importantly, they’ve implemented ground-up faceted tagging: the facets are created by the act of searching for particular combinations of tags. At a stroke this addresses the disadvantages I identified in my post; rather than being imposed beforehand, the dimensions into which the tags are organised emerge from the ways people want to combine tags. Arguably, what Librarything have ended up with is something like a cross between faceted tagging and Flickr-style tag clusters (in which dimensions emerge from an aggregate of past searches).

What’s more, the ability to record an association between two tags addresses a question I raised way back here. If, to quote Tom Evslin, “we think in terms of associations” (rather than conceptual hierarchies); and if “the relationship between documents is actually dynamic … open tagging and hyperlinking are both ways to impose particular relationships on documents to meet the need of some subset of readers”; then it’s curious, to say the least, that it’s been so hard until now to use tagging to say this is like that (as distinct from this has frequently been applied to resources which have also been classified as that). From del.icio.us on, tagging has been a simple naming operation, hitching up things to names (stuff-for-classifying to tags), but not allowing any connection between those names. The implication is that the higher-order knowledge of what went with what would only emerge – could only emerge – from the aggregate of everyone else’s naming acts.

The ‘tagmash’ reminds us that (pace David) everything is not miscellaneous: yes, we think in associations and we apply our own labels and classifying schemes to the world, but as we do so we’re also connecting A to B and treating D as a sub-type of C. When we talk, we don’t just spray names around; we’re always adding a bit of structure to the conversational cloud, making a few more connections. It’s the connections, not the nodes, that map out the shape of a cloud of knowing.

Update Changed post title. I spent a good five minutes this afternoon thinking of an appropriate lyrical reference (eventually settling on this one); I don’t know how I missed the obvious choice.

Wrapped in paper (8)

After all those columns from 1999, here’s one from last month. (And then I’ll get back to proper blogging, probably.) They say you should write about what you know; what I knew, that particular weekend, was beer. ‘Dave Bitzer’ doesn’t represent anyone in particular. Years ago I invented a consultancy called Gargle Bitzer Helipad, and I’ve used various Gargles and Bitzers ever since then to stand in for different talking heads and company spokespeople. Usually I make them talk rubbish, for obvious reasons, but in this one I think Dave talks a lot of sense.

I RAN INTO my old friend and commenting partner Dave Bitzer the other day at local beer tasting event Pale And Bitter (And Slightly Sour). I’d worked my way through the milds by this point and started on the fruit beers. In retrospect I think the second blackcurrant flavoured porter may have been a mistake.

“Dave!” I put it to him. “How’s it going! How is it going? How’s life in the… well, you know.”

I could see that my incisive style of questioning had caught Dave unprepared. For a moment, in fact, he got so confused that he said “Hello” and then turned his back on me – very much as if he had said “Goodbye”! Pausing only to sample the ginger-flavoured pale ale, I hastened to set his mind at rest.

“Dave,” I put it to him, placing a friendly arm around his shoulders. “David, David, Davey Davey Dave. It’s like this. I mean, is it like this? That’s the thing, you see – is it like this or not? I mean, if you spend your time reading about Web 2.0 on blogs and podcasts… and, and blogcasts…”

Dave said that people who did that should probably get out more, although in my case he’d make an exception. I thought that was a very good point.

“That’s a very good point,” I put it to him. “Thing is, if you read the Webby, Web things, lots of stuff. Lots of stuff happening. Reminds me of the dot boom. Is this another dot boom boom, Dave? Wait a minute, that’s not right. Is this… another… dot dot boom, de-boom boom boom. That’s what I say.”

Dave gave a heavy sigh, clearly impressed with the cogency of my argument. OK, he said, look at it this way. He tore the top layer of paper from a beermat and drew a cross on the exposed surface. So here’s your basic quadrant, he said. You can call this one -

“I’ll call it Henry,” I put it to him.

Dave sighed again, obviously deeply impressed. OK, he said, here’s Henry the Quadrant. Left to right we’ve got usefulness – is an application idea actually useful or not? Top to bottom, marketability, or whether or not you can get people worked up about it. We can rule out a couple of combinations straight away. ‘Dull but useful’ is an uphill battle for any company (apart from companies that have a large installed base they can sell to), and ‘dull and useless’ is best avoided. Clearly, ‘useful and exciting’ is what most developers are aiming for. But here’s the problem. How can developers actually come up with something that’s both exciting and useful? Look at the way we live already – we wear clothes, we drive cars, we synchronise calendars, we download MP3s, we shop around to get the best price for DVDs and don’t worry too much about the Hong Kong customs stamp when they arrive. It all works, basically. So people end up going for “exciting but useless”, and you get applications like Twitter – sounds great, if you like the idea of reading other people’s diaries in real time, but it’s not much use if you’ve actually got a life. Speaking of which, he added cryptically, then turned to look around the room, avoiding my gaze completely. I was touched by this mark of respect and put my arm round his shoulders again.

“So… So, so, so, Dave,” I put it to him. “Tell me, Dave. Is this another dot boom boom?”

Dave made a strange respectful growling noise. Not really, he said, because… oh, never mind. Look, it’s as if a brewery had to keep coming up with something new, and after a while they found they’d done every kind of beer that was actually drinkable, but they just kept going anyway and turned out, I don’t know, ginger-flavoured pale ale or blackcurrant-flavoured porter. There’s just not a lot going on, and the stuff that gets the hype isn’t really worth it. That’s why I’m here, actually.

“What, to check out the brewing… trendy… trendy trends?” I put it to him.

No, Dave said – to get drunk. What do you recommend?

Wrapped in paper (7)

More from the last century. This one had a wider audience than many of my columns, as it appeared in Computing. I wrote five of these columns for the paper in the first half of 1999, working on a rota with four or five other writers, after which they had a big reorganisation and dropped the column. It’s nice to feel one’s made a difference.

This column’s dated surprisingly well, although the obvious anachronisms are now harder to spot. The only bits that have a really odd ring are the bit about ‘free Internet services’ and, ironically, the reference to dialup access ‘costing you money the whole time’. The economics are different these days.

THE CURRENT explosion in free Internet services is sure to create a whole new generation of users: keen, enthusiastic, ignorant. With these lucky people in mind, I’ve put together a brief Guide to the Net.

What is the Internet?

The World Wide Internet (or ‘Web’ for short) was originally set up as a means for American military commanders to communicate with one another following a nuclear holocaust. It was thought vital to national security to assure the continuing availability of chat rooms, games of noughts and crosses and, of course, ‘adult’ material. Although the Cold War ended some time ago in a no-score draw, by some oversight the authorities failed to dismantle the International Net (or ‘w.w.w.’ for short). Many new technologies have sprung up to threaten the continuing viability of the ‘Web’ – the Sega Megadrive, Rabbit phones, the Microsoft Network – but it continues to hold its own. Indeed, some experts believe that it has grown within the last three to five years – and that this upward trend may continue!

Why is it so popular?

The popularity of the ‘Net’ is undoubtedly due to the unparallelled range of information and services which it can offer: the latest news from Kosovo, hardware specifications for everything from a Furby to a Happy Fun Ball, and, of course, material for ‘adult’ eyes. And that’s without mentioning the vast communications possibilities opened up by the electronic ‘news’ and ‘mail’ services which form an integral part of the ‘Interweb’, although it’s a different part from the part that we’ve been talking about up to now. Mail (or ‘email’ for short) quite literally shrinks the world – when you first got an email address, who would have thought you’d soon be getting business propositions from people in Taiwan? Not you, I’ll bet. As for ‘news’, don’t get hung up on that stale old idea of new information presented in an unbiased manner – most of the ‘news groups’ are full of ancient gossip and incomprehensible insults. And they’re all the better for it!

What about the…

Many news groups are entirely dedicated to the provision of material designed for an ‘adult’ audience.

Just checking. So, what are the drawbacks of ‘Net life’?

Net life is a lot like real life: you meet people, you talk about things, you make friends, you fall out, you insult them in public, they refuse to speak to you, you realise you’ve gone too far and try to apologise, it’s too late, nobody ever writes to you again except people in Taiwan with business propositions. The main difference is that when you’re on the Net it’s costing you money the whole time. On the other hand, how many people do you know from Taiwan?

What about the dangers of addiction?

Net addiction – or ‘Web addiction’ for short – is a real danger for today’s ‘knowledge workers’ (people who really have to work at it to acquire knowledge). Sufferers become distracted and irritable when they’ve been ‘off the line’ for too bloody long – often they can’t even complete a simple English, oh, what’s the point anyway? Look, I’ll just check my mail, all right? I won’t be on for long.

Does the Net interfere with users’ social lives?

What was that? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.

What are the major growth areas in Web use?

The Web is international – hence the name! This means that the only laws which apply on the Web are laws which apply all over the world. This is good news for casinos, which have expanded far beyond their original base in the North of England, as well as for providers of material intended for customers who can be described as ‘adults’. Another recent growth area, also taking advantage of the Net’s ‘offshore’ existence in ‘cyberspace’, has been drug trafficking (or ‘e-commerce’).

What is the significance of encryption?

Nfx n fvyyl dhrfgvba…

Wrapped in paper (6)

As a sort of companion-piece to the last one, here’s a column from September 1999.

THIS MONTH this page is given over to an interview with a pioneering futurologist: Michel de Nostredame. De Nostredame – more widely known as ‘Nostradamus’ – has had a huge influence on the very course of life on this planet itself, and on the development of the computer industry. I was particularly curious to hear Nostradamus’ interpretation of recent events, which have damaged his reputation in some quarters.

So we’re still here, then.

Can I make one thing very clear right at the outset? When soldiers cross the burning river, only a young Pope can hold the jam.

Do you think you could make that even clearer?

Sorry – force of habit. What I meant to say was, I never actually said the world was going to end on the fourth of July 1999.

What about “a creature with two heads will be born the day the eagle celebrates his festival”?

Well, there you go – that could mean just about anything. The Yanks aren’t the only people who make a fuss about eagles, are they? Besides, I didn’t specify a year. I didn’t specify a century, for that matter.

Elsewhere you did refer to July 1999, though. ‘Year 1999, seven months, from the sky will come a great king of terror to revive the king of the Mongols.’

For a start, it’s not the king of the Mongols: it’s the king of Angoulême, which is a region in France. People keep assuming I wrote in anagrams – as if my verses weren’t incomprehensible enough to start with! If I’d meant ‘Mongols’ I would have written ‘Mongols’, I can assure you.

But Angoulême doesn’t have a king.

That’s easy for you to say. I was writing four hundred years ago, remember? Anything could have happened in that time. Then there’s this ‘great king of terror’. What I actually wrote was deffraieur, which means someone who pays the bill – the kind of person who’ll get the drinks in and pick up the tab.

So it should be translated as ‘a great entertaining King’?

Uh-huh.

That gives us: ‘Year 1999, seven months, from the sky will come a great entertaining king to revive the king of Angoulême’. It’s not a great improvement in terms of accuracy, is it?

You realise that the seventh month of the astrological calendar only starts in mid-September? No, you’re right, it’s not very likely. Chalk it up to experience.

What influence do you believe your work has had on the computer industry?

It’s had a huge influence. Bill Gates himself is known to have studied my writing extensively. He even used one of my verses as justification for one of his major campaigns. As it happens that verse was a fake – it was planted by the British government, which had learnt about his superstitions following the defection of Rudolf Hess – but it shows how seriously he took my writing.

I think you’re thinking of Adolf Hitler.

You may be right – these twentieth-century leaders all look alike to me.

How do you think your writing will fare in the next millennium?

I’m optimistic. That reference to 1999 was the last specific date I used – I wish I hadn’t bothered, it was asking for trouble. There are plenty of verses still left to interpret, and some of them are so weird that they’ll be almost impossible to prove or disprove. “They will come to deliver the prince of Denmark, a shameful ransom to the temple of Artemis” – what’s that about? People will be trying to make sense of my prophecies for a long time to come.

Can I quote you on that?

I’d rather you didn’t – you never know what might happen.

Wrapped in paper (5)

This one’s from March 2000. I should say that I took Y2K very seriously indeed; we even stockpiled. (Well, we had a box.) I vividly remembered being a programmer in 1987, and having to argue long and hard before my project leader would allow me to use eight-digit dates. Multiply that out across the country, I thought, and who knew what would happen? Ironically, I was one of those posters to comp.software.year-2000 who were regarded as sunny optimists, on the grounds that we anticipated large-scale disruption but not actually the end of the world as we knew it, as such. At one stage I formulated a rough 5-point scale for measuring the severity of our predictions, and pegged myself at around 4 (where 5 was, well, TEOTWAWKI). There were plenty of no-nonsense 5s; somebody even extended the scale up to 10, to incorporate vaguely Nostradamus-like predictions of exactly how the WAWKI would E.

So I have every sympathy with people like Peter de Jager and Ed Yourdon, who did a great deal of what I still believe was good and worthwhile work in raising awareness of Y2K, and with Ed Yourdon’s afterthoughts in particular. Just thought I’d establish that.

I CAUGHT UP with my old friend Ed Gargle at his remote farmhouse recently. Ed was widely regarded as one of the leading authorities on the Millennium Bug in 1998 and 1999, although more recently he has been less in demand. I began by asking Ed the obvious question: what went right?

“What went right? Precious little, as far as I could see. Oh, there were a few failures – I believe the trains in Mali are still up the spout – but by and large Y2K was a bit of a washout..”

Remediation had been successful, in other words?

“Absolutely – and nobody’s happier about that than I am. Y2K could have been a major disaster. There was a real risk of an economic slowdown, caused by nothing more than the ever-mounting expense of last-minute fixes and the spiralling fees which would have been charged by Y2K consultants. We could have seen supply chain disruptions, leading to shortages in basic supplies; that would have caused untold hardship for everyone, except for those farsighted individuals who prepared by buying a year’s supply of rice, drinking water and toilet paper. (That’s a lot of toilet paper, incidentally – particularly if you got some extra for barter purposes.) At worst, we could have seen society decline into lawless, bloodstained chaos, in which civilisation itself would only be kept alive by a few hardy pioneers in isolated farmhouses. Instead, everything just went on working. I’m glad about that. Really very, very glad.”

I wondered how Ed would account for the success of remediation.

“Mali, for God’s sake. Talk about adding insult to injury. New Zealand: OK. Australia: OK. Japan: OK. China: OK. Russia: OK – Russia, would you believe! Europe: OK. The US: OK. Mali: problems on the railways. Oh, big deal. Who in their right mind is going to get on a train in Mali at the best of times, let alone on the day before the end of the world as we know it?”

Quite. However, I also wondered how Ed would account for the success of -

“People are blaming me now. Can you believe that? All I did was state how it looked to me – people have got to draw their own conclusions. So what if a world-renowned Y2K consultant says there’s a 79% probability of one or two major disruptions to essential services during the first quarter of 2000, each lasting between two and three weeks – it’s just one person’s opinion. People are even blaming me for the money they spent on preparing for the rollover. All I said was that I’d sold up, moved to the country and bought a year’s supply of rice, bottled water and toilet paper (which is a lot of toilet paper, incidentally) – I never said that anybody else should do the same. There wouldn’t be much point if everyone did it.”

Indeed. I wondered how Ed would account for -

“I’ve got no bookings, you know. My diary’s empty. Correction, I’ve got a few of these gigs in the first quarter – ‘Ed Gargle Explains Why He Got It Wrong’ – but after that, nada. I’m hoping I’ll be able to fall back on the stuff I was doing before Y2K. I don’t know, you tell me – is C++ still making headlines? Thought not. Still, look on the bright side – I won’t need to buy rice any time soon.”

Clearly. I wondered how -

“And then there’s all that toilet paper – it’s taking up space apart from anything else. I put a note in the last edition of my subscribers-only Y2K newsletter asking what I could do with 144 rolls of toilet paper, but I haven’t had any suggestions. Well, I haven’t had any practical suggestions.”

Ed sighed and poured us both another slug of ‘Sloe Poison’ (a locally-produced fruit brandy).

“As for why remediation succeeded, God only knows. Dedicated programmers, I suppose. Well-written applications. Stable, reliable, robust platforms, if there is such a thing. Still, mustn’t grumble – never know what’s going to happen at the end of this year.”

At the end of this year?

Ed smiled.

“Can I interest you in a seminar?”

A tree in Paradise

Some years ago, John Harris (not the pundit) proposed a thought-experiment called the Survival Lottery. The premise was that the supply of organs for transplant is currently inadequate to meet the demand. Moreover, the whole business of harvesting organs for transplant is fraught with practical and emotional difficulties, putting both the bereaved and potential recipients under a lot of stress which both parties could do without. The result is inevitably that people die who could have lived, and that many who do live have shorter and less satisfactory lives than anyone would wish on them.

How much better it would be, in terms of the greater good of the greater number, if the government organised a consistent supply of transplanted organs, which could be calibrated to meet the demand. The mechanism would be the Survival Lottery: every citizen would have a number assigned to them (the NHS number would do nicely), and a periodic random draw would be made. The unfortunate individual whose number came up would be killed and his or her transplantable organs harvested.

This would be an outrageously cruel and arbitrary system, which would probably cut short the lives of several blameless citizens every year. However, it could be guaranteed to save more lives than it cost – making it less outrageously cruel and arbitrary than the state of affairs we live with now. It’s true that, under this system you’d live under the constant threat of having your number come up and becoming an organ donor against your will. But you’ve already got that risk hanging over you every time you cross the road – and you’ve also got the risk of sustaining an injury (or developing a condition) which would put you in need of a donor organ, which might not be available. Viewed in this light, the phrase ‘Survival Lottery’ is a rather pointed misnomer – we already live with a survival lottery. Harris’s system, as unthinkable as it may seem, wouldn’t create the lottery or even exacerbate it; in point of fact, it would improve the odds.

And yet, unthinkable is just what it does seem. This is a real ethical problem, gifted to us by the development of medical transplants (not that uninventing them would be much of an answer). Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel Never let me go looks at one science-fictional solution, the development of cloning to the point where people could be created to become donors. Kathy, Ishiguro’s narrator, looks at the life of the human clones from the inside: we follow her through childhood (lived in a kind of year-round boarding school), through adolescence and into training to be a ‘carer’. (It’s a self-sustaining system: people like Kathy look after their friends, as they go through a series of donations and finally ‘complete’, before they become donors in turn.) Throughout the book, Kathy muses – brightly and not very reflectively – on what it’s like to remember someone who’s not there any more; what it means to leave something that you’ll be remembered by; whether it matters if you haven’t left anything to be remembered by, providing that you live on in people’s memories; and whether even that matters in the long run, since after all those people won’t be around forever – and in any case you won’t be there to know about it.

In other words, Kathy shows us life as framed by death – the same life we all live, albeit for most of us with a much longer timespan. (Clones are sterile, of course.) Along the way, Ishiguro raises the unanswerable question – would it be tolerable to treat an identifiable group of people like this – as a harvestable resource – for the sake of giving the rest of us a bit longer? Surely not – but if it were possible, how could you justify not doing it? And, to ask a darker and more political question, if we were doing this to an identifiable group of people, what could persuade us to stop? We can be thankful that transplant technology wasn’t available to the Nazis – or to the eugenists of Britain and America for that matter.

The ghastly flaw at the heart of Ishiguro’s clone-based solution also disqualifies the seemingly obvious solution to the donor organ shortage, permitting organ sales. The question is, can we guarantee that the costs and risks of organ donation would not bear disproportionately on an identifiable minority? If there’s money changing hands, clearly not. A similar, albeit less obvious, flaw disqualifies Larry Niven’s ghoulish fantasy of ‘organlegging’, which makes organ donation a corollary of capital punishment. (A typically lip-smacking description is quoted here – ‘cardiectomy’, indeed.) You only need to look into the issue of differential access to justice – and differential likelihood of coming to the attention of the police in the first place – to see the flaw here.

What makes the Survival Lottery interesting, and differentiates it from ideas such as these, is precisely that it has the merit of equity: everybody’s number would be in the hat. (Even the Queen’s, presumably.) There’s something distasteful about it, all the same. In his poem “The Latest Decalogue” the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough offered a gloss on each of the Ten Commandments, including the sixth:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive

(Ouch.) The Survival Lottery seems to start from the identical assumption, that failing to keep alive is morally equivalent to killing – but Harris moves from this to the utilitarian (and very un-Cloughian) conclusion that killing so as to keep alive might be allowable, as long as there’s a net increase in the number of people who survive overall. Philosophically, it comes down to whether we think the taboo on killing in cold blood is there for a good reason, and whether that taboo is strong enough to trump utilitarian considerations. Politically, the question is whether we have sufficient trust in the wisdom of the state to empower it to answer either of those questions in the negative. Personally I’d prefer the question of state killing to have fewer grey areas rather than more.

Having said all of that, the idea of introducing ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation – in effect, switching from opt-in to opt-out – seems eminently sensible. As Rob says, it’s hard to see whose interests could possibly be set back by this change, as anyone who cared enough to object would be able to express their preference in binding form by opting out (“I would not like to help anyone live after my death”). I suppose there’s a case for saying that understanding of the policy couldn’t be presumed – in the absence of which presumed consent would be meaningless – but surely this is a case for public education, not for pitching policy to the level of the voters’ lack of awareness. (It took my grandfather a couple of months to get the hang of decimalisation – he still had to live with it.) What appears to be an honourable refusal to take decisions in the name of an uninformed electorate is really the refusal to trespass on the voters’ apathy and ignorance; it may be what those voters would prefer, but it’s hardly in their best interests. I’m particularly disappointed in Harry Burns – Andrew Lansley’s comments were predictable, but Burns should have known better. (I’d never even heard of Harry Burns before this morning, and now this – I ask you.)

My notebook and my limit

A while ago Rob passed me the meme stick with a couple of questions deriving from Big Brother:

Tell your readers three things about you that would make you the Ideal Housemate if you were imprisoned in a house with ten random strangers for weeks on end. Then three things that’d make you the Housemate From Hell.

I’ll take them in reverse order.

I would be the Housemate from Hell, in any imaginable Big Brother-type scenario, because:

a) I hate being thrown together with strangers
b) I really hate being under surveillance
c) I really, really hate Big Brother and all its derivatives. When I first read about Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment I was fascinated but simultaneously disgusted and alarmed. I felt that Zimbardo’s experiment, like the Milgram obedience experiment, prompted some large and troubling questions about 20th-century American society, which we haven’t yet managed to answer. (The question of whether Milgram’s or Zimbardo’s findings related only to American society – or only to capitalist societies, or only to the twentieth century – is obviously one of the largest and most troubling.) I don’t know what Big Brother is if it’s not the Stanford experiment, fine-tuned and played for laughs.

Ideal Housemate is going to be a bit of a sticky wicket, in the circumstances, but let’s give it a go.

a) Sometimes what you really want from a housemate is that they leave you alone. This suggests that a really good housemate would really leave you alone, for hours or even days at a time, occuping themself instead by reading a book somewhere quiet.
b) I tell you what I can do: I can keep my head when all about me, etc. When people start flapping I’m quite good at staying calm and working out what actually needs to be done. This isn’t always popular.
c) Conversely, I can flap – sometimes to the point of losing it completely – when those about me are perfectly calm. Which, I don’t know, might have a certain entertainment value if nothing else.

On balance I think ‘Housemate from Hell’ has it.

Meanwhile, Philippe has passed me the ‘eight random things’ meme. Here goes:

1) When I was 12 I fell off a cliff I was attempting to climb and landed headfirst. I was unconscious for 36 hours.

2) I once went to France at GMTV’s expense; one morning in June 2004 I appeared on screen for approximately 30 seconds, standing on the beach at Arromanches and talking about the landings. I was credited as a ‘military historian’. (I’d specifically asked them not to credit me as a military historian.) My travelling expenses came to between three and four times my fee.

3) My father’s father was a miner; my mother’s mother was in domestic service. I get a bit peeved when people deny the relevance of class.

4) I have no knee reflex; my knee does not jerk. This was first noticed after 1) and may be a result.

5) Raymond Williams liked my poetry.

6) I used to be a regular contributor to some Usenet groups, in particular alt.folklore.urban, soc.history.what-if and comp.software.year-2000; at one time contributors to c.s.y2k periodically gave their opinion on how bad it would be, using the ‘Edwards Scale’. (Most of us were miles out.)

7) I know Cobol.

8) I also know French, Spanish and Italian, although I can’t hold up a conversation in any of them.

There you have it. As for who’s next, as flattering as it was to get an actual nomination, I think I’m going to take the easy way out and offer a general invitation. If you feel like telling us your own eight random personal facts, have at it.

Update Will writes:

An ‘honest’ reality television would be self-defeating; you might as well stare at your own flatmates for 45 minutes. Instead, reality television distorts, manipulates, refers to itself, because the objectifying properties of television equipment are brought within the frame of entertainment.

What is worse is that reality television not only deliberately plays with form, it laughingly denigrates content. In the same way that Heat magazine revels in using telephoto lenses to reduce film stars to specimens of celulite, reality television uses television equipment to turn people, famous or not, into emotional wrecks. Loss of emotional self-control is the leveller and main spectacle, with rage as the most sought-after. Be it on Big Brother, cooking programmes, home improvement or whatever else, it is the tears, the shouting the breakdown or – yes – the storming out from a photo session over a tiara, that bankroll this cultural vacuum.

So maybe I would be a ‘good’ housemate after all. Wot larx, eh?

That’s all changed

There is “a fair amount of rewriting of history going on”, says Martin Kettle. (This post began life on CiF. I keep meaning to give up commenting there – it’s a singularly unrewarding occupation, apart from those rare occasions when the columnist you’re responding to actually reads the comments. Commenting on most CiF posts is ‘interactive’ in much the same way that shouting at the TV is.)

Anyway, back to Kettle. Apparently, where the terrorist threat is concerned, the Brown/Straw/Smith regime won’t be a big change from Blair/Reid, because actually Blair and Reid were pretty moderate, actually. No, really:

It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done.

Terror alerts have been more or less continuous for the last six years; as it stands the first line is trivially true. As for the Blair government’s response to terrorist incidents, the first major example on Blair’s watch was the Omagh bomb of 1998. Response: the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, with new police powers (a police officer could state that a suspect belonged to a proscribed organisation, rather than the suspect having to own up), a new offence (conspiracy to commit terrorist offences outside the UK) and new penalties (including seizure of terrorist-related assets). The CJ(TC)A took the form of a raft of amendments to the annually-renewed Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, which was itself a revised and updated version of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions[sic]) Act 1974.

The Terrorism Act 2000, it has to be said, didn’t come in response to any particular incident, but did show awareness of new forms of terrorist organisation; the definition of terrorism was expanded to include ‘religious’ or ‘ideological’ as well as political motivation. The Act included just about everything that had been in the PTA 1989 as amended, together with several elements of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and some entirely new provisions, such as a revision of the length of time a suspect could be detained without charge (from two days to seven). Also, the PTA 2000 applied to the UK as a whole, and it was permanent rather than renewable.

Then there was September 11th. Not strictly speaking our show, but the Blair government thought new legislation was called for nonetheless. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 brought in a raft of new offences associated with aeroplanes, nuclear installations and weapons of mass destruction, together with powers to deport suspected international terrorists – or intern them if they couldn’t be deported without risking torture. A terrorist, in this context, is defined (ATCSA s.21, sub-sections 2 and 3) as someone who

is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of international terrorism
is a member of or belongs to an international terrorist group, or
has links with an international terrorist group

A group can be described as an international terrorist group if

it is subject to the control or influence of persons outside the United Kingdom, and
the Secretary of State suspects that it is concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of international terrorism.

In other words, there’s a pretty broad range of people who could be deported or detained, subject to the Home Secretary’s ‘suspicion’. (The criterion of reasonable suspicion is used elsewhere in the same section, but not here. Presumably this is deliberate.)

Then there was the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which raised the limit on detention without charge from 7 days to 14.

Then came 2005 and… the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. To be fair, this wasn’t a reaction to 7/7; it was a reaction to the Law Lords’ judgment effectively overturning the detention provisions of ATCSA. Hence, the PTA 2005 gave us control orders.

Then – after the Blair government had seen one major review of anti-terrorist legislation, two anti-terrorist bills rushed through Parliament in the wake of particular incidents and a third anti-terrorist bill patching up one of the others – came July 7th 2005. The Blair government’s response was: the Terrorism Act 2006, which raised the limit on detention without charge yet again – from 14 days to 28. (There’s a handy review of this topic – and a startling graphic – here.) It also introduced such new offences as preparation of terrorist acts and dissemination of publications favouring terrorism, as well as the now-notorious offence of ‘glorifying’ terrorism.

Back to Kettle’s two propositions:

It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done.

1. You could have fooled me.
2. Not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean, but:
2.1. If Kettle’s arguing that the Blair government’s response to 7/7 was refreshingly sober and restrained, see 1.
2.2. If he’s referring to the government response to events since 7/7 (the liquid-explosive airline plot, Dhiren Barot’s “gas limo” plan), the implication is that we should commend the government for not rushing through emergency powers in response to terrorist attacks that didn’t actually happen. This is pushing it rather. I never thought I’d hail Margaret Thatcher’s liberalism and sang-froid, but let’s not forget that the serving Prime Minister was very nearly killed by a terrorist bomb in October 1984. Special legislation passed in response: none.

As well as downplaying the extent of New Labour’s panic response to terrorism, Kettle downplays the degree to which it represents a break with the past. Hence this comment, in response to the recent non-proscription of Hizb-ut-Tahrir:

Labour ministers have never been slow to proscribe organisations that promote terror

‘Never’ is quite a long time, even if your starting point is 1924 (before which there weren’t any Labour ministers). The IRA was proscribed, by a Labour Home Secretary, under the PT(TP)A in 1974; until that point there weren’t any proscribed organisations in British law (Northern Ireland law is another matter). So perhaps it should read Since 1974, Labour ministers have never been slow… except that Labour ministers didn’t proscribe any other organisations between then and the fall of Callaghan. The INLA was proscribed in 1979, under Thatcher (that was the full extent of the incoming government’s legislative response to the assassination of Airey Neave shortly before the election; Neave was a Conservative shadow minister and a personal friend of Thatcher’s). After that no terrorist organisations were proscribed in British law for another twenty years. Even the post-Omagh CJ(TC)A 1998 didn’t actually proscribe the Real IRA, limiting itself to empowering the government to specify active Northern Irish terrorist groups which would be treated as proscribed organisations.

It all changed in 2000, when a list of 14 organisations proscribed in Northern Ireland law was incorporated into the Terrorism Act. Since 2000, certainly, Labour ministers haven’t been slow to proscribe, etc – the list stood at 58 the last time I looked and has probably grown since. But that’s just to say that the Blair government has its own distinctive approach to terrorism – which is the position Kettle’s arguing against.

To borrow Kettle’s pained, sleeve-tugging language, it’s not actually true that Blair reacted to terrorism in the same way as any other Prime Minister, or any other Labour politician. New Labour – or should we start saying ‘Blairism’? – was something new, in the field of counter-terrorism along with many others; it doesn’t do the Labour Party any favours to pretend otherwise.

Update 26/7

should we start saying ‘Blairism’? Maybe not.

Gordon Brown moved yesterday to dominate the terror and security agenda, grabbing a Tory proposal for an integrated single border force and then challenging David Cameron to accept that the scale of the terrorist threat requires an extension of detention without charge to up to 56 days.

The move, announced in a ground-breaking Commons statement, follows months of discussions with police and security services on a range of measures, including post-charge questioning of suspects, the use of intercept evidence in court and a proposal that convicted terrorists be treated in the same way as sex offenders.

Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

Wrapped in paper (4)

Finally (for now), here’s another one from a defunct print publication, in this case one that wasn’t even available on this side of the Atlantic. The magazine was called ePro and it was aimed at IBM users. IBM what users, you ask. That was the clever part – ePro was for users of IBM ‘eservers’, in other words any of IBM’s four (or thereabouts) server platforms. (That was ‘eserver’ with that squiggly at-sign ‘e’. You do remember the squiggly ‘e’, don’t you? Alex? Anyone?)

Anyway, I got the WebSphere-related commentary gig, which involved sounding knowledgeable once a month without making too many jokes. Most of the columns are pretty damn geeky, to be honest, as well as tending to slip into the corporate-breathless mode (I’m guessing here, but if IBM have successfully developed the philosopher’s stone – and that is a big if…) Some of the less technical ones still read pretty well, I think. For example, this one, from March 2003.

MONSTER MOVIES never give you a good view of the monster until halfway through. Representing Godzilla through one enormous footprint — or even one enormous foot — is a good way of building up suspense. It’s also realistic: if Godzilla came to town, one scaly foot would be all that most people ever saw.

Some things are so big they’re hard to see. Although e-business is making some huge changes to the way we live and work, we don’t often think about where it’s coming from and why. Asked to identify trends driving e-business, analysts tend to resort to general statements about business efficiency or customer empowerment. Alternatively, we get the circular argument which identifies e-business as a response to competitive pressures—pressures which are intensified by the growth of e-business.

The real trends driving the evolution of e-business are at once more specific and more far-reaching. Moreover, these trends affect everyone from the B2C customer at home to the IBM board of directors, taking in the hard-pressed WebSphere developer on the way.

The first trend is standardization. On the client side, there is now only one ‘standard’ browser. A friend of mine recently complained about a site which was not rendering properly (in Navigator 7.0). The Webmaster — presumably a person of some technical smarts — replied, “This is not a problem with our site, but your browser. I am running Windows 98 with IE 5.50 and everything displays perfectly.” At the back end, conversely, the tide of standards rolls on—from CORBA to XML to SOAP to ebXML. Interoperability between servers is too important for any company, even Microsoft, to stand in its way.

Whether standards are set by mutual agreement or by the local 800-pound gorilla is secondary; however it’s achieved, standardization has fostered the development of e-business, and continues to do so. The effect is to commoditize Web application servers and development tools; this in turn promotes the development of a single standard application platform, putting ‘non-standard’ platforms and environments under competitive pressure. From OS/400 to Windows 2000, platforms which diverge from the emerging Intel/Linux/Apache norm are increasingly being forced to justify themselves.

The second trend is automation. Since the dawn of business computing, payroll savings have been an ever-present yardstick in justifying IT projects. E business continues this trend with a vengeance. Whether you’re balancing your bank account or making a deal for office supplies in a trading exchange, you’re interacting with an IT system where once — only a few years ago — you would have had to deal with a human being. The word processor was the end of the line for shorthand typists; e-business is having a similar effect on growing numbers of skilled clerical employees. The next step, promised by Microsoft and IBM alike, is an applications development framework so comprehensive that business analysts and end users will be able to generate entire systems: even application development will be automated. (No, I don’t believe it either, but are you going to bet against IBM and Microsoft?)

The third trend is externalization of costs. Not long ago, if you asked a shop to deliver to your home, you could expect to see a van with the name of the shop on the side. Place an order online today, and your goods may well be delivered by a self-employed driver working with a delivery service contracted to an order fulfillment specialist. Talk of ‘disintermediation’ as a trend in e-business is wide of the mark. By offering more agile, flexible and transparent inter-business relationships, e business makes it possible for intermediaries to proliferate, each contracting out its costly or inconvenient functions. On the B2C front, meanwhile, operating costs are increasingly passed on to the customer: I sometimes spend far longer navigating a series of Web forms than it would take to give the same details to a skilled employee.

A drive for standardization, forcing all platforms into a single generic framework; automation for all, cutting jobs among bank tellers and programmers alike; businesses concentrating ruthlessly on core functions, passing on costs to partners and customers. These trends have had a huge impact on IT and society at large — and there’s more to come. In the e-business world, we’re all in Godzilla’s footprint.

Wrapped in paper (3)

One more back number. This one is a bit older than the other two and requires some introduction.

For three years, I edited a magazine called NEWS/400.uk; it’s still going, albeit under another name, and I’ve gone on writing a regular column for it ever since. The mag’s appeal is and always has been fairly specialised, as it’s aimed exclusively at users of IBM’s System i midrange platform (formerly known as the AS/400). There was a brief period – 20 monthly issues, to be precise – when the company I worked for also produced a magazine for users of Windows NT and Windows 2000. I was the launch editor – I left after eight issues – and I’m still convinced it could have been big. For various reasons, it didn’t happen.

Anyway, I had a column in NT explorer as well; it was called “NTWA” and it was written, for reasons I don’t now remember, under the name of Ned Ludd. This is the column from March 1999.

“AH, MR LUDD – I’ve been expecting you.”

A familiar, bespectacled figure greeted me. He was sitting in a swivel chair, which he turned to face me as I entered the room. At first sight I thought he was stroking a Persian cat; after a moment I realised it was a stuffed purple dinosaur. As I watched, he dashed the toy to the floor; it bounced once, squeaked “Say Hi to Barney!” and lay still.

“We meet at last,” he said. “And for you, it really is the last time. I mean, it’s the last time you’ll meet anyone, because I’m, like, going to kill you. I know, it kind of sucks, but what else can I do?”

“You could tell me your master plan,” I suggested.

“Ha!” he riposted. “Tell you my master plan? Ha! And, uh… Ha! And stuff. Oh, what the hell, let’s do it. I mean, I’m going to throw you to the piranhas anyway, right?”

He gestured towards what I had thought to be an ornamental water feature. Then he reached down, picked up the purple dinosaur at his feet and flung it across the room. It gave out a plaintive “I wuv you, Billy!” as it flew, then disappeared into the tank. The water boiled up around it. I shuddered.

He gave a sinister giggle. “So, you want to know my master plan. I guess you know about Y2K?”

“The Millennium Bug? But… your software implements different fixes for the bug in different packages – even in different releases of the same package! You’re on record as saying that the Millennium Bug isn’t a big deal! You’ve even said it can be fixed by subtracting thirty years from all dates, and everyone knows it should be twenty-eight – I thought…”

“You thought I was just like totally clueless, yes?” His accent was changing as he spoke. “And now you are realising, like, nobody is that clueless? And if I am not clueless… Hmm?”

“Incompatible fixes, fixes that don’t work, misleading advice – you’re trying to make things worse!”

“Ha! Correct. And after the Millennium Bug, what happens? When the date rolls over, when the computers of the world are crashing and burning, what then? I’ll tell you – it will be the end of computing as we know it! And, as the cloak of anarchy falls over the smouldering ruins of Western civilisation, only one system will survive. One light in the darkness, one beacon of hope, one operating system which will be fully compatible with the emerging requirements of the new millennium!”

“You mean – “

“Yes. Windows 2000! Oh, they used to laugh at Windows. They laughed at my dancing paperclip; they laughed at the repeated shipping delays for NT 5.0; they even” – his voice trembled – “they even laughed at my talking Barney. But no more! There was Windows, now there is Windows NT; soon there will only be Windows 2000. The third Windows will last a thousand years! Give or take a few Service Packs.”

“That’s fiendish!”

“I thought it was kind of cool, actually. But enough of this idle chit-chat. There is a second piranha tank beneath your feet: when I press this button the floor will open up beneath you and you will suffer the fate of Barney. I’m clicking on ‘OK’… now. Now I’m doing it again, because the system has not responded. And once more. And now I am being told an illegal operation has been committed, and I am exiting the program to try again. And now the system is hanging, and – hey, where are you going?”

As I made my escape he shouted after me:

“Go, Ludd! Tell the world! They will never believe you! Ha! No one will listen to your ridiculous story, and that’s just like so uncool. Ha! And stuff.”

I think he needs to work on the accent.

Wrapped in paper (2)

More about blogging from iSeries NEWS UK (or System i News UK as it now is), this time from April this year. (Reverse chronological order?)

SINCE BLOGGING exploded onto the national consciousness about a year ago, around the time that I first wrote about it, the phenomenon has grown exponentially. It is now estimated that, out of any given class of fifteen-year-olds, half have a MySpace account, a third have a personal blog and one in ten are using Facebook, while the other two haven’t been online since they got the ASBO. But what are the perils and pitfalls of this new medium? Can we safely entrust our deepest personal secrets to the Web, blithely trusting in the good intentions of everyone who reads our uncensored outpourings? Or not?

Here are some tips for would-be voyagers in the blogosphere. Careful now.

Q: I’m writing a blog. Should I be worried?

A: Very probably. Let’s face it, writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers is no kind of occupation for an adult – not like being a columnist, for example! Perhaps you should get out more. Unless you’re one of those fifteen-year-olds, in which case you probably get out quite enough. Isn’t there some homework you should be doing?

Q: No, I mean, should I be worried about getting sacked?

A: There have been a couple of high-profile cases recently of bloggers being sacked or suspended, on the general grounds that holding a responsible position in society is incompatible with writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers – particularly if you’re doing it in work time. But let’s keep it in proportion. Before blogging, it was not unknown for employees occasionally to use the Web for personal purposes at work, particularly when Big Brother was on. Before the Web, work computer facilities could be used for employees’ personal ends just as easily, if not quite so entertainingly. Even before PCs, employees sometimes used work facilities for their own purposes, generally by having long telephone conversations with friends, lovers or relatives, often with little or no work content. Where this was not possible, employees often had workplace affairs. Blogging is just one form of workplace timewasting, and by no means the most prevalent (or the most messy).

Q: Good heavens! Can people really be so irresponsible?

A: Yes, I’m afraid so. (You are one of those fifteen-year-olds, aren’t you?)

Q: Any tips for safe blogging?

A: Think about who’s going to be reading your blog. Once it’s up there on the Web, anyone at all could read it – and it’ll stay there for years to come! On the other hand, in practice hardly anyone will read your blog, and most of those who do won’t look beyond the front page, so it’s probably not worth getting too worked up about. But do think about first impressions, and about the effect you’re having on casual visitors, and about printouts and employment tribunals. Don’t call your blog “Notes from a wage slave” or “My boss is a crook”, even if the title accurately describes its content.

Q: Shouldn’t employers actually embrace blogging, along with other forms of social networking software such as tagging, podcasts, vodcasts, wikis and mashups?

A: OK, you’ve had your fun. I’ll answer this one question, but after that I’m going to insist on talking to a grown-up. The answer is, no, they shouldn’t. The factor you’re overlooking here is that blogs are only partly to do with social networking. What they’re very largely to do with is writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers. Which is fine if you’ve got a workforce consisting of egotistical narcissists who only want to hear the sound of their own voice and don’t understand the concept of dialogue.

Q: Many bloggers have gone on to land book contracts and TV appearances.

A: Wait a minute, I hadn’t finished. Encouraging workplace blogging is fine if your employees are all egotistical narcissists, but – let me stress this – not otherwise. What were you saying?

Q: Many bloggers have gone on to land book contracts and TV appearances. Will my blog change my life?

A: Call it “My boss is a crook” and you’ll soon find out.

Wrapped in paper (1)

A propos of not very much, here’s a magazine column about blogging. Regular readers of iSeries NEWS UK may recognise it, as it appeared in that estimable magazine last year.

BLOGGING – it’s the new thing! Everyone’s blogging these days – at least, everyone except you! But what is blogging all about? What are the do’s and don’ts of this new medium – what does it take to be a good citizen of the blogosphere? And that MySpace thing that the kids are doing – what’s that all about? Let’s find out.

Q: Reverse chronological order?

A: That’s right – you’ll see the latest posts at the top and earlier ones lower down. It’s easy to get used to – just imagine that you’re living life backwards, perhaps as the result of exposure to a top-secret military experiment that warped the very fabric of reality itself. Or that you’re reading one of those chain emails where people add their replies at the top.

Q: What about developing a coherent argument?

A: Many blogs have a continuing theme or an argument to which they frequently return. Bloggers whose writing has a particularly clear focus are sometimes referred to as ‘subject experts’, and sometimes as ‘nutters’. You may prefer to avoid being regarded as a nutter; in this case, your best strategy is to have opinions which people agree with. Otherwise, building an extended argument on a blog is no different from doing it in any other situation: cross-examining defence witnesses in a fraud trial, say, or ascertaining whether that bloke in the taxi queue did in fact want some. The only difference with blogging is that you write it all down – that, and the fact that what you write appears in reverse chronological order.

Q: But what would I write about?

A: Whatever you like – the sky is quite literally your oyster. To get some ideas, try browsing some IT blogs. The tech blogosphere is a happy hunting ground for lovers of rare, obscure and historic technology – from the LEO to the One Per Desk, from the Osborne to the Sinclair QL… The iSeries hasn’t been neglected, either – at last count there are as many as two dedicated iSeries blogs, which sometimes feature code! But it’s up to you: you can write about whatever crosses your mind, and goodness knows most people do.

Q: So who writes this stuff?

A: According to popular stereotypes, the typical blogger is a twenty-something American Unix enthusiast who lives with his parents and compensates for his lack of a social life by hunching over a keyboard for hour after lonely hour, conducting tediously pointless contests of geek one-upmanship and exchanging incomprehensibly elaborate in-jokes, pausing only for a swig of Mountain Dew or a bite of cold pizza. This stereotype is far removed from reality – Mountain Dew’s more of a skater thing, apart from anything else. In reality, the range of bloggers is as broad as the range of blogs – and that’s pretty broad. There are blogs out there devoted to every topic under the sun – computing, cult films, Dungeons and Dragons, beer, you name it! It is believed that there are also blogs written by women, although the subject matter of these has yet to be ascertained. That’s the great thing about blogging: anyone can do it. You could be a blogger, if you put your mind to it.

Q: OK, so what is blogging?

A: Blogging is the activity of keeping a blog. A blog is a personal Website, updated regularly by the user; you can think of it as a kind of online journal or commonplace book or advertisement for oneself. The word ‘blog’ may derive from ‘Web log’, a type of Web site consisting of a ‘log’ of other interesting sites. It may also derive from ‘backlog’, a term for the mass of blog-worthy material which dedicated bloggers tend to build up, and the mass of work which doesn’t get done while they’re blogging about it. Alternatively, it may be a cross between ‘brag’ and ‘slog’, encapsulating the experience of reading a blog for (a) the author and (b) everyone else.

Q: Blogs – are they something to do with that MySpace thing that the kids seem to be doing these days? What’s that all about?

A: God knows. Shall we talk about blogging?

Too much more

Welcome back* to Imprecise Song Lyrics Club.

This evening our featured lyricist is Mr Paul Weller, one-time tunesmith with popular beat combo the Jams. In his song “Porcelain gods”, Mr Weller writes:

Too much will kill you,
Too little ain’t enough

On first reading both propositions advanced here seem intuitively valid, but – I put it to you – are they? Certainly, too much over-proof rum or carbon monoxide or acceleration into a bend will tend to kill you, but does this proposition hold more generally? I think not. In some cases, too much will simply result in a stomach ache or an overdraft, or in the decision to call a taxi when you had intended to walk.

No, Mr Weller: too much will not necessarily kill you. For greater precision, the lines in question should have been drafted as follows:

Too much is excessive,
Too little ain’t enough

Very little there with which anyone could argue, I think you’ll find.

*To anyone for whom this comes as the second or subsequent post with this theme, perhaps because they are reading it in a period in the future relative to the time of writing.

The vagaries of science

The slightly oxymoronic Britannica Blog has recently hosted a series of posts on Web 2.0, together with responses from Clay Shirky, Andrew Keen and others. The debate’s been of very variable quality, on both the pro- and the anti- side; reading through it is a frustrating experience, not least because there’s some interesting stuff in among the strawman target practice (on both sides) and the tent-preaching (very much on both sides). As I said in response to a (related) David Weinberger post recently, it’s not always clear whether the pro-Web 2.0 camp are talking about how things are (what knowledge is like & how it works) or about how things are changing – or about how they’d like things to change. The result is that developments with the potential to be hugely valuable (like, say, Wikipedia) are written about as if they had already realised their potential, and attempts to point out flaws or collateral damage are dismissed as naysaying. On the anti- side, the danger is of an equally unthinking embrace of how things are – or how they were before all this damn change started happening.

All this is by way of background to some comments I left on danah boyd‘s contribution (which is well worth reading in full), and may explain (if not excuse) the impatient tone. danah, then me:

Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works?

Because I could give a 20-credit course on ‘how Wikipedia works’ and not get to the bottom of it. It’s complex. It’s interesting. I happen to believe it’s an almighty mess, but it’s a very complex and interesting mess. For practical purposes “Don’t cite it” is quicker.

Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource?

This is a false opposition: two different activities with different timescales, different skillsets and different rewards. I get an idea, I write it down – generally it won’t let me go until I’ve written it down. I look at what I’ve written down, and I want to rewrite it – quite often it won’t let me go until I’ve rewritten it. All of this takes slabs of time, but they’re slabs of time spent engrossed with ideas and language, my own and other people’s – and the result is a real and substantial contribution to a conversation, by an identifiable speaker.

I look at a bad Wikipedia article [link added] and I don’t know where to start. What I’d like to do is delete the whole thing and put in the stub of a decent article that I can come back to later, but I sense that this will be regarded as uncool. What I don’t want to do is clamber through the existing structure of an entry I think shouldn’t have been written in the first place correcting an error here or there, because that’s a long-drawn-out task that’s both tedious and unrewarding. And what I particularly don’t want to do is return to the article again and again over a period of weeks because my edits are getting reverted by someone hiding behind a pseudonym.

(I think what Wikipedia anonymity has shown, incidentally, is that people really don’t like anonymity. Wikipedia has produced its own stable identities – and its own authorities, based on the reputation particular Wikipedia editors have established within the Wikipedia community.)

Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry?

Well, yes. If I get a journal article accepted or I’m commissioned to write an encyclopedia article, I’m joining an established conversation among fellow experts. What I’ve written stays written and gets cited – in other words, it contributes to the conversation, and hence to the formation of the cloud of knowledge within the discipline. And it goes on my c.v. – because it can be retrieved as part of a reviewable body of work. If I write for Wikipedia I don’t know who I’m talking to, nobody else knows who’s writing, and what I’ve written can be unwritten at any moment. And it would look ridiculous on my c.v. – because they’ve only got my word that it is part of my body of work, assuming it still exists in the form in which I wrote it.

The way things are now, knowledge lives in domain-sized academic conversations, which are maintained by gatekeepers and authorities. Traditional encyclopedias make an effort to track those conversations, at least in their most recently crystallised (serialised?) form. Wikipedia is its own conversation with its own authorities and its own gatekeepers. For the latest state of the Wikipedia conversation to coincide with the conversation within an established domain of knowledge is a lucky fluke, not a working assumption.

Update The other big difference between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia (as someone known only as ‘bright’ reminded me, in comments over here) is that the latter gets much more use. From my response:

Comparisons with the Britannica are interesting as far as they go – and I don’t believe they do Wikipedia any favours – but they don’t address the way that Wikipedia is used, essentially as an extension of Google. When I google for information I’m not hoping to find an encyclopedia article. Generally, Britannica articles used to appear on the first page of hits, but not right at the top; usually you’d see a fan sites, hobby sites, school sites, scholarly articles and domain-specific reference works on the same page, and usually the fan sites, etc, would be just as good. (I stopped using the Britannica altogether as soon as it went paywalled.) If all that had happened was that Britannica results had been pushed down from number 8 to number 9, with their place being taken by Wikipedia, I doubt we’d be having this conversation. What’s happened is that, for topic after topic, Wikipedia is number 1; the people who would have run all those fan sites and hobby sites are either writing for Wikipedia instead or they’re not bothering, since after all Wikipedia is already there. (Or else the sites are still out there, but they’re way down the search result list because they’re not getting the traffic.) It’s a monoculture; it’s a single point of failure, in a way that encyclopedias aren’t. And it’s the last thing that should have happened on the Web. (I’ll own up to a lingering Net idealism. Internet 0.1, I think it was.)

Never here, never seen

Time for a bit more Potter. (Past time, in fact – my Rowling-rereading-and-reviewing schedule is way out. I blame life.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like its precursor, was big but not that big, a success but not yet a phenomenon. While we’re aware now of the continuing and repeated elements in successive books – the relationships, the Sorting Hat, the compulsory Quidditch – it’s actually quite surprising, coming back to Chamber of Secrets, to see how little it had in common with the first book. Harry’s parents don’t figure at all, for example, and Voldemort only appears in the form of a Horcmagical object (more of that later). What it does have in common with Philosopher’s Stone is a plot consisting mostly of increasing suspense (cranked up really high this time round), resolved in a fast-paced action scene that doesn’t make any sense at all – not even after Dumbledore has explained it.

I began my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by challenging J.K. Rowling’s indignant denial that the book was “light and fluffy”. Chamber of Secrets certainly isn’t light and fluffy in any obvious way; the mood’s gloomy and oppressive, with the first stirrings of that “everyone hates Harry” paranoid atmosphere which dominates the later books. The monster-movie horrors of the climactic big fight are undercut by the sheer daftness of the plotting – it’s hard to care about a life-and-death struggle which the author seems to be making up as she goes along. But some of the plot twists along the way are genuinely grim (Dumbledore suspended, Hagrid sent to Azkaban, Hermione in a coma…).

So is this a major advance on the first book? Is this where Rowling steps free of the wish-fulfilment fantasy framework that Philosopher’s Stone inhabited -

Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify

- and begins to write, like le Guin or Pullman or even Tolkien, about real people who really get hurt? Yes and No – but mainly No. I don’t know how I’m going to assess the fifth and six books when I wade thrread them again, but my sense is that the books never quite get free of fantasy (in that weightless, narcissistic sense of the word). This is a strength as well as a weakness – it leads to a kind of restless, unsatisfied chewing-over of the conditions of fantasy, as if Rowling felt compelled to prove that it can’t work but couldn’t quite bear to abandon it. But it does mean that, thematically, the books are more or less variations on a master-theme. It also means that Harry isn’t likely ever to make it out into the real world, where lots of desires are impossible and lots of broken things can’t be mended – not even to the extent that Ged or Frodo manage it.

I suggested before that Philosopher’s Stone posed three questions about fantasy. First, is the hero superhuman, or is he at some level one of us – is he Sam Gamgee or Elrond, or somewhere in between? (Not that there’s necessarily a straight line from one to the other; Philip Pullman plotted some unsettling variants on this scale in the Amber Spyglass.) Second, does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? Third, does the hero have an infallible moral compass – are his friends good and his enemies evil? In that book, the answer to the third question was a definite “maybe”, while the second got a quiet but unambiguous No: Harry’s parents are dead and will stay that way. The answer to the first question was least satisfactory; the unenchanted human race is represented by the ghastly Dursleys, in comparison with whom Harry is simply loaded with midichlorians (and better looking with it).

All three questions are explored to considerably better effect in Chamber of Secrets than in the first book. The Dursleys are still ghastly, right enough, and there is still that slightly queasy adoption-fantasy sense that the Weasleys represent Harry’s real family, but this time round the wizard/Muggle divide doesn’t pass without authorial reflection. The issue is foregrounded through the revelation of the darker side of the Slytherin worldview, with Malfoy’s use of ‘Mudblood’ as a term of abuse for Hermione (Harry’s own parentage is thoroughly wizardly, of course). Slytherin was introduced in the first book as the house for cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends (in the deathless words of the Sorting Hat) – and a house which might well suit Harry himself (who certainly isn’t noted for adherence to the rules). But all we really found out about Slytherin kids was that they tended to be ghastly over-privileged snobs, and that (according to the normally trustworthy Hagrid) there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. Incidentally, this untroubled mapping of the school onto the world at large is significant; at least, it’s another sign that, when we enter Hogwarts, we’re in the domain of fantasy. Rowling has said that, while she was planning the first book, I sat down and I created 40 kids who enter Harry’s year … I got 40 pretty fleshed-out characters (more details here); she doesn’t seem to have felt the need to draw any maps of the wizards’ world. Setting aside the question of whether the parallel British wizard society could possibly be sustainable on a birth-rate of 40 per year, you’ve got to wonder if Voldemort had any following outside Britain – and if not, why not.

In any case, it’s in Chamber of Secrets that we learn about Slytherin’s volkisch streak, and this in turn affects the way we think about Harry’s superior wizardliness. If Harry has something special about him – if the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities which lift him above our mundane level – then his gift can’t be something he was born with, or at least not something he could have been predicted to be born with. It’s no accident that the same book that introduces ‘Mudbloods’ also introduces ‘Squibs’, the unfavoured non-magical offspring of magical parents. (And there must be a hell of a lot of Squibs, unless the Weasleys are really way out on the right tail of the philoprogenitive curve – 40 per year, after all… They’d hardly need a Ministry of Magic, surely – a Greater Hogsmeade District Council would be ample. But never mind.) Hermione and Filch are both sports – magical ability comes and goes, and ultimately can’t be predicted from a person’s parentage or their external appearance. Magic itself is still pretty special – and the relationship between the magical world and ours isn’t any clearer in this book. Still, the disavowal of any idea of wizards as a separate caste does something to undo – or at least pull against – the sense that there’s a gulf of effortless superiority dividing Harry from the Dursleys, and other Muggles.

As for the question of the moral compass, this is the second of at least five books in which Harry’s loathing for members of Slytherin turns out to be misplaced. It’s a theme that gets predictable quite quickly – particularly when underscored by Ron’s stubborn failure to get it – but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rowling is emphatically not saying that Draco Malfoy is all right really, or (after the first book) that Snape is acting in Harry’s best interests. In this book it’s clear that Malfoy hates Harry because of school and social rivalry, and that he’s personally a nasty piece of work; his snobbish contempt for Ron is as telling here as his quasi-racist hatred of Hermione. (It’s somehow not surprising that real-world racism never rears its head at Hogwarts, despite the presence of Irish, Black and Asian kids.) However, it also becomes clear that he’s not working for the forces of darkness, as much as he might like to (or thinks he would). Similarly, Snape may have saved Harry’s life in the first book, but it’s clear that he means him no good. In particular, he would happily see him expelled – an unthinkable fate for Harry, as it would mean exchanging the charmed world of Hogwarts for the mundane (or hyper-mundane) setting of Privet Drive. But there’s disliking Harry and then there’s being evil; in this book Rowling insists that these are both real, but that they’re not identical. It’s a delicate balancing act – all the more so given that the nature of evil is never really spelt out, beyond the fact that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and would like to kill Harry. It’s particularly noticeable that Dumbledore, in the obligatory but there’s still one thing I don’t understand scene at the end of the book, declines to draw the line distinguishing ‘evil’ from ‘Slytherin':

‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Even if it’s tidied away at the end of the book, earlier on the Slytherin problem has productively blurred the line between the issues of heroism and morality, querying Harry’s claim both to superhuman heroism and moral certitude. The way in which this book tackles the question of omnipotence – does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? - also shows some overlap with the ‘moral compass’ question. Specifically, Harry’s key discovery in this book is that people get in the way – and that they do so in ways that aren’t, actually, evil. The key figure here is the ridiculous and worthless Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling’s authorial tone with regard to Lockhart never wavers; he is clearly an idiot who has made a career out of his own vanity, and who gains Harry’s respect only by virtue of his position as a teacher. And yet:

‘Oh, there you are, good,’ said Mrs Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. ‘We’ll be able to see him in a minute…’

Why,’ demanded Ron, seizing her timetable, ‘have you outlined all Lockhart’s lessons in little hearts?’ Hermione snatched the timetable back, blushing furiously.

Lockhart’s not merely incompetent, he’s dangerously incompetent – as well as being untrustworthy and a fraud. But he does have lovely hair and a nice smile, and it would be nice to believe he was genuine – and for a lot of people that’s enough to be going on with. Female people, primarily. (Is anyone gay at Hogwarts?)

Like Malvolio, Lockhart is at once a figure of fun and an annoyance, and his comeuppance is just as thorough as Malvolio’s. The final twist of the plot sees him deprived of his memory, the very faculty that enabled him to stitch together the character he made of himself. As a result he’s deprived of all significance, sidelined and reduced to an amiable childlike state. It’s interesting that the book where Lockhart does his turn also sees the first appearance of a much more significant figure, Cornelius Fudge. In this respect Chamber of Secrets foreshadows the third book, in which the theme that Lockhart embodies in comic form is taken up in earnest by Fudge: this man may be complacent, self-seeking and incompetent, but people believe him – people who wouldn’t, necessarily, believe you. There is stuff out there that’s unavoidably in the way, stuff that you just have to work round; there are people out there who will get in the way, without necessarily being evil. Thematically, Lockhart is part ‘omnipotence’ and part ‘moral compass'; in both respects this book moves on from the first one in some interesting ways.

But omnipotence, morality and heroism aren’t what the book is about – at least, they’re not the point of this book in particular. The best way to understand what it’s about is to take seriously two comments Rowling has made about the original draft of the book. One was that the plot was originally planned to reveal information which she decided to hold back to a later book; the other was that the book’s original title was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that she’d been forced to drop it when she realised it didn’t fit the plot. This clears up a couple of mysteries straight away: the similarity between the major plot devices of the two books is explained, as is the bizarrely creaky ‘Prince’ plot device used in the sixth book. (Admittedly this doesn’t explain why Rowling reused the title in the first place; I suppose she must really have liked it.)

As for the crucial information, I think the key exchange comes in that final exposition scene:

‘Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…’
‘Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?’ Harry said, thunderstruck.
‘It certainly seems so.’

By the time we reach the end of book six we know all about how, and why, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me“. (Settle down at the back there. This is family reading.) For now we’re left with a revelation that complements the revelation at the end of the first book. There’s something about Harry which protects him from evil, and which derives from his mother’s self-sacrifice to save him from Voldemort. But there’s also something about him which derives from Voldemort’s attack itself; the implication is that this will tend to draw him back towards Voldemort and destruction, like a delayed-action homing device.

The extent to which these motifs represent moral complexity, or fictional maturity, is debatable. As I wrote in the context of the first book, it’s arguable that Rowling is only going to leave the safety of comfort-zone fantasy for the equal and opposite safety of the discomfort zone – a fictional world whose heroes can be relied on to be powerless, unheroic, misguided and doomed. Lily’s shielding love and Voldemort’s contaminating Horcrinfluence are both all too compatible with a vision of Harry as an impotent plaything of fate, suffering horribly for his failure to attain the proper level of fantasy heroism. Whether they’re also compatible with Harry living in a real world – albeit a real world with magic – is much more debatable.

Alright, yeah

Stephen Lewis (via Dave) has a good and troubling post about the limits of the Web as a repository of knowledge.

while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees.

Lewis goes on to talk about the destruction of the National and University Library in Sarajevo, among other things. Read the whole thing.

But what particularly struck me was the first comment below the post.

I think you’re undervaluing the new primary sources going up online, and you’re undervaluing the new connections that are possible which parchment can’t compete with like this post I’m making to you. I definitely agree that there is a ton of great knowledge stored up in books and other offline sources, but people solve problems with the information they have, and in many communities – especially rural third world communities, offline sources are just as unreachable, if not more, than online sources.

This is a textbook example of how enthusiasts deal with criticism. (I’m not going to name the commenter, because I’m not picking on him personally.) It’s a reaction I’ve seen a lot in debates around Wikipedia, but I’m sure it goes back a lot further. I call it the “your criticism may be valid but” approach – it starts by formally conceding the criticism, thus avoiding the need to refute or even address it. Counter-arguments can then be deployed at will, giving the rhetorical effect of debate without necessarily addressing the original point. It’s a very persuasive style of argument.In this case there are three main strategies. The criticism may be valid…

I think you’re undervaluing the new primary sources going up online

but (#1) things are getting better all the time, and soon it won’t be valid any more! (This is a very common argument among ‘social software’ fans. Say something critical about Wikipedia on a public forum, then start your stopwatch. See also Charlie Stross’s ‘High Frontier’ megathread.)

you’re undervaluing the new connections that are possible which parchment can’t compete with like this post I’m making to you. … in many communities – especially rural third world communities, offline sources are just as unreachable, if not more, than online sources

but (#2) you’re just looking at the negatives and ignoring the positives, and that’s wrong! Look at the positives, never mind the negatives! (Also very common out on the Web 2.0 frontier.)

I definitely agree that there is a ton of great knowledge stored up in books and other offline sources, but people solve problems with the information they have

but (#3) …hey, we get by, don’t we? Does it really matter all that much?

I’m not a fan of Richard Rorty, but I believe that communities have conversations, and that knowledge lives in those conversations (even if some of them are very slow conversations that have been serialised to paper over the decades). I also believe that knowledge comes in domains, and that each domain follows the shape of the overall cloud of knowledge constituted by a conversation. But I’ve been in enough specialised communities (Unix geeks, criminologists, folk singers, journalists…) to know that there’s a wall of ignorance and indifference around each domain; there probably has to be, if we’re not to keel over from too much perspective. Your stuff, you know about and you know that you don’t know all that much; you know you’re not an expert. Their stuff, well, you know enough; you know all you need to know, and anyway how complicated can it be?

Enthusiasts are good people to have around; they hoard the knowledge and keep the conversation going, even when there’s a bit of a lull. The trouble is, they tend to keep the wall of ignorance and apathy in place while they’re doing it. The moral is, if your question is about something just outside a particular domain of knowledge, don’t ask an enthusiast – they’ll tell you there’s nothing there. (Or: there’s something there now, but it won’t be there for long. Or: there’s something there, but look at all the great stuff we’ve got here!)

Name isn’t Rio

I used to buy a lot of singles as a way of checking out new bands, & hyped new bands in particular (occasionally I still do). Trial by single is quick but brutal; once they’re in it, bands tend not to make it out of the “tried it, didn’t like it” box. They have, after all, been found guilty not only of being uninteresting, but of inducing me to waste money – and persuading a gullible press to make them look more interesting than they were. Shocking, really.

The result has been a definite thumbs down to Dark Star, Genelab and Nylon Pylon, among others. Going further back, there was this young Irish band about whom Dave McCullough, my favourite Sounds writer, was wetting himself – not the Virgin Prunes, the other one. So I bought their first single, but it didn’t do a lot for me. And that was pretty much it for U2. (I wonder where that single is now.)

With that in mind, I was a little disappointed to see that – according to iTunes – my copy of the Arctic Monkeys’ first album has the following track listing:

arctic.png

Fortunately what you actually hear while it’s playing is the edgy, hyper-literate Yorkshire racket we know and love. Presumably somebody’s hacked Gracenote – which seems, appropriately, like a very punk thing to do, give or take thirty years’ worth of technology.

I don’t know, though. The Arctic Monkeys’ cover of “Where the streets have no name” would be something to hear. Perhaps this could be the track listing for that difficult third album.

Not too much more

4% of 568 is 22.72. Hold on to that thought.

A ‘unit’ of alcohol is actually 10 ml; if you’re a man, your recommended weekly dosage amounts to a bit less than a pint of gin, or rather more than half a pint of cask strength whisky, or rather less than half a pint of pure alcohol. Don’t drink it all at once.

But what, I hear you ask, what about beer? I refer the honourable reader to the answer previously supplied. A pint of bitter at 4% alcohol by volume will contain 22.72 ml of alcohol, or slightly more than two and a quarter units. Two and a quarter isn’t all that handy as figures go, but it’s a lot handier than 2.272. Apart from anything else, two and a quarter translates nicely to the improper fraction 9/4, which is handy. Say, for the sake of argument, that you want to know the strength (in ‘units’) of a pint of something at 4.5% a.b.v. (e.g. the Marble Brewery’s renowned Ginger Marble), or indeed something at 6% (e.g. the Marble Brewery’s hard-to-find Special Ginger Marble, which I tasted last Friday). Simple: all you need is fractions. First you calculate the ratio of 4.5% to 4%, which is (9/2) / 4; invert the second term to get 9/2 * 1/4; multiply out to get 9/8. Then you just need to multiply that original 9/4 – the number of ‘units’ in a pint of 4% a.b.v., you’ll remember – by the 9/8 ratio; you end up with 81/32, which is as near as dammit 80/32 or 5/2. Two and a half units, in other words. (For the 6% the ratio is 6/4 or 3/2, meaning that when you multiply out you get 27/8, or nearly three and a half.)

This, I’m sure you’re saying at this point, is all very well, but what about situations when I may want to sample a wide variety of drinks of different strengths? What if I were to visit the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, whose programme boasts an impressive 120 beers, a startling 34 ciders and a frankly alarming 18 perries? (This isn’t advertising – the festival was last weekend.) Oh, you might say, I can always carry on drinking while I’m feeling pleasantly drunk and stop when I start feeling unpleasantly drunk, but experience warns that this may not always be sufficient to ward off inebriation-related mishaps such as stopping for ghastly fast food on the way home, stopping for a drink on the way home (how could that have been a good idea?), falling asleep on the bus and ending up in Bolton, feeling thoroughly ill for the rest of the weekend, etc. To which I reply, think of the units. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you know from experience that three pints at 4.5% is a decent evening out, four pints is chancy for mid-week, five is a bit rocky the next day and six is definitely too much of a good thing. (I do remember managing seven once; I don’t remember how I got home, though.) Then multiply out by the units, two and a half per pint. So ten is fine, twelve is time to slow down and if you reach fifteen you should have stopped already.

Then – and this, frankly, is the clever bit – you work out what concentration of alcohol you’d have to be drinking to reach your selected limit in half a pint. We know that a pint at 4% contains 9/4 units, from which it follows that half a pint contains 9/8. So to get ten units in half a pint, the level of alcohol by volume would need to be (10 / (9/8)) * 4, or 10/1 * 8/9 * 4, or 80/9 * 4, or as near as dammit 9 * 4: 36%. Then all you need to do is tot up the percentages of the halves you drink (no shame in drinking halves at a beer festival; most of the people there were drinking from lined half-pint tankards), and stop when you hit 36. Or, if you’re aiming for 12, do the whole thing again and… stop at 42.

I worked all that out in the stands at Edgeley Park, gazing into the distance and vaguely trying to separate out crowd noise, traffic noise and aeroplane noise, between a half of the aforesaid Special Ginger Marble and one of something with the uncompromising name of Blackcurrant Stout. (Unfortunately, this tasted exactly like you’d expect, say, Murphy’s and black to taste. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.) In the event I was slightly disappointed by the beer range, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. On one hand, the range was just too big – you might not go in expecting to sample everything, but with 120 beers on offer over three days even the most dedicated ticker would have to leave the great majority untasted. And you’ve got to try a rarity like the Special Ginger Marble, and the odd novelty, and the odd strong beer like Phoenix Earthquake (7.3% and very nice indeed), not to mention the odd cider or perry – and how many bitters does that leave room for? At the same time, the mainstream ales were very big on the hoppy style and rather light on the darker, more malty bitters. All very Manchester – rather more Manchester than Stockport, in fact – but still a bit disappointing. I felt alternately spoilt for choice and stuck for choice. On the cider and perry front, on the other hand, spoilt was the word. I ended up skipping the cider and trying two perries, in one case because I was intrigued by the name: Stinking Bishop. All rapidly became clear: the taste is interesting – not unpleasant if you don’t mind being reminded of ripe Brie while you’re drinking your perry – but the smell… Yes, this is in fact a perry which stinks. Well done, Minchew’s. The Blakeney Red perry from Gwynt y Ddraig was rather fine, on the other hand, despite the name of the brewery translating as Dragon’s Fart. There must be something about growing pears that brings out a sophisticated sense of humour.

I worked all that out – and I stopped at 35.7, because I’d been feeling tired – but I only realised much later that most of the calculations had been completely wasted. Let’s say that I’m aiming for the equivalent of four pints at 4.5%; to find the half-pint equivalent, I just need to multiply 4.5% by the ratio of four to a half, or 8. So you can get to the same result with a lot less mental arithmetic. But really, where’s the fun in that?

Fighting again

Andy draws our attention to this statement by Alex Callinicos (‘for the SWP Central Committee’):

as we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’, ‘if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.

There are three propositions here. Firstly, US imperialism essentially rules the world and will quash any development in the direction of socialism or self-rule, unless it can be challenged by military force. For the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America to develop, they needed political space – and a decisive contribution to creating the space was made by the resistance to the invasion of Iraq, specifically by its success in tying down the Pentagon’s military machine. It follows (secondly) that setbacks to US imperialism – and, specifically, military setbacks – are more important and more worthy of support than any developments in the direction of socialism, since these are only possible on the condition that US imperialism is defeated (or at least tied down). Hence the resistance in Iraq matters more than the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America; they may be more advanced politically, but Iraq is the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism. It follows that building the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’ is more important than solidarity work with Venezuela (or Bolivia, or anywhere else not currently in a state of war with the US). Thirdly, for us in the advanced capitalist world the anti-imperialist struggle of the Iraqi resistance is especially relevant, since the countries of the advanced capitalist world are, not to put too fine a point on it, doing the damage. This is therefore a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than mere ‘cheerleading’.

My problem with this analysis starts at the end. To start with, I’m not at all clear what the ‘task’ being proposed actually is. I don’t believe the SWP is advocating the formation of an International Brigade to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi resistance, or calling for the disruption of the British war effort; I don’t even believe they go so far as to cheerlead for the Iraqi resistance, at least not in material intended for public consumption. If revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world have any role in the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’, it seems to consist of a demonstrative withdrawal of support from that war – and we hardly need a revolutionary cadre to do that.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that expressing opposition to the war in Iraq is in fact a contribution to the struggle against US imperialism. Even if this were the case, I’d struggle to see how this would take priority over more positive developments towards socialism. This point relates to Callinicos’s other assertion, that mobilising against the war is a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies. For that to be the case, this would surely have to be a campaign that resonated with broader social issues and found points of leverage within existing divisions in society. (If you remember the miners’ strike, think how that single issue ramified into areas from gender roles to welfare spending to nuclear power – all of them deeply contentious and all offering a terrain for further mobilisation.) By contrast, almost nobody outside Westminster actually supports the war; this is not in any obvious way a divisive issue, which severely limits its potential for broader mobilisation. (The SWP’s sotto voce endorsement of the Iraqi resistance has the opposite problem, as hardly anyone outside the party agrees with it.)

The point, for the depleted forces of the Left in the advanced capitalist world, has to be what we can actually achieve. The implicit assumption underlying Callinicos’s analysis seems to be that, in ourselves and for ourselves, we can achieve nothing. Globally, the precondition for any advance towards socialism is the military defeat of our own nation and its allies; in the absence of that, every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism will be doomed. This is politics reimagined as a game of Risk: a nation can only be available for Socialism if it’s not occupied by Imperialism, or if Imperialism has had to send its armies elsewhere. The message for socialists in nations of the Imperialist heartland (such as this one) is simple: don’t you know there’s a war on? Any other demands can and should be suspended for the duration.

I find this a bleak and, effectively, anti-political world view; I find it hard to imagine it being held seriously by anyone who’d recently been involved in a political campaign in this country. Because there is still class conflict in advanced capitalist nations; we may be aristocrats of labour on a world scale, but there are still divisions for socialists to open up, contradictions to exacerbate – and gains to be made. I don’t pretend to know the best or most fruitful approach to doing so, but I am pretty sure it won’t begin with a demand that’s embarrassingly uncontroversial (“Troops out of Iraq”) – or one that’s just plain embarrassing (“Victory to the Iraqi resistance!”).

To live in

I’ve been going through my non-fiction and turning out a lot of stuff that I’ve never read or never want to read again. There goes a biography of Herzl, one of Philip K. Dick and two biographies of Ezra Pound (what was I thinking?); there goes a book on Yugoslavia called “The Improbable Survivor” (of its time, that one). I’ve no longer got anything by Boris Kagarlitsky, Meaghan Morris or Bernard Porter; my holdings of Chomsky, Pauline Kael, Anthony Summers and Brinsley le Poer Trench are all severely reduced. (B. le P. T. (a.k.a. Lord Clancarty) was the author of some of the worst UFO books you’re ever likely to see.) When the charity shop sees this lot, I said to my wife, they’ll think three different people have died. “In a way they have,” she said, consolingly.

What does that leave? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a complete list of authors by whom I’ve got three or more books:

Perry Anderson
John Berger
Jan Harold Brunvand
James Cameron
Guy Debord
Michael Foot
Paul Ginsborg
Stephen Jay Gould
Ken Knabb
Sebastian Moore
Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham
Christopher Norris
George Orwell
Fredy Perlman
Douglas Reed
Sheila Rowbotham
E.P. Thompson
Raoul Vaneigem
Marina Warner
Raymond Williams

The Noakes and Pridham volumes are a trilogy & were all bought together, which almost disqualifies them, but not quite. Sebastian Moore is or was a Catholic mystic; his books were all presents (from two different people). Douglas Reed was a British National Socialist (tendance Strasser); his loathing of Hitler seems to have made his views palatable to publishers (who apparently never asked why he hated Hitler). And the Perry Andersons only just survived the cull; I haven’t read any of them. One of these days, possibly.

Jake Thackray used to introduce a Christian-themed song by saying, This is a song of which I’m not particularly… ashamed. I feel a bit like that about hanging on to my Cameron and my Gould and all that bloody Orwell: not especially proud, but not, particularly, ashamed.

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