Searching for something to say

Time for a bit of pure self-indulgence; I’m doing the 20-first-line thing again. Only with 25 (thanks Rob), and with a whole bunch of songs either missed out or included for completely arbitrary reasons. (So I skipped some albums which appeared in the earlier attempts, but not all of them.) The difference from the previous two attempts is essentially that this is 25 songs I actually like.

  1. “When your world is full of strange arrangements and gravity won’t pull you through”
    - ABC, “The look of love” (Justin)
  2. “Well I remember when you used to look so good and I would do everything I possibly could for you”
    - Love, “Bummer in the summer” (Chris)
  3. “Summer was gone and the heat died down”
    - Nick Drake, “Time of no reply” (Justin)
  4. “Sometimes I feel so happy, sometimes I feel so sad”
    - the Velvet Underground, “Pale blue eyes” (Larry)
  5. “As I was walking all alane”
    - traditional, “Twa Corbies”
  6. “You’ve got to hope for the best, and the best looks good now baby”
    - Spiritualized, “Do it all over again” (Unity)
  7. “They stumbled into their lives”
    - Blur, “Fade away” (Justin)
  8. “Everyone’s too nice to me, the way Vincent Price would be with midnight coming on”
    - Peter Blegvad, “Special Delivery”
  9. “D’you lay with a shallow girl?”
    - James Yorkston, “I awoke”
  10. “Your railroad gauge, you know I just can’t jump it”
    - Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (Alex)
  11. “Who could find him, the sidewinding Indian?”
    - Spiritualized, “Do it all over again” (actualfactual)
  12. Moon is giving sunshine, clouds are full of wine”
    - Laika, “Marimba song” (Unity)
  13. “Boy, do you hear me say, do you hear me say now?”
    - the Concretes, “You can’t hurry love” (actualfactual)
  14. “This old world may never change”
    - Fred Neil, “Dolphins” (Jim)
  15. “Sonically we’re in control”
    - Leftfield, “Original” (Unity)
  16. “I want, him wants, you want, who wants, he wants, I want, him wants, I want”
    - Happy Mondays, “Do it better” (actualfactual)
  17. “They’re nice and precise – each one begins and ends”
    - Buzzcocks, “Fast cars” (actualfactual)
  18. “Drag boy dog boy dirty numb angel boy”
    - Underworld, “Born slippy” (James)
  19. “Why this uncertainty? It’s not clear to me – would you rather be independent?”
    - Pet Shop Boys, “One in a million” (Unity)
  20. “Spring was never waiting for us, girl”
    - Richard Harris, “MacArthur Park” (Lisa)
  21. “So you lost your trust, and you never should have”
    - Coldplay, “See you soon” (actualfactual)
  22. “It’s the darkest time of year”
    - Robyn Hitchcock, “Winter love”
  23. “Thinking of all the times you missed digging it in, you can’t resist”
    - Ed Kuepper, “By the way”
  24. “First time, I did it for the hell of it”
    - SFA, “Something for the weekend” (Alex)
  25. “Brown Eyes and I were tired”
    - Brian Eno, “St Elmo’s Fire” (Unity)

Have at it.

Update 13th July: that’s your lot. Well spotted, all.

Hide them when you’re able

I’ve got a logical mind, perhaps excessively so; people sometimes call me a pedant, but I always point out that pedantry is characterised by excessive reliance on canonical sources and works of reference rather than by mere consistency in the exercise of rational thinking. That shuts them up, I can tell you.

Anyway, having a clear and intuitive sense of propositions such as “if A is true, not-A must be false” is surprisingly useful in some lines of work, but it can make the fuzzier areas of human interaction a bit problematic. In my last job but one I had the misfortune to be part of a group that was selected for an Outward Bound-style ‘team-building’ exercise, which would take place over a weekend and include lots of the kind of jolly fun activities which I’d managed to avoid for the whole of my adult life and most of my childhood. Correction: a voluntary Outward Bound-style ‘team-building’ exercise. Cue a conversation with my manager:

“I don’t think I’ll go on this thing.”
“Are you sure? You know, I think you should.”
“Well, maybe. But, I mean, it’s not compulsory, is it?”
“No, no, it’s not compulsory. Think about it, OK?”

And another:

“I really don’t think I’ll go on this thing.”
“I don’t know, I really think you ought to. The idea is that the whole group goes.”
“Sorry, you mean it’s compulsory?”
“No, no, of course not. It’s just that it’s better if the whole group goes.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s just not my thing.”
“OK, well. It’s not compulsory, of course. But just think about it, OK?”

And another:

“Look, I’ve thought about it some more, and…”
“OK, I know you don’t want to go, but I really think you should.”
“But… what can I say? I really don’t want to go. And it’s not compulsory…”
“No, no, of course it’s not compulsory. But I really think you should go.”

If it’s not compulsory, it must be voluntary.
But:
If I can’t choose not to go, then it’s not voluntary and it must be compulsory.
But…

Brane hertz.

(I went, of course. Parts of it were OK – the rope walk was very cool – but other parts were truly, enduringly awful. I got my revenge in the whiteboard feedback session on the Sunday afternoon.)

That was a long time ago, and I’ve had a bit more experience of smudgy social reasoning since then. But sometimes even now the fit descends and I turn into LogicMan (None withstand his remorseless inferences!). Most recently in the case of that cuddly Old Labour mascot, John Prescott. Charlie has the story; Alex has the British background; and Dave has the American ditto. Me, I’ve got the logic.

You see, Prescott’s stay on the Anschutz ranch was either personal – an even lower-rent version of Blair’s hols with Berlusconi – or business. It can’t be both; it can’t be neither; it must be one or the other.

If it was personal, why wasn’t it declared in the Register of Members’ Interests at the time?
If it was personal, what were civil servants doing on the trip with Prescott? (Ugh – better rephrase that before the mental images get out of hand.) If it was personal, how does Prescott justify taking civil servants with him?
If it was personal, why was the offsetting payment to charity made out of government funds?
And if it was personal, why on earth would Prescott choose to spend his holidays with an unsavoury character like Anschutz? (See Dave’s post for details.)

On the other hand:

If it was a trip on government business, why has the trip been declared in the Register of Members’ Interests at all?
If it was business, why has a payment been made to charity?
And, if it was business, what business could Prescott possibly have to discuss, legitimately, with Anschutz?

Logically, the whole thing’s a tissue of contradictions. There are only two interpretations that make any kind of sense. Either it was a personal holiday funded by the taxpayer – including personal assistance from Prescott’s civil servants; in this case Prescott is personally corrupt on a truly Italian scale, as well as having lost any sense of political principle. Or else it was a business trip laid on to ease the path of Anschutz’s bid for the Dome Casino (si New Labour monumentum requiris…); in this case Prescott is politically corrupt, as well as having lost any sense of principle. And either way he’s a liar.

Perhaps this is LogicMan speaking, but surely there’s no way out of this one. Prescott has to resign as Deputy PM; if he’s any sense he’ll resign as an MP, too, before the Standards Committee pushes him. And then he should apologise, in person, to the people of Liverpool. (Not because he’s done anything to them, just because it was funny when Boris did it.)

The users geeks don’t see

Nick writes, provocatively as ever, about the recent ‘community-oriented’ redesign of the netscape.com portal:

A few days ago, Netscape turned its traditional portal home page into a knockoff of the popular geek news site Digg. Like Digg, Netscape is now a “news aggregator” that allows users to vote on which stories they think are interesting or important. The votes determine the stories’ placement on the home page. Netscape’s hope, it seems, is to bring Digg’s hip Web 2.0 model of social media into the mainstream. There’s just one problem. Normal people seem to think the entire concept is ludicrous.

Nick cites a post titled Netscape Community Backlash, from which this line leapt out at me:

while a lot of us geeks and 2.0 types are addicted to our own technology (and our own voices, to be honest), it’s pretty darn obvious that A LOT of people want to stick with the status quo

This reminded me of a minor revelation I had the other day, when I was looking for the Java-based OWL reasoner ‘pellet’. I googled for
pellet owl
- just like that, no quotes – expecting to find a ‘pellet’ link at the bottom of forty or fifty hits related to, well, owls and their pellets. In fact, the top hit was “Pellet OWL Reasoner”. (To be fair, if you google
owl pellet
you do get the fifty pages of owl pellets first.)

I think it’s fair to say that the pellet OWL reasoner isn’t big news even in the Web-using software development community; I’d be surprised if everyone reading this post even knows what an OWL reasoner is (or has any reason to care). But there’s enough activity on the Web around pellet to push it, in certain circumstances, to the top of the Google rankings (see for yourself).

Hence the revelation: it’s still a geek Web. Or rather, there’s still a geek Web, and it’s still making a lot of the running. When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) – and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector – the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.

Add social software to the mix – starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that’s where it came from – and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly – and even more disproportionately – than before. Have a look at the ‘popular’ tags on del.icio.us: as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: “LinuxBIOS – aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel”. The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one’s a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)

I’m not a sceptic about social software: ranking, tagging, search-term-aggregation and the other tools of what I persist in calling ethnoclassification are both new and powerful. But they’re most powerful within a delimited domain: a user coming to del.icio.us for the first time should be looking for the ‘faceted search’ option straight away (“OK, so that’s the geek cloud, how do I get it to show me the cloud for European history/ceramics/Big Brother?”) The fact that there is no ‘faceted search’ option is closely related, I’d argue, to the fact that there is no discernible tag cloud for European history or ceramics or Big Brother: we’re all in the geek Web. (Even Nick Carr.) (Photography is an interesting exception – although even there the only tags popular enough to make the del.icio.us tag cloud are ‘photography’, ‘photo’ and ‘photos’. There are 40 programming-related tags, from ajax to xml.)

Social software wasn’t built for the users of the Web-for-everyone. Reaction to the Netscape redesign tells us (or reminds us) that there’s no reason to assume they’ll embrace it.

Update Have a look at Eszter Hargittai‘s survey of Web usage among 1,300 American college students, conducted in February and March 2006. MySpace is huge, and Facebook’s even huger, but Web 2.0 as we know it? It’s not there. 1.9% use Flickr; 1.6% use Digg; 0.7% use del.icio.us. Answering a slightly different question, 1.5% have ever visited Boingboing, and 1% Technorati. By contrast, 62% have visited CNN.com and 21% bbc.co.uk. It’s still, very largely, a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactivity. Comparing results like these with the prophecies of tagging replacing hierarchy, Long Tail production and mashups all round, I feel like invoking the story of the blind men and the elephant – except that I’m not even sure we’ve all got the same elephant.

Tell me, how much can you take?

The blogs I read regularly have changed a little since I started blogging, but not the blogs I avoid. I can think of a few right-wingers whose frame of reference is so different from mine that, if I did read them, I’d spend all my time responding to them – I mean the kind of people who not only use ‘socialist’ as an insult but apply it to Blair. Fortunately there aren’t many of them (I’m speaking only of British bloggers here) – and besides, depriving myself of Tory blogs isn’t much of an effort. Unfortunately there are also some left-wingers whose frame of reference is so different from mine that, etc, and they’re harder to avoid.

All of which is prompted by one of my very rare visits to the Normblog; I was genuinely interested to know what Geras would say about Gaza. What he said about Gaza was this:

No government could ignore them.That’s the Qassam missiles that have been fired from Gaza into Israel; and who is saying it is today’s Guardian leader. From that you might infer that the Guardian thinks Israel is justified in taking retaliatory action of some kind to put an end to these missile attacks, as well as to kidnapping incursions into its territory. Forget about it.

No, ‘the distinction between preemption and retaliation [is] now bloodily blurred’, there’s a ‘harsh cycle of attack, retaliation and vengeance’, and everything’s too much of a mish-mash to be able to discern anything clearly about actions and responses – I mean too much of a mish-mash in that Guardian leader.

The fact remains: no government could ignore them, and no other would be expected to.

No government could ignore them; ergo it’s hypocritical to argue that Israel should ignore them, and the only debate to be had is about ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ (let alone ‘why’). Some form of armed response can be justified; or, if we can’t justify it, perhaps we can condone it; or, if we can’t justify or condone, we should recognise that it was inevitable and stop carping. In effect we bracket the morality of the Israeli armed response, taking it as read that armed response is the kind of thing nation states do. What we can legitimately discuss is the scale of the Israeli armed response and the choice of one set of targets rather than another.

But something’s wrong here. I can concede the premise that No government could ignore them – any government of any nation state would respond in some way to missile attacks and an abducted serviceman – but not that we have a duty to put ourselves in the offended government’s position, trading off our moral instincts against interests of state and the logic of military expediency. Even the Guardian leader which offended Norm goes down this route:

Bombing bridges may have some military logic, but the destruction of a power station seems intended solely to intimidate and inflict collective punishment.

Unsurprisingly, a commenter promptly weighed in in support of bombing power stations as a military tactic.

I keep remembering a grotesque image from children’s literature – E. Nesbit, perhaps, or C.S. Lewis in a darker moment – of a friendless giant: he wants someone to play with, but every time he finds somebody and picks them up they break and then they’re no good for playing with any more… Israel’s intentions with regard to the Palestinians aren’t playful, as far as we can see, but the government’s actions and its self-image remind me of that giant’s endless, unstoppable destructiveness and his undentable innocence.

But they were killing our people – of course we dropped bombs on bridges and a power station and a university and the Prime Minister’s office! We had to do something!

Or, for that matter,
But they were living on our land and they said it was theirs – of course we blocked their roads and ploughed up their orchards and closed their shops and bulldozed their houses and shot at their children! We had to do something!

There comes a point, I would argue, when quantity becomes quality: when the disproportion between the two parties to a conflict becomes so huge, so glaring and so consistent as to make it impossible to treat them as interchangeable (But he hurt me, says the giant sitting amid the smoking ruins, I had to do something). There comes a point when the question is not “After this provocation, could any government do nothing?” but “Whatever the provocation, should any government do this?” I can’t think of many governments which have gone in for forcible demographic re-engineering as heavily as has Israel, under Right or Left. Ceausescu springs to mind; Pol Pot, of course, and Mao for that matter; Saddam Hussein, maybe. It’s not what you’d call a Hall of Fame.

This relates to a minor but telling weakness in the Euston worldview. The Euston Manifesto’s seventh paragraph didn’t get much sustained attention at the time, perhaps because everyone was still boggling from the sixth (“Opposing Anti-Americanism”), perhaps because it didn’t seem to do very much apart from committing signatories to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Personally I’ve been a single-secular-democratic-state person for some time – I remember a friend asking me, all of twenty years ago, why it was that the same people who denounced the bantustan system in South Africa seemed to want to create bantustans for the Palestinians. Euston paragraph 7 nicely crystallises my doubts about the two-state solution:

We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.

Or, as I parodied it at the time:

Palestine. Ah yes, but Israel. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. We can’t have a settlement that the Palestinians don’t like, but that also means that we can’t have a settlement that the Israelis don’t like, because that wouldn’t be fair. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. You see my point? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

The problem is that, for as long as Israelis define themselves as ‘the Israeli people’, whose self-determination is a distinct issue from the self-determination of a ‘Palestinian people’, the identities of ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ will be perpetuated; and those identities are the identities of the perpetrator and the victim of a great wrong. A great and continuing wrong, but one specifically excluded from the professed universalism of the Euston project. Ellis:

Three of the greatest propaganda achievements of the Israeli state are the concealment of the origins of that state, the construction of an image of Israel as a state much like other states, and the representation of Israel as the victim rather than as the aggressor. The violence, terrorism and injustice of what happened in 1948 are written out of history. And Israel is not in any sense like, say, Italy, or Britain, or the USA. The condition of Israel as an institutionally sectarian state which comprehensively discriminates against its Arab citizens and which for 58 years has been engaged in seizing more and more Palestinian land and water is rarely acknowledged.

No one is a nobody

So we’ve just helped ourselves to a couple of chocolates from a left-over box of Miniature Heroes when our son walks in. He’s eating an apple, but his attention is caught by the chocolates and he begins at once to plead and beg in a frankly rather undignified manner. Wife points out that he’s got an apple. No, I say, he’s holding out for a Hero. How we laughed. (Well, I did.)

(Left over from Christmas, since you ask. That’s a lot of leaving-over, and I’m personally convinced that the salmonella risk is far from negligible. My wife, on the other hand, is personally convinced that I’ve taken hypochondria to previously unscaled heights of self-absorbed irrationality. It’s a point of view.)

About heroes, anyway. That is, about managerialism, and about dedication and skill at work. (The following was formulated for a workplace IT survey, but I thought I’d give it a wider airing.)

There’s a common misconception that informal technical support (“I just ring Bob and he comes over and sorts me out”) doesn’t work, and that tech support needs to be formally managed and controlled. This can lead on to a greater misconception, that formally-managed tech support can be delivered by people with less outstanding levels of knowledge and dedication than poor old Bob – “if you get the system right you don’t need heroes”.

Actually informal tech support works tremendously well, from the user’s point of view. (Yes, there will be a backlog of unresolved problems and dissatisfied users – but there will be a backlog whatever you do.) That said, the first misconception has an element of truth, inasmuch as informal tech support is a nightmare to manage – but the managers aren’t the ones whose problems need solving.

The second misconception, however, is flat wrong, and dangerous with it. Heroes are precisely what you need: people who know everything, can prioritise six half-finished tasks in their heads and (very important) like talking to users. Tech support is hard – you’ve absolutely got to have the right people doing it. And management doesn’t help. Imposing formal management systems on those people may make their managers’ lives easier, but it won’t get the job done any better – it’s more likely to get in the way.

In technical support, management isn’t a substitute for heroic levels of skill and dedication. Management (from the point of view of the techie being managed) is a necessary evil – and you still need the heroes.

Ain’t that close to love?

When my son was born the midwife commented on his oily skin – “he’ll be a spotty teenager”. My own skin is noted for its sebaceous quality, so my reaction wasn’t surprise so much as anticipatory fellow-feeling – tempered by the utter inability to imagine this eight-pound armful as a teenager, spotty or otherwise.

He’s nearly eleven now and he’s just got his first spot. I guess it all starts now. I wish him luck.

But I’ve got solid proof that he’s not a teenager yet. We were watching The Breakfast Club last night (online DVD rental, it’s a great system) when he walked in. He asked what it was about, and we told him the setup – five kids are thrown together in a Saturday detention class and we see what happens. He was baffled – he literally could not comprehend why anyone would want to watch a film with no plot, as he put it.

You have to have been a teenager, I think, or else still be one. My son had walked in on the effective, understated scene where the teacher cracks and challenges Bender to a fight. Bender, whose own father regularly beats him up, shrinks into a corner looking scared, bewildered and above all stuck. It’s as if he’s realising that his whole repertoire of bullying and violence depends on adults not replying with greater force – but that adults ultimately, inevitably, will. I can’t imagine even explaining that one scene to my son for another year or two. (Mind you, all of that goes for nothing in the crawl-space blonde-joke scene that immediately follows, where Bender’s back to playing a cross between Tony from West Side Story and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. But it’s that kind of film – the point’s been made, so it moves on.)

I didn’t see The Breakfast Club when it came out; it’s a bit odd seeing it now, when I’m the age of the older-generation characters (the kids’ parents, the sadistic teacher, the philosophical janitor). Some things which I expected to grate were surprisingly bearable – chief among them the ghastly scene where Molly Ringwald’s character gives the Ally Sheedy ‘basketcase’ character a makeover, turning her from a nervy urban gipsy into a kind of sleepwalking Pre-Raphaelite mannequin, and hence enabling her to get the guy (in the shape of Emilio Estevez, ‘the athlete’). I’d love to think this was ironic, but I don’t think John Hughes really does irony, or not at anything above a Readers’ Digest level (“His parents wanted him to be a success, but it was the pressure they put on him that made him fail!”) If I’d seen that scene back in the 80s I would probably have walked out there and then. Now… meh. It doesn’t offend me, because it’s so clearly not about me. It could even be the kind of thing kids do.

On the other hand, I was irritated by some things which would probably have rung true to me back then. So Bender (‘the criminal’) has problems with his parents, notably that they get drunk and beat him up. It comes out over the course of the day that ‘the athlete’ has problems too – specifically, he has problems with his parents and their expectations of him. Ally Sheedy’s character has problems with her parents (they ignore her); the Molly Ringwald ‘princess’ character has problems with hers, too (they’re divorcing and use her to get at each other). The nerdy Anthony Michael Hall character doesn’t appear to have any problems, until it turns out that he’s contemplating suicide because he’s not getting high enough marks… to satisfy his parents. I mean, come on, kids! Isn’t even one of you losing sleep over your prospective choice of career or your gender identity or a lack of friends or illegal drinking or illegal drugs or illness or your penfriend not answering your letters or your cat dying, or anything apart from your parents? Always with the parents! They haven’t got it easy, you know, and I’m sure they’re all trying to bring you up properly (with the possible exception of the Bender household). We didn’t ask for you to be born, you know. Well, OK, I suppose we did in a sense, but we didn’t ask for you to be teenagers.

Still, they were nice kids. The dancing scene was another one which would have had me groaning and tutting twenty years ago – what’s this doing here, it’s just an excuse for a cut-price pop video…. Last night, I have to say, I found it really charming. I’ve retrospectively hated my teenage years for a long time (my twenties weren’t that great either), but that scene in particular made being a teenager look like a lot of fun; more to the point, it stirred a few vague memories suggesting that it might occasionally have been like that. As I head towards being the father of a teenager – a role I’m sure I’ll screw up horribly, just like everyone else – it’ll be good to have those memories to hand.

And I wish him luck.

When you’re a kid they tell you it’s all grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids and that’s it. The truth is, the world is so much stranger than that, so much darker and so much madder – and so much better.

There’s safety in numbers

Some time in the mid- to late 1970s I saw a fairly right-on play, set in Hulme in a dystopian near-future. (I had never been to Manchester and thought I was hugely enlightened for already knowing not only that there was such a place as Hulme but how to pronounce it – the L was silent, like the second K in Kirkby. The Guardian has a lot to answer for.)

Anyway, the idea of this particular dystopian near-future seemed to be that the out-of-touch benefit-cutting so-called-Labour government had washed its hands of the unemployed, the North or both, and what then? what then, eh? And no, we had no idea Thatcher was round the corner, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about (although it may turn out to be relevant).

There were three characters in this play, a well-meaning politicised couple and a scruffy Manc on his own; they were sharing a squat in Hulme, the couple on grounds of principle and the second guy because he couldn’t find anywhere else to live. As well as being well-meaning and political, the couple are both educated or Southerners, or possibly both. The scruffy Manc is none of the above. He’s the one who complains, at one stage, about the (offstage) West Indians in the squat next door and their incessant loud reggae music.

Well-meaning woman: “Why don’t you go and ask them to turn it down?”
Scruffy Manc: “Because I don’t speak Swahili!”

Of course she came back immediately with some stuff about how they would certainly speak English, and in any case they were as British as he was. What sticks in my mind is that his line got a big laugh. That was the seventies; racism wasn’t Till death and Love thy neighbour – what we tend to forget now is that those programmes were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Racism was a mundane, ubiquitous, unquestioned reality – even among the Guardian-reading types who would have been in the audience for that play. (I could make the same point quicker by referring to the Kinks’ “Apeman” (1970) or John Gotting’s “The educated monkey” (1979), both of which feature white guys affecting West Indian accents and singing about being an ape. I mean, really, what were they thinking? Or rather, what were we…)

So where did it go? Because there’s no denying that the racism I grew up with has gone, or at least changed out of all recognition. When I was a kid ‘Eenie-meenie-minie-mo’ included the word ‘nigger’; forty years on, my children have learned a version that doesn’t involve catching anyone or anything by its toe, and the N-word is rather less acceptable in polite conversation than the F-word. This is certainly a gain in terms of civility, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s anything more than that. Certainly the recent localised electoral victories for the fash suggest that the language of race still has some power to mobilise.

What’s going on? I can see three main possibilities.

1. Genuine Progress (with pockets of ignorance)
The school where my children go is terrifically right-on, which can sometimes be rather wearing. (If they ever use the word ‘culture’ you know what you’re in for, and it’s not Beethoven.) Still, I know my children are far closer to being ‘colour-blind’ than I’ll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said “yes, but why do you ask?” That told us.

Maybe he’s just less racist than we are in the same way that we were less racist than our parents, let alone our grandparents (ask me about my grandmother some time). Maybe in ten or fifteen years’ time “why do you ask?” will be the default answer. Maybe this is what Progress looks like, and it’s just progressing a bit slower down Dagenham.

That’s the optimistic version. Then there’s

2. “Face don’t fit”: prejudice by quota
The pessimistic assumption underlying this model is that people, en masse, have a tendency to hate, and they’ve got to hate somebody. We tend to hate people, en masse, on fairly irrational grounds, and probably always will – at least until the glorious day when people are spat at in the street for carrying the Daily Mail. (All right, not glorious as such, but you can’t deny it’d be an improvement.) And, if one form of out-group identification is repressed, another will take its place. On this model, if we no longer talk about niggers and queers – that is, if nobody talks about niggers and queers – this isn’t because tolerance and harmony have permeated white straight society. It’s the other way round: if we don’t routinely use offensive terms, after a generation or so the out-group production mechanisms which they stand for won’t work any more.

But if, for whatever reason, people need an out-group to hate; and if, for very good reasons, the out-groups I grew up with have been ruled unavailable; then where does the hatred go? Ask a Traveller; ask a pikey. As much as I hate even appearing to agree with Julie Burchill, I think the hatred and contempt heaped on ‘chavs’ is a sign of something seriously wrong in our culture. (To be clear about this, I’m pretty sure that all actually-existing cultures have at least one thing seriously wrong with them. Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth concentrating on what’s wrong with this one round about now – any more than saying that most gardens are full of big stones makes it less useful to dig ours over.)

The key point about ‘chav’ is that it derives from Traveller slang, and ultimately from the Romani for ‘boy’ or ‘lad’; ‘pikey’, similarly, derives from (or rather is) a straightforward outgroup label for people who travel the turnpikes. Hatred of Travellers is the only form of racism which is still respectable. When a new outgroup was needed the ‘gipsy’ stereotype was readymade: ‘chavs’ are idle spongers, aren’t they, and they’re dirty and dishonest and flashy and aggressive… If the racism we knew has virtually disappeared, in other words, this may only mean that it’s been replaced by new bigotries that we don’t yet recognise as such.

Alternatively, maybe we should be thinking in terms of

3. The bitch who bore him
Think racism’s gone away, or at worst gone to Dagenham? Think a brown skin is less of a bigot-magnet than a Burberry check or a tight ponytail? Well, actually, so did I, but I’m not sure now. It was a Manchester Evening News roadside hoarding that got me thinking. The headline read:

VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE

VIOLENT MIGRANTS – there’s a certain evil genius to that phrase. Back in the 1970s people moaned about reggae and the smell of curry, or at worst about ‘them’ coming over here and taking our jobs and our houses. You’d have to be at a National Front rally before you’d hear anyone talking about big black men who would kill you if you weren’t careful. But here we are in 2006 and there it is on the front of the Evening News: VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE. In other words, KILLER WOGS – BE AFRAID.

And this language has real effects. Here‘s that nice Dave Cameron’s shadow Home Secretary; he’s talking up recent prison breaks by arguing that earlier prison breaks, while there might have been more of them, weren’t so bad because of the kind of prisoner involved:

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: “The Home Office’s claim that the level of absconds from open prisons is the lowest for 10 years misses the point entirely.”Ten years ago the people absconding from open prisons were not dangerous criminals or deportees. Since the government’s decision in 2002 to put such people in open prisons, every abscondee represents an unnecessary potential risk to the public.”

Dangerous criminals or deportees – classy. Here‘s what it’s like if this unnecessary potential risk to the public has your name on it:

Since April 25, when the foreign prisoner story broke, at least 200 – perhaps many more – foreign inmates have been moved, without warning, from open prisons to closed ones. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that all of them had “offended against prison discipline” – the usual reason for such transfers. Last Friday [May 26], 300 prison officers in riot gear rounded up 135 foreign nationals at Ford open prison, Sussex, to be taken to closed jails. The previous week, according to a prison source, 30 foreign inmates were transferred from Latchmere House, a highly regarded resettlement prison in west London, to closed jails in the London area. Similar exercises have been carried out across the country, although yesterday [May 30] a home office spokesman said only that “around 70″ prisoners had been removed from open prisons in this “temporary measure”.Lawyers and organisations such as the Prisoners’ Advice Service have heard from scores of prisoners who have been suddenly moved in this way. Many are EU citizens; a few, though born overseas, even have British passports. Meanwhile, prisoners who were expecting to move from closed to open conditions have been told that the transfers are cancelled. At least some were not expecting to be deported at their end of their sentences. Elsewhere, prisoners who had been released under licence have suddenly been hauled back to jail. Some of these also had no reason to expect to be deported.

Perhaps even the qualified progress of the second model is an illusion. Perhaps the old forms of hatred are just as available, if you break through the crust of conventional anathema, as the new forms. And perhaps all it takes to bring racism back into the mainstream is a new spin, and (most important) a reason why a powerful group would want to try and pump it up – and groups don’t come much more powerful than the Home Office.

Next: the lurking menace of the paedophile asylum-seeker. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We hear the sound of machines

Sooner or later, the Internet will need to be saved from Google. Because Google – which appears to be an integral part of the information-wants-to-be-free Net dream, the search engine which gives life to the hyperlinked digital nervous system of a kind of massively-distributed Xanadu project – is nothing of the sort. Google is a private company; Google’s business isn’t even search. Google’s business is advertising – and, whatever we think about how well search goes together with tagging and folksonomic stumbling-upon, search absolutely doesn’t go with advertising. (Update 15th June: this is a timely reminder that Google is a business, and its business is advertising. Mass personalisation, online communities, interactive rating and ranking, it’s all there – and it’s all about the advertising.)

I had thought that, in the context of plain vanilla Web search, Google actually had this cracked – that the prominence of ‘sponsored links’, displayed separately from search results, allowed them to deliver an unpolluted service and still make money. I hadn’t reckoned with AdSense. AdSense doesn’t in itself pollute Google’s search results. What it does is far worse: it encourages other people to pollute the Net. Which will mean, ultimately, that Google will paint (or choke) itself into a corner – but that, if we’re not careful, an awful lot of users will be stuck in that corner with them.

For a much fuller and more cogent version of this argument, read Seth Jayson (via Scott). One point in particular stood out: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) insiders are continuing to drop shares on the public at a rate that boggles the mind. It’s true. Over the last year, as far as published records show, Sun insiders have sold $50,000 worth of shares, net. In the same period, IBM insiders have sold $6,500,000; Microsoft insiders have sold $1,500,000,000; and Google insiders have sold $5,000,000,000. See for yourself. That’s a lot of shares.

Cold if you want it

I interviewed Mark Thomas once – you can probably find the interview on the Red Pepper Web site if you look hard enough. Originally it was in three or four sections, each one prefaced with a quote from “White man in Hammersmith Palais”; a bit of a pretentious device, which unsurprisingly got lost in subbing. It seemed important to get punk in, though; Mark Thomas is a bit younger than me, and like me had his head turned round by what happened to music in 1976-7.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and so forth. But I’m not sure you can really remember ’77 unless your memory goes back a bit further than that. The letters pages of the NME and Sounds at the time were full of what were essentially conversion narratives – Until last week I was a hippie – I had long hair, wore flared jeans and went to one concert a year… It wasn’t quite that abrupt for me (or Mark Thomas) but there was definitely a before as well as an after.

Mark Thomas: I was into Yes, ELP… the first album I bought was Tarkus
Phil: Top album!
MT: No! Sorry, no – it is not a top album. Step away from Emerson, Lake and Palmer…

Actually I’ve never heard Tarkus – I was basing my opinion on the track “Aquatarkus” on the live triple album Welcome back my friends to the show that goes on and on for bloody ages. I wasn’t even into ELP. No, I was strictly Gentle Giant and Soft Machine.

I’ll say more about Giant another time – I still think of their stuff with some fondness, as well as a lot of embarrassment. This post is about the Softs.

I got into Soft Machine rather late; around the time of their seventh album, to be precise. They were featured on a TV programme which I now can’t identify (don’t suppose anyone reading this has a copy of Graham Bennett’s Out-Bloody-Rageous to hand?) on which they played, among other things, the track “Nettle bed”. It consists mostly of a synthesiser solo, played over an endlessly-repeated synthesised bass riff, which itself is played over the kind of 4:4 drumming that gets called ‘driving’. It’s atypical of Seven, which itself was pretty unlike most of what Soft Machine had done before, but I didn’t know that at the time. The music – combined with the sight of Mike Ratledge, all long hair and dark glasses, jabbing studiously at a bank of keyboards – made the same kind of impression on me as Eno-period Roxy Music had done a couple of years earlier: I thought I’d seen the future. For several days afterwards I held forth to anyone who would listen – my best friend, mainly – about my discovery of a whole new genre of music, which I called “soft rock”. (Eventually my friend unsportingly pointed out that a) other people were already using the phrase “soft rock” to mean something different, and in any case b) I couldn’t actually describe what I meant by the term without referring back to the track “Nettle bed” by Soft Machine.)

Still, I was sold – and the subsequent purchase of Soft Machine Seven only confirmed my conviction that this was the stuff. Over the next year I got hold of almost everything that was available by the band – which would involve a serious investment in time and money now, but at that time meant that I bought three albums. I remember that CBS had marked down both Third and Six, the band’s two double albums, to £2.83; since my friendly local record shop took 10% off the price of everything, I got them both for £2.55. (Or rather, I got Six and my parents got me Third, an album which consists of four twenty-minute slabs of experimental jazz/rock. What a Christmas that was.) I also got Fifth, with its black-on-black sleeve design – but not Fourth, as by the time I got to it the stark embossed tan sleeve had been replaced by a two-tone brown-on-tan design, which wasn’t nearly as impressive. (For anyone who’s counting, the first two albums were either deleted or had never been available in the UK.) Still, with that lot in hand I had a good two and a half hours of music to keep me going while I waited for Soft Machine Eight.

Which never arrived. Soft Machine were a band who had gone through some serious changes, and one of the most serious happened around that time. To simplify an extremely complicated band family tree, Soft Machine from the second to the fourth album consisted of founder members Ratledge and Robert Wyatt (drums), together with bassist Hugh Hopper (who replaced original bassist Kevin Ayers). Hugh’s brother Brian played a bit of sax on the second album; he was replaced on a more permanent basis by Elton Dean (as of the third album), after a brief but productive experiment with a seven-piece lineup including trombone, cornet and flute. On the first couple of albums the Softs combined psychedelic pop songs with experimental jazz; Elton Dean’s arrival tipped the balance definitively towards jazz, and began what’s generally regarded as the Softs’ great period. They were a band stretched taut between Dean’s soloing and Ratledge’s disciplined compositions, driven on by the power of the brass section and underpinned by a bassist and a drummer who could switch between 7/8 and 5/4 without drawing breath (“A few fives to take away the taste of all those sevens…”). A typical Soft Machine number would set up a melodic theme – often over an odd chord sequence and almost invariably over an odd time signature – then let a soloist loose on it (often Dean but sometimes Ratledge – an extraordinary soloist in his own right – and occasionally Hopper). But nothing went on too long: Soft Machine worked in suites. On Third, the LP-side-long track “Slightly all the time” actually consists of three separate pieces, built on themes with accompanying solos (in 11/4, 11/8, 9/8, 6/4 and 9/8 again). The power, the range and the sheer confidence of the band were extraordinary. They really were quite good.

But, on a personal level – as Bennett’s book makes clear – it was all a bit of a mess. Wyatt liked to drink and socialise; he also liked singing, and tried for a long time to keep a vocal element in Soft Machine’s music – in songs and then, as the big-band sound took hold, as scat improvisation. Neither Hopper nor Ratledge was big on the party scene, and neither of them had any interest in music with vocals. Third is a magnificent album, but the vocal/instrumental patchwork of the previous album is conspicuous by its absence: Wyatt’s vocals are confined to the song “Moon in June”, most of which was played and recorded by Wyatt alone and unaided. (One of my many anorakish niggles with Bennett’s book is that he doesn’t say enough about what was going on on that track – did Wyatt play the acoustic guitar solo? Is that Marc Charig’s cornet parping forlornly at the end, Nick Evans’ trombone or something else entirely, such as Wyatt making mouth noises? And am I the only person to spot the quotes from Kevin Ayers’ “Hat Song” (what about me…?)? Bah.)

Ultimately, Wyatt was going to have to go; ultimately he went, but not of his own volition. Perhaps due to the nature of the leading personalities in the band, being in Soft Machine was never a particularly convivial experience, but the sacking of Wyatt seems to have started a process which chilled the atmosphere in the band permanently. Dean got hold of a replacement drummer, the extravagantly energetic Phil Howard; Howard’s style of drumming, heard on the first half of Fifth, isn’t so much time-keeping as a permanent drum solo, with accents chosen for their expressive value as much as for the beat. Unfortunately, Howard got on much better with Dean than either Hopper or Ratledge, who felt the band was drifting into free jazz territory. So Howard in turn had to go, and Dean had to be the one who told him to go – an experience which soured Dean on the band. When he left, ironically, his replacement was nominated by Howard’s replacement, John Marshall – Howard’s antithesis, a timekeeper of metronomic precision (even in 11/4). The reeds gig went to Karl Jenkins, a personal friend of Marshall with whom he had played in Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Jenkins was one of Britain’s few jazz oboists and a fluent composer, if not a great one; Bennett quotes Hugh Hopper describing Jenkins’ musical ideas as “third-hand and third-rate”. (Incidentally, Bennett didn’t manage to speak to either Jenkins or Ratledge, but includes quotes from both of them; like several of the book’s quotes from Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and other ex-Softs, these are taken from published sources and printed without attribution. This is seriously shoddy practice, which really diminishes the value of the book – although I can’t say that I wasn’t interested in what they said, whenever it was they said it.)

With Jenkins’ arrival, at the time of the band’s sixth album, the nature of Soft Machine’s music changed. Listening to Six after Fifth, much of the improvisation is more pedestrian than before; the rock-influenced approach of improvisation over a riff is more prominent, as distinct from the jazz structure of theme and elaboration. Another thing that stands out when you listen to the Softs’ albums chronologically is the quality of Jenkins’ own solos, on oboe and sax; compared to Dean’s endless melodic invention they’re pretty thin stuff. Thin, and scratchy with it. With Hopper’s fuzz bass and Ratledge’s fuzz organ, there always was something abrasive about Soft Machine’s sound; it was never easy listening, in any sense of the phrase. Jenkins’ oboe solos take this to a new level, not only because of the harsh, whining tonality of the instrument but because of the narrowness of his range as an improviser: there’s lots of high-then-low squawking and parping in octaves and fifths, lots of trills, lots of nagging repeats of a single note. Close-mike the instrument, as he did on Seven, and the sound’s not so much abrasive as downright inhuman. To be fair, Jenkins always was a composer first and foremost. Some of Jenkins’ contributions to the sixth album are fully-scored, with no improvisation at all; in others the improvisatory element is confined to conservative electric-piano doodling. The composing’s pretty conservative, too. Spotting the time signature had always been an incidental pleasure of listening to Soft Machine; on Third, Ratledge’s superb “Out-bloody-rageous” (another track which doesn’t really get its due from Bennett, ironically enough) is in the unheard-of time signature of 15:8, variously divided for rhythmic purposes into a 6 and a 9, a 7 and an 8, and three 5s. (Hence the title, presumably.) Nothing says more about Jenkins’ approach than the fact that “The Soft Weed Factor”, his contribution to the studio-based half of the album, is in 4:4. Where’s the fun in that? (The other three-quarters of the studio LP are much better; Ratledge’s “Chloe and the Pirates”, in particular, which is built around two contrasting oboe themes, both equally striking but entirely different in mood. I’d been playing it for weeks before I realised that the second one was the first one played backwards.)

Seven came after Six – and after Hopper had left the band – so listening to it now, thirty-odd years on, should have been a massive disappointment. And, to a large extent, it was: the riffing is dogged and narrow (very rock); the solos (Ratledge’s apart) sound elbowy, simultaneously unimaginative and ostentatious; the short tinkly piano pieces sound more than ever like a waste of space. I still enjoyed it, though: it’s got the best production of any Soft Machine album, combining some emphatically synthetic tonality with a real sense of space and texture. (Kieran Hebden would like it.) And, if the solos and the compositions now sound like a poor copy of Third, I know that when I first heard the album I was comparing it with the likes of the Neutrons, Camel and Genesis – and, considered as jazz-rock, it’s really not so shabby.

From then on that was about as good as it got, though. In June 1974, eight months after the release of Seven, Soft Machine did a session for Jazz in Britain. I never listened to JiB, so I don’t know how I found out about it – idle reading of the Radio Times, probably. They did two tunes, “Plain Bob” and “The man who waved at trains”. I taped the latter, an eight-minute composition. It began with a discordant cymbal-and-gong improvisation, which gave way to a beautiful, meandering oboe and guitar theme. (From “Slightly all the time” through “Pigling Bland” (Fifth) to “Chloe and the Pirates”, Ratledge always did write good themes.) The statement of the theme was followed by a change of pace and a hurried, urgent oboe solo, before the track ended with a restatement of the theme. Unfortunately my supply of cassettes was limited at this point; after playing “TMWWAT” to death for a couple of weeks I taped over it, reasoning that it would be bound to appear on the band’s next album.

Before that was released, though, there was one more major event in my career as a Soft Machine fan: I saw them live, for the first (and only) time. Since I was 14 and the gig was up in London – at the Rainbow, no less – my older sister accompanied me, with her boyfriend; as you can imagine, I didn’t get much conversation out of them. The gig was a bit of an anti-climax. I remember very little about it now, possibly because Larry Coryell, the support act, overran wildly; by the time the band actually came on it was past my bedtime and looking ominously close to the tube-drivers’ bedtime. (Bizarrely, I had a very similar experience at the Rainbow four years later, when the Slits were supported by Don Cherry. Must be something about the venue.) I remember the gig began with some complex but bland two-electric-piano noodling, which began, then went on without developing very much, then went on some more. I remember John Marshall pausing midway through his percussion solo to sprinkle some kind of powder on his skins; I remember that people started a slow handclap at this point, and that Marshall replied by holding up his sticks in a V sign. And that’s about all I remember about the music. I do remember making what I hoped was a wittily blasé comment about looking forward to one of Ratledge’s ghastly fuzz organ solos, directed at no one in particular (I’d given up on my sister by this stage); I remember making this remark at least twice, to no reaction from anyone. I don’t remember any organ solos, certainly not with fuzz. Then again, I don’t remember a guitarist, and I’m pretty sure Alan Holdsworth would have been there. I do remember the writeup in the next day’s paper: “Musicians’ musicians to a man, Soft Machine played themselves into a corner last night”. Spot on, although of course I refused to admit it at the time.

There were flexis [Translator's Note: the flexi-disc or flexi was a seven-inch single, manufactured using thin plastic rather than standard vinyl and generally produced for promotional purposes] on the seats at the Rainbow, featuring extracts from the Softs’ forthcoming album Bundles. For the first time ever, a Soft Machine album had a title, and a singularly unenlightening one it was too (it didn’t even match the album cover). When the album came out, a few months later, I was pleased to see “The man who waved at trains” present and correct in the track listing but mystified to find (on getting the record out of the sleeve on East Croydon station) that the vinyl it occupied only looked a couple of minutes long; if that was eight minutes, I reasoned obtusely, how long was the whole album?. Of course, the band hadn’t mastered some bizarre groove-cramming technique. “TMWWAT” really was only a couple of minutes long, and consisted of a theme, a bit of desultory oboe noodling and a restatement of the theme; the other parts of the composition had been scissored into separate tracks. “Plain Bob” was there, too, covering most of side 1 under the ridiculously pretentious name of “Hazard Profile parts 1-5″; as it turned out part 4 was just a riff, part 2 was a brief piano composition, and part 3 was an even briefer bridge between the two, with ascending organ chords and Allan Holdsworth’s guitar in plangent, Camel-ish form. With part 5 a rather unexciting Ratledge synth solo, the main action was in part 1, where Allan Holdsworth sounded less like Andy Latimer and more like John McLaughlin.

Holdsworth’s Soft Machine solos are extraordinary stuff, it has to be said, but his sudden prominence in the band was a bad sign. The Softs needed a soloist with the range, speed and melodic invention of Dean or Ratledge in his heyday, and Holdsworth certainly fitted the bill. But, unlike Third-period Ratledge, Holdsworth wasn’t a writer as well as a soloist – and, unlike Dean, he wasn’t working in creative dialogue with a writer. (Dean’s blowing and Ratledge’s chamber composition had a strange but productive relationship, summed up by Dean’s one composing credit on Fifth: the final track, Bone, consists of the improvisation by Dean which opens the first track, Ratledge’s All White, played note-for-note by Ratledge on fuzz organ.) Essentially, the problem with Holdsworth was that Ratledge wasn’t doing any serious writing by this stage – and Jenkins, who had ostensibly replaced him as the driving force of the band, didn’t have anything like his chops as a composer, let alone as an improviser. Jenkins’ Soft Machine was a band which went from tasteful piano noodling to heavy-booted riffing and back again. They were in a rut, and plugging in a soloist – even one as driven and driving as Holdsworth – wasn’t going to lift them out.

I didn’t formulate all that at the time, but I did take Ratledge’s overdue departure from the band – midway through sessions for the ninth album, the ironically-titled Softs – as a cue to lose all interest in them. (Plus by this stage punk was starting to kick off.) After Holdsworth, as I understand, John Etheridge joined on guitar; after Etheridge, Alan Wakeman joined on sax and Ric Sanders on electric violin. After that – not long after that – they wound up, although Jenkins later made a ‘Soft Machine’ album with Marshall and various other people; it’s called The land of Cockayne, it’s fully-scored and it’s bland in the extreme. Jenkins later worked for several years with Ratledge (of all people) on music for commercials (of all things); Ratledge even had a small part in the early days of Jenkins’ hugely successful ‘Adiemus’ project.

I remember vaguely believing – certainly at the time all this was going on, and for some time afterwards – that being in a band was rather like being in a gang, only more so, what with being grown up: if you didn’t actually live in the same house, you would certainly spend lots of time hanging around together and know one another really, really well. And what did it mean when a band split up, other than that friends had fallen out? I couldn’t imagine that you could be in a band and not spend time with the other members of the band, outside the times when you were actually making music together. Ironically, this was precisely true of Soft Machine, the band I followed more than any other. Bennett spoke to several ex-members of the band, and most of them tell the same story: from Fourth onwards – which is to say, from the time of Wyatt’s departure – to join Soft Machine was to join a band whose members didn’t socialise, didn’t go to the bar together before a gig or the pub afterwards, didn’t even chat or exchange the odd smile during rehearsals. You played the charts, you did your solo, you went home.

What I take from all this is that music is hard – or rather, working in groups is hard. For most of the time between Volume Two and Fifth, Soft Machine was a difficult band to be in – but throughout that time they produced music which (even with thirty years’ hindsight) ranges from good to startlingly brilliant. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was in a political group called (hopefully) the Socialist Movement; we spent a lot of time and effort shaking off Trotskyist groups who wanted to latch onto us. Shortly after we’d got rid of the last of them – a tiny grouplet which held the British franchise of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International – the whole thing folded, either because we didn’t have the numbers to run it any more or just because agreeing with each other was no fun. I think something similar happened in Soft Machine: the years when the group was biting chunks out of itself were also the most productive years. By the time of Seven (and “Nettle bed”) the group had settled down in reasonable harmony around the core of Jenkins, Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington – all old Nucleus hands, effectively replacing the old Volume Two trio of Ratledge, Wyatt and Hopper. But by then Ratledge (still just about in the band) had long lost his fire, and the music had lost its edge. This just left Jenkins, neither opposed nor assisted by any other band member, to turn it out by the yard – as he has done ever since.

Groups shake themselves apart; if they’re not doing that, they’re stagnating. Perhaps.

I couldn’t make it any simpler

I hate to say this – I’ve always loathed VR boosters and been highly sceptical about the people they boost – but Jaron Lanier’s a bright bloke. His essay Digital Maoism doesn’t quite live up to the title, but it’s well worth reading (thanks, Thomas).

I don’t think he quite gets to the heart of the current ‘wisdom of the crowds’ myth, though. It’s not Maoism so much as Revivalism: there’s a tight feedback loop between membership of the collective, collective activity and (crucially) celebration of the activity of the collective. Or: celebration of process rather than end-result – because the process incarnates the collective.

Put it this way. Say that (for example) the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades is wildly wrong or wildly inadequate (which is just as bad); say that the tag cloud for an authoritative Red Brigades resource is dominated by misleading tags (‘kgb’, ‘ussr’, ‘mitrokhin’…). Would a wikipedian or a ‘folksonomy’ advocate see this situation as a major problem? Not being either I can’t give an authoritative answer, but I strongly suspect the answer would be No: it’s all part of the process, it’s all part of the collective self-expression of wikipedians and the growth of the folksonomy, and if the subject experts don’t like it they should just get their feet wet and start tagging and editing themselves. And if, in practice, the experts don’t join in – perhaps, in the case of Wikipedia, because they don’t have the stomach for the kind of ‘editing’ process which saw Jaron Lanier’s own corrections get reverted? Again, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the answer would be another shrug: the wiki’s open to all – and tagspace couldn’t be more open – so who’s to blame, if you can’t make your voice heard, but you? There’s nothing inherently wrong with the process, except that you’re not helping to improve it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the collective, except that you haven’t joined it yet.

Two quotes to clarify (hopefully) the connection between collective and process. Michael Wexler:

our understanding of things changes and so do the terms we use to describe them. How do I solve that in this open system? Do I have to go back and change all my tags? What about other people’s tags? Do I have to keep in mind all the variations on tags that reflect people’s different understanding of the topics?The social connected model implies that the connections are the important part, so that all you need is one tag, one key, to flow from place to place and discover all you need to know. But the only people who appear to have time to do that are folks like Clay Shirky. The rest of us need to have information sorted and organized since we actually have better things to do than re-digest it.

What tagging does is attempt to recreate the flow of discovery. That’s fine… but what taxonomy does is recreate the structure of knowledge that you’ve already discovered. Sometimes, I like flowing around and stumbling on things. And sometimes, that’s a real pita. More often than not, the tag approach involves lots of stumbling around and sidetracks.

It’s like Family Feud [a.k.a. Family Fortunes - PJE]. You have to think not of what you might say to a question, you have to guess what the survey of US citizens might say in answer to a question. And that’s really a distraction if you are trying to just answer the damn question.

And our man Lanier:

there’s a demonstrative ritual often presented to incoming students at business schools. In one version of the ritual, a large jar of jellybeans is placed in the front of a classroom. Each student guesses how many beans there are. While the guesses vary widely, the average is usually accurate to an uncanny degree.This is an example of the special kind of intelligence offered by a collective. It is that peculiar trait that has been celebrated as the “Wisdom of Crowds,”

The phenomenon is real, and immensely useful. But it is not infinitely useful. The collective can be stupid, too. Witness tulip crazes and stock bubbles. Hysteria over fictitious satanic cult child abductions. Y2K mania. The reason the collective can be valuable is precisely that its peaks of intelligence and stupidity are not the same as the ones usually displayed by individuals. Both kinds of intelligence are essential.

What makes a market work, for instance, is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence. A marketplace can’t exist only on the basis of having prices determined by competition. It also needs entrepreneurs to come up with the products that are competing in the first place. In other words, clever individuals, the heroes of the marketplace, ask the questions which are answered by collective behavior. They put the jellybeans in the jar.

To illustrate this, once more (just the once) with the Italian terrorists. There are tens of thousands of people, at a conservative estimate, who have read enough about the Red Brigades to write that Wikipedia entry: there are a lot of ill-informed or partially-informed or tendentious books about terrorism out there, and some of them sell by the bucketload. There are probably only a few hundred people who have read Gian Carlo Caselli and Donatella della Porta’s long article “The History of the Red Brigades: Organizational structures and Strategies of Action (1970-82)” – and I doubt there are twenty who know the source materials as well as the authors do. (I’m one of the first group, obviously, but certainly not the second.) Once the work’s been done anyone can discover it, but discovery isn’t knowledge: the knowledge is in the words on the pages, and ultimately in the individuals who wrote them. They put the jellybeans in the jar.

This is why (an academic writes) the academy matters, and why academic elitism is – or at least can be – both valid and useful. Jaron:

The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing projects. There’s a lot of experience out there to work with. A few of these old ideas provide interesting new ways to approach the question of how to best use the hive mind.Scientific communities … achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and “blind” elitism — blind in the sense that ideally anyone can gain entry, but only on the basis of a meritocracy. The tenure system and many other aspects of the academy are designed to support the idea that individual scholars matter, not just the process or the collective.

I’d go further, if anything. Academic conversations may present the appearance of a collective, but it’s a collective where individual contributions are preserved and celebrated (“Building on Smith’s celebrated critique of Jones, I would suggest that Smith’s own analysis is vulnerable to the criticisms advanced by Evans in another context…”). That is, academic discourse looks like a conversation – which wikis certainly can do, although Wikipedia emphatically doesn’t.

The problem isn’t the technology, in other words: both wikis and tagging could be ways of making conversation visible, which inevitably means visualising debate and disagreement. The problem is the drive to efface any possibility of conflict, effectively repressing the appearance of debate in the interest of presenting an evolving consensus. (Or, I could say, the problem is the tendency of people to bow and pray to the neon god they’ve made, but that would be a bit over the top – and besides, Simon and Garfunkel quotes are far too obvious.)

Update 13th June

I wrote (above): It’s not Maoism so much as Revivalism: there’s a tight feedback loop between membership of the collective, collective activity and (crucially) celebration of the activity of the collective. Or: celebration of process rather than end-result – because the process incarnates the collective.

Here’s Cory Doctorow, responding to Lanier:

Wikipedia isn’t great because it’s like the Britannica. The Britannica is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic. Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous.If you suffice yourself with the actual Wikipedia entries, they can be a little papery, sure. But that’s like reading a mailing-list by examining nothing but the headers. Wikipedia entries are nothing but the emergent effect of all the angry thrashing going on below the surface. No, if you want to really navigate the truth via Wikipedia, you have to dig into those “history” and “discuss” pages hanging off of every entry. That’s where the real action is, the tidily organized palimpsest of the flamewar that lurks beneath any definition of “truth.” The Britannica tells you what dead white men agreed upon, Wikipedia tells you what live Internet users are fighting over.

The Britannica truth is an illusion, anyway. There’s more than one approach to any issue, and being able to see multiple versions of them, organized with argument and counter-argument, will do a better job of equipping you to figure out which truth suits you best.

Quoting myself again, There’s nothing inherently wrong with the process, except that you’re not helping to improve it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the collective, except that you haven’t joined it yet.

We are the tables

As the upload of Robert Wyatt’s A short break completes, I have now ripped my entire CD collection; rather smaller than my vinyl collection, but it still amounts to 2690 songs (or seven days and 20 hours, as iTunes helpfully informs me). So let’s do this properly. Hit it! (And for a bonus point, name two Talking Heads songs where David Byrne uses that un-David-Byrne-like expression.)

Step 1: Put your media-player on random play.
Step 2: Write down the first line from the first 20 songs that play.
Step 3: Let everyone guess what song the lines come from.
Step 4: Cross out the songs when someone guesses correctly.

Same rules as before: no instrumentals, no sampled spoken-word, no songs with the title in the first line and nothing I don’t recognise myself. Also no repeats from the first time I did this – in fact, nothing from the same album as anything that came up the first time round. And no two songs from the same artist. Simple, really. I don’t know why we don’t do this kind of thing more often.

Update 17th June – remaining beans spilled.

  1. “You’re the only woman I need, and baby you know it”
    - Amen Corner, “Bend me, shape me”
  2. “Ar ol llond poced o fadarch roes ti’r ty ar dan”
    - SFA, “Dim Bendith”
  3. “My eyes burn naked, my black cold numbers, my insecurities, my devious nature, make it go away”
    - Underworld, “Sola Sistim”
  4. “The last message you sent said I looked really down”
    - Franz Ferdinand, “You could have it so much better”
  5. “See me comin’ to town with my soul”
    - Beck, “E-Pro”
  6. “Did you ever hover in the distance?”
    - Robyn Hitchcock, “Oceanside”
  7. “Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain”
    - Bob Dylan, “Just like a woman”
  8. “I want to chill, want to sit real still, want to sleep like the dead on a bed of roses”
    - the Divine Comedy, “Bad ambassador”
  9. “Last night your shadow fell upon my lonely room”
    - the Electric Prunes, “I had too much to dream last night”
  10. “Alcohol, heroin, THC, care in the impotent community”
    - Fatima Mansions, “Chemical Cosh”
  11. “Over an ocean away, like salmon, turning back for Nayram”
    - Robert Wyatt, “Maryan”
  12. “You’ve been away so long, too long, what’s wrong with us today?”
    - Lightning Seeds, “What if”
  13. “I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll this time”
    - Radiohead, “Lucky”
  14. “I don’t want to lose her, I don’t want to hurt her, I don’t want to lose her”
    - Mull Historical Society, “Her is you”
  15. “Sitting in the classroom, thinking it’s a drag”
    - Brownsville Station (covered by REM), “Smokin’ in the boys’ room”
  16. “There’s a farm called Misery, but of that we’ll have none”
    - Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, “Jollity Farm”
  17. “Here comes Johnny Yen again”
    - Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life”
  18. “I saw two shadow men on the Vallance Road”
    - the Libertines, “Up the bracket”
  19. “Reporting damage, it is soft rock shit”
    - Cornershop, “Lessons learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”
  20. “Damn that television!”
    - Talking Heads, “Found a job”
  21. “When the last frost of Winter has thawed”
    - Nothing Painted Blue, “Career Day”
  22. “Hi, we’re your weather girls, and have we got news for you!”
    - the Weather Girls, “Why don’t you eat carrots?”

Definitely more representative of my collection than the previous take; I think it might be easier, too. Over to you.

Update 2nd June: I realised when I got to the end of this list that I’d missed one out. So now there are 21.

Another update, 5th June: Paul (comments) has me bang to rights – there were actually two that got missed out. Oh well, make it 22.

The Wehrmacht never got in here

Chris has a point:

Whereas Britain pursues overseas expansion, England stays at home. The great statements asserting the rights and the dignity of the ordinary man – and it was the Englishman G.K. Chesterton who said there’s nothing ordinary about the ordinary man – are all English: Magna Carta, the Putney debates, Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause.England stands for freedom, Britain for conquest. England stands for quiet dignity, Britain for glory. England is grown and natural, Britain is imposed by the ruling class.

Britain, he might have added, is Great (originally to distinguish it from Brittany, the lesser Brétagne, but never mind). By contrast, England is Little.

But being a little Englander has never really been respectable. The spectre of the little Englander haunted last year’s debate over the EU Constitution, and doubtless would have got more of an airing if we’d had a chance to vote on the damn thing. Little England means isolation rather than co-operation, conservatism rather than progress, nationalism rather than federalism: to be a little Englander is to cling to the myth of autarchic national sovereignty in an interdependent world.

At least, it is now. For the original little Englanders – Chesterton among them – the connotations of the stance were quite different. As Patrick Wright wrote in 2005, referring to Chesterton and co-thinkers like Hilaire Belloc:

Their beleaguered “England” was on the side of the people against industrialism, monopoly capitalism and the rules and bureaucrats of what Belloc called “the servile state”. Chesterton and Belloc would join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in seeking to preserve traditional “thatched” roofs against the big businesses that could spend fortunes pushing synthetic alternatives. Yet if theirs was emphatically a “little England”, this was also because it entailed a strong rejection of British imperialism. Chesterton elaborated on this aspect of his Englishness in an article entitled “On Rudyard Kipling and making the world small”, included in his book Heretics (1905). Here he took issue with the epigram in which Kipling asked “what can they know of England who only England know?” It was, contended Chesterton, “a far deeper and sharper question to ask, ‘What can they know of England who know only the world?’” As an imperial “globe trotter”, Kipling may certainly “know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.” Insisting that Kipling’s devotion to England was the outcome not of love but of critical thought, Chesterton values it far less than the “real” (by which he means instinctive and unreflected) patriotism of the Irish or the Boers, whom Kipling had recently “hounded down in South Africa”.This attempt to dissociate “England” from the British empire may indeed sound attractive. Yet it remained a thoroughly defensive definition of Englishness – one that was formulated in bitter awareness that the world was actually moving in the opposite direction. Its anti-imperialism was less a critical engagement with the British empire, than an act of retreat and even denial.

The last point deserves making, just as it’s worth bearing in mind that Chesterton and Belloc were reactionary Conservatives of a fairly high order. But the main point remains: so far from resisting encroachments on British sovereignty from trans-national federalism, the original Little Englanders were against the imposition of British sovereignty on large tracts of the world. It’s almost a 180-degree reversal, with ‘little England’ counterposed to two different ‘Britain’s. What has remained constant is the fact that ‘Britain’ represents a long-term governmental project – and a project which may take precedence over mundane everyday concerns such as the welfare of the people who live here. This, I think, is the heart of Chris’s opposition between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’.

Oddly enough, the original form of the ‘little England’ slur has been making a comeback recently. Here’s Nick Cohen from 2004:

The beneficiary of the great left-wing revolt against Blair has turned out to be the right. The Tories are doing better than they have done for a decade. Voters disillusioned with established politicians are turning to the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than to the left. The reactionary shift should not be a surprise. The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain’s interests to tag along behind the United States.

And here’s Nick again from last week:

It is not at all clear that modern, middle-class, liberal-leftists are either liberal or left wing in the old senses of the words, although they will always be middle class to their bones. Many of them are becoming little Englanders, all for human rights and democracy at home but not abroad.

The argument in the first extract isn’t so much constructed as free-associated: to argue that Britain should not take a subordinate role to Bush’s USA is to be a ‘Little Englander’, to be a Little Englander is to be a conservative, ergo the anti-war movement was in some unspecific way stirring up conservatism. (Presumably CND were to blame for Thatcher.) The second extract is more straightforward: if you care about human rights and democracy then you should sign up to the Euston agenda, endorsing Bush and Blair’s strategy of promoting those causes by military force. If you don’t, you’re a little Englander.

The ‘ethical foreign policy’ of our period bears a distinct resemblance to the ‘enlightened imperialism’ of Chesterton’s; once again, we seem to find ourselves between England and Britain. Chris: England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause. On that basis, you can call me English. (And part-Welsh, but that’s another story.)

You can bring your friends

I hate to admit it, but some of these Tories talk sense. I heard a Conservative IT guy (Richard Bacon) dissecting the proposed NHS computer system on the radio today, and there wasn’t a word I could dissent from. If you’re designing and building a huge IT system, you just don’t do it like that.

I find I can agree with Tory critiques of the government more and more often these days. I’m not sure why – it could be that the Tories are making an overdue pitch for the libertarian Marxist vote, but I somehow doubt that. Or it could be that I’m, classically, moving Right with age; I doubt that too (but look at the evidence – I’m 45, I’ve got a mortgage and two kids, the effect’s got to kick in some time…) It could be that Labour’s moved so far to the Right that even the Tories have got to attack them from the Left – certainly Mr Bacon’s voting record compares well with that of my own Labour MP. Or it could just be that the last days of Blairism are such an extraordinary panorama of authorianism, incompetence, populism, venality and desperation that they’re an open goal for almost anyone.

But I do say ‘almost’. The Daily Mail are never going to get it right. “Italians dub Blair ‘The Scrounger’”, the Mail on Sunday told us two days ago:

The Mail on Sunday has learned that Downing Street has tacked on an ‘official’ meeting with new Italian Premier Romano Prodi, prompting questions about whether taxpayers will be forced to subsidise the Blairs’ spring break.This time last year, the Prime Minister – whose fondness for free holidays at other people’s homes has earned him the nickname in the Italian media of ‘Lo Scroccone’ (‘The Scrounger’) – flew to and from a similar Italian vacation on a Royal Air Force jet from the Queen’s Flight.

This is either wrong or wrongheaded in just about every way. The Italian story does offer grounds for quite a powerful critique of Blairism, but this isn’t it.

Start with Blair and Prodi. The implication of the Mail‘s story is that Blair is getting chummy with Prodi just as he did with Berlusconi: Blair goes on holiday, Blair meets an Italian Prime Minister, the British taxpayer picks up the tab. But what’s interesting about the meeting with Prodi isn’t that it’s tacked onto a holiday trip. What’s interesting, as the FT pointed out, is that it’s likely to be an extremely frosty meeting.

The most awkward part of Mr Prodi’s round of Euro-diplomacy is likely to be on June 2 when he meets Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, in Rome. Mr Blair had little respect for Mr Prodi when he was Commission president – although he initially nominated him for the post – and spent the last five years courting Mr Berlusconi as an Atlanticist ally. “Our policy is devoted to getting back to the role traditionally played by Italy in European politics,” Mr Prodi said. He would support a pragmatic policy programme in areas such as research and energy but would also back EU integration more than his predecessor did.

Romano Prodi is a former Christian Democrat; he leads the centre-left coalition, but for himself he’s an economic liberal, a time-served Eurocrat and a careful, long-game-playing machine politician. He’s about as much of a leftist as the late Roy Jenkins, in short. But Blair doesn’t get on with him; he won’t be coming to dinner at the villa. Someone else did, though:

San Gimignano (Siena), May 29 – “I’ll have dinner with Tony Blair tonight: a man who has been a friend of mine for years. Therefore, it is a pleasure for me to be here with him and his family” Silvio Berlusconi told journalists shortly before entering Villa Cusona (San Gimignano) few minutes before 8pm.

Berlusconi, whose massive stake in the Italian media should have disqualified him from government in the first place; who would have had a hefty criminal record by now if he had been tried in the English rather than the Italian legal system; and whose actions in government were conspicuously dedicated to maintaining his business empire and warding off criminal prosecution. Berlusconi, who likened himself to Napoleon, described his political opponents as admirers of Mao and Pol Pot, and spoke favourably of Mussolini. Berlusconi, who refused to admit that he had lost this year’s election until two weeks later, refused to congratulate Prodi even then, and who is still talking about one more heave to get the election result reversed. That Berlusconi. Right now I don’t see how any principled Conservative could tolerate Berlusconi as a dinner guest, let alone a leader of a party that’s ostensibly on the Left. But the Blairs still invited him.

For the Mail, though, the story is all in that word scroccone – which made me wonder where it had come from. It’s all over the English-language Web, for sure: googling without Italian sites (blair scroccone -site:it) brought back “Results 1 – 100 of about 569″. It seems to have appeared first in the Independent, from where it was picked up and amplified by assorted blogs (Blairwatch adds that the nickname is used by “the Italian press (left and right)”). Search for sites under the .it TLD only, though, and it looks a bit different: I get “Results 1 – 42 of about 61″, and most of those are references to films whose titles include those words. Trawling through all the results, I only found three pages which actually called Blair a scroccone, and one of them was from a comment thread. Of the other two, one was a leader column unambiguously headed “Tony lo scroccone”; unfortunately this appeared, not in any of the high-profile national dailies, but in a September 2004 issue of a paper called Il Corsivo, which was published in Cagliari (Sardinia) and went bust in February 2005. The Corriere della Sera furnished the second example, which initially looked more hopeful:

hanno affittato gommoni, si sono dotati dei più potenti tele-obiettivi, lo hanno fustigato dandogli dello “scroccone”

Which is to say:

they’ve hired rubber dinghies and fitted themselves out with the most powerful long lenses, then they’ve laid in to him and called him a scrounger

The context here – as with the Il Corsivo comment – is Berlusconi’s 2004 visit to the Blairs’ holiday retreat. Unfortunately the ‘they’ in question are English journalists. The Italian press don’t call Blair a scroccone; what they do report, occasionally, is that the British press call him a scrounger.

Italy’s a bit too close for us to talk about Orientalism, but something similar seems to be at work here: a kind of romance of the swarthy peasant whose rough common sense lets him see through the pretensions that we urban sophisticates fall for, and whose blunt plain speaking lets him puncture them in ways that we would never dare. It’s nonsense, of course – we’re the ones who put the words into the swarthy peasant’s mouth, so we get to say what we want to say, play at being unpretentious and plain-spoken, and congratulate ourselves on our sophistication, all at the same time. It’s awfully useful nonsense, too – properly invoked, it gives an aura of unarguable rightness to any old myth or prejudice.

Or, in this case, any old red herring. The problem with Tony Blair isn’t that he’s a scrounger; the problem is who he scrounges from. If it’s hard to realise quite how right-wing Blair is – quite how removed from the values and culture of the party he leads – one reason is that neither his friends nor his enemies on the old Right have any interest in acknowledging it. Last Monday’s dinner date is a handy yardstick.

Q: What kind of politician is Tony Blair?

A: He’s the kind of politician who, a few days before his first official meeting with Romano Prodi – little more than a month after Prodi narrowly won the most bitterly-contested Italian election for decades – would invite Silvio Berlusconi round for dinner.

No further questions.

[Italians and New Labour - I'm nothing if not predictable. Philosophy tomorrow, I think. Philosophy or 1970s jazz-rock. Terrors of the earth, I'm telling you.]

When there is no outside

Nick Carr’s hyperbolically-titled The Death of Wikipedia has received a couple of endorsements and some fairly vigorous disagreement, unsurprisingly. I think it’s as much a question of tone as anything else. When Nick reads the line

certain pages with a history of vandalism and other problems may be semi-protected on a pre-emptive, continuous basis.

it clearly sets alarm bells ringing for him, as indeed it does for me (“Ideals always expire in clotted, bureaucratic prose”, Nick comments). Several of his commenters, on the other hand, sincerely fail to see what the big deal might be: it’s only a handful of pages, it’s only semi-protection, it’s not that onerous, it’s part of the continuing development of Wikipedia editing policies, Wikipedia never claimed to be a totally open wiki, there’s no such thing as a totally open wiki anyway…

I think the reactions are as instructive as the original post. No, what Nick’s pointing to isn’t really a qualitative change, let alone the death of anything. But yes, it’s a genuine problem, and a genuine embarrassment to anyone who takes the Wikipedian rhetoric seriously. Wikipedia (“the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”) routinely gets hailed for its openness and its authority, only not both at the same time – indeed, maximising one can always be used to justify limits on the other. As here. But there’s another level to this discussion, which is to do with Wikipedia’s resolution of the openness/authority balancing-act. What happens in practice is that the contributions of active Wikipedians take precedence over both random vandals and passing experts. In effect, both openness and authority are vested in the group.

In some areas this works well enough, but in others it’s a huge problem. I use Wikipedia myself, and occasionally drop in an edit if I see something that’s crying out for correction. Sometimes, though, I see a Wikipedia article that’s just wrong from top to bottom – or rather, an article where verifiable facts and sustainable assertions alternate with errors and misconceptions, or are set in an overall argument which is based on bad assumptions. In short, sometimes I see a Wikipedia article which doesn’t need the odd correction, it needs to be pulled and rewritten. I’m not alone in having this experience: here’s Tom Coates on ‘penis envy’ and Thomas Vander Wal (!) on ‘folksonomy’, as well as me on ‘anomie’.

It’s not just a problem with philosophical concepts, either – I had a similar reaction more recently to the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades. On the basis of the reading I did for my doctorate, I could rewrite that page from start to finish, leaving in place only a few proper names and one or two of the dates. But writing this kind of thing is hard and time-consuming work – and I’ve got quite enough of that to do already. So it doesn’t get done.

I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem. A while ago I floated a cunning plan for fixing pages like this, using PledgeBank to mobilise external reserves of peer-pressure; it might work, and if only somebody else would actually get it rolling I might even sign up. But I do think it’s a problem, and one that’s inherent to the Wikipedia model.

To reiterate, both openness and authority are vested in the group. Openness: sure, Wikipedia is as open to me as any other registered editor d00d, but in practice the openness of Wikipedia is graduated according to the amount of time you can afford to spend on it. As for authority, I’m not one, but (like Debord) I have read several good books – better books, to be blunt, than those relied on by the author[s] of the current Red Brigades article. But what would that matter unless I was prepared to defend what I wrote against bulk edits by people who disagreed – such as, for example, the author[s] of the current article? On the other hand, if I was prepared to stick it out through the edit wars, what would it matter whether I knew my stuff or not? This isn’t just random bleating. When I first saw that Red Brigades article I couldn’t resist one edit, deleting the completely spurious assertion that the group Prima Linea was a Red Brigades offshoot. When I looked at the page again the next day, my edit had been reverted.

Ultimately Wikipedia isn’t about either openness or authority: it’s about the collective activity of editing Wikipedia and being a Wikipedian. From that, all else follows.

Update 2/6/06 (in response to David, in comments)

There are two obvious problems with the Wikipedia page on the Brigate Rosse, and one that’s larger but more diffuse. The first problem is that it’s written in the present tense; it’s extremely dubious that there’s any continuity between the historic Brigate Rosse and the gang who shot Biagi, let alone that they’re simply, unproblematically the same group. This alone calls for a major rewrite. Secondly, the article is written very much from a police/security-service/conspiracist stance, with a focus on question like whether the BR was assisted by the Czech security services or penetrated by NATO. But this tends to reinforce an image of the BR as a weird alien force which popped up out of nowhere, rather than an extreme but consistent expression of broader social movements (all of which has been documented).

The broader problem – which relates to both of the specific points – goes back to a problem with the amateur-encyclopedia format itself: Wikipedia implicitly asks what a given topic is, which prompts contributors to think of their topic as having a core, essential meaning (I wrote about this last year). The same problem can arise in a ‘proper’ encyclopedia, but there it’s generally mitigated by expertise: somebody who’s spent several years studying the broad Italian armed struggle scene is going to be motivated to relate the BR back to that scene, rather than presenting it as an utterly separate thing. The motivation will be still greater if the expert on the BR has also been asked to contribute articles on Prima Linea, the NAP, etc. This, again, is something that happens (and works, for all concerned) in the kind of restricted conversations that characterise academia, but isn’t incentivised by the Wikipedia conversation – because the Wikipedia conversation doesn’t go anywhere else. Doing Wikipedia is all about doing Wikipedia.

Yesterday’s men

The latest from Italy is that Prodi’s government has survived a vote of confidence in the Senate. Which is good, as Prodi would have had to resign if he’d lost. The result was never in much doubt – the Unione majority in the Senate is small, but it’s still a majority – but the seven independent senators-for-life could have made trouble for Prodi if they’d wanted to. Of course, they didn’t want to – these are the ‘seven wise men’ (or rather, six and one woman), veterans of decades of machine politics with a combined age of nearly 600. When the youngest of the seven (Francesco Cossiga) was born Mussolini was in power; when the oldest, Rita Levi Montalcini, was born, Mussolini was still a socialist. If you’ve got that much political survival behind you and the choice is between voting for a quiet life and voting for a constitutional crisis, it’s not hard to guess which way you’ll go.

Berlusconi’s reaction to the final (God willing) extinction of his dream of reversing the election result was typically gracious: “What they’ve done is immoral.” Berlusconi’s allies backed this up by shouting and jeering at the life senators as they crossed the floor of the Senate. This treatment wasn’t reserved for longstanding political enemies of the Right such as Oscar Luigi Scalfaro; old friends like Cossiga and Giulio Andreotti got it too, not to mention the outgoing President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi – who was treated by the Right as the next best thing to the Pope, for as long as it looked as if they might be able to get something out of him. The 97-year-old Montalcini was spared, but only thanks to a pre-emptive ticking-off from the leader of the Senate.

It’s depressing stuff, but what really got me down was the reaction of Piero Fassino of the Left Democrats. Not so much his denunciation of the Right’s behaviour, which was on target, but his conclusion: Non hanno il senso dello stato. Well, no, Piero my ex-Communist old mate, they don’t have the sense of the state. But do you know what? They never did.

Let’s go back to 1978 and Leonardo Sciascia’s book on the Aldo Moro kidnap. The Communist Party at that time held to a hard line on negotiating with the Red Brigades – harder than either the Socialists or a fair part of the Christian Democrats, notably including Moro himself (who was, after all, President of the party). The senso dello stato got repeated outings back then, generally in the context of criticisms of people whose willingness to negotiate with terrorists demonstrated that they lacked it. But this was very much a Communist Party theme, which didn’t find much resonance on the Right, let alone the rest of the Left. Sciascia:

Neither Moro nor the party he presided over had ever had a ‘sense of the State’. The idea of the State, as it had first been menacingly bandied about by some representatives of the Italian Communist Party the previous May [1977] — an idea which seemed to derive … from Hegel, and the Right rather than the Left of Hegel — had probably only crossed Aldo Moro’s mind in his youth [i.e. under Fascism] … what has attracted and continues to attract at least a third of the Italian electorate to the party of Christian Democracy is precisely the absence in that party — an attractive and reassuring absence — of an idea of the State

Let the Communists talk about the noble duties of the Italian state and the glorious aims of the Constitution (and they did, they did). The Christian Democrats were out for what they could get, and if you were out for what you could get they were the party for you.

Twenty-eight years on, the alliances have changed – to see Andreotti and Cossiga lining up with the ex-Communists brings that line from the The Leopard forcibly to mind – but the themes remain the same. On the Right, Berlusconi is that attractive and reassuring absence made flesh; on the Left, the old Communists are still in thrall to their sense of the state – and they’re still more comfortable with the right than the left of Hegel.

Who’s there?

At Many-to-Many, Ross Mayfield reports that Clay Shirky and danah boyd have been thinking about “the lingering questions in our field”, viz. the field of social software. I was a bit surprised to see that

How can communities support veterans going off topic together and newcomers seeking topical information and connections?

still qualifies as a ‘lingering question’; I distinctly remember being involved in thrashing this one out, together with Clay, the best part of nine years ago. But this was the one that really caught my eye, if you’ll pardon the expression:

What level of visual representation of the body is necessary to trigger mirror neurons?

Uh-oh. Sherry Turkle (subscription-only link):

a woman in a nursing home outside Boston is sad. Her son has broken off his relationship with her. Her nursing home is taking part in a study I am conducting on robotics for the elderly. I am recording the woman’s reactions as she sits with the robot Paro, a seal-like creature advertised as the first ‘therapeutic robot’ for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, the elderly and the emotionally troubled. Paro is able to make eye contact by sensing the direction a human voice is coming from; it is sensitive to touch, and has ‘states of mind’ that are affected by how it is treated – for example, it can sense whether it is being stroked gently or more aggressively. In this session with Paro, the woman, depressed because of her son’s abandonment, comes to believe that the robot is depressed as well. She turns to Paro, strokes him and says: ‘Yes, you’re sad, aren’t you. It’s tough out there. Yes, it’s hard.’ And then she pets the robot once again, attempting to provide it with comfort. And in so doing, she tries to comfort herself.What are we to make of this transaction? When I talk to others about it, their first associations are usually with their pets and the comfort they provide. I don’t know whether a pet could feel or smell or intuit some understanding of what it might mean to be with an old woman whose son has chosen not to see her anymore. But I do know that Paro understood nothing. The woman’s sense of being understood was based on the ability of computational objects like Paro – ‘relational artefacts’, I call them – to convince their users that they are in a relationship by pushing certain ‘Darwinian’ buttons (making eye contact, for example) that cause people to respond as though they were in relationship.

Further reading: see Kathy Sierra on mirror neurons and the contagion of negativity. See also Shelley‘s critique of Kathy’s argument, and of attempts to enforce ‘positive’ feelings by manipulating mood. And see the sidebar at Many-to-Many, which currently reads as follows:

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You guys are crazy

All you’ve ever wanted to know about the Italian elections, if not more: my inaugural return post at the Sharpener. Ite, legete.

Some day this will all be yours

Scott Karp:

What if dollars have no place in the new economics of content?

In media 1.0, brands paid for the attention that media companies gathered by offering people news and entertainment (e.g. TV) in exchange for their attention. In media 2.0, people are more likely to give their attention in exchange for OTHER PEOPLE’S ATTENTION. This is why MySpace can’t effectively monetize its 70 million users through advertising — people use MySpace not to GIVE their attention to something that is entertaining or informative (which could thus be sold to advertisers) but rather to GET attention from other users.

MySpace can’t sell attention to advertisers because the site itself HAS NONE. Nobody pays attention to MySpace — users pay attention to each other, and compete for each other’s attention — it’s as if the site itself doesn’t exist.You see the same phenomenon in blogging — blogging is not a business in the traditional sense because most people do it for the attention, not because they believe there’s any financial reward. What if the economics of media in the 21st century begin to look like the economics of poetry in the 20th century? — Lots of people do it for their own personal gratification, but nobody makes any money from it.

Pedantry first: it’s inconceivable that we’ll reach a point where nobody makes any money from the media, at least this side of the classless society. Even the hard case of blogging doesn’t really stand up – I could name half a dozen bloggers who have made money or are making money from their blogs, without pausing to think.

It’s a small point, but it’s symptomatic of the enthusiastic looseness of Karp’s argument. So I welcomed Nicholas Carr’s counterblast, which puts Karp together with some recent comments by Esther Dyson:

“Most users are not trying to turn attention into anything else. They are seeking it for itself. For sure, the attention economy will not replace the financial economy. But it is more than just a subset of the financial economy we know and love.”

Here’s Carr:

I fear that to view the attention economy as “more than just a subset of the financial economy” is to misread it, to project on it a yearning for an escape (if only a temporary one) from the consumer culture. There’s no such escape online. When we communicate to promote ourselves, to gain attention, all we are doing is turning ourselves into goods and our communications into advertising. We become salesmen of ourselves, hucksters of the “I.” In peddling our interests, moreover, we also peddle the commodities that give those interests form: songs, videos, and other saleable products. And in tying our interests to our identities, we give marketers the information they need to control those interests and, in the end, those identities. Karp’s wrong to say that MySpace is resistant to advertising. MySpace is nothing but advertising.

Now, this is good, bracing stuff, but I think Carr bends the stick a bit too far the other way. I know from my own experience that there’s a part of my life labelled Online Stuff, and that most of my reward for doing Online Stuff is attention from other people doing Online Stuff. Real-world payoffs – money, work or just making new real-world friends – are nice to get, but they’re not what it’s all about.

The real trouble is that Karp has it backwards. Usenet – where I started doing Online Stuff, ten years ago – is a model of open-ended mutual whuffie exchange. (A very imperfect model, given the tendency of social groups to develop boundaries and hierarchies, but at least an unmonetised one.) Systematised whuffie trading came along later. The model case here is eBay, where there’s a weird disconnect between meaning and value. Positive feedback doesn’t really mean that you think the other person is a “great ebayer” – it doesn’t really mean anything, any more than “A+++++” means something distinct from “A++++” or “A++++++”. What it does convey is value: it makes it that much easier for the other person to make money. It also has attention-value, making the other person feel good for no particular real-world reason, but even this is quantifiable (“48! I’m up to 48!”).

Ultimately Dyson and Carr are both right. The ‘attention economy’ of Online Stuff is new, absorbing and unlike anything that went before – not least because the way in which it gratifies fantasies of being truly appreciated, understood, attended to. But, to the extent that the operative model is eBay rather than Usenet, it is nothing other than a subset of the financial economy. Karp may be right about the specific case of MySpace, but I can’t help distrusting his exuberance – not least because, in my experience, the suffix ’2.0′ is strongly associated with a search for new ways to cash in.

The age of intuition

As a brief postscript to the local elections, here are some tips for successful canvassing.

1. Do introduce yourself, even if you’re a local MP – or rather, especially if you’re a local MP. Do give the person on the doorstep (hereafter ‘the punter’) a chance to tell you they’re not interested. Don’t just launch into your spiel, like a Jehovah’s Witness or an npower salesperson. Yes, they can see the rosette. Yes, they can always shut the door in your face. Not the point.

2. If the punter disagrees with you or expresses opposition to your party, do say something mollifying about how you understand their concerns or appreciate their point of view before resuming your attempt to gain their support. Don’t argue back. Some examples:

2.1. Punter complains about communications with your party (wrongly-targeted mailshots, unanswered letters etc).
Do say: “I can’t recall that particular letter, but I will look into it for you and make sure we respond to it.”
Don’t say: “When did he send it? Well, you can’t expect us to have acted on it by now.”

2.2. Punter complains that your party’s campaigning was negative.
Do say: “I appreciate your point of view, but I think we did have a strong positive message in the area of…” (and complete as appropriate).
Don’t say: “No it wasn’t!”

2.3. Punter complains about the absence of appeals to ethical principle in party’s campaign literature.
Do think of something. (“I understand your concerns, but…”)
Don’t say: “Like what?”

3. Do talk to the person in front of you. You may have a particular voter on your canvass list, perhaps because he/she has told an earlier canvasser that he/she intends to vote for someone else. If you find that the punter isn’t your target voter, do ask him/her whether you can count on his/her vote. Don’t make it look as if you don’t care about anyone who’s not on your list.

3.1. In particular, don’t do this when your target voter is male and the punter is his female partner. Really, really don’t.

This guy has a good voting record at Westminster, but his doorstep technique could do with a bit of work. Manchester was one of the few areas where Labour did well last week; they gained four seats from the Liberal Democrats. I’m slightly disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.”Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission.”

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

“This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn’t have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby,” said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. “It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

It’s all there. There’s the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government’s main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all – and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there’s the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) – and that’s coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There’s more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage’s bunker estate (and there’s a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There’s the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it’s good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there’s understatement – blessed British understatement.

“It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

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