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’.

I get so tired of my room

[Updated 19th May - all is revealed.]

Jim: I decide to go hunting for a musical blog meme.

Cheers, Jim – don’t mind if I do.

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.

Here goes. Like Jim, I’ve excluded instrumentals and songs with the title in the first line; I’ve also excluded tracks I didn’t recognise myself and, arbitrarily, a version of “Auld Lang Syne”. I haven’t ripped very many CDs, so the list that follows is biased towards certain categories of music – primarily a) things I really like and b) things from freebie CDs that I wanted to throw away. (And no, of course I’m not saying which is which.)

  1. I saw you in your wetsuit, you were watching from the shower
    - Orange Juice, “Salmon fishing in New York”
  2. Belly up in a sea of love
    - Doves, “Rise” (Paulie)
  3. An address to the golden door
    - the Shins, “So say I”
  4. I come home in the morning light
    - Cyndi Lauper, “Girls just wanna have fun” (Paulie)
  5. I saw a boy’s t-shirt today
    - the Earlies, “One of us is dead”
  6. Put in your pocket for a rainy day, sing your song and you know you’re wrong now
    - the Beta Band, “the House Song” (Rob)
  7. Clouds so swift, rain won’t lift
    - Bob Dylan, “You ain’t going nowhere” (Jim)
  8. All I wanted was your time
    - Espers (or Durutti Column), “Tomorrow”
  9. One-way system, smooth and commendable
    - Half Man Half Biscuit, “For what is Chatteris” (Jim)
  10. Well, she’s all you’d ever want
    - Tom Jones, “She’s a lady”
  11. You say that your love was just for me now
    - Toots and the Maytals, “True love is hard to find”
  12. I’m just a common-or-garden guy
    - Peter Blegvad, “Magritte”
  13. Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street
    - Joe Jackson, “Is she really going out with him?” (Paulie)
  14. Hey, you – you wouldn’t make a phone call if it didn’t serve you
    - Hamell on Trial, “Go fuck yourself”
  15. We pulled up with three miles to go
    - James Yorkston and the Athletes, “Banjo #2″
  16. Waiting for the break of day
    - Chicago, “25 or 6 to 4″
  17. Practice doesn’t make perfect when you’re interbreeding
    - Blur, “Villa Rosie” (Justin)
  18. I could be pouring my heart out, I still don’t think that you’d hear me
    - King Creosote, “Marguerita Red”
  19. The lunch bell rang at one o’clock sharp
    - Barry Booth, “The hottest day of the year”
  20. Oh, the towering feeling
    - Vic Damone (and doubtless others), “The street where you live” (Larry)

Your complaint is my mandate

So, if you aren’t going to vote Labour (and I really hope you aren’t), who does that leave?

For myself, I’m not voting Liberal Democrat. On the national level the party remains some way to the Left of Labour, but that’s not saying very much. At the local level their campaigning is truly abysmal. The last councillor they got elected around here did a lot of old-style pavement-level campaigning before he was elected. The current councillor-elect, though…

I am returning this questionnaire uncompleted. As a disaffected left-wing Labour voter, I have been tempted to give the Liberal Democrats my support on a number of occasions.However, I have been deeply disappointed in recent communications from your party, this questionnaire included. Firstly, the ‘personal details’ section of the questionnaire has been pre-completed, with the names of both the adults living at this address and our phone number. While I realise that this information is in the public domain, we have not given it to the Liberal Democratic Party and have no wish for it to be held on the party’s database. Please remove our details.

The questionnaire itself is a really dreadful piece of work, full of leading questions and generally calculated to produce a public endorsement of the local party’s existing positions. Questionnaires of this type are thoroughly dishonest; I’ve complained to the local Labour Party before about their use of this form of sharp practice, but nothing they’ve circulated has been as bad an example as this one.

Lastly, this questionnaire suggests that the Liberal Democrats have given up on opposing the two major parties in the area of law and order, just when a principled opposition is most needed. Labour, in particular, are currently proposing some startlingly reactionary and authoritarian policies on crime and ‘anti-social behaviour’. In the past the Liberal Democrats have raised a voice of sanity, tolerance and liberalism against these developments. It’s deeply disappointing to see the party trying to compete with Labour for the Daily Mail vote.

I sent them this letter on Tuesday. They phoned up today to ask if they could count on my vote. Joined-up campaigning!

I won’t be voting RESPECT, either; I’d find it very difficult to vote for them in any circumstances, but they’ve saved me the trouble by not standing in my ward. Or, indeed, in any of Manchester’s 32 wards, with the exception of one: Rusholme. As Andy Newman says in the piece I quoted yesterday,

Respect’s strategy outside East London is to throw all their resources at a limited number of target seats. This is a viable and rational strategy, if not necessarily the only one. In some areas like Manchester this has caused local controversy, as the tactic has been poorly applied. Respect are standing in a ward never contested by the left before and are abandoning the admittedly small base they had established elsewhere in the city. And they are standing against one of the very few Labour Left candidates.

Meaders dismisses the idea that RESPECT is running any kind of ‘communalist’ campaign – but it’s difficult to see what other justification there could be for focusing on Rusholme. (Rusholme is currently represented by three Lib Dems; the Labour candidate this time out is John Byrne, who has in the past gone unchallenged from the left.)

I can forgive RESPECT a lot for the consternation they’re causing New Labour and its sympathisers. Patrick Wintour‘s efforts to avoid mentioning the elephant in the room were particularly amusing:

Labour is expected to hold on to Greenwich, Barking, Hackney, Newham, Lewisham, and Haringey, but Tower Hamlets is unfathomable. In the west of London, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hounslow and Ealing all look vulnerable. Croydon and Merton in the south, which were once deemed marginal, are now gone.But much will depend on turnout. The Tories are confident about voting intention thanks to David Cameron, Labour’s activists are thin on the ground, and much effort is being put into black church congregations, who are regarded as likely to vote. Mr Blair has held big, successful rallies with black Christians. In Brent and Harrow the Hindu vote is loyal to Labour. But elsewhere the traditional Labour vote is likely to stay home, or go elsewhere.

(Black Christians, Hindus, who does that leave? OK, never mind.)

But ultimately if you vote RESPECT you get the SWP, and I’ve been on the Left long enough to find that a really distasteful prospect. Meaders is a good bloke, Mark Steel has some good lines and even Richard has his moments, but I can’t put any trust in the party. So RESPECT wouldn’t get my vote even if they were standing in my ward, which of course they aren’t. (And we’re back with the reasons I don’t trust the blighters.)

And I’m not spoiling the ballot. This isn’t on principle – I respect the old Bennite argument about keeping faith with the people who fought for the vote, but I don’t think casting a vote to maintain the status quo really qualifies. I think I can keep faith with them better by doing something that stands a chance of bringing about change. So a mass NOTA campaign would have been good – but it hasn’t happened, has it? In the absence of concerted ballot-spoiling, I’m not going to risk my vote getting filed under ‘apathetic’ – or ‘too contented to bother’ (one of Prescott’s, if I remember rightly).

I guess it’s the Greens again, then.

Ship’s a goin’ down

The word on the streets:

“Even the most loyal Labour voters look embarrassed and look away. Others just laugh. Now, I’ve never had that before,” says one leading MP.

Loyalty to the Labour Party runs deep. You don’t just vote Labour or support Labour, you are Labour. “We’re Lib Dems” is a statement of principled, idealistic affiliation; “we’re Conservatives” is similar, but without the principle or the idealism. But “we’re Labour” is a statement of identity – it’s an adjective, not a noun. (Of course, this may just be because Labour is the only major party whose name isn’t already an adjective.)

Many of us on the Left used to be Labour, and many of us would quite like to be Labour again. The thought of voting for a Labour councillor, given the alternatives, is tempting. Many people who are still Labour are revolted by what they’ve had to accept since 1997 – since 2005, even – and have stayed with the party nevertheless. For them, a vote for a Labour councillor is an easy way to keep faith with the party – a party which has always meant much more than the policies of some clique of MPs.

But it’s time, if it will ever be time, to abandon ship. Andy Newman:

The degree to which the party has changed is disputed, but it is certainly not a natural home for grass-roots trade union or community activists; the party no longer gives voice to its working class supporters; and within the party there is no significant ideological strand that prioritises the cause of organised labour as distinct from other interest groups, except an historical and financial legacy with the trade unions. What is more, the Blair/Brown victory over constitutional questions within the party means that the triumph of the right in the Labour Party is probably irreversible. Even under Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party had a vigorous internal life, and although much ward level and constituency activity was mind-numbingly boring, the national conference gave real expression to debates within the movement, with input from the trade unions and constituency parties, as well as the MPs. This will never be seen again.It is significant that the government have not implemented even the modest promises of the pre-general election Warwick agreement with the unions. … New Labour fully accepts neo-liberalism, but they are pragmatic, and largely work around organised resistance, rather than provoke confrontations. So their privatisation of the NHS, and their attacks on education are long drawn out and exhausting battles, not Thatcher style set piece battles. The stop go dance of the public sector pensions crisis shows how New Labour could wear out the resistance, unless the union leaderships lift their game.

The background therefore is that the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements. Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

The key word here is ‘appears’. That, and ‘electorate’: given the New Labour leadership’s control over the party, Labour as a party is now significantly to the Right, not only of its union activist base – that much is old news – but of its own voters. Moreover, the fact that those voters keep the faith with the party – the fact that so many people still are Labour, even now, nine years down the line – has an effect on the image of the party: it mediate[s] the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

My father was Labour, and not on the Left of the party; he’d backed Gaitskell against Bevan, for instance. He died in 2001, and wasn’t much interested in politics for the last year or so. Still, he saw Labour take power, and he saw what they did with it – and he was convinced that the “New Labour” turn was a stratagem adopted to gain power, and that Blair would eventually steer back to the Left. “He’s going to surprise us all,” he used to say. What Andy Newman’s argument suggests is that for people like my father to back the party under its current leadership is strictly a one-way bargain. The longer Old Labour loyalists give New Labour the benefit of the doubt, the easier it will be for New Labour to retain control of the party, to retain the support of the party’s voters – and to continue to remake the party in their own image. Nothing will make New Labour actually listen to Labour voters – nothing, that is, except losing their support. In 2006, that’s all they deserve – and it’s gratifying to see that it’s beginning to happen. It’s time to abandon ship.

PS Elsewhere in the piece quoted at the top, Polly (for it is she) writes:

As each new crisis eclipses the last, leaving no fewer than seven cabinet ministers in some trouble, their one comfort is in finding no great enthusiasm for Tories or Lib Dems either. The won’t-votes or the anything-but-Labour voters are motivated by a negative push factor away from Labour with little positive pull towards anyone else. Expect the lowest turnout ever, according to seasoned observers. The Institute for Public Policy Research is dead right to call for compulsory voting, but this is hardly the week for Labour to press it.

Negative push factor away from Labour … little positive pull towards anyone else … dead right to call for compulsory voting. The thought processes here are a bit too obvious. What Chris says of Geoff ‘Buff’ Hoon appears to apply to Polly as well:

He hopes compulsory voting will raise the Labour vote disproportionately. He hopes a disaffected Labour voter – the sort who stayed away from the ballot box last year – who is forced to vote will figure: “well, since I’m here, I might as well vote for the party I’ve always supported.”This, I guess, is the only way New Labour can get votes now.

It’s just getting light

He’s gone – a mere 21 days after losing the vote. Phew – it was looking close for a while back there.

We’re back – looking rather good, I have to say. Check it out.

Living in the thick of it

Chris and Rob have been finding different kinds of fault in the classic left/right political spectrum: Chris prefers two criteria which (he argues) are more or less orthogonal (pro- and anti-state, pro- and anti-poor people), while Rob opts for ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ as fundamental alternatives.

The trouble with all these discussions is that so many different oppositions end up being overlaid. In comments on Chris’s post, for example, Tim Worstall makes a pretty good fist of locating himself on the Left. Speaking as a Marxist, I’m not fooled for a minute – but I have to admit that I often feel closer to the Worstall Right than to the Euston Manifesto Left.

I gave some thought to this stuff some time ago, in an attempt to work out why I counted at least one Tory among my trusted friends while finding many genuine socialists hard to be around. I dismissed the thought that I was moving Right with age, partly because it was uncomfortable and partly because I knew that my position on Chris’s rich-or-poor scale hadn’t budged; I don’t think there are many right-wingers who enjoy singing along to “The Blackleg Miner“, put it that way. I also dismissed the thought that the difference between my Tory friend and my irritating socialist acquaintances was that the former was a thoughtful and intelligent bloke; there was no a priori reason for this exclusion, you understand, it was just a bit too obvious.

Anyway, what I came up with was a two-part scale, covering both your views on human nature and your views on political change (the greatest flaw of Robert’s liberal/conservative scale, in my view, is that it tends to conflate these). Each of these two breaks down into two elements, giving a total of sixteen distinct positions. Where human nature is concerned, we look at whether people should be controlled or liberated and at who should be doing the controlling or liberating. As for political change, we ask both whether we believe change should be welcomed or resisted and how we relate this change to the present.

Human nature first. The most fundamental question: are people good or bad? In other words, if left to themselves would people destroy social order or create a new and better society? For this part of the scale I’ll borrow from Church history.

An Augustinian believes that, ultimately, people are sinful; politics is, or should be, concerned with establishing laws and institutions which enable sinful people to coexist without tearing one another apart.

A Pelagian believes that, ultimately, people are good; politics is, or should be, concerned with enabling people to work together, play together and generally enjoy life in ways which have hitherto not been possible.

Now for the location of control or liberation: central or local? government or community? ruler or family?

A Jacobin believes that all politics worthy of the name happens in government; left to their own devices, communities tend to stagnate or run wild

A Digger believes that politics happens in affective communities and in everyday life; left to government, politics becomes managerial and sterile

An Augustinian Jacobin is an Authoritarian: people need to be governed, and who better to govern than the government?
An Augustinian Digger is a Communitarian: what we want isn’t law-abiding individuals but communities of respect
A Pelagian Jacobin is a Liberal: the government can help people realise their potential, either by freeing them from oppressive conditions or simply by getting out of the way
A Pelagian Digger is a Hippie (sorry Paul): isn’t it great when people get together and do stuff, without waiting for politicians to tell them what to do?

A Liberal is the opposite of a Communitarian; an Authoritarian is the opposite of a Hippie.

Now for attitudes to political change.

A Whig believes that change should, all things being equal, be embraced: that the risk of regression and lost opportunities is greater than the risk that change will destroy something worth preserving

A Tory believes that change should, all things being equal, be resisted: that the risk of losing valuable cultural and political resources outweighs the risk of failing to grasp opportunities for progress

Finally, let’s look at how change relates to the present. For this part of the act I’ll need a volunteer from the history of Western philosophy; specifically, G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel believed that historical change had an immanent meliorist teleology – in other words, that things were getting better and better, and would eventually reach a point where they couldn’t get any better. He also believed that this point had in fact been reached (cf. Francis Fukuyama, who rather amusingly trotted out precisely the same argument the best part of two centuries down the line). Marx adopted the Hegelian framework, but with the crucial modification of placing the end of history the far side of a future revolution. We can call these two positions Right-Hegelianism and Left-Hegelianism.

A Right-Hegelian believes that, to the extent that it makes sense to talk of a good society, the good society is an extension of trends which have a visible and increasingly dominant influence on society as it is now

A Left-Hegelian believes that it emphatically does make sense to talk of a good society, and that such a society will in important senses require the reversal or overthrow of society as it is now

A Right-Hegelian Whig is a Reformer: things have changed, things will continue to change, there has been progress and there will be more progress

A Right-Hegelian Tory is a Conservative: our existing institutions are valuable and should not be put at risk for the sake of speculative benefits

A Left-Hegelian Whig is a Revolutionary: things could be much better, and things can be much better if we push a bit harder

A Left-Hegelian Tory is a Historian: things could be much better, but our main task is to keep alive the resources of that hope

The opposite of a Revolutionary is a Conservative.
The opposite of a Reformer is a Historian.

Liberal, Authoritarian, Communitarian, Hippie; Conservative, Reformer, Revolutionary, Historian. That gives us a total of sixteen hats to try on, and to fit to our various political rivals. See how you get on.

Me, I’m PDLT, a Hippie Historian (who’d have thought it?); this makes me the polar opposite of an AJRW, an Authoritarian Reformer. (Like, for instance, Charles Clarke.) Works for me.

I have spotted one potential weakness of this scale. It gets in most of the points made by Rob, Chris and their commenters, including Matt and Tim, but with one obvious gap: Chris’s rich/poor scale, which (as I’ve said) is fairly fundamental to my own sense of political identity. Can this be fitted into the model, and if so where? Or is this a different kind of question?

Update 30th April

Jamie, the only other Hippie Historian to have surfaced so far (if anyone can think of a better label than ‘Hippie’ for the Pelagian/Digger combination, by the way, I’ll be all ears), writes

I’m also, incidentally, mildly annoyed at having to qualify libertarian with left wing. Hayekianism is not a libertarian doctrine.

I think this is an important point & goes some way to addressing my point about the rich/poor axis, just above. Consider: if I believe in freedom of action, I must necessarily believe in freedom of action for everyone, to be curtailed only by provisions which have a similarly universal reach. But equality of opportunity and constraint for rich and poor is no equality at all – in Anatole France’s formulation, The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread. Inequalities of wealth are, in effect, inequalities of constraint and opportunity; any consistent libertarianism would begin by establishing whether these inequalities follow any consistent pattern, and would oppose them if so. The alternative would be to take the current distribution of wealth and power (and hence of effective liberty) as given, accept it as a more-or-less immutable starting-point. I don’t understand why anyone would do that – but then, I’m a Left-Hegelian (see also my posts on Euston).

Not a fish at all

On the subject of broadcast vs broadband, Tom writes:

There’s nothing rapid about this transition at all. It’s been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?’. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention.

In comments, Will writes:

If one person is claiming that the world is moving fairly slowly, and has some sound advice on what this might look like (as you are doing here), and another person is claiming that the world is moving extraordinarily quickly, but offers some quickfire measures through which to cope with this, the sense of emergency will win purely because it is present. From here, it almost becomes *risky* not to then adopt the quickfire measures suggested by the second person. Panic becomes a safer strategy than calmness. Which explains management consultancy…

and John asks:

does web2.0 count as a snail too?

But Web 2.0 is not a snail.

Web 2.0 is the people pointing and shouting ‘The snail! The snail!’

Web 2.0 is also the people who overhear the first group and join in, shouting ‘The whale! The whale!’ and pointing vaguely upwards and towards the nearest ocean.

Web 2.0 is also the people who hear the second group and panic about the approaching whale, or is it a land-whale? what is a land-whale anyway? whatever it is, there’s one coming and we’d all better… well, we’d better tell someone about it, anyway – I mean, there’s a land-whale coming, how often does something like that happen?

Web 2.0 is also the people who hear the third group and improvise a land-whale parade, with floats and dancers and drummers and at its centre a giant paper land-whale held aloft by fifteen people, because, I don’t know, but everyone was talking about land-whales and it just seemed like a good idea, you know?

And Web 2.0 is the people who come along halfway through the parade and sell the roadside spectators standing-room tickets.

Cloudbuilding (3)

By way of background to this post – and because I think it’s quite interesting in itself – here’s a short paper I gave last year at this conference (great company, shame about the catering). It was co-written with my colleagues Judith Aldridge and Karen Clarke. I don’t stand by everything in it – as I’ve got deeper into the project I’ve moved further away from Clay’s scepticism and closer towards people like Carole Goble and Keith Cole – but I think it still sets out an argument worth having.

Mind the gap: Metadata in e-social science

1. Towards the final turtle

It’s said that Bertrand Russell once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

Russell smiled and replied, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”

The Russell story is emblematic of the logical fallacy of infinite regress: proposing an explanation which is just as much in need of explanation as the original fact being explained. The solution, for philosophers (and astronomers), is to find a foundation on which the entire argument can be built: a body of known facts, or a set of acceptable assumptions, from which the argument can follow.

But what if infinite regress is a problem for people who want to build systems as well as arguments? What if we find we’re dealing with a tower of turtles, not when we’re working backwards to a foundation, but when we’re working forwards to a solution?

WSDL [Web Services Description Language] lets a provider describe a service in XML [Extensible Markup Language]. [...] to get a particular provider’s WSDL document, you must know where to find them. Enter another layer in the stack, Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI), which is meant to aggregate WSDL documents. But UDDI does nothing more than register existing capabilities [...] there is no guarantee that an entity looking for a Web Service will be able to specify its needs clearly enough that its inquiry will match the descriptions in the UDDI database. Even the UDDI layer does not ensure that the two parties are in sync. Shared context has to come from somewhere, it can’t simply be defined into existence. [...] This attempt to define the problem at successively higher layers is doomed to fail because it’s turtles all the way up: there will always be another layer above whatever can be described, a layer which contains the ambiguity of two-party communication that can never be entirely defined away. No matter how carefully a language is described, the range of askable questions and offerable answers make it impossible to create an ontology that’s at once rich enough to express even a large subset of possible interests while also being restricted enough to ensure interoperability between any two arbitrary parties.
(Clay Shirky)

Clay Shirky is a longstanding critic of the Semantic Web project, an initiative which aims to extend Web technology to encompass machine-readable semantic content. The ultimate goal is the codification of meaning, to the point where understanding can be automated. In commercial terms, this suggests software agents capable of conducting a transaction with all the flexibility of a human being. In terms of research, it offers the prospect of a search engine which understands the searches it is asked to run and is capable of pulling in further relevant material unprompted.

This type of development is fundamental to e-social science: a set of initiatives aiming to enable social scientists to access large and widely-distributed databases using ‘grid computing’ techniques.

A Computational Grid performs the illusion of a single virtual computer, created and maintained dynamically in the absence of predetermined service agreements or centralised control. A Data Grid performs the illusion of a single virtual database. Hence, a Knowledge Grid should perform the illusion of a single virtual knowledge base to better enable computers and people to work in cooperation.
(Keith Cole et al)

Is Shirky’s final turtle a valid critique of the visions of the Semantic Web and the Knowledge Grid? Alternatively, is the final turtle really a Babel fish — an instantaneous universal translator — and hence (excuse the mixed metaphors) a straw person: is Shirky setting the bar impossibly high, posing goals which no ‘semantic’ project could ever achieve? To answer these questions, it’s worth reviewing the promise of automated semantic processing, and setting this in the broader context of programming and rule-governed behaviour.

2. Words and rules

We can identify five levels of rule-governed behaviour. In rule-driven behaviour, firstly, ‘everything that is not compulsory is forbidden’: the only actions which can be taken are those dictated by a rule. In practice, this means that instructions must be framed in precise and non-contradictory terms, with thresholds and limits explicitly laid down to cover all situations which can be anticipated. This is the type of behaviour represented by conventional task-oriented computer programming.

A higher level of autonomy is given by rule-bound behaviour: rules must be followed, but there is some latitude in how they are applied. A set of discrete and potentially contradictory rules is applied to whatever situation is encountered. Higher-order rules or instructions are used to determine the relative priority of different rules and resolve any contradiction.

Rule-modifying behaviour builds on this level of autonomy, by making it possible to ‘learn’ how and when different rules should be applied. In practice, this means that priority between different rules is decided using relative weightings rather than absolute definitions, and that these weightings can be modified over time, depending on the quality of the results obtained. Neither rule-bound nor rule-modifying behaviour poses any fundamental problems in terms of automation.

Rule-discovering behaviour, in addition, allows the existing body of rules to be extended in the light of previously unknown regularities which are encountered in practice (“it turns out that many Xs are also Y; when looking for Xs, it is appropriate to extend the search to include Ys”). This level of autonomy — combining rule observance with reflexive feedback — is fairly difficult to envisage in the context of artificial intelligence, but not impossible.

The level of autonomy assumed by human agents, however, is still higher, consisting of rule-interpreting behaviour. Rule-discovery allows us to develop an internalised body of rules which corresponds ever more closely to the shape of the data surrounding us. Rule-interpreting behaviour, however, enables us to continually and provisionally reshape that body of rules, highlighting or downgrading particular rules according to the demands of different situations. This is the type of behaviour which tells us whether a ban is worth challenging, whether a sales pitch is to be taken literally, whether a supplier is worth doing business with, whether a survey’s results are likely to be useful to us. This, in short, is the level of Shirky’s situational “shared context” — and of the final turtle.

We believe that there is a genuine semantic gap between the visions of Semantic Web advocates and the most basic applications of rule-interpreting human intelligence. Situational information is always local, experiential and contingent; consequently, the data of the social sciences require interpretation as well as measurement. Any purely technical solution to the problem of matching one body of social data to another is liable to suppress or exclude much of the information which makes it valuable.

We cannot endorse comments from e-social science advocates such as this:

variable A and variable B might both be tagged as indicating the sex of the respondent where sex of the respondent is a well defined concept in a separate classification. If Grid-hosted datasets were to be tagged according to an agreed classification of social science concepts this would make the identification of comparable resources extremely easy.
(Keith Cole et al)

Or this:

work has been undertaken to assert the meaning of Web resources in a common data model (RDF) using consensually agreed ontologies expressed in a common language [...] Efforts have concentrated on the languages and software infrastructure needed for the metadata and ontologies, and these technologies are ready to be adopted.
(Carole Goble and David de Roure; emphasis added)

Statements like these suggest that semantics are being treated as a technical or administrative matter, rather than a problem in its own right; in short, that meaning is being treated as an add-on.

3. Google with Craig

To clarify these reservations, let’s look at a ‘semantic’ success story.

The service, called “Craigslist-GoogleMaps combo site” by its creator, Paul Rademacher, marries the innovative Google Maps interface with the classifieds of Craigslist to produce what is an amazing look into the properties available for rent or purchase in a given area. [...] This is the future….this is exactly the type of thing that the Semantic Web promised
(Joshua Porter)

‘This’ is is an application which calculates the location of properties advertised on the ‘Craigslist’ site and then displays them on a map generated from Google Maps. In other words, it takes two sources of public-domain information and matches them up, automatically and reliably.

That’s certainly intelligent. But it’s also highly specialised, and there are reasons to be sceptical about how far this approach can be generalised. On one hand, the geographical base of the application obviates the issue of granularity. Granularity is the question of the ‘level’ at which an observation is taken: a town, an age cohort, a household, a family, an individual? a longitudinal study, a series of observations, a single survey? These issues are less problematic in a geographical context: in geography, nobody asks what the meaning of ‘is’ is. A parliamentary constituency; a census enumeration district; a health authority area; the distribution area of a free newspaper; a parliamentary constituency (1832 boundaries) — these are different ways of defining space, but they are all reducible to a collection of identifiable physical locations. Matching one to another, as in the CONVERTGRID application (Keith Cole et al) — or mapping any one onto a uniform geographical representation — is a finite and rule-bound task. At this level, geography is a physical rather than a social science.

The issue of trust is also potentially problematic. The Craigslist element of the Rademacher application brings the social element to bear, but does so in a way which minimises the risks of error (unintentional or intentional). There is a twofold verification mechanism at work. On one hand, advertisers — particularly content-heavy advertisers, like those who use the ‘classifieds’ and Craigslist — are motivated to provide a (reasonably) accurate description of what they are offering, and to use terms which match the terms used by would be buyers. On the other hand, offering living space over Craigslist is not like offering video games over eBay: Craigslist users are not likely to rely on the accuracy of listings, but will subject them to in-person verification. In many disciplines, there is no possibility of this kind of ‘real-world’ verification; nor is there necessarily any motivation for a writer to use researchers’ vocabularies, or conform to their standards of accuracy.

In practice, the issues of granularity and trust both pose problems for social science researchers using multiple data sources, as concepts, classifications and units differ between datasets. This is not just an accident that could have been prevented with more careful planning; it is inherent in the nature of social science concepts, which are often inextricably contingent on social practice and cannot unproblematically be recorded as ‘facts’. The broad range covered by a concept like ‘anti-social behaviour’ means that coming up with a single definition would be highly problematic — and would ultimately be counter-productive, as in practice the concept would continue to be used to cover a broad range. On the other hand, concepts such as ‘anti-social behaviour’ cannot simply be discarded, as they are clearly produced within real — and continuing — social practices.

The meaning of a concept like this — and consequently the meaning of a fact such as the recorded incidence of anti-social behaviour — cannot be established by rule-bound or even rule-discovering behaviour. The challenge is to record both social ‘facts’ and the circumstances of their production, tracing recorded data back to its underlying topic area; to the claims and interactions which produced the data; and to the associations and exclusions which were effectively written into it.

4. Even better than the real thing

As an approach to this problem, we propose a repository of content-oriented metadata on social science datasets. The repository will encompass two distinct types of classification. Firstly, those used within the sources themselves; following Barney Glaser, we refer to these as ‘In Vivo Concepts’. Secondly, those brought to the data by researchers (including ourselves); we refer to these as ‘Organising Concepts’. The repository will include:

• relationships between Organising Concepts
‘theft from the person’ is a type of ‘theft’

• associations between In-Vivo Concepts and data sources
the classification of ‘Mugging’ appears in ‘British Crime Survey 2003’

• relationships between In-Vivo Concepts
‘Snatch theft’ is a subtype of the classification of ‘Mugging’

• relationships between Organising Concepts and In-Vivo Concepts
the classification of ‘Snatch theft’ corresponds to the concept of ‘theft from the person’

The combination of these relationships will make it possible to represent, within a database structure, a statement such as

Sources of information on Theft from the person include editions of the British Crime Survey between 1996 and the present; headings under which it is recorded in this source include Snatch theft, which is a subtype of Mugging

The structure of the proposed repository has three significant features. Firstly, while the relationships between concepts are hierarchical, they are also multiple. In English law, the crime of Robbery implies assault (if there is no physical contact, the crime is recorded as Theft). The In-Vivo Concept of Robbery would therefore correspond both to the Organising Concept of Theft from the person and that of Personal violence. Since different sources may share categories but classify them differently, multiple relationships between In-Vivo Concepts will also be supported. Secondly, relationships between concepts will be meaningful: it will be possible to record that two concepts are associated as synonyms or antonyms, for example, as well as recording one as a sub-type of the other. Thirdly, the repository will not be delivered as an immutable finished product, but as an open and extensible framework. We shall investigate ways to enable qualified users to modify both the developed hierarchy of Organising Concepts and the relationships between these and In-Vivo Concepts.

In the context of the earlier discussion of semantic processing and rule-governed behaviour, this repository will demonstrate the ubiquity of rule-interpreting behaviour in the social world by exposing and ‘freezing’ the data which it produces. In other words, the repository will encode shifting patterns of correspondence, equivalence, negation and exclusion, demonstrating how the apparently rule-bound process of constructing meaning is continually determined by ‘shared context’.

The repository will thus expose and map the ways in which social data is structured by patterns of situational information. The extensible and modifiable structure of the repository will facilitate further work along these lines: the further development of the repository will itself be an example of rule-interpreting behaviour. The repository will not — and cannot — provide a seamless technological bridge over the semantic gap; it can and will facilitate the work of bridging the gap, but without substituting for the role of applied human intelligence.

We could crawl

I had a letter recently from this young fellow, claiming to be my MP. Which was odd, as I’d understood that the job was held by this guy. It turns out that constituency boundaries are in the process of being redrawn, so that my ex-MP when Parliament is next dissolved will in effect be him rather than him – but until then he can hold his horses. (Opportunistic and misleading campaign literature, from a Liberal Democrat? Surely not!) Anyway, thanks to the people at TheyWorkForYou for sorting that one out, and when I say ‘people’ I actually mean Chris. Small world.

As it happens I also had a letter from my MP – the real one – the other day, complete with a copy of a letter from Hazel Blears, no less. Here’s what I’d written:

I am alarmed and disgusted to read of the latest proposal to expand the use of automated number-plate recognition (ANPR) systems on British roads. This is nothing other than an extension of intrusive surveillance for the benefit of the police. It is even being argued for in these terms: quoted in today’s Guardian, Robert Gifford of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety said, “One of the good things about ANPR is that people are often multiple offenders so it would provide useful intelligence,” adding that “expanding the use of technology for tracking the movements of cars could lead police to people who had committed other offences”. You’ll note that Mr Gifford made no attempt to justify this proposal in terms of benefit to road users, which is ostensibly his brief.The police forces of England and Wales are an institution like any other: they would rather have more power than less. However, the business of government is not to give the police (or any other institution) everything they ask for, but to stand up for the interests of the people of the country – including our interest in going about our daily business unmolested by intrusive and speculative surveillance. This proposal was not a manifesto pledge and runs counter to decades of Labour Party policy on surveillance and the police. It deserves to be thrown out. I trust you will oppose it to the best of your ability.

And here’s Ms Blears’ reply (addressed to my MP):

ANPR has been used by the Police Service for a number of years with the primary objective of denying criminals the use of the roads. It targets terrorism and other serious and organised crime, and volume crime such as burglary and vehicle crime. In addition, it is used to detect vehicle documentation offences such as uninsured driving and road tax evasion. It has been proved that many of those who are stopped for committing routine road traffic offences by the Police are themselves likely to have been involved in more serious offending.I am grateful to Mr Edwards for bringing these issues to the attention of the Home Office. Please let me assure you that this technology is being used to support record numbers of police on the street and is proving crucial in reducing crime. A great deal of care is being taken to ensure that its use of this technology [sic] is cognisant of both Human Rights and Data Protection legislation. ANPR is not a ‘Big Brother’ technology – it is designed to target those who choose to use our roads illegally and allows law-abiding citizens to go about their business uninterrupted.

The idea that an extension of intrusive surveillance for the benefit of the police might be, you know, a bad thing in some sense seems to have got lost in translation. Beyond that… well, I haven’t got the time or energy for a proper fisking now, but I’ll suggest one question: if ANPR systems are designed to make it possible to watch the entire population of road-users and target a sub-group which is defined and identified by the police, in what sense are they not a ‘Big Brother’ technology?

Seldom a dread

It’s been quiet around here for a while, and probably will be for a while yet. For now, a small question. Is anyone reading this? More specifically, is anyone reading this in Britain? Even more specifically, is anyone reading this who is in Britain and knows about academic funding, in particular how to obtain and where from? (I’ve got a few ideas, but more is generally better.) Drop me a comment if so.

We’re all normal

Everyone from Jamie to Tony has gone big on this story (old uncle Jon Snow and all). And I can understand that – if there’s one thing more welcome than Charles Clarke looking incompetent, it’s Charles Clarke and David Blunkett looking incompetent.

But I do wonder if this is the right stick to beat them with. Listening to the appalling Nick Robinson grilling Clarke on BBC news, you’d think the Bastille had just been stormed (or Strangeways at least): Minister, can you tell me where the three murderers who were mistakenly released are now? And the nine rapists? How about the five paedophiles? No answer, came the stern reply. Safety Elephant in Lost Dangerous Foreigners Shock.

I hate to come to the defence of Clarke, let alone Blunkett, but is this really a story? We’re talking, after all, about people who have done their time: if they hadn’t been foreign nationals the lot of them would have been Living Among Us all this time, even the rapists and the murderers. Admittedly, there are arrangements for keeping track of potentially dangerous ex-offenders, but they’re relatively new – the first MAPPAs were set up in 2001, four years after the end of those wild, free-wheeling Tory years. They’re also – at least from where I’m sitting – relatively controversial: the implicit message “once a dangerous offender, always a dangerous offender” may have the ring of truth from the standpoint of the police, but it’s hard to square with the principle of innocence until proven guilty.

Nevertheless, the outcry over the failure to deport foreign ex-offenders seems to assume, as its psychological backdrop, something like the MAPPA mentality of indefinite surveillance after release. This essentially Lombrosian approach to the criminal justice system – where the top priority is to identify the criminals and segregate them from the law-abiding majority – is, of course, dear to the hearts of both Clarke and Blair; it was only the other day that Clarke proposed a new package of measures for controlling Bad Men.

At best, it’s ironic that Clarke’s undoubted incompetence should have been exposed in this particular way. At conspiracist worst, the release of this particular batch of bad news – which was first requested last October – may have been timed to test the public mood. If this is the case, I’m afraid they’ve got precisely the answer they were hoping for.

Update Paul Anderson is on the case:

It’s outrageous that so many foreign murderers have been let out of gaol here and are now free to kill innocent Britons. They should have been deported to where they came from so they could now be killing innocent foreigners.

There’s also been a statement from the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. I’m reproducing their comments here because I think they give some useful background and clarify the argument. (Thanks to AS for the link.)

For the last 24 hours there has been a media frenzy about 1,000 foreign national who had committed crimes, served time in prison but were not deported from the UK on completion of their sentences.NCADC have always opposed the deportation of foreign nationals who because of the crime they have committed have been ordered to leave the UK because the Secretary of State deems their presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good.

Breaking the law is not acceptable but the law must be fair and seen to be fair in how it punishes someone who breaks the law. Sentencing must be consistent and not discriminatory. To sentence a UK citizen to 10 years for a crime and when the person has served the sentence is released back into the community with appropriate safeguards is correct, however to sentence a foreign national to 10 years for the same crime and when the person has served the sentence deport them from the UK is discriminatory and unjust.

It is a fundamental principle of UK law that a person cannot be punished twice for the same offence. However this does not apply to foreign nationals living in the UK, irrespective of how long they have been living in the UK or that they have established ties with their families and communities. If they commit a crime and are sentenced to imprisonment they can also face a secondary punishment of deportation.

Deportation can take place in two ways. Firstly, it can be recommended by a court following conviction for an offence punishable with imprisonment. Secondly, even where the court makes no recommendation, the Home Office can subsequently intervene and serve a deportation notice on the grounds that the prisoner’s presence in the UK is not “conducive to the public good”.

Deportation following conviction can be irrespective of how long a person has lived in the UK, irrespective of their family ties in this country. In many cases the Home Office will argue that to keep the families together, partners and children of convicted foreign nationals can uproot themselves and go and live abroad often in countries they may have never been to, this amounts to constructive deportation.
However the courts in these cases can often disagree with the Home Secretary when he tries to deport someone with family ties in the UK. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life. At times it would not be feasible, realistic, practicable, reasonable or sensible for the whole family to uproot and leave the UK because of the conviction of the head of the family. In one particular case where the Home Secretary’s intention to deport was rejected the adjudicator said: “… deportation at the end of a ten year sentence may indeed come close to a double punishment – and one that would appear to be, largely, reserved for persons from the ethnic minorities.”

NCADC call for an end to the practice of double punishment of foreign nationals as it is discriminatory and unjust.

Update 27th April
Brian is also talking sense with regard to this one:

Once a person — even a foreigner! — has served his sentence and been assessed to be safe for release as posing no likely further threat to society, he or she ought not to be further penalised by being deported, provided he or she was legally in the country to begin with. Deportation needs to be justified by specific and provable evidence in each case. Even foreigners have rights!

Read the whole thing.

Just take a look around you

Sing it:

I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
The clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate…

Bitterness can be a problem, even when you’re out of school uniform. It’s a particular problem for political writers, bloggers very much included. You hate the Other Side, they must be evil and contemptible to do what they do – but, if they genuinely are evil and contemptible, you can’t do anything except hate them, and keep on saying how you hate them. As I wrote back here,

There’s something obsessive, almost paranoid about those posts – See? See? I told you they were a bunch of bastards, and now they’ve as good as admitted it! Look, it says so here! All you really achieve with a post like that is to feed your obsession, making yourself – and anybody who shares it – feel righteously justified. Which is never a good look.

To be more precise, it’s a hateful, joyless look – and if you’re not careful the wind will change, and it’ll stick.

So I almost agree with whoever it was that wrote this. (The opening quote is from Paul Foot’s Why you should be a socialist.)

We socialists are not fanatics or timeservers. We are socialists because we see the prospect which life holds out for all working people. We want the commitment of workers who laugh and love, and want to end the wretchedness and despair which shuts love and laughter out of so many lives.

Well, 1977 is a long, long time ago, but Foot’s words survive beyond his sad decline and premature death to resonate in the present. When you’ve read anything written by any of the assorted dickheads mentioned above, have you ever, even once, got the impression that “love and laughter” matter a damn to any of them

I almost agree with this line of argument (never mind for a moment who the ‘assorted dickheads’ are): too much radical writing is both bitter and twisted, substituting vituperation for reasoning and personal attack for critique. I almost agree, but not quite. Here’s the whole of the sentence:

When you’ve read anything written by any of the assorted dickheads mentioned above, have you ever, even once, got the impression that “love and laughter” matter a damn to any of them, or even mean anything much at all to people so repulsively stuffed to the gills with hatred, resentment and self-regard that any allegation, any misrepresentation, however trivial or ludicrous, will do, as long as it suits their wholly negative purposes?

Elsewhere in the same post we read that the Left represented by these people is “a pandemonium of sectarian infighting, self-righteous posturing, academic wankfests and just plain barking at the Moon”; that they’re liars and fantasists, characterised by “dishonesty, paranoia and mauvaise foi“; and that they’re fascists or Stalinists, or at best the fellow-travellers of fascists or Stalinists.

Enough! or too much. (William Blake said that.) Fortunately there aren’t very many of these people, when you get down to it. There’s Louis Proyect; there are Mike Marqusee, D.D. Guttenplan and Andrew Murray; there’s Chris Bertram, and then there’s

Phil Edwards of Actually Existing, who never uses one plain word where 15 pretentious words will do, thinks it’s mighty clever and original to pretend that there’s nothing to choose between liberal democracy and dictatorship because – in a deeper reality accessible only to the mighty clever and original – they’re both “undemocratic” (what do you mean, he should define his terms? he’s a poet, don’t you know)

I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of both pretentiousness and mauvaise foi before. But it’s true, I write poetry, which clearly implies… Actually it doesn’t imply anything in particular, but it gives people who don’t like what I write something to sneer at. Which is nice for them.

The post they’re talking about, anyway, is here; I think the paragraph in question is reasonably clear, but if it does look as if I’m saying that there’s nothing to choose between liberal democracy and dictatorship – or that it’s unclear what I mean by the word ‘democratic’ – let me know in the comments. But not anonymously: henceforth I’ll only read anonymous and pseudonymous comments on this blog if I already know your real name or can find it out easily. Anything else gets deleted.

It’s a bit funny to see a critique of life-denying sectarianism being advanced by writers who themselves seem so repulsively stuffed to the gills with hatred, resentment and self-regard that any allegation, any misrepresentation, however trivial or ludicrous, will do, as long as it suits their wholly negative purposes. It’s a bit funny to have all this pointing of fingers and naming of names coming from people who appear to have operated under pseudonyms since 1998. (I say ‘people’, but the operative word may be ‘person’; we’ve got no way of knowing that there is more than one person behind P.S. Burton, James Masterson, Ben Illin and the rest of their clever sobriquets.) It’s a bit funny, but I’m not laughing.

Hideous tricks on the brain

Since I started reviewing (eighteen years ago, mind-bogglingly enough) I’ve always wanted to get a review into the LRB. As of the current issue, I’ve finally succeeded. Well, almost.

On the back of the current LRB is a subs ad for the New Left Review. If you subscribe you can get one of two books free. One of the books is Benedict Anderson’s Under three flags; beneath the jacket image you can read:

Under Three Flags is an erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines … The book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal’s world … the result is magnificent’ – Independent

That’s me, that is. I wrote that. Well, what I actually wrote (time-limited link) was more like this (some edits reinstated in italics)

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson traced the origins of nationalism in Spanish South America. The first nationalists, he argued, spoke for communities that had yet to be built – a formulation that neatly resolves the question of priority between posing political demands and building a collective identity. Moreover, the nationalist vision grew out of shared experience: of restricted career paths, in particular. Consciousness and campaigning, vision and career: Anderson’s model of history is made up of pairings such as these.Under Three Flags is a formidably erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines. A constitutional activist who spent much of his life in Europe, Rizal was a hero to the Filipino independence movement. This was largely due to his novels, which offer a bizarre mixture of bejewelled prose, pointed satire, sensationalist plotting and intimations of anarchist revolution.

In exile, Rizal was seen as an extremist for his insistence on Filipino autonomy; returning home, he was outflanked by the radical Katipunan movement, which nevertheless made him its figurehead. He was executed in 1896 for his part in the Katipunan insurrection, which he had disowned; soon afterwards, its leader was killed by a rival, who later served in an American-led government. The Philippines was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898, only achieving lasting independence in 1946.

This is, Anderson stresses, a contribution to the history of “early globalisation”. In Europe, exile communities plugged Rizal into an international network of radicals. The dying Spanish empire linked the Philippines with Cuba, where José Marti’s war of independence began the year before the Katipunan uprising.

Commendably, Anderson doesn’t contrast the Katipunans’ hopes disparagingly with the slow tread of history as usual, or the bomb-throwers of Rizal’s fiction with Rizal’s own professed gradualism. Instead, he demonstrates that French aesthetes and Russian nihilists, organisational slog and utopian dreams, all formed part of the same historical moment. This was the moment which Rizal’s fiction articulated, and one which had lasting after-effects. Anderson’s account opens and closes with the story of Isabelo de los Reyes: a pioneering Filipino folklorist who re-emerged, in American-ruled Manila, as a radical trade unionist. From anarchism to national liberation, to neo-colonialism… to anarchism.

This book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal’s world, but at a cost. Even while he appears to be ambling digressively, Anderson sets a stiff pace; there are few concessions to readers wanting assumptions restated or conclusions underlined. The result is magnificent but overwhelming. Many historical works deserve abridgement; this one could benefit from dilution.

There’s a definite art to picking the quote to go in the ad copy; I particularly like the way they closed with “the result is magnificent”.

Anyway, buy, buy, buy, and so forth. (I would have been rubbish at marketing.) It’s an extraordinary book in method and approach, even if its subject matter stops it hitting the every-home-should-have-one heights of Imagined Communities. More importantly, if Verso shift lots of them they might bring out a second edition and put my quote on the flyleaf, or possibly even on the back. There’s glory for you.

We’ve already said goodbye

[Updated and bumped up, 14/4 and 19/4. It's quite a story.]

Like Clive, I’ve seen better comment on the Italian elections in blogs than on newsprint. I think particular credit is due to Alex, the only person I’ve seen suggest that Berlusconi won’t go if he loses. I thought he was being far too melodramatic at the time, but apparently not.

On the 12th of April Prodi and Berlusconi had appointments (separately) with Ciampi, the 85-year-old President of the Republic; Berlusconi spent his time haranguing Ciampi and demanding a recount (“What about you, which side are you on? We know that we’ve been cheated; it’s your duty to check.”) Italian electoral law recognises several types of spoilt ballot paper; at the moment the schede contestate – papers which have been claimed by more than one party – are being recounted and may be admitted as valid. But, although there are 43,000 schede contestate among the votes cast for the Camera – where Prodi’s coalition won by a majority of 24,000 – it’s highly unlikely that they’re all going to come out as votes for Berlusconi; in practice they seem likely to split fairly evenly. With this in mind, Berlusconi is calling for a recount of all spoilt ballot papers – which he estimates at a million – or possibly all ballot papers full stop. This would require a new law; however, Berlusconi is still Prime Minister, and as such he could pass a decreto (a Prime Ministerial decree, which becomes law immediately but lapses after sixty days unless it has been endorsed by Parliament).

It seems – although Berlusconi has denied it – that he put this cunning plan to Ciampi. Ciampi evidently said No – or possibly You want to do what? – so it seems that Alex’s fears won’t be realised. The President can and does refuse to sign laws which he regards as unconstitutional; passing a decreto which he knew would not gain presidential approval would be a constitutional crisis too far, even for Berlusconi. The sound of Berlusconi’s former allies tiptoeing away has also been noticeable over the last few days – leading members of the ex-Christian Democrat UDC, the ex-neofascist AN and even Berlusconi’s own party Forza Italia have all made comments translating roughly as “Leave it, Silvio, they’re not worth it.” The latest word from Prodi: “There’s nothing to worry about, we can be calm.” (Although ‘calm’ doesn’t quite capture it – the word he used is sereni. Prodi does a good ‘serene’.)

Formally, the new government has to be appointed by the President. Ciampi’s term ends on the 18th of May, and he’s said that he wants his successor to do the job. In theory, it could be weeks before anything is decided – but in practice it doesn’t look as if anyone but Berlusconi has the stomach for it. Unless the schede contestate do turn out to give him a majority – or reduce Prodi’s majority to such small proportions that a broader recount becomes inevitable – I can’t see Berlusconi doing anything but concede, perhaps after another few days of sulking and pouting. But don’t count on too much international pressure: Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel have congratulated Prodi on his victory, but Bush is “awaiting final results” [sic] and Blair’s saying nothing. Prodi thinks he’s won; Lorenzo Cesa of UDC thinks Prodi’s won (“checking contested ballots is a normal procedure, it won’t change the outcome”); and Roberto Maroni of the Lega Nord is certain of it (“the Left has won; not only do they have the right to govern, they have the duty to govern”). But Berlusconi’s still hoping that something will turn up, and Blair thinks it’s worth waiting just a bit longer. Classy.

PS Berlusconi, 11th April: “The result has got to change: there’s been cheating [brogli] all over the place.”

Carlo Giovanardi (UDC), 13th April: “Nobody’s ever mentioned cheating [brogli]; all we’re saying is that there are irregularities in the count.”

Update 14th April

Those contested ballot papers? It’s emerged this morning – three full days after the count – that there never were 43,000 schede contestate. Or rather, there were 43,000 schede contestate, but some of them were dealt with satisfactorily at the time and had thus been included in the count all along. And when I say ‘some’ I mean ‘most’. The number of schede contestate which were there to be recounted has now been revised downward from 43,028 to 2,131 – in an election with a majority of 25,726.

In other words, the recount has been a complete waste of time. Still, it bought Berlusconi three more days as Prime Minister.

With the last plausible reason for refusing to admit defeat out of the window, things are starting to get a bit Downfall. Berlusconi is now demanding that Ciampi agrees to a decreto ordering a full recount. If Ciampi doesn’t agree, Berlusconi insists on being able to nominate the next President from the ranks of Forza Italia; if the Left don’t agree to that, he promises stalemate in the Senate, where the two coalitions are evenly matched (“With those numbers, nothing gets through without us.”) The only problem with this doomsday scenario is that ‘those numbers’ don’t only consist of Forza Italia: the UDC are already looking towards what la Repubblica describes as the promised land of a de-Berlusconified centre-right, while the Lega Nord is out for whatever it can get from whoever it can get it from. In the mean time Berlusconi is attempting to bend reality with the force of his mighty chutzpah: this evening he said that he was entirely ready to carry on as Prime Minister, and hoped to do so once the provisional results had been replaced with definitive figures. Setting aside the fact that everyone from Angela Merkel to Roberto Maroni (which is quite a range) believes that these are the definitive figures, Berlusconi’s effectively saying that he’s not moving until after a recount – but for there to be a recount would require a decreto, which would require Ciampi to agree, which isn’t going to happen.

It looks very much as if he’s trying to make so much trouble that the Left buys him off by offering the Presidency to somebody from Forza Italia – or even (a truly ghastly thought) to Berlusconi himself. But he’s got no cards left to play, bluster apart. (The former Tangentopoli magistrate Antonio di Pietro had a nice line today: we should “leave Berlusconi to his howling [ai suoi ululati]“.) Taking the long view, it looks as if the Berlusconi period is drawing to a close; Prodi only needs to remain ‘serene’ and hold his nerve. (And, perhaps, look up some bailiffs.)

Update 16th April

So, OK, the results were solid, there isn’t going to be a recount and the votes of a regionalist party allied to Prodi’s Unione aren’t going to be discounted (a recent invention from Roberto Calderoli of Lega Nord, whose colleague Maroni was an early member of the “let it go, Silvio” camp; my suspicion is that Umberto Bossi, the head of Lega Nord and a close personal ally of Berlusconi in the past, remained loyal to the capo and has since called the troops into line). What we need now is to recognise that nobody’s won – the Left can’t possibly hope to govern Italy against the wishes of half of the country – and form a government of national unity. That, at least, was yesterday’s line, as represented by a letter from Berlusconi published in the Corriere della Sera. I’d say that Berlusconi’s attempts to cling to power are shameless, but I don’t think the word’s strong enough. Certainly he doesn’t seem to register the idea that “his people” can be represented by anyone but him – or that there are any Italians who aren’t “his”, apart from the hated Communists.

There was a ray of hope this morning (appropriately enough), in the form of an extraordinarily petulant and grudging statement from Giulio Tremonti, former Minister for the Economy and a close Berlusconi ally. If they don’t want a government of national unity, Tremonti said in so many words, to hell with them – if they want opposition, we’ll give them opposition. Even Berlusconi (currently sulking in Sardinia) has started talking about a firm and rigorous opposition with no concessions to anyone – which is, of course, dependent on Berlusconi formally acknowledging that he is in the opposition. I’m not holding my breath – I’m afraid this one could drag on for some time yet.

Update 19th April

Berlusconi’s going to concede defeat, tomorrow or possibly even today. I say this because, in private – or in that weird, gossipy, deniable semi-private in which a lot of Italian political conversations seem to take place – he’s already started to spread the blame. It’s Calderoli’s fault – if he hadn’t been a shithead about it the Lombard autonomists who went with Prodi would have stayed with us, and we’d have won. Or else it was Tremaglia (who organised the vote for Italians abroad, on the mistaken understanding that most of them would go to Berlusconi) – there were four separate Forza Italia lists in Antarctica, what was that about? Or maybe it was our fault, Forza Italia’s fault – the kids on our lists, they’re good kids, keen as you like, but at the end of the day they’re still kids. None of it, of course, is Berlusconi’s fault – but if we were waiting for that thought to cross his mind we really would have to be patient. (Forza Italia took 29.7% of the vote in 2001, out of a total of 50% for the right-wing alliance; this time round FI took 23.7%, out of a total of 49.7%.)

Another update, also 19th April

Today the Corte di Cassazione ruled on the election results. ‘Corte di Cassazione’ is not easy to translate – one dictionary I’ve seen suggested ‘Court of Cassation’ – but its position in the Italian legal system is fairly clear: it’s at the top. The Corte is the ultimate judicial authority on matters legal and constitutional. The Italian legal system is very big on appeal courts (which is one reason why Berlusconi’s stayed out of prison all this time), and the Corte is in a sense the ultimate appeal court. Unlike other appeal courts, though, the Corte di Cassazione can only be invoked on matters of constitutional significance. If the Corte di Cassazione is ruling on it, it matters; if the Corte has ruled on it, the ruling stays ruled.

This evening the Corte di Cassazione ruled on the election result. They ruled, specifically, that the Unione had won, with an overall majority of 24,755: the recount of schede contestate had reduced it by a total of 469. They also ruled that it had not been inappropriate to count the Lombard autonomist vote as part of the Unione vote.

Within half an hour of the announcement, Lorenzo Cesa of the UDC acknowledged the result, wished Prodi well in the interests of the Italian people and promised to work hard to offer its supporters an alternative government.

Within forty minutes of the announcement, Giulio Tremonti of Forza Italia stated that his party did not recognise the result. Berlusconi’s first public response took a bit longer in coming; addressing a group of supporters this evening, he said: “We’ll give them a fight – they’ll have to reckon with us.” Forza Italia is promising to use all the instruments at its disposal to show that the Unione hasn’t in fact won. The prospect of forcing a full recount is receding; they’re now talking about appealing to the agencies which conducted the count, either to carry out a kind of alternative low-level recount of their own or simply to find some irregularity – any irregularity – in the conduct of the vote. In this increasingly shabby and desperate pursuit Berlusconi is backed by the Lega Nord (Calderoli: “the reality is that the Casa delle Libertà took more votes”) but not by the UDC; we’ve yet to hear from Alleanza Nazionale.

I confess, I thought a Corte di Cassazione ruling would be the end of it. Perhaps it will; tomorrow we should find out whether Berlusconi has any shame at all. Failing that, the 25th of April is a national holiday, the anniversary of Liberation. I think it’ll be a big one this year.

Update 24th April

Well, it’s over: the leaders of the Unione have gone back to squabbling over who’s going to line up with whom and who’s going to get which job. Berlusconi still hasn’t formally conceded, but everyone else is working round him. To date, Berlusconi’s fullest statement on the election result has been to the effect that Prodi’s government will be against the interests of the country, so he (Berlusconi) cannot be expected to congratulate him; the Right will stop the government getting anything important through, and will be back in power before too long; the election victory will always be overshadowed by the failure to recount all spoiled ballot papers; and, if you put the votes for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies together, that the Right actually got more votes than the Left, so that he, Berlusconi, actually won a moral victory. Gracious as ever, then. Like Robert, I find this all a bit extreme even for Berlusconi; is he afraid that his shadier friends are going to call in their markers and he won’t be in a position to pay up? Or did somebody bet him ten grand, before the election, that he’d be congratulating Prodi by the end of April?

Nothing in Berlusconi’s record as Prime Minister leaves a worse taste than the manner of his leaving. Above all, there’s the unpleasant feeling that we’ve been had. For people who take politics seriously – which includes most of the Italian Left and at least some of the Right – Berlusconi’s post-election grandstanding was seriously alarming:

Never before [in a Western democracy] has the defeated candidate rejected the verdict of the ballot box even after the highest court in the land has given its ruling. The message from the current Prime Minister to ‘his’ half of the country verges on an invitation to insurrection. Objectively it’s the language of a coup. Let’s try taking it literally. If the electoral result has been overturned with the complicity of the Corte di Cassazione, then centre-right voters are entitled to any and every reaction to such a gigantic abuse of power – including kicking out the government by means other than voting.

But – the same piece continues -

Luckily nobody takes what Silvio Berlusconi says literally, not even his own voters. His civil war is a game, albeit a sinister game; his threat of a coup is out of a comic opera; the ‘stolen victory’ is just the final fable of the Berlusconi era; the shift towards subversion was only the tactic of a day.

The bad news is that Forza Italia’s voters (and the Lega’s) probably understood all this a lot better than we did: Berlusconi’s populism, like Bossi’s before him, is all about making exorbitant gestures and unreasonable demands, holding out for impossible or manifestly unfair objectives and seeing how much you can get away with. The good news is that it looks as if the Italian Left is starting to catch on. Prodi has proposed that tomorrow’s Festa della Liberazione should be dedicated to the Italian Constitution – and against the ‘devolution’ reforms which were proposed by the Lega and approved by the outgoing Berlusconi government. It’s a deeply divisive move, which has the great merit of drawing the dividing line some way to the Right of the Unione.

With this – and with the extraordinary move of backing Bertinotti for the Presidency of the Camera over d’Alema – Prodi is already showing himself to be a bold as well as a shrewd operator. Don’t get me wrong, as a socialist I don’t hold out much hope for a Prodi government – any hope, to be more precise. But after the last five years there’s a sizeable cleaning-up operation needed in the Italian political system, and for that it does begin to look as if Prodi is our man.

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