We are the tables

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

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

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

Update 17th June – remaining beans spilled.

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

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

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

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

The Wehrmacht never got in here

Chris has a point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s Nick again from last week:

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

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

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

You can bring your friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is to say:

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

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

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

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

Q: What kind of politician is Tony Blair?

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

No further questions.

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

When there is no outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday’s men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You guys are crazy

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

Some day this will all be yours

Scott Karp:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Carr:

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

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

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

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

The age of intuition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

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.

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