I’ll see you in my dreams

My mother died this morning. She was 84.

She was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their Communion services, PBs would share actual bread rather than the rice-papery wafers they use in the Church of England. According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but got his way; from then on, he brought his own supply of unleavened bread and communed with himself.

Growing up in an intensely religious household, my mother had the worst of both worlds: she believed that her parents’ religion was true, but she didn’t, herself, believe it; she wasn’t saved. Which meant that Jesus could come back at any moment, and she’d be bound for preterition. For a while she used to pray that Jesus would at least postpone the grand finale until her younger sister had been saved. Her sister spoiled this plan; not taking the whole religious thing quite so seriously, she was quite happy to please her parents by announcing that she was saved.

My mother didn’t do too well at school. She was studying psychology in evening classes when she got married; she gave up the course shortly before she would have completed it, feeling it wasn’t the kind of thing a young married woman should be doing. So, no qualifications. She always regretted this, but never did anything about it; she didn’t even learn to drive when my father did, feeling (in her fifties) that it was too late to be bothering with anything like that. (Then she regretted that decision, too.)

She’d married my father, anyway, when she was 28 and he was 35. (I always found their wedding day easy to remember in my Red youth, as it was the 1st of October 1949.) Neither of them ever talked much about the war. They lived in London throughout it; he’d had TB and wasn’t fit enough to enlist (he also worked at the War Office, which might well have been a reserved occupation). Soon after they were married he was posted to Germany, where they had a house, a maid and money to spend. They also had three children in just over two years (all girls, two of them twins). Coming back to Britain in the early 1950s – with no servants and a mortgage to find – must have been a shock to the system. I think it was around this time that my mother in turn developed TB, had half a lung removed and gave up smoking. (It’s thanks to my mother that I’ve only ever bought two packets of cigarettes – and one of those was for research purposes (If you can get twenty cigarettes for 50 pesetas, just how bad can they be?) She found out I was smoking halfway through the first packet (Gitanes, naturellement), and she came down hard.)

I was born in Purley – which wasn’t a famous place at the time, thanks all the same – at home, at midnight, assisted by a midwife who (bizarrely enough) had previously nursed my mother when she had TB. (She recognised her; her first words were “Do you think you ought to be having a baby?”) My mother told me later she was afraid for me during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We moved down the road to Coulsdon when I was three; I grew up in a detached, four-bedroomed house, which my mother later said they would never have taken on if they’d realised how much work it needed. When I was still quite small my father’s TB recurred; apparently my mother was just giving me my lunch when I saw him being taken out of the house on a stretcher and screamed. I don’t remember that, but for a long time I had a vivid compound memory of the music from Desert Island Discs, a willow-pattern plate and a nice big helping of some unidentified stuff (a bit like baked beans, only not beans, that other stuff, that stuff I used to have, I really liked that stuff…). I guess that was the moment before.

They were quite religious in this period. From my mother’s PB background and my father’s Chapel they’d both migrated to the Church of England, where they were fairly active; for a few years we even had holidays at church retreats. (On one of these I played with Tim Westwood and acquired a red plastic fish called Belinda. Unfortunately I only remember one of these.) There was religion and there were rows; my mother walked out on one occasion, fully intending to go to her mother in Thornton Heath, but came back when she realised that she didn’t have the bus fare. Things were less stormy by the time I was taking notice, but I do remember that the Sunday Lunch Washing-up Row was a regular fixture. (They even shut the kitchen door.) My younger sister was born in 1966. My father was still working for the War OfficeMinistry of Defence (the Civil Service may have changed now, but in his day once you were in a Ministry you stayed put); when my sister was two and I was eight, he was posted to South Wales.

The next five years were, fundamentally, magical. The schools weren’t great, the social life was highly circumscribed and it was a twenty-mile journey to the nearest cinema, concert venue, large supermarket or school uniform shop; for my older sisters it was a very mixed blessing, and for my mother – at least to begin with – it was unimaginably dull. But I remember it very fondly, as does my younger sister. There were woods to explore and cliffs to climb and miles of beach to walk, in and out of season – especially out of season. And there was that year-round sense of occasion that only village life can really give you: that sense that there are only a few events to look forward to, but everyone will be taking part in those same few events and everyone’s looking forward to them. (Years later we happened to be on holiday in Mullion Cove, in the West of Cornwall, on the day of the annual fete. I knew exactly what was going on – it hadn’t changed a bit.) Then there was the background thrum of pride that characterises the world of the armed forces. This isn’t just an officer-class thing. My parents, uniquely and rather scandalously, used to go to the Sergeants’ Mess as well as (and more often than) the Officers’ Mess. (My father was head of the local establishment on the civilian side, so naturally we were ranked as an ‘officer’ family; he was also the son of a Welsh miner and rock-solid Labour, so the idea of only mixing with other ‘officers’ didn’t sit too well with him.) I’d say that the sense of pride – and the sense that any privileges we might enjoy were entirely justified – came from (and was felt by) the other ranks as much as the officers: it was partly when the chips are down, we run this place but mostly if it needs doing, we’ll do it. It’s a remarkable atmosphere, and I’m not sorry to have been exposed to it.

I was nearly 13 when we came back to Coulsdon, and my mother was 52. My father was approaching retirement age, and there was some talk of retiring right there in Wales; they even looked into taking over the post office in a village called Login, which would have been interesting if nothing else. Nothing came of it, though. Once, before we went to Wales, my mother had got a part-time job on the telephone exchange; I more or less forced her to give it up, at one stage going out in the street with the intention of waiting till she came back. Things were a bit easier now, and she took a part-time job working at the godforsaken Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office, at Lunar House in Croydon. (Someone who’s an authority in my current academic field was working at Lunar House in the same period, as a twenty-something Executive Officer. I’m meeting him soon and had been looking forward to asking him if he remembered my mother, and telling her about it afterwards. I suppose I can still do some of that.) When she got home, during the school holidays, we would regularly share a pot of tea and a Caramel bar. (Doesn’t sound like much, I know.)

Later, she got involved in teaching English as a second language. This wasn’t class-based; she was given the details of two or three immigrant women who wanted to improve their English, and she’d go round and chat with them. I remember the Nigerian woman who my mother introduced, purely for social reasons, to a young Nigerian guy we knew; what she hadn’t factored in was that he was Yoruba whereas she was Ibo, which meant that it went off rather like a royal visit (So you do all the cooking? Good, good!) Another of her clients, Mrs A from Sri Lanka, became a family friend; I’ve got fond memories of her ‘rich cake’, which was essentially fruitcake reimagined as an Indian sweet.

It was Mr A who suggested that I get a job, between school and university, at the local psychiatric hospital (which was one of the institutions that ringed London, where the old Green Belt began). My mother encouraged me to take the job and to stick at it. I’ll write about that job another time; a two-word summary would be “unbelievably awful”. Then I went to university; then I went back home; then I moved to Manchester, to the great displeasure of both my parents. They didn’t understand my choice of career, they didn’t immediately get on with my girlfriend, and they certainly didn’t approve of my decision to move to be with the latter before I’d even got a job. Eh, well – water, bridge.

After my father retired, they moved to Brighton (selling the house to Mr A). The community in the street and the local church gave them both a new lease of life, my mother especially; she also worked in the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau for a while, and kept in touch with CAB people for a long time afterwards. (She also kept in touch with church people who had moved on, as well as with a lot of people from Coulsdon and one or two from Wales. That was how she was.) For several years I went to Brighton on my own at Christmas, while my girlfriend (same one) went to her mother’s. With five in the family, family Christmases were always a very big deal. It wasn’t quite the same in Brighton – not everybody could stay, apart from anything else – but for a while it was close. And then of course there was Brightonpace Arthur Machen, the best town there is for wandering around. It was less tarted-up and redeveloped then than it is now; the North Laines, in particular, were still scrubby and bohemian.

Then my girlfriend and I got married (still the same one) and had two kids of our own. When our second was still quite young, my father died. He’d been ill in various ways for quite a while – that’s another story which I’ll write another time – but the end, when it came, was gentle and quiet: one day he stopped eating, and the GP advised my mother to stop trying to feed him; a few days later he stopped talking; a few days after that it was over. It was a good death, for him. My mother had run herself ragged looking after him; she was determined to make sure he could die at home, even if it meant she had to give him what was effectively 24-hour care. She grieved a little after he’d died, but she didn’t collapse. She confided later that a large part of what she felt was relief.

I stayed in touch, of course, and we kept on taking the children down to Brighton, of course. As time went on there began to be something odd about the way she talked. The stream of recollection and anecdote was as fluent as it had ever been, but it seemed less focused – half the time I really didn’t know these people she was talking about – and more repetitive: she’d start with a story, move to a general point, then use the same story to illustrate it. But who was to say how well you or I would be functioning at 83?

Shortly before her 84th birthday we had a family get-together. We were missing one of my sisters (plus husband and two children), but otherwise we were all there: four children, five grandchildren and her. Apart from my father’s memorial service, that was the only time we were all in the same place. It was also the only time she visited the sister who hosted it in that house. She didn’t travel much after my father died; she said a few times she’d come to see us in Manchester, but never managed it.

Two months after her birthday she had a stroke. She didn’t lose consciousness, but she was paralysed down one side and couldn’t speak at all. Within a couple of weeks she’d regained most of the motor function and verbal ability that she’d lost, but something else had gone adrift. She went from the hospital to a specialist stroke rehabilitation unit, which discharged her with indecent haste (or so, at first, it seemed to us); she went to a nursing home, fees to be funded from the sale of her house. Gradually we realised that it wasn’t simply a matter of recovering from the stroke; dementia had already been eating away at her mind and memories, and the stroke had only made matters worse. (‘We’ here refers to her children, or at least the four of us who were in Britain and in regular phone contact. I will happily throttle anyone who uses the words ‘bright side’ or ‘silver lining’, but it’s true that we’re talking a lot more than we had been before.)

She was in that home for a little over two months. I’m not sure she ever really settled there. On two of the last three times when I saw her there, she was quite convinced that we had come to take her home – or, if not, that we could be persuaded to take her home – or, if all else failed, that we couldn’t actually overrule her if she told us she wanted to go home. It was distressing. Fortunately the third time was the odd one out; she was a lot calmer that day, possibly because we’d told her that we were calling in on our way back to Manchester. A few days after that she actually made a break for it and got about fifty yards up the road before anybody from the home caught up with her. Brighton’s not the kind of town where dotty old ladies can safely wander; the home told us that she’d have to go to another home, preferably one which was geared up to deal with dementia patients – and had locks on the doors.

Nothing ever came of that. About a week later, she had another stroke: a much larger bleed this time, and on the other side of the brain. She lost consciousness and didn’t come round again. My sisters and I went to Brighton, to sit with her. There was nothing to be done; the consultant told us that, while a sudden reversal couldn’t be ruled out, the chances were that she was in “the dying phase of her life” and that heroic efforts to revive her – or even to treat any infection that might develop – would be misplaced.

She didn’t develop an infection, as far as we could tell. I saw her yesterday morning; by all appearances she was simply sleeping peacefully, her breathing shallow but relaxed. I think now her breathing had grown more shallow over the three days that she’d been unconscious, but I may be imagining that. In any case, she died this morning, without ever regaining consciousness.

Early this morning I had a nightmare: four black dogs – squat, belligerent Labrador crosses – were outside our front door; when I opened the door a little way, one of them lunged, got its nose into the door and tried to attack me. No prizes for guessing where that came from. But there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘sad’: this is an unutterably sad time, but what’s happened isn’t wrong or frightening, even for us. Certainly not for her. I talked to her a few times while I was there; one of the things I told her was that it was time for her to rest, and that she could go in peace. My sister helped to lay her out. She said that her face had an expression of pleasant surprise, “as if she’d just got the punch-line of a joke”.

Oh, so I don’t have to go back there!

I hope it felt like that, anyway.

Goodbye, Mum.

And feel your lumps

Go and sit upon the grass and I shall come and sit beside you…

Back in the early seventies a couple of forward-looking sixth-formers at my school booked a series of acts, with varying degrees of success; Hatfield and the North were very nearly booked at one stage, but they ended up with Keith Christmas. I always wanted to be like those sixth-formers, but by the time I got there respect had given way to derision; they shouted at me in the corridors, in other words. (They called me ‘Medusa’, which was literate at least.) Anyway, Keith Christmas was pretty good; he could certainly bring off the long hair. The Albion Dance Band (as they then were) were also good, although I’d been hanging around all day with the people doing set-up and was out of my head on London Pride by the time they came on. And then there was Ivor Cutler, who disappointed some by not bringing his harmonium and disappointed me slightly by giving half a set to Phyllis April King (as she then was). I was prepared for the writing, as one of my sisters had left a copy of Cockadoodledon’t! at home. The writing was good.

But Ivor Cutler is dead.

Years later I saw Ivor Cutler again; at least, it was either him or an elderly man of medium height who was determined to look as much like Ivor Cutler as possible. Our paths crossed on a bridge over the Thames – one of those railway bridges with the fenced-in pedestrian section to one side. (Blackfriars, Waterloo, I don’t know.) I contemplated saying something but rapidly realised that I didn’t have anything more cogent to say than “Hey, you’re that Ivor Cutler, aren’t you?”. (Unlike my sister, I had never purchased any of his works.) I didn’t say anything.

But Ivor Cutler is dead.

As you’ll read in his interview with the Wire, Ivor Cutler wasn’t entirely pleased to have his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom described as his own work. His own work was quite different. Wyatt later paid him a greater homage with his version of “Grass”, a.k.a. “Go and sit upon the grass”: a wonderful, hilarious and highly meaningful song about the path to enlightenment, which I have myself sung in public to great acclaim. (I made somebody cry with laughter – of which I have to say I am rather proud. Thanks, Ivor.)

Ivor Cutler is dead.

He has left a gap. The gap has many shapes; one of them is this. That’s a good gap.

And we shall talk…

To the great dominions


Hitler had his faults, of course, as he himself would be the first to admit. Many of his “Nazi theories” have now been debunked. With the benefit of hindsight his invasion of Russia was ill-conceived, and his scheme to exterminate the “lesser races” has been widely discredited.

Hitler was also a lousy manager. During the war years, in particular, he tended to sleep all morning, go for a long walk after lunch, then settle down to watch a film before a dinner which would last all night – not because the dinner itself was particularly lavish but because this was when he would talk about his plans for the world, for two or three hours at a time. If you wanted to get a decision out of Hitler, your best bet was to get him either straight after lunch or after the afternoon walk. Either that or sell your idea to Martin Bormann, who got himself into the position of being Hitler’s gatekeeper in this period; even he couldn’t always get the Fuehrer’s attention, but with any luck he’d send out the memo anyway.

Hitler’s working practices were more efficient earlier in his career, but even then he knew nothing about delegation. He was the kind of boss who keeps everyone hanging around until he’s ready to start a meeting, then talks at great length about whatever comes to mind instead of sticking to the agenda. He inspired – if that was the kind of thing you were inspired by – and, er, that was it. Except that, in the classic style of hands-off managers, he was also a micro-manager when the fancy took him; as the German armies faced defeat on the Eastern and Western fronts, the Fuehrer would make time to read the complaints and denunciations ordinary Germans had written to him and ensure that such-and-such a slacker or hoarder received the appropriate punishment.

Hitler’s style of management was dreadfully inefficient, but it has a certain definite appeal – at least, for the manager in question. What could be better, after all, than to sweep armies across the map and condemn thousands of enemies to death in the afternoon, then in the afternoon reach down to pluck out a single lurking malefactor and consign him to his personal doom – and finish the day by outlining those still greater things that you would achieve, when the downfall of all your enemies had finally given you a free hand? What a combination: vision, strategy and a grasp of specifics, all managed from the lofty vantage-point of the true leader, with a true leader’s wisdom and authority. What a piece of work such a manager would be – how infinite in faculty, in apprehension how like a god!

Henry Porter:

I certainly understand that the capillaries of a society run from bottom to top, bearing all the bad news, intractable problems, mood swings and crises; that it is all ceaselessly pumped upwards in the direction of the Prime Minister; and that the view afforded in Downing Street must sometimes be truly extraordinary, a seething, organic, Hogarthian panorama of delinquency and unreason.A Prime Minister must try to reach beyond the day-to-day business of government, frantic though it is, and make sense of what he sees below, seek the connecting threads, order up the policies and implement them so that improvement becomes possible. … Because he is by his own account well-intentioned, [Blair] believes that nothing should get in the way of this modernising purpose, the exercise of his benevolent reason on the turbulent society below. Like Mrs Thatcher, he has become almost mystically responsible for the state of the nation.

Kenneth Boulding (via Chris):

There is a great deal of evidence that almost all organizational structures tend to produce false images in the decision-maker, and that the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.

Careful with the spoons

Depressing If True Dept. In comments here, Kevin writes:

I was half asleep this morning when it was on Today and heading to the pub tonight when Shahid Malik MP spun the line on Question Time but I think I heard it right: the Labour establishment’s second front is that the Italian legal process is politically motivated, a bit way-hey and not to be trusted.

That’s precisely Berlusconi’s own line on the investigations – and it’s a beguiling blend of truth, half-truth and lies. The idea that the magistrates are gunning for him because they hate his guts is true enough; people investigating major frauds which have gone unpunished for the better part of a decade tend not to be too fond of the perpetrators. It’s half-true that they hate his guts for political reasons; the point here is that, in Italy, integrity in politics is a political cause in itself, and not necessarily one which has anything to do with being on the Left. Much of the Left has kept far too quiet – sometimes to the point of complicity – about Berlusconi’s corruption; some of his fiercest critics would be on the Right, if it were possible to be on the Right and oppose Berlusconi. But it’s utter nonsense – a real insult to the intelligence – to suggest that the charges against Berlusconi are in some way political: they’re not, it’s a simple(!) question of tax-evasion, fraud, perjury, transnational money-laundering, witness suborning, illegitimate political funding and straightforward bribery.

If Labour has bought into this farrago… ugh. If you dine with the Devil long enough, eventually the abyss looks back into you. (I said that.)

Get the right arm up

A couple of Italian links.

Berlusconi to the US Congress, 28th February:

For my generation the United States represent a beacon of liberty and economic progress. I shall always thank the United States for saving my country from Fascism and Nazism, at the cost of so many American lives.

Allow me to conclude by sharing a brief story with you. One day, a father took his son to a cemetery, where there lay soldiers who had crossed the ocean to defend our freedom. The father made his son promise eternal respect to those men and the values they represented. The father was my father, the son was me. And I shall never forget that promise.

(Berlusconi was born in 1936 and brought up in Milan, approximately 200 miles from the nearest US cemetery. It may have happened exactly like that, though.)

Democratici di Sinistra (Italy’s main left-wing party):

The Prime Minister … recalled that young Americans died on Italian soil to free Italy from the Nazi and Fascist yoke. What a shame that the Prime Minister signed an electoral pact, only a few days ago, with heirs of those dictatorships – violent enthusiasts for that obscene chapter in European history … [including] even those who have stated publicly that the British and Americans were fighting on the wrong side in World War II.

Berlusconi’s governing coalition consists of three parties: his own Forza Italia, the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale and the conservative Catholic Cristiani Democratici Uniti; the xenophobic regionalist Lega Nord is a semi-detached member of the coalition. But this isn’t a story about Alleanza Nazionale; AN these days isn’t much to the left of the Daily Mail, but it’s emphatically not a fascist party. This is about some people who broke with the old, quasi-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano when it turned into Alleanza Nazionale in 1995, and some people who broke with AN when it explicitly repudiated Fascism in 2003. In short, this is about the real fascists.

In the beginning – at least, in 1995 – there was Pino Rauti’s Movimento Sociale – Fiamma Tricolore. Rauti is a fairly serious right-wing subversive, who’s been accused of involvement in neo-fascist terrorism. This is also true of Roberto Fiore, who broke with Rauti in 1997 to form Forza Nuova. In the same year another long-time neo-Fascist named Adriano Tilgher left Rauti’s group to form the Fronte Sociale Nazionale. In 2003, Rauti was himself expelled from the MS-FT and formed something called the Movimento Idea Sociale. In the same year, Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of the old bastard) left AN in protest at the party’s break with Fascism, to form a group initially called Libertà di Azione and subsequently called Azione Sociale. Mussolini’s tiny group has since formed a united front with Fiore and Tilgher’s equally tiny groups, under the name of Alternativa Sociale.

So that’s the Italian extreme right: MS-FT (without Rauti), Alternativa Sociale (Mussolini/Fiore/Tilgher) and MIS (Rauti). (There’s also a group called Destra Nazionale – Nuovo MSI, run by a strange guy called Gaetano Saya – but even the headbangers don’t want to have anything to do with him.)

Alternativa Sociale is fighting the April election as a member of Berlusconi’s Casa delle Libertà coalition.

Movimento Sociale – Fiamma Tricolore is fighting the April election as a member of the Casa delle Libertà.

Pino Rauti’s Movimento Idea Sociale is not fighting the April election as a member of the Casa delle Libertà – but hopes to negotiate a stand-down agreement in a few seats.

“I shall always thank the United States for saving my country from Fascism and Nazism”

Cloudbuilding (2)

Here’s a problem I ran into, halfway through building my first ontology, and some thoughts on what the solution might be.

Question 47 of the Mixmag survey reads:

Have you ever had an instance[sic] where your drug use caused you to:
Get arrested?
Lose a job?
Fail an exam?
Crash a car/bike?
Be kicked out of a club?

What this tells us is that one of the things the Mixmag questionnaire is ‘about’ – one of the in vivo concepts (or groups of in vivo concepts) that we need to record – is misadventures consequent on drug use. The question is how we define this concept logically – and this isn’t just an abstract question, as the way that we define it will affect how people can access the information. There are three main possibilities.

1. Model the world
We could say that to have a job is to be a party to a contract of employment, which is a type of agreement between two parties, which is agreed on a set occasion and covers a set timespan. Hence to lose a job is to cease to be a party to a previously-agreed contract of employment; this may occur as a consequence of drug use (defined, in the Mixmag context, as the use of a psychoactive substance other than alcohol and tobacco).

This is all highly logical and would make it explicit that the Mixmag data contains some information on terminations of contracts of employment (as well as on drug-related stuff). However, the Mixmag survey isn’t actually about contracts of employment, and doesn’t mandate the definitional assumptions I made above. So this isn’t really legitimate. (It would also be incredibly laborious, particularly when we turn our attention away from the relatively succinct Mixmag survey and look at more typical social survey data: surveys of physical capacity, for example, routinely ask people whether they can (a) walk to the shops (b) walk to the Post Office (c) walk to the nearest bus stop, and so on down to (j) or (k). All, in theory, capable of being modelled logically – but perhaps only in theory.)

2. Stick to the theme
Alternatively, we could begin by taking a view as to the key concepts which a data source is about – in this case, psychoactive consumption, feelings about psychoactive consumption, consequences of psychoactive consumption, and sexual behaviour – and draw the line at anything beyond those concepts. On this assumption the fact that the survey covers misadventures consequent on drug use would be within scope, but the list of misadventures given above wouldn’t be: that’s part of the data that researchers will find when they look at the data source itself, not part of the conceptual ‘catalogue’ that we’re building. The advantage of this is that it’s conceptually very ‘clean’ and makes it that much clearer what a source is about; the disadvantage is obviously that it cuts off some ways in to the data and hides some information.

3. Include black boxes
What I’ve got at the moment – following the principle of using the definitions supplied by the source – is an ontology in which some concepts are defined and others are undefined (black boxes). For instance, I’ve got a concept of Job loss, but all that OWL ‘knows’ about it is that it’s a type of Misadventure (which may be consequent on drug use) – which is in turn a type of Life event, (which is a type of event that happens to one person). This would allow anyone searching for events consequent on drug use to get to job loss as a type of misadventure, but wouldn’t let them get to drug-related misadventure from job loss – unless they happened to enter the exact name of the ‘job loss’ concept. I’m coming to believe that this is unsatisfactory: we should define the model in terms of what a data source is about. This means that we’ve got to either take a narrow, domain-specific view or take the view that each source gives us one piece of a much larger picture – in which case we’re inevitably committed to modelling the world. But the ‘black box’ option isn’t really sustainable.

Cloudbuilding (1)

This one’s about work.

I’m currently documenting the concepts underlying the 2005 Mixmag Drug Survey using Protege. Here’s why:

The documentation of social science datasets on a conceptual level, so as to make multiple datasets comprehensible within a shared conceptual framework, is inherently problematic: the concepts on which the data of the social sciences are constructed are imprecise, contested and mutable, with key concepts defined differently by different sources. When a major survey release is published, for example, the accompanying metadata often includes not only a definition of key terms, but discussion of how and why the definitions have changed since the previous release. This information is of crucial importance to the social scientist, both as a framework for understanding statistical data and as a body of social data in its own right.

It follows that we cannot think in terms of ironing out inconsistencies between social science datasets and resolving ambiguities. Rather, documenting the datasets must include documenting the definitions of the conceptual framework on which the datasets are built, however imprecise or inappropriate these concepts might appear in retrospect. This will also involve preserving – and exposing – the variations between different sources, or successive releases from a single source.

There are currently two main approaches to conceptually-oriented data documentation. A ‘top down’ approach is exemplified by the European Language Social Sciences Thesaurus (ELSST). The Madiera portal allows researchers to explore ELSST and access European survey data which has been linked to ELSST keywords. The limitations of the top-down approach can be gauged from ELSST’s concepts relating to drug use. Drug Abuse, Drug Addiction, Illegal Drugs and Drug Effects are all ‘leaf’ concepts – headings which have no subheadings under them. However, they are in different parts of the overall ELSST tree: for example, Drug Abuse is under Social Problems->Abuse, while Drug Effects is under Biology->Pharmacology. Although the hierarchy is augmented by a list of ‘related’ concepts, to some extent facilitating horizontal as well as vertical navigation, the hierarchy inevitably makes some types of enquiry easier than others. Anyone using the ELSST ‘tree’ will be visually reminded of the affinities identified by ELSST’s authors between Pharmacology and Physiology, or between Drug Abuse and Child Abuse. These problems follow from the initial design choice of a single conceptual hierarchy.

This approach to classification has recently come under criticism. Advocates of ‘bottom-up’ approaches argue that top-down taxonomies like the Dewey Decimal System or ELSST are an artificial imposition on the world of knowledge, which is better represented as a set of individual acts of labelling or ‘tagging’. It is argued that the ‘trees’ of hierarchical taxonomies can be replaced with a pile of ‘leaves’.

One successful ‘bottom-up’ approach is the framework for documenting survey data developed by the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI). The DDI standard makes it possible to search on keywords associated with surveys, sections of surveys and individual questions; the short text of individual questions is also searchable. Searches of DDI metadata can also be run from the Madiera portal: a search on ‘marijuana’, for instance, brings back short text items including the following:

- Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (Switzerland, 1990)

Smoking cannabis should be legal? Q2.31
- Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (Scotland, 2001)

- Eurobarometer 37.0 (EU-wide, 1992)

Clearly, this way in to the data makes it easy for a well-prepared researcher to track the use of particular concepts ‘in the wild’ (in vivo concepts). However, this gain comes at the cost of some information. There is wide variation both in the terminology used in the surveys and in the concepts to which they refer. In one survey smoking cannabis might be a type of petty crime; in others it might figure as a type of leisure activity or a potential health risk. These conceptual differences are reflected in the vocabulary used by data sources – and by researchers. Depending on context, three researchers using ‘marijuana’, ‘hashish’ and ‘cannabis’ as search terms may be asking for the same data or for three different sets of data.

Neither the ‘top-down’ nor the ‘bottom-up’ approach articulates the conceptual assumptions which underlie the construction of a dataset – assumptions expressed both in the definition of in vivo concepts and in relationships between them. Rather than leaving much of this conceptual information undocumented (the DDI approach) or encoding one ‘correct’ set of assumptions while excluding or sidelining others (the ELSST approach), we propose to offer a coherent hierarchy of in vivo concepts for each individual source, based on the definitions (explicit and implicit) used in each source. Comparing the in vivo conceptual hierarchies used in multiple datasets will enable researchers both to see where concepts are directly comparable and to see where – and how – their definitions diverge and overlap.

To document hierarchies of in vivo concepts, we shall use description logic and the Semantic Web language OWL-DL (Web Ontology Language – Description Logic). OWL-DL makes it possible to formulate a precise logical specification of concepts such as

- use of cannabis (either marijuana or hashish) in the month prior to the survey
- use of either Valium or temazepam, at any time
- seizures of Class A drugs by HM Customs in the financial year 2004/5

At least, that’s the idea. Now wait for part 2…

Nor mine, now

I nearly installed Hyperwords this morning; the only reason I didn’t is that I haven’t moved to Firefox 1.5 yet (and don’t intend to until I’m confident it won’t break any of the extensions I’m already using). And, in principle, it looks great:

With the Hyperwords Firefox Extension installed just select any text and a menu appears. You can search major search engines, look things up in reference sites, check dictionary definitions, translate, email quickly and much more.

So why does the thought of actually using it give me the creeps? Alex is similarly ambivalent:

In principle, it’s a handy tool. But I would have to overcome a few personal adoption barriers before I started using it on a regular basis. As a consumer, I can see the appeal of opening up texts to interact with the rest of the Web; but as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control. I suspect that disposition colors the way I read things on the Web; I like my documents to feel fixed, not fluid. And the Web feels squishy enough as it is. That, and somehow the premise of cracking open someone else’s document with a toolbox of Web services feels like a kind of violation. This is undoubtedly my own personal neurotic hangup.

Well, if it is, it’s mine too. Mark Bernstein gets some of it:

In the very early days of hypertext research, people worried a lot about hand-crafted links. “How will we ever afford to put in all those links?” We also worried about how we’d ever manage to afford to digitize stuff for the Web, not to mention paying people to create original Web pages. Overnight, we discovered that we’d got the sign wrong: people would pay for the privilege of making Web sites. The problem isn’t the ‘tyranny’ of the links, and replacing it with the tyranny of the link server might not be a great solution.


Authors don’t offer navigation options to be “useful”; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. Argumentation seeks understanding, not merely access.

Let’s put some of that together: cracking open someone else’s document with a toolbox of Web services; the tyranny of the link server; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. In other words, Hyperwords doesn’t extend existing hyperlink practice but undermines it. In the Hyperwords world you’ll no longer read a document, you’ll mine it for information – or rather, mine it for jumping-off points for retrieving information from authoritative sources. (Or retrieving whatever other stuff you may want to retrieve.)

Alex mentioned Xanadu, but I don’t think Hyperwords is a step in that direction. If anything, it’s a step backwards. (One of Xanadu’s key words is “author-based”.) Hyperlinks and the Web of dialogic, socially-produced content go together just fine; as Mark says, mass amateurism is already providing an answer to the question of where all those links are going to come from. It’s messy and incomplete, but it’s here – and it’s, well, ours (as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control). You can see two visions of the Web here: the mass amateurisation of writing as against the ‘consumer’-oriented, authority-led, broadcast Web. Hyperwords ostensibly enhances horizontal, transverse linkage, but its effect would be to pull the Web further towards broadcast mode – albeit an ‘empowered’, roll-your-own broadcast mode.

Can’t keep quiet for long – I’m a human being!
Can’t help singing this song – I’m a human being!
You won’t listen to me,
I’m not an authority…

- Steve Mason, “Eclipse”

If nothing’s right, what’s wrong?

David Mills is a liar. At least, he is if he’s telling the truth.

David Mills, under police interrogation, July 2004:

Silvio Berlusconi had decided to give me a sum of money in recognition of the way I had managed to protect him in the course of the judicial investigation

Mills volunteered this explanation when asked to explain the following letter, which he’d sent to his accountant in February 2004 (emphases added):

The brief relevant facts are these.In 1996 I ended up with a dividend from Mr B’s companies of around £1.5m after all the tax and fees had been paid. This was all done on a personal basis: I took the risk, and kept my partners right out of it. Wisely or otherwise, I informed my partners what I had done and, since it was a substantial windfall, offered to pay them (I think) around £50,000 or £100,000 each as what I though was a pretty generous gesture. Which shows you how you can be, as they insisted the transaction should be treated as a partnership profit. To avoid litigation (we had just merged with Withers) I agreed to put the money on deposit in my bank until they were satisfied that there would be no third part claim. By 2000 it was clear there would be no claim (I knew that all along) and the money was taken off deposit and paid out; I kept just under £500,000 out of what was then getting on for £2m.

So all that risk and cost for not very much. The greatest cost was leaving Withers. I was not asked to leave it, but felt so uncomfortable there, not least because my Mackenzie Mills partners had taken most of the benefit for none of the risk, that I really couldn’t stay. I spent 1998, 1999 and 2000 as a sole practitioner, and it was evident that the trials were going on, there would be lawyers to pay and there was always the risk of being charged with something – which is actually about to happen now as a result of the latest investigation, which you know about.

I kept in close touch with the B people, and they knew my circumstances. They knew, in particular, how my partners had taken most of the dividend; they also knew quite how much the way in which I had been able to give my evidence (I told no lies, but I turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly) had kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble that I would have landed him in if I had said all I knew.

At around the end of 1999, I was told I would receive money, which I could treat as a long term loan or a gift. $600,000 was put in a hedge fund and I was told it would be there if I needed it. (It was put in the fund because the person connected to the B organisations was someone I had discussed this fund with on many occasions, and it was a round about way of making the money available.) For obvious reasons of their own (I was at that stage still a prosecution witness, but my evidence had been given) it needed to be done discreetly. And this was a roundabout way.

At the end of 2000 I wanted to invest in another fund, and my bank made a loan of the amount, secured on my house etc., of around 650,000 euros. I paid it off by liquidating the $600,000. I attach a copy of the dollar account. I regarded the payment as a gift. What else could it be? I wasn’t employed, I wasn’t acting for them, I wasn’t doing anything for them, I had already given my evidence, but there was certainly the risk of future legal costs (as there have been) and a great deal of anxiety (as there certainly have been).

So Mills told his accountant that ‘the B organisation’ had put a large sum of money his way; when the Italian authorities asked him to clarify this, he explained that Silvio Berlusconi had given him a bung in recognition of service rendered. This all seems eminently consistent with the facts of the case, not least Mills’ long association with the ‘B organisation’ in question. But Mills now says that the February 2004 letter set out a hypothetical scenario (which he presumably intended his accountant to take as factual) and that the July 2004 statement was extracted under pressure. (His Italian lawyer, wary of annoying the investigating magistrates unnecessarily, now denies that Mills actually said this. But denial is very much the order of the day in this case. Diego Attanasio, who Mills now claims gave him the money in question, denies it; Berlusconi himself has denied ever meeting Mills and spoken darkly of someone “tak[ing] advantage of my name to protect himself from the tax authorities in his own country”.)

In any case, the best-case scenario for Mills and Jowell – the scenario that Mills is actually proposing – is that Mills lied to his own accountant, then lied to Italian magistrates who were investigating a serious financial crime. This is extraordinary. You’ve got to wonder, if the Berlusconi story was a lie, what on earth was Mills hiding?

The case has a couple of other interesting angles. One was pointed out yesterday by the estimable Craig Murray:

Tessa Jowell tells us she did nothing wrong. She merely signed documents to remortgage her home. She strongly asserted today that this was “a very normal thing to do, and certainly not illegal.”It is indeed not unusual to remortgage, though it was unusual that she remortgaged with an offshore bank. It is also unusual to remortgage for as much as £400,000. But it is very unusual indeed to remortgage for £400,000, then pay off the full loan, within a month, with spare cash.

What sort of people do such a thing? Well, money launderers. If you have £400,000 of cash not easily explained, you now have remortgage papers available to show where you got it.

Mills, as we’ve seen, has another explanation for this money-shuffling operation – he needed some money in a hurry (I wanted to invest in another fund, presumably one which wouldn’t accept new investors for much longer) and the loan provided it. This makes a certain amount of sense, although it’s not clear why he couldn’t have drawn on the hedge fund directly ($600,000 was put in a hedge fund and I was told it would be there if I needed it). But you do wonder how often this kind of contingency could be expected to arise. If you’re David Mills, apparently, quite often. Tessa Jowell and David Mills bought their house in 1979. There was no mortgage at this stage – they bought the house outright, then borrowed money on it. Repeatedly. They took out a mortgage in 1987 and paid it off in 1996. In 2000 they took out the mortgage which is now under scrutiny, which they paid off (to the tune of £400,000) two months later. In 2002 they took out yet another mortgage, which is still outstanding. Mills has also raised a series of mortgages (in 1986, 2000 and 2002) on the couple’s second home, which he bought outright in 1984. This is speculation at best – hocking your property, investing the loan and hoping to come out ahead when it’s time to pay it back. The 2000 mortgage doesn’t even have this justification; it’s hard to see any rationale for it other than moving money from account A to account B. If Tessa Jowell thinks this is a very normal thing to do, her standards of normality aren’t those I’d expect of a Labour MP.

Then there’s the Ministerial Code of Conduct. As Craig notes, the question of whether Jowell’s conduct complies with the Code isn’t all that complex:

the Code precludes acceptance of gifts. That is what Mills claims this money was. As this “Gift” (note the use of a capital ‘G’) went to pay off a mortgage which was 50% in Jowell’s name and which she had signed, she also accepted it.

To be precise, the Code (which you can download from here, if you really want to) says:

It is a well established and recognised rule that no Minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation. The same principle applies if gifts etc are offered to a member of their family.

The operative words here are would, or might appear to.

But there’s yet another wrinkle, which Brian has pointed out. Gus O’Donnell, who is currently investigating the case against Jowell, has no authority to do so under the Ministerial Code:

The Code is not a rulebook, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers.

As it stands, the Code is there primarily to be complied with voluntarily. If this fails, the only recourse is to the Prime Minister himself.

Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.

The ethical buck stops not with O’Donnell but with Blair, in other words – Blair, whose personal relations with Berlusconi are good enough for them to have had a holiday together.

If Mills’ past relations with Berlusconi kicked this story off, it may be Blair’s which finish it. We should be clear at this point just how political the underlying story is – or rather, how political it isn’t. It’s true, but not entirely relevant, that there’s an election coming up in Italy; the investigations into Berlusconi’s business practices have been going on since before Berlusconi returned to power in 2001. It’s true that the independence of Italian investigating magistrates allows them – or rather, obliges them – to investigate any possible criminal offence which comes to their notice: it is this feature of the Italian judicial system which led to Tangentopoli, the landslide of corruption cases which swept away Italy’s old political class. And it’s true that, while magistrates are barred from any party affiliation, in practice many are committed opponents of Berlusconi and believe that bringing him down will be a service to the country. What’s not true – and in many cases grossly defamatory – is that the investigations are a political operation, a strategy to advance Communist interests by judicial means. (Grotesquely, Berlusconi has even characterised Tangentopoli in these terms.) Italian politics is even more complicated than it looks (and this post is long enough already), but I will say that, while Berlusconi is certainly on the Right, the split between those who want justice done at whatever cost and those who want to let sleeping dogs lie is not in any sense a Left/Right split. Dave (in the excellent post which gave me most of these links) has it about right:

“Italy’s independent magistrates have targeted Mr. Berlusconi for many years, in what he regards as a politically motivated vendetta.” My emphases. That’s good writing.

This has the potential to be a highly explosive story, with implications for Blair’s position as well as Jowell’s – which almost certainly means that all concerned will handle it like an unexploded bomb, and nothing at all will happen. There was a straw in the wind two Decembers ago:

prosecutors made a tentative request to extradite Mr Mills in December 2004. But the Home Office responded by going to the Ministry of Justice in Rome – via the Italian embassy in London – rather than dealing with the prosecuting authorities. It is claimed that that meant they involved the government of Mr Berlusconi, which had a direct interest in the case.The Home Office denied any wrongdoing. In a statement it said: “In late 2004, the Serious Fraud Office received a request from the Milan Prosecutor for legal advice about the circumstances in which David Mills could be extradited under UK law, based upon possible charges against him. The request was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, who took legal advice which was passed by the Home Office to the Italian Embassy in May 2005, since extradition requests are normally handled on diplomatic channels. During this process, which was handled at Home Office official level in the routine way, there was no contact between the Home Office and Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) at any level, or indeed with David Mills.”

Whether Jowell was told is hardly the point. The SFO by this stage knew the name of David Mackenzie Mills well; specifically, they knew he had for several years been in deep with a dubious Italian businessman called Silvio Berlusconi. And yet the Home Office, fielding a question about Mills sent to the SFO from the independent Milan Prosecutor, sent the answer to the Italian government. If this wasn’t a deliberate tip-off it was quite staggeringly incompetent.

But perhaps incompetence was all that it was. And perhaps David Mills is telling the truth when he says he’s a liar. We may know soon.

earlier this month the Home Office authorised the obtaining of two warrants by the police to search David Mills’ property on behalf of the Milan Prosecutor, in accordance with UK law and the UK’s international obligations. Neither David Mills nor Tessa Jowell nor DCMS were informed of this before the warrants were executed. Once the warrants had been executed, senior Home Office officials informed the DCMS of the factual position in relation to the warrant.

Tobias Jones:

Mr Berlusconi’s lawyer, Mr Ghedini, was asked this week whether he thought that Mr Mills was foolish or dishonest. “Neither one nor the other,” he replied. “I would simply define him as a person who was very frightened.”

Not weak enough

Will Davies is cross with David Cameron:

he seems to have invented his own more radical way of by-passing politics. His mantra is to introduce ‘a new approach’. Where Blair can claim the ghost of Keir Hardie and the strategic acumen of McKinseys, Cameron has adopted a view from nowhere at all. All he wants is a ‘new approach’, which could potentially exclude everything we’ve ever thought was politics, from policies, to media interviews, to empirical consensus on social problems. Asked whether his commitment to the environment might lead him towards policies to cut air travel, Cameron answered that this would not be the right ‘approach’ to the problem. Not only does this keep his policies hidden, it obscures a priori questions as to what the hell he’s doing in public life. Is he even a politician at all?

I think this is perceptive, but also risks misunderstanding and underestimating Cameron’s approach. Firstly and most fundamentally, Cameron’s a Conservative – meaning that he’ll do, say or think whatever it takes to get the Conservative Party into power. The last few Conservative leaders have assumed that they needed to replace ideologically-driven Thatcherism either with more of the same or with a more traditional version of ideological Conservatism (cf. Howard’s flirtation with Powellism). Cameron seems to have realised that there’s a deeper vein of Conservatism that’s not ideologically-driven at all.

Secondly and relatedly, Cameron’s oriented towards politics as culture and philosophy rather than project – which is to say, he’s oriented towards Labour’s weak spot. Even a baggy, miscellaneous, sacred-cow-free Conservatism is likely to have more internal coherence than New Labour. New Labour’s coherence is all in the project – an intransigently future-oriented project which draws much of its power from its continual attacks on the party’s own culture and philosophy. The justification for this approach was that it would take the party on a forced march into the terrain of middle-Englander common sense. But there are two ironies here. One is that this terrain is, if anything, even more alien to New Labour’s managerialists than the party’s own despised culture; witness Mandelson’s ghastly attempts to evoke grassroots patriotism at the 1997 election, flag, bulldog and all. There was always a danger that the party wouldn’t know the promised land when they saw it, in other words. The second irony is that the forced march was never going to stop there in any case: to change metaphors, once you’ve started throwing the floorboards into the furnace it’s hard to stop the train. In other words, the very coherence of New Labour as a project is rapidly taking the party into areas where it loses any possible coherence as a culture – and loses touch with that very ‘middle England’ for whose sake the whole exercise was supposedly undertaken. Cameron’s refusal to champion any kind of unifying project is a timely and appropriate response. If I were a Labour MP in a pre-1997 Tory seat – and plenty of them are – I’d find Cameron’s nebulous ‘approach’ extremely worrying.

Thirdly, we are not in a pre-election period (although sometimes it’s easy to forget). Cameron’s main priority now is to oppose effectively – and, given the problems the New Labour project is already creating for the Labour Party, the most effective way he can oppose Labour is by supporting Blair, just as Baldwin supported MacDonald (or the rope the hanged man).

Cameron’s an idiot – and a Tory idiot, at that – but I think for the Conservatives his ‘approach’ makes a lot of sense. By rallying apolitical Tories and ex-Tories, by exploiting the contradictions of the New Labour project and by driving a wedge between Blair and his party, Cameron’s got the chance to do New Labour a great deal of damage in the next couple of years. As I said earlier, at this stage in the game that’s all they deserve.

This is your past

Better late than never:

Asked if he would press ahead and put the bill into its committee stages, as well as stay in office, if the bill received its second reading only with Tory support, he said: “To get through the legislation and say ‘now I should quit’ – I don’t think that is very sensible.”

John McDonnell, secretary of the Campaign Group, reacted angrily: “Mr Blair is cutting himself loose from the Labour party and forming a national coalition government with the Tories. If he can do it on this issue, he can do it on others”.

The only trouble with this argument is that Blair cut himself loose from the Labour Party years ago. As I wrote in 1997,

Blair is not simply right-wing, in the sense that Gaitskell and John Smith were right-wingers: indeed, Blair has dismissed the Gaitskellites as the right wing of ‘old socialism’. To find another Labour leader so eager to meet the Conservative agenda halfway you would have to go back as far as the leader of another neologism, National Labour; and Blair, unlike MacDonald, has taken almost the whole of the Labour Party with him.

Which is precisely the tragedy of the Labour Party. Thankfully the Tories have now given up the futile quest for habitable ground to the Right of New Labour – and found a leader capable of playing Baldwin to Blair’s MacDonald. (Playing him for a fool and wrecking his party, that is.) I’m afraid it’s all that either Blair or the Labour Party deserves now.

(But remember, from 1931 to 1945 was only fourteen years.)

All the things I could do

But (for new readers, this is point 2; point 1 is here, and you should go and read it immediately), it’s becoming clear that Web 2.0 is all about the walled gardens. As I wrote in that post, In the context of social software, when I use a word like ‘enclose’ – or a word like ‘monetise’ – it means something quite specific and entirely negative: it’s a red-flag word. Which means that, oddly, when I started reading Russell Beattie’s WTF 2.0 I found a lot to agree with.

The worst thing about all the Web 2.0 hype is the complete loss of business perspective. There’s a few companies out there that seem to get it but just about every other new website I’ve seen lately is nothing but features parading as businesses. Sure, these guys get to be entered in the “Flip It Quick Acquisition Lottery”, but beyond that, none seem to be creating anything of any real value.

“Features masquerading as businesses”, the “Flip It Quick Acquisition Lottery” – all good stuff. Except that Russell’s objections aren’t quite the same as mine.

You can create a new website, fill it with all the goodness in the world, be good to your users, and be a good netizen and use every open standard there is while you’re at it, if at the end of the day your users didn’t put money into your bank account, it’s a useless waste of time for everyone involved. I mean, hey, if you want to create the next non-profit service like Wikipedia, all the more power too you. But if you want to get VC cash, an office in downtown Palo Alto, do a bunch of development, attract lots of users and pretend you’re a business? Then act like one, create something of real value and make some real money from it.

“Real value”, “real money”. You don’t have to be a Marxist to suspect that those aren’t necessarily the same thing (although, to be honest, it does help). In the next paragraph Russell draws a hazy distinction between the two himself:

look at the Weblog federations for example. They’re making money like people have done for a hundred years or so: hire writers, sell some ads, publish using standard technologies. Nothing too innovative, but they’re making money and I totally dig that. Then again, those writers are generating real value, IMHO, so there’s something there to make money from.

Russell commends the Weblog federations, whoever they are (didn’t they have trouble with the spice routes a while back?), for making money. He then stresses that they’re also creating real value, which means there’s something there to make money from – but ‘real value’ is qualified rather worryingly with ‘IMHO’, suggesting that it may or may not be real. At the end of the day the money’s real, though, and Russell digs that.

Russell then reminds us that things are different in the ‘mobile world’. (If your immediate reaction to this sentence was “Damn right, things are obscenely expensive in the mobile world”, or words to that effect, you’re ahead of me already.)

I deal with companies every day who have no qualms about charging 25 cents to send 160 characters of data from one person to another, or who have no problems charging $3.00 for a 10kb .gif image or a bad .midi version of a popular song, or even up to $10.00 for a small Java clone of Tetris – a 20 year old game. Unlike the web world, the mobile world is accustomed to charging for every thing that has the slightest bit of value. The difference between the markets couldn’t be more drastic. I know of a mobile chat site that’s on many carrier decks that’s a great example of this. To use it, you need to sign up to a subscription for $3.00 a month, and in return you get a URL which links to a very basic WAP based chat. This would be okay in my mind if there was some sort of extra special functionality, but there’s not.

Follow this reasoning. Money is being charged; in Russell’s mind this would be okay if there was ‘extra special functionality’ involved; but there isn’t. So, by implication, it’s not okay. The money is real, the value isn’t. An equally poor service which was free would be better. A better service which was free would be better still. Right? Well…

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this is a bad service or a rip off – they are providing a chat app as promised and it works. It’s just the fact that this particular app could be written by any developer in the Valley in less than an hour, and yet they easily have thousands if not millions of paying subscribers world wide.

The part about how the value isn’t real and it’s not okay? Forget that. The value is real, obviously, because they are providing a chat app as promised and it works. In other words, the measure of the value of a service is the fact that people are willing to pay for it. And if people aren’t paying for a service that has value to them (because it does stuff that they want it to do), then that’s just wrong and we shouldn’t encourage them.

Why will people gladly pay $3.00 for a basic mobile chat site and not pay anything for a decent web service? I think it’s mostly because of expectations, and honestly, the naivete of many of the people trying to start “businesses” on the web today.

Really, the hype around Web 2.0 has got to stop until all concerned stop acting like a bunch of hippies and start concentrating on what really matters, which is of course money:

I really do think there should be a litmus test for new web apps launched from now on – something very basic and if they don’t pass, they don’t qualify for any buzz or linkage. It’s a simple test: Will they take my credit card? That’s it. I don’t care if they have advertisers or sponsors or god knows what else, all I want to see is a place where I can type in my credit card for some service.

Money: that’s what Russell wants. Or rather, that’s what he wants to be charged. After all, if you’re giving it away, it can’t have very much value.

Ultimately, for Russell, there are two very simple questions which software developers need to be able to answer if they’re going to have any hope of jumping the Web 2.0 train. Do you want to get VC cash and an office in downtown Palo Alto, or not? And if not, WTF is wrong with you?

Talk to my machine

Today, two loosely-related points about social software. Here’s the first. When I heard about coComment, it seemed like a really good idea; I signed up not once but twice (once for each of my main blogs). (Yes, I’ve got more than two blogs. Sort of. It’s a long story.) But I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with it since then, and Ben Metcalfe has explained why.

What I hadn’t realised was that the coComment bookmarklet submit[s] the comment to both the coComment server and the original blog server. Consequently,

at the point of submission your comment is essentially semantically forked – with a version going into coComment and an identical version going into the blog server.

Ugh. As Ben says, if the blog administrator – or, in the case of sites which allow comment editing, the commenter hirself – chooses to edit the content of the comment, it isn’t reflected in the coComment representation of the post conversation. The possibilities for abuse are obvious – look at the comments thread below this post.

What’s worse is that the coComment representation of discussion is only of those who have also used coComment to submit their comment. Ugh^2. This is yet another attempt at snowball-effect marketing, in other words: coComment becomes useful when it gains momentum, which it gets from adopters (like me) who started using it before it was useful, in the hope that it would gain sufficient momentum to become useful.

To which I can only say, sod that for a game of soldiers. Flickr would still be useful for me if I were the only Flickr user in the world; Simpy would still be useful if I were the only user. And so on – it’s part of the definition of social software that it’s useful for everyone, even for a single user with no interest in its ‘socialness’. First you build functionality that works, then you extract value from the use of that functionality, then you expose that value back to the users. (Or user.) And, er, that’s it. At no point in the process do you say “hold on, we need to get more people in here before we go on”.

It could have been so different – although I confess that a profound ignorance of the underlying technology is lurking behind that ‘could’. When I comment on a blog that I don’t follow, what I want is to grab a comment feed from that specific post and look at it along with other comment feeds from blog posts I’ve commented on (excluding blogs whose post feeds I read – but in the first instance those exclusions could be managed manually). And, er, that’s it – I don’t want or need to bring a third party into the equation.

Apps like coComment are street performers – without a big crowd looking the same way there’s no event. Apps like Simpy are Katamari meetings: the crowd is the event. It’s obvious to me which of the two looks more like ‘social software’. Unfortunately it’s also obvious which of the two is easier to monetise.

Which brings us to the second point…

And was Jerusalem builded here?

[Updated and edited 26/2]

In 1997 – shortly after Labour came to power – a London-based lawyer named David Mills received a sum of around half a million euro, which was paid into an off-shore account. It has been suggested to Mills that the money came from Silvio Berlusconi; Mills himself has referred in writing to his work for ‘the B people’ and a payment from ‘the B organisation’. Mills, however, maintains that the money came from a southern Italian businessman called Attanasio, and that the stuff about ‘the B people’ was merely a hypothetical scenario, not a description of anything that had actually happened. Unhelpfully, Attanasio has denied being involved, claiming that he was in prison on corruption charges at the time the money was paid over. Berlusconi himself has expressed displeasure, effectively accusing Mills of trying to use his name to distract attention from his own fraudulent accounting – a charge which Mills rebutted with all the affronted dignity he could muster.

Oddly, you won’t find much about the background to this case in David Lane’s 2004 book Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power. Lane writes for the Economist, and the book drew on the magazine’s 2003 dossier on Berlusconi (reproduced here, among other places). In places, however, the book drew on the dossier rather selectively. Here’s a passage from chapter 3 (‘Corruption’), about an English court hearing at which Berlusconi’s representatives attempted to block the transfer to Italy of potentially incriminating documents:

The court in London heard that the applicants and others were alleged by the Italian judicial authorities to have been involved in a huge fraud whereby at least 100 billion lire had been surreptitiously removed from [Berlusconi's company] Fininvest and used for criminal purposes. Prosecutions were already afoot against Berlusconi for bribing revenue inspectors … and for making illicit donations of 10 billion lire to Bettino Craxi, the former prime minister and leader of the Italian Socialist Party.At the heart of the four days of hearings in London were documents held by CMM Corporate Services at an address in Regent Street. (CMM stood for Carnelutti, a Milanese law firm, and MacKenzie Mills, the surname of a British solicitor who was a partner of the London arm of the Milanese firm.) The Serious Fraud Office … had implemented a request for judicial assistance. A search warrant had been issued by the Bow Street Metropolitan Magistrate on 15 April 1996 and executed that same day.

The authorities in London believed that they needed to act quickly. … The documents at the centre of the legal battle had previously been kept in Switzerland and evidence had come to light that one of CMM’s directors had required those responsible for holding them in Switzerland to transfer them to CMM in London. The director of CMM had given the instructions at the beginning of April 1995, shortly after letters requesting judicial assistance had been sent to Switzerland from Italy. If there was an innocent explanation for this, observed the British judge, none had ever been provided.

(British judicial understatement – it’s the best sort.)

No prizes for guessing the name of the “British solicitor”. Here’s how the same episode is covered in the Economist dossier:

Following leads from their investigation of bank accounts under Mr Craxi’s control, prosecutors eventually discovered a secret and substantial network of Fininvest companies, incorporated in the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Channel Islands. Tens of billions of lire had flowed through bank accounts held in these companies’ names.In their search for Fininvest’s black funds, magistrates sent requests to foreign authorities for assistance (known as rogatorie in Italian), especially to Switzerland where many of the secret bank accounts were. This was a long procedure, involving judiciaries, ministries and embassies of both countries, and the banks where evidence of the alleged wrongdoing lay.

On March 8th and 24th 1995, magistrates sent rogatorie to Switzerland. On April 10th 1995, Tanya Maynard, then a director of CMM Corporate Services (CMM), told those in Switzerland holding the records and papers for the network of Fininvest companies to transfer them to London. CMM was a British-registered company, incorporated in 1982 under the name of So.Ge.S International. The change of name took place in 1989, and CMM was dissolved in 1997.

According to company filings, the owner of CMM in April 1995 was Edsaco Holdings (UK) Ltd (Edsaco), a subsidiary of UBS, a Swiss bank, which had bought CMM in June 1994 for £750,000. One of Ms Maynard’s fellow CMM directors, Mr Mills, the husband of Tessa Jowell, had received £675,000 for his CMM stake. Two months earlier he had increased his stake in CMM to 90%, when he bought a 65% stake held in the name of a Milanese company, run by Studio Carnelutti, a Milan law firm. Mr Mills was a partner of Carnelutti & Co, the London affiliate of the Milan firm, until he left in 1988 to set up his own practice. Mr Mills and the Studio Carnelutti company in Milan had incorporated CMM as a company to provide services to administer other companies. In other words, it was partly a name-plate operation.

Italian magistrates asked the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in London to obtain the records and papers moved from Switzerland. In October 1996 Berlusconi petitioned the High Court in London to stop them getting the documents obtained by the SFO. The magistrates needed these documents as evidence in the case of illegal donations to Mr Craxi, whereas Berlusconi claimed the alleged offence was political. “I just cannot see corrupt political contributors…as ‘political prisoners,’” concluded Lord Justice Simon Brown, a judge in the case, though he added at the end of his judgment that his words should not “raise the least presumption of guilt”.

Of Ms Maynard’s instructions to those holding the documents in Switzerland to transfer them to London, Lord Brown said: “ If there was innocent explanation for this, none has ever been provided.” In the SFO’s application for a search warrant, a senior SFO official had stated: “Those persons running CMM/Edsaco must be aware that what they have done in managing the companies…is fraudulent and might render them liable to prosecution in Italy.” Mr Mills denies any wrongdoing.

That’s not all the dossier has to say about Mills. He and Berlusconi go way back. The Guardian describes Mills’ relationship with Berlusconi as beginning ‘within six years’ of his marriage to Tessa Jowell in 1979; the Economist suggests that it began rather earlier:

Mr Mills gave evidence on Berlusconi’s behalf … at a hearing in London in March 2003. Asked when his professional relationship with Fininvest began, Mr Mills replied in 1989 or 1990, and denied any relationship as early as 1981 or 1982.Based on company filings in Britain, these statements were untrue. Mr Mills attributes this to “a failure of memory”. In March 1980 Mr Mills incorporated Reteitalia Ltd in Britain, as a 90% subsidiary of Reteitalia Srl, Berlusconi’s film and TV rights company, set up in Italy that year. Fininvest Srl held the other 10%. In other words, Reteitalia Ltd was a Fininvest company. Between May 1981 and September 1983, Berlusconi was one of its four directors, all of whom were resident in Italy. Mr Mills was Reteitalia Ltd’s company secretary from incorporation until 1989, when CMM took over.

In 1985 Mr Mills also set up Publitalia International Ltd in Britain for Fininvest, and signed the form appointing Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi’s close friend, as a director. In 1986 Reteitalia Ltd changed its name to Reteeuropa Ltd. A few months later, Mr Mills set up another company in Britain called Reteitalia Ltd, of which he became a director. This company changed its name to Reteitalia (UK) Ltd in 1988 and back again to Reteitalia Ltd in 1990.

The first Reteitalia Ltd (ie, the one that became Reteeuropa Ltd) bought film rights from third parties, which it then sold to other Berlusconi companies. It was a tax wheeze. Between March 1980 and December 1987, Reteitalia/Reteeuropa Ltd made $75m in pre-tax profits, which escaped British tax as the firm was deemed to be non-resident in Britain for tax purposes. This was because, while registered in Britain, it did not trade in Britain, and its registered owner and directors were not resident in Britain. After changes in British tax rules in 1988 eliminated this type of tax-avoidance scheme, Reteeuropa Ltd sold all its films rights in 1989 and wound down its activity in 1990 to very small fraction of its previous level. It made total losses of $53m between 1989-90, after the tax law had changed.

The second Reteitalia Ltd also bought and sold film rights, but, unlike its former namesake, it did trade in Britain and had some British directors, including Mr Mills. It was therefore subject to British tax, but made only meagre profits, followed by a loss in 1990. It, too, sold all its film rights in 1989.

So Mills was simply the man on the spot in Britain, helping Berlusconi to exploit a loophole in British tax law. This wasn’t, perhaps, the most seemly occupation for a lawyer – let alone a lawyer married to a rising politician – but it’s not as if Mills was deeply involved in Berlusconi’s money-laundering activities. Oh, wait a minute…

These [the two British 'Reteitalia's] were just two of 29 companies in Fininvest “Group B”. The expression Group B was used to “differentiate the official companies of Group A from those which, although also controlled by Fininvest, should not appear as group companies and thus be kept out of the consolidated accounts”, Mr Mills told magistrates. On CMM’s summary sheet for each of the companies in Group B, were the words “very discreet”, an aide-mémoire to keep secret the link with the Fininvest group.None of the 29 companies had any employees or any administrative infrastructure of their own. Trust companies acted as the registered agents for the companies’ shares (which were mainly in bearer form) and leading financial institutions in the Bahamas, Britain, Jersey, Luxembourg and Switzerland acted as bankers. Mr Mills claimed to the registered agents that he was the beneficial owner of three of the 29 companies. Mr G Foscale, Berlusconi’s cousin, was presented as the beneficial owner of All Iberian.

CMM served as company secretary to 17 of the 29 companies. Ms Maynard was a director of Century One Entertainment and Universal One, and also of All Iberian. Mr Mills told Milanese prosecutors that Fininvest managed, directed and financed the operations of the All Iberian group. In other words, CMM was an interlocutor for Fininvest with bankers and registered agents of the Group B companies.

And so it goes on. What the Economist (and Lane’s book) describes is a mind-bogglingly complex network of business and accounting entities, operating on the outer limits of legality and devoted to money-laundering and bribery. And the Economist (although not Lane’s book) gives rather more than a walk-on part to David Mills.

There’s more from Dave here, here and here. But of course, we should bear in mind that Mr Mills denies any wrongdoing.

Update It appears that the money paid to Mills was on-shored, if that’s the word, by the interesting device of raising an appropriately-sized loan on Mills’ house and then immediately repaying it by emptying out the off-shore account. What’s particularly interesting is that Mills didn’t have sole ownership of the house in question. His co-owner – and co-signatory to the loan – was of course Tessa Jowell. Who says:

I signed a charge over our jointly-owned home to support a loan made to my husband alone by his bank. I am satisfied that no conflict of interest arose out of this transaction in relation to my ministerial duties.

So that’s all right then.

Can we turn around?

The first thing that has to be said about the “glorification of terrorism” law is that it’s appallingly ill-written legislation. Here it is, courtesy of ‘Unity’:

Encouragement of Terrorism (1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) he publishes a statement or causes another to publish a statement on his behalf; and
(b) at the time he does so—
(i) he knows or believes, or
(ii) he has reasonable grounds for believing, that members of the public to whom the statement is or is to be published are likely to understand it as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences.

(2) For the purposes of this section the statements that are likely to be understood by members of the public as indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences include every statement which—

(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and
(b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated in existing circumstances.

(3) For the purposes of this section the questions what it would be reasonable to believe about how members of the public will understand a statement and what they could reasonably be expected to infer from a statement must be determined having regard both—

(a) to the contents of the statement as a whole; and
(b) to the circumstances and manner in which it is or is to be published.

(4) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsections (1) and (2)—

(a) whether the statement relates to the commission, preparation or instigation of one or more particular acts of terrorism or Convention offences, of acts of terrorism or Convention offences of a particular description or of acts of terrorism or Convention offences generally; and
(b) whether any person is in fact encouraged or induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate any such act or offence.

I can’t be certain, but I think what’s happening here is that 1 (b) (ii) is qualified by 2 (a) and (b). There’s the bit about having ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ – a kind of ‘shouting Terror in a crowded theatre’ clause; then there are criteria for the kind of statement which, the government believes, would give somebody reasonable grounds, etc. These criteria are twofold: you have to (a) glorify something which (b) could be emulated. The whole is then dunked in a bath of circumstantial vagueness with 3 (a) and (b) and 4 (a): following these clauses, we could reasonably see a scholarly discussion of the case for assassinating Charles Clarke go unpunished while vague but inflammatory sloganeering is punished as encouraging terrorism. Of course, in many cases vague but inflammatory sloganeering could have been punished anyway – but not reliably, and (crucially) not as terrorism. The importance of the ‘terrorism’ label is underlined by the reference to “Convention offences”: a weird ragbag of offences, defined (or at least enumerated) here: explosives offences, hijacking, kidnapping and so forth. These are offences incorporated into British law in compliance with international (generally UN) conventions – hence the name. The offences enumerated appear already to be crimes in English and Scottish law; the effect of the ‘Convention offences’ labelling is to group them under the same heading as terrorist offences.

Executive summary of the new clauses: if you say anything that we think is liable to persuade other people that what we call terrorism isn’t as bad as we say it is, then you’re more or less a terrorist yourself – and, more to the point, you’re nicked.

As for what it is that our government calls terrorism, here’s the current legal definition:

1. – (1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where-(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

Let’s unscramble that. (Anyone else reminded of that Robert Heinlein story where the kid is given an insanely complicated task as part of an aptitude test, and gets full marks for telling the examiner it’s logically impossible?)

Terrorism equals: serious violence
or serious damage to property
or endangering life
or endangering the health or safety of ‘a section of the public’
or serious disruption of ‘an electronic system’
(OR threatening any of the above)
when the action involves a political, ideological or religious cause
and EITHER is intended to intimidate people or influence the government
OR involves the use of guns or explosives.

Got that? Simplifying slightly and stripping away weasel words like ‘serious’, the definition of terrorism we’re left with is:

an organised political group hurting people, smashing things up or hacking systems – or threatening to hurt people, smash things up or hack systems – for political goals. (Or using guns or explosives, for any reason – that’s right out.)

So, statements glorifying terrorism are any statements about terrorism that the government chooses to designate as such; and terrorism is any violent, disruptive or threatening political activity which the government chooses to designate as such.

As I wrote back here, this is not really about security; a government that was primarily concerned with threats to public safety would go about things a lot more quietly. This is a profoundly political strategy, which seems to be calculated to divide and demobilise (in the first instance) the Muslim community, seen as a potential source of opposition to the government. How better to divide a group against itself than by letting it be known that most members of the group are decent, law-abiding British citizens, but some are scheming alien terrorists who ought to be rounded up?


He said: “The new law will mean that if people are going to start celebrating acts of terrorism or condoning people who engage in terrorism, they will be prosecuted, and if they do not come from this country, they should not be in this country. We have free speech in this country, but you cannot abuse it.”He said yesterday’s vote represented a vital signal of strength “in circumstances where the threat is not just from the individual acts of terrorism, but the people who try to entice other people or recruit other people into doing it”.

Those people, they’re the ones we need to deal with. Not you, obviously, but… well, you know. Them. You know the ones. You wouldn’t happen to have anything you could tell us about them, would you? No? Not to worry. Mind how you go.

Update Shortly after writing the above paragraph, I read this. (Incidentally, the legality of Riz Ahmed’s detention seems extremely debatable. Schedule 7 of TACT(2000) would legitimise detention in the circumstances Riz describes, but only for the purpose of establishing whether or not he was a terrorist.)

Under the threat of “prolonging” my detention, I cooperated in allowing her to go through my wallet. She took detailed notes on all its contents. All of my bankcard details were noted down, as were the details on other people’s business cards I had in my wallet.

While searching through my wallet she asked me whether I intended to do more documentary films, specifically more political ones like The Road to Guantanamo. She asked “Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, you know, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?”. She also asked me what my political views were, what I thought about “the Iraq war and everything else that was going on”, whether the Iraq war was “right” in my view.She then asked me whether I would mind officers contacting me regularly in the future, “in case, for example, you might be in a café, and you overhear someone discussing illegal activities”.

You really can’t make it up.

The feeble and the bad

Here’s a curious coincidence (as predicted by Unity).

Passers-by stopped police officers to ask why the marchers were being allowed to carry banners threatening further suicide attacks in the city. One police officer replied: “Don’t worry. We are photographing them.

Here’s Blair:

there is another point, on which the right hon. Gentleman touched. Let me explain why I disagree so strongly with the position of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. He mentioned the terms of the amendment that he will support, which is about “the listener”. It does not cover written statements or images. In other words, it may deal with a sermon but not a placard. It would be incredible at this moment, after what has happened in the past few weeks, if we were to dilute the proposed law in that way.

The words in the amendment that he and the Liberal Democrats support—I hope that his hon. Friends realise this—refer to “the listener”. That does not cover images, placards or written statements. Supporting that would significantly weaken our ability to prosecute the very people about whom he complained on television a couple weeks ago.

And here’s Blair:

“There’s a bigger piece going on, isn’t there? It’s not only about these counter-terrorist measures, it’s also about the position of the prime minister. We can’t play entirely outside that process.”

A mean idea to call my own

Technorati’s new “Filter by Authority” feature depresses me intensely – not least because I thought they’d abandoned the word ‘authority’ some time after my last rant on the subject. There are three problems here. Firstly, as I wrote last year:

Technorati is all about in-groups and out-groups. … authority directly tracks popularity – although this is ‘popularity’ in that odd American high-school sense of the word: ‘popular’ sites aren’t the ones with the most friends (most out-bound links, most distinct participants in Comments threads or even most traffic) but the ones with the most people envying them (hence: most in-bound links).

In other words, ‘authority’ is a really lousy synonym for ‘high inbound link count’, raising completely groundless expectations of quality and reliability. McDonald’s is a popular provider of hot food; it’s not an authority on cooking. The relative popularity (or enviability) of a site may signify many things, but it doesn’t signify that the site possesses absolute qualities like veracity, completeness, beauty – or authority.

But hold on – is it absurd to call McDonald’s authoritative? You’ve got to admit, they’re good at what they do… There’s a sense in which this is a tautology – because what they do is maximise the numbers who come through the doors – but never mind. Let’s say that we can identify the McDonald’s branch with the highest number of burgers sold (or repeat customers, or stars on uniforms – the precise metric doesn’t matter). There’s a good argument for using the word ‘best’: it looks like this is the best McDonald’s branch in the world. And the best fast food joint in the world? Well, maybe. The best restaurant in the world? Um, no. Quality tracks popularity, to some extent, but only within a given domain – otherwise USA Today would be the best newspaper in the USA . (To say it’s the best national mass-market tabloid would be less controversial.) [Edited with thanks to commenters who know about this stuff.]

This is the second problem with authority-as-link-count, and one which Technorati shows no sign of recognising, much less addressing. I can live with the idea that the Huffington Post is more popular than Beppe Grillo’s blog – but more authoritative? I really don’t think so. (Any right-wingers reading this may substitute Huffington for Grillo and Kos for Huffington, and re-read. And rest.) At bottom, Technorati’s ‘authority’ ranking is based on the laughably outdated idea that there is a single Blogosphere, within which we’re all talking to pretty much the same people about pretty much the same things. Abandon that assumption and the problems with an ‘authority’ metric are staringly apparent: who am I authoritative for? who am I more authoritative than?

But if this is an error it’s not an error of Dave Sifry’s invention. As I’ve said, within any given domain of ideas, it’s not entirely meaningless to say that authority tracks popularity: among academic authors, the author who sells books and fills halls is likely to be the author who is cited, even if he or she hasn’t written anything particularly inspired since Thatcher was in power. The question is whether this is a feature or a bug: if we’re going to read one writer rather than another, should we choose the popular dullard or the unknown genius? Put it another way: if we’re choosing who to read in the context of a new publication medium with massively lowered entry costs – and with an accompanying ideology rich in levelled playing-fields, smashed barriers and dismantled hierarchies – who should we be trying to seek out: Dullard (Popular) or Genius (Unknown)?

The third and most fundamental problem with ranking by ‘authority’ is that it brings to the Web one of the very features of offline life which Web evangelists told us we were leaving behind. This kind of ‘feature’ – and the buzz-chasing worldview that promotes it – is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I find that it often helps me to also answer the question, “Who is the most influential blogger talking about XXX this week, and what did she say?”Dave Sifry

We climbed and we climbed

I don’t trust Yahoo!, for reasons which have nothing to do with my dislike of misused punctuation marks (although the bang certainly doesn’t help); I don’t trust Google either. Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember when MicroSoft [sic] were new and exciting and a major attractor of geek goodwill; maybe it’s just because I’m an incurable pinko and don’t trust anyone who’s making a profit out of me. Anyway, I don’t trust Yahoo!, or like them particularly; I switched to Simpy when Yahoo! bought del.icio.us, and I’ve felt a bit differently about Tom – hitherto one of my favourite bloggers anywhere – since he joined Yahoo!.

Still. This (PDF) is Tom’s presentation to the Future of Web Apps conference, and it’s good stuff – both useful and beautiful, to use William Morris’s criteria. The fourth rule (precept? guideline? maxim?) spoke to me particularly clearly:

Identify your first order objects and make them addressable

Start with the data, in other words; then work out what the data is; then make sure that people (and programs) can get at it. (Rule 5: “Use readable, reliable and hackable URLs”.) It’s a simple idea, but surprisingly radical when you consider its implications – and it’s already meeting resistance, as radical ideas do (see Guy Carberry’s comments here).

More or less in passing, Tom’s presentation also shows why the Shirkyan attempt to counterpose taxonomy to folksonomy is wrongheaded. If you’re going to let people play with your data (including conceptual data), then it needs to be exposed – but if you’re going to expose data in ways that people can get at, you need structure. And it doesn’t matter if it’s not the right structure, not least because there is no right structure (librarians have always known this); what matters is that it’s consistent and logical enough to give people a way in to what they want to find. To put it another way, what matters is that the structure is consistent and logical enough to represent a set of propositions about the data (or concepts). Once you’ve climbed that scaffolding, you can start slinging your own links. But ethnoclassification builds on classification: on its own, it won’t get you the stuff you’re looking for – unless what you’re looking for isn’t so much the stuff as what people are saying about stuff. (Which is why new-media journalists and researchers like tagging, of course.)

Anyway – very nice presentation by the man Coates. Check it out.

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

No sweat at all

I agree with Michel Houellebecq, up to a point.

Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.

In any case, Islam’s the shittiest religion of all. Now: consider Islam as a body of ideas about the source, meaning and ultimate purpose of human life, intertwined with a body of practice and ritual, both of which are incarnated in a community of believers. In short, consider Islam as a religion like Christianity. In that perspective, Houellebecq’s acquittal was well-deserved; indeed, in that perspective I don’t see that the remark raises any significant issues. We might disagree with it profoundly; we might see it as hostile and divisive; we might see it as counter-productive to broader political projects with which we sympathise. All of this is beside the point: religions – like other ideologies and bodies of community-based practice – cannot be protected against disrespect, and it’s no kind of radicalism to insist that they should be.

On the other hand: consider Islam as the body of practice and belief which defines a minority community, whose members are born into that community and can no more cease to be members than I can cease to be English (and part-Welsh). In short, consider Islam as a religion like Judaism. If it’s appropriate to consider the Muslim community as a minority ethnicity, then it’s equally appropriate for the state to protect that community’s identity against slurs like Houellebecq’s – and for radicals to protest against its failure to do so, in line with the ruling classes’ eternal divide-and-rule strategy.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to this question, although I do think that for conceptualisations of Islam to develop away from the ethnic perspective and towards the contemporary Christian model would be profoundly desirable. All of which means that we need to make things more complicated and qualified rather then less – even if it means our writing becomes less bracing:

There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel.

Theo Tait’s conceding too much here. I realise that Damn. braces, but is frankly-expressed racism and misanthropy really bracing? We’re dealing here, I think, with a kind of perverse inversion of the role Richard plays for his readers, and Tim for his: That stuff you read in the paper today? It’s all a load of rubbish. You know what’s really important… In Houellebecq’s case what comes under fire is not so much what you read in the paper as what you think, and the flattery of the reader is rather indirect, but the basic dynamic – a kind of antinomian evangelism – is very similar. Don’t believe them – you know what’s really going on… It’s agitprop, essentially, promoting simplification and blame. (The two go together: if the issues are so clear, why are we told they’re so complex and difficult? Because they‘re idiots, or liars, or idiots unwittingly serving liars, or…) As literature, this kind of thing is contemptible. As political writing it’s not much better.

So I agree with Martin Kettle (up to a point):

Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy’s enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.

The all-embracing anti-imperialist mindset is a reality on the Left today; it’s a distraction at best, at worst positively dangerous. Ironically, the alternative perspective Kettle appears to propose – one wiped clean of any allusion to socialism, which has supposedly been proved to be a utopian daydream – is not much of an improvement. Nothing in Kettle’s piece is more revealing than the point when, after discussing his Communist Party background, he refers briefly to ‘other’ socialist currents; these are immediately qualified as ‘democratic and moderate’, i.e. reformist. As a post-war Communist, Kettle comes from a group which identified the revolutionary hopes of socialism with Stalinism – that weird combination of great-power realpolitik, managerialist Gleichschaltung and Fabian gradualism – and systematically denied that any rival claimant to the ‘socialist’ name deserved it. Even now, Kettle seems genuinely unaware of the possibility of being left of Stalin.

There is, in other words, no alternative; faced with the collapse of actually-existing socialism, Leftists must either live a lie or abandon it and embrace the more progressive elements of liberal capitalism. And if the latter course involves finding a home from home on the non-socialist Left, so much the better. (An awful lot of old CPers have ended up with New Labour; I suppose one authoritarian, bureaucratic party that blots out the rest of the Left is as good as another.)

The problem with Michel Houellebecq is less that he’s a racist than that he thinks simplistically and encourages over-simplification in others, erasing qualifications and concealing viable alternatives. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one.


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