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.

It’s just work

Suw Charman types too fast. She’s produced what looks like a fascinating record of the Future of Web Apps conference, but I can’t see myself ever reading the whole thing. But this jumped out at me (slight edits):

Joshua Schachter – The things we’ve learned
Tagging is not really about classification or organisation, it’s user interface. It’s a way to store your working state or context. Useful for recall. OK for discovery because someone might tag similarly to you. Bad for distribution.Not all metadata is tags. People ask for automatic metadata, but that’s not the value – the value is attention, that you saw it and decided that it was important enough to tag. Auto-tagging doesn’t help you do what you’re trying to do. … because there’s a small transaction cost that adds value. But don’t make them do too much work.

the value is attention … because there’s a small transaction cost, that adds value The value of tagging is in the meaning it encodes, and the meaning is created by people doing a bit of work. If you make things easy by automating the process of getting meaning out of data, that creativity is not called upon and what you get doesn’t have the same value.

This parallels my thoughts about the impoverishment of technology through the collapse of alternative ways of using it, often in the name of ease of use – not to mention the thoughts I put down on my other blog about how the best communication (and the best narrative) is gappy and open to multiple interpretations. One way of understanding why gappiness and plurivalence might be a positive virtue, finally, is suggested by Anne, who counterposes predictability and foretelling to potentiality and hope.

I think what all these arguments have in common is a sense of meaning as not-yet-(finally)-constructed. In this perspective the point of social software, in particular, is not to connect data but to enable people to talk about data – while preventing that talk from being entirely weightless by imposing a certain level of friction, a certain opportunity cost. (A cost which can always be raised or lowered. Thought experiment: Wikipedia makes it impossible to revert an article to a version less than a week old. What happens?) In the case of tagging systems, there has to be a reason why you would want to tag a resource, and want to tag it in ways that have meaning for you. Meaning is created through conversations that require a bit of effort, within the shared context of an open horizon: it’s work, but it’s work without a known outcome. A journey of hope, as someone wrote.

(My blogs are crossing over – I hate it when that happens…)

The shapes between us

Peter Campbell writes in the current LRB:

Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old-style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.

A well-designed and artistically curated set of exhibits, in other words, enables the viewer to experience the exhibition as a whole, rather than being constantly interrupted by lacrimae rerum for the lost use-value of each individual exhibit. However, in the exhibition that this form of curation creates – a single-minded, smoothly articulated conglomerate – more is lost than a melancholy evocation of the exhibits’ past life. This kind of exhibition turns the viewer into a passive spectator, receiving and absorbing an achieved whole rather than responding imaginatively to an assembly of disjointed parts.

This critique, it seems to me, is not that far from Adina‘s review of Walk the Line:

the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can’t stand about Hollywood style. It’s not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.

Or, for that matter, Ellis’s argument here:

The first author opens up the thoughts of both his characters. Everything is controlled and explained. Meaning is processed for the reader. When the character speaks in German, she then helpfully provides an instant translation into English. The first author duly goes on to supply the reader with a sex scene.The second author seems about to supply a sex scene, then abruptly and unexpectedly denies that readerly expectation. Sketches displace sexual intercourse. Looking at sketches and making more sketches becomes more attractive than sex. What the woman thinks of this is withheld from the reader. We remain inside a single mind. There are no judgements made for us about the state of this mind. The reader has to process the writing and discover for herself where the meaning lies.

There is a difference in these two passages, I think, between writing (conventional, conformist, explanatory, offering the warmth of familiarity and shared values) and literature (incomplete, resonant, resisting familiarity and a single dimension of meaning).

(You’ll have to read the post to find out who the two writers are.)

The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference. The meaning’s in the gaps – at least, that’s where you’re being treated as a thinking being, a participant in communication (which is always imperfect) and not a spectator of composed images.

So close to the answer

Thanks to a post at Burningbird – and in particular some thoughtful comments from Yule Heibel – I saw the Danish cartoons today. I won’t say I was shocked, but I was surprised. If offensiveness has anything to do with intention to offend, these are strikingly inoffensive images. Certainly the widespread comparison with hate speech, and with cartoons used as hate propaganda, doesn’t hold up for a second. The images have been seen as offensive because they’re portrayals of Mohammed, and because they’re critical of Islam: it’s an explosive and provocative combination, which probably shouldn’t have been attempted. (Although not because of the ‘predictable’ violent reaction – which I persist in regarding as entirely unpredictable, and entirely the fault of the people who were directly responsible.)

That said, I don’t think there’s a case for censorship, even in the case of irresponsible provocations (or rather, especially in that case – hard cases make bad law). I don’t think it’s acceptable that the Muslim community should have a veto over portrayals of Mohammed, any more than that Christians should be able to have ‘blasphemy’ banned. As for the political content of the cartoons, I think that the questions they ask about Islam can be asked reasonably and without racist intent. Is the subjugation of women justified by reference to Islam? Is suicide bombing? Is violence against apostates and blasphemers? Or violence against non-Muslims who commit what would be blasphemy if they were Muslims, e.g. Danish cartoonists? And, if the answer in practice is Yes (as it clearly is in the case of question 4), does this say anything about Islam as a body of doctrine and practice? Are these beliefs aberrations from the mainstream of Islam – like professed Christians supporting the death penalty – and if so how are they justified in terms of Islam? These are troubling questions, but they’re open questions – or should be. As I wrote back here,

It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

And, I would add, out of the shadow of accusations of racism. Christianity isn’t afforded immunity from criticism – even biased and ignorant criticism – in our societies, and I don’t think we should approach other religions any differently.

Henry Porter has it about right:

We should accept that it has caused deep offence to people whose religion we do not fully comprehend. But, equally, Muslims must allow for the error in a continent of free but flawed societies. They should understand that our societies are not simply based on godless consumption and self-indulgence, but on one or two deeply held convictions.

An anonymous commenter at Indigo Jo goes to the heart of this disagreement when [s]he writes:

there are areas [in Islam] that can be “compromised”, but there are foundational areas that cannot. When you reach those core areas, a choice has to be made as to what you stand for, who you are, etc. … your identity is not guaranteed under the law [if] the law allows for trivialisation and ridicule of those core beliefs/principles that constitute your identity. True it may not be inciting to hatred or murder, but such ridicules and trivialisation still has some effect in the society. It is only a matter of time before it culminates in the likes of Jerry Springer’s portrayal of Jesus (peace be upon him), and ultimately mockery of Christianity. The outcome is evident. Religious values and its objectives are destroyed in the hearts of people.

Well, I liked Jerry Springer: the Opera, and I’ve got a great deal of time for the teachings of Jesus. More generally, I believe firmly that mocking the symbols and impedimenta of a belief does not mock the belief itself – and that even mocking a belief itself doesn’t destroy it: books don’t burn (Mikhail Bulgakov said that). Perhaps it’s a British (or Northern European?) thing; there have been quite long periods when Christians of different denominations have had to think of their faith as something that wasn’t protected from mockery, by the state or anyone else. I have beliefs and I expect you to respect my right to hold them, but my faith isn’t protected from criticism, mockery or abuse – and neither is yours. Between this outlook – this conviction – and the conviction that my faith needs to be protected, I’m not sure how much dialogue there can be.

But I may be wrong. And there could, in any case, be more respect – from both sides.

Postscript Ken MacLeod has the mood of much of this discussion bang to rights.

If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn’t melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?

I’ll admit to an element of rage – rant, even. I think it’s partly because I was brought up Christian and still have a distinct emotional investment in religion: I know that (a certain type of) religious belief can be not only compatible with but conducive to liberal and radical politics, leading people from a vague wish to be good and do good to the shores of libertarian socialism. So seeing a violent mobilisation in the defence of religion against liberalism, with the apparent approval of socialists… well, there are people who read the New Testament and find nothing in it but what they already knew (queers are bad, abortion’s bad and smacking your kids is good, essentially), and I feel pretty much the same about them. Apart from anything else, it seems such a wasteWhen you’re so close to the answer, why don’t you go in?

Anyway, Ken’s comment is one of the few things I’ve read during this affair that has really given me pause. Read the whole thing. (Then re-read this post. Balance, y’know.)

And the high plains too

Tom comments on this post from last year:

Thoughts: (1) Pledgebank is about increasing the perceived effect of ones actions by connecting it to a larger purpose (2) Wikipedia already seems to have that mechanism but (3) I like the idea of building social processes alongside wikipedia a lot…

Yes and No to point 2. Wikipedia already has social reinforcement/reputation feedback effects built in, but they only really work once you’re on the inside. If you’re on the outside, the fabled dedication and energy of the Wikipedia community is actually a barrier – not least because, if you’re unlucky, all that dedication and energy will be applied to reversing your edits. (Think of Thomas Vander Wal‘s discovery that he disagreed radically with Wikipedia’s definition of ‘folksonomy’, and his subsequent struggle to get the definition changed – the point here being that Thomas actually coined the term, and not that long ago.)

This isn’t a new discovery: reputation-based regulation inevitably creates a barrier to entry, as anyone who’s tried to get noticed on Usenet can confirm. Reputation adds a bit of friction to the weightless process of making your mark online, and adds a bit of glue to the shapeless aggregate of people who do it; the fact that you have to build up a bit of reputation before your words gain traction is, mostly, feature rather than bug.

So is the Pledgebank idea reinventing the wheel, simply trying to use reputation-based peer pressure to mobilise a group who could have been subjecting themselves to Wikipedia peer pressure all along? I don’t think so. Compared with a Usenet newsgroup or a Web board community, Wikipedia has a couple of curious and atypical aspects. Firstly, the currency of Wikipedia reputation-building is work, and plenty of it. I’ve known people make a reputation on Usenet with a single post. The size and complexity of Wikipedia makes that highly unlikely. Secondly, Wikipedia is unusual in parallelling areas where people already have reputations, built up through domain-specific conversations. As always, issues of authority and reliability come into sharpest focus when the area’s one that you know personally. I can say that, if you’re interested in processes of consensus-formation in an area of hotly contested political debate, the Wikipedia page on the Lega Nord makes fascinating reading. If you’re interested in getting some reasonably authoritative views on the Lega Nord, it’s no substitute for reading the literature. This isn’t to say that Wikipedia is wrong – but it’s less right than it could be. And this is partly because Wikipedia’s informal reputation management mechanisms are orthogonal to the mechanisms which produce subject area experts, and partly because Wikipedia’s mechanisms operate to repel anyone who isn’t committed to building a Wikipedia reputation – perhaps because they’re more interested in building one within their subject area.

Hence the proposed Wikipedant posse. If – like me and Tom and Thomas – you’ve seen something on Wikipedia & thought That’s just wrong, but it would take a long time to fix it; and if you not only (a) know stuff, but (ii) know when you don’t know something and (3) know how to find stuff out; then this could be your kind of thing. The idea is simple: we compile a list of wrong-but-timeconsuming Wikipedia pages (usually involving simplistic or tendentious renderings of a subject); we dish them out, presumably at random; and, when we get assigned a page, we take ownership of it and try to put it right. This wouldn’t be a lifetime commitment, but it would almost certainly involve a couple of months of checking back and reverting unhelpful edits, on top of the researching and writing time.

I’ll be appealing to pedants, autodidacts and (OK, I admit it) academics rather than Wikipedia enthusiasts, and I’ll be appealing on a strictly time-limited basis rather than trying to create new Wikipedians. It will, unavoidably, involve quite a lot of work, which is why I’ll be calling in aid an external source of peer pressure in the form of Pledgebank.

And I’ll be doing this… some time soon. This year, definitely. (Terrors of the earth, I’m telling you.)

Update I wrote:

I’ll be appealing to pedants, autodidacts and (OK, I admit it) academics

and

Wikipedia’s mechanisms operate to repel anyone who isn’t committed to building a Wikipedia reputation – perhaps because they’re more interested in building one within their subject area.

Which perhaps isn’t precisely the impression I gave last September, when I wrote:

I’ll just reiterate that I’m not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds.

What a difference a few months’ full-time employment makes. (I was a freelance journalist from 1999 to 2004, and kept it up on a part-time basis until last summer.) Let’s split the difference: subject experts will be welcome, just as long as they’re also perfectionists with inquiring minds. (Which of course they will be, what with being subject experts and everything.)

The rich man’s militia

Ian 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.”

In 1983 Jean-Paul Brodeur, a Canadian criminologist, published an essay called “High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks About the Policing of Political Activities”. Brodeur defined ‘low policing’ as the unending and mundane job of maintaining social order and responding to breaches of the criminal law. ‘High policing’, by contrast, is policing with an agenda and a long-term perspective: the use of police methods and resources to achieve coherent political ends. Such as, for instance, clamping down on political protest.

‘High policing’ is rarely advertised as such. Indeed, one of the most popular images of police work has it that there is only ‘low policing’: the law is above politics, and it’s the police’s job to maintain social order, not to maintain any particular social order. Brodeur’s research demonstrated that ‘high policing’ is a reality, governing at least the Canadian police’s approach to political activism of any type (legal or otherwise, orderly or otherwise). It also suggested the rather more disquieting conclusion that ‘low policing’ is at best framed by, and at worst permeated with, the political calculations of ‘high policing’. ‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go. ‘Low policing’ lets orderly demonstrations proceed unhindered and breaks up disorderly protests; ‘high policing’ lets protest events continue or not according to their longer-term political significance.

The police operate in defence of the state and the status quo; the political calculations of ‘high policing’ will always be with us, at least until such time as the protection of the state and the status quo is a wholly apolitical aim (smiley goes here). What we can hope for is that ‘high policing’ operations are carried out with a degree of transparency and accountability – and, above all, that ‘high policing’ is not allowed to take precedence over the demands of ‘low policing’. The ideals of impartiality and equity may seldom be achieved in the context of ‘low policing’; in the context of ‘high policing’ they aren’t even relevant considerations. ‘High policing’ sets the police at odds with the public; the immediate effects of what’s happening right now don’t matter nearly as much as its implications for the longer, political game. It’s a sophisticated game, which can be played with an eye to the press and public opinion as well as the requirements of the government of the day: deliberately under-policing disorder may be popular in itself, or it may help forestall criticism of a subsequent crackdown. But, whatever its short-term effects, the increasing dominance of ‘high’ over ‘low’ policing is corrosive of any claim by the police to impartiality, and of any possibility of broader public trust in the police.

Which brings us to those cartoons, and that demo.

BBC, 4th Feb:

A march in which protesters chanted violent anti-Western slogans such as “7/7 is on its way” should have been banned, a leading British Muslim said. Asghar Bukhari said the demonstration in London on Friday should have been stopped by police because the group had been advocating violence.The chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said the protesters “did not represent British Muslims”. He said that Muslims were angry over satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in European papers but it was “outrageous” for anyone to advocate extreme action or violence. “We believe it [the protest] should have been banned and the march stopped.”

Guardian, 4th Feb:

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.”

Metropolitan Police, 5th Feb:

Arrests, if necessary, will be made at the most appropriate time. This should not be seen as a sign of lack of action … The decision to arrest at a public order event must be viewed in the context of the overall policing plan and the environment the officers are operating in.

Low policing says: “I don’t care who you are or what you’re protesting about, stop that and move along.”

High policing says: “You lot can have your fun, we’ll reel you in when it suits us.”

Into the fireplace

As a postscript to this, here’s Stephen Sedley from the current LRB:

When I read for the English Bar in the 1960s, the legal history lecturer stopped when he reached 1649 and explained that he was now moving directly to 1660, because everything that had happened between the trial of the king and the restoration of the monarchy was a nullity.

That’s some nullity.

Sedley’s reviewing Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, a vindication of the regicides collectively and Charles’s prosecutor John Cooke in particular. Sedley’s conclusion demurs from some of Robertson’s larger claims, but leaves one significant claim intact. (‘Bradshawe’ is John Bradshawe, the president of the court which tried Charles.)

Robertson claims too much when he credits Cooke, first in his courtroom defence of John Lilburne, then on his own arrest, with introducing the right of silence into the common law. The supposed right, which developed in the early canon law, had by Cooke’s time acquired a mythological status: widely believed in, respected in the ordinary run of cases but ignored in favour of torture when anything serious was at stake. Cooke’s fate, however, was by the time of his arrest so firmly sealed that there was little point in pressing his interrogation. Nor, I think, could Robertson make good his suggestion that Bradshawe was breaking new ground, in anticipation of Locke and Rousseau, when he said to Charles: ‘There is a contract and bargain made between the king and his people … The one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty.’ This embryonic notion of constitutional monarchy, looking – through a reluctantly commercial metaphor – for middle ground between traditional liberties and government by divine right, was by 1649 a commonplace of political theory. What was novel was Bradshawe’s pointing out to a captive king the consequence when it was the monarch who broke the contract: ‘Farewell sovereignty.’

When it comes to justified rebellion against over-mighty rulers, in other words, the Americans have nothing to teach us. The English did it first – and ushered in a decade of legal nullity, a short-lived no man’s land in which the impossible could become possible. I’m not (solely, or necessarily) talking about Abiezer Coppe or Winstanley, or even about the Levellers. 1649 saw a permanent defeat at Burford as well as the brief nadir of the monarchists, but it wasn’t Thermidor: Cromwell himself was venturing into terra nullius.

It was not the Bill of Rights of 1688 but Cromwell’s Instrument of Government of 1653, still lost in the official void three and a half centuries later, that first set out some of the foundational principles of a modern democracy: triennial parliaments (for a united state of England, Scotland and Ireland), not to be prorogued except by their own will; a non-hereditary Protector, empowered to legislate, tax and govern only with the consent of Parliament and to make war only on its advice; abolition of the established church, and religious toleration (except of ‘Popery and Prelacy’). But not then, or after 1660, or after 1688, did it come true.

From what I know of him, I’ve got a lot of respect for Charles Stuart as a person – and I certainly don’t think Oliver was a nice guy. But it’s not hard to choose between the two. The constitutional ferment of the English Revolution remains a landmark in the country’s history: unsurpassed in many areas, in some still unattained.

You may look like we do

David cites an empirical analysis of social network evolution in a large university community, based on a registry of e-mail interactions between more than 43,000 students, faculty, and staff. (“Hey, gang, let’s do the research right here!”)

The results show that at least in this particular environment, people were more likely to form ties with others when they had a shared “focus” such as a class that brought them together or a mutual acquaintance, but were less likely to interact solely on the basis of shared characteristics such as age or gender.

David headlines his post “Interests, not demographics”, but I don’t think the study is quite saying that. It’s true that demographics do not a network make – but then, I’ve known that ever since my mother first enjoined me to play with a complete stranger of my own age and sex while she talked to the kid’s mother, who wasn’t a complete stranger (to her).

But I don’t think the data’s there to conclude that ‘interests’ are key either, as much as I might like to. The reference to a shared “focus” such as a class that brought them together or a mutual acquaintance sounds more like history than interests. It may be a reasonable generalisation to say that enduring communities are interest-based – particularly if we include the granfalloonish limit case of communities which perpetuate themselves by making a shared interest of their own perpetuation. Conversations, though, just happen. A conversation starts for any number of reasons – not least because two people find each other simpatico/a – and once it’s started the participants generally want to carry it on. History, not interests.

From this it also follows that there are times when conversations just don’t happen, and all the shared interests in the world won’t make them happen. And, given that people who are having a conversation generally want it to continue, there are sometimes very few gaps in which a new conversation can get a foothold. Which brings us back to the granfalloons. Perhaps we can see some communities as large-scale conversations which have outlived any connection with interest, for many or most of the participants, but still persist – and, by persisting, prevent new and potentially interest-based conversations from arising.

(I can be a phenomenologist and a Marxist, can’t I?)

That pretty soldier’s hat

Steve Bell (via) anticipated Blair’s reaction to the hundredth death of a British soldier in Iraq since 2003: the deskbound patriotism of Kipling’s jelly-bellied flag-flapper, in a low-key, robo-managerialist form. But Blair’s actual reaction was quite different:

Mr Blair said the country had to understand why it mattered that “we see this through”. It was important, he told the BBC, “because what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the people of those countries want to leave behind terrorism and extremism, and they want to embrace democracy”.Asked earlier whether the government was worried by the 100th death of a British soldier in Iraq, Mr Blair’s spokesman replied: “I do not think we should do the terrorists’ job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident”.

100 is just a number, it’s true, but it’s a number that suggests a pause for reflection, on those deaths and what caused them. That would still be true even if you ignored all the other deaths, and even if you were convinced that a hundred British soldiers had died in a good cause. Even then, those deaths and the loss they represent would deserve acknowledgment. As Chris argues, sunk (human) costs have their due. But:

I do not think we should do the terrorists’ job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident

This is monstrous.

I think the key term here is ‘terrorist’. A terrorist is, essentially, a political opponent who attempts to influence you (a democratic government) through fear. Terrorists have, by definition, abandoned rational argument: there is nothing you can learn from a terrorist and nothing you can usefully say to a terrorist, except “No”. Terrorism cannot be engaged with, it can only be resisted. Moreover, since terrorists have no arguments to offer, it follows that any sympathy towards them – and any wavering from your firm opposition to them – can only be explained by confusion or fear. You can afford to disregard anything the terrorists say; if people believe the terrorists, that simply shows that the terrorists have frightened them into submission, or confused them with their lies:

After Amnesty International compared American treatment of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners to the Gulag, I heard the President say: ‘It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of, and the allegations by, people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble – that means not tell the truth.’

It follows that your duty is to downplay any information which might add to the confusion by encouraging people to believe the terrorists or sympathising with their cause. They’re bad (because they’re terrorists); you’re good (because you’re fighting terrorists); and the people you govern are weak and confused and liable to forget what the difference is, so you can’t afford to let in too many shades of grey when you’re talking to them.

Even if it means a British Prime Minister refusing to honour British war dead.

A night to kill a king

Justin:

It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country’s history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.

One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
- Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 – 30/1/1649

Home again

So, I’m a researcher. (At least until the money runs out next year; hopefully I’ll have something similar lined up by then.) Before I was a researcher I was a freelance journalist for about six years, while I did my doctorate; before that I was a full-time journalist for three years; and before that I worked in IT. Which is a whole other dark and backward abysm of time – I was a Unix sysadmin, and before that I was an Oracle DBA, and before that… database design, data analysis, Codasyl[1] database admin, a ghastly period running a PC support team, and before that systems analysis and if you go back far enough you get to programming, and frankly I still don’t trust any IT person who didn’t start in programming. (I’m getting better – at one time I didn’t trust anyone who didn’t start in programming.)

Now, there’s an odd kind of intellectual revelation which you sometimes get, when you’re a little way into a new field. It’s not so much a Eureka moment as a homecoming moment: you get it, but it feels as if you’re getting it because you knew it already. You feel that you understand what you’ve learnt so fully that you don’t need to think about it, and that everything that’s left to learn is going to follow on just as easily. Which usually turns out to be the case. The way it feels is that the structures you’re exploring are how your mind worked all along – or, perhaps, how your mind would have been working all along if you’d had these tools to play with. (Or: “It’s Unix! I know this!”)

I had that feeling a few times in my geek days – once back at the start, when I was loading BASIC programs off a cassette onto an Acorn Atom (why else would I have carried on?); once when I was introduced to Codasyl databases; and once (of course) when I met Unix, or rather when I understood piping and redirection. But the strongest homecoming moment was when, after being trained in data analysis, I saw a corporate information architecture chart (developed by my employer’s then parent company, with a bit of help from IBM). Data analysis hadn’t come naturally, but once I’d got it it was there – and, now that I had got it, just look what you could do with it! It was a sheet of A3 covered with lines and boxes, expressing propositions such as “a commercial transaction takes place between two parties, one of which is an organisational unit while the other may be an individual or an organisational unit”; propositions like that, but mostly rather more complex. I thought it was wonderful.

Fast forward again: database design, DBA, sysadmin, journalism, freelancing, PhD, research. Research which, for the last month or so, has involved using OWL (the ontology language formerly known as DAML+OIL) and the Protege logical modelling tool – which has enabled me to produce stuff like this.

It’s not finished – boy, is it not finished. But it is rather lovely. (Perhaps I just like lines and boxes…)

[1] If you don’t know what this means, don’t worry about it. (And if you do, Hi!)

Inner meet me

Or: what gets left out of those ‘meme’ things.

7 places I’ve loved

1. Pendine: the cliffs, the endless horizon, the beach in the off season
2. Scilly, especially St Agnes (and the view of St Agnes from St Mary’s, at sunset)
3. Florence
4. Paris
5. Edinburgh
6. Brighton (and Hove, actually)
7. London, especially Somers Town

[The only] 6 membership organisations I’ve [ever] joined
1. NALGO
2. END
3. The Socialist Society
4. The Socialist Movement
5. GMB
6. AUT

5 albums that sound as good now as they ever did
1. the Faust Tapes
2. Basket of Light
3. Metal Box
4. World Shut Your Mouth
5. dubnobasswithmyheadman

4 people I can be mistaken for
1. Philip Edwards
2. Phil Edwards
3. Phil Edwards
4. Stuart Russell

3 great songwriters
1. Robyn Hitchcock
2. Peter Blegvad
3. Bob Dylan

2 people I’ve encountered briefly but never truly met, and now never will
1. Edward Thompson
2. Raymond Williams

1 embarrassing memory
When Walkmans were new my father went out and bought one for my younger sister – it wasn’t her birthday, he just wanted to get her one. (They cost some enormous amount at that time – I’ve got the figure of £75 in my mind, although that may be wrong.) I sulked until he went out and bought me one too. I was 21 at the time.

(I am of course tagging 0 other bloggers.)

The hippies were evil

Like a lot of people, I’ve been playing around with the Chinese version of Google. If my searches are anything to go by, they don’t seem bothered about whether you know about the Dalai Lama, but they do seem to be concerned that you get the right sources on Falun Gong (which is a very bad thing) and the Taishi Village incident (which probably never happened). The nastiest piece of censorship I’ve seen so far concerns the BBC news site, which seems to be blocked in its entirety. But I’ve only scratched the surface, and obviously I can’t speak for the results of Chinese-language searches.

Here in Britain, Google redirects ‘google.com’ invocations to google.co.uk, from where you can choose to go to google.com if you really want to. Danny explains: “Google routinely redirects those outside the US to a country-specific version of Google. Those who want to reach Google.com can do so by selecting the “Google.com in English” link on the home page of these versions.” (The link on the .co.uk page doesn’t specify ‘in English’.) So in China it’s still possible to use google.com as well as google.cn. Similarly in France and Germany, where google.fr and google.de search results are silently censored to comply with legislation banning neo-Nazism. But it gets worse: thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act there is (visible) censorship on google.com, which appears to be replicated on all the country-specific Googles. (Try searching for ‘kazaalite’.) And, of course, we don’t know whether there is any silent censorship. Considering that we know of effective public campaigns to bring pressure to bear on Google, it seems unlikely that no pressure has been exerted behind the scenes. (More on google.fr and google.de here; these are some of the sites that are hidden, and here‘s how it’s done.)

David‘s argument is typical of the bloggers who are calling for Google to be shown some leniency with regard to this one. I don’t share his conclusions, primarily because I don’t agree with his premise. His argument seems to start from identification with the people at Google who have had a hard choice to make and have done, in their judgment, the best they could: “It’s a tough world. Most of what we do is morally mixed.”, and so forth. But for me the operative metric is not the relative quality of service Google can provide the people of China – which is certainly higher under the google.cn regime – but Google’s relative complicity with restrictions on the free flow of information. This is important because of Google’s extraordinarily unusual position. The company does one thing; the one thing it does – provide information – is an unqualified ethical good; and it does it well. Any complicity with censorship tarnishes the company’s ethical reputation; it also threatens its reputation for delivering its service well, since it suggests that this can be compromised by external considerations. The Google.cn story threatens Google on both these grounds. Previously, Google was guilty of tolerating censorship; now, it’s guilty of assisting censorship.

David concedes that this story “shows once and for all that Google’s motto is just silly in a world as complex as this one”. I’d go further. Unless you take the (Lutheran?) view that obedience to the government – any government – is a pious duty, Google’s co-operation with the Chinese government has made nonsense of their proclaimed commitment to avoid evil. But I’d also add that Google crossed that line some time ago, when they doctored search results to comply with French, German and US law – and, in the case of France and Germany, did so without any indication that results were incomplete.

Ultimately this is primarily a lesson about what Will (in a completely different context) calls digital exuberance – and about the enthusiasm for big business – as long as it’s a cool big business which I identified as a growing element of “Web 2.0″. (Hang on to those double-quotes, you’ll be glad of them later.) Owen sums it up:

I now notice that the corporate philosophy illustrates “don’t be evil” with the example that advertisements should be unobtrusive; and [Eric Schmidt and Hal Varian, writing in Newsweek] interpreted it to mean that management should not throw chairs. Google never actually said they would not cut a deal with an undemocratic regime to deny information and access to news to hundreds of millions of repressed people. But that was the kind of thing that “don’t be evil” implied to me.I have some sympathy with Google’s dilemma – they are, after all, a shareholder-owned company, not a branch of Reporters sans frontières. But companies that say one thing and do another eventually get themselves into trouble.

Google was once the underdog; a quirky startup, doing one thing (search) really well: and quickly without all those annoying ads. We got cool free gizmos, like Google Earth and webmail with big storage. And it seemed to have a corporate philosophy that hackers and the internet generation could relate to. Today Google seems a lot more like Microsoft, AOL or any other large corporation. It buys companies to get their technology (what exactly has Google invented, since PageRank?). It introduces Digital Rights Management systems for video. And now it cuts deals with the Chinese government to expand its market, instead of standing up for uncensored access to the internet.

Your fortuitous role

I’ll get back to Brian Wilson in a while; right now I’ve been tagged. (Cheers, Donald. I’ll do the same for you, if I get the chance.)

Seven Things To Do Before I Die:

1. Record a CD
2. Publish a book. Well, two books (some short stories and something political). Maybe some poetry as well. Three books.
3. Live on an island
4. See Canada
5. Go up in a hot air balloon
6. Do one of my Fantasy Walking Tours*
7. Meet Tilda Swinton

Seven Things I Cannot Do:

1. Play the guitar
2. Understand spoken Italian
3. Lie convincingly
4. Get up early
5. Go to bed early
6. Swim a length
7. My taxes**

Seven Things That Attract Me to… Islands:

1. Towns with small populations and limited nightlife
2. Circumnavigation by foot
3. The sea, the sea
4. Cliffs
5. Plantlife
6. Stars
7. Pasties (NB applies mainly to Scilly)

Seven Things I Say:

1. “…”
2. “Er…”
3. “Well not just that, I think what I was getting at is that it’s more a question of…”***
4. “So, what are we doing today?”
5. “I’m running a bit late”
6. “I’m leaving now
7. “What a load of bollocks”

Seven Books That I Love:

1. Internationale situationniste [anthology]
2. Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni, L’orda d’oro
3. Tom Phillips, The Humument
4. Rex Warner, The Aerodrome
5. Thomas Pynchon, Vineland
6. Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
7. Ruth Rendell, The Lake of Darkness

Seven Films That I’ve Loved:

1. La Jetée
2. Le Fantôme de la Liberté
3. Orphée
4. Toto le Héros
5. O Lucky Man!
6. American Beauty
7. Naked Gun****

Seven People To Tag:

1. Clare
2. Ellis
3. Justin
4. Robert
5. Brian
6. Jonny
7. Chris

*One of them involves picking a square on the map, somewhere near the centre of England, and spending a week – or however long it took – visiting every single named town or village: a sort of pub-hike, in effect. The other is a longer walk, from Kronstadt to Kiel.
**Well, I can (and do), but I find it ridiculously hard to keep things like period dates in my head for any length of time. There’s a definite mental block – after I’ve been doing it for a while I start forgetting other things as well (where I’ve got up to, where I put the stapler after I used it, what day it is, etc).
***Rough verbal equivalent of 1. and 2. – ‘vamping till ready’, my father used to call it.
****Bingo!

Flowers and their hair

Political radicals and activists are often stereotyped as people who’ve got something wrong with their lives – it’s just displacement, his Mummy wouldn’t buy him a pony… This is mostly wrong, of course, but I think it’s also partly right – and for the same reason that it’s mostly wrong. After all, everybody – with the possible exception of the young Buddha – has something wrong with their life; everybody knows the experience of loss, rejection, loneliness, helpless anger, despair. (If Melanie Klein was right we’ve already known a lot of this by the time we start saying mama.) The question is, as always, what you do with it. Your knowledge of what it’s like to be down there may fire you with empathy for all the people who are down there in real, physical terms, every day of their lives – or it may fire you with the determination to ensure that you’re never, ever going there again. And it’s not always obvious which set of eyes you’re looking through. Cue the Bill Hicks quote. (No, not the one about people who work in advertising, the other one.)

So that gives us two ways of looking at the relationship between personal sources of unhappiness and radical rage: it may be empathetic engagement (your wound, my wound, the bastards!); rather more sneakily, it may be fearful narcissism (they’ve got you, they may get me next, the bastards!) Another angle is offered by Jean-Pierre Voyer’s attempted fusion of Wilhelm Reich and the situationists. Voyer is one of those radical-left French intellectuals who went a bit weird in the 1980s and is now best approached with bargepole in hand (see also: Pierre Guillaume, Serge Thion). But he wrote some useful stuff in his time, notably Reich: How to use. From which this, slightly modified, quote stands out:

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life — contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other — are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for the unity of individual life

To engage in a coherent critique of power relations in contemporary society, according to Voyer, was necessarily to think differently and live differently. Your own life would be the prism through which you would see the crushing, distorting, disempowering might of the totality – and one result of a sustained, active critique of the totality (a.k.a. practising theory) would be that things would get a bit strange for a while. (Have I actually read this stuff? I hear you cry. Well, I know I’ve read Reich: how to use at least once and found it worthwhile, but glancing at it now the vines of Voyer’s grandiloquent self-regard seem to be trailing rather heavily across the path of his argument. Knabb’s eccentric-seeming case study, on the other hand, is as lucid, thought-provoking and unsparing as most of what he writes, which is to say, very.)

Where does this leave the angry political blogger? Not, I think, engaging in the practice of theory, and not really looking through the eyes of love. More and more, I feel that when I post angry I’m posting, in part, to sustain and relish my own anger. It’s a bridge between personal and political (anger is always personal), but it’s a bridge in the form of a knot – all I’m doing is feeding myself reasons why I can go on feeling angry.

And – returning to the Rorschach analogy in the previous post – those reasons aren’t necessarily there. Does Charlie Falconer hate poor people? It would certainly suit my personal distempered vision of New Labour to suppose that he does, but I know that in reality he almost certainly doesn’t; he probably thinks the working class is perfectly sweet, when he happens to bump into it. My guess is that when he commends policies which seem to incarnate contempt for Labour’s historic constituency, he’s doing it not because he feels that contempt himself but because he hasn’t thought about it. Which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, but makes him harder to fulminate against. I think that’s a gain, in an odd way.

Another example is the case of Blair’s ‘idealism’. The other day I attended a seminar addressed by Giancarlo Aragona (the Italian Ambassador) and Steven Haines – an interesting speaker who was on particularly good form. Haines’ answer to one question from the floor struck me. An International Relations lecturer asked him where he’d place Bush and Blair on the classic idealist/realist spectrum: I mean, they may like to present themselves as idealists, but can they be really? (We could hear the footfall of Chomskyan dietrologia on the stairs – idealism? Halliburton, Iraqi oil, Paul Bremer’s missing millions, and you talk about idealism?) Haines was having none of it: the Foreign Office and the MoD were mostly staffed by realists, he said, and they certainly didn’t think Blair was a realist. I think this is exactly right: sometimes what you see is what you get. We may not share Blair’s ideals or his view of the appropriate ways to act on them, but the idea that he doesn’t have ideals or that he’s not acting on them is unsustainable. Which makes him rather less evil and rather more strange. I think that’s a gain, too.

So do me a favour, gentle readers (apparently there are seven of you now, which is nice). From now on, if you see me doing the blog equivalent of shouting at the TV or trying to set the world to rights over one pint too many (you know what’s wrong with the world? I‘ll tell you what’s wrong with the world!)… don’t encourage me.

(And if you recognise the howlingly obscure quote in the post title, give yourself a Shinylet me know in the Comments. I’ll give you a clue – there’s a connection with my last post but two.)

By secondhand daylight

So the psychologist stops the Rorschach test halfway through – there’s no point continuing this, he says, you’re clearly obsessed with sex. The patient’s outraged. I’m obsessed? You’re the one who keeps showing me the dirty pictures!

While this is primarily a political blog – it has been up to now, anyway – there’s a lot I don’t like about political blogging. I particularly dislike political rants – those posts that start by swearing at somebody who’s been in the paper, then quote bits of what they’ve said with occasional sarcastic interjections, and finish by wheeling on some more swearing with the air of an argument proved. There’s something obsessive, almost paranoid about those posts – See? See? I told you they were a bunch of bastards, and now they’ve as good as admitted it! Look, it says so here! All you really achieve with a post like that is to feed your obsession, making yourself – and anybody who shares it – feel righteously justified. Which is never a good look.

I hate those posts, and I did think that my policy of avoiding swearwords and qualifying value judgments was enough to keep me from writing them. I was wrong about that one, of course – you can use the language of sweet reason and still be as angry and self-righteous as a Daily Mail leader column (case in point). I’ve done this in the past and intend to do less of it in future.

Still. Just one more, eh?

I gave up on Labour a long time ago – 1997, to be precise. It seemed to me then that Blair’s leadership had changed the party, not only to a greater degree than, but in a different way from any of his post-war predecessors. Foot, Kinnock and Smith fought a battle on two fronts, trying to keep the Labour project going in some form while persuading the powers in the land that their version of Labourism had finally been shorn of all the elements that made it unacceptable. The mood of Blair’s leadership was entirely different: the last apologetic vestiges of liberalism, social reform and internal democracy were jettisoned without regret – with enthusiasm, in fact. In their place we had a new ‘Labour’ party, committed to corporate capitalism, punitively exclusive communitarianism and – not least – the complete control of the party’s decision-making structures by the parliamentary leadership. (And yes, I did say all this in 1997.)

So I can’t say I’m entirely surprised by the way things have been going since the last election, as Blair steps up the pace in an attempt to turn the country into his own political mausoleum. But today’s news has been more than usually depressing.

Falconer:

“You do not need the same process for resolving whether you have paid your TV licence as one does for a major violent crime. Justice is reduced if three magistrates sit in court all afternoon effectively listening to names and addresses being read out, and a formal piece of evidence being read, and then fining someone. You are slowing down other cases that most certainly do need to be dealt with in court. A caution outside court, a conditional caution, a disorder notice or a fixed-penalty notice can be used with cases like TV licences, shoplifting, petty criminal damage, minor brawls after a night out.”

(I really am offended by that line “Justice is reduced”, implying actual benefits from a scheme that’s never been tried – and which of its nature is likely to produce injustice. But only for the kind of people who get into ‘minor brawls after a night out’, and who cares about them?)

Then there’s Hewitt, who was actually quite left-wing at one time:

The health secretary will issue the “Business Arrangements” manual explaining how NHS finances should be controlled during 2006/7, when her reforms are due to create unprecedented instability in the service. She will say: “Excellence in financial management is the prerequisite for high quality sustainable services.” Trusts will have to say goodbye to “a culture of balance sheet adjustments and handouts” that allowed hospitals to tolerate inefficiency on the assumption that the NHS would bail them out. … Until this year, hospitals could fairly accurately predict the number of patients they would be expected to treat. They agreed contracts with local primary care trusts guaranteeing most of the income they needed to do the work. Patients can now choose, however, from a menu of at least four local NHS trusts where they are entitled to free treatment. Consequently, hospitals can lose income if they do not attract enough patients. The fee they get for each attendance is also being priced differently. A national tariff was set last April for all non-emergency operations. If a hospital spent more than the norm for a particular procedure, it lost money on every patient treated.

Excellence in financial management is what it’s all about; pay the staff less, charge the patients more, and if you still can’t balance the books you’ll just have to make way for somebody who can. Sorry, but that’s business.

(Update:

The Department of Health will today publish a rulebook for NHS managers in 2006/7, to help them navigate “a year of transition” – with more patient choice and less certainty for trusts about how much they will earn. Ministers changed the document after reading a report in the Guardian on Monday about their intention to make strong financial discipline the “top priority” for the NHS. Ms Hewitt said they never meant this to imply that the government thought balancing the books was more important than curing patients. To avoid confusion, financial rigour was removed from the top of a list of priorities including tackling health inequality, reducing waiting times and combating the MRSA hospital superbug. Excellence in financial management is now “a prerequisite”, not a priority.

I’ve read this story three times now, and two out of three times I misread the penultimate sentence as ‘To add to the confusion…’. Which is certainly what this ‘clarification’ does. In practical terms it’s hard to see any difference between ‘top priority’ and ‘prerequisite’ – they’re both names for the thing you have to achieve first. What’s really odd is that ‘prerequisite’ is the word Hewitt used in the first place: rearranging the semantic deck-chairs would be pointless enough, but she’s not even doing that.)

And then there was this from The Register, suggesting that we’re getting a national identity database whether the ID cards bill goes through or not – courtesy of the Passport Service (hence the Reg’s rather wonderful title “Plan B from Petty France”). That’s the Passport Service, which operates under the royal prerogative and is thus effectively immune to parliamentary oversight: the government makes the rules, and by ‘government’ we of course mean the Prime Minister and his appointed advisors. (Not that the guy’s involved in this story, but what kind of person accepts the title of ‘Lord Adonis’? It’s the kind of name Philip Pullman would discard as too fanciful.) The Register goes so far as to wonder if the Queen might like to start asking some questions about what’s being done in her name – and you thought things were bad when we were falling back on the Lords…

I hate political rants, and I’m going to write fewer of them in future. But it would help a lot if this government would stop showing me the dirty pictures.

Started slow, long ago

The other day my son asked to borrow the booklet from my CD of Smile, because he wanted to check the lyrics of “Good Vibrations”; I’d burned it to a CD that I’d given him for Christmas, along with a bunch of other stuff (Oasis, the Shins, Iggy Pop…) I told him the lyrics of the song on Smile were different from the original, and (once I’d persuaded him I wasn’t winding him up) that was that. But it started me thinking.

In the next post I’ll say some more about Smile – which I’d classify as a glorious failure for a number of reasons, some of them (interestingly) out of the control of anyone involved. In this one I’m going to talk about vinyl. Then with any luck there’ll be a third post which will tie it all together, although exactly how as yet I know not. But hey, enough of my yakkin’.

We’re all normal and we want our freedom.
Freedom?
Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom…
All o’ God’s children gotta have their freedom!

The first time I heard Forever Changes, I got up instinctively at the end of “The red telephone” to turn the record over. Then I sat down again, because the first time I heard Forever Changes was about eighteen months ago and I was listening to it on CD. All the same, I knew the end of side one when I heard it.

Like Dan, I miss the LP format. What I miss isn’t the LPs, which haven’t entirely gone – I’ve got a functioning turntable & still occasionally buy new music on vinyl – but the album format which they gave us. Consider: a heavy cardboard sleeve twelve inches square. There are the visuals, for a start: 12″ x 12″ is a handy format for artwork, not to mention the 24″ x 12″ of the gatefold. There are track listings, production credits, details of who played what and who wrote what; then there’s an inner sleeve, which may have more artwork and may have more information, or perhaps song lyrics. The whole thing is a rich, dense artifact, in a similar scale to a glossy magazine – a handy size to hold and contemplate, whether you’re listening to the music or anticipating it as you come home on the bus. At the same time, as packaging it’s deeply functional: it’s wrapped – fairly closely in some cases – around the record itself.

The record, let’s not forget, embodies the music. The record has a certain irreducible fetishistic appeal, which alternative recording technologies (partly because they were alternatives) never really acquired. You hold a black vinyl disc in your hands, and you’re holding crystallised music: that physical object is your only way of hearing that music. It’s divided into two sides – two sets of tracks. In itself, the way the tracks divide up tells you something about the music you were going to hear – particularly if there’s only one track on each side (or, for that matter, if there are ten). Either way, there’s an inevitable pause between side one and side two, giving you the chance to gather your thoughts and renew your attention.

Maintenant c’est joué. There’s a lot that’s good about the music-listening experiences which have effectively supplanted the LP. Indeed, their sheer convenience makes it slightly academic to talk about their drawbacks: as George Orwell said, travelling from London to Brighton by walking alongside a mule would certainly give you a better experience of the country than taking the train, but that didn’t mean anybody would actually do it. Still, something has been lost. I think there are three main factors. There’s the sheer length of the 80-minute CD format; it may suit Beethoven, but it’s death to the album format. The tracks multiply or sprawl; without the minimal structure provided by that end-of-side-one breather, the album turns into a big bag of tracks, inviting the listener to skip or resequence. (Top tip for Beck’s Sea change: 1,2,3,5,4,6, then 8-12. Try it.)

This technological erosion of the album format has both followed and reinforced the rise of a radio-like, track-based way of listening to music and thinking about music. In the piece I referenced earlier (which really is superb, by the way – if you’re going to follow any of these links, follow this one) Dan laments the poverty of musical metadata offered by iTunes: you can put names to the track, the album and the artist, and, er, that’s it. For me this suggests a conceptual shift rather than (or as well as) skimpy work by software engineers. On the radio, after all, you never expected to hear the name of the producer or the dates of the session or the jokey credit for the studio runner. You heard the music, you got the basic information and you could go out and track it down – it in this case being the vehicle of the real musical experience, the graspable object of beauty and store of information that was the album. That extra stage has more or less vanished now: what you hear is what you get, there is nothing else. Which means that the album becomes less important than the mix – your own mix, mined from the music you’ve accumulated. (Last year CD album sales actually rose in the UK – but sales of compilation albums fell sharply.) Malcolm McLaren, of all people, saw most of this coming years ago.

The third big change is one that Uncle Mal didn’t foresee, and it’s the clincher. With a portable cassette player – by which I don’t necessarily mean a Walkman (although it certainly made life easier when you didn’t have to tote around something the size of a shoulderbag) – with a portable tape player, anyway, your music could become as portable and as ubiquitous as music on the radio, at the cost of also becoming as light, disembodied and information-poor as music on the radio. But there was another cost, suggested by the lyrics to that song:

hit it, pause it, record it and play
turn it, rewind, and rub it away

A spool of tape is an extraordinarily inefficient medium for storing a series of separate tracks – more so than a vinyl LP, in some ways. You get into storage/retrieval tradeoffs straight away: the easiest tape to play is the one that consists solely of stuff you’re into right now, but that’s also the hardest tape to maintain. Of course, you could take the tape out and put another one in, but that only delays dealing with the problem – after all, how many tapes are you going to want to carry around?

So the third big change has been the rise of digital players. Sure, Malcolm had Annabella sing

now I don’t need no album rack
I carry my collection over my back

but I think the significant word in that is ‘back’: if you seriously intended to carry your entire album collection around on tape you’d need a sizeable rucksack. (I once taped one track from every album I owned – a project of quite Shandean irrationality. I’ve still got the tapes – they take up a whole drawer of my cassette box.) Now you can get your entire CD collection into a box the size of a fag packet in considerably less time than it takes to play them; you don’t get the same economy of time with vinyl albums, but it’s still perfectly doable. And then that’s it – that is your music collection. You can plug it into your audio system, you can plug it into your car stereo, you can hang it round your neck and go rollerblading if you’ve a mind to. You don’t need no album rack – wherever you are, your music is there.

This effect is exacerbated by the way music now seems to stay in fashion indefinitely: the Led Zeppelin of the fourth album and the Pink Floyd of Dark Side are still there – still our contemporaries. This is a very recent phenomenon; at the time of Dark side it would have seemed absurd to talk in this way about music that was 33 years old, or 13 years old for that matter. ‘Progressive’ rock wasn’t a genre to us then – it represented rock that had progressed, had left the past behind. (A few years later, many of us had similar views about the New Wave.) Most pop music from before the late 1960s is still over the horizon – there’s no appetite for replica reissues of Herman’s Hermits albums, and very little appetite for anything by the likes of Vince Taylor or Cliff Bennett – but once you get to about 1967 the clock has effectively stopped. (The Smile sessions were in 1966.)

You can have your music anywhere; not only that, but you can have all the music there is. On Desert Island Discs recently, John Sutherland chose his eight records to salvage from a shipwreck, but spoiled the effect rather with his choice of luxury item: a 60GB iPod, which would potentially give him the choice of another 14,992 pieces of music. Everyone’s a librarian – but it’s not a library of albums, with all their freight of musical metadata and art-work and in-jokes and period design and misprints; it’s a collection of tracks, each one as light and bodyless as the stuff they play on the radio, each interchangeable with any other. (Ultimate realisation of this vision: the iPod Shuffle, which picks its own random route from track to track, and doesn’t even deign to tell you which track you’re listening to.)

All of which makes this a strange time to be hearing Smile for the first time… But I’ll come on to that.

Postscript I was halfway through writing this post when I discovered I wasn’t the first person to think along these lines: in the February 2004 Salon article quoted here, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy comments, “It’s ironic that we’re talking about the [first] great album that never was at a time that the very form of the pop album is itself falling on hard times.” Spooky. Another one of those reverse premonitions, I guess.

Not a hope in Hades

This (PDF) is explosive stuff – and, as often happens, some of the smallest and dullest details are the most powerful.

You asked for further advice on substance and handling, following my letter of 5 December, including with a view to PMQs on 7 December.

“Substance and handling” here being Civil Service-ese for the nature of an issue (its substance) and how to deal with it (handling). The issue, in this case, is possible British complicity in US “Rendition” and “Extraordinary Rendition” operations. (This kind of thing, in other words.)

The banal sentence italicised above tells us a surprising number of things. It tells us that

  • the Foreign Office wrote to Blair’s office about ‘rendition’ on 5 December
  • Blair’s office wrote back asking for more information, with a view to briefing Blair before Prime Minister’s Questions on the 7th, and
  • the Foreign Office complied, supplying the required information (‘substance’) and guidance (‘handling’) in time for Blair’s date with the Commons.

The Foreign Office document identified two requests for assistance with ‘rendition’ flights in 1998(!); although one of these was granted, the flight did not take place. But this is not, of course, an exhaustive list:

The papers we have unearthed so far suggest there could be more such cases. The Home Office, who lead, are urgently examining their files, as are we.

As for ‘handling’, here the Foreign Office is at its most scrupulous:

If the US were to act contrary to its international obligations, then co-operation with such an act would also be illegal if we knew of the circumstances. This would be the case, for example, in any cooperation over an Extraordinary Rendition without human rights assurances. Conversely, cooperation with a “legal” Rendition, that met the domestic law of both of the main countries involved, and was consistent with their international obligations, would be legal. Where we have no knowledge of illegality but allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries.

For presentational purposes, the document concludes, it’s best not to get bogged down in arguments about actual cases:

we now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for “Extraordinary Rendition”. It does remain true that “we are not aware of the use of UK territory or air space for the purposes of “Extraordinary Rendition””. But we think we should now try to move the debate on from the specifics of rendition, extraordinary or otherwise, and focus people instead on the Rice’s [sic] clear assurance that all US activities are consistent with their domestic and international obligations and never include the use of torture.

It does remain true that “we are not aware…” – but if we keep going through the paperwork we might just become aware, any time now. And it wouldn’t do just to stop looking: where allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries. Better to move the debate on.

So far, so Sir Humphrey. But remember those dates. Blair, we can reasonably assume, was forearmed with these notes on ‘substance’ and ‘handling’ when he took Prime Minister’s Questions on 7 December.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): The United States Secretary of State said yesterday that “extraordinary rendition” had been conducted in co-operation with European Governments. To what extent, therefore, have the Government co-operated in the transport of terrorist suspects to Afghanistan and elsewhere, apparently for torture purposes?The Prime Minister: First, let me draw a very clear distinction indeed between the idea of suspects being taken from one country to another and any sense whatever that ourselves, the United States or anyone condones the use of torture. Torture cannot be justified in any set of circumstances at all. The practice of rendition as described by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been American policy for many years. We have not had such a situation here, but that has been American policy for many, many years. However, it must be applied in accordance with international conventions, and I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice’s assurance that it has been.

Mr. Kennedy: Given that assurance, can the Prime Minister therefore explain why the published evidence shows that almost 400 flights have passed through 18 British airports in the period of concern? When was he as Prime Minister first made aware of that policy, and when did he approve it?

The Prime Minister: In respect of airports, I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Set aside for the moment scenarios in which the Foreign Office memo is a backdated forgery, or was written on 7 December but delivered the next day, or was delivered on 7 December but overlooked when Blair was being briefed. Blair asked for guidance on ‘substance’ and ‘handling’ on the issue of British complicity with ‘rendition’ flights, and he got it.

I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

That’s a big claim. It’s not “I don’t know anything about those allegations”; it’s not even “I’ve never heard those allegations”. It’s more like “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. Is there any possibility that Blair was telling the truth at this point? I’m trying to be fair, but I really can’t see it.

Later the same day, the PM’s official spokesman made a clarification:

Asked what exactly the Prime Minister had meant when he had replied that “I don’t know what you are referring to,” when asked by Charles Kennedy, at PMQs today, about CIA flights through the UK, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that Charles Kennedy had made an assertion which the Prime Minister didn’t recognise. If journalists had looked back over what we had said all week we had made it clear that we did not believe that we were involved in this story. That had been our position all along and the Prime Minister was simply repeating that position.

So, compare and contrast.

Briefing notes prepared for Blair, 7/12/05: we now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for “Extraordinary Rendition”

Blair, 7/12/05: I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Blair’s spokesman, 7/12/05: we did not believe that we were involved … That had been our position all along

It’s always the cover-up that gets you.

Don’t you think he looks tired?

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