Wrapped in paper (4)

Finally (for now), here’s another one from a defunct print publication, in this case one that wasn’t even available on this side of the Atlantic. The magazine was called ePro and it was aimed at IBM users. IBM what users, you ask. That was the clever part – ePro was for users of IBM ‘eservers’, in other words any of IBM’s four (or thereabouts) server platforms. (That was ‘eserver’ with that squiggly at-sign ‘e’. You do remember the squiggly ‘e’, don’t you? Alex? Anyone?)

Anyway, I got the WebSphere-related commentary gig, which involved sounding knowledgeable once a month without making too many jokes. Most of the columns are pretty damn geeky, to be honest, as well as tending to slip into the corporate-breathless mode (I’m guessing here, but if IBM have successfully developed the philosopher’s stone – and that is a big if…) Some of the less technical ones still read pretty well, I think. For example, this one, from March 2003.

MONSTER MOVIES never give you a good view of the monster until halfway through. Representing Godzilla through one enormous footprint — or even one enormous foot — is a good way of building up suspense. It’s also realistic: if Godzilla came to town, one scaly foot would be all that most people ever saw.

Some things are so big they’re hard to see. Although e-business is making some huge changes to the way we live and work, we don’t often think about where it’s coming from and why. Asked to identify trends driving e-business, analysts tend to resort to general statements about business efficiency or customer empowerment. Alternatively, we get the circular argument which identifies e-business as a response to competitive pressures—pressures which are intensified by the growth of e-business.

The real trends driving the evolution of e-business are at once more specific and more far-reaching. Moreover, these trends affect everyone from the B2C customer at home to the IBM board of directors, taking in the hard-pressed WebSphere developer on the way.

The first trend is standardization. On the client side, there is now only one ‘standard’ browser. A friend of mine recently complained about a site which was not rendering properly (in Navigator 7.0). The Webmaster — presumably a person of some technical smarts — replied, “This is not a problem with our site, but your browser. I am running Windows 98 with IE 5.50 and everything displays perfectly.” At the back end, conversely, the tide of standards rolls on—from CORBA to XML to SOAP to ebXML. Interoperability between servers is too important for any company, even Microsoft, to stand in its way.

Whether standards are set by mutual agreement or by the local 800-pound gorilla is secondary; however it’s achieved, standardization has fostered the development of e-business, and continues to do so. The effect is to commoditize Web application servers and development tools; this in turn promotes the development of a single standard application platform, putting ‘non-standard’ platforms and environments under competitive pressure. From OS/400 to Windows 2000, platforms which diverge from the emerging Intel/Linux/Apache norm are increasingly being forced to justify themselves.

The second trend is automation. Since the dawn of business computing, payroll savings have been an ever-present yardstick in justifying IT projects. E business continues this trend with a vengeance. Whether you’re balancing your bank account or making a deal for office supplies in a trading exchange, you’re interacting with an IT system where once — only a few years ago — you would have had to deal with a human being. The word processor was the end of the line for shorthand typists; e-business is having a similar effect on growing numbers of skilled clerical employees. The next step, promised by Microsoft and IBM alike, is an applications development framework so comprehensive that business analysts and end users will be able to generate entire systems: even application development will be automated. (No, I don’t believe it either, but are you going to bet against IBM and Microsoft?)

The third trend is externalization of costs. Not long ago, if you asked a shop to deliver to your home, you could expect to see a van with the name of the shop on the side. Place an order online today, and your goods may well be delivered by a self-employed driver working with a delivery service contracted to an order fulfillment specialist. Talk of ‘disintermediation’ as a trend in e-business is wide of the mark. By offering more agile, flexible and transparent inter-business relationships, e business makes it possible for intermediaries to proliferate, each contracting out its costly or inconvenient functions. On the B2C front, meanwhile, operating costs are increasingly passed on to the customer: I sometimes spend far longer navigating a series of Web forms than it would take to give the same details to a skilled employee.

A drive for standardization, forcing all platforms into a single generic framework; automation for all, cutting jobs among bank tellers and programmers alike; businesses concentrating ruthlessly on core functions, passing on costs to partners and customers. These trends have had a huge impact on IT and society at large — and there’s more to come. In the e-business world, we’re all in Godzilla’s footprint.

Wrapped in paper (3)

One more back number. This one is a bit older than the other two and requires some introduction.

For three years, I edited a magazine called NEWS/400.uk; it’s still going, albeit under another name, and I’ve gone on writing a regular column for it ever since. The mag’s appeal is and always has been fairly specialised, as it’s aimed exclusively at users of IBM’s System i midrange platform (formerly known as the AS/400). There was a brief period – 20 monthly issues, to be precise – when the company I worked for also produced a magazine for users of Windows NT and Windows 2000. I was the launch editor – I left after eight issues – and I’m still convinced it could have been big. For various reasons, it didn’t happen.

Anyway, I had a column in NT explorer as well; it was called “NTWA” and it was written, for reasons I don’t now remember, under the name of Ned Ludd. This is the column from March 1999.

“AH, MR LUDD – I’ve been expecting you.”

A familiar, bespectacled figure greeted me. He was sitting in a swivel chair, which he turned to face me as I entered the room. At first sight I thought he was stroking a Persian cat; after a moment I realised it was a stuffed purple dinosaur. As I watched, he dashed the toy to the floor; it bounced once, squeaked “Say Hi to Barney!” and lay still.

“We meet at last,” he said. “And for you, it really is the last time. I mean, it’s the last time you’ll meet anyone, because I’m, like, going to kill you. I know, it kind of sucks, but what else can I do?”

“You could tell me your master plan,” I suggested.

“Ha!” he riposted. “Tell you my master plan? Ha! And, uh… Ha! And stuff. Oh, what the hell, let’s do it. I mean, I’m going to throw you to the piranhas anyway, right?”

He gestured towards what I had thought to be an ornamental water feature. Then he reached down, picked up the purple dinosaur at his feet and flung it across the room. It gave out a plaintive “I wuv you, Billy!” as it flew, then disappeared into the tank. The water boiled up around it. I shuddered.

He gave a sinister giggle. “So, you want to know my master plan. I guess you know about Y2K?”

“The Millennium Bug? But… your software implements different fixes for the bug in different packages – even in different releases of the same package! You’re on record as saying that the Millennium Bug isn’t a big deal! You’ve even said it can be fixed by subtracting thirty years from all dates, and everyone knows it should be twenty-eight – I thought…”

“You thought I was just like totally clueless, yes?” His accent was changing as he spoke. “And now you are realising, like, nobody is that clueless? And if I am not clueless… Hmm?”

“Incompatible fixes, fixes that don’t work, misleading advice – you’re trying to make things worse!”

“Ha! Correct. And after the Millennium Bug, what happens? When the date rolls over, when the computers of the world are crashing and burning, what then? I’ll tell you – it will be the end of computing as we know it! And, as the cloak of anarchy falls over the smouldering ruins of Western civilisation, only one system will survive. One light in the darkness, one beacon of hope, one operating system which will be fully compatible with the emerging requirements of the new millennium!”

“You mean – ”

“Yes. Windows 2000! Oh, they used to laugh at Windows. They laughed at my dancing paperclip; they laughed at the repeated shipping delays for NT 5.0; they even” – his voice trembled – “they even laughed at my talking Barney. But no more! There was Windows, now there is Windows NT; soon there will only be Windows 2000. The third Windows will last a thousand years! Give or take a few Service Packs.”

“That’s fiendish!”

“I thought it was kind of cool, actually. But enough of this idle chit-chat. There is a second piranha tank beneath your feet: when I press this button the floor will open up beneath you and you will suffer the fate of Barney. I’m clicking on ‘OK’… now. Now I’m doing it again, because the system has not responded. And once more. And now I am being told an illegal operation has been committed, and I am exiting the program to try again. And now the system is hanging, and – hey, where are you going?”

As I made my escape he shouted after me:

“Go, Ludd! Tell the world! They will never believe you! Ha! No one will listen to your ridiculous story, and that’s just like so uncool. Ha! And stuff.”

I think he needs to work on the accent.

Wrapped in paper (2)

More about blogging from iSeries NEWS UK (or System i News UK as it now is), this time from April this year. (Reverse chronological order?)

SINCE BLOGGING exploded onto the national consciousness about a year ago, around the time that I first wrote about it, the phenomenon has grown exponentially. It is now estimated that, out of any given class of fifteen-year-olds, half have a MySpace account, a third have a personal blog and one in ten are using Facebook, while the other two haven’t been online since they got the ASBO. But what are the perils and pitfalls of this new medium? Can we safely entrust our deepest personal secrets to the Web, blithely trusting in the good intentions of everyone who reads our uncensored outpourings? Or not?

Here are some tips for would-be voyagers in the blogosphere. Careful now.

Q: I’m writing a blog. Should I be worried?

A: Very probably. Let’s face it, writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers is no kind of occupation for an adult – not like being a columnist, for example! Perhaps you should get out more. Unless you’re one of those fifteen-year-olds, in which case you probably get out quite enough. Isn’t there some homework you should be doing?

Q: No, I mean, should I be worried about getting sacked?

A: There have been a couple of high-profile cases recently of bloggers being sacked or suspended, on the general grounds that holding a responsible position in society is incompatible with writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers – particularly if you’re doing it in work time. But let’s keep it in proportion. Before blogging, it was not unknown for employees occasionally to use the Web for personal purposes at work, particularly when Big Brother was on. Before the Web, work computer facilities could be used for employees’ personal ends just as easily, if not quite so entertainingly. Even before PCs, employees sometimes used work facilities for their own purposes, generally by having long telephone conversations with friends, lovers or relatives, often with little or no work content. Where this was not possible, employees often had workplace affairs. Blogging is just one form of workplace timewasting, and by no means the most prevalent (or the most messy).

Q: Good heavens! Can people really be so irresponsible?

A: Yes, I’m afraid so. (You are one of those fifteen-year-olds, aren’t you?)

Q: Any tips for safe blogging?

A: Think about who’s going to be reading your blog. Once it’s up there on the Web, anyone at all could read it – and it’ll stay there for years to come! On the other hand, in practice hardly anyone will read your blog, and most of those who do won’t look beyond the front page, so it’s probably not worth getting too worked up about. But do think about first impressions, and about the effect you’re having on casual visitors, and about printouts and employment tribunals. Don’t call your blog “Notes from a wage slave” or “My boss is a crook”, even if the title accurately describes its content.

Q: Shouldn’t employers actually embrace blogging, along with other forms of social networking software such as tagging, podcasts, vodcasts, wikis and mashups?

A: OK, you’ve had your fun. I’ll answer this one question, but after that I’m going to insist on talking to a grown-up. The answer is, no, they shouldn’t. The factor you’re overlooking here is that blogs are only partly to do with social networking. What they’re very largely to do with is writing about whatever comes into your head for the benefit of a few dozen readers. Which is fine if you’ve got a workforce consisting of egotistical narcissists who only want to hear the sound of their own voice and don’t understand the concept of dialogue.

Q: Many bloggers have gone on to land book contracts and TV appearances.

A: Wait a minute, I hadn’t finished. Encouraging workplace blogging is fine if your employees are all egotistical narcissists, but – let me stress this – not otherwise. What were you saying?

Q: Many bloggers have gone on to land book contracts and TV appearances. Will my blog change my life?

A: Call it “My boss is a crook” and you’ll soon find out.

Wrapped in paper (1)

A propos of not very much, here’s a magazine column about blogging. Regular readers of iSeries NEWS UK may recognise it, as it appeared in that estimable magazine last year.

BLOGGING – it’s the new thing! Everyone’s blogging these days – at least, everyone except you! But what is blogging all about? What are the do’s and don’ts of this new medium – what does it take to be a good citizen of the blogosphere? And that MySpace thing that the kids are doing – what’s that all about? Let’s find out.

Q: Reverse chronological order?

A: That’s right – you’ll see the latest posts at the top and earlier ones lower down. It’s easy to get used to – just imagine that you’re living life backwards, perhaps as the result of exposure to a top-secret military experiment that warped the very fabric of reality itself. Or that you’re reading one of those chain emails where people add their replies at the top.

Q: What about developing a coherent argument?

A: Many blogs have a continuing theme or an argument to which they frequently return. Bloggers whose writing has a particularly clear focus are sometimes referred to as ‘subject experts’, and sometimes as ‘nutters’. You may prefer to avoid being regarded as a nutter; in this case, your best strategy is to have opinions which people agree with. Otherwise, building an extended argument on a blog is no different from doing it in any other situation: cross-examining defence witnesses in a fraud trial, say, or ascertaining whether that bloke in the taxi queue did in fact want some. The only difference with blogging is that you write it all down – that, and the fact that what you write appears in reverse chronological order.

Q: But what would I write about?

A: Whatever you like – the sky is quite literally your oyster. To get some ideas, try browsing some IT blogs. The tech blogosphere is a happy hunting ground for lovers of rare, obscure and historic technology – from the LEO to the One Per Desk, from the Osborne to the Sinclair QL… The iSeries hasn’t been neglected, either – at last count there are as many as two dedicated iSeries blogs, which sometimes feature code! But it’s up to you: you can write about whatever crosses your mind, and goodness knows most people do.

Q: So who writes this stuff?

A: According to popular stereotypes, the typical blogger is a twenty-something American Unix enthusiast who lives with his parents and compensates for his lack of a social life by hunching over a keyboard for hour after lonely hour, conducting tediously pointless contests of geek one-upmanship and exchanging incomprehensibly elaborate in-jokes, pausing only for a swig of Mountain Dew or a bite of cold pizza. This stereotype is far removed from reality – Mountain Dew’s more of a skater thing, apart from anything else. In reality, the range of bloggers is as broad as the range of blogs – and that’s pretty broad. There are blogs out there devoted to every topic under the sun – computing, cult films, Dungeons and Dragons, beer, you name it! It is believed that there are also blogs written by women, although the subject matter of these has yet to be ascertained. That’s the great thing about blogging: anyone can do it. You could be a blogger, if you put your mind to it.

Q: OK, so what is blogging?

A: Blogging is the activity of keeping a blog. A blog is a personal Website, updated regularly by the user; you can think of it as a kind of online journal or commonplace book or advertisement for oneself. The word ‘blog’ may derive from ‘Web log’, a type of Web site consisting of a ‘log’ of other interesting sites. It may also derive from ‘backlog’, a term for the mass of blog-worthy material which dedicated bloggers tend to build up, and the mass of work which doesn’t get done while they’re blogging about it. Alternatively, it may be a cross between ‘brag’ and ‘slog’, encapsulating the experience of reading a blog for (a) the author and (b) everyone else.

Q: Blogs – are they something to do with that MySpace thing that the kids seem to be doing these days? What’s that all about?

A: God knows. Shall we talk about blogging?

Too much more

Welcome back* to Imprecise Song Lyrics Club.

This evening our featured lyricist is Mr Paul Weller, one-time tunesmith with popular beat combo the Jams. In his song “Porcelain gods”, Mr Weller writes:

Too much will kill you,
Too little ain’t enough

On first reading both propositions advanced here seem intuitively valid, but – I put it to you – are they? Certainly, too much over-proof rum or carbon monoxide or acceleration into a bend will tend to kill you, but does this proposition hold more generally? I think not. In some cases, too much will simply result in a stomach ache or an overdraft, or in the decision to call a taxi when you had intended to walk.

No, Mr Weller: too much will not necessarily kill you. For greater precision, the lines in question should have been drafted as follows:

Too much is excessive,
Too little ain’t enough

Very little there with which anyone could argue, I think you’ll find.

*To anyone for whom this comes as the second or subsequent post with this theme, perhaps because they are reading it in a period in the future relative to the time of writing.

The vagaries of science

The slightly oxymoronic Britannica Blog has recently hosted a series of posts on Web 2.0, together with responses from Clay Shirky, Andrew Keen and others. The debate’s been of very variable quality, on both the pro- and the anti- side; reading through it is a frustrating experience, not least because there’s some interesting stuff in among the strawman target practice (on both sides) and the tent-preaching (very much on both sides). As I said in response to a (related) David Weinberger post recently, it’s not always clear whether the pro-Web 2.0 camp are talking about how things are (what knowledge is like & how it works) or about how things are changing – or about how they’d like things to change. The result is that developments with the potential to be hugely valuable (like, say, Wikipedia) are written about as if they had already realised their potential, and attempts to point out flaws or collateral damage are dismissed as naysaying. On the anti- side, the danger is of an equally unthinking embrace of how things are – or how they were before all this damn change started happening.

All this is by way of background to some comments I left on danah boyd‘s contribution (which is well worth reading in full), and may explain (if not excuse) the impatient tone. danah, then me:

Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works?

Because I could give a 20-credit course on ‘how Wikipedia works’ and not get to the bottom of it. It’s complex. It’s interesting. I happen to believe it’s an almighty mess, but it’s a very complex and interesting mess. For practical purposes “Don’t cite it” is quicker.

Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource?

This is a false opposition: two different activities with different timescales, different skillsets and different rewards. I get an idea, I write it down – generally it won’t let me go until I’ve written it down. I look at what I’ve written down, and I want to rewrite it – quite often it won’t let me go until I’ve rewritten it. All of this takes slabs of time, but they’re slabs of time spent engrossed with ideas and language, my own and other people’s – and the result is a real and substantial contribution to a conversation, by an identifiable speaker.

I look at a bad Wikipedia article [link added] and I don’t know where to start. What I’d like to do is delete the whole thing and put in the stub of a decent article that I can come back to later, but I sense that this will be regarded as uncool. What I don’t want to do is clamber through the existing structure of an entry I think shouldn’t have been written in the first place correcting an error here or there, because that’s a long-drawn-out task that’s both tedious and unrewarding. And what I particularly don’t want to do is return to the article again and again over a period of weeks because my edits are getting reverted by someone hiding behind a pseudonym.

(I think what Wikipedia anonymity has shown, incidentally, is that people really don’t like anonymity. Wikipedia has produced its own stable identities – and its own authorities, based on the reputation particular Wikipedia editors have established within the Wikipedia community.)

Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry?

Well, yes. If I get a journal article accepted or I’m commissioned to write an encyclopedia article, I’m joining an established conversation among fellow experts. What I’ve written stays written and gets cited – in other words, it contributes to the conversation, and hence to the formation of the cloud of knowledge within the discipline. And it goes on my c.v. – because it can be retrieved as part of a reviewable body of work. If I write for Wikipedia I don’t know who I’m talking to, nobody else knows who’s writing, and what I’ve written can be unwritten at any moment. And it would look ridiculous on my c.v. – because they’ve only got my word that it is part of my body of work, assuming it still exists in the form in which I wrote it.

The way things are now, knowledge lives in domain-sized academic conversations, which are maintained by gatekeepers and authorities. Traditional encyclopedias make an effort to track those conversations, at least in their most recently crystallised (serialised?) form. Wikipedia is its own conversation with its own authorities and its own gatekeepers. For the latest state of the Wikipedia conversation to coincide with the conversation within an established domain of knowledge is a lucky fluke, not a working assumption.

Update The other big difference between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia (as someone known only as ‘bright’ reminded me, in comments over here) is that the latter gets much more use. From my response:

Comparisons with the Britannica are interesting as far as they go – and I don’t believe they do Wikipedia any favours – but they don’t address the way that Wikipedia is used, essentially as an extension of Google. When I google for information I’m not hoping to find an encyclopedia article. Generally, Britannica articles used to appear on the first page of hits, but not right at the top; usually you’d see a fan sites, hobby sites, school sites, scholarly articles and domain-specific reference works on the same page, and usually the fan sites, etc, would be just as good. (I stopped using the Britannica altogether as soon as it went paywalled.) If all that had happened was that Britannica results had been pushed down from number 8 to number 9, with their place being taken by Wikipedia, I doubt we’d be having this conversation. What’s happened is that, for topic after topic, Wikipedia is number 1; the people who would have run all those fan sites and hobby sites are either writing for Wikipedia instead or they’re not bothering, since after all Wikipedia is already there. (Or else the sites are still out there, but they’re way down the search result list because they’re not getting the traffic.) It’s a monoculture; it’s a single point of failure, in a way that encyclopedias aren’t. And it’s the last thing that should have happened on the Web. (I’ll own up to a lingering Net idealism. Internet 0.1, I think it was.)

Never here, never seen

Time for a bit more Potter. (Past time, in fact – my Rowling-rereading-and-reviewing schedule is way out. I blame life.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like its precursor, was big but not that big, a success but not yet a phenomenon. While we’re aware now of the continuing and repeated elements in successive books – the relationships, the Sorting Hat, the compulsory Quidditch – it’s actually quite surprising, coming back to Chamber of Secrets, to see how little it had in common with the first book. Harry’s parents don’t figure at all, for example, and Voldemort only appears in the form of a Horcmagical object (more of that later). What it does have in common with Philosopher’s Stone is a plot consisting mostly of increasing suspense (cranked up really high this time round), resolved in a fast-paced action scene that doesn’t make any sense at all – not even after Dumbledore has explained it.

I began my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by challenging J.K. Rowling’s indignant denial that the book was “light and fluffy”. Chamber of Secrets certainly isn’t light and fluffy in any obvious way; the mood’s gloomy and oppressive, with the first stirrings of that “everyone hates Harry” paranoid atmosphere which dominates the later books. The monster-movie horrors of the climactic big fight are undercut by the sheer daftness of the plotting – it’s hard to care about a life-and-death struggle which the author seems to be making up as she goes along. But some of the plot twists along the way are genuinely grim (Dumbledore suspended, Hagrid sent to Azkaban, Hermione in a coma…).

So is this a major advance on the first book? Is this where Rowling steps free of the wish-fulfilment fantasy framework that Philosopher’s Stone inhabited -

Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify

– and begins to write, like le Guin or Pullman or even Tolkien, about real people who really get hurt? Yes and No – but mainly No. I don’t know how I’m going to assess the fifth and six books when I wade thrread them again, but my sense is that the books never quite get free of fantasy (in that weightless, narcissistic sense of the word). This is a strength as well as a weakness – it leads to a kind of restless, unsatisfied chewing-over of the conditions of fantasy, as if Rowling felt compelled to prove that it can’t work but couldn’t quite bear to abandon it. But it does mean that, thematically, the books are more or less variations on a master-theme. It also means that Harry isn’t likely ever to make it out into the real world, where lots of desires are impossible and lots of broken things can’t be mended – not even to the extent that Ged or Frodo manage it.

I suggested before that Philosopher’s Stone posed three questions about fantasy. First, is the hero superhuman, or is he at some level one of us – is he Sam Gamgee or Elrond, or somewhere in between? (Not that there’s necessarily a straight line from one to the other; Philip Pullman plotted some unsettling variants on this scale in the Amber Spyglass.) Second, does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? Third, does the hero have an infallible moral compass – are his friends good and his enemies evil? In that book, the answer to the third question was a definite “maybe”, while the second got a quiet but unambiguous No: Harry’s parents are dead and will stay that way. The answer to the first question was least satisfactory; the unenchanted human race is represented by the ghastly Dursleys, in comparison with whom Harry is simply loaded with midichlorians (and better looking with it).

All three questions are explored to considerably better effect in Chamber of Secrets than in the first book. The Dursleys are still ghastly, right enough, and there is still that slightly queasy adoption-fantasy sense that the Weasleys represent Harry’s real family, but this time round the wizard/Muggle divide doesn’t pass without authorial reflection. The issue is foregrounded through the revelation of the darker side of the Slytherin worldview, with Malfoy’s use of ‘Mudblood’ as a term of abuse for Hermione (Harry’s own parentage is thoroughly wizardly, of course). Slytherin was introduced in the first book as the house for cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends (in the deathless words of the Sorting Hat) – and a house which might well suit Harry himself (who certainly isn’t noted for adherence to the rules). But all we really found out about Slytherin kids was that they tended to be ghastly over-privileged snobs, and that (according to the normally trustworthy Hagrid) there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. Incidentally, this untroubled mapping of the school onto the world at large is significant; at least, it’s another sign that, when we enter Hogwarts, we’re in the domain of fantasy. Rowling has said that, while she was planning the first book, I sat down and I created 40 kids who enter Harry’s year … I got 40 pretty fleshed-out characters (more details here); she doesn’t seem to have felt the need to draw any maps of the wizards’ world. Setting aside the question of whether the parallel British wizard society could possibly be sustainable on a birth-rate of 40 per year, you’ve got to wonder if Voldemort had any following outside Britain – and if not, why not.

In any case, it’s in Chamber of Secrets that we learn about Slytherin’s volkisch streak, and this in turn affects the way we think about Harry’s superior wizardliness. If Harry has something special about him – if the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities which lift him above our mundane level – then his gift can’t be something he was born with, or at least not something he could have been predicted to be born with. It’s no accident that the same book that introduces ‘Mudbloods’ also introduces ‘Squibs’, the unfavoured non-magical offspring of magical parents. (And there must be a hell of a lot of Squibs, unless the Weasleys are really way out on the right tail of the philoprogenitive curve – 40 per year, after all… They’d hardly need a Ministry of Magic, surely – a Greater Hogsmeade District Council would be ample. But never mind.) Hermione and Filch are both sports – magical ability comes and goes, and ultimately can’t be predicted from a person’s parentage or their external appearance. Magic itself is still pretty special – and the relationship between the magical world and ours isn’t any clearer in this book. Still, the disavowal of any idea of wizards as a separate caste does something to undo – or at least pull against – the sense that there’s a gulf of effortless superiority dividing Harry from the Dursleys, and other Muggles.

As for the question of the moral compass, this is the second of at least five books in which Harry’s loathing for members of Slytherin turns out to be misplaced. It’s a theme that gets predictable quite quickly – particularly when underscored by Ron’s stubborn failure to get it – but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rowling is emphatically not saying that Draco Malfoy is all right really, or (after the first book) that Snape is acting in Harry’s best interests. In this book it’s clear that Malfoy hates Harry because of school and social rivalry, and that he’s personally a nasty piece of work; his snobbish contempt for Ron is as telling here as his quasi-racist hatred of Hermione. (It’s somehow not surprising that real-world racism never rears its head at Hogwarts, despite the presence of Irish, Black and Asian kids.) However, it also becomes clear that he’s not working for the forces of darkness, as much as he might like to (or thinks he would). Similarly, Snape may have saved Harry’s life in the first book, but it’s clear that he means him no good. In particular, he would happily see him expelled – an unthinkable fate for Harry, as it would mean exchanging the charmed world of Hogwarts for the mundane (or hyper-mundane) setting of Privet Drive. But there’s disliking Harry and then there’s being evil; in this book Rowling insists that these are both real, but that they’re not identical. It’s a delicate balancing act – all the more so given that the nature of evil is never really spelt out, beyond the fact that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and would like to kill Harry. It’s particularly noticeable that Dumbledore, in the obligatory but there’s still one thing I don’t understand scene at the end of the book, declines to draw the line distinguishing ‘evil’ from ‘Slytherin':

‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Even if it’s tidied away at the end of the book, earlier on the Slytherin problem has productively blurred the line between the issues of heroism and morality, querying Harry’s claim both to superhuman heroism and moral certitude. The way in which this book tackles the question of omnipotence – does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? - also shows some overlap with the ‘moral compass’ question. Specifically, Harry’s key discovery in this book is that people get in the way – and that they do so in ways that aren’t, actually, evil. The key figure here is the ridiculous and worthless Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling’s authorial tone with regard to Lockhart never wavers; he is clearly an idiot who has made a career out of his own vanity, and who gains Harry’s respect only by virtue of his position as a teacher. And yet:

‘Oh, there you are, good,’ said Mrs Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. ‘We’ll be able to see him in a minute…’

Why,’ demanded Ron, seizing her timetable, ‘have you outlined all Lockhart’s lessons in little hearts?’ Hermione snatched the timetable back, blushing furiously.

Lockhart’s not merely incompetent, he’s dangerously incompetent – as well as being untrustworthy and a fraud. But he does have lovely hair and a nice smile, and it would be nice to believe he was genuine – and for a lot of people that’s enough to be going on with. Female people, primarily. (Is anyone gay at Hogwarts?)

Like Malvolio, Lockhart is at once a figure of fun and an annoyance, and his comeuppance is just as thorough as Malvolio’s. The final twist of the plot sees him deprived of his memory, the very faculty that enabled him to stitch together the character he made of himself. As a result he’s deprived of all significance, sidelined and reduced to an amiable childlike state. It’s interesting that the book where Lockhart does his turn also sees the first appearance of a much more significant figure, Cornelius Fudge. In this respect Chamber of Secrets foreshadows the third book, in which the theme that Lockhart embodies in comic form is taken up in earnest by Fudge: this man may be complacent, self-seeking and incompetent, but people believe him – people who wouldn’t, necessarily, believe you. There is stuff out there that’s unavoidably in the way, stuff that you just have to work round; there are people out there who will get in the way, without necessarily being evil. Thematically, Lockhart is part ‘omnipotence’ and part ‘moral compass'; in both respects this book moves on from the first one in some interesting ways.

But omnipotence, morality and heroism aren’t what the book is about – at least, they’re not the point of this book in particular. The best way to understand what it’s about is to take seriously two comments Rowling has made about the original draft of the book. One was that the plot was originally planned to reveal information which she decided to hold back to a later book; the other was that the book’s original title was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that she’d been forced to drop it when she realised it didn’t fit the plot. This clears up a couple of mysteries straight away: the similarity between the major plot devices of the two books is explained, as is the bizarrely creaky ‘Prince’ plot device used in the sixth book. (Admittedly this doesn’t explain why Rowling reused the title in the first place; I suppose she must really have liked it.)

As for the crucial information, I think the key exchange comes in that final exposition scene:

‘Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…’
‘Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?’ Harry said, thunderstruck.
‘It certainly seems so.’

By the time we reach the end of book six we know all about how, and why, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me“. (Settle down at the back there. This is family reading.) For now we’re left with a revelation that complements the revelation at the end of the first book. There’s something about Harry which protects him from evil, and which derives from his mother’s self-sacrifice to save him from Voldemort. But there’s also something about him which derives from Voldemort’s attack itself; the implication is that this will tend to draw him back towards Voldemort and destruction, like a delayed-action homing device.

The extent to which these motifs represent moral complexity, or fictional maturity, is debatable. As I wrote in the context of the first book, it’s arguable that Rowling is only going to leave the safety of comfort-zone fantasy for the equal and opposite safety of the discomfort zone – a fictional world whose heroes can be relied on to be powerless, unheroic, misguided and doomed. Lily’s shielding love and Voldemort’s contaminating Horcrinfluence are both all too compatible with a vision of Harry as an impotent plaything of fate, suffering horribly for his failure to attain the proper level of fantasy heroism. Whether they’re also compatible with Harry living in a real world – albeit a real world with magic – is much more debatable.

Alright, yeah

Stephen Lewis (via Dave) has a good and troubling post about the limits of the Web as a repository of knowledge.

while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees.

Lewis goes on to talk about the destruction of the National and University Library in Sarajevo, among other things. Read the whole thing.

But what particularly struck me was the first comment below the post.

I think you’re undervaluing the new primary sources going up online, and you’re undervaluing the new connections that are possible which parchment can’t compete with like this post I’m making to you. I definitely agree that there is a ton of great knowledge stored up in books and other offline sources, but people solve problems with the information they have, and in many communities – especially rural third world communities, offline sources are just as unreachable, if not more, than online sources.

This is a textbook example of how enthusiasts deal with criticism. (I’m not going to name the commenter, because I’m not picking on him personally.) It’s a reaction I’ve seen a lot in debates around Wikipedia, but I’m sure it goes back a lot further. I call it the “your criticism may be valid but” approach – it starts by formally conceding the criticism, thus avoiding the need to refute or even address it. Counter-arguments can then be deployed at will, giving the rhetorical effect of debate without necessarily addressing the original point. It’s a very persuasive style of argument.In this case there are three main strategies. The criticism may be valid…

I think you’re undervaluing the new primary sources going up online

but (#1) things are getting better all the time, and soon it won’t be valid any more! (This is a very common argument among ‘social software’ fans. Say something critical about Wikipedia on a public forum, then start your stopwatch. See also Charlie Stross’s ‘High Frontier’ megathread.)

you’re undervaluing the new connections that are possible which parchment can’t compete with like this post I’m making to you. … in many communities – especially rural third world communities, offline sources are just as unreachable, if not more, than online sources

but (#2) you’re just looking at the negatives and ignoring the positives, and that’s wrong! Look at the positives, never mind the negatives! (Also very common out on the Web 2.0 frontier.)

I definitely agree that there is a ton of great knowledge stored up in books and other offline sources, but people solve problems with the information they have

but (#3) …hey, we get by, don’t we? Does it really matter all that much?

I’m not a fan of Richard Rorty, but I believe that communities have conversations, and that knowledge lives in those conversations (even if some of them are very slow conversations that have been serialised to paper over the decades). I also believe that knowledge comes in domains, and that each domain follows the shape of the overall cloud of knowledge constituted by a conversation. But I’ve been in enough specialised communities (Unix geeks, criminologists, folk singers, journalists…) to know that there’s a wall of ignorance and indifference around each domain; there probably has to be, if we’re not to keel over from too much perspective. Your stuff, you know about and you know that you don’t know all that much; you know you’re not an expert. Their stuff, well, you know enough; you know all you need to know, and anyway how complicated can it be?

Enthusiasts are good people to have around; they hoard the knowledge and keep the conversation going, even when there’s a bit of a lull. The trouble is, they tend to keep the wall of ignorance and apathy in place while they’re doing it. The moral is, if your question is about something just outside a particular domain of knowledge, don’t ask an enthusiast – they’ll tell you there’s nothing there. (Or: there’s something there now, but it won’t be there for long. Or: there’s something there, but look at all the great stuff we’ve got here!)

Name isn’t Rio

I used to buy a lot of singles as a way of checking out new bands, & hyped new bands in particular (occasionally I still do). Trial by single is quick but brutal; once they’re in it, bands tend not to make it out of the “tried it, didn’t like it” box. They have, after all, been found guilty not only of being uninteresting, but of inducing me to waste money – and persuading a gullible press to make them look more interesting than they were. Shocking, really.

The result has been a definite thumbs down to Dark Star, Genelab and Nylon Pylon, among others. Going further back, there was this young Irish band about whom Dave McCullough, my favourite Sounds writer, was wetting himself – not the Virgin Prunes, the other one. So I bought their first single, but it didn’t do a lot for me. And that was pretty much it for U2. (I wonder where that single is now.)

With that in mind, I was a little disappointed to see that – according to iTunes – my copy of the Arctic Monkeys’ first album has the following track listing:

arctic.png

Fortunately what you actually hear while it’s playing is the edgy, hyper-literate Yorkshire racket we know and love. Presumably somebody’s hacked Gracenote – which seems, appropriately, like a very punk thing to do, give or take thirty years’ worth of technology.

I don’t know, though. The Arctic Monkeys’ cover of “Where the streets have no name” would be something to hear. Perhaps this could be the track listing for that difficult third album.

Not too much more

4% of 568 is 22.72. Hold on to that thought.

A ‘unit’ of alcohol is actually 10 ml; if you’re a man, your recommended weekly dosage amounts to a bit less than a pint of gin, or rather more than half a pint of cask strength whisky, or rather less than half a pint of pure alcohol. Don’t drink it all at once.

But what, I hear you ask, what about beer? I refer the honourable reader to the answer previously supplied. A pint of bitter at 4% alcohol by volume will contain 22.72 ml of alcohol, or slightly more than two and a quarter units. Two and a quarter isn’t all that handy as figures go, but it’s a lot handier than 2.272. Apart from anything else, two and a quarter translates nicely to the improper fraction 9/4, which is handy. Say, for the sake of argument, that you want to know the strength (in ‘units’) of a pint of something at 4.5% a.b.v. (e.g. the Marble Brewery’s renowned Ginger Marble), or indeed something at 6% (e.g. the Marble Brewery’s hard-to-find Special Ginger Marble, which I tasted last Friday). Simple: all you need is fractions. First you calculate the ratio of 4.5% to 4%, which is (9/2) / 4; invert the second term to get 9/2 * 1/4; multiply out to get 9/8. Then you just need to multiply that original 9/4 – the number of ‘units’ in a pint of 4% a.b.v., you’ll remember – by the 9/8 ratio; you end up with 81/32, which is as near as dammit 80/32 or 5/2. Two and a half units, in other words. (For the 6% the ratio is 6/4 or 3/2, meaning that when you multiply out you get 27/8, or nearly three and a half.)

This, I’m sure you’re saying at this point, is all very well, but what about situations when I may want to sample a wide variety of drinks of different strengths? What if I were to visit the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, whose programme boasts an impressive 120 beers, a startling 34 ciders and a frankly alarming 18 perries? (This isn’t advertising – the festival was last weekend.) Oh, you might say, I can always carry on drinking while I’m feeling pleasantly drunk and stop when I start feeling unpleasantly drunk, but experience warns that this may not always be sufficient to ward off inebriation-related mishaps such as stopping for ghastly fast food on the way home, stopping for a drink on the way home (how could that have been a good idea?), falling asleep on the bus and ending up in Bolton, feeling thoroughly ill for the rest of the weekend, etc. To which I reply, think of the units. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you know from experience that three pints at 4.5% is a decent evening out, four pints is chancy for mid-week, five is a bit rocky the next day and six is definitely too much of a good thing. (I do remember managing seven once; I don’t remember how I got home, though.) Then multiply out by the units, two and a half per pint. So ten is fine, twelve is time to slow down and if you reach fifteen you should have stopped already.

Then – and this, frankly, is the clever bit – you work out what concentration of alcohol you’d have to be drinking to reach your selected limit in half a pint. We know that a pint at 4% contains 9/4 units, from which it follows that half a pint contains 9/8. So to get ten units in half a pint, the level of alcohol by volume would need to be (10 / (9/8)) * 4, or 10/1 * 8/9 * 4, or 80/9 * 4, or as near as dammit 9 * 4: 36%. Then all you need to do is tot up the percentages of the halves you drink (no shame in drinking halves at a beer festival; most of the people there were drinking from lined half-pint tankards), and stop when you hit 36. Or, if you’re aiming for 12, do the whole thing again and… stop at 42.

I worked all that out in the stands at Edgeley Park, gazing into the distance and vaguely trying to separate out crowd noise, traffic noise and aeroplane noise, between a half of the aforesaid Special Ginger Marble and one of something with the uncompromising name of Blackcurrant Stout. (Unfortunately, this tasted exactly like you’d expect, say, Murphy’s and black to taste. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.) In the event I was slightly disappointed by the beer range, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. On one hand, the range was just too big – you might not go in expecting to sample everything, but with 120 beers on offer over three days even the most dedicated ticker would have to leave the great majority untasted. And you’ve got to try a rarity like the Special Ginger Marble, and the odd novelty, and the odd strong beer like Phoenix Earthquake (7.3% and very nice indeed), not to mention the odd cider or perry – and how many bitters does that leave room for? At the same time, the mainstream ales were very big on the hoppy style and rather light on the darker, more malty bitters. All very Manchester – rather more Manchester than Stockport, in fact – but still a bit disappointing. I felt alternately spoilt for choice and stuck for choice. On the cider and perry front, on the other hand, spoilt was the word. I ended up skipping the cider and trying two perries, in one case because I was intrigued by the name: Stinking Bishop. All rapidly became clear: the taste is interesting – not unpleasant if you don’t mind being reminded of ripe Brie while you’re drinking your perry – but the smell… Yes, this is in fact a perry which stinks. Well done, Minchew’s. The Blakeney Red perry from Gwynt y Ddraig was rather fine, on the other hand, despite the name of the brewery translating as Dragon’s Fart. There must be something about growing pears that brings out a sophisticated sense of humour.

I worked all that out – and I stopped at 35.7, because I’d been feeling tired – but I only realised much later that most of the calculations had been completely wasted. Let’s say that I’m aiming for the equivalent of four pints at 4.5%; to find the half-pint equivalent, I just need to multiply 4.5% by the ratio of four to a half, or 8. So you can get to the same result with a lot less mental arithmetic. But really, where’s the fun in that?

Fighting again

Andy draws our attention to this statement by Alex Callinicos (‘for the SWP Central Committee’):

as we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’, ‘if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.

There are three propositions here. Firstly, US imperialism essentially rules the world and will quash any development in the direction of socialism or self-rule, unless it can be challenged by military force. For the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America to develop, they needed political space – and a decisive contribution to creating the space was made by the resistance to the invasion of Iraq, specifically by its success in tying down the Pentagon’s military machine. It follows (secondly) that setbacks to US imperialism – and, specifically, military setbacks – are more important and more worthy of support than any developments in the direction of socialism, since these are only possible on the condition that US imperialism is defeated (or at least tied down). Hence the resistance in Iraq matters more than the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America; they may be more advanced politically, but Iraq is the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism. It follows that building the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’ is more important than solidarity work with Venezuela (or Bolivia, or anywhere else not currently in a state of war with the US). Thirdly, for us in the advanced capitalist world the anti-imperialist struggle of the Iraqi resistance is especially relevant, since the countries of the advanced capitalist world are, not to put too fine a point on it, doing the damage. This is therefore a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than mere ‘cheerleading’.

My problem with this analysis starts at the end. To start with, I’m not at all clear what the ‘task’ being proposed actually is. I don’t believe the SWP is advocating the formation of an International Brigade to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi resistance, or calling for the disruption of the British war effort; I don’t even believe they go so far as to cheerlead for the Iraqi resistance, at least not in material intended for public consumption. If revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world have any role in the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’, it seems to consist of a demonstrative withdrawal of support from that war – and we hardly need a revolutionary cadre to do that.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that expressing opposition to the war in Iraq is in fact a contribution to the struggle against US imperialism. Even if this were the case, I’d struggle to see how this would take priority over more positive developments towards socialism. This point relates to Callinicos’s other assertion, that mobilising against the war is a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies. For that to be the case, this would surely have to be a campaign that resonated with broader social issues and found points of leverage within existing divisions in society. (If you remember the miners’ strike, think how that single issue ramified into areas from gender roles to welfare spending to nuclear power – all of them deeply contentious and all offering a terrain for further mobilisation.) By contrast, almost nobody outside Westminster actually supports the war; this is not in any obvious way a divisive issue, which severely limits its potential for broader mobilisation. (The SWP’s sotto voce endorsement of the Iraqi resistance has the opposite problem, as hardly anyone outside the party agrees with it.)

The point, for the depleted forces of the Left in the advanced capitalist world, has to be what we can actually achieve. The implicit assumption underlying Callinicos’s analysis seems to be that, in ourselves and for ourselves, we can achieve nothing. Globally, the precondition for any advance towards socialism is the military defeat of our own nation and its allies; in the absence of that, every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism will be doomed. This is politics reimagined as a game of Risk: a nation can only be available for Socialism if it’s not occupied by Imperialism, or if Imperialism has had to send its armies elsewhere. The message for socialists in nations of the Imperialist heartland (such as this one) is simple: don’t you know there’s a war on? Any other demands can and should be suspended for the duration.

I find this a bleak and, effectively, anti-political world view; I find it hard to imagine it being held seriously by anyone who’d recently been involved in a political campaign in this country. Because there is still class conflict in advanced capitalist nations; we may be aristocrats of labour on a world scale, but there are still divisions for socialists to open up, contradictions to exacerbate – and gains to be made. I don’t pretend to know the best or most fruitful approach to doing so, but I am pretty sure it won’t begin with a demand that’s embarrassingly uncontroversial (“Troops out of Iraq”) – or one that’s just plain embarrassing (“Victory to the Iraqi resistance!”).

To live in

I’ve been going through my non-fiction and turning out a lot of stuff that I’ve never read or never want to read again. There goes a biography of Herzl, one of Philip K. Dick and two biographies of Ezra Pound (what was I thinking?); there goes a book on Yugoslavia called “The Improbable Survivor” (of its time, that one). I’ve no longer got anything by Boris Kagarlitsky, Meaghan Morris or Bernard Porter; my holdings of Chomsky, Pauline Kael, Anthony Summers and Brinsley le Poer Trench are all severely reduced. (B. le P. T. (a.k.a. Lord Clancarty) was the author of some of the worst UFO books you’re ever likely to see.) When the charity shop sees this lot, I said to my wife, they’ll think three different people have died. “In a way they have,” she said, consolingly.

What does that leave? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a complete list of authors by whom I’ve got three or more books:

Perry Anderson
John Berger
Jan Harold Brunvand
James Cameron
Guy Debord
Michael Foot
Paul Ginsborg
Stephen Jay Gould
Ken Knabb
Sebastian Moore
Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham
Christopher Norris
George Orwell
Fredy Perlman
Douglas Reed
Sheila Rowbotham
E.P. Thompson
Raoul Vaneigem
Marina Warner
Raymond Williams

The Noakes and Pridham volumes are a trilogy & were all bought together, which almost disqualifies them, but not quite. Sebastian Moore is or was a Catholic mystic; his books were all presents (from two different people). Douglas Reed was a British National Socialist (tendance Strasser); his loathing of Hitler seems to have made his views palatable to publishers (who apparently never asked why he hated Hitler). And the Perry Andersons only just survived the cull; I haven’t read any of them. One of these days, possibly.

Jake Thackray used to introduce a Christian-themed song by saying, This is a song of which I’m not particularly… ashamed. I feel a bit like that about hanging on to my Cameron and my Gould and all that bloody Orwell: not especially proud, but not, particularly, ashamed.

Not that funny

Ellis:

[Podhoretz]also barks:

As with Finlandization, Islamization extends to the domestic realm, too. In one recent illustration of this process, as reported in the British press, “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils . . . whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.” (ellipses in original)

Now when you use apostrophes like that you indicate that you are quoting something. And there’s a trifling scholarly convention that you indicate in a footnote what it is you are citing and where an interested reader can find it. But Podhoretz is above the petty restrictions of conventional scholarship. He cites in a vacuum. There are no footnotes. His dubious quotations float in a void. And this particular citation is patently bogus. It sounds like some feverish nonsense copied from a Melanie Philips column.

It does, rather – not least because of Podhoretz’s own editoralisation. “Schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”, eh? OK, let’s say that a school in this town and another school down the road independently decide to scrub round the Holocaust in their History lessons, because the teachers get sick of mouthy kids chipping in – but Sir it didn’t actually happen like that did it Sir? Now, there are only so many lessons in the week and only so many topics you can teach; it’s not inconceivable that you could design a History curriculum that skipped the Holocaust, for convenience’s sake. I did History O Level, time back way back, and I don’t remember the Holocaust even being mentioned when we covered World War II. (There was a Holocaust denier in my class, as it happens, although he was a born-again Christian and there was just the one of him.)

Still, this would be a pretty depressing scenario. What it wouldn’t be, necessarily, is an illustration of a broader process, a symptom of the creeping tide of Islamization from which only the righteous vigilance of a Podhoretz can save us. For that to be the case, rather than simply opting for a quiet life, the schools would have to be following the agenda – or at least cutting with the cultural grain – of the local education authority, or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian… or, well, somebody. If this is the tip of an iceberg, there has to be an iceberg.

So, where is Podhoretz getting his information from, and does it justify the spin he put on it? For a start, where did that phrase come from? I googled. The first thing I discovered was that it’s a phrase with legs: 24 hits for “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust” from a variety of sources, including an open letter to the government from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (not pleased). Rephrase and google for “schools are dropping the Holocaust”, and bingo:

Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government-backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.

There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. The findings have prompted claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’.

Yes, it’s our old friend the Daily Hate-Mail, putting its own spin on a “Government-backed study”. More on that in a moment. In passing, it’s worth noting that the Hate‘s story even misrepresents itself; there are no claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’. Here’s the quoted phrase in context, from further down the same page:

Chris McGovern, history education adviser to the former Tory government, said: “History is not a vehicle for promoting political correctness. Children must have access to knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable.”

McGovern must have seemed like a soft touch for a why-oh-why anti-multiculti quote – he’s the director of “the traditionalist History Curriculum Association” and complained recently that kids these days aren’t taught about the positive consequences of imperial rule. But what he actually said doesn’t include any claims about what ‘some schools’ are doing. In fact it’s rather embarrassingly adrift from the story, which is about Holocaust denial rather than political correctness. The Hate‘s distortion of McGovern’s words turns them into a thin, tendentious link between the two, insinuating that accommodating pupils with denialist views is political correctness – and, in the process, suggesting that these Holocaust-avoiding schools are acting with the approval of the local education authority (or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian, or, well, somebody).

So, what does it actually say in this “Government-backed study”? See for yourself: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19 can be downloaded from this page. And Ellis’s instincts were right: the report doesn’t associate Holocaust denial with ‘political correctness’ and it certainly doesn’t approve of it. The line of the report is very much that schoolkids should have access to “knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable”. Nor, in actual fact, does it say “schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”; for that matter, it doesn’t say that there is generalised resistance to teaching the Crusades in ways that often contradict what is taught in local mosques. Here’s what it says, in a section headed Constraints to the teaching of emotive and controversial history, sub-heading “Teacher avoidance of emotive and controversial history”:

Teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned. Some feel that certain issues are inappropriate for particular age groups or decide in advance that pupils lack the maturity to grasp them. Where teachers lack confidence in their subject knowledge or subject-specific pedagogy, this can also be a reason for avoiding certain content. Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship. Some teachers also feel that the issues are best avoided in history, believing them to be taught elsewhere in the curriculum such as in citizenship or religious education.

For example, a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils. In another department, teachers were strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination. In another history department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques.

Where teachers model the processes of critical enquiry that characterise the adult discipline of the subject, history teaching may well clash with a narrow and highly partisan version of family or communal history in which some pupils have been reared.

One History department avoided selecting the Holocaust. Another department (singular) did teach the Holocaust but avoided teaching the Crusades. And a Government-backed study held up the pair of them as an example to avoid, encouraged other schools to do better, and offered twenty pages of recommendations and examples of best practice to help them. In short, there’s no sign here of creeping Islamization, and no evidence of a ‘politically-correct’ campaign to avoid offending Muslims even at the expense of historical truth. There is, apparently, a small minority of kids out there who are being brought up Holocaust deniers, which is disturbing. But it sounds as if most schools are dealing with that minority appropriately – and a Government-backed study has encouraged those which aren’t doing so to get their act together.

In 1943, commenting on the Tory press’s new-found fondness for anti-Nazi atrocity stories, George Orwell reminded us that some things are true even if the Daily Telegraph says they are. I don’t think he was ever that generous to the Mail.

Walking your dogs

Last week’s council elections, apart from being very bad news for Labour, told an interesting story about the state of the smaller parties in England. (I’ll leave commenting on the state of the smaller parties in Scotland to those better qualified.)

Smaller parties trying to get established have three problems which make it particularly hard to build support – and which need to be taken into account when we read the results. The most obvious is churn – gaining seats in one area while losing them in another, perhaps because your party’s better suited to harvesting protest votes than to turning out potential councillors. A related problem is the ghost town: a minor party may well be able to make a breakthrough in a ward where elections have had lower than usual turnouts, or gone uncontested – but that’s not to say that they’ll be able to hold it next time round. The third problem for small parties is that of defectors. It’s good to get a defector from one of the big parties – it shows your ideas are making headway and gives you one more voice – but you’ve got to wonder what will happen when they next have to stand for re-election, competing with their old party. (My own Labour councillor lost her seat to a Liberal Democrat this time round; I only discovered after the vote that she’d won the seat as a Liberal Democrat herself, then defected to Labour.) You could even argue that you wouldn’t want a defector to get re-elected, at least not by a big majority – how much of it would they owe to their new-found embodiment of your party’s values, and how much to their personal appeal?

With all of this in mind, here are some figures. I’ve distinguished between seats contested this time round and those which weren’t – if a party goes into an election with 15 seats overall and comes out with 11, this is a much worse result if only 5 seats were contested than if all 15 were. Where seats are lost, I’ve also distinguished between defectors from other parties and home-grown candidates; losing a defector is a misfortune but a predictable one, which doesn’t necessarily say much about the health of the party. I’m listing results for the Greens, RESPECT and the BNP; I’m not including the Socialist Party because the numbers are too small (four seats not contested this time, one defended and lost, no gains). I might have included UKIP (who defended six seats this time, lost three of them and gained two), but nobody seems to know how many councillors they have overall (and I do mean nobody).

  RESPECT BNP Green Party
Starting total 18 48 93
Not contested 15 39 48
Contested 3 9 45
Lost (defectors) 2 1 3
Lost (own) 0 7 3
Held 1 1 39
Gained 2 8 24
Gained + Held 3 9 63
Final total 18 48 111

Two of these parties described the result as a ‘breakthrough'; the third, more downbeat, conceded that “the number of seats won and lost suggests that the Party is standing still” but drew some consolation from a list of second- and third-placed candidates. I’ll let you guess which the two optimists are; I’ll come back to it at the end of the post, like one of Frank Muir’s shaggy dog stories on My Word.

Now for those problems. Churn is most obviously a problem for the BNP. Despite standing over 700 candidates across the country, the fash managed only to gain enough new seats to offset the existing councillors who lost their seats – most of whom had been elected as BNP. There is abundant evidence that, when given the responsibilities of a councillor, BNP members tend not to be terrifically good at carrying them out; a 1/8 hold rate suggests that this impression is quite widespread. Or else, perhaps more probably, that the voters who elected those seven BNP councillors never actually wanted to, you know, elect a BNP councillor, so much as to ‘send a message’ to the major parties.

RESPECT, similarly, had exactly as many gains as losses. However, the main factor here wasn’t churn but the defector problem. All three of these parties lost at least one defector at this election; the Greens lost two ex-Liberal Democrats and one former Labour councillor, while the BNP lost the services of the former Conservative councillor, non-aligned clergyman and all-round interesting character Robert West. As I’ve said, this isn’t a surprising outcome. (At least one defector to the Greens did hold his seat, but I doubt there were many others.) But the vulnerability of defectors is a particularly pressing problem for RESPECT at the moment. Two weeks before the election, in fact, RESPECT had 20 councillors rather than 18. On the 1st of May, a councillor in Tower Hamlets defected back to Labour; he’d been elected for RESPECT in 2006, but described himself at the time as “leaving New Labour to join Respect“. Preston had two RESPECT councillors before this election; however, one of them (Steven Brooks) had defected from Labour since being elected, and decided to stand down rather than fight the solidly Labour Tulketh ward. That left one councillor, the SWP’s Mike Lavalette, who has been re-elected with an increased majority. The recruitment of Steven Brooks was Lavalette’s second attempt at building a RESPECT group in Preston; his first ally, former local Labour Chair Elaine Abbott, defected to RESPECT in 2004, lost her seat at the next election and has not won it back yet. In fact, the people of Preston have yet to elect a single RESPECT councillor from scratch; Lavalette himself was first elected for the Socialist Alliance back in 2003.

As for RESPECT’s other two sitting councillors before these elections, Abdul Aziz in Birmingham and Wayne Muldoon in Charnwood (a.k.a. Loughborough), both were defectors, from the Liberal Democrats and Labour respectively. Neither had been re-elected for RESPECT before, and neither managed it this time. Aziz was beaten by the Labour candidate, pushing his old party in third place; Muldoon, standing in a two-member ward, got a lower vote than any of the six candidates of the three main parties. The list of unsuccessful RESPECT candidates also features a number of ex-councillors, would-be councillors and former activists with other parties – Labour (Keith Adshead in Sunderland and Raghib Ahsan in Birmingham); Liberal Democrat (Tafazzal Hussain in Sunderland); independent (Les Marsh in York) and indiscriminate (Sajid Mehmood, a community activist and ex-member of both Labour and the Conservative Party, in Calderdale (a.k.a. Halifax)).

It’s only fair to mention that RESPECT did make two gains in these elections, and that one of them – Ray Holmes’ win in Bolsover – saw the party come from nowhere to take 53% of the vote. That said, Bolsover is an unusual case. Eight of the town’s 20 wards were uncontested, and returned every candidate who stood (thirteen Labour councillors and one Independent); of the other twelve, eight were contested only by Labour and Independent or residents’ association candidates. That leaves four wards, each of which was a two-way battle between Labour and one other party: one ward each for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the BNP and RESPECT (only the last of whom won). In short, RESPECT are going to have to watch out for the ghost town problem; another time their success could be emulated – and challenged – by other parties (particularly the Liberal Democrats, eternal harvesters of protest votes). We can see how this might work if we look at Ashfield, one of the places where the Greens lost an elected councillor this time out. When Mark Harrison was elected, he and another Green came first and second in a field of four; it was a straight Green/Labour fight, and turnout was around 25%. This time, turnout was up to 40%; two Liberal Democrats were elected, and Harrison was fifth in a field of eight. Keeping a foothold in Bolsover could be particularly tricky for RESPECT, as Holmes’s ward seems likely to disappear. Mindful of Bolsover’s shrinking population and the precipitous decline of some areas in particular, the Electoral Commission has proposed repartitioning the town into fewer and more evenly-balanced wards; Holmes’s ward, Shirebrook North West, is one of the smallest, with a population little over 1,000. Holmes’s 53% translates as 295 votes – compare the 297 votes which got Maggie Clifford 3% of the vote in Brighton’s Hangleton and Knoll ward.

So which two parties called this election a ‘breakthrough’? One was the Green Party, which did after all add a swathe of councillors in some areas (six in Brighton and Hove, five in Lancaster) as well as getting into three figures nationally. The other was RESPECT:

Breakthrough for Respect
04/05/2007

In every ward in which it stood, Respect proved a serious player not only to the smaller parties but to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.

Respect was extremely popular in all seven wards it stood in Birmingham. It came in second in two wards and third in four wards, comfortably beating the Greens and the BNP in all seven wards where it stood.

Altogether, Respect elected 3 councillors, bringing the total to 20[sic] across the country. It also secured eight second places and thirteen third places.

Nationally, in the overwhelming majority of wards where Respect challenged the BNP, it secured more votes. The despair produced by Labour’s record has been susceptible to manipulation by the BNP but where Respect stood, more voters chose a progressive and anti-racist alternative to both New Labour and the BNP. Respect also outpolled the Greens on nearly every occasion where they both stood in the same ward.

I dare say all of that is true as it stands, or most of it – but it’s a distinctly selective assessment. If we’re going to compare RESPECT with the BNP and the Greens, I think it’s relevant to note that the BNP successfully defended as many seats as RESPECT (one each), won eight seats to RESPECT’s two, and can cite rather more than eight second places. As for the Greens, they may have melted into nothingness when they were challenged by a RESPECT candidacy, but they did succeed in defending 39 seats and winning another 18 net. To put it another way, they went into the election with over four times as many councillors as RESPECT, and came out of it with over five times as many.

All three parties lost seats gifted to them by defectors from other parties. The Greens and the BNP were affected by churn, the BNP very badly; the Greens (and probably the BNP) also lost seats which had been won on protest votes in ghost town seats. RESPECT weren’t affected by either of these factors, not because of the party’s strength but because of its weakness: the party only defended three seats, and two of those were held by defectors. What’s more important is that, on the evidence of the closing figures, the Greens are now capable of building and sustaining a large enough base not to be affected adversely by these factors: to gain 24 seats while only losing 6 is not at all shabby. The other two parties, for good and ill, are still well below that level. Eight BNP gains was eight too many, and it could easily have been worse – four BNP candidates were in second place by less than 100 votes, while a fifth (in Burnley) actually tied with the eventual (Labour) winner. But for eight gains to be cancelled out by eight losses suggests very strongly that English neo-fascism is still primarily a protest vote – albeit one that lingers on stubbornly in several white working-class areas, like political herpes.

And RESPECT? So far from making a breakthrough, these results suggest that RESPECT barely exists as a continuing political force. On Wednesday 2nd the party was represented, outside the East End, in Preston (two wards), Birmingham (two wards) and Loughborough; on Friday 4th it was Preston (one ward), Birmingham (two councillors in one ward) and Bolsover. Even Mike Lavalette’s impressive win lost some of its shine for me when I learned that his campaign had been prioritised by RESPECT across the North West. I’m sure Lavalette was worth re-electing, but the North West’s a big place. To prioritise Lavalette at the expense of the rest of Preston would have been something of an admission of weakness. To bring people in from as far away as Manchester – where the Socialist Alliance had candidates in six different wards in 2003 – suggests that the party is cutting its coat according to some very scanty cloth. Meanwhile, as the RESPECT candidate list shows, a lot of ambitious, disappointed or excluded people from all walks of political life are pinning their hopes on the party, hoping to follow George Galloway’s example at a local level. I don’t think much of their chances; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, by the next council elections, several defectors have given up waiting for the great leap forward and re-ratted.

We need a Left alternative to New Labour, but RESPECT clearly isn’t it. For the moment, the party is doing better on a local level than the Socialist Party or the post-traumatic SSP, but that’s not much to boast about. On the other hand, its achievements are dwarfed by those of the Greens – who are, among other things, more coherently anti-capitalist than RESPECT’s broad-front reformism will permit it to be. A workers’ party would be a good thing to vote for, but to organise one will take more combative times than these (and younger people than me to do the organising). Till then, the Greens will continue to get my vote.

And start again

From the ‘found while looking for something else’ file.

In May 2003 the Iraq invasion had just been declared complete; nobody knew quite how bad things were going to get. So the chances are that Danish academic Per Mouritsen wasn’t thinking about Iraq when he wrote this:

Peasants of Piemonte or Bretagne did not begin to accept their taxes or respect laws emanating from Rome or Paris before they could see themselves as belonging to a community stretching beyond the nearest villages and as a people with a state of their own. They would only do this when patriotic subjectivities were created by churches and armies – and when given material reasons for citizenship in the shape of schools, hospitals and the opportunity to channel grievances towards a recognisable political centre. The point was recently demonstrated in Eastern Europe. Civil society did not just need liberation from totalitarian states, but also something else and better instead. There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state – difficult as this is. In the absence of such a state or the relatively recent memory of one, instead of citizens there will be alienated individuals, fending for themselves, instead of market capitalism there will be mafia economies, and instead of velvet revolutions there will be more stolen ones

There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state. In other words, you can’t just blow the ‘totalitarian’ lid off a society and assume that peace and democracy will develop of their own accord. To be a citizen is to be a part of social institutions – and if those institutions aren’t there, calling yourself a citizen will mean about as much as calling yourself a constitutional monarchist in China, or a Communist in Cheltenham.

Ten years dead

First, have a look at this table; it represents some highlights from the voting records of two MPs in the 2001-5 parliament. Neither of them’s particularly far to the Left or Right – they both voted for the Iraq war and for a lower age of consent for gays, for example. But there are some definite differences, most of them pointing in one direction.

Policy MP 1 MP 2
Control Orders 100% 0%
Foundation hospitals 100% 30%
Fox hunting ban 100% 0%
Liberalised gambling 100% 25%
Elected House of Lords 100% 38%
Iraq Investigation 3% 97%
Restrictions on protest near Parliament 98% 46%
Legalise recreational drugs 50% 16%
Smoking ban 42% 4%
Terrorism laws 100% 13%
University education fees 93% 1%

Some pretty consistent differences, I think you’ll agree. I’ll come back to that later.

I wanted to tell you about this letter we got today. It was very exciting, it didn’t have a stamp on but both our names were on the envelope, handwritten in blue biro. There was a single sheet of blue notepaper inside, also handwritten in blue biro but opening “Dear Neighbour”. Apparently our Liberal Democrat candidate “just wanted to write to say thank you for the warm welcome”. So not only has he forgotten our names between the envelope and the letter itself, he’s forgotten that he’s never actually met us. All very odd.

Closer inspection revealed a “Printed by…” rubric along the bottom of the sheet, leading me to suspect that the note wasn’t actually written by a human hand. Even closer inspection suggested that it wasn’t composed by a human brain. One paragraph reads as follows:

Across our city the Liberal Democrats have pledged to put more police on the beat to tackle rising crime levels. It was an honour to take more than 5,000 petition signatures for more police on the beat to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing St. The Conservatives and Greens are losing support and cannot possibly win in our area.

RACTER, is that you?

The letter came with a leaflet which reminded us that the candidate’s a local lad and that the Lib Dems are the only party that can beat Labour, in this area. Apparently the council election in this particular ward is a “two-horse race”, which sounds quite unusual. And there was a bar graph showing the relative support of Labour and the Lib Dems at the last election, although I’m not entirely sure it was to scale, and…

enough already. What Kerron Cross said in answer to the question “Why do you take such a dislike of the Lib Dems?” has been widely quoted around the Web, and rightly so. They’re a bunch of unprincipled, opportunistic chancers – or rather, they’re a bunch of opportunistic chancers on principle, cheerfully committed to offering the people whatever the people tell them they want. In practice they’re still rather to the Left of Labour on most things (at least in this area), which might mean that one more Liberal Democrat councillor would do some good – but actually voting for them would stick in the craw.

Labour, then? I don’t think so. As I wrote in comments at Bill’s this morning, Voting Labour means voting for Best Value, for PFI and for the evisceration of local democracy through elected mayors and salaried ‘cabinets’ – these are the things Labour has actually done, and if we endorse them they’ll do more of the same. And that’s just some of the local issues. Then there’s Iraq. And then there’s everything else. The idea that Blair was a great Prime Minister and a popular hero right up until Iraq has been mooted recently – notably on the ITV News last night, which floated the word ‘IRAQ’, Mysteron-style, across tableaux intended to represent New Labour’s successes. In today’s Indie, Mark Steel gave this idea a well-deserved kicking:

perhaps there’s another explanation for the decline of Blair and his project. The joy felt by so many at the fall of the Conservatives was a sense of a new atmosphere; an end to an era in which greed triumphed over all. At least to some extent, there’d now be a challenge to the rule of excessive wealth. And here we are. As one newspaper fumed with rage yesterday that “this has been the greatest decade in British history for the very, very wealthy. Under New Labour the worth of the 1,000 richest people in the country has soared by 263 per cent. It has indeed been their platinum age.” And the newspaper complaining about this was the Daily Mail. The Daily Bastard Mail.

It wasn’t one mistake or one flawed policy that eroded all that initial optimism, it was New Labour’s very meaning. In fact, Blair’s support for Bush was a result of that adoration for the wealthy and powerful. Iraq wasn’t an aberration, it was a consequence of all he stood for.

I disagree with Steel on one thing, though.

Ten years ago today was brilliant. It was a euphoric sunny optimistic morning. It’s hard to remember it like that, just as it’s hard to recall you had a wonderful romantic wedding day, if it turned out you’d married a junkie who then sold your furniture and smoked your hamster.

But that shouldn’t rob of us of that night of joy – Mellor, Hamilton, the ones you’ve forgotten like Waldegrave – then that glorious awesome sight, containing an inner transcendental beauty like a majestic sunset over the Pacific: the demise of Portillo.

I remember that; I was still up for Portillo, as they say. I remember Portillo looking rather dignified in defeat, and Stephen Twigg looking like a smirk in a suit. I’ve learnt since that the candidates already know the result when it’s announced; Twigg did a very bad job of hiding it. It didn’t bode well.

Policy MP 1 MP 2
Control Orders 100% 0%
Foundation hospitals 100% 30%
Fox hunting ban 100% 0%
Liberalised gambling 100% 25%
Elected House of Lords 100% 38%
Iraq Investigation 3% 97%
Restrictions on protest near Parliament 98% 46%
Legalise recreational drugs 50% 16%
Smoking ban 42% 4%
Terrorism laws 100% 13%
University education fees 93% 1%

It’s that table again. MP 1 is Twigg; MP 2 is Portillo, who was re-elected in 2001.

So, if you support university tuition fees, control orders, PFI, more casinos and a clamp-down on protest, vote Labour. If you don’t, then… well, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you vote Tory, even if Michael Portillo is standing in your ward. But think about who you’re voting for and what they’re going to do with that mandate. Voting Green (say) may seem useless or unrealistic, but voting Labour because of what the party used to be or what it ought to be is just as unrealistic – and it’s worse than useless, because your vote will go to support the party as it is now.

The party could change; the very fact that the Lib Dems are using such a left-wing pitch shows that there’s a constituency for policies well to the left of New Labour. And perhaps, after Blair, the party can change. I’ll believe it when I see it – but it’s hard not to feel some hope at the prospect of a post-Blair era. I’ll give the last word to Tessa Jowell, of all people:

There will, of course, be sadness when Tony departs. He has led this party to historic victory after historic victory. But we have to take a lesson from the American songwriter, activist and trade unionist Joe Hill, whose last words to his supporters were: ‘Don’t mourn, organise’. And that is exactly what we must all do together.

I think she might be right.

All those numbers

I like a good fallacy; I managed to get the Base Rate Fallacy, the Hawthorne Effect and Goodhart’s Law into one lecture I gave recently. So I was intrigued to run across this passage in Jock Young’s 2004 essay “Voodoo Criminology and the numbers game” (you can find a draft in pdf form here):

Legions of theorists from Robert K Merton through to James Q Wilson have committed Giffen’s paradox: expressing their doubts about the accuracy of the data and then proceeding to use the crime figures with seeming abandon, particularly in recent years when the advent of sophisticated statistical analysis is, somehow, seen to grant permission to skate over the thin ice of insubstantiality.

I like a good fallacy, but paradoxes are even better. So, tell me more about Giffen’s paradox:

Just as with Giffen’s paradox, where the weakness of the statistics is plain to the researchers yet they continue to force-feed inadequate data into their personal computers

Try as I might, I wasn’t seeing the paradox there. A footnote referenced

Giffen, P. (1965), ‘Rates of Crime and Delinquency’ in W. McGrath (ed.), Crime Treatment in Canada

I didn’t have W. McGrath (ed.), Crime Treatment in Canada by me at the time, so I did the next best thing and Googled. I rapidly discovered that Giffen’s paradox is also known as the Giffen paradox, that it’s associated with Giffen goods, and that it’s got nothing to do with Giffen, P. (1965):

Proposed by Scottish economist Sir Robert Giffen (1837-1910) from his observations of the purchasing habits of the Victorian poor, the Giffen paradox states that demand for a commodity increases as its price rises.

Raise the price of bread when there are people on the poverty line – ignoring for the moment the fact that this makes you the rough moral equivalent of Mengele – and those people will buy more bread, to substitute for the meat they’re no longer able to afford. It’s slightly reassuring to note that, notwithstanding Sir Robert’s observations of the Victorian poor, economists have subsequently questioned whether the Giffen paradox has ever actually been observed.

But none of this cast much light on those researchers force-feeding their personal computers with inadequate data. Eventually I tracked down W. McGrath (ed.), Crime Treatment in Canada. It turns out that the less famous Giffen did in fact describe the willingness of researchers to rely on statistics, after having registered caveats about their quality, as a paradox (albeit “one of the less important paradoxes of modern times”). I still can’t see that this rises to the level of paradox: surely being upfront about the quality of the data you’re processing is what a statistical analyst should do. If initial reservations don’t carry through into the conclusion that’s another matter – but that’s not a paradox, that’s just misrepresentation.

Paradoxical or not, Giffen’s observation accords with Young’s argument in the paper, which is that criminologists, among other social scientists, place far too much trust in statistical analysis: statistics are only as good as the methods used to produce them, methods which in many cases predictably generate gaps and errors.

It’s a good argument but not a very new or surprising one (perhaps it was newer in 1965). Moreover, Young pushes it in some odd directions. The paper reminded me of Robert Martinson’s 1974 study of rehabilitation programmes, “What Works?” – or rather, of how that paper was received. Martinson demonstrated that no study had conclusively shown any form of rehabilitation to work consistently, and that very few studies of rehabilitation showed any clear result; his paper was seized on by advocates of imprisonment and invoked as proof that nothing worked. This was unjustified on two levels. Firstly, while Martinson’s negatives would justify scepticism about a one-size-fits-all rehabilitation panacea, the detail of his research did suggest that some things worked for some people in some settings. Subsequent research – some of it by Martinson himself – bore out this suggestion, showing reasonably clear evidence that tailored, flexible and multiple interventions can actually do some good. Secondly, if Martinson was sceptical about rehabilitation, he wasn’t any less sceptical about imprisonment: his conclusion was that ex-offenders could be left alone, not that they should be kept locked up (“if we can’t do more for (and to) offenders, at least we can safely do less”). For Martinson, rehabilitation couldn’t cut crime by reforming bad people, because crime wasn’t caused by bad people in the first place. Sadly, the first part of this message was heard much more clearly than the second.

Like Martinson, Young is able to present a whole series of statistical analyses which seem obviously, intuitively wrong. However, what his examples suggest is that statistics from different sources require different types and levels of wariness: some are dependably more trustworthy than others, and some of the less trustworthy are untrustworthy in knowably different ways. But rather than deal individually with the different types of scepticism, levels of scepticism and reasons for scepticism which different analyses provoke, Young effectively concludes that nothing works, or very little:

Am I suggesting an open season on numbers? Not quite: there are … numbers which are indispensable to sociological analysis. Figures of infant mortality, age, marriage and common economic indicators are cases in point, as are, for example, numbers of police, imprisonment rates and homicide incidences in criminology. Others such as income or ethnicity are of great utility but must be used with caution. There are things in the social landscape which are distinct, definite and measurable; there are many others that are blurred because we do not know them – some because we are unlikely ever to know them, others, more importantly, because it is their nature to be blurred. … There are very many cases where statistical testing is inappropriate because the data is technically weak – it will simply not bear the weight of such analysis. There are many other instances where the data is blurred and contested and where such testing is simply wrong.

(In passing, that’s a curious set of solid, trustworthy numbers to save from the wreckage – it’s hard to think of an indicator more bureaucratically produced, socially constructed and culture-bound than “infant mortality”, unless perhaps it’s “marriage”.)

I’ve spent some time designing a system for cataloguing drug, alcohol and tobacco statistics – an area where practically all the data we have is constructed using “blurred and contested” concepts – so I sympathise with Young’s stance here, up to a point. Police drug seizure records, British Crime Survey drug use figures and National Treatment Agency drug treatment statistics are produced in different ways and tell us about different things, even when they appear to be talking about the same thing. (In my experience, people who run archives know about this already and find it interesting, people who use the statistics take it for granted, and IT people don’t know about it and want to fix it.) But: such testing is simply wrong? (Beware the persuasive adverb – try re-reading those last two sentences with the word ‘simply’ taken out.) We know how many people answered ‘yes’ to a question with a certain form of words; we know how many of the same people answered ‘yes’ to a different question; and we know the age distribution of these people. I can’t see that it would be wrong to cross-tabulate question one against question two, or to calculate the mean age of one sub-sample or the other. Granted, it would be wrong to present findings about the group which answered Yes to a question concerning activity X as if they were findings about the group who take part in activity X – but that’s just to say that it’s wrong to misrepresent your findings. Young’s broader sceptical claim – that figures constructed using contested concepts should not or cannot be analysed mathematically – seems… well, wrong.

Young then repeats the second of the errors of Martinson’s audience: if none of that works, then we can stick with what we know. In this case that means criminology reconceived as cultural ethnography: “a theoretical position which can enter in to the real world of existential joy, fear, false certainty and doubt, which can seek to understand the subcultural projects of people in a world riven with inequalities of wealth and uncertainties of identity”. Fair enough – who’d want a theoretical position which couldn’t enter in to the real world? But the question to ask about creeds is not what’s in them but what they leave out. Here, the invocation of culture seems to presage the abandonment not only of statistical analysis but of materialism.

The usual procedure … is to take the demographics and other factors which correlate with crime in the past and attempt to explain the present or predict the future levels of crime in terms of changes in these variables. The problem here is that people (and young people in particular) might well change independently of these variables. For in the last analysis the factors do not add up and the social scientists begin to have to admit the ghost in the machine.

People … might well change independently of these variables – how? In ways which don’t find any expression in phenomena that might be measured (apart from a drop in crime)? It seems more plausible to say that, while people do freely choose ways to live their lives, they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing – and that those choices in turn have material effects which create constraints as well as opportunities, for themselves and for others. To put it another way, if the people you’re studying change independently of your variables, perhaps you haven’t got the right variables. Young’s known as a realist, which is one way of being a materialist these days; but the version of criminology he’s proposing here seems, when push comes to shove, to be non- or even anti-materialist (“the ghost in the machine”). That’s an awfully big leap to make, and I don’t think it can be justified by pointing out that some statisticians lie.

What arguments based on statistics need – and crime statistics are certainly no exception – is scepticism, but patient and attentive scepticism: it’s not a question of declaring that statistics don’t tell us anything, but of working out precisely what particular uses of statistics don’t tell us. A case in point is this story in last Friday’s Guardian:

An 8% rise in robberies and an 11% increase in vandalism yesterday marred the latest quarterly crime figures, which showed an overall fall of 2% across all offences in England and Wales.

The rise in street crime was accompanied by British Crime Survey indicators showing that public anxiety about teenagers on the streets, noisy neighbours, drug dealing, drunkenness and rowdiness has continued to increase despite the government’s repeated campaigns against antisocial behaviour. … But police recorded crime figures for the final three months of 2006 compared with 12 months earlier showed that violent crime generally was down by 1%, including a 16% fall in gun crime and an 11% fall in sex offences.

The more authoritative British Crime Survey, which asks 40,000 people about their experience of crime each year, reported a broadly stable crime rate, including violent crime, during 2006. … The 11% increase in vandalism recorded by the BCS and a 2% rise in criminal damage cases on the police figures underlined the increase in public anxiety on five out of seven indicators of antisocial behaviour.

Confused? You should be. Here it is again:

  Police BCS
All crime down 2% stable (up 1%*)
Violent crime down 1% stable
Robbery up 8% stable (down 1%*)
Vandalism up 2% up 11%

* Figures in italics are from the BCS but weren’t in the Guardian story.

Earlier on in this post I made a passing reference to statistical data being bureaucratically produced, socially constructed and culture-bound. Here’s an example of what that means in practice. Police crime figures are a by-product of the activities of the police in dealing with crime, and as such are responsive to changes in the pattern of those activities: put a lot more police resources into dealing with offence X, or change police procedure so that offences of type X are less likely to go by unrecorded, and the crime rate for offence X will appear to go up (see also cottaging). Survey data, on the other hand, is produced by asking people questions; as such, it’s responsive to variations in the type of people who answer questions and to variations in those people’s memory and mood, not to mention variations in the wording of the questions, the structure of the questionnaire, the ways in which answers are coded up and so on. The two sets of indicators are associated with different sets of extraneous influences; if they both show an increase, the chances are that they’ve both been affected by the same influence. The influence in question may be a single big extraneous factor which affects both sets of figures – for example, a massively-publicised crackdown on particular criminal offences will give them higher priority both in police activities and in the public consciousness. But it may be a genuine increase in the thing being measured – and, more to the point, the chances of it being a genuine increase are much higher than if only one indicator shows an increase.

In this case, the police have robberies increasing by 8%; the BCS has theft from the person dropping by 1%. That’s an odd discrepancy, and suggests that something extraneous is involved in the police figure; it’s not clear what that might be, though. Vandalism, on the other hand, goes up by 2% if you use police figures but by all of 11% if you use the BCS. Again, this discrepancy suggests that something other than an 11% rise in the actual incidence of vandalism might be involved, and in this case the story suggests what this might be:

British Crime Survey indicators showing that public anxiety about teenagers on the streets, noisy neighbours, drug dealing, drunkenness and rowdiness has continued to increase despite the government’s repeated campaigns against antisocial behaviour

Presumably the government’s repeated campaigns against antisocial behaviour have raised the profile of anti-social behaviour as an issue. Perhaps this has made it more likely that people will feel that behaviour of this type is something to be anxious about, and that incidents of vandalism will be talked about and remembered for weeks or months afterwards (the BCS asks about incidents in the past twelve months).

That’s just one possible explanation: the meaning of figures like these is all in the interpretation, and the interpretation is up to the interpreter. The more important point is that there are things that these figures will and won’t allow you to do. You can say that police figures, unlike the BCS, are a conservative but reliable record of things that have actually happened, and that robbery has gone up by 8% and criminal damage by 2%. You can say that victim surveys, unlike police figures, are an inclusive and valid record of things that people have actually experienced, and that vandalism has gone up by 11% while robbery has gone down by 1%. What you can’t do is refer to An 8% rise in robberies and an 11% increase in vandalism - there is no way that the data can give you those two figures.

But that’s not a paradox or even a fallacy – it’s just misuse of statistics.

I can turn you into gold

As a genre, fantasy has something in common with utopian fiction. Utopias begin with a challenge – Let’s say that everyone’s happy – and then set about answering the questions that challenge provokes. The interest of a utopia is precisely which questions the author believes need to be answered: is it “Who will do the dirty jobs?” or “What about men?”, “What about the idlers?” or “What about aggression?”? The way these questions are answered – and the way they’re framed in the first place – tells us what the utopia is about, what drives it and sustains it – and by implication tells a story about what matters to us, in our world.

Fantasy fiction works a similar trick, at a less exalted – or perhaps simply a less programmatic – level. Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify… I think that something like this set of assumptions lurks behind a lot of fantasy fiction, a kind of unacknowledged comfort zone that the narrative quietly hankers for. The skill of fantasy is then to pull against the tug of wish-fulfilment and play with these assumptions, thinking about their implications and their limits, working out whether people could actually live with them – and if so, how. And, again, the specific questions that get asked (“what about death?”, “what about science?”, “what about pride?”) tell us what the fantasy is about – and, for the author, what matters in the world out here.

So, about Harry Potter…

I’m surprised when sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark.” I’m thinking, “Well, which part of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ did you think was light and fluffy?”
- J.K. Rowling, interviewed 16/7/05

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
- back cover copy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, paperback edition (43rd printing, Dumbledore picture)

Fluffy, perhaps not – but that blurb is a perfect example of how the Harry Potter books might be read as ‘light’. Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued - and boom, we’re off. Everything from there to the climactic caps and exclamation mark offers to lift the reader into unbounded fantasy, far from the ‘ordinary’ world of work and pain, love and boredom. (The threat implied by that duel might have done a bit of anchoring, if only it hadn’t been a deadly duel – the two words cancel each other out.)

That’s just a blurb, but I think the books are heavily involved with this weightless, comfort-zone version of fantasy – and that it accounts for a lot of what’s most disappointing about them. By which I mean, most of what isn’t plot or character, and some of what is. From the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, we’re encouraged to invest in Harry as a boy who has survived real traumas and will face more – “The boy who lived”, with all that that phrase implies. Yet Harry’s surroundings are pure wish-fulfilment. In an interview a while ago, J.K. Rowling said that she’d acquired an instant fan base among enthusiasts for boarding school education and believers in magic[k], and that she had no interest in either topic except as a fictional device. I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary admission – it’s hard to imagine Anthony Buckeridge or Geoffrey Willans disclaiming any interest in schools. But then, Hogwarts isn’t like any other school – even Linbury Court or St custard’s. Those schools are described with an odd combination of quaint specificity and fantastical exuberance, which echoes the collision between childhood creativity and institutional routine. There are things you must and mustn’t do, places you must and mustn’t go, people you must respect and obey and avoid; how it all fits together is for you to find out – or imagine, in curlicues of private mythology. There’s little of this about Hogwarts: the exuberance is all in the real magical trappings of the school, while the quaint specifics are all perfectly logical. As a school, Hogwarts is identifiable as a fantasy above all because it makes sense – there are things the teachers would rather not share with Harry and friends, but there’s nothing that in principle they couldn’t understand. Even the Jennings books are truer to the limits and the mysteries of childhood experience.

As for magic, to say that magic is real at Hogwarts isn’t to say much more than that wishes come true there. Rowling’s bluff scepticism about magic outside fiction contrasts oddly with peers like Ursula le Guin or Philip Pullman. Le Guin has always taken at least as much interest in fictional ethnography as in plotting, while Pullman concludes “His Dark Materials” by saying that magic is real, here, now – it’s just that in our world it’s called shamanism or the I Ching. Set against Ged’s trances or Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer – or even the solemn, meticulous cod-Tolkien of something like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series – spells like “Expelliarmus” or “Wingardium Leviosa” seem like awfully thin stuff. (Perhaps in the seventh book there’ll be some explanation of why spells are written in something that looks like Latin but isn’t. Or perhaps not.) There are odd moments when both the magic and the school setting come to life – think of Neville’s trouble with passwords or Hermione’s “Wingardium Levio-sah!” – but they’re all too rare.

Despite all this – and despite a writing style in serious need of fluff removal – the books remain interesting, in large part because they do think about the implications and limits of fantasy. What’s particularly interesting is the way that the three themes outlined above recur from book to book, sometimes being waved away in one book and chewed over more seriously in its successor.

In this respect, it has to be said, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t begin well. One of the key questions on the frontier between fantasy-as-speculation and fantasy-as-wish-fulfilment concerns the status of other people. To put it bluntly, are they real – specifically, are they as real as me? The fantasy setting offers plenty of opportunities to answer this in the negative, by allowing the reader to identify with the exceptional characters rather than the mere ordinary real people. Consequently, from an egalitarian perspective, many fantasy narratives are marred by either Tory paternalism (use your gifts to serve the less fortunate) or fascism (you have been raised up as a leader). Both Pullman and le Guin find ways around this trap. (It’s worth noting that Tolkien avoided it completely, by vesting paranormal powers in divine beings and consecrated objects – and dissociating heroism from both.) Rowling walks straight into it, in the opening words of the first book.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Perfectly normal, thank you very much – reading that last phrase I can just see Michael Palin in a flat cap and Terry Jones in a skirt and a hat with cherries on top. It’s a caricature of a certain kind of English middle-class normality, so broadly drawn that it hardly qualifies as satire and – by 1997 – very tired. The Dursleys, in short, are unreal from the word go – even before the relentless accumulation of negative character traits that follow in the next four chapters. They are the worst surrogate parents Harry could possibly have had, the least deserving of any kind of respect, consideration or reciprocity. The wizard/Muggle distinction gets more interesting in later books, but as far as Philosopher’s Stone is concerned the Muggles par excellence are the Dursleys in all their grotesquerie. Which means that the people who matter are the people who are not like us – or at least, not like them, those boring ordinary people who go to work and watch TV. Score one for wish-fulfilment.

The book’s answers to the other two questions I’ve suggested are a bit more interesting. Yes, HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!, but it doesn’t follow that Harry can get whatever he wants – because what Harry wants more than anything else is to be reunited with his parents, who are dead. (And dead, at least in this book, is dead.) One of the weirdest and most moving moments in the book is Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised, a kind of psychological version of Larry Niven’s ‘droud':

‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. … However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’

To be presented with an image of our desires – and to sit before it, entranced – is quite a good image of the spectacle, as the situationists conceived it. It’s also a horribly telling critique of comfort-zone fantasy, that place where considerations of what is real or even possible don’t apply. It’s just a shame that the Mirror of Erised chapter is also the set-up for a really awful with-one-bound plot device (not to mention being one more example of Rowling’s tin ear for language).

The other big question is that of distinguishing between good people and bad people – or rather, between ‘good and bad’ and ‘friendly and unfriendly’ – or rather, between he’s a bad man and I don’t like him – or rather, between he’s a bad man and he doesn’t like me. (This last one is quite a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old; unsurprisingly, it’s a bit beyond Ron right to the end of this book. But then, that’s what Ron’s for.) As that awkward statement and restatement might suggest, this is a question that Philosopher’s Stone chews over thoroughly; it’s not what the book’s about, but it’s the main running theme. As you’ll know if you’ve read this far, we’re talking about Snape here (with whose help this theme will run and run). By the end of the book Harry has learned that Snape genuinely hates him; that he had some reason for hating Harry’s father, if not Harry himself; that, despite all this, Snape didn’t actually want Harry dead, and had in fact saved his life; and that somebody else was trying to kill him. It’s a shocking and persuasive demonstration of the difference between ‘evil’ (will kill hero if possible) and ‘unfriendly’ (will mark hero’s homework unfairly, but will save hero’s life if necessary). It’s only a partial break with comfort-zone fantasy; it’s still assumed that ‘evil’ and ‘death of hero’ imply each other, which clearly isn’t necessarily so (couldn’t Snape hate Harry enough to kill him, without necessarily being in league with the forces of evil? come to that, couldn’t the forces of evil do their evil work without Harry’s death being involved?) But it is a partial break – a tear in the fabric of the comfort zone – and more, and worse, will follow.

And what the book’s about? Love; specifically, Lily’s love for Harry, which saved his life and continues to protect him from Voldemort.

‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’

Something so good as the self-sacrifice of a mother you never knew… There’s something slightly queasy there. Here’s another quote from that July 2005 interview:

Don’t you want to ask me why James’s death didn’t protect Lily and Harry? There’s your answer … because she could have lived – and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I’m not saying James wasn’t ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. … she was given time to choose. James wasn’t. It’s like an intruder entering your house, isn’t it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, “Get out of the way,” you know, what would you do? I mean, I don’t think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice. –

And James didn’t

Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It’s a subtle distinction and there’s slightly more to it than that but that’s most of the answer.

Love as self-sacrifice – or rather, self-sacrifice as love, as a gesture of love so powerful that it enfolds the loved one forever after. This is a fantasy, but it’s a mother’s fantasy, not a child’s. It’s also rather morbid, and makes me wonder what’s in store for Harry’s emotional development. The other implication of that phrase “the boy who lived” is that the remainder of Harry’s life is a postscript to his first encounter with Voldemort, or at best a working-out of unfinished business. I wonder if Rowling is going to allow Harry at least to think about adulthood, and leave his mother’s sacrificial embrace behind – or will he always be the boy who had been loved? We know now that he’s never going to get together with that nice Hermione Grainger, but is anybody going to stay the course – or get the chance?

This doesn’t sound like an important question – it sounds like I’m reducing fantasy to a soap opera plot, and taking that more seriously than it deserves. But it is important, because it brings us back to the nature of fantasy. The other side of comfort-zone fantasy is the fantasy of a world where the hero is special because he’s marked out for destruction, he can’t get anything he wants and the difference between good and evil equals the difference between him and everyone else. Call it the fantasy of the discomfort zone. It’s an unrewarding, masochistic style of fantasy, but no less popular for that. Let Harry’s life be a vapour trail that streaks from one self-immolating explosion to another, and the only progress we will have made is from weightless comfort to ungrounded discomfort. Tolkien, le Guin, Pullman – all of them have faced up to the idea of a fantasy-figure embarking on a life after fantasy, and in the process drawn attention to what their fantasies were really about (humility and pride, death and fear, desire and science). I hope Rowling can do likewise.

[Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the lack of specific references in this post to the second and subsequent books. The plan is to write a separate post on each one, although hopefully not at quite this length. Stay tuned, and so forth.]

Hello, I’m a reject

I got my first PC in 1986; it was the upmarket model with the colour screen and the 40 MB hard disk (which I could only access as a single drive by running a non-standard version of DOS). I couldn’t get a PC that took the old floppies as well as the 3.5″ kind, but not for want of asking. I like backward compatibility.

I got my second PC in 1996, mainly to get online with. A 1 GB hard drive and a 100 MHz Pentium seemed pretty whizzy at the time, but by 2005 it was creaking badly. So I upgraded, this time to a Mac.

I’d never used a Mac before, but I found the switch surprisingly easy. I got used to a single-button mouse – and to pressing the splat key when I wanted a right-click – quite quickly. Not being able to Alt- to the menu bar was more irritating, and I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t delete files with the key labelled ‘delete’. Mostly good, though.

Some time later: the file-deleting thing was still bugging me, so I poked around a bit. OS X Help says you delete files by dragging them to Trash. Cheers. Some page somewhere suggested splat-delete. I tried it. It didn’t work. I asked around among Mac-using friends. Everyone told me it did work. Oh well, maybe I’ve got a duff keyboard.

Last month, the bottom row of the numeric keypad stopped working, probably owing to coffee, toast crumbs etc. I was pleasantly surprised to find my AppleCare cover entitles me to get a new one delivered (and maybe splat-delete will work on the new one!).

The new keyboard arrived two days ago. The numeric keypad works perfectly. Splat-delete doesn’t.

I do some serious poking around. (Maybe Apple are so keen on getting people to drag files to Trash that they’ve disabled splat-delete in the latest release?)

I notice that the Finder’s ‘File’ menu shows a key combination with a hollow arrow with an X in it. I’ve only got one key with a hollow arrow with an X in it; it’s the one labelled ‘delete’. The arrow points the other way, though. Funny.

I’m mystified by a page which advises newbies to use command+delete to delete files, then adds ‘the delete key, NOT the del key’. I’ve got a key labelled ‘delete’ – it’s the one I’ve been trying to use all this time – but there is no ‘del’ key.

I find an Apple page which makes a similar distinction, only this one refers to the ‘delete’ key and the ‘delfwd’ key. It further explains that the ‘delete’ key deletes the character to the left of the cursor. Light dawns.

So: the key labelled with the word ‘delete’, which is in a similar position to and acts exactly the same way as the ‘delete’ key on a PC keyboard, is not the ‘delete’ key. The ‘delete’ key is the big key with the long left-pointing arrow, which looks the same, is in the same position and has exactly the same function as the BACKSPACE key on a PC keyboard.

I don’t know why I didn’t realise that before.

The world looks so tiny

Jamie:

Back in the eighties when China was inviting “foreign friends” over, mainly to teach, as a means of preparing the locals for the forthcoming golden horde of businesspeople they weren’t too scrupulous about checking credentials. There was an absolute infestation of evangelicals, often in posts at fairly prestigious universities for which they had no qualifications whatsoever. “Plate tectonics later – but first, Jesus!”

This kind of thing is partly a by-product of evangelism being banned in China. Partly also it’s because the thought of 1.3 billion hellbound souls just gets evangelical sap rising. It’s a particular obsession in the US. None other than Henry Luce said that the great mission of the United States was to Christianize China.

Back in the early 70s, when I last went to church at all regularly, there was a hymn called “Thy Kingdom Come, O God” which used to come round from time to time. The last verse goes after the following fashion:

O’er heathen lands afar
Thick darkness broodeth yet:
Arise, O Morning Star,
Arise, and never set!

Apparently more recent editions bowdlerise the first line to “O’er lands both near and far”, which dodges the point rather neatly.

I don’t know if hearing that hymn at a formative age had anything to do with it, but a friend’s younger brother later got religion in a big way and trained as a missionary. I was slightly startled by this, but much more so by his first posting, which was to a village in India. (No, look… they’ve got a religion, they’ve had it for ages and they seem quite happy with it… and I mean, different religions, they’re all different, kind of, different pathways to the same… obviously you think Christianity’s the best pathway and I respect that, but…) Still, it’s not often these days that you get the chance to meet someone with a different mental universe, so I suppose we should be glad that the evangelical Christians are around.

The idea of the historic American mission to Christianise China also reminds me of the Early Modern trope of the conversion of the Jews, as mentioned in Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

The thinking here is, obviously, that the Jews won’t convert until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

But then came Zionism – Christian Zionism, in particular. (Regina Sharif’s Non-Jewish Zionism is terrific on this, if you can get hold of it.) For evangelical Christians, the rise of Christian Zionism meant that the Jews weren’t available for conversion any more, even in imagination. (Another church-going memory is of a visiting preacher praying for “thy people Israel”, who were having a bit of trouble in Lebanon at the time. I was taken aback – didn’t our status as Christians rather depend on the Jews losing the franchise? – but apparently this kind of eschatological double-vision is quite common in some quarters.) The enthusiasm of parts of the American Right for Nationalist China – their willingness to give the Kuomintang practical as well as financial support, and to withhold recognition from the People’s Republic until long after the game was up – has always intrigued me; it’d be interesting to see if the KMT fan base had much overlap with the Christian Zionist lobby. Perhaps, in the American evangelical imagination, Luce’s vision of the conversion of the Chinese took the place of the conversion of the Jews – although, the American evangelical imagination being what it is, it was seen not as an ineffably distant prospect but as a project to be brought about as soon as possible. Lucky Chinese.

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