You young people

100 years ago:

To be blunt, the problem is a large majority of Labour MPs in the Commons; it’s only going to be addressed by reducing that majority.But what would that get us, apart from making the Whips work for a living and preventing another disaster like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which isn’t nothing)? The obvious answer is, of course, “Blair out”. I wonder about this; I wonder if anything short of a hung parliament would loosen the man’s grip on power. But let’s go with it: on May 6th Labour is returned with a majority of 35 (say), and on May 7th the knives are out for Blair. And then what?

When I first started thinking about this scenario I came up with all sorts of possibilities involving four- or five-way internecine warfare within the Labour Party: Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)… It could get extremely messy, and extremely interesting in terms of who would come out owing favours to whom. It won’t, though, for the simple reason that Blairites are serious about power (as, indeed, are Brownites). As soon as Brown emerged as the front runner (i.e. almost immediately) the Sensational Tony Blair Machine Without Tony would swing behind him, and it would all be over bar the shouting.

Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)… I don’t know what possessed me to nominate ‘Old Labour (right)’ as a runner – most of them jumped ship to either Blair or Brown long ago – but apart from that I think I called it pretty well. ‘Old Labour, left but not Campaign Group’ won’t have their own candidate, but the way they break between the other non-McDonnell candidates will be interesting and may be significant. Watch for the apologias: Alan Johnson is still a trade unionist at heart; Why Brown/Cruddas is the dream ticket

The last couple of sentences, though… how wrong you can be. There’s a song by Peter Hamill which sums up a certain kind of anti-political cynical populism, the kind of sentiment which seems at once radical and common-sense (a combination I always distrust):

Politicians fight it out on the conning-tower
But they all agree not to rock the boat

That’s just the trouble with populism: no imagination. I don’t see much sign of that gentleman’s agreement in the Labour Party at the moment. I see factions fighting like rats in a sack, and be damned to what happens to the country (or other countries) as a result. It’s one of those moments when political spectacle starts to present itself as such – compelling but distant, autonomous and utterly unaccountable – so brazen is its participants’ disdain for their audience, the voters. It’s disgusting, but it’s still fascinating. Equally: it’s fascinating, but it’s still disgusting.

Top tip for any would-be late entrant in the contest: change your name by deed poll to None Of The Above. You’d walk it.

171.69

The British land speed record currently stands at 300.3 mph. It doesn’t look as if Richard Hammond will be the driver to break it.

If ‘driver’ is the word. News coverage of the Hammond story has stressed how unlike a car, in any familiar sense of the word, was the thing that Hammond tried and failed to guide down a track. Apparently there’s some form of steering, but apart from that you’ve got a jet engine and some parachutes and, er, that’s it.

No disrespect to the neurally-injured Hammond, but I can’t help feeling that’s not driving. Parry Thomas, now, there was a driver. He was also the chief engineer of Leyland Ltd, but it’s as a driver that he’ll be remembered, or deserves to be. He was the last driver to set the (world) land speed record on a racetrack (Brooklands, where else?); in one extraordinary contemporary film-clip, Thomas’s long-nosed 1920s racer scoots casually past everything else on the track, looking for all the world as if everyone else was standing still.

But there were limits to what you could do on a circuit, and Thomas (along with rivals like Malcolm Campbell) needed space. Hence his choice of the seven-mile beach at Pendine in South Wales, where in 1926 he pushed the record up to 169.30 mph and then to 171.02 (or, in some accounts, 172.33). His car Babs was a heavily-modified Higham Special, bought from the estate of the racing driver Louis Zborowski (killed at Monza in 1924); Thomas even fitted pistons of his own design.

Enter Campbell, who in January 1927 took the record back with a speed of 174.22 mph (or possibly 174.88). In response Thomas took Babs back to Pendine. On the 3rd of March 1927, at a speed of anything up to 180 mph, he lost control of Babs; the car skidded off course, turned over and crashed, killing him instantly.

Babs was buried in the sand, and since then the beach has never again been used for speed trials. There was some talk of mounting a British land speed record attempt there in 2007, supposedly to tie in with the eightieth anniversary of Campbell’s 174 mph; it may not come to anything, particularly after Hammond’s crash. Personally, I’d have thought another eightieth was a bit more pressing.

Babs was buried in the sand, anyway, but it didn’t stay there. In 1969 the car was dug up by a local enthusiast who wanted to rebuild it; my family lived in Pendine at the time, and I vividly remember the exhumation. I remember that my father, who was the Senior Administrative Officer on the local military base, was involved in some capacity – although, thinking about it now, it was probably a “here comes the SAO, look busy” kind of capacity. Eventually Babs was rebuilt, and it now takes pride of place in the Museum of Speed a mile or so down Pendine Sands. It’s well worth a look if you’re passing – and Pendine is well worth passing. (No, I mean it’s well worth passing that way in order to visit… never mind.)

I’d like to say that Parry Thomas was the last British holder of the land speed record, or the last to break the record in Britain, or the last to do so in something even vaguely resembling a car, or something – but history’s not that neat. Nevertheless, you don’t break land speed records these days in a car with a piston engine, and you certainly don’t do it in Britain. Parry Thomas’s death may not have ended an era, but it was very much of an era, and one which doesn’t seem much less distant now than Stephenson’s Rocket.

Footnote: the speed in the title comes from the Tea Set’s 1979 tribute to Thomas. I haven’t seen it anywhere else; all the sources I’ve seen set Thomas’s record-breaking speed either lower or higher. He was going pretty bloody fast, anyway.

Just to keep you from danger

An open-and shut case?

The charge alleges the force “failed to conduct its undertaking, namely the investigation, surveillance, pursuit and detention of a suspected suicide bomber, in such a way as to ensure that the person not in its employment (namely Jean Charles de Menezes) was not thereby exposed to risks to his health or safety”.

Apparently not.

In a statement released after the hearing, the Met said the prosecution was based on actions taken by officers facing “extraordinarily difficult circumstances” on that day. It said they were “not criminal acts” and that the officers had the support of the force.It went on: “The decision to defend the case has been reached after the most careful consideration. It is not about diminishing the tragedy of Jean Charles de Menezes’ death.

“We see it as a test case not only for policing in London but for the police service nationally. It also has implications for the general public in that it concerns the ability of the police service to protect the public at large when carrying out armed operations.

“We also profoundly question whether health and safety at work legislation, originally designed over 30 years ago to protect employees in the workplace or those affected by commercial enterprises, is the right ‘vehicle’ for evaluating the actions of an emergency service in relation to decisions made during fast-time, life-at-risk anti-terrorist policing operations.”

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this. One is the apparent absence of wiggle room in the charge brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. Whether ‘criminal acts’ were committed, whether officers faced difficult circumstances or whether the individuals responsible enjoy the support of the force: these are not issues. The CPS isn’t even asking whether the risk to the public posed by police action was avoidable, let alone whether it was in some sense acceptable. The question is whether the Metropolitan Police, collectively, conducted anti-terrorist operations in such a way as to avoid endangering the life of Jean Charles de Menezes. Defending the Met against that charge isn’t a brief I’d like to take.

That said, it seems unlikely that the Met’s defence case will rest on the claim that they didn’t put de Menezes at risk. One line of defence is hinted at by the (otherwise baffling) comment that the case concerns the ability of the police service to protect the public at large. As a member of the public at large, that’s very much my own view of the prosecution, and one reason why I’d like it to succeed. The police statement presumably intends a different inference: to convict the people responsible for de Menezes’ death, by implication, would make it harder for the police to protect the public at large. We shouldn’t hold one death against them – after all, another time that guy running for the train with a Metro under his arm might actually be a suicide bomber, and if they couldn’t shoot him down like a dog we’d all be sorry. Well, maybe.

The Met’s other line of defence concerns the appropriateness of Health and Safety legislation. I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, you can see their point – this isn’t legislation that was drafted with police work in mind, and to have it apply to anti-terrorist policing seems particularly incongruous. On the other, the argument against having it apply seems shaky. Should the police be exempted from a duty of care towards the public – or at least, a duty not to put the public’s lives at risk? Should armed police? It’s not an appealing thought. As for this specific case, criminal charges against the officers responsible a prosecution for corporate manslaughter would be more conventional – but, since that isn’t likely to happen offence doesn’t exist in English law, a Health and Safety prosecution is hard to argue with. [Thanks to Chris for pointing out the obvious problem with my initial thoughts. It was late.]

So it’s an odd case, but I think the charge is fundamentally sound – and, as it stands, unchallengeable. My only real misgivings concern what happens when it gets to court (not until next January); I hope for the best and fear the worst. In particular, I fear that the Met and its allies in the press will play up the novelty of a Health and Safety prosecution – conveniently ignoring the absence of any other prosecution – and harp on the vital importance of anti-terrorist work. At worst, the Met could end up laughing the case out of court – and securing themselves a Get Out Of Jail Free card in the process, against the day they screw up again and kill another innocent passer-by.

Mind how you go.

The people with the answers

Nick:

Larry Sanger, the controversial online encyclopedia’s cofounder and leading apostate, announced yesterday, at a conference in Berlin, that he is spearheading the launch of a competitor to Wikipedia called The Citizendium. Sanger describes it as “an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance.”The Citizendium will begin as a “fork” of Wikipedia, taking all of Wikipedia’s current articles and then editing them under a new model that differs substantially from the model used by what Sanger calls the “arguably dysfunctional” Wikipedia community. “First,” says Sanger, in explaining the primary differences, “the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors. Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter. Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the ‘feature creep’ that has developed in Wikipedia.”

I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia, and about what makes a bad Wikipedia article so bad, for some time – this March 2005 post took off from some earlier remarks by Larry Sanger. I’m not attempting to pass judgment on Wikipedia as a whole – there are plenty of good Wikipedia articles out there, and some of them are very good indeed. But some of them are bad. Picking on an old favourite of mine, here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Red Brigades, with my comments.

The Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse in Italian, often abbreviated as BR) are

The word is ‘were’. The BR dissolved in 1981; its last successor group gave up the ghost in 1988. There’s a small and highly violent group out there somewhere which calls itself “Nuove Brigate Rosse” – the New Red Brigades – but its continuity with the original BR is zero. This is a significant disagreement, to put it mildly.

a militant leftist group located in Italy. Formed in 1970, the Marxist Red Brigades

‘Marxist’ is a bizarre choice of epithet. Most of the Italian radical left was Marxist, and almost all of it declined to follow the BR’s lead. Come to that, the Italian Communist Party (one of the BR’s staunchest enemies) was Marxist. Terry Eagleton’s a Marxist; Jeremy Hardy’s a Marxist; I’m a Marxist myself, pretty much. The BR had a highly unusual set of political beliefs, somewhere between Maoism, old-school Stalinism and pro-Tupamaro insurrectionism. ‘Maoist’ would do for a one-word summary. ‘Marxist’ is both over-broad and misleading.

sought to create a revolutionary state through armed struggle

Well, yes. And no. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to make any sense of the BR without acknowledging that, while they did have a famous slogan about portare l’attacco al cuore dello stato (‘attacking at the heart of the state’), their anti-state actions were only a fairly small element of what they did. To begin with they were a factory-based group, who took action against foremen and personnel managers; in their later years – which were also their peak years – the BR, like other armed groups, got drawn into what was effectively a vendetta with the police, prioritising revenge attacks over any kind of ‘revolutionary’ programme. You could say that the BR were a revolutionary organisation & consequently had a revolutionary programme throughout, even if their actions didn’t always match it – but how useful would this be?

and to separate Italy from the Western Alliance

Whoa. I don’t think the BR were particularly in favour of Italy’s NATO membership, but the idea that this was one of their key goals is absurd. If the BR had been a catspaw for the KGB, intent on fomenting subversion so as to destabilise Italy, then this probably would have been high on their list. But they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

In 1978, they kidnapped and killed former Prime Minister Aldo Moro under obscure circumstances.

Remarkably well-documented circumstances, I’d have said.

After 1984’s scission

This is just wrong – following growing and unresolvable factionalism, the BR formally dissolved in October 1981.

Red Brigades managed with difficulty to survive the official end of the Cold War in 1989

This is both confused and wrong. Given that there was a split, how would the BR have survived beyond 1981 (or 1984), let alone 1989? As for the BR’s successor groups, the last one to pack it in was last heard from in 1988.

even though it is now a fragile group with no original members.

Or rather, even though the name is now used by a small group about which very little is know, but which is not believed to have any connection to the original group (whose members are after all knocking on a bit by now).

Throughout the 1970’s the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence.

Good grief. Credited by whom? According to the sources I’ve seen, between 1970 and 1981 Italian armed struggle groups were responsible for a total of 3,258 actions, including 110 killings; the BR’s share of the total came to 472 actions, including 58 killings. (Most ‘actions’ consisted of criminal damage and did not involve personal violence.) I’d be the first to admit that the precision of these figures is almost certainly spurious, but even if we doubled that figure of 472 we’d be an awful long way short of 14,000.

I’m not even going to look at the body of the article.

I think there are two main problems here; the good news is that Larry’s proposals for the neo-Wikipedia (Nupedia? maybe not) would address both of them.

Firstly, first mover advantage. The structure of Wikipedia creates an odd imbalance between writers and editors. Writing a new article is easy: the writer can use whatever framework he or she chooses, in terms both of categories used to structure the entry and of the overall argument of the piece. Making minor edits to an article is easy: mutter 1984? no way, it was 1981!, log on, a bit of typing and it’s done. But making major edits is hard – you can see from the comments above just how much work would be needed to make that BR article acceptable, starting from what’s there now. It would literally be easier to write a new article. What’s more, making edits stick is hard; I deleted one particularly ignorant falsehood from the BR article myself a few months ago, only to find my edit reverted the next day. (Of course, I re-reverted it. So there!)

Larry’s suggestion of getting experts on board is very much to the point here. Slap my face and call me a credentialled academic, but I don’t believe that everyone is equally qualified to write an encyclopedia article about their favourite topic – and I do think it matters who gets the first go.

Secondly, gaming the system. Wikipedia is a community as well as an encyclopedia. I’ll pass over Larry’s suggestion that Wikipedia is dysfunctional as a community, but I do think it’s arguable that some behaviours which work well for Wikipedia-the-community are dysfunctional for Wikipedia-the-resource. It’s been suggested, for instance, that what really makes Wikipedia special is the ‘history’ pages, which take the lid off the debate behind the encyclopedia and let us see knowledge in the process of formation. It follows from this that to show the world a single, ‘definitive’ version of an article on a subject would actually be a step backwards: The discussion tab on Wikipedia is a great place to point to your favorite version … Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds? W. A. Gerrard objects:

Of what value is publicly documenting the change history of an encyclopedia entry? How can something that purports to be authoritative allow the creation of alternative versions which readers can adopt as favorites?If an attempt to craft a wiki that strives for accuracy, even via a flawed model, is considered something for “stick-in-the-muds”, then it’s apparent that many of Wikipedia’s supporters value the dynamics of its community more than the credibility of the product they deliver.

I think this is exactly right: the history pages are worth much more to members of the Wikipedia community than to Wikipedia users. People like to form communities and communities like to chat – and edits and votes are the currency of Wikipedia chat. And gaming the system is fun (hence the word ‘game’). Aaron Swartz quotes comments about Wikipedia regulars who delete your newly[-]create[d] article without hesitation, or revert your changes and accuse you of vandalis[m] without even checking the changes you made, or who “edited” thousands of articles … [mostly] to remove material that they found unsuitable. This clearly suggest the emergence of behaviours which are driven more by social expectations than by a concern for Wikipedia. The second writer quoted above continues: Indeed, some of the people-history pages contained little “awards” that people gave each other — for removing content from Wikipedia.

Now, all systems can be gamed, and all communities chat. The question is whether the chatting and the gaming can be harnessed for the good of the encyclopedia – or, failing that, minimised. I’m not optimistic about the first possibility, and I suspect Larry Sanger isn’t either. Larry does, however, suggest a very simple hack which would help with the second: get everyone to use their real name. This would, among other things, make it obvious when a writer had authority in a given area. I don’t entirely agree with Aaron’s conclusion:

Larry Sanger famously suggested that Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism so that experts could feel more comfortable contributing. I think the real solution is the opposite: Wikipedians must jettison their elitism and welcome the newbie masses as genuine contributors to the project, as people to respect, not filter out.

This is half right: Wikipedia-the-community has produced an elite of ‘regulars’, whose influence over Wikipedia-the-resource derives from their standing in the community rather than from any kind of claim to expertise. I agree with Aaron that this is an unhealthy situation, but I think Larry was right as well. The artificial elitism of the Wikipedia community doesn’t only marginalise the ‘masses’ who contribute most of the original content; it also sidelines the subject-area experts who, within certain limited domains, have a genuine claim to be regarded as an elite.

I don’t know if the Citizendium is going to address these problems in practice; I don’t know if the Citizendium is going anywhere full stop. But I think Larry Sanger is asking the right questions. It’s increasingly clear that Wikipedia isn’t just facing in two directions at once, it’s actually two different things – and what’s good for Wikipedia-the-community isn’t necessarily good for Wikipedia-the-resource.

I am nine

Here are some of the things that happened when I was nine (give or take a couple of months either way), and which I remember. (I’m using the BBC site rather than Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have much British news from that far back.)

Apollo 11 (I remember watching the landing)
The introduction of the 50p coin (I remember ten-bob notes, anyway)
Apollo 12 (I watched that too; I thought this was what life was going to be like)
The first jumbo jets
Apollo 13 (whoa, bad news)
The World Cup
Ted Heath winning an election (vaguely)

And, er, that’s it. I have no memory of (among other things) Chappaquiddick, the murder of Sharon Tate, the Chicago Eight, the Piazza Fontana bomb, Ian Smith declaring UDI or the PFLP hijacking four airliners and blowing them up. (Quite a year, really.)

The first political event I remember? Probably the Aberfan disaster, when I was six. World events didn’t really impinge, although I do remember answering a question at school about plagues by suggesting that you could have a plague of gorillas; there seemed to have been a lot on the news about gorillas recently. My first poem, written at the age of eight on a prescribed theme of ‘sunset’, was about refugees from a ‘bloody war’ ‘far away’ (who didn’t get much joy out of the aforementioned sunset). I was taken to see the headmistress on the strength of it; these days they’d probably call Social Services.

It’s probably not surprising that my musical memories of 1969-70 are a lot clearer. But I mean, a lot clearer. I remember

Thunderclap Newman, “Something In The Air”
(I thought this was wonderful)
Zager & Evans, “In The Year 2525″
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising”
Bobby Gentry, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”
the Archies, “Sugar Sugar”
Rolf Harris, “Two Little Boys”
(I hated this with a passion)
Edison Lighthouse , “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”
(as with the Thunderclap Newman, I thought this was v. meaningful and moving)
Lee Marvin, “Wanderin’ Star”
(I hated this too)
Simon & Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Dana, “All Kinds Of Everything”
(and I wasn’t too keen on this one)
Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky”
England World Cup Squad, “Back Home”
Christie, “Yellow River”
(a friend at school was born in Hong Kong; this song was the bane of his life)
Mungo Jerry, “In The Summertime”
(this was absolutely the best thing ever)

In other words, I’ve got distinct and in some cases vivid memories of just about every number one single in the period. I could even say I remember

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus”

inasmuch as I clearly remember watching Top of the Pops the week it was Number One. (At least, I remember the studio audience dancing for three minutes in silence in a darkened studio, but I think memory must be exaggerating slightly.)

Pop music goes back earlier than politics, too. The earliest pop music I remember would have to be the Honeycombs’ “Have I the right”; it was number one the week I turned four (two years before Aberfan). And it still sounds wonderful.

Then there was

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Tears Of A Clown”

It’s just outside the period – after Elvis singing the ghastly “The wonder of you”, which followed “In the summertime” – but the memory’s too vivid to pass by. Not so much the song (fabulous though it is) as the accompanying performance by Pan’s People. I can’t remember the details, but I know I fell in love with one of the People there and then. (The pretty one, you know.)

But by then I was ten, which is quite another story.

No more toys for grown-up boys
When I am ten I’ll remember when
I was nine and had a wonderful time
I’ll look back nostalgically…

Back in the garage

I have begun to see what I think is a promising trend in the publishing world that may just transform the industry for good.

Paul Hartzog‘s Many-to-Many post on publishing draws some interesting conclusions from the success of Charlie Stross’s Accelerando (nice one, Charlie). but makes me a bit nervous, partly because of the liberal use of excitable bolding.

What I am suggesting is happening is the reversal of traditional publishing, i.e. the transformation of the system in which authors create and distribute their work. In the old system, it is assumed that the publishing process acts as a quality control filter … but it ends up merely being a profit-capturing filter.
[…]
Conversely, in the new system, the works are made available, and it is up to the community-at-large to pass judgement on their quality. In the emerging system, authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything.

Setting aside the formatting – and the evangelistic tone, something which never fails to set my teeth on edge – this is all interesting stuff. My problem is that I’m not sure about the economics of it. It’s not so much that writers won’t write if they don’t get paid – writers will write, full stop – as that writers won’t eat if they don’t get paid: some money has to change hands some time. If the kind of development Paul is talking about takes hold, I can imagine a range of more-or-less unintended consequences, all with different overtones but few of them, to this jaundiced eye, particularly desirable:

  1. Mass amateurisation means that nobody pays for anything, which in turn means that nobody makes a living from writing; this is essentially the RIAA/BPI anti-filesharing nightmare scenario, transposed to literature
  2. Mass amateurisation doesn’t touch the Dan Brown/Katie Price market, but gains traction in specialist areas of literature to the point where nobody can make a living from writing unless they’re writing for the mass market; this is Charlie Gillett’s argument for keeping CDs expensive (and the line the BPI would use against filesharing if they had any sense)
  3. Downloads like Accelerando function essentially as tasters and people end up buying just as many actual books, if not more; this scenario will also be familiar from filesharing arguments, as it’s the line generally used to counter the previous two
  4. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, linked in with and subordinate to the major mainstream operators: this is the MySpace scenario (at least, the MySpace makes money for Murdoch scenario)
  5. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of non-economic activity, with a few star authors subsidised by publishing companies for the sake of the cachet they bring: the open source scenario
  6. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, existing on the margins and in the shadows, out of the reach of the major mainstream operators: the punk scenario (or, for older readers, the hippie scenario)

We can dismiss the first, RIAA-nightmare scenario. The third (‘tasters’) would be bearable, although it wouldn’t go halfway to justifying Paul’s argument. Most of the rest look pretty ghastly to me. Perhaps Paul is thinking in terms of the last scenario or something like it – but in that case I’d have to say that his optimism is just as misplaced, for different but related reasons, as the pessimism of the first scenario (although a new wave of garage literature would be a fine thing to see).

The trouble with making your own history is that you don’t do it in circumstances of your own choosing. The participatory buzz of Web 2.0 tends to eat away at the structural and procedural walls that stop people getting their hands on stuff – but that can just mean that only the strongest and highest walls are left standing. Besides, walls can be useful, particularly if you want to keep a roof over your head.

We’re all together now, dancing in time

Ryan Carson:

I’d love to add friends to my Flickr account, add my links to del.icio.us, browse digg for the latest big stories, customise the content of my Netvibes home page and build a MySpace page. But you know what? I don’t have time and you don’t either…

Read the whole thing. What’s particularly interesting is a small straw poll at the end of the article, where Ryan asks people who actually work on this stuff what social software apps they use on a day-to-day basis. Six people made 30 nominations in all; Ryan had five of his own for a total of 35.

Here are the apps which got more than one vote:

Flickr (four votes)
Upcoming (two)
Wikipedia (two)

And, er, that’s it.

Social software looks like very big news indeed from some perspectives, but when it’s held to the standard of actually helping people get stuff done, it fades into insignificance. I think there are three reasons for this apparent contradiction. First, there’s the crowd effect – and, since you need a certain number of users before network effects start taking off, any halfway-successful social software application has a crowd behind it. It can easily look as if everyone‘s doing it, even if the relevant definition of ‘everyone’ looks like a pretty small group to you and me.

Then there’s the domain effect: tagging and user-rating are genuinely useful and constructive, in some not very surprising ways, within pre-defined domains. (Think of a corporate intranet app, where there is no need for anyone to specify that ‘Dunstable’ means one of the company’s offices, ‘Barrett’ means the company’s main competitor and ‘Monkey’ means the payroll system.) For anyone who is getting work done with tagging, in other words, tagging is going to look pretty good – and, thanks to the crowd effect, it’s going to look like a good thing that everyone‘s using.

Thirdly, social software is new, different, interesting and fun, as something to play with. It’s a natural for geeks with time to play with stuff and for commentators who like writing about new and interesting stuff – let alone geek commentators. The hype generates itself; it’s the kind of development that’s guaranteed to look bigger than it is.

Put it all together – and introduce feedback effects, as the community of geek commentators starts to find social software apps genuinely useful within its specialised domain – and social software begins to look like a Tardis in reverse: much, much bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.

That’s not to say that social software isn’t interesting, or that it isn’t useful. But I think that in the longer term those two facets will move apart: useful and productive applications of tagging will be happening under the commentator radar, often behind organisational firewalls, while the stuff that’s interesting and fun to play with will remain… interesting and fun to play with.

This is the first verse

Nothing much here lately. Just to stop the grass growing, here’s another 25-first-lines thing: song titles and artists in comments, please. This one’s a bit different, as you’ll see. Some more obscure than others; there are a couple I’d be particularly pleased for somebody to get, and one which would probably earn you a pint (it’s from a privately-produced CD by a friend of mine). (A couple of bona fide Chart Hits, too.)

Update 4/9/06 An email from Tina bags the last easy ones, plus a couple of difficult ones. (Hi Tina!) The rest are all a bit on the obscure side, I’d say – not that I’d mind being proved wrong. Have at it.

Update 13/9/06 All remaining beans spilled.

  1. A certain kind of love, I’d say
    – Soft Machine (Rob)
  2. A long time ago, we used to be friends
    – Dandy Warhols (Tina)
  3. Bonfires in forests, lamplights in houses, all obscured
    – Graham Coxon (Tina)
  4. By a waterfall, I’m calling you
    – the Bonzo Dog Band (Rob)
  5. Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
    – Blur (Tina)
  6. For years unspotted, Henri Dupont wheeled his barrow in Marseilles
    Barry Booth (lyrics by Terry Jones)
  7. Give me your love and I’ll give you the perfect lovesong
    – the Divine Comedy (John)
  8. I can see clearly now the rain has gone
    – Jimmy Ruffin (JJ)
  9. I don’t know what to do with my life, should I give it up and make a new start?
    – Buzzcocks (Jamie)
  10. I often dream of trains when I’m alone
    – Robyn Hitchcock (Tina)
  11. I stand by the building in the pouring rain
    the Mekons
  12. Inside of me, take as much as you can find of me
    David McComb
  13. It’s happened before, most likely it will happen again
    Ed Kuepper
  14. Jacqueline was seventeen, working on a desk
    – Franz Ferdinand (Biscit)
  15. Loving you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful
    – the Charlatans (Syd)
  16. Mother Mary and the morning wonder, take me home
    the Earlies
  17. Nothing you could say could tear me away from my guy
    – Mary Wells (and subsequently Aretha Franklin, among others) – Alex
  18. Put your hands on the wheel, let the Golden Age begin
    – Beck (Justin)
  19. Red rain is falling down
    – Peter Gabriel (JJ)
  20. Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we’re heading?
    – Bob Dylan (Rob)
  21. Sometimes love is friendly
    Hilary Bichovski
  22. This time we almost made the pieces fit, didn’t we girl?
    – Jimmy Webb (Brian)
  23. Waste of time – it’s all a waste
    Peter Blegvad
  24. Well, it seems like the funky days are back again
    – Cornershop (Rob)
  25. You rolled into town like an unscheduled train
  26. Nothing Painted Blue

Never return again

It’s been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson’s ice-cream symphonies to Dylan’s lyrical manifestoes, you’d meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died – but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.

On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism – no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it’s hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it’s just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)

But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I’ve ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn’t go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham (“Araucaria”) made his own, or for Araucaria’s meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as “clues that don’t look like clues”: sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: “Amundsen’s forwarding address” (4)).

Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I’m doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out (between the points, that’ll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?”). It’s a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria’s puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne’s. I’ve never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne’s clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn’t – yet – know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn’t help. You couldn’t say, afterwards, how you’d worked it out, because you hadn’t. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.

And now it’s over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap – and, unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, he’s left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It’s been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I’ve lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it’s more as if the ground’s gone.

Death just doesn’t seem like something we’re equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he’d realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who’s been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God’s eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?

The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be – or else that it isn’t but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:

LOVE + PAIN = LIFE WHICH LEEDS TO DEAF

Nearly, but not quite – life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.

The cold in our eyes

Is it anti-semitic to criticise Israel? Is it anti-semitic to criticise Zionism? Is it anti-semitic, even, to oppose Zionism – to believe that the state of Israel (as established in 1948) was a thoroughly bad idea which should be replaced by something better?

To put it another way, does anti-semitism lead coherently to opposing Zionism – would we expect somebody who hated Jews also to hate the state of Israel? Because, if this logical entailment is invalid, it follows that the reverse inference – from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism – also falls. To put it crudely, if you can find me one Jew-hater who doesn’t also hate the idea of Jews having their own state, then we can no longer assume that anti-Zionism follows from anti-semitism.

Sir Oswald, would you care to comment?

[anti-semitism is] a very old growth in British soil especially with people who come from the countryside when they come into contact with Jews. It is probably latent in the racial or traditional consciousness of a great many of these men. I am not arguing the merits of it. You may think me a great scoundrel for indulging in this and for developing it as much as we have, but there is something in it … [My solution] is constructing a national home for them which would put an end to all this friction it engenders which is as harmful to the Jews as it is to us. It changes his character into a gangster and arouses in us a certain brutality and it is bad for the Jew and bad for us.

From the records of Mosley’s appeal against detention as a fifth columnist, 1940 (quoted in the Skidelsky biography).

Now, Oswald Mosley is not the most reliable witness, even (or especially) on his own account. Skidelsky portrays him (apparently without realising it) as a monster of arrogance and sadism, utterly without loyalty or scruples, consistent only in his drive for personal dominance. If Zionist sympathies would make it easier for him to get out of jail, Zionist sympathies he would have. Nevertheless, it’s a coherent argument he makes here. If British Fascists attacked British Jews, their objection was not to Jews per se but to the ‘friction’ which inevitably results when Jews live among Gentiles (T.S. Eliot had developed a similar argument). Since Fascists are primarily concerned with building their own homogeneous nation, there’s no obvious reason to object to the formation of a Jewish nation by some of the Jews who were excluded from the Fascist fatherland; indeed, Fascists might offer Jewish nationalism a distant brotherly welcome.

I don’t know what Mosley would have said about the invasion of Lebanon; it’s entirely possible that his anti-semitism would have triumphed, and that he’d have been prominent among the critics of Israel. That said, it’s clear that there’s a line leading directly from hatred of British Jews to approval of a Jewish national home – and that it was possible, without any kind of contradiction, to oppose the presence of Jews in Britain and approve of their presence, under suitably nationalist auspices, in Palestine.

So, you can say that criticism of the Lebanon operation is anti-Israeli; you can even say it’s anti-Zionist (some of it certainly is). But don’t even think of saying it’s anti-semitic.

So much that hides

Alex points to this piece by Rashmi Sinha on ‘Findability with tags': the vexed question of using tags to find the material that you’ve tagged, rather than as an elaborate way of building a mind-map.

I should stress, parenthetically, that that last bit wasn’t meant as a putdown – it actually describes my own use of Simpy. I regularly tag pages, but almost never use tags to actually retrieve them. Sometimes – quite rarely – I do pull up all the pages I’ve tagged with a generic “write something about this” tag. Apart from that, I only ever ask Simpy two questions: one is “what was that page I tagged the other day?” (for which, obviously, meaningful tags aren’t required); the other is “what does my tag cloud look like?”.

Now, you could say that the answer to the second question isn’t strictly speaking information; it’s certainly not information I use, unless you count the time I spend grooming the cloud by splitting, merging and deleting stray tags. I like tag clouds and don’t agree with Jeffrey Zeldman’s anathema, but I do agree with Alex that they’re not the last word in retrieving information from tags. Which is where Rashmi’s article comes in.

Rashmi identifies three ways of layering additional information on top of the basic item/tag pairing, all of which hinge on partitioning the tag universe in different ways. This is most obvious in the case of faceted tagging: here, the field of information is partitioned before any tags are applied. Rashmi cites the familiar example of wine, where a ‘region’ tag would carry a different kind of information from ‘grape variety’, ‘price’ or for that matter ‘taste’. Similar distinctions can be made in other areas: a news story tagged ‘New Labour’, ‘racism’ and ‘to blog about’ is implicitly carrying information in the domains ‘subject (political philosophy)’, ‘subject (social issue)’ and ‘action to take’.

There are two related problems here. A unique tag, in this model, can only exist within one dimension: if I want separate tags for New Labour (the people) and New Labour (the philosophy), I’ll either have to make an artificial distinction between the two (New_Labour vs New_Labour_philosophy) or add a dimension layer to my tags (political_party.New_Labour vs political_philosophy.New_Labour). Both solutions are pretty horrible. More broadly, you can’t invoke a taxonomist’s standby like the wine example without setting folksonomic backs up, and with some reason: part of the appeal of tagging is precisely that you start with a blank sheet and let the domains of knowledge emerge as they may.

Clustered tagging (a new one on me) addresses both of these problems, as well as answering the much-evaded question of how those domains are supposed to emerge. A tag cluster – as seen on Flickr – consists of a group of tags which consistently appear together, suggesting an implicit ‘domain’. Crucially, a single tag can occur in multiple clusters. The clusters for the Flickr ‘election’ tag, for example, are easy to interpret:

vote, politics, kerry, bush, voting, ballot, poster, cameraphone, democrat, president

wahl, germany, deutschland, berlin, cdu, spd, bundestagswahl

canada, ndp, liberal, toronto, jacklayton, federalelection

and, rather anticlimactically,

england, uk

Clustering, I’d argue, represents a pretty good stab at building emergent domains. The downside is that it only becomes possible when there are huge numbers of tagging operations.

The third enhancement to tagging Rashmi describes is the use of tags as pivots:

When everything (tag, username, number of people who have bookmarked an item) is a link, you can use any of those links to look around you. You can change direction at any moment.

Lurking behind this, I think, is Thomas‘s original tripartite definition of ‘folksonomy':

the three needed data points in a folksonomy tool [are]: 1) the person tagging; 2) the object being tagged as its own entity; and 3) the tag being used on that object. Flattening the three layers in a tool in any way makes that tool far less valuable for finding information. But keeping the three data elements you can use two of the elements to find a third element, which has value. If you know the object (in del.icio.us it is the web page being tagged) and the tag you can find other individuals who use the same tag on that object, which may lead (if a little more investigation) to somebody who has the same interest and vocabulary as you do. That person can become a filter for items on which they use that tag.

This, I think, is pivoting in action: from the object and its tags, to the person tagging and the tags they use, to the person using particular tags and the objects they tag. (There’s a more concrete description here.)

Alex suggests that using tags as pivots could also be considered a subset of faceted browsing. I’d go further, and suggest that facets, clusters and pivots are all subsets of a larger set of solutions, which we can call domain-based tagging. If you use facets, the domains are imposed: this approach is a good fit to relatively closed domains of knowledge and finite groups of taggers. If you’ve got an epistemological blank sheet and a limitless supply of taggers, you can allow the domains to emerge: this is where clusters come into their own. And if what you’re primarily interested in is people – and, specifically, who‘s saying what about what – then you don’t want multiple content-based domains but only the information which derives directly from human activity: the objects and their taggers. Or rather, you want the objects and the taggers, plus the ability to pivot into a kind of multi-dimensional space: instead of tags existing within domains, each tag is a domain in its own right, and what you can find within each tag-domain is the objects and their taggers.

What all of this suggests is that, unsurprisingly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. I suggested some time ago that

If ‘cloudiness’ is a universal condition, del.icio.us and Flickr and tag clouds and so forth don’t enable us to do anything new; what they are giving us is a live demonstration of how the social mind works.

All knowledge is cloudy; all knowledge is constructed through conversation; conversation is a way of dealing with cloudiness and building usable clouds; social software lets us see knowledge clouds form in real time. I think that’s fine as far as it goes; what it doesn’t say is that, as well as having conversations about different things, we’re having different kinds of conversations and dealing with the cloud of knowing in different ways. Ontology is not, necessarily, overrated; neither is folksonomy.

The answer lies in yesterday

Call me insufferably pretentious, but when I think of the Labour Party I can’t help thinking of the opening of Chtcheglov’s 1953 Formulary for a new urbanism. (Bear with me, there’s some good stuff further down.)

We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the roadside hoardings, the latest state of humour and poetry:

Showerbath of the Patriarchs
Meat Cutting Machines
Notre Dame Zoo
Sports Pharmacy
Martyrs Provisions
Translucent Concrete
Golden Touch Sawmill
Centre for Functional Recuperation
Saint Anne Ambulance
Café Fifth Avenue
Prolonged Volunteers Street
Family Boarding House in the Garden
Hotel of Strangers
Wild Street

And the swimming pool on the Street of Little Girls. And the police station on Rendezvous Street. The medical-surgical clinic and the free placement centre on the Quai des Orfèvres. The artificial flowers on Sun Street. The Castle Cellars Hotel, the Ocean Bar and the Coming and Going Café. The Hotel of the Epoch.

And the strange statue of Dr. Philippe Pinel, benefactor of the insane, in the last evenings of summer. Exploring Paris.

And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.

The hacienda must be built.

I do like ‘Golden Touch Sawmill'; it’s not quite ‘Lucky Smells‘, but this was (a) 1953 and (b) reality. But anyway:

Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas. Il faut construire l’hacienda.

Call me insufferably pretentious, but where the Labour Party’s concerned that for me just about says it: maintenant c’est joué. The Labour Party under Kinnock and Smith was still, in some significant and useful respects, the same organisation that it was under Wilson and Gaitskell and Attlee. When radicals like me argued against Labour there was always an unanswerable counter-argument: this is the Labour Party; this is the party of the organised working class in Britain. It’s a big argument, and it got a lot of use. Labour leftists used the Argument to justify staying in the party; entryists used it to justify burrowing away within the party rather than building their own organisations; even Socialist Workers used it, to justify supporting Labour ‘critically’ (or ‘without illusions’ or ‘go on, just once more’ or whatever it was).

Maintenant c’est joué. Firstly, the Labour Party – whatever else it is these days – is not the party of the organised working class. Secondly, the New Labour clique (who are serious about power) have taken steps to prevent it ever becoming that party again. Thirdly, the frankly spectacular New Labour approach to mobilisation, combined with a massive and broadly welcome disaffection with Labour as a party, have left the Labour Party in so weak a state that it wouldn’t be much use to the organised working class, even if they turned up tomorrow asking for their party back. If we want a party of the Left, we’ll have to build it. The actually-existing Labour Party is a distraction at best.

I’ve thought like this for a while, but a debate I was in recently brought home to me again the enduring weight of the Labour Party on the Left – and the increasing deadness of that weight. In a comments thread on Dave‘s excellent blog, I recently got involved in an argument with a Labour Party member. It was something of a dialogue of the deaf; I never really got an answer either to the question “why are you in the Labour Party?” or to “why do you think you’re on the Left?”, and I got the impression my interlocutor’s silence wasn’t down to inadvertence or rudeness. Rather, it seemed that the two questions were at once inseparable and unanswerable:

of course I’m in the Labour Party, I’m on the Left!
And:
of course I’m on the Left, I’m in the Labour Party!

It’s an increasingly meaningless and arbitrary association of ideas, I’d argue, and one which badly needs to be challenged.

Anyway, here’s my half of the conversation (with light edits):

[quote]
I’m slightly depressed, but mostly surprised, to see someone talking about ‘us’ being in power. Mind you, I didn’t really feel that the Labour Party was in power under Callaghan and Healey (for verily, I am an old fart and do remember the last time Labour won elections).

Parties change, and the Labour Party’s changed more than most. I voted Labour all through the Foot, Kinnock and Smith years; right now I’m actively opposed to Labour and doubt I’ll ever vote for them again.

I used to vote Labour, because I believed in what I thought to be Labour policies and I thought that the Labour leadership in government, kept under pressure by the Labour Party in the country, would implement some of those policies. All that’s gone now. The policies of the leadership are far to the right of anything that has ever gone out under the name of Labour before, even under Ramsay MacDonald. The mood of the party in the country is better, but it’s still more right-wing (and more leadership-friendly) than anything I remember even from the Kinnock/Smith period. In any case, the leadership has systematically dismantled all the structures which enabled the party to hold it to account, and now openly claims the right to make Labour policy on the hoof.

New Labour doesn’t mean socialism, or social democracy, or even the kind of timid while-resources-permit reformism the party had been reduced to by John Smith’s time. New Labour means corporate capitalism, disciplined communities and a tight hold on the reins of power. So, for as long as Labour means New Labour, Labour is not us.

The long-term trouble with Labour is that if you back away from ‘extreme’ left-wing policies for long enough, you end up with something that nobody will actually vote for, because there’s nothing really there. Blair understood this: he offered a break from the Labour leadership’s long history of apology and evasion, all those years of left-wing but not far-left, left-wing but responsible, left-wing but patriotic

Blair isn’t left-wing at all: that’s precisely his strength. He came to power promising something radically different from the previous fifty years of Labour policy, and he’s delivered it in spades. I distrusted him from the off, but he’s gone beyond even my expectations. (Privatisation of the Health Service, by a Labour government – I wouldn’t have believed it even five years ago.)

What I don’t understand is where Labour Party members actually stand these days: setting aside group loyalties, what is it they believe in which the Labour Party can deliver, and only the Labour Party?

[in response to a comment that this is a ‘centre-right’ country]

You can’t say there was massive popular support for New Labour in 1997. Nothing, short of a major split in the party, was going to stop the Tories losing to Labour in 1997. John Smith would have won easily if he’d lived. (Perhaps he wouldn’t have had quite so many ex-Tory votes or quite such a huge majority, but neither of those is necessarily a good thing.)

You can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour since 1997. Guess which election had a larger number of Labour votes – 1979 or 2005?

And you certainly can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour policies. Who knew in 1997 that they were voting for ASBOs and Neighbourhood Wardens? Who knew in 2001 that they were voting for an appointed House of Lords and an invasion of Iraq? Who knew in 2005 that they were voting for NHS privatisation and compulsory ID cards?

I don’t think this is a right-wing country. I do think that submission to authority runs very deep in British society, though: there are a lot of people who want to feel they’re being led by a strong leader, someone who knows what’s best and may even punish them for their own good. And what better proof of strength could a leader have than taking on his or her own party?
[endquote]

I think this last, tangential point may have been the most important one. You could argue that the Blairites haven’t done anything qualitatively new; they’ve simply improved and enhanced a self-destruct mechanism which was built into the Labour Party all along. I’m referring to the eternally recurring confrontation between the Moderate Leader and the Extremist Agitators. Labour is a left-wing party, but it’s not really acceptable to bring a party of the Left inside the institutional tent – at least, not until the leader has proved his party’s moderation by facing down the extremists at the grass roots. Blair has only done what Kinnock and Gaitskell did before him, only at a higher level.

The odd thing is that this anti-democratic manoeuvre – a trial of strength, a proof of mastery by leader over party – seems to have a definite emotional appeal. My interlocutor on Dave’s blog repeatedly harked back to the glory days of Kinnock’s leadership; it turned out that the pinnacle of Kinnock’s achievement, in this person’s eyes, was his confrontation with the Mils.

Shortly after the debate on Dave’s blog had petered out, I started reading Robert Skidelsky’s ghastly biography of Oswald Mosley. (Quite interesting in many ways, I have to say, and I’m sure there’ll be more mosleyblogging in the days to come. Still ghastly, though.) Here’s an excerpt from the original Introduction:

From 1961 onwards I was actively involved in the Labour Party, both at the university level and in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. It was Hugh Gaitskell’s courage, in face of the bitterest denunciations from his own party, in fighting for what he believed to be right, that really attracted me to Labour politics at the time. To be drawn into politics by the personality of a leader may seem immature. Yet there is a sound reason for it. On the quality of the leadership depends the possibility of action. This truth has never, it seems to me, been adequately grasped by social democratic parties. They spend their lives talking about the world to come; yet saddle themselves for the most part with leaders who are all too obviously content with the world as it is: hence the literature of ‘betrayal’ which pours out in unceasing flood from social democratic pens. Early on in my reading about Mosley I was struck by the dedication of John Strachey’s book Revolution by Reason (1925): ‘To O.M. who may some day do the things of which we dream’. This exactly parallelled my own feelings about Gaitskell, though not about his successor.

(Sorry, Harold.)

What Skidelsky says here, among other things, is that he was drawn to the Labour Party because the leader was at odds with the party. In effect, his loyalty wasn’t to the party but to the leader, and the leader’s faction – since, after all, the quality of the leadership determines the possibility of action.

Politics as the cult of the leader – and the cult of action (a favourite Mosley word). It’s a way of thinking that hollows out the party, and ultimately the government; democracy doesn’t really come into it, either ideologically or structurally. In this perspective the tragedy of the Labour Party is that, although the movement from which it grew represented a strong and coherent challenge to this mentality, the structure of the party itself created opportunities and incentives for new leaders to assert and impose themselves – progressively weakening the party’s democratic values as they did so. The rot set in a long time ago, in other words; by 1997 I suspect it had already gone too far to reverse.

L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas.

Update 25th July: Today’s dose of Skidelsky fortuitously brought me to this passage:

Although officially the struggle was between socialism and capitalism, Labour and Tory, Mosley interpreted it in personal terms: himself versus the Chamberlains and the press-lords.

(On the same page Skidelsky writes: “With the local Labour newspaper, the Town Crier, and its editor, W.J. Chamberlain, Mosley established excellent relations (fortified by substantial subsidies).” Not all press-lords, then – or all Chamberlains. But anyway…)

This personalisation of the conflict heightened its drama and bound working-class voters to Mosley (and through him to the Labour Party) in a way which more orthodox methods would never have done (or at least so quickly); at the same time it left something of a bitter taste in the mouths of some of the eclipsed, plodding, local Labour officials. … Mosley’s fault to these Labour activists was that he identified the Labour movement with himself, rather than the other way round.

It looks as if one reason why Oswald Mosley never made it as a Labour politician was simply that he was ahead of his time.

There’s a party somewhere

I’m not much of a raver; actually I’ve never raved in my life, with the possible exception of a couple of hours at a hotel near Preston, one night in 1988. (I was there for a systems analysis course. I said I wasn’t much of a raver.)

All the same, I remember smiley-face music, and I remember how things heated up a few years later, with the CJA and ‘repetitive beats‘ and so forth. So I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by this:

Police are desperately trying to find out details of a “mega” illegal rave expected to take place in the coming weeks, as forces across the country begin to report a significant resurgence in the free party movement.
[…]
Forces admit there has been a surge in activity, including one party in north Cornwall that was attended by more than 5,000 revellers. Officers are warning landowners and the public to be on their guard after receiving intelligence that large raves may be being planned for weekends in August, particularly over the bank holiday.
[…]
On a national level forces are working hard to make sure they share information about raves in the pipeline. Thames Valley police is using Asbo legislation to try to take out prolific rave organisers, while police in Norfolk, another rave hotspot, this week urged landowners to make sure ravers cannot get access to prime party sites.
[…]
Over May bank holiday this year hundreds of VW and custom car fans headed to Newquay in north Cornwall for an annual Run for the Sun rally. The police did not notice that among them were many hundreds much more interested in sounds systems than air-cooled engines. Officers watched helpless while as many as 5,000 people partied at a well-organised but illegal rave on a disused airfield at Davidstow, near Camelford. Once thousands of people are on site the police tend to monitor and contain the event rather than try to break it up.In other parts of the country police have managed to stop big raves. One which had attracted as many as 2,000 people in Northamptonshire was halted; a week later Avon and Somerset police got wind of a planned rave at an old firing range and managed to blockade it. Chief Inspector Richard Baker of Devon and Cornwall’s contingency planning unit accepted the Davidstow rave had not been on the police’s radar but said the force was now better prepared. Intelligence specialists were monitoring websites and party phonelines to try to pick up word of further free parties and festivals.

But I was mildly surprised, not by what’s in this story so much as what’s not there: any reference to why the police are so keen to stop people dancing on airfields. The last time things were kicking off, I’m pretty sure that the news coverage was all about how dangerous these scary new wild parties were: the neighbours would be deafened, the sites would be left knee-deep in litter, the countryside would be trashed… As for anyone foolhardy enough to actually go to a rave, they’d be lucky to escape with their lives, what with the dangers of being crushed, trampled underfoot, overheated, dehydrated or unknowingly taking a lethal cocktail of drugs. As time went by it became clear to anyone who bothered to look into it that the organisers of free parties were generally pretty responsible when it came to trashing the environment; that remarkably few people were getting crushed trampled overheated, etc; and that even the drugs people were taking were, by and large, non-lethal. But by that time the legislation was in place and the scene had gone into an enforced decline.

So it’s not entirely surprising that, faced with a new wave of rave (sorry, please nobody use that), the relevant police forces are ready and waiting to stop it in its tracks. What is interesting is the absence of any kind of justification – or, in the case of our man at the Guardian, any sense that there ought to be some kind of justification – for these operations, which seem to be a fairly massive clampdown on activities which don’t appear to be doing anybody any harm.

Of course, there are laws against raves, passed by the Tories in the mid-90s (with the assistance of the then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair). It’d be understandable if the police were making a case for impartial law-enforcement (we don’t have opinions about the law, sir, we’re just here to make sure it’s obeyed), although obviously there would be room for arguments about priorities. But what’s going on at the moment appears to go further. Note the reference to anti-social behaviour:

Thames Valley police is using Asbo legislation to try to take out prolific rave organisers

According to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (which introduced the ASBO), ‘anti-social behaviour’ equals behaving ‘in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household’ (emphasis added). Picture yourself a rave organiser up before the court. How do you fancy your chances of persuading a magistrate, not only that your activities were not illegal, but that they were not likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress?

I’m old enough to remember acid house; I’m also old enough, just about, to remember this. It looks as if that’s where we’re heading.

Save our kids from this culture

My frustration with the bearpit that is Comment is Free was brought to a head by this bizarre post by David Hirsh. Once again, I’m going to reproduce my CiF comment here, because frankly I think more people will pay attention to it here than there.

First, a word about Hirsh’s argument. He opens thus:

Since before it even existed, Israel has been engaged in two wars with its neighbours. One is a just war, waged by Palestinian Arabs for freedom – which became a demand for Palestinian national independence; the other is a genocidal war that aims to end Jewish life in the Middle East.The job of the left is to insist on the reality of this distinction and to stand against those who recognise the reality of only one or other of these two separate wars.

The job of the left – ugh. Something very Euston about that formulation – the call to duty, with the implication that this might not be a duty we all like…. But let’s press on.

The problem with social reality is that if enough people believe something to be true, and act as though it is indeed true, then it may become the truth. So if Israelis believe they are only ever fighting a war of survival, then they will use tactics and strategies that are proportionate to the war they believe themselves to be fighting. If Palestinians, meanwhile, come to believe that they can win their freedom only by destroying Israel, then they will think of the Jew-haters of Hamas, Hizbullah, al-Qaeda and the Syrian and Iranian regimes as their allies in the task.The only way out is for cosmopolitan voices and political movements to insist on the reality of both wars – to separate them conceptually and to stand clearly for a Palestinian victory in the fight for freedom and equally clearly for an Israeli victory in the fight against annihilation.

There’s a certain narrowness to Hirsh’s focus here. I’m quite prepared to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not in favour of annihilation, by and large. On the contrary, I’m very much in favour of people who are alive being enabled and permitted to remain alive. But I don’t think this commits me to supporting ‘an Israeli victory’ of any sort, in any set of geopolitical circumstances which I can begin to imagine developing out of the current situation.

But maybe my imagination just isn’t up to the job. A few more words from David, this time in the comment thread:

its not far-fetched to imagine a very serious threat. Imagine if the regime in Syria and Iran were joined, perhaps by a Jihadi-revolutionary regime in Saudi and perhaps a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Add these to a Hamas led Palestine and a Hezbullah led Lebanon. This is hypothetical, yes, but entirely possible.Imagine also, perhaps that the neo-cons in Washington are replaced by the neo-realists – Mearsheimer and Walt advising the White House that it is in the national interest of the US to ditch Israel.

Imagine also a global liberal intelligensia and labour movement that believes the Israelis are so evil that they deserve what’s coming to them.

But its OK, because Israel is heavily armed.

The logic of your position, then, is that it is a good thing that Israel has the 4th largest army in the world (or whatever it is) because it guarantees their survival.

So how do you feel about the proposal of an arms embargo against Israel? How do you feel about the proposal to stop US aid and to stop the US selling arms to Israel?

What then is there to guarantee Israel’s survival?

I’ll stop beating about the bush: I think this argument is silly, offensive and dangerously dishonest. If Israel’s apologists genuinely believe the country is engaged in a fight for survival at this moment, they’re self-deceived to the point of insanity. If they don’t believe that but think that what’s going on now should be understood by reference to a completely hypothetical worst-case scenario, they’re grossly dishonest. Perhaps even more important, the ‘fight for survival’ argument is being used to divert attention from what the Israeli government and army are actually doing; in other words, it’s being made to do work that it couldn’t do even if it was valid.

Here’s a comment I prepared earlier:

David,I think your argument is interesting & instructive, but not quite in the way that you think it is.

There are (at least) three questions which can legitimately be asked of the state of Israel without arousing suspicions of anti-semitism. Firstly, can the state itself be described as constitutionally unjust, either from its founding or since 1967 (and two-thirds of its history is post-67)? I assume you’d answer No, but many people would answer Yes – including many diaspora Jews and a good few Israelis. But a constitutionally unjust state is one which needs to be replaced, not reformed: replaced through the actions and with the consent of its citizens, certainly, but still replaced. In normal circumstances (I’ll return to this point), asking whether – as a matter of principle – a constitutionally unjust state has the right to perpetuate itself is asking whether injustice has the right to continue.

Secondly, is the state’s posture of perpetual war, and its repeated use of force rather than diplomacy, an appropriate response to the situation Israel finds itself in? Answer No (as many of us do) and any incursion into Gaza, any house demolition, any IDF sniper bullet carries a burden of justification: is this specific action justifiable, or is it just another example of an established, unjust pattern? This is where the allegations of prejudice start flying – those who answer Yes to the second question don’t believe there is any such pattern, and consequently judge each specific action as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Lastly, when the state does resort to military force, is its use of force appropriate and proportionate? It’s important to note that this is a completely separate question from the previous one (and does have to be judged on a case by case basis). If I’m fighting for my life and I kill a defenceless passer-by who wasn’t threatening me, I’m still a murderer. (Cf. suicide bombers.)

I found your ‘Imagine’ comment particularly enlightening. Because circumstances alter cases – a position that would be appropriate in normal circumstances isn’t necessarily appropriate in the middle of a war. If Israel were an isolated underdog, entirely surrounded by states which seriously wanted to invade and destroy it, and unable to count on any outside assistance – if this were the case, my answer to question 1 would change (from ‘Yes’ to ‘Maybe, but that’s not important right now’). And if Israel were not only surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, but on the brink of an exterminationist final conflict – in that case my answer to question 2 would probably change (from ‘No’ to ‘Maybe not, but it’s not for us to say’).

So what’s instructive about your article is the insight it gives into a certain Israeli mindset – a mindset which I can’t regard as being grounded in reality, and one which I’m happy to say isn’t universal among Israelis. I also think it illuminates a further, basically irrational slippage over the third question: are the IDF’s tactics in Gaza and Lebanon (and elsewhere) disproportionate and inhumane? The answer which comes from Israel’s apologists seems to be, essentially, “They had to do something, these people were going to kill them all!” Even in the nightmare scenario where this was actually true, it wouldn’t be an adequate answer: if someone’s trying to kill you, it’s not self-defence to burn out the family who live next door.

Not that anyone appears to be listening to arguments like these. (They certainly aren’t listening on Comment is Free…) In a way that’s the worst thing about the current situation – the sense that the killers of the IDF are doing exactly what the killers of Hezbollah want them to (and vice versa), so that things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

It will have blood, they say – blood will have blood.

Don’t have nightmares.

Free of the need to be free

At the risk of sounding like a bad standup –

Mark Thomas: …this – thing – that’s really tepid and bland and moulded to fit this Lego model of comedy… seventies gag, TV presenter gag, difference between cats and dogs, difference between men and women, have you ever noticed at a dinner party…

– have you ever noticed, right, you know that Comment is Free site? It’s not very good, is it?

Here’s a comment I posted today (and it says something that I think I’m giving it a wider distribution by posting it here):

I find myself in the weird position of both agreeing and disagreeing with you. I agree with you that there is a problem. The comment threads on CiF are a complete and utter mess; I’m approaching the point of giving up on CiF and posting anything I want to say about CiF/Graun content on my blog, just like I used to.

What I don’t agree with the way you describe the problem. I found the tone of both this and the previous ‘Less is more’ post really startling – offensive, even. You [addressed to Georgina Henry] seem to genuinely hate a lot of the comments posted on CiF; not all of them, of course, just the ones you describe as ‘pointless chatter’, ‘slanging matches’, ‘quick-fire insults’, ‘mindless irrelevant chatter’ and indeed ‘rubbish’. That doesn’t necessarily mean you hate the commenters, but I imagine your attitude to anyone who positively values the comments you hate would be pretty tetchy.

But how can you sustain this opposition between the pristine blog and the spoilsport commenters? In other words, when did CiF exist in the form you think it ought to have, before the invasion of the pointless chatterers? I wasn’t watching CiF all that closely over the first couple of weeks, but I strongly suspect the answer is ‘never’. This is your blog: this is how you designed it. The comments threads would look very different now if you’d required real names to be printed; or if you’d required commenters to display an email address or a blog URL under their name – or even if you’d allowed email addresses or URLs to be displayed. It would look different if you hadn’t thrown open commenting rights to anyone who applied; it would look different if you hadn’t allowed talkboard users to inherit commenting rights. And it would look different if all CiF content were written by journalists with a personal interest in blogging, rather than consisting very largely of rebadged opinion columns.

All of these are design decisions. The decisions which you (or your blog advisors) made created CiF as it is now.

One other thing leapt out at me from the previous piece.

persistent breaches of our talk policy … pointless chatter that litters threads … degenerate into back-and-forth slanging matches … try our talk boards. Alternatively, as some have done, they can start their own blogs (we’re happily linking to quite a few) and continue the quick-fire insults in their own space.

Leave blogs out of it, eh? I could name several blogs where the quality of the debate is in a different league from CiF – where it’s something like how I imagine the Platonic ideal of CiF debate, even. But none of those blogs was widely advertised and immediately thrown open to all their readers – and none of them was written by high-profile journalists with a record of ignoring their critics.

To sum up, the reason CiF almost immediately became a high-volume, high-polarisation, Harry’s Place/LGF scratching-post isn’t that it’s a blog. The reason is that it’s a blog designed by people who don’t understand blogs, and written by people who don’t like blogs.

It happened before

I hate it when my doctoral thesis gets topical. Here are some figures:

1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981
333 282 277 190 103 33 81
92 169 460 1110 802 258 141
3 8 5 28 21 25 15

Take a moment to read across the rows and get a feel for the shape of the series. Row one starts pretty high – almost one of these things per day – then declines year on year, plummets to almost nothing in 1980 and makes a weak recovery in 1981. Row two starts low-ish (about one every four days) then rises continuously and rapidly as the first series falls; it peaks in 1978 at the extraordinary value of 1110 (three of these things per day) then declines quite steeply, although the 1981 value is still higher than the 1975 starting point. As for the third row, it starts low, jumps to a higher value at the time of the 1978 peak, then stays close to that higher level for the next few years, even while the second series declines.

The figures all relate to Italy. Row one represents the number of mass radical protests (strikes, demos, occupations, mass shoplifts, rent strikes, etc). It’s an approximate figure in all sorts of ways, but everything I’ve read suggests that the trend is valid.

Row two is the number of actions by radical ‘armed struggle’ groups.

Row three is the number of people killed by those groups.

And here’s Anjem Choudray, self-described spokesman for the banned organisation Al-Ghurabaa:

We have been functioning here for the last 10 or 15 years and nobody has ever been arrested for any terrorism-related offences. What this will do is it will militarise many people, because if you stop people propagating their thoughts and ideas, then you will push them underground and after that you have no control over them.

Nice one, Dr Reid.

Forza Italia!

And you won’t often hear me say that.

There will be time to wonder about the mysteries of this World Cup – why were the announcements in English? why did the band keep playing “Go West”? why did the crowd keep singing “Vindaloo”? and what did England think was going to happen if they went on playing like that? Time to lament Zidane’s idiocy (and Rooney’s), time to talk about penalty shootouts, time to wonder why the Germany/Italy match was quite so beautiful. And, not least, time to assemble a fantasy squad consisting entirely of players with Christian names for surnames (Terry, Neville, Gerrard, Henry, it practically writes itself).

For now I just want to leap around like a loon. The result couldn’t have been better, apart from the bit about being decided on penalties. Italy were one of the two or three best teams right through the championship; they played against Germany like wolves on speed, and if the final was a bit of a bundle by comparison they still handled themselves nicely for the full two hours. And, most importantly, Berlusconi got kicked out before the contest began, so all the reflected glory will go to Prodi & co (“Have you noticed how we only win the World Cup under a Labour Government?”)

Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Materazzi, Grosso, Camoranesi, Pirlo, Gattuso, Perrotta (he’s a local lad, you know), Totti, Toni, Iaquinta, De Rossi, Del Piero and (not least) Buffon, vi salutiamo. And I won’t apologise for saying it again – if we think it’s a big deal to reclaim our flag from fascists, spare a thought for Italian fans who can’t say “come on Italy” without it sounding like an endorsement for you-know-who. Time to have done with that.

Forza Italia!

Searching for something to say

Time for a bit of pure self-indulgence; I’m doing the 20-first-line thing again. Only with 25 (thanks Rob), and with a whole bunch of songs either missed out or included for completely arbitrary reasons. (So I skipped some albums which appeared in the earlier attempts, but not all of them.) The difference from the previous two attempts is essentially that this is 25 songs I actually like.

  1. “When your world is full of strange arrangements and gravity won’t pull you through”
    – ABC, “The look of love” (Justin)
  2. “Well I remember when you used to look so good and I would do everything I possibly could for you”
    – Love, “Bummer in the summer” (Chris)
  3. “Summer was gone and the heat died down”
    – Nick Drake, “Time of no reply” (Justin)
  4. “Sometimes I feel so happy, sometimes I feel so sad”
    – the Velvet Underground, “Pale blue eyes” (Larry)
  5. “As I was walking all alane”
    – traditional, “Twa Corbies”
  6. “You’ve got to hope for the best, and the best looks good now baby”
    – Spiritualized, “Do it all over again” (Unity)
  7. “They stumbled into their lives”
    – Blur, “Fade away” (Justin)
  8. “Everyone’s too nice to me, the way Vincent Price would be with midnight coming on”
    – Peter Blegvad, “Special Delivery”
  9. “D’you lay with a shallow girl?”
    – James Yorkston, “I awoke”
  10. “Your railroad gauge, you know I just can’t jump it”
    – Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (Alex)
  11. “Who could find him, the sidewinding Indian?”
    – Spiritualized, “Do it all over again” (actualfactual)
  12. Moon is giving sunshine, clouds are full of wine”
    – Laika, “Marimba song” (Unity)
  13. “Boy, do you hear me say, do you hear me say now?”
    – the Concretes, “You can’t hurry love” (actualfactual)
  14. “This old world may never change”
    – Fred Neil, “Dolphins” (Jim)
  15. “Sonically we’re in control”
    – Leftfield, “Original” (Unity)
  16. “I want, him wants, you want, who wants, he wants, I want, him wants, I want”
    – Happy Mondays, “Do it better” (actualfactual)
  17. “They’re nice and precise – each one begins and ends”
    – Buzzcocks, “Fast cars” (actualfactual)
  18. “Drag boy dog boy dirty numb angel boy”
    – Underworld, “Born slippy” (James)
  19. “Why this uncertainty? It’s not clear to me – would you rather be independent?”
    – Pet Shop Boys, “One in a million” (Unity)
  20. “Spring was never waiting for us, girl”
    – Richard Harris, “MacArthur Park” (Lisa)
  21. “So you lost your trust, and you never should have”
    – Coldplay, “See you soon” (actualfactual)
  22. “It’s the darkest time of year”
    – Robyn Hitchcock, “Winter love”
  23. “Thinking of all the times you missed digging it in, you can’t resist”
    – Ed Kuepper, “By the way”
  24. “First time, I did it for the hell of it”
    – SFA, “Something for the weekend” (Alex)
  25. “Brown Eyes and I were tired”
    – Brian Eno, “St Elmo’s Fire” (Unity)

Have at it.

Update 13th July: that’s your lot. Well spotted, all.

Hide them when you’re able

I’ve got a logical mind, perhaps excessively so; people sometimes call me a pedant, but I always point out that pedantry is characterised by excessive reliance on canonical sources and works of reference rather than by mere consistency in the exercise of rational thinking. That shuts them up, I can tell you.

Anyway, having a clear and intuitive sense of propositions such as “if A is true, not-A must be false” is surprisingly useful in some lines of work, but it can make the fuzzier areas of human interaction a bit problematic. In my last job but one I had the misfortune to be part of a group that was selected for an Outward Bound-style ‘team-building’ exercise, which would take place over a weekend and include lots of the kind of jolly fun activities which I’d managed to avoid for the whole of my adult life and most of my childhood. Correction: a voluntary Outward Bound-style ‘team-building’ exercise. Cue a conversation with my manager:

“I don’t think I’ll go on this thing.”
“Are you sure? You know, I think you should.”
“Well, maybe. But, I mean, it’s not compulsory, is it?”
“No, no, it’s not compulsory. Think about it, OK?”

And another:

“I really don’t think I’ll go on this thing.”
“I don’t know, I really think you ought to. The idea is that the whole group goes.”
“Sorry, you mean it’s compulsory?”
“No, no, of course not. It’s just that it’s better if the whole group goes.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s just not my thing.”
“OK, well. It’s not compulsory, of course. But just think about it, OK?”

And another:

“Look, I’ve thought about it some more, and…”
“OK, I know you don’t want to go, but I really think you should.”
“But… what can I say? I really don’t want to go. And it’s not compulsory…”
“No, no, of course it’s not compulsory. But I really think you should go.”

If it’s not compulsory, it must be voluntary.
But:
If I can’t choose not to go, then it’s not voluntary and it must be compulsory.
But…

Brane hertz.

(I went, of course. Parts of it were OK – the rope walk was very cool – but other parts were truly, enduringly awful. I got my revenge in the whiteboard feedback session on the Sunday afternoon.)

That was a long time ago, and I’ve had a bit more experience of smudgy social reasoning since then. But sometimes even now the fit descends and I turn into LogicMan (None withstand his remorseless inferences!). Most recently in the case of that cuddly Old Labour mascot, John Prescott. Charlie has the story; Alex has the British background; and Dave has the American ditto. Me, I’ve got the logic.

You see, Prescott’s stay on the Anschutz ranch was either personal – an even lower-rent version of Blair’s hols with Berlusconi – or business. It can’t be both; it can’t be neither; it must be one or the other.

If it was personal, why wasn’t it declared in the Register of Members’ Interests at the time?
If it was personal, what were civil servants doing on the trip with Prescott? (Ugh – better rephrase that before the mental images get out of hand.) If it was personal, how does Prescott justify taking civil servants with him?
If it was personal, why was the offsetting payment to charity made out of government funds?
And if it was personal, why on earth would Prescott choose to spend his holidays with an unsavoury character like Anschutz? (See Dave’s post for details.)

On the other hand:

If it was a trip on government business, why has the trip been declared in the Register of Members’ Interests at all?
If it was business, why has a payment been made to charity?
And, if it was business, what business could Prescott possibly have to discuss, legitimately, with Anschutz?

Logically, the whole thing’s a tissue of contradictions. There are only two interpretations that make any kind of sense. Either it was a personal holiday funded by the taxpayer – including personal assistance from Prescott’s civil servants; in this case Prescott is personally corrupt on a truly Italian scale, as well as having lost any sense of political principle. Or else it was a business trip laid on to ease the path of Anschutz’s bid for the Dome Casino (si New Labour monumentum requiris…); in this case Prescott is politically corrupt, as well as having lost any sense of principle. And either way he’s a liar.

Perhaps this is LogicMan speaking, but surely there’s no way out of this one. Prescott has to resign as Deputy PM; if he’s any sense he’ll resign as an MP, too, before the Standards Committee pushes him. And then he should apologise, in person, to the people of Liverpool. (Not because he’s done anything to them, just because it was funny when Boris did it.)

The users geeks don’t see

Nick writes, provocatively as ever, about the recent ‘community-oriented’ redesign of the netscape.com portal:

A few days ago, Netscape turned its traditional portal home page into a knockoff of the popular geek news site Digg. Like Digg, Netscape is now a “news aggregator” that allows users to vote on which stories they think are interesting or important. The votes determine the stories’ placement on the home page. Netscape’s hope, it seems, is to bring Digg’s hip Web 2.0 model of social media into the mainstream. There’s just one problem. Normal people seem to think the entire concept is ludicrous.

Nick cites a post titled Netscape Community Backlash, from which this line leapt out at me:

while a lot of us geeks and 2.0 types are addicted to our own technology (and our own voices, to be honest), it’s pretty darn obvious that A LOT of people want to stick with the status quo

This reminded me of a minor revelation I had the other day, when I was looking for the Java-based OWL reasoner ‘pellet’. I googled for
pellet owl
– just like that, no quotes – expecting to find a ‘pellet’ link at the bottom of forty or fifty hits related to, well, owls and their pellets. In fact, the top hit was “Pellet OWL Reasoner”. (To be fair, if you google
owl pellet
you do get the fifty pages of owl pellets first.)

I think it’s fair to say that the pellet OWL reasoner isn’t big news even in the Web-using software development community; I’d be surprised if everyone reading this post even knows what an OWL reasoner is (or has any reason to care). But there’s enough activity on the Web around pellet to push it, in certain circumstances, to the top of the Google rankings (see for yourself).

Hence the revelation: it’s still a geek Web. Or rather, there’s still a geek Web, and it’s still making a lot of the running. When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) – and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector – the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.

Add social software to the mix – starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that’s where it came from – and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly – and even more disproportionately – than before. Have a look at the ‘popular’ tags on del.icio.us: as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: “LinuxBIOS – aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel”. The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one’s a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)

I’m not a sceptic about social software: ranking, tagging, search-term-aggregation and the other tools of what I persist in calling ethnoclassification are both new and powerful. But they’re most powerful within a delimited domain: a user coming to del.icio.us for the first time should be looking for the ‘faceted search’ option straight away (“OK, so that’s the geek cloud, how do I get it to show me the cloud for European history/ceramics/Big Brother?”) The fact that there is no ‘faceted search’ option is closely related, I’d argue, to the fact that there is no discernible tag cloud for European history or ceramics or Big Brother: we’re all in the geek Web. (Even Nick Carr.) (Photography is an interesting exception – although even there the only tags popular enough to make the del.icio.us tag cloud are ‘photography’, ‘photo’ and ‘photos’. There are 40 programming-related tags, from ajax to xml.)

Social software wasn’t built for the users of the Web-for-everyone. Reaction to the Netscape redesign tells us (or reminds us) that there’s no reason to assume they’ll embrace it.

Update Have a look at Eszter Hargittai‘s survey of Web usage among 1,300 American college students, conducted in February and March 2006. MySpace is huge, and Facebook’s even huger, but Web 2.0 as we know it? It’s not there. 1.9% use Flickr; 1.6% use Digg; 0.7% use del.icio.us. Answering a slightly different question, 1.5% have ever visited Boingboing, and 1% Technorati. By contrast, 62% have visited CNN.com and 21% bbc.co.uk. It’s still, very largely, a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactivity. Comparing results like these with the prophecies of tagging replacing hierarchy, Long Tail production and mashups all round, I feel like invoking the story of the blind men and the elephant – except that I’m not even sure we’ve all got the same elephant.

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