Saturday, 17 August 2013

A curious clocke

Inscription from beneath the tomb of Lady Dorothy Dodderidge (d.1614), spotted in Exeter Cathedral earlier this summer. Although idiosyncratic, the Seventeenth Century English is clear enough, except at a couple of points where I've had to guess the meaning from the context and from other variant readings found on line:*
As when a curious clocke is out of frame
A workman takes in peeces small the same
and mendinge what amiss is to be found,
the same rejoynes and makes it trewe and sound
So god this Ladie into two partes tooke
too soone her soule her mortall corse forsooke
But by his might att length her bodie sounde
shall rise rejoynd unto her soule now crownd
Till then they rest in earth and heaven sundred
att which conjoynd all such as knewe them wondred
The central conceit and style bring John Donne to mind, although I've no particular reason to think it's by Donne. The other thing it brings to mind is William Paley's watchmaker analogy, living beings understood as as intricate pieces of clockwork that must have been put together by some designer.

I knew that Paley didn't get his idea form nowhere - clockwork analogies were used by Descartes and, in a slightly different context, by Newton, with his idea of the divine first cause winding up the celestial clockwork - but it's interesting to see that the metaphor already had enough salience in the wider world to crop up on early Seventeenth Century memorial inscriptions, rather than being confined to the abstruse writings and debates of natural philosophers. Interesting, too, to see how this earlier use of the clockwork analogy incorporates Cartesian dualism, with the 'soule' and 'mortall corse' being the two major elements of the human mechanism.

Given the immaterial nature of the 'soule', it surprises me that modern creationists don't make more use of a more precise update of the two-part clockwork metaphor, with the 'soule' as software, the 'mortall corse' as hardware and the divine techie reassembling and rebooting the whole system at Judgement Day. Or maybe they already do, but I'm just not masochistic enough to have read that much creationist literature.

* 'sow' at the end of line four, is clearly an abbreviated form of 'sound' and I'm assuming that the penultimate word in the poem, 'the', which makes no sense, should read 'them.' I suppose it might also be 'thee', but as the poet doesn't address the deceased directly at any other point in the poem, this seems unlikely.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Brave new world for tiny plastic people

Filed under 'so niche as to be practically invisible', the publication of the infamous Beeching Report inspired this piece of miniature futurology from the May 1963 edition of Railway Modeller magazine:
Instead of an antiquated, rusty, worn-out, run-down museum piece we are to have an exciting, modern, viable, if smaller, railway system which once again should be the finest in the world. We shall have faster, more comfortable, long-distance trains between the main centres and new-style goods trains which, with their provision for colourful privately owned containers, will bring a welcome note of variety to the scene. The new bulk handling plants not only make sound commercial sense, they will also make good models. We shall, of course, lose the romantic, happy-go-lucky branch lines, but these, and many other historical aspects of our railways, we can enjoy in model form. From the modeller's point of view the future holds much excitement in store...

...We have an entirely new railway system to serve as a prototype, in addition to the now historical steam-worked lines. Those who look forward to the new concepts must realize that buses and lorries will play an important part in the miniature transport picture. Many indeed have already begun to incorporate working roadways into their layouts, and while we know of some we should like to hear from all readers who are experimenting on these lines - if lines be the right term!
From the archives of the University of York's Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History (there's quite a lot of contemporary reaction to Beeching on the page - you'll have to scroll down a bit to get to the Railway Modeller piece).

I'm no expert on model railway layouts, but I can't see much evidence to support Railway Modeller's prediction that the model railway community's ambit would expand to include the exciting new world of 'bulk handling plants.' Fifty years after Beeching, your typical British model railway still has more in common with some sleepy, pre-Beeching, happy-go-lucky branch line than it does with a modern road-rail intermodal freight handling facility. For example, most exhibits at this randomly-picked model railway exhibition look more like a scene from The Titfield Thunderbolt than a day in the life of Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, as somebody once said. Logistics and relative complexity obviously played a role in small-scale bulk handling plants failing to become a thing, but there's probably a big element of nostalgia at play here, too, of people taking refuge from the modern in a safe, cosy, familiar, manageable past.

Maybe it's just the same reactionary aesthetic that attracts some people to the Daily Mail's fictionalised ideal of an early-to-mid-20th Century Britain before immigrants, single mums, gays, health and safety, political correctness gone mad, or the liberal Grinch who stole Christmas, where all social problems could be cleared up with a clip round the ear from your friendly bobby on the beat, or, in more serious cases, by hanging. The recreation of a tiny self-contained little Britain, slightly removed from current reality, understood as a displacement activity to keep the scary modern world at bay.*

It's tempting to just point, laugh and move on, but the thing about displacement activity is that the unpleasant stimulus is real, even if the reaction to it looks inappropriate, misdirected, or even barking mad, from the outside (think of an OCD sufferer retreating from some intractable and emotionally painful situation into a ritualised little world of repetitive hand-washing, or arranging small household objects in a particular order).

In 1963, Railway Modeller thought that 'the future holds much excitement in store.' In 1993, somebody noticed that the future had duly arrived, but it just wasn't very evenly distributed. Ten years later, there's still plenty of unevenness around and , as far as I can see, it's the unevenness that causes the fear and insecurity and makes a flight back to some airbrushed 1950s Eden of child-like innocence seem like an attractive option. The technology that was going to make everything more 'exciting, modern' and 'viable' has also helped to bring us from a society with a labour shortage to one where workplace efficiencies have translated, not into a world of shared leisure and prosperity, but into one of systemic job insecurity, depressed earnings, unemployment, or underemployment for the many and a greater concentration of wealth and control for a powerful few.

We've seen social mobility seizing up and going into reverse. We've had our share of a global economic crisis, orchestrated by an out-of-control, IT-enabled finance sector, a crisis that's been suspiciously congruent with a massive, well-organised, global transfer of wealth to already rich and powerful people (of the biological and corporate varieties) from almost everybody else. We've got Taylorised meatbots, living one efficiency-driven reorganisation away from unemployment, drudging away in automated workplace panopticons where the technology that promised to set them free monitors every second of every unproductive toilet break, telling themselves that they're lucky to have a job, so they can afford the latest shiny thing that make it all better, as produced by even more powerless disposable humandroids toiling in unspeakable conditions on the other side of the world.

No wonder some people think modern life is rubbish. In fact, the technology itself is astounding and potentially liberating. It's the uneven distribution, the inequalities of power, the corrosive lie that There Is No Alternative that sucks. You can't un-invent technology, but you can make political choices about sharing out the gain and pain that comes from change. But you can't even start to think about rational political choices when you're stuck in an endless OCD loop of futile displacement activities, like scapegoating the powerless for the misdeeds of the powerful, or moralising about imagined individual moral failings, instead of addressing actual, systemic, institutional malfunctions.

*The aesthetic of escaping from the big, bad world into a smaller, friendlier childhood idyll, possibly including trains, isn't necessarily reactionary, so long as it doesn't come with a massive side-order of prejudice and hatred. After all, the nation's favourite cuddly left-wing uncle, Oliver Postgate, creator of the cooperative, egalitarian Clangers, was also responsible for the tiny train-centric world of Ivor the Engine.

The sound bite of the day...

...didn't, for once, come from some thuggish spin doctor scooped up from the tabloid gutter, or flushed out of some septic right-wing think tank, but from Ann Pettifor, who in 2003 correctly predicted the bursting of the credit bubble, so might actually know what she's talking about.

On Radio Four's Today Programme she came up with pretty a good description of the the UK economy, which has just bobbed* up from recession and feeble convalescence, bouyed up by a taxpayer-funded housing bubble (house prices tearing ahead of earnings - sound familiar?) and a bit of debt-funded shopping.

Welcome to the 'Alice in Wongaland economy.' Nom, nom, nom.
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" 

*I nearly wrote 'boobed' there which, on reflection might have been the correct term.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Dress down data

If you stop to think about it, you know that sharing private information too freely on social networks can lead to all kinds of trouble. Why don't some people stop to think about it? An interesting experiment looks at the cues that nudge people towards sharing information they'd be better off keeping private:
In one study, Loewenstein and his collaborators asked two groups of students to fill out an online survey about their lives. Everyone received the same questions, ranging from the innocuous to the embarrassing or potentially incriminating. One group was presented with an official-looking website that bore the imprimatur of their university, and were assured that their answers would remain anonymous. The other group filled out the questions on a garishly coloured website on which the question ‘How BAD Are U???’ was accompanied by a grinning devil. It featured no assurance of anonymity.

Bizarrely, the ‘How BAD Are U???’ website was much more likely to elicit revealing confessions, like whether a student had copied someone else’s homework or tried cocaine. The first set of respondents reacted cautiously to the institutional feel of the first website and its obscurely concerning assurances about anonymity. The second group fell under the sway of the perennial youthful imperative to be cool, and opened up, in a way that could have got them into serious trouble in the real world. The students were using their instincts about privacy, and their instincts proved to be deeply wayward. ‘Thinking about online privacy doesn’t come naturally to us,’ Loewenstein told me when I spoke to him on the phone. ‘Nothing in our evolution or culture has equipped us to deal with it.’

Ian Leslie

Create a casual-seeming environment and people apparently start to get casual with their personal data. Which is presumably why seeing Zuckerberg in anything as formal as a suit and tie is considered newsworthy.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Fridge magnets and rich tea biscuits

Alex Hearn gets a terrible gag into his piece on the latest batch of peers to enter the House of Lords, calling a newly minted Labour peer 'Scottish fridge magnate, William Haughey' (sounds like 'fridge magnet', geddit??!!).

OK, it's not the funniest joke you'll hear all week, but I, for one, appreciate the attempt to inject a bit of irreverent fun into a story about the depressingly undemocratic business of stuffing the upper house with compliant careerists, selected for their ability to follow orders without rocking the boat, and rich party donors, who've helped to prop up unpopular party machines, in the hope either of buying influence, or of acquiring a peerage as yet another tacky status symbol to go with the vanity licence plate on the Bentley.

Mention "reform" and the usual suspects will pop up, claiming that if this hand-picked assemblage of establishment yes-men and yes-women is, in fact, a collection of fiercely independent minds, wholly dedicated to objectively scrutinising the executive and holding it to account, without fear or favour. If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Then, they'll probably cite the small minority of actual independent, brave, clever, inventive, or otherwise remarkable people, like Doreen Lawrence, who get added to the list to add a veneer of respectability to this very British form of genteel corruption. As tokenism goes, that's about as transparent as our independent schools claiming to be "charities", because they allow a tiny number of scholarship oiks to rub their grubby little shoulders with their well-heeled betters.

The case against House of Lords reform could be better made with biscuits. Some biscuits are objectively better than others. Unless you've got the undeveloped palate of a small child, an all-butter shortbread finger is superior to a Jammie Dodger, two circles of biscuity boredom trapping a vivid clot of ersatz jam, boiled down to the consistency of half-dried glue.

If you're more inclined to indulgence, you may prefer to go wild with Bahlsen's Choco Leibniz, the chocolate biscuit so shameless that it actually has more chocolate than biscuit (having had a sheltered upbringing, I felt quite shy and uncomfortable when I first experienced such wanton levels of unbridled hedonistic excess in biscuit form).

Of course, an acceptable biscuit doesn't have to be so outrageously extravagant. Even an ordinary plain digestive can fill that biscuit-shaped hole.

But even for somebody as un-fussy as I am, there are limits. For me, the rich tea biscuit falls below the lower bound of biscuit acceptability. It's a biscuit so bland, so devoid of flavour and interest, that I just can't be bothered with it. The pleasure of eating a rich tea biscuit is slightly less than the pleasure of saving yourself the effort of chewing one. It is worse than useless. It is a pointless biscuit.

The House of Lords is the rich tea biscuit of the UK's parliament. Just as the rich tea fails to be biscuitful enough to be worth eating, the House of Lords fails to meet the minimum criteria for being a worthwhile chamber. It isn't representative enough to justify its existence in democratic terms, the majority of its members are too narrowly drawn from the establishment, embedded in a network of favours to party machines and ultimately powerless (it's only an advisory or "revising" chamber), for it to make any sense as an independent counterbalance to the executive.

The liberating thing about the rich tea biscuit is that it's not better than nothing. If there aren't enough to go round, who cares? It's not like they're nice enough to be worth eating, anyway. It's not a real crisis, like running out of shortbread fingers. Likewise, the House of Lords is so spectacularly unfit for purpose that if it didn't exist, nobody would need to invent it. Maybe all the arguments about what "reform" should look like are just distractions. Just get rid of it - after all, some countries get along just fine with a unicameral system.

That sounds better than what we have now. Mind you, having two elected chambers, even ones that are constantly squabbling and gridlocked would be better than tolerating the undemocratic, crony-crammed talking-shop we have now.

Come to think of it, I don't think we'd be any worse off if the next batch of peers were actual fridge magnets - it couldn't be any more of an insult to our intelligence, or our democracy, than the current puppet show. Like a rich tea biscuit, the concept of the House of Lords is so rubbish that almost anything - or nothing at all - would be an acceptable alternative.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Debtor to the human species

On July 17, 1762, His Majesty Peter III, by the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of Russia, was assassinated. The murder was probably abetted by his wife, Catherine (who was subsequently declared empress), in collusion with her lover, Count Alexei Orloff, a strapping Guards officer with a duelling scar and an inordinate fondness for chickens.*

Having your husband murdered for pleasure and profit is pretty bad but, as one contemporary pointed out, the slaughter resulting from more conventional approaches to the continuation of politics by other means was vastly greater:

...these monarchs and heroes would shudder, if they saw a bill drawn upon them thus : —

 Queen of Hungary, debtor to the human species.. Millions
 King of Prussia.................................................. ditto
King of France, by his stewards.......................... do.
King of Spain....................................................
Many thousands,
Prince Ferdinand, a private gentleman................. Some thousands
Only her own



Half Europe.
Horace Walpole Letters

As a loyal beneficiary of the Hanoverian establishment, Walpole wasn't likely to add George III's name to his butcher's bill of murderous monarchs and abominable aristocrats. Even if such a seditious thought about his sovereign had occurred to him, Horace would have been well advised to keep it to himself, or risk becoming as unpopular with the authorities of his day as Private Bradley Manning is with today's movers and shakers.

Speaking of whom, it's worth putting Manning's actions into the same sort of context as Catherine's. Putting lives at risk with an indiscriminate data dump is bad, but there are worse crimes.

No, I'm not just thinking of the impunity enjoyed by the notorious war criminal, Dick Cheney, or the leniency shown towards his muppet, Scooter, although if intention counts for anything, ordering torture, or maliciously leaking state secrets in order to damage someone who revealed a politically inconvenient truth** are more blameworthy than carelessly leaking secrets in a sincere, if reckless, attempt to expose officially-sanctioned wrongdoing. The nature of power has changed since the days of Catherine The Great, but not so much that the law punishes a wealthy, well-connected individual who betrays state secrets in the same way as a private soldier accused of the same crime. In theory, Justice is supposedly blind, but in practice, only selectively so.

I was thinking of people who work for a perfectly legal industry that kills far more people than could conceivably have been put in harm's way by Manning's leaks. One that's chalked up more premature, preventable deaths than Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or all the wars and operations allegedly fought in order to contain them (including the one in that country where Al Qaeda didn't exist at the time):
 The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing nearly six million people a year. More than five million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while more than 600 000 are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. Approximately one person dies every six seconds due to tobacco, accounting for one in 10 adult deaths. Up to half of current users will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease. 
Six million dead.

Every year.

Leaking state secrets that might put lives at risk is bad. Being a lobbyist for an industry that knowingly kills half its customers victims - more deaths per year than any conflict since the Second World War - well, that's reckless disregard for human life on an unimaginably bigger scale.

If you leak, they lock you in jail and throw away the key.

As a successful lobbyist for Death, you become a rich and well-respected member of society, an adviser to governments. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you evil's banal face, Lynton Crosby, debtor to the human species.

Politics should be a battle of ideas, not personalities. But I'm prepared to make an exception when one of the personalities involved builds a career on such psychopathic disregard for human life.  If any politician wants to get all ad hominem and point-scory on this malignant tumour in human form, that's fine by me, so long it helps keep his damn dirty, nicotine-stained paws off a health service struggling to keep his victims alive.

*Orloff's love of chickens was more credibly attested and less lascivious in nature than Catherine's alleged love of horses. Mind you, you can see why this breed of chicken would appeal to the aristocracy. They've got quite a lot in common ("Rare, Will go broody, Good mothers, Some strains excellent layers, Hardy in all temperature ranges ... Hard to source good stock ... some strains are very inbred").

**corrected from 'political opponent', which doesn't quite cover it.