Tuesday, 31 March 2015

It's hard to be loved by idiots

Religion has always made an important contribution to public life, and continues to do so. Religious convictions can and should be brought into public debate and decision-making in a democracy. Few religious people in the UK want to impose their truth on others; most are happy to abide by the democratic process. The state and religious communities should work in partnership – to do so makes both more responsible.
From the blurb to the "Westminster Faith Debates", an epic talkathon featuring Tony Blair debating with former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, chaired by Charles Moore.

So how has bringing religion into public debate been working out around the world lately? Well, in Indiana they've now come up with a cunning plan to promote 'a message of inclusion' by passing a law allowing businesses to discriminate against gay people.

Trinity College Dublin, meanwhile, is upholding a proud tradition of freedom of expression and open debate by robustly supporting the right of an Islamist cleric to speak freely and justify killing people who choose to leave the Muslim faith, whilst censoring a speaker who wanted to express the shockingly controversial and offensive view that people who decide that they no longer believe should be able to renounce their religion without being killed.

And back home, the hilariously-named "Islamic Human Rights Commission" has demonstrated the dignity, wisdom and compassion that religious conviction can bring to public debate by thoughtfully awarding those staff who survived the Charlie Hebdo massacre their coveted “Islamophobe of the Year” award for 2015. Because religious people must always have the moral authority to lecture even bereaved and grieving victims of murderous attacks on their duty to be more "responsible" in order to avoid causing further religious butthurt.

If he existed, I'd feel sorry for God (and for Mohamed and Jesus, if they were still with us and hanging out with Mr Deity). As per Charlie Hebdo, it must be hard to be loved by idiots...

 Double facepalm - because sometimes a regular one just isn't enough to describe how stupid this shit is.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Britain loses all sense of proportion

To judge by the endless pieces of merchandise plastered with the slogan "Keep calm and carry on" you'd think we Brits were calm, unflappable and quietly got on with things, when more excitable foreigners would be losing their heads, running around, shouting and gesticulating. The BBC Radio 4 news headlines this morning told a rather-less self-flattering story.

According to our national broadcasting organisation, three of the four most headline-worthy things that happened in the world today related to British people indulging in a screaming orgy of over-reaction.

The top headline involved some individual who has apparently e-mailed a death threat to the BBC's director general because the latter has failed to renew the contract of somebody who presents a popular programme about cars. Not only does the so-far unidentified e-mailer need to get out more, but the idea of this being a top news story, when , in all probability, the "death threat" is just some sad twit mouthing off under the cover of anonymity, rather than one of Jeremy's Jihadis hatching a serious plan to behead Tony Hall for insulting to the Prophet Clarkson (peace be upon him). Sure enough, the headline-grabbing story seems to have first been blurted out by UK Panic Central, the Mail on Sunday.

Then there's the calm, measured announcement by a group of head teachers in Cheshire that they will report parents to the authorities for neglect if they allow their children to play computer games rated for over-18s.

And Rob Wainwright of Europol, hyperventilating because some devices allow users to encrypt data, potentially allowing members of extreme groups like Jeremy Clarkson's Barmy Army to  radicalise or groom new recruits, who might end up writing angry e-mails to the BBC's director general. The horror!

I propose that Great Britain should henceforth be re-named The Kingdom of Chicken Little and that anybody caught buying a poster or piece of merchandise bearing the words "Keep calm and carry on" should be reported to the authorities and prosecuted for libellously misrepresenting The Land of the Scared and of The Home of the Wuss.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The indifferent mind of God

It was interesting to see how the recent Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything tackled the most famous quote from A Brief History of Time ('If we do discover a theory of everything...it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God'). In the film, the reference to God came across as a concession by Hawking to the Anglican faith of his then wife, Jane.

But here's what Hawking himself actually said about that 'mind of God' phrase; 'What I meant by "we would know the mind of God" is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn't. I'm an atheist.'

Well, as somebody once said, that just about wraps it up for God. What is interesting, though, is the way that Hawking's disciplines of the physical sciences and mathematics do get us closer to something god-like than anything else I can think of. And you don't have to be a Stephen Hawking-level cleverstick to see something akin to 'the mind of God' implicit in the most basic mathematical concepts.

Take Orwell: 'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.' Although by the end of 1984 Winston Smith is so broken down by the system that when his interrogator holds up four fingers he can make himself see five, even the Party's terrifying power to create its own reality is still subjective.

Even if the whole population of Oceania was to be intimidated or indoctrinated into subjectively believing that two plus two equalled five, there would still be higher truths, omnipotent objective realities, including two plus two actually adding up to four and there'd be nothing that even the most powerful worldly authority you could imagine could do to alter these sort of realities.

In the real world, the residents of Indiana discovered this in 1897:
In 1894, Indiana physician and amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin (ca. 1825–1902) believed that he had discovered a correct way of squaring the circle. He proposed a bill to Indiana Representative Taylor I. Record, which Record introduced in the House under the long title "A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897"
In the event, the bill (which would have implied that, in Indiana at least, pi would henceforth have the nice, round value of 3.2, instead of being one of those pesky irrational numbers with an infinite number of digits after the decimal point), 'was nearly passed, but opinion changed when one senator observed that the General Assembly lacked the power to define mathematical truth.'

Mmm ... the source of ultimate truth, a higher authority, which controls the universe, immaterial, yet all-powerful, infinite and ultimately unknowable (as in the case of pi), the source of infallible truths to which mere mortal humans can only submit and which they'd be foolish to reject. Does that remind you of anybody? In that sense, even a mathematical ignoramus like me can see how underlying mathematical truths and constants have a lot in common with what religious folk say about God, or whatever spiritual reality they happen to believe in.

Still, however god-like these characteristics are, they don't quite add up to God, at least in any sense that I understand the word (although, heaven knows, there are more than enough of senses of the word).For a start, God is traditionally supposed to be a sentient being, not just a set of underlying constants, however all-powerful. Although, come to think of it, at least one famous scientist, science populariser and science fiction author has played with the idea of a mathematical constant being the 'signature' of a god-like higher intelligence, but that was a work of fiction and any resemblance to real deities, living or dead was purely coincidental.

And for seconds, most believers seem to believe in a moral being who wants you to do certain things and not to do others (although you have the free will to ignore His wishes at your peril):
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Romans 13:9.

Unlike the mathematical rules of the universe, these moral ones aren't inescapable - you can't change the value of pi, but you can flout any of the Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots He came up with and some humans have been energetically flouting His rules for thousands of years. Even moral precepts as basic as 'Thou shat not kill', which goes back to Moses and Exodus. And not only have people been breaking these rules in a way they can't break the inescapable dictates of mathematical reality, but the rules themselves have none of the elegant consistency of underlying reality.

The injunction not to kill, for example, gets waived, the majority of people think, rightly, in hard cases (a motorist smashing into a single motorcyclist head-on, when an avoiding swerve would mow down twenty people in a bus queue, killing an armed maniac who is preparing to murder innocents, or soldiers defending against an invading army) and even the Bible implies that the not killing thing is more of a context-dependent suggestion than a rule as such (it doesn't seem to have applied to the Chosen People's, sometimes genocidal, wars of conquest, nor were the faithful expected to refrain from killing those who'd made sacrifices to any god but the true God, or the worshippers of Baal, or false prophets, or necromancers, or blasphemers, or adulteresses, etc, etc).

And, unlike mathematical reality, such moral laws are changeable over time (whatever the Old Testament says about punishment, most real churches these days have harmless things like flower-arranging rotas, not stoning-of-adulteresses rotas like the ones Terry Pratchett's fundamentalist Church of Om organises in his novel Small Gods).

In short, the moral rules have none of the inescapable nature of the mathematical ones. Rather than being inhumanly universal, they bear all the hallmarks of the messy, fallible, exception-laden, frequently-broken, sometimes inconsistent, changeable rules that humans make when trying to govern themselves.

Yes, there is a higher power to which humans must submit - it's called reality and it won't change to accommodate our whims. But that level of omnipotent, objective reality seems to be non-moral and, as far as anyone knows, it's not sentient. When it comes to the messy, complicated business of human morality, fairness and justice, these things have none of the universal, unchangeable qualities of underlying reality, but seems to be changeable, contingent, negotiable, subject to power relations, and fashion. Just what you'd expect, in fact from something created by humans.

If you want to call the universal, inescapable rules to which we must all submit "God", then it seems to me that God cares a lot about things like the sum of two plus two, or inviolably irrational numbers, or the impossibility of four-sided triangles, but is pretty much indifferent to whether we keep the sabbath holy, eat fish on Friday, dress modestly, shun or enjoy sexual relations with people of the same gender, make graven images, believe in Him (Her? It?), commit adultery, go around killing one another, or whatever.

That sort of stuff, He/She/It apparently leaves for mere mortals to work out for themselves as best they can.

Innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground

It's not very rare to read an article bemoaning the inexorable rise of ugly, opaque managerialist jargon. It's far rarer to come across an attempt to analyse and quantify this process, so kudos to Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre for their quantitative linguistic analysis of World Bank reports.

It might sound like dry stuff, but this pairing of two extracts from reports published fifty years apart shows how dramatically the managerialist house style has moved away from imparting concrete information:
Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:
The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.
And here is the Report from half a century later, in 2008:
Levelling the playing field on global issues
Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.
It’s almost another language, in both semantics and grammar. The key discontinuity, as we shall see, falls mostly between the first three decades and the last two, the turn of the 1990s, when the style of the Reports becomes much more codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language. 
'Codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language', is how academics might describe the 2008 report. 'What does that even mean?' is what a non-academic might say.

Moretti and Pestre put quite a bit of meat on the bones in Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports, in The New Left Review.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Poor Grant Shapps

I never thought I'd say it, but I'm almost* sorry for Michael Green The Right Honourable Grant Shapps MP. In a Guardian article about Lynton Crosby pulling out of a public Q and A session (presumably due to recent Conservative PR wobbles)  Green Shapps gets name-checked thusly:
The party’s chairman, Grant Shapps, has also been under pressure after he admitted having been wrong to deny ever having a second job when he had in fact posed as a millionaire get-rich-quick guru under another name while an MP. 
Think of all the efforts the Conservatives have made to convince us that they're definitely not a party run by millionaires and bankrolled by their millionaire friends/donors/lobbyists. They even banned champagne, imposed a low-key dress code and made the guest list secret when they had their big fund-raising bash last summer.

Now, just when they think they might have convinced us that they're ordinary folk, rather than a bunch of over-privileged, out-of-touch champagne-guzzlers, their party chairman gets it in the neck for apparently** not being a millionaire.

Sometimes you just can't win.

*but not quite, obviously.

**I have no idea of Green's Shapps' actual net worth, but 'posed as a millionaire' implies that he's not one. For all I know he might be worth a million plus and might even be able to sue the Graun for libel over that that 'posed as.' But given the Conservatives' desperate attempts to lose their moneybags image and Shapps' own lack of enthusiasm for resurrecting his alter ego, I doubt whether he'll try.

Friday, 20 March 2015

As through a glass, darkly

Well, the eclipse has now swept over Europe and there's been nothing on the one o'clock news about massive power outages and general chaos* as the continent's partly-solar-fed power grids fail to cope with this entirely predictable event. Goodness me, I was relieved (not really)!

If there really were people out there who were reduced to a state of panic, I guess the biggest threat to the grid would come shortly after local maximum coverage, when any panicky pants who'd been fearing the coming near-dusk experience all started breathing normally again and switched on their kettles to brew themselves a calming decaffeinated beverage.

Fortunately, it was sunny here at around 9.35 (well, the sun was shining through a very light haze) and I did manage to stop what I was doing for a few minutes and witness the drop in light levels. It wasn't that dramatic, but you could tell that something was subtly different. The sun was high and the visible bit was still too bright to look at, but the light levels felt more like the immediate post-dawn or pre-dusk than half past nine on a bright equinoctial morning.

More than anything else, being outside at the height of the eclipse felt like looking out on a bright spring day from inside a building with tinted glass windows. Plus a slight drop in temperature. Casualties are thought to be light to non-existent, thank Sol Invictus.

*I'll update this post, should news of any actual disruption come in, but don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Good news, plain and simple

For somebody who thinks that Michael Green's Grant Shapps' extra-parliamentary income stream (web scraping) was less morally dubious than Kenneth Clarke's (tobacco), today is a good news day:
Plain packaging for cigarettes has been given the go-ahead after the plans were approved in the House of Lords. Peers backed the plans without a vote after MPs voted in favour last week.
The decision itself is good. The wider precedent it sets is even better:
That trademark registrations do not offer a right to use the sign also lends weight to the conclusion that plain packaging does not constitute a de facto expropriation of tobacco brands and does not expose the countries which adopt this measure (such as England, Australia and Ireland) to the risk of having to pay damages in compensation to tobacco producers under the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (which protect, among other fundamental rights, the right to property).
There are good reasons to think that this measure will work, which is probably why the industry has been fighting so hard against it.

As far as I'm concerned, a simple good news story.

If we ever had a more rational drugs policy, it might get a lot more complicated than that. Policy makers would have to think a lot harder about when the level of harm is sufficient to warrant restricting the right to advertise a legal product.

As a study in the Lancet pointed out, there is good reason to think that some substances which are currently illegal (e.g. ecstasy) are less harmful than the legal duo of alcohol and tobacco. Would you still consider some substances (e.g. heroin) so harmful that they should stay banned? At what level of harm would you start to restrict advertising (you might be able to make a perfectly rational case for removing branding from, say, alcohol bottles, but letting people buy khat in branded packets, as opposed to banning the latter, as we do at the moment)?

But, for the foreseeable future, inertia and ignorance will probably see to it that's what's banned stays banned and what's legal stays legal, subject to a few tweaks. And this is a tweak in the right direction. It means fewer hearts stopping prematurely, fewer tumours needing to be cut from living flesh, fewer people struggling for breath, fewer people being orphaned, or widowed, or losing a friend, or sibling in what should be the prime of life.

The harm done makes Michael Green's Grant Shapps' profitable sideline of releasing virtual parasites into Google's advertising ecosystem sound trivial in comparison. Green Shapps might be the sort of spivvy chancer who probably ought to have "would you have bought a used car from this man?" chiseled into his tombstone as an epitaph, when his time comes, but compared with that cheery, solid, dependable old tobacco shill Ken Clarke, he's no worse than a naughty boy caught scrumping apples.

As a personality, I still quite like Kenneth Clarke. Somebody (I think it was Simon Hoggart) once said that he was the one senior Tory who gave a convincing impression of being a fully paid-up member of the human race and I know what he meant. He was clearly a rounded personality with interests outside politics (and not just the sort you had to declare). He was calm and unflappable. He seemed to say what he thought, rather than channelling the usual on-message unspeak and, if attacked, calmly told you why he thought his opponent was talking nonsense, rather than squirting the random spray of bluster, ad hominem, or outraged victimhood exuded by lesser politicians under pressure. Green Shapps comes across as a pipsqueak in comparison.

But for all that, by their fruits ye shall know them. One of Kevin Spacey's best lines in The Usual Suspects was 'The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.' His second greatest trick was getting people to like him despite themselves.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Damning Grant Shapps with faint praise

In 2012, Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps denied working as a web marketer under the pseudonym "Michael Green" whilst being a Member of Parliament. In November last year he used legal threats to make a constituent withdraw a Facebook post, which had alleged that Shapps was doing business under the name "Michael Green" at the same time as being an MP. Now he's been forced to admit that he was doing exactly that.

It's not the general principle of an MP having an outside job, but the specific nature of the job, that matters here. Here's a description of the Trafficpaymaster product Michael Green Grant Shapps was touting:
The ‘Trafficpaymaster’ web site ... provides software which borrows from other sites and “re writes” it automatically for you. You can then generate income via Google’s ‘Adwords’. That was until there was some bad publicity in the national press about this product. Google then took action and removed all ‘Trafficpaymaster’ pages from search results. In short, the site provides industrial-scale plagiarism of other people’s original content and makes it look like your own.
Or 'HowToCrop’, which Green Shapps punted thusly:
'You could spend less than 20 minutes at your computer and turn out a newsletter that would simply stun your friends and colleagues with impact and quality. Not only is using our exclusive Copyright Free Article Directory as easy as copying-and-pasting, but we also explicitly allow you to claim every article as your own!'
So the author of the classily-titled self-help business guide Stinking Rich 3 was flogging a product that claimed to allow punters to make money by mooching off other people's content without creating* any good or service of value to anybody else.

None of it sounds good, but I suppose I can imagine worse outside interests.

In fact, I don't have to imagine. The formerly Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke, who's been Chancellor and Health Secretary (among many other things) had outside interests which included years sitting on the board of British American Tobacco, when he wasn't trying to convince parliament that BAT were innocent of tobacco smuggling, or trying to pour scorn on the idea of plain packaging for cigarette packets. Far from having to dismiss this as an 'old story', or hide behind a pseudonym, Clarke was quite open and ended his long career as a respected elder statesman.

At least web scraping, unlike tobacco, never actually killed anybody.
You, too, could get stinking rich with this amazingly addictive product that kills one user every 6 seconds!!!

*I originally wrote 'providing', but 'creating' would be more accurate - somebody might have used, say, HowToCrop to provide somebody else with content (say a newsletter that would 'simply stun your friends and colleagues with impact an quality') created by a third party whose content had been scraped.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Emily Dickinson, minus carriage

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me;
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.
wrote Emily Dickinson.

Nearly a hundred years after Emily took her last carriage ride, another writer much possessed by Death began his own bid for immortality, at least of a literary kind.

Terry Pratchett had a horribly premature end, but I can't help feeling that, thanks to the immensely rich imaginative world he created in his head and the way it spoke to million of his fellow mortals, he lived as full and satisfying a life as any of us can hope to. I haven't read all of his books and probably wouldn't want to read every one, but his fabulously engaging Discworld universe was a fantastic place to hang out and lose yourself in for while, even for those of us who didn't follow the whole series.

For people who haven't read any of the Dicsworld novels, it's probably a good idea to start with the very first one, The Colour of Magic, not because it's one of the best (some of his later ones are much better IMHO), but because it does a great job of introducing how his comic fantasy of a flat earth, where magic is real, works. Once you've read that, well, everyone has different favourites, and there may be some really good ones I haven't read, but I can recommend Equal Rites, Mort, Pyramids, Wyrd Sisters, Reaper Man or Small Gods if you want to spend some time in an entertaining and thoroughly absorbing alternate universe (or look back at a weird, yet recognisable, reflection of the one we actually live in, caught in a comical funhouse mirror).

I hope the implacable, premature Death who stopped for Terry also had a little of the irreverence, mercy and wisdom of the grim reaper who collects souls on the Discworld and that no carriages were involved this time, just a black-robed figure, riding a pale horse called Binky.

Rest in peace, or as Death should say 'REST IN PEACE.'

The second law of nitpicking

Just a quick update before anybody else steps in to pick me up for opening mouth without engaging brain.* Yes I have worked out why Alex Salmond might be still be legitimate shorthand for the Scottish National Party, even though he's been superseded as party leader and First Minister by Nicola Sturgeon. He will be standing for election to the Westminster parliament and, if elected, will presumably be the most senior SNP MP and could thus be expected to be in charge of any cross-party deals done in Westminster.

As an MSP, his party boss, Nicola Sturgeon, wouldn't be directly involved in any face-to-face Westminster negotiations (although, as party leader, I imagine she'd still have to approve any deal done in the name of the SNP).

The Iron Law of Nitpicking states that you are never more likely to make a grammatical error than when correcting someone else's grammar. The same general principle could be applied to factual, as opposed to grammatical, quibbles. So, for what it's worth, here's my proposed Second Law of Nitpicking:
You are never more likely to overlook an important fact than when accusing somebody else of sloppy fact-checking. 
My bad, lesson duly learnt, now moving on...

*Always assuming anybody reads my last post, or cares, which is by no means a given.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Salmond fishing in the prefects' common room

The Head Prefect has been giving one of the oiks a stern ticking off, bellowing that 'you are weak and despicable and want to crawl to power in Alex Salmond's pocket.' Well, that's him told.

Except, as any fule kno, Nicola Sturgeon has been the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and First Minister of Scotland, since last November. Was the PM just getting a bit confused '(Sturgeon, Salmond ... I know it has something to do with fish?')? Or did Ms Sturgeon not register on his radar because she's a woman ('Of course I'm not sexist, calm down, dear!'). Or has the Conservative Party in Scotland been a lost cause for so long that they no longer know or care who they're up against? Or did he know about the change of leader, but choose to ignore it, because Salmond is a better bogeyman, having held the posts for long enough to make more mistakes and enemies than the new leader / First Minister?

Maybe he just realised that the idea of Ed trying to get into Nicola's pocket would only cause sniggering on the back benches.

I don't know, but it's not just the Prime Minister. Somebody also needs to have a quiet word in the ear of whoever's photoshopping the Conservatives' election posters:
I say, couldn't we find a better photo? That little chap looks nothing like Gordon Brown...

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Annus mirabilis

It seems a bit late for a 2014 retrospective but, on the other hand, last year was packed with so many dramatic events that it's never too late to look back and be amazed. For example, you must remember these stories:
  • The original 1969 USA moon landing site was be reported as damaged or vandalised by another country that landed on the moon.
  • Programmers discovered a simple computer code or app that would end almost all future on line computer viruses.
  • We discovered that diseases can be transmitted or transferred by pure thought from one location to another.
  • Russia, China, and the USA collaborated on an asteroid shield/tracking program due to a the potential hazard posed by an object that nearly hit Earth.
  • Scientist discovered and proved that we live in an identical twin universe that is the mirror opposite of our ours.*
  • And, sadly, who can forget the horrific civil war which broke out in Sudan in early 2014, or the US military being drawn into the bloody conflict?
Although I didn't notice these any of these interesting events in the media myself, I know these things must have happened, because they were all predicted to happen in 2014 by leading psychic, LaMont “Monte” Hamilton (who, as an ordained minister, a Reiki Master healing practitioner, a registered hypnotherapist, 'holding multiple degrees in business, psychology, and education, who has worked in the paranormal field full time for over 25 years', is clearly far too well qualified to have been mistaken).

From '2014 failed and forgotten psychic predictions' on relatively interesting dot com. Honourable mention also goes to the wonderfully-named teacher, astrologer and writer, Judy Hevenly, who confidently predicted that 2014 would be last year of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, as well as the year when Pope Francis would appoint the first woman cardinal to the Vatican.

*Warning - trying to parse this sentence may make your head explode but, as far as I know, that's what the guy actually said. Don't shoot the messenger...

iPhones prove that the meek shall inherit the earth

I'm filing this under 'things I'd like to be true, but which probably aren't':
The alternative to extractive institutions is to organize society around inclusive institutions. Such an approach encourages technological innovation, since technology allows individuals to better their own circumstances. It is these changes that lead to the economic growth we have seen in much of the Western world across the past few centuries.

So the basic story is simple:
  1. Extractive institutions do not encourage technological change and do not lead to economic growth.
  2. Inclusive institutions encourage technological change and therefore lead to the economic growth we have seen only recently in human history.
This helps us understand why nations have failed or succeeded in the past.
David Berri, professor of economics at Southern Utah University.

If this was true, we'd expect extractive societies to naturally fail and make way for something more benevolent. But I seem to remember from my history books that the opening up of the New World, from the conquistadores' initial looting to the slave-based plantation system and the triangular trade was more than a teensy bit extractive, but it didn't stop things like the Spanish Golden Age. OK, the latter didn't last, but the Spaniards weren't swept from the seas by inclusive institutions, but by subsequent empires, also built on rapacious extraction.

Nor does the thesis explain the British Empire in the 1800s - industrialisation, innovation and unparalelled economic growth hand in hand with exploitation and a massive world-wide, world-dominating, extractive Empire.

Unfortunately, I can't see much evidence that extractive institutions spontaneously perish because inclusive ones necessarily work better, then or now (which is a pity, because inclusive societies are probably far better places for almost everybody to live in).

'A world dominated by extractive institutions is not likely to give you a new iPhone' writes Berri. The last time I checked, this world was still managing to provide plenty of iPhones without having noticeably checked the power of some rather big extractive institutions:
We are not exactly sure which is scarier: that total financial assets amount to about 500% of world GDP or that about $75 trillion in financial leverage is just sitting there, completely unregulated and designed with one purpose in mind: to make billionaires into trillionaires (with taxpayers footing the bill of their failure).

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Must have been an angel

There was a wonderfully weird exchange on a Radio 4 religious affairs programme the other day (about 11 minutes in, if you're reading this post during the week when the BBC still has the programme available for catch-up on line). There was a panel discussion about "End Time Beliefs in Islam", in which one of the panelists recounted the following anecdote which Actually Happened to 'somebody's cousin':

The cousin and her husband, who were living in Germany, went for a drive in the mountains and got completely lost. A car appeared and stopped and a man, who spoke Arabic, got out. He gave the couple directions and asked them to 'help others as I have helped you', then drove off.

A guy appearing from nowhere, in Germany and speaking Arabic? What are the chances of that happening? Spooky.

Clearly, according to the panelist / whoever passed on the cousin's story, the stranger could only have been Muhammad al-Mahdi, the the last of the Twelve Imams revered by the Twelver sect of ShÄ«‘a Muslims, who was born around 869 AD and mysteriously disappeared around 941 AD but, according to prophecy, will reappear alongside Jesus in the end times to save the human race (as far as I know, the prophecy fails to mention that his work of salvation would involve acting as a spiritual sat nav for lost motorists, but, hey, where would prophecy be without creative interpretation?).

Another panelist was asked to comment and ventured that 'I'm afraid that I am sceptical about the identity of this individual being the Mahdi.' He then proceeded to bring the discussion back down to earth with his own, far more plausible, explanation: 'I'm quite happy to entertain the idea that perhaps this was an angel in the shape of a person, who came to the aid of these lost people.'

It's 2015 and we're still happy to call people like this "scholars" without any apparent sense of irony and invite them to share their wisdom with the rest of us on national radio. Personally, I'm not sure that it's a good idea to let people like this cross the road, or use scissors, without adult supervision.

Monday, 9 March 2015

We're all as bad as ISIS, only more elitist, apparently

ISIS’s destruction of antiquities at the Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud has generated a lot of discussion and disgust, all of it well deserved. But much of what has been said fails to adequately contextualize these attacks in two ways. First, in the history of the modern colonial museum. Second, in much longer history of local attitudes toward the distant past — a history which is not reducible to one set of beliefs or practices called "iconoclasm," much less reducible to one set of textual precepts as some commentators have suggested. Because of this, the discussion has been bogged down in facile denunciations of ISIS barbarism that have their roots in ugly colonial binaries...

...It is fair to say that most elites in the West (and elsewhere) tend to think of historical artifacts in terms of the sacred.
Writes Elliott Colla (associate professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University).

Sorry I missed the context there, prof. There was I, thinking that we could all get behind the idea that smashing up irreplaceable archaeological sites from the cradle of civilisation for no explicable reason other than sheer intolerant bigotry and spite was a bad thing. I see now that I was a victim of culturally insensitive elitist idolatry and general wrongthought. We really shouldn't indulge in 'facile denuncialtions' of one group of iconoclasts when everybody's doing it:
Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS’s ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren’t we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn’t we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies? Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some? 
Sarcasm aside, I suppose the prof deserves a tiny bit of credit for acknowledging that the disgust is 'well deserved.' But this attempt to 'adequately contextualise' the destruction is just bizarre.

Firstly, the "elitism" idea. To read Prof Colla, you'd think that nobody cares about this stuff, except for an out-of-touch bunch of pointy-heads and the sort of people whose only contact with the underprivileged is occasionally stepping over the homeless on their way to the opera. It's apparently irrelevant to ordinary people who 'fail to appreciate' the value of 'exclusive and exclusionary' elite pursuits like culture and history. Perhaps Professor Colla's next essay will explain why his own speciality, the academic study of Arabic and Islamic culture and history, is somehow less 'elitist and exclusionary' than the study of other cultures and histories.

Isn't it just a tiny bit patronising to assume that the only people who might have any interest in history and culture are an elite? Or that cultural and historical awareness is necessarily the hallmark of an elite sensibility - there wasn't, after all, much evidence of either from that impeccably-privileged member of the elite, George W Bush, back when he was mouthing off about 'This crusade, this war on terrorism'?

Colla, remember, has just dismissed preserving the cultural heritage of billions of ordinary people across the planet who can do such basic things as reading and writing, or using written numbers, or the wheel, or a sixty-second minute and a sixty-minute hour as an elite concern, built on 'anti-democratic methods of coercion to build official state cultures based on object veneration.'

For a man who's mighty quick to call others 'facile', the simple-minded idea of  archaeology as mere 'object veneration', just another form of idolatry, is a bit, well, facile. Sometimes there's veneration, but there are plenty of other reasons - such as actually understanding what happened in the past. After the Second World War, the victorious Allies chose to preserve Auschwitz, not as an object of veneration but as an exhibit from the crime scene of a crime against humanity.

Sure, there's often way too much emphasis on elite vanity projects like Versailles, but it seems arrogant and simplistic to dismiss the whole discipline of preserving and understanding the past on this basis. What about the history of engineering (from Roman aqueducts to the Eiffel Tower)? Social history, from the Viking streets of York, through the plague pits of the Middle Ages to the Colliery village at Beamish? What of the communities of artisans who worked on Europe's cathedral projects? Evidence that challenges our assumptions about gender roles and uncovers histories that elites have tried, sometimes literally, to bury in obscurity?

Archaeology and preservation may sometimes have a whiff of veneration about it, but it's a cretinous over-simplification to dismiss the whole multi-faceted enterprise as a mere reiteration of the millennia-old pre-scientific habit of superstitious object worship (which is, from a secular perspective, no more superstitious than its opposite, reviling objects as vectors of spiritual contamination).

Far from being a mere re-run of timeless graven image worship, the scientific study of the past is part of a specifically modern, empirical mind-set, different in kind from idolatry. In the past, all cultures, including our own, treated the monuments of the past in a cavalier fashion, re-using the stone from stone circles and ancient towns as building material, without a thought for preservation. It's only in comparatively recent times that we've 'venerated' - a better word would be 'valued' the old and superseded and its context for what it can teach us about the past.

As for this whole thing about the Americans and anti-Saddam Iraqis pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein and other regime monuments in the wake of the Iraq war, this is a jaw-droppingly idiotic comparison. Whatever you think of the US-led invasion,* it's a huge stretch to equate smashing up statues of a newly-toppled dictator with the wanton destruction of historical artifacts dating back thousands of years. Saddam Hussein's crimes were fresh and raw when his statues were being pulled down, so isn't hard to understand the desire to smash everything he stood for.

Ashurnasirpal II was probably a complete bastard, too, but that was the best part of three thousand years ago, so smashing his stuff up was hardly the act of reasonable people, provoked beyond endurance, in the heat of the moment.

By omission, American forces have probably been responsible for some of the destruction of Iraq's (and humanity's) heritage, but a blundering accident isn't the same as a deliberate act of targeted vandalism.

And finally, about those 'facile denunciations of ISIS barbarism that have their roots in ugly colonial binaries.' How, exactly, does the deplorable context of colonial powers looting antiquities and making racist assumptions about other cultures' level of civilisation make the denunciation of current vandalism 'facile'? If somebody robbed your house last week, does that provide a context that makes it more understandable for somebody else to vandalise it this week?

These are Iraqi antiquities, in Iraq. The group that's doing the smashing consider themselves to be members of a spiritual elite with zero tolerance or respect for the varied indigenous cultures and history of the region they are trying to rule and an estimated two thirds of them come from abroad.

There are certainly some 'ugly colonial binaries' going on here, but they're between the colonists trying to impose a mindless, ahistorical religious empire on a subject population and the despised "kuffirs" whose history they're trying to obliterate.

*I happen to think that the outcome (a country divided fragmented between a probably-even-worse-than-Saddam Islamic State, Iranian Revolutionary Guard-backed militias and a de facto Kurdish state) is not what the US intervention was hoping to achieve and constitutes pretty good evidence that the invasion failed even in its own terms. Other views are available.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Headline writing: you're doing it wrong

So we've established that if you write a headline in the form of a question, or pepper it with misleading quotes, or "scare" quotes, you're doing it wrong. While we're on the subject of doing it wrong, another minor law of headlines (which I just made up) springs to mind. I'll call it Garber's Law. It goes like this:
If you keep churning out headlines telling everybody else 'you're doing it wrong', you're doing it wrong.
Kudos to Megan Garber, who wrote this piece in The Atlantic:
Are you having a good day? Are you feeling rested, and happy, and ready to conquer the week ahead with your signature mixture of aggression and aplomb? Are you on top of your game, and thus on top of the world?

Then you might want to get off the Internet. Because the Internet does not agree with your sparkly sense of optimism. The Internet ... does not think you are on top of your game. Your capacity to work? To love? To live your life? You may not have asked for the Internet's opinion on these matters, but it will tell you anyway: It thinks you are Doing It Wrong.

Well, not the Internet (if, when it comes to precision, we are Doing It Right). The people who are employed to write things for the Internet. 
I'd quibble with the implication that 'agression' is a good state of mind in to start your week in (unless your job is writing passive-aggressive articles about how everybody else is doing everything wrong)* but, apart from that, spot-on.

*which, paradoxically, is exactly what I just did there. I wonder how much Slate is paying for this sort of stuff?


Update - post title was sloppily dashed off as 'Headlines: you're doing it wrong', and later corrected, thus neatly demonstrating the chief occupational hazard of criticising other people's writing on the Internet (see Muphry's law / Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation / The Iron Law of Nitpicking).

Monday, 2 March 2015

Punctuated by weasels

It's been a while since I blogged about Hoggart's Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, so I'm grateful to Mr Scaryduck for drawing my attention to another handy tool for weeding out the stupid. This one is Betteridge's Law of Headlines:
... any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no." The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run. 
There are probably counter-examples but, in my experience, the tell-tale question-mark is a pretty reliable indicator that bullshit is present. Quotation marks in headlines are another signal alerting the careful reader to the high probability of daddy cow droppings on the road ahead:
There’s one thing that single quote marks in a headline almost never mean – that anyone has actually said the precise words they enclose.
I'm not sure whether there's a specific expression for quote marks which get wrapped round any phrase the writer fancies, in order to imply that somebody else might have said it, although this one will do for the time being. I guess the idea is just to lend spurious authority to something the writer just made up.

Alternatively,  it might be a case of a writer trying to maintain a bit of distance and wiggle room when making some assertion or insinuation that can't be backed up by actual facts (rather like Betteridge's rhetorical headline questions). If the stuff in quotes is later revealed to be nonsense, maybe people will just imagine that a big boy said it and ran away.

As for the separate category of passive-aggressive "scare quotes", these are a pretty good indication that the writer is presenting an opinion rather than a fact ("so-called").

Fortunately, there's some light relief from the dismal spectacle of weasel words punctuation cooped up in the narrow confines of a news headline, over at The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks, where packs of superfluous punctuation marks can be seen roaming wild and free, just as nature intended.