Archive for March, 2007

a meeting of mindlessness

Friday, March 30th, 2007

I was talking the other day to a politician who is, for all I know, a perfectly nice, competent person, doing their best at a difficult and important job. I have to take this on faith, though, because their minders insisted that the interview be done with both of us in different studios so it was quite impossible to establish any kind of human contact.

I could only imagine the scene at the far end: perhaps the advisers wore funny masks, in order to desensitise the minister to the ridiculous. I contemplated a PR droid in a shiny suit wearing a large, strapped on red nose, and projecting powerpoint onto a wall from which the minister read, very fast, sentences like this:

"The programme in defining those five outcomes is not prescriptive. It is a framework within which we expect services, both at national level and particularly at local level, to start to identify what are the issues in their area in the context of that framework that should be priorities and how they can allocate resources and a development of services to meet those priorities, but it also gives us importantly a benchmark against which we can assess how well services are being provided to address the needs … because it’s been derived from wide-scale consultation … around which there’s a huge consensus and indeed you know a great deal of recognition now, I’m pleased to say, from other European countries who are coming here to see how this framework and the programme around it is really transforming services because the key to that, the key to these five outcomes is saying, look, you know we’ve got to think of [my responsibility] holistically, not in accordance with just the way we choose to organise services … It’s that integration that’s the hallmark of the framework itself and the way we want services to be transformed to work together to meet those needs properly."

Some people might say that this is all completely meaningless verbiage. It is not. Everything the minister had to say in this passage could be summed up in six words, perhaps five. They were important words, which would change the lives of many subordinates. But let’s not spoil the suspense just yet, for it took me some time to crack the code.

While I was doing so, I grumbled to a friend who has to deal with computer companies. He had just come off an interview with a Microsoft product manager, who could only talk down the telephone, in a conference call with two PR minders and a transcriber also listening and able to interrupt. "Wow! yours said ‘holistic’ too", he said.

"It’s that integration that’s the hallmark of the framework itself" what is the meaning of that phrase, which seems to defy lexical analysis? It is really simple enough: it means "We must have more meetings." In fact the whole of the minister’s policy is that we must have more meetings. All those mysterious words like "hallmark", "services", "framework", and, of course, "programme" all mean the same thing: meetings, probably wth powerpoint.

So if we translate, for a martian, what the minister is actually saying, it is something like this:

"The meeting, in defining those meetings is not prescriptive. It is a meeting within which we expect meetings both at national level and particularly at local level, to start to identify what are the issues in their area in the context of that meeting that should be meetings and how they can allocate meetings and a development of meetings to meet those priorities, but it also gives us importantly a meeting against which we can assess how well meetings are being provided to address the meetings … because it’s been derived from wide-scale meeting … around which there’s a huge meeting and indeed you know a great deal of recognition now, I’m pleased to say, from other European countries who are coming here to see how this meeting and the meeting around it is really transforming meetings because the key to that, the key to these five outcomes is saying, look, you know we’ve got to think of [my responsibility] holistically, not in accordance with just the way we choose to organise committee meetings, with powerpoint … It’s that sort of meeting that’s the hallmark of the meeting itself and the way we want meetings to be transformed to work together to meet those meetings properly."

One quite sees how this could not be said face to face.

Fear of Flying

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

My flight out of Skavsta left at 21.55, and I was tired enough to think it worthwhile to stand queuing for half an hour to get a decent seat to sleep in. I had headphones on and a Swedish book to read; by the time I got my window seat in the third row back, I was physically tired, too, and certainly not up to switching languages: when a blonde girl gestured at the seat beside me and said something, I replied in Swedish that it was free. She had a wide mouth the colour of ripe raspberries, and large brown eyes. Beyond her, in the aisle, a young man with a wedge-shaped face sat down and started to make conversation. He had floppy hair and a striped collar to his shirt. He was going to London to visit his father, before travelling on to Thailand. So much I gathered before the plane took off and the blonde hunched forward and literally shuddered. Weren’t we, she asked, at all afraid when it tipped up like that? No, said the young man, and set about making reassuring and encouraging noises.

I went to sleep, and woke from a dream in which I was being summoned to a simultaneous chess tournament by a voice talking Russian, which resolved, as I woke, to a Ryanair steward chanting in English "Trash, rubbish, garbage" as he moved down the aisle with a plastic bag. The friendship to my right had warmed up. He had two empty beer cans on his tray; she had an empty quarter bottle of Chardonnay. She was explaining her partly Ukrainian ancestry. When the steward came by, he ordered another round. Then the plane gave a lurch, and he was mopping beer off his trousers. A minute or two later, the fasten seatbelts sign came on. The plane quivered again, and so did the blonde, who had been helping him with kleenexes.

When next I looked up from my book, she had hooked her arm around his neck and was distracting herself from imminent death with a kiss. The turbulence continued, and so did her need for comfort. By the time the plane tipped in to land, all their drink was finished and the stewardess had to ask them to put the armrest down between their seats. She straightened up, and smiled at me, and offered chewing gum to both of us. Then the fear gripped her again, and by the time the plane came to a halt at the terminal, she had been comforted so much that the poor man could hardly stand to pull his luggage down from the rack.

I was rather slower off the train, so they were about twenty metres ahead of me as we hurried down the long corridors to the main terminal but at the foot of an escalator, I saw them again. He was just entering a disabled lavatory. "Come on" he urged her. "Oh no!" The escalator bore me away while she was still trying to persuade him that he had entirely mistaken her character, but she must have failed, because the two of them appeared ten minutes later in the passport queue and both greeted me like an old friend. They had quite overcome their nervousness.

Is Cannabis a parasite on humans?

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

Whatever the silliness and arrogance of his views on religion, the Dawkins of The Extended Phenotype continues to fascinate me. The idea that genes are selected as much for their effects on other phenotypes as on those of the bodies that carry them is one of these simple, blinding illuminations that make you wonder how anyone could not have seen it before.

Most of his examples are about parasites of lower animals — my favourite a fluke which makes ants climb to the top of blades of grass, where they are more likely to be eaten by sheep, which are required for the next stage of the fluke’s lifestyle.1

But you can perfectly well understand the plants addictive to humans in the same way. Or, indeed, brewer’s yeast. The genes that cause cannabis to generate THC or tobacco to generate nicotine, also act on human brain phenotypes in ways which cause humans to behave in certain ways — ie to plant them, nurture them, breed them selectively, etc, which increase the population of such genes in the world. Whether you regard this as parasitism or symbiosis is a nice point, but I think on balance it is parasitism.

So I think this is a clear example of the way in which Dawkins is quite simply right to see that genes have an existence independent of the bodies they find themselves in. At the same time, it is a deficient example of causation. It’s true that certain genes in certain plants make humans behave in certain ways. But we all know huge differences in individual tolerance and reactions. Nor do drug chemicals make whole societies behave like that. Some societies invent vineyards, some, prohibition. So, while it is clearly true that tobacco grows in Macedonia today and cannabis in wardrobes in Enfield, because of the effect that the products of some of their genes have on human brains, this is only an additive cause, one necessary rather than sufficient.

On the other hand, thinking of drugs as parasitic on humans — and from this it is a short step to the idea of their being spiritual or metaphysical entities, like “memes” — might be helpful as a way of turning people against their use, and thus in its own way effective. Like “Demon rum”, in fact.

1 this is from memory, and if I write the thought up for CiF I will check the details. Ant, grass, sheep are all correct. But I can’t remember which parasite.

Small nerdy note

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

While I am waiting 20 minutes for the PNAS site to let me back in, I might as well explain why I have been barred: I use scrapbook. It is an extremely useful Firefox extension that grabs whole web pages or portions thereof and saves them offline for later sorting, study, and annotation. It was about 50% of the reason that I gave up on Opera, after ten years — the other big reason was that there are so many Ajaxy sites today that don’t work well with Opera either.

But it turns out that when it hits a site with lots of links, Scrapbook hits them all, too, and so when I went to save this very interesting paper on neurogenesis, I triggered their anti-bot. And now I am banned for twenty minutes. Moral: don’t use Scrapbook on that site. Use something like Evernote instead.

But Opera vs Firefox is interesting. I think I will write a piece about standards for next week’s Guardian tech column.

usual apologies

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Looking back down the page, I notice that the entries here have been increasingly trivial. This is, I know, my fault. I have added at the bottom of the recent posts listing a feed to my more serious pieces on Comment is Free. When I am less busy, I will try to do more than just link blog here, but the book comes first until it is finished. Next week I am off to Stockholm for three days, on a foreign ministry freebie, arranged at very short notice.

In the meantime, a thought about Melanie Phillips: Steven Poole has been wondering why she is such a passionate Global Warming denialist. Obviously, she passionate about it because she doesn’t do calm and reasonable any more. But why so perversely disbelieve the evidence? Why should just this have become a right-wing cause?

I think in her case the explanation is personal. She was a friend of a good friend of mine at the time when she began her swing from the Left. It was sparked off by the discovery that the local state school was no bloody good even though, at the time and since, there were great numbers of experts asserting that British children have never been so well-educated and so forth.

Similar things happened when she started to study social policy, and discovered — rather ahead of the pack — that things like absent fathers really matter.

So two of her formative political experiences involved the discovery that all the respectable experts were wrong (cf also Conquest’s Law, that everyone is a reactionary about the subjects that they understand). Something similar happened to her beliefs about social policy, where it also turned out that a lot of large and inconvenient truths were being suppressed in polite discourse. A non-loony, non-conspiracist version of this is found in the work of “Theodore Dalrymple”.

So I think she expects everything else to fall into the same pattern of a self-serving bureaucracy bamboozling the public. It’s a credible stance because such bureaucracies do appear and are sometimes influential. In any society that is failing at something important, a lot of expert opinion is spent ignoring or denying the bleeding obvious for dishonourable motives. Other examples would be

  • almost everything said officially about church membership in the last forty years
  • almost everything said by respectable American commentators about foreign policy

(Yes, yes: I know that MP’s views on foreign policy are passing strange as well. But they are differently loopy and not driven at all by this particular dynamic.)

More nose news

Monday, March 12th, 2007

You will all, I hope, be as glad as I am to hear that the doctors in Växsjö have managed to sew back on the nose tip and ear of the Dutch lorry driver who had them bitten off last week. It further appears, according the Svenska Dagbladet, that the man who bit them off, who has now been charged with serious assault (grov misshandel), then leaped into the lorry, drove it fifty metres until it crashed into the transformer station, then ran up the fire escape of a nearby sports hall and jumped off the top; hence the serious internal injuries for which he is now being treated in hospital.

Better than Crufts

Friday, March 9th, 2007

The venerable Dr Clifford Longley who was religious affairs editor of the Times for twenty years, has let rip at his successor, a Ms Gledhill, who has been doing the job ever since, in the letters page of the Catholic Herald. This is a delayed response to her ridiculous, and much ridiculed, front page splash about the Anglicans and Roman Catholics uniting.

I suppose an excitable tabloid reporter, with no knowledge of theology, religious affairs, or English history might, with imagination at full stretch, just about draw the conclusion that Ms Gledhill offered.

I have to say that this is a little unfair. It is true that Ruth works on a tabloid and that she is a fantastically excitable newshound whose tail wags her whole body whenever she’s on the scent of a story. But I have known her stop, and think, and back away from publishing untruths. And I don’t think Clifford understands the implications of “tabloid journalism” when he goes on to say that it is part of the responsibilities of a specialist news correspondent, in quoting such a text, to apply an expert understanding of the context and history of the matter in order to offer an interpretation that is in accord with the intentions of the writers, as they may be discerned. Those skills are no part of the duties of a tabloid reporter. All tendencies to exercise them are discouraged by the management. This is what Ruth meant when she said to accuse her of sensationalism was to pay tribute to her news-writing skills. She works on a mid-market tabloid paper.

I should be working but

Friday, March 9th, 2007

I cannot resist a story in Dagens Nyheter about a fight in a Dutch lorry which was parked in Växsjö, a small and not overwhelmingly interesting town in Småland, a large and not overwhelmingly interesting region of southern Sweden.

In any case, the firm of van der Kwaak was delivering flowers. One of its lorries parked for the night on Wednesday: at three in the morning, the police were summoned because the lorry had crashed into an electricity sub-station some distance away. In it they found the driver; on the ground nearby they found, and recovered, his nose, and one of his ears. Both had apparently been bitten off. The passenger, who is suffering from “severe internal injuries” has been charged with attempted murder. So has the driver, who is a 58-year-old Dutch citizen. Both are male, but nothing is known about the passenger, who is still in intensive care.

There is in fact a new media hook: I found this through a PR story about Twingly, a blog searching service which allowed DN to link automatically to a photograph on a local blog which shows the crashed lorry, though not, alas, the ear. This is quite an encouraging example of the way in which newspapers and blogs can interact, though, like all technolgical fixes, it can obviously be gamed. If DN automatically links to blog stories based on keywords, there is nothing to stop the local fascists blogging heavily about, say, a race riot to get their side of the story over.

HIgh water

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

It really has been a filthy wet winter. I was down by the Cam yesterday and the little river, which two years ago in March looked like this

looked instead like this

These are, as near as I can manage, pictures of the same trees from the same vantage point.

String theory

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

I threw away the palm pilot this morning. It still worked if I took it to bits every six weeks and reassembled it, a voodoo which restored the touch screen to touch sensitivity, but I have just got a new phone which will store as many addresses and is smaller. Along with the Palm, I threw away its mains charger, its USB charger for connecting to the computers, and four different widgets to connect the mains charger to the wall in different countries. It was a start. However, as the man who gets to recharge the family’s batteries, and I am speaking without any metaphorical intent, I still have on the floor chargers for one music player, five mobile phones, two laptops, and two cameras. Another camera charger has gone missing.

Then there are the cables to connect all these things to the computers. All the phones, of course, have different connections: that’s five cables straight away. None of them will fit the cameras or the music player, so there are another four USB cables for that. USB stands for Universal Serial Bus. That’s why none of them fit any of the sockets for the other ones. On the other hand, they are almost all of them black, to make them harder to distinguish from each other.

Elsewhere on the desk there are two sets of small headphones, both black, but terminating in different and incompatible plugs.

I know I could, and will, get rid of the fifth mobile phone, though it goes against the grain to throw away something that works perfectly well. The other four are all necessary – one is my foreign (unlocked) phone, and one is my domestic one; the other two don’t belong to me.

But this still leaves the problem of how to sort all these cables. All I want is to be able to see and collect quickly the cables that I need when I go away. Would ziploc bags, neatly labelled, be the answer? The true zen method would be to buy one more of everything, and keep the spares in my backpack. This doesn’t appeal either. Does anyone have a system that works?