Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A balls up

This happened recently to a medical student I know. On placement in a rural GP's surgery, she was examining a pensioner.

"Are my testicles black?" he asked, to her surprise - the examination was for something completely unrelated. But she asked him to lower his boxer shorts, and looked, the man's testicles were the right colour, felt warm to the touch, had no obvious lumps or other problems.

"That's fine," she said. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes," the man said, speaking slowly and clearly. "Are my test results back?"

Friday, November 06, 2009

Morla equivalence

There's a splendid car crash of pieties in this wibble from the Chief Rabbi:

"Parenthood involves massive sacrifice: money, attention, time and emotional energy. Where today, in European culture with its consumerism and its instant gratification because you're worth it."

There was no room for sacrifice for "the sake of generations not yet born" in such a culture.

"Europe is dying," he concluded and compared the situation in the continent today to ancient Greece with its "sceptics, epicureans and cynics".

He said: "That is one of the unsayable truths of our time. We are undergoing the moral equivalent of climate change and no one is talking about it."

Religion was the safeguard of morality and the decline of religion would lead to fragile families and communities in atrophy.
He has a point in his first paragraph. One of my oldest friends and his partner have been through a harrowing few years of miscarriages and disappointments because they left it too late. That follows a history of abortions-of-convenience in younger years. They are very typical of recent generations. The time to have kids is young adulthood, this does involve sacrifices. People who try to have it all simply transfer the costs of their ambition to their children, who have to bear them or forgo existence entirely.

The glib and complacent description of the source of so much human misery and burnt human flesh for so many centuries as the "safeguard of morality" is just par for the course.

It's the comparison with Climate Change that provides the car crash. Human population growth is one of the factors in climate change, if the alarmists are to be believed. The Rabbi's statement can be re-rendered as follows:

[population should rise] is the moral equivalent of [population should fall]

Europe isn't dying. If the massive expansion of population of the past couple of centuries were to be followed by a levelling off and even a slight contraction, so what? That would be a very good thing in all kinds of ways - especially economic and ecological.

Via Laban, who draws rather different conclusions.

Maybe your mother has cancer

Romance is not dead.

Animated stereoscopes

Of old Japan.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

While I was away...

You might enjoy this:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Point of the day

I haven't been blogging for personal reasons - been having too good a time to want to sit and type. However, this seems an excellent point, worth repeating, from Jonny Newton:

Nick Griffin looked silly on the programme, but what if the BNP ever got a new leader without a history of statements he wants to repudiate?
And, put slightly differently, from James Cleverly:
When [the BNP] are given the opportunity to act like real politicians they struggle and then they fail... Question Time provided the perfect vehicle to show this incompetence, but the BBC did what so many on the left do, obsess about the BNP and feed their inflated sense of self importance.

Monday, September 28, 2009

An important point

From Gavin Kennedy:

Take the parable of the buyer in contact with the “butcher, the brewer, and the baker”. Most readers of the paragraph containing the parable, who have not read and understood Adam Smith in his books, Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations, go hopelessly adrift in concluding that there is a clash of self-interest between the buyer of his dinner and his suppliers.
When someone buys meat from a butcher, both the self-interest of the butcher and of the buyer are served. This is not a zero-sum game; it is not the case that if someone benefits from a transaction, the other party loses.

The ugliness of the internet

Oh, I know there are worse things. But I did a quick search about Roman Polanski, wondering whether I had any comment to make, and found that you can read the full transcript of the allegations made against him, 20 or 30 pages long, while looking at pictures of his victim as a 13 year old girl, the age at which she was raped.

That's certainly a convenience for the paedophile community.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Curing cancer

I have no idea what the rights and wrongs are of the dispute between two Christian hotel owners and a Muslim woman who claims she was insulted by them. I doubt it should be a police matter, if the woman felt insulted she should have taken her business elsewhere. Personal disagreements are not the business of the police, and nor are hurt feelings.

The Christian couple at the centre of this are members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Bootle. The largest congregation in the Elim organisation seems to be Kensington Temple, where Revival meetings are being held regularly, conducted by Gypsy William Lee:

"What's the point of praying for people if we don't expect them to be healed?" So said healing evangelist Gypsy William Lee during his recent visit to Kensington Temple in February. "When I pray, I expect God to heal", continued William.

Perhaps this is why William has seen such outstanding examples of God's healing power throughout his ministry. People all around the country have been healed of all kinds of sickness, illness and disease, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, terminal cancer, meningitis, blindness and deafness.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I don't believe anyone has been cured of terminal cancer or Parkinson's, and that there is still only one recorded case of anyone recovering from Alzheimer's - and that wasn't the result of Gypsy William's ministrations.


What is a "performative"? Here's some context:

All performatives imply propositions. There's no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.
A reasonable test of a passage of argument is that the opposite makes sense or that someone might argue it. If it doesn't, or nobody would, the passage is likely to be meaningless in some way, perhaps tautological, perhaps hollow. Perhaps, and this is more often the case, tendentious. I am in favour of "fair" taxation, for example. Nobody would say the opposite, that they are in favour of "unfair" taxation. We're all in favour of fair taxation, we just don't agree what that means. So using the phrase, as some politicians do, is tendentious.

To take an example from the above passage, it talks of "certain beliefs about the nature of reality". Such a belief might be that God exists. Both that sentence and its opposite (God does not exist) make sense. Does it make sense to say that there is no such institution as promising? Would anyone say that? Would someone be frozen, unable to make a promise, because they do not believe there is such a thing as a promise, or that there is but they are unable - not morally unable but unable because of their "beliefs about the nature of reality" - to perform it? If that were the case with someone, it would tell us nothing about the nature of reality, but rather something about that individual's psychology. But nobody would, just as nobody argues for unfair taxation.

You'll probably have guessed we're in the hinterlands of postmodernism here. Wikipedia's page about performativity includes this:
Philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler has used the concept of performativity in her analysis of gender development, as well as in her analysis of political speech. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes Queer Performativity as an ongoing project for transforming the way we may define - and break - boundaries to identity.
Peformativity is incredibly useful to a postmodernist, because it enables them to argue against "positivism" or a "representational idiom". What's a representational idiom? Here's where it gets sinister, as these things usually do. Also from Wikipedia:
Performativity is a concept that is related to speech act theory, to the pragmatics of language, and to the work of J. L. Austin. It accounts for situations where a proposition may constitute or instantiate the object to which it is meant to refer, as in so-called "performative utterances".

The concept of performativity has also been used in science and technology studies and in economic sociology. Andrew Pickering has proposed to shift from a "representational idiom" to a "performative idiom" in the study of science. Michel Callon has proposed to study the performative aspects of economics, i.e. the extent to which economic science plays an important role not only in describing markets and economies, but also in framing them.
In other words, it's being argued that in fields like science and economics, the "performance" of the scientist or economist "frames" the outcomes of their work - and not just that but also the very thing they are studying.

How is this useful to a postmodernist? It's a valuable tool if you're trying to argue something for which there is absolutely no evidence, or against which there is significant evidence. Which brings me to the full context of the first quote. A conversation with Terry Eagleton in the Monthly Review, as reproduced by Norm:
You say he [Dawkins] emphasizes a "propositional" account of religious faith above a "performative" one. But how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?

TE: All performatives imply propositions. There's no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on. The performative and the propositional work into each other. But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance. Somebody who didn't grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted. These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.
Norm, rightly, remarks:
Terry is right to say, as he does further on in the interview, that 'It is a rationalist error to think that your opponents are simply stupid.' But he's wrong to deny 'that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions'. That may not be all religion is about, but it is, centrally, about that.
Incidentally, thinking your opponents are stupid isn't just a rationalist error, but more on that later. First, I'd like to put in plain English what Eagleton is arguing - because one thing this language does is dress trivial or untenable arguments in fine clothes of verbiage. It is, as Richard Feynman used to say, like turning on a fog machine. Clouds of this fog billow out, and it's hard to see at all, let alone clearly, what the person responsible is saying.

Believing in God "performatively" to "begin with" means that acts, performances, behaviours can lead to specific beliefs. And that's certainly true. The problem with this is that enough ritual, incense, repetition - together with other aspects of religious behaviour, scourging, sexual abstention, sleep deprivation, fasting - can make anyone believe, eventually, in Archwaldo the Giant Turtle. Imagining that rationalists and atheists don't realise this is to accuse them of stupidity. Not only do they realise it, they think it's one of the problems with religious behaviour: it helps you believe in things that aren't true.

The fact that someone believes something has absolutely no bearing on whether or not it's true. The fact that someone can come to religious belief through, or helped by, performance - or that performance is a major part of their religious experience - has absolutely no bearing on whether or not the things they believe are true.

Chris Dillow wrote in support of Eagleton, in terms interesting for one so committed to evidence-based argument. He concluded:
One reason why writing about music is like dancing about architecture is that our language struggles to cross the barrier between practitioner and non-practitioner. Perhaps believer and non-believer will always be unable to understand each other. But then, why should all knowledge and beliefs be explicit rather than tacit and so amenable to “rational” debate?
People do, of course, write perfectly coherently about music, but they don't dance about architecture. I know what Chris means, writing about music is inadequate in some ways, the music has to be experienced. That's true, but it's a false analogy nevertheless. Equally false is the grouping together of knowledge and beliefs. These are not the same thing at all, in some ways they could be said to be opposites. We require belief for assertions for which we have insufficient knowledge, or that run contrary to knowledge. For me to think the world is flat would require belief and the suppression of knowledge, to think it is roughly spherical requires no more than knowledge. The shape of the world can only be determined through rational enquiry - and most importantly it can be determined like that. So can the question of whether, say, deficit spending is appropriate in a recession.

Ultimately, we might reach a stage of understanding of economics where we know - genuinely know - such things in sufficient detail to avoid recessions, or to understand that they are inevitable in the least bad forms of economies but that they can be mitigated according to certain rules. The more recessions we have and the more we study the reality of what happens, the closer we'll get to this stage. Belief, irrational, dogmatic belief, might help. It might produce hunches that can be tested and prove to be correct - as Polanyi argued (Chris's link on the word "tacit"). But the same could be said of throwing darts at a piece of paper with ideas written on it, or throwing dice to choose research avenues. Belief itself is of no value except to the individual holding it and that can be a problem for the rest of us. It's less often an asset.

The same is true of the question of whether or not there is a God. And that is the question, not whether or not some people believe in God, or even why they believe in God except where this is for rational reasons. Eagleton's argument isn't even wrong, it isn't even in the park. But that doesn't matter, it's not meant to be. It's designed to remove the subject from the sphere of the rational - that's what this means: "it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional".

What looks like a clever dismissal of the inflexible Dawkins is actually a retreat from the debate. Eagleton cedes the ground of rational argument and says, instead, that religious belief is brought into existence through performance.

I think Dawkins might agree with that.

Baroness Scotland and resignation

John Rentoul thinks it wasn't Scotland, but whoever was responsible for the legislation she broke should resign. That's much more important than someone resigning for breaking it.

This legislation was malevolent and stupid. Malevolent because it seeks to transfer responsibility for managing immigration from the government to private citizens. I'd be all in favour if that was it, and the government had stepped away from managing migration entirely, leaving it up to the web of individual contracts. But they haven't. So there are people here illegally, but now it's your fault.

Strictly, now it's your fault if you employ them. The correct remedy for illegal migration is to remove the illegal migrants from the country. But no, the government would have to take responsibility for that, and there'd be distressing press coverage of people clinging to door frames by their fingertips, or being given sanctuary in churches. So lots of them stay here. But what we can't do is let them work while they're here. This is the stupid thing. They stay, but can't be productive members of society.

Deficits and Keynes

Two interesting reads. In both cases, people not normally identified with the left make an argument for deficit spending.

Richard Posner, who is difficult to categorise but sometimes identified with libertarian thinking, writes: How I Became a Keynesian. An extract:

But for a confidence-building public-works program to be effective in arresting an economic collapse, the government must be able to finance its increased spending by means that do not reduce private spending commensurately. If it finances the program by taxation, it will be draining cash from the economy at the same time that it is injecting cash into it. But if it borrows to finance the program (deficit spending), or finances it with new money created by the Federal Reserve, the costs may be deferred until the economy is well on the way to recovery and can afford to pay them without endangering economic stability. When investors passively save rather than actively invest, government can borrow their savings (as by selling them government bonds) and use the money for active investment.

From Samuel Brittan's speech to the Spectator Conference a couple of weeks ago:
I am in the delightful position of disagreeing with the consensus wisdom on economic policy. This states that the most important, if disagreeable, task of whatever government is in power after the next election will be to slash the public sector deficit.
The basic fallacy is known as the fallacy of composition: the belief that what is true on the small scale must be true on the large. Shakespeare's Polonius said "Never a borrower nor a lender be." Margaret Thatcher advised young people not to get into debt (except of course to buy a house!) Even accepting these homilies at their face value, they do not necessarily apply to the Government of the whole country.

The big error of the present economic discussion is to treat national budgets as on a par with the budgets of individuals or firms, which need to balance except for narrowly defined investment projects. Even if you also favour a balanced budget at the national level, it is at most a second order rule to give way if it impedes the achievement of broader economic objectives.

In fact the public sector balance has an entirely different function: that of offsetting gross disequilibria in the national and international economy. If attempted savings exceed investment opportunities, public sector deficits are needed for as long as necessary to fill the gap - a job which will otherwise be done by stagnation and unemployment. When economic recovery has reached a certain stage, the time may come to roll back public sector borrowing. But we have certainly not reached that stage yet and it is far too early to rule out a second or even third leg of the recession.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Starkey on constitutional reform

I know most people who read this will also read Iain Dale, but this paragraph from his interview with David Starkey deserves prominence. Starkey gets it exactly right:

We need a version of the American constitution. When you think of all the silly fuss over the office of Lord Chancellor - when did a Lord Chancellor last do any serious harm? The alleged confusion of political and judicial functions. What's been so striking about a lot of Labour constitutional reform is that on the one hand it's done big things that it shouldn't have done, and it's also done little things that there was no need to do like fiddle around with the position of Lord Chancellor. The catastrophe is one body being both the executive and the legislative. It means that it does neither job very well. In particular our Parliament is useless as a legislature. It's why our legislation is so awful. It's why, of course, MPs have actually got no function. MPs now are, at best, overpaid social workers. What we need, I think, is something very much like the American model, and I would go the whole hog. I would have a directly elected Prime Minister. The emergence of somebody like Gordon Brown, who is so totally unsuited to the office and never actually been subject to the test of election, would be unthinkable in America, because from primaries onwards you are subject to this test. We should have something very much like the American cabinet, which is outside the legislature. We should have an elected Lords. The obvious basis for the Lords are the old counties. The catastrophe of the semi-abolition of the old counties under Heath was a catastrophe. Incidentally, there's only been one government that's as bad as this and that's Heath's. Heath and Joseph together were a catastrophe. Every single thing they touched turned to something brown. I would create a second chamber that has two members elected from each county.

The cooling scare of the 1970s

One of the points that climate alarmists seek to "debunk" nowadays is the idea there was a global cooling scare in the 1970s. Here, for example, is Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, writing of "the myth that climate scientists previously believed the Earth was entering an Ice Age" and linking to a YouTube playlist of global warming information videos that make this claim.

The problem with this is that there was a period of alarmism about a coming ice age, and it involved some of the players in the current warming scare. Alarmist-in-Chief James Hansen's computer models were at the heart of it, for example.

Stephen Schneider achieved some notoriety when, in 1989, he told Discover Magazine that it was important to:

... reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
(emphasis added)
Schneider was also concerned about the risk of global cooling. He took part in a TV show on the subject in May 1978, and footage has now made its way onto YouTube. In this, he talks - very sensibly - about the problems of taking action to avert the anticipated cooling:
We can’t predict with any certainty what’s happening to our own climatic future. How can we come along and intervene then in that ignorance? You could melt the icecaps. What would that do to the coastal cities? The cure could be worse than the disease. Would that better or worse than the risk of an ice age?
It seems Schneider has since tried to deny that he placed any weight on the idea of global cooling. In 1990, he was caught out during a TV interview when confronted with parts of a book he had written in which he discussed this.

Of course, none of this means we are not facing a risk of man-made global warming. It does show that there's what I'll be polite and call a frankness gap. Having been wrong in the past does not prevent someone from being right in the present. But we do seem to be seeing the same people extrapolating, first from a cooling period to a coming ice age, then from a warming period to a future inferno. On the face of it, the human instinct to cry 'disaster' is reacting to any and all fluctuations in temperature.

UPDATE: John Holdren - President Obama's Science Czar - co-authored an essay with Paul Ehrlich in 1971 in which he managed to be alarmist about global cooling and warming at the same time, and also about the heat produced directly by humans, warning of possible 150 foot sea level rises. Full details are at Zomblog.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


The rational argument is that when Jesus Christ was born as a human being, the taking on of flesh by God changed for ever the status of the human body. It is a "temple of the Holy Spirit". Once saints are in heaven, honouring their mortal remains is to honour the God who made them saints.
What's the irrational argument, Chris?

A national disgrace

Two soldiers wearing at least three types of camouflage because the British Army has not properly outfitted its soldiers. Missions here range from Brown Zone to Green Zone back to desert brown within minutes. The soldiers need camouflage similar to what special operations folks wear. British and American special operations folks use camouflage suitable for both environments. It’s cheap and every combat soldier should have it.
Michael Yon (Give him some money).

I knew about the vehicles and helicopters. But uniforms? Uniforms? For fuck's sake.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A rugby man

A lovely tribute to Keith Floyd in the Telegraph.

I just started playing again, after a break of something like eight years. So on Saturday, I'll be a few weeks from my 49th birthday and playing second row in the "development squad" - a slightly fancy name for the Second XV - for my local club. I initially tried to join the vets team, but this is what's happened so far. I'm rather pleased to be in a development squad at my age.

It's not the highest level in the world, but it is competitive league rugby (thanks, Greene King). And I'm having a ball, only slightly punctuated by physiotherapy. Ironically, that's because of a gym incident. I decided to try explosive leg presses with the maximum weight on the machine. By the end, I had to move the machine back into its place - my efforts had "walked" it across the floor - and I'd irritated an old knee injury and buggered my quads.

Ah well. That's what comes of training. This was the day before the selection match, a friendly with a local team, and I didn't want to miss it. So I phoned an old mate who has one of the worst jobs in rugby: he's the coach of Trinidad's national team. The poor sod has to live there, drinking cold beers and scuba diving when he's not coaching. His advice was taken onboard, so after a night and a morning of ice packs, I taped the kneecap into an elevated position, ate perhaps too many painkillers, and ventured forth.

No good. I was still crocked. The quads felt like they were pulling every time I took a step. I played for just under an hour, if played is the word I'm looking for. Last week was better. Onwards and upwards, I say. After all, I am in the development squad.

PS During the selection match I used a couple of tubes of deep heat cream, trying to get the leg muscles to cooperate. It reminded me of a remark of Gareth Edwards' - I might not have been fit, but by God I smelt fit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tim Ireland and the sockpuppets

A couple of months ago, I deleted a comment from this blog. It was posted anonymously and accused Tim Ireland of being a paedophile - Ireland has made this detail public himself, or I wouldn't repeat it. It was plain that someone had been googling Ireland's name and posting these comments everywhere he or she could.

I've been the subject of a similar campaign and have a clear policy, though I don't try to tell others how to run their blogs. If some sockpuppet or anonymous commenter tries to pursue a vendetta through a comment here I'll delete it. If someone posts under their own name and has a serious point to make, I'll leave the comment in place. So I deleted the comment and mailed Ireland to let him know.

The most likely reason for this campaign against Ireland is that he had uncovered a couple of "security experts" who were posting as radical Moslems on various websites, then tipping off Conservative MP Patrick Mercer about these sockpuppet postings. Some of these made it into the press. There's no suggestion, so far as I can see, that Mercer knew this information was planted.

Whatever you think of Ireland, he has done good work with this and has been threatened and vilified as a result. The planting of fake "radical Islamist" material can only hinder the struggle against the genuine problem of Islamic extremism. His work has been used by some in the "Old Media" without credit.

This post is to give credit where it's due and to express support for Ireland in this matter. His account of the affair can be read here. The only support I've seen for him so far has come from left of centre blogs, and that's wrong. In my view, we should all be concerned if a senior MP is misled, if the press runs stories based on faked evidence, and if a blogger is subjected to a campaign of vilification.

Unfortunately, Ireland conducts his own somewhat obsessive campaigns, including one against the numbingly anodyne Iain Dale. Obviously, I don't think that means he's disqualified from support when he's in the right.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The green revolution

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Property Rights again

Chris says he is surprised that Tim and I:

... in denying that people have some kind of natural right to the fruits of their labour... are throwing out the libertarian baby with the Marxist bathwater.
Tim made a:
purely consequentialist point about how we should evaluate the extant and/or proposed rights to property that we grant through both the law and societal means.
I argued that there is a natural right to the fruits of one's labour:
... it is fair that someone experience the consequence of their actions
I didn't mean to imply there was a simple dichotomy between "full private property on the one hand and a totalitarian hell on the other", rather the word I've added emphasis to in the following was meant to have full weight, un-emphasised:
... every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps.
Chris does, though, point up the problem that exists with this subject for Marxists:
the Marxist says: “people are entitled to the full fruits of their labour, so profits are theft.” The libertarian says: “people are entitled to the full fruits of their labour, so taxes are theft.” The arguments are philosophically similar.
But the libertarian leaves it at that. The Liberal accepts that there are externalities and injustices that make some intercessions necessary, but still places the greatest possible weight on personal autonomy. The Marxist has to go on to say, as Chris does:
If you’re going to argue that the case for property rights rests only upon consequentialist arguments - do they encourage creators? [this was Tim's argument] - then the difference between classical liberals and revolutionary Marxists such as myself comes down largely to merely empirical questions. Is this really the case?
I fear that it is, if one rests the case for property rights purely on consequentialist arguments. The implication of this, of course, is that we are now discussing the consequences of policies towards private property and if a case can be made for the removal of it all by the state, then this is what can happen, with full moral justification. That's why I don't like the consequentialist argument.

The further implication of Chris's last quote above, and the reason why it's a problem for Marxists, is that this contradicts the view that the worker is morally entitled to the full fruits of their labour - that is, that they own the full output of their labour and the capitalists aren't entitled to any of it. This point was made by Dan Waxman at the Oxford Libertarian Society blog recently, and I've pointed it out before. You might also want to read his latest post on the subject of property rights. He concludes:
The point is really that when opponent of property say "private property is a social construct," they do so in a very misleading way. They don't really mean that it is wrong or meaningless to attempt to evaluate different property regimes independently of their social context, because, on pain of accepting the legitimacy of segregated housing (something that, to their credit, opponents of property do not frequently do), they happily engage in such evaluations themselves. What they usually do mean is that they disagree with the particular pre-political standards of morality that proponents of private property endorse and would rather use their own; and this is a perfectly coherent position to take (although of course I disagree with it), just one that is not compatible with blunt assertions that private property is simply a social construct.
My initial post talked about agency, in the context of a post by Norm. I see the same thing, that I think is an error, in this post, also by Norm (emphasis added):
Yes, one can assess the justness or otherwise of a legal system. But penal justice doesn't exhaust the field of what we mean by justice. There's also what we call distributive justice. And unless one has no thoughts at all about how resources are allocated within a society, where burdens and benefits fall, one must hold a view, explicit or implicit, about whether wealth and income are justly distributed or not. That's not only about the meaning of words; it concerns the normative principles at work within a society, what they are and what one thinks they should be.
The first "are allocated" and the second "are justly distributed" represent the shift that concerns me. In the first instance, there's a mixture of things - inheritance, earnings, luck, skill - that do not mean there's been a wholesale control of outcomes by the state. In the second instance, that's just what is meant. This is sleight of hand.

A valuable lesson

On Sunday, between 6:00 and 6:30pm, I stood in Trafalgar Square as part of the Iran Solidarity campaign:

I won't preach about it here, either you're concerned about other people's freedom as well as your own, or you're not. If you are, and can spare half an hour, the organisers are looking for more volunteers. Email Maryam at if you want to have a turn.

The valuable lesson? When I got there the area I was to stand in was crowded. As I unveiled my posters, the crowd melted miraculously away. I think I'll try it at the Notting Hill Carnival next, or when I want some space on the Tube at rush hour.

A few people did stop to chat. One Iranian woman in a headscarf came over to ask what it was all about and when we explained she smiled and thanked us. Iranian democrats say they'd appreciate gestures of solidarity from around the world. This is an opportunity to make one.

Thanks to (UKIP PPC) Magnus for turning up and for being there every Sunday so far.

I cover the waterfront

John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison. Just because. It's brilliant.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The MoD and Yon


I mean, WHAT?

Michael Yon has been providing despatches from embeds with UK troops, offering a standard of writing and insight - and just plain information - we get nowhere in the conventional media. His embed just ended abruptly. Why?

The specific problem for me was that MoD cut off the embed with zero warning and no chance for me to prepare. … MoD is giving the reason that my long stay is prompting uproar among journalists who cannot get embed slots. I’ve embedded longer in Iraq with combat troops, for instance, than any journalist of any sort. I don’t buy their backpedalling now that this is public, but even if they are being truthful the truth itself is lame reason to stop me embed. There is no journalist in the U.K. or the U.S. who spends more time in combat. It’s silly to lump me in with the war-tourist sorts who come here for a month or two (usually a week or two). Among those who do come, most rarely if ever go on true combat missions to see what our lads are dealing with.
That's a fact. This unique voice has now moved over to work with American troops.

Tea leaves

A quick note on Norm's response to my post about property rights. In this, Norm said:

Peter takes me to be saying more than I intended to in that post: to be commending desert as a criterion of ownership, and overlooking the benefits of private property, ignoring the horrors of totalitarianism - and possibly other things besides.
It's more that I was pointing out that there was, in his argument about desert, an idea of agency, some unidentified entity, allocating a desert or reward for labour or effort, where in fact no such thing exists.

I still don't see any argument that this invisible entity exists.

Norm went on to comment, of a post by Tim:
However, Tim's point is that we give the creator the right over the thing to encourage her to create it. Does this mean I should have no right to what I've created if everyone else regards it as useless? In which case you could make off with it. Right?
But it isn't implicit in Tim's argument that property rights should be withdrawn if someone's creation is widely considered to be useless. Perhaps we should leave all creations as the property of the creator because we can't know which will turn out, at some point in the future, to be useful. We should encourage creation anyway, and the outcome of this will be useful things. Any limitation we place on this will result in fewer useful things. If people can steal things that are widely considered to be useless, the incentive to create will be reduced.

This began as a moral argument. Religious morality condemns theft. What of the basis of ownership? I argued that a product is the consequence of a producer's actions and that this is a basis for ownership. “As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap” might support this idea.

Secular moralities tend, so far as I know, to be based on outcomes. As both Tim and I argued, the outcomes of this basis of ownership are favourable.

In both cases, Christian and secular, we have a moral justification for consequential ownership. I don't know enough about other traditions to comment.

Harsh but fair

JuliaM reported disapprovingly, a few days ago, about a protest mounted by British Humanists against a creationist zoo that has opened near Bristol:

The Noah's Ark Zoo, in Wraxall, near Bristol, is accused by the British Humanist Association (BHA) of misleading tens of thousands of annual visitors and "threatening public understanding".

The BHA has written to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), North Somerset Council, Visit Britain and South West England, asking them to remove Noah's Ark from their material.
Julia commented:
But isn't this just typical of today's society, where it's not enough to be free to have your own beliefs, you also feel free to stifle another's because it's in direct opposition to yours?
Worse things have happened. In 2007, a Dutch creationist opened his full scale reproduction of Noah's Ark to the general public (emphasis added):
Reckoning by the old biblical measurements, Johan's fully functional ark is 150 cubits long, 30 cubits high and 20 cubits wide. That's two-thirds the length of a football field and as high as a three-story house.

Life-size models of giraffes, elephants, lions, crocodiles, zebras, bison and other animals greet visitors as they arrive in the main hold.

"The design is by my wife, Bianca," Huibers said. "She didn't really want me to do this at all, but she said if you're going to anyway, it should look like this."

A contractor by trade, Huibers built the ark of cedar and pine — biblical scholars debate exactly what the wood used by Noah would have been.

Huibers did the work mostly with his own hands, using modern tools and occasional help from his son Roy. Construction began in May 2005.

On the uncovered top deck — not quite ready in time for the opening — will come a petting zoo, with baby lambs and chickens, and goats. And one camel.

Visitors on the first day were stunned.
I know creationism is very silly indeed, but that seems a little harsh.

More cartoon frolics

Arab News reports:

Dutch prosecutors said Wednesday they will charge an Arab cultural group under hate speech laws for publishing a cartoon that suggests the death of 6 million Jews during World War II is a fabrication.

The public prosecutor’s office in the city of Utrecht said the cartoon insults Jews as a group and is therefore an illegal form of discrimination.

Prosecutors plan to press charges for insulting a group and distributing an insulting image.
This seems to be the cartoon in question:

I'm publishing it for the same reasons I published the Danish cartoons. If there's a controversy over a drawing, we need to be able to see it to judge for ourselves. I'm a strong defender of free expression, and this isn't limited to the expression of ideas I agree with or like. Attempts to suppress a viewpoint should be met by the wider distribution of that viewpoint than would otherwise be the case.

The cartoon above is plainly a holocaust denial. This is as intellectually negligible and contemptible as the belief that the earth is flat. But neither viewpoint should be illegal. So I publish it not because I agree with it or like it, neither is the case. I publish it because the Arab European League has an absolute right to the expression of its ideas.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The diaper technique


... the humiliation and health issues of forcing someone to remain in their own filth for over three days raise serious legal issues.

Glaciers shrinking?

It's actually a mixed picture.

Sins of the fathers

It has been remarked on fairly widely that a descendant of Stalin is suing a Russian newspaper for suggesting that his ancestor killed lots of Russians. Apparently, this has official Kremlin backing.

Less widely commented on is the suit threatened by the law firm of Ahmed Zaki Yamani - once a well known name as Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister - on behalf of "several thousand descendants of the Prophet", against a number of newspapers who published a cartoon of Mohammed, following the death threats against the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.

That's this cartoon, by the way:

That isn't a libel on Mohammed, who after all lived at a time when explosives were not known in his part of the world. It's a comment on those of his followers who use the terrorist bomb. And it's a fair comment.

Property rights

For perhaps the majority of people, property rights are based on an unquestioned and obvious truth: if I buy something, make it or grow it, it's mine - be it a shirt, a house, a shovel or a carrot. Intuitions like this are not always reliable or easily defended, but that is how most people, in my experience, see things.

Some property rights are less clear to the intuition; few file sharers regard themselves as thieves. Chris Dillow discussed file sharing in a recent post, concluding:

There are a vast number of ways in which property rights are severely limited. To take an example from the music industry, the Licensing Act, in effect, limits the ability of new acts to perform in small venues, thus limiting their opportunities to earn money from their talent. It’s rather odd that a government that supports this restriction upon musicians should be so keen to defend their “rights” in other ways*.
Now, these considerations don’t suffice to refute the claim that musicians’ rights over their music are so extensive as to debar file-sharing. What they do, show, though, is defending such rights requires one to either argue for many changes in the law, or to show that there’s something special about those rights.
None of this is to defend large-scale file-sharing. In a free society, many things are morally or aesthetically deplorable but not illegal. One could argue that file-sharing falls into this category. We could say to the file downloader: “don’t you think you should instead give the artist some money for creating that song?” without asserting that the artist should have a full legal right to the money.
* Actually, it’s not odd at all. The principle is that government does what big business wants, but not what smaller businesses want.
It's possible to consider the charging of rent for artistic performances to be a temporary stage we passed through as recorded media became available, and that we're moving back towards the situation that pre-dated that, in which performers were paid for performances.

But I was struck by Norman Geras's discussion of one point Chris raised:
Talking about property rights, Chris refers to one common justification for property: namely, that 'creating something generates rights over it'. There's no doubt that it's a widely shared moral intuition. If I fashion an old piece of wood into an intricate sculpture, whose should the sculpture be but mine? If you spend long days writing a literary masterpiece, are you not a proper beneficiary of its publication and sale?

What is less clear is why we think the creation of the object generates an entitlement on the part of its creator.
Expanding on this, in his final paragraph, Norm makes what I see as the founding error of Marxist thought: the imposition of agency where none exists, followed by the assumption that this agency should be directed.
Scepticism towards the moral robustness of an affirmative answer to these questions, of property rights resting on an entitlement to the 'fruits of one's labour', may suggest that the real principle at work is, rather, one of reward-for-effort[1]. I made the sculpture and it cost me time and energy to do so - that's why it's mine[2]... However, once ownership is to be decided[3] on the basis of desert[2], things become more complicated. For there are different bases of desert than merely effort, and there are other reasons for assigning things to people than merely desert - need being one of these. And should two people who have to expend different amounts of effort to achieve the same result be rewarded differently?[4]
1. The idea that the consequence of some effort is a "reward" for it is unfounded. The consequence of the effort is just that, a consequence. That an apple hits the ground if I drop it is not a reward for letting it go. The word "reward" suggests an external agency providing the sculptor with a compensation for his effort. This isn't what happens, though. A consequence of moulding clay is that the clay winds up moulded. Nothing intercedes to reward the person with clay under their nails with the final shape of the material. It would be more meaningful to ask whether the clay was the sculptor's to mess with in the first place. Maybe they dug it up - in which case the lump of clay would not have been a "reward" for digging, but again the consequence of doing so.

2. Sticking with Norm's argument, he then suggests that the artist gets this "reward" because they "deserve" it. This is a pure invention, they wind up with it because it's the consequence of the actions they took. However, this then opens the way to argue that...

3. Since the "reward" the sculptor gets is "decided" by some unidentified agent on the basis of merit (desert)...

4. These decisions of reward allocation could take into account the fact that people have differing abilities. Maybe, it could follow, students of a pottery class should line up their creations at the end of a session, then see them handed out on the basis that the best ceramic should go to the person who worked hardest, not the one who made it.

This argument only works, to the extent it appears to do so, because an external agency has been inserted into the proceedings, the quality of choice has been attributed to them, it has been argued that this choice could be exercised differently, and then a notion of fairness used to guide such choices. This notion of fairness is also completely arbitrary. Once you depart from the idea that it is fair that someone experience the consequence of their actions, you can just make it up as you go along. Most people who make these kinds of arguments wind up suggesting that their view of how things should be allocated is based on morality, but this is "morality" in the sense of "my opinion is so important I'm going to use a word that suggests it's an eternal truth".

That's not to say that the issue of whether the sculptor owned the clay in the first place isn't important. It is, to every side of the debate except the purely anarchist. A fierce defender of property rights would want to know the clay wasn't dug up from somebody else's land, without their permission. A Marxist might argue that one person taking that piece of clay deprives others of the right to take it themselves.

The latter is trivially true and unavoidable. If I eat a carrot I deprive others of the right to eat it. Without such deprivation, neither I nor the others, similarly depriving me of carrots, could live. If I use a piece of wood to build a house, I deprive others of the right to use it. I deprive others of the right to use the land I build the house on. If we didn't all do that, none of us would have shelter.

The defender of private property has an easier argument. The wood isn't zero sum, we can all plant trees. The land is zero sum, but there's enough to go round and it's rationed, rationally, by price. The potter needs a start, but once they have it they can make pots, sell them and in time buy some land. Inheritance fits badly into this argument, but that's another subject.

I haven't yet seen a Marxist argument against private property that does not rest on the logically fallacious imposition of agency where there is none and desert where there is only consequence.

But there's a stronger argument in favour of private property, for me. Well, two stronger arguments, both pragmatic. Private property works. It has delivered extraordinary gains in well-being for every human alive. Only where property rights are abrogated, in countries with arbitrary and corrupt governments, do people languish in genuine, as opposed to relative, poverty.

But most importantly of all, every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps. And I can't really care how well motivated a philosophy is, expounded from the warmth of a private property-owning democracy. If that's been the consequence of your philosophy, then it's plain wrong, morally. And that's from a morality based on the avoidance of known causes of extreme human suffering.

UPDATE: Norm has responded to this post. I accept he was "posing a number of questions" rather than making a firm argument for one conclusion, but the issue of agency I wrote about above often appears in discussions of property rights and I took his post as a convenient hook from which to hang my discussion. I didn't mean to imply that Norm himself argues for totalitarian ends, because he doesn't. At least, I've never seen him do so.

I do say you should be entitled to "own what your actions have brought about as a consequence". The reasons I give are pragmatic. The first argues that acknowledging this ownership gives good outcomes. The second offers a watered-down version of utilitarianism: rather than seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, I recommend avoiding known causes of extreme harm. Both could be offered as a basis for morality, just as utilitarianism (also based on outcomes) was by Mill. If that is accepted, then we do have a moral case for the ownership of the consequences of our actions.

This is one problem with moral arguments; we have no commonly accepted principles on which morality is based, against which propositions can be tested.

I expect some would react to that by thinking of the plight of the least well off, in a society with absolute property rights and no form of redistribution. But redistribution to the needy does not have to be seen as based on the questioning of property rights. It can be advocated as a humanitarian, rather than egalitarian, policy.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Powell and Bose

When Fitzroy MacLean parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943, little was known of Tito and the Partisans. Rumours suggested Tito was a woman, or a committee. MacLean found a communist.

During a subsequent meeting with Churchill, which he reported in his book Eastern Approaches (I can't find my copy so can't give the page reference), MacLean pointed out that supporting Tito, though militarily advantageous in the fight against the Germans, meant that Yugoslavia was being condemned to communist rule. Churchill asked him whether he was planning to live in Yugoslavia after the war. MacLean replied that he was not. Churchill said he wasn't either, and that concluded the conversation.

Not only were they both willing to take their enemy's enemy as their friend, they were prepared to condemn a whole country to what both regarded as tyranny, if that furthered their own national interest. From a modern British perspective, it's possible at least to understand their reasoning, whether or not we agree with it. They were defending liberal democracy against fascism. It's much harder to understand it when we are the bad guys, the enemy, in the fight against whom others are prepared to make alliances with evils. In fact, it's very difficult to accept we might have been, or even might still be, the bad guys in conflicts.

During World War Two, also in 1943, there was a famine in Bengal. There hadn't been a bad harvest, the famine was a man-made thing caused by both speculative and panic buying - the latter raised prices and made the former attractive - and by a sluggish colonial administration, British, that continued to export food as the famine worsened. Some three million people died, about half the death toll of the Holocaust. During the second half of the nineteenth century, between 30 and 40 million Indians died during famines. There have been no famines in India since independence in 1947.

These experiences of famine and of the absence of famine were of central importance to the work of Indian economist Amartya Sen, who suggests that democracies with free presses do not experience famines. Although his message is a complicated one, and places importance on the idea of "positive" liberty, liberal and free market types, like me, like to quote Sen from time to time. Tim Worstall quoted him a month or two ago, here, for example. If Sen is right, though, the blame for these famines in India lies in the fact that there was a colonial administration. It lies with the British.

About twenty years ago, I had some contact with one of Bose's sons, on and off, for a year or so. He was very proud of his lineage, in fact the reverse of his business cards mentioned it. He saw no reason at all why a white Englishman should not compliment him on it. Neither could I. Bose was not a fascist any more than Fitzroy MacLean was a communist. I think Bose made the wrong choice. I think he should have opposed the Nazis then opposed British rule, by peaceful means - not least because they were more likely to succeed, as events in India showed. I think the same about the IRA.

What's more, Britain was not, in the late 1930s, going round the world fighting fascism. We didn't help the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and we tried very hard to maintain "peace in our time" and NOT fight the Nazis. We were a lot less principled than we'd now like to think.

So on to the blog spat. Mr E wrote about the:

... mock outrage on the left over Dan Hannan's warm words for Enoch Powell - despite the fact that Hannan made no reference to Powell's views on immigration
Oliver Kamm thought differently:
Powell's broader political outlook was consistently ridiculous and he is remembered for one thing above all. He inflamed debate and debased the political culture by his incendiary and carefully judged comments on race. In Powell's words in 1968, under the Race Relations Bill (later the Race Relations Act) "the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided".

This wasn't aberrant in his philosophy. Powell was a pig-headed, anti-American, anti-European, xenophobic, crank conspiracy theorist. It was no accident (the dreary Marxisant formulation is apt here) that his wider writings were so preposterous: witness his forays into biblical criticism and his belief that the works attributed to Shakespeare were in reality written by the 17th Earl of Oxford. These were the recreational outlets for a mentality that found political expression in paranoid malevolence.
The important point about Kamm's criticism is that it was not restricted to the subject of race. Setting that aside and accepting that Hannan does not agree with Powell's stance on the subject, Powell is still a ridiculous figure to hold up as an intellectual hero. But given that Powell has become symbolic for ethnic minorities in Britain, using his name is probably unwise, for a politician, and whatever point one might be trying to make could probably be made in another way.

Hannan says he simply praised Powell
... for his prescience in understanding the threat that European integration posed to national democracy.
If that was the case, no more certain way could be found for the point about European integration to be entirely smothered and lost in an avalanche of criticism, than by citing Enoch's wise words on the subject.

So Hannan was apparently making what I'd regard as a reasonable point in a way almost calculated to be self-defeating. There are, of course, less charitable interpretations available. "Enoch was OK" is often code for "there are too many darkies". Hannan doesn't, so far as I can see, feel this is the case. So it was doubly stupid for him both to lose his argument in a welter of irrelevant criticism, and to sow a seed of (I believe unfounded) suspicion that he might be a closet racist.

Powell was a crank who, in my view knowingly, stirred racial discord. Bose was an Indian nationalist who was willing to ally with extraordinarily evil powers in the furtherance of what he saw as his own national interest. Powell was a British nationalist who was willing to ally with an extraordinarily evil power - I'm not aware he criticised our wartime alliance with Stalin. Both were willing to fight with courage for their country. The balance of awfulness favours Bose here.

Me E called it the other way:
I myself view neither Powell, Castro nor Bose as political heroes. But if we're really going to go down the route of choosing our leaders based on their views about divisive hate figures from the past, I'm afraid it's not much of a horse race. Give me the one who supports the democrat over the ones who support the dictators every time.
That's fair enough - though I'm not sure which democrats were available for an alliance with Bose. In the course of his argument, though, Mr E also criticised Sunny Hundall:
... one can't help noticing the lack of such outrage when Southall MP Virendra Sharma praised the pro-independence Indian leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. Indeed, Sunny leapt to his defence...
Hundall's response was:
Erm yeah. One was a high-ranking British politician who warned that black and white people mixing would lead to race war. The other was a lowly freedom fighter trying to get rid of the British Raj from India who had ruled his country for centuries and killed millions of people in the process. Obviously both are roughly in the same situation. By the same measure Churchill is a dictator who should never be spoken off highly forever.
Tim Worstall weighed in:
Bose fought for an[d] with the fascists. Indeed, if Powell had had his request granted to join the Chindits he would have fought directly against Bose and his fascist allies.

By continuing Sunny’s logic we should all therefore be supporting the BNP for they are indeed fighting with, not against, fascism. Or something.
Oh, there's nothing like a good blog spat.

I hate to say it, though, but in this one I agree with Sunny. If we'd been fighting the Soviets in 1939, we'd have allied with fascists too.

Friday, August 28, 2009


From this week's Normblog Profile, of Vanessa Cabban. I've changed the sequence of these slightly:

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > The male of the human species.

Who are your intellectual heroes? > George Orwell.

Who are your political heroes? > Nelson Mandela.

Who are your cultural heroes? > Nick Park, Roald Dahl, Pippi Longstocking.

Who is your favourite composer? > Michael Nyman.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Michael MacIntyre, Roald Dahl, Alan Titchmarsh.

If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be Prime Minister, who would you choose? > Andrew Marr.
Pippi Longstocking is fictional.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blunt and sharp

From a post at the LPUK blog:

However as is usual with our lefty friends they don't actual [sic] present any solid arguments in support of the NHS.

The basis of their argument for the NHS is that if we didn't have the NHS we wouldn't have a health care system. And everyone would die. Which is utter tosh.
The problem is, the post at Liberal Conspiracy being criticised makes no such claims. It's a silly post, but it doesn't suggest what is attributed to it. Left wing critics of health care reform in this country are, as His Eminence pointed out recently, curiously conservative, resisting change for the sake of it, waffling about our institutions being "the envy of the world" like some 1970s Tory talking about the (then eye-wateringly corrupt) police force. They let their own dogmas stand in the way of the simple pragmatism of taking the best from health systems around the world, and people suffer and die avoidably as a consequence. There's lots to criticise in this type of approach, but it's hard to see what attacking arguments they haven't made is likely to accomplish.

The LPUK post goes on, describing quotations from the LC post as "lies... nonsense... and spin": assertion without argument, solid or otherwise. When an argument does finally appear, it is this:
As we all know the 'free at the point of use' line rolled out by lefties to support the NHS is one of the most incredible examples of mass delusion possible.

It's similar to buying something online and then claiming it is 'free at the point of delivery' when it is posted through your door. Quite how anyone can suggest something is free when you've already paid for it is beyond me. Do people think hospitals grow on trees or something?
"Grow on trees"? That's parent-speak. I'll give you grow on trees...

The NHS is free "at the point of use". Arguably that's one of the things wrong with it; the addition of a small consultation charge for GPs might discourage frivolous use of their services. The qualifier "at the point of use" recognises that we pay for the NHS through our taxes.

In the LPUK post is a clip of Daniel Hannan being interviewed by Judge Napolitano on a Fox programme called Freedom Watch. Hannan is introduced as an MP (he's an MEP) and Prime Minister Brown is described as Chancellor Brown. Hannan is excellent but he is not surrounded, in these cases, by the sharpest implements from the tool kit.

LPUK showed some early promise, I thought, but seems to have turned into the saloon bar at a home counties golf club; its members have, for some reason, elected as their leader a cross between Captain Mainwaring and David Icke.

All very odd.

On the other hand, the Oxford Libertarian Society blog is worth an RSS subscription. There's a good piece here about the recently deceased G.A. Cohen's critiques of liberal and libertarian thinking. Among other things, it points out what is on the face of it a contradiction in some Marxist thinking: the notion that it is exploitation for capitalists to benefit from the labour of their employees suggests that these employees have moral ownership of the entire total of their individual outputs, whereas the idea that part of their outputs should be redistributed (according to need) suggests they don't. If someone can take away some of their output, why not those who have financed the business as well as, or instead of, the State?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Whether or not we should have lots of "shiny new polytechnics" isn't the issue that struck me, reading this post from Tim Worstall. In the comments, someone said:

... its a moot point how many people actually use- or even remember- the majority of what they were taught in schools. Perhaps there’s a case for saying we go overboard on education.
Perhaps not.

We might not remember everything we were taught in geography or history or maths lessons. We remember some of it, I expect, and that helps us in our lives. But the real point of exposing children to all the main academic disciplines is that we can't predict what will interest them and what they will excel in.

Some of the kids who study history will become historians, either in a small way in their school specialisations, or in a large way as academics or autodidacts in adult life. Many won't. But we ought to be giving them this exposure to the spectrum of thought and study, as well as equipping them with basic tools of numeracy and literacy. It's the only way they will be able to find their potentials.

And please don't underrate the importance of a plumber with a fascination in the reign of James II. That's just the purest snobbery - that person's life is far richer for their interest and, as Mastermind showed, some people gain deep knowledge of their subjects just as hobbyists and amateurs. Such outcomes are very much one of the purposes of education.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Two against one

It's brief, so in full. Glenn Reynolds:

SCENES FROM A NEW AMERICA: So I dropped the girls off at a movie, and — since the Insta-wife was lunching with her mom — stopped at a Sonny’s Barbecue for lunch. A man — late 40s, big, with a wife and a daughter — came in with an empty holster on his belt. As he sat down at the booth next to mine, the manager came by and asked him if he’d left his gun in the car. Yes, said the man, who had a permit but thought he wasn’t allowed to carry in restaurants in Tennessee.. Well, they’ve changed the law, said the manager, and if you want to go get it that’s fine with us. It’s legal now, and I’m happy to have you carrying — if somebody tries to rob me, it’s two against one.

The man stepped outside and returned with a Springfield XD in the holster, chatted with the manager for a bit about guns, and then sat down and had lunch with his family.
Most of the time, it's the gut response that separates us; horror or comfort at the sight or thought of a family man sitting in a restaurant with a gun on his hip. The political rationalisation follows.

I don't think the guy would be any more likely to start shooting if he had a gun than if he didn't. Unless there was a robbery. That's why I feel comfort. Whereas the robbers... they have guns anyway.

I hope the coffee was on the house.

Via Tim Blair - who has also picked up on some Amazon one star book and film reviews:
Moby Dick, Herman Melville: “Too nautical for me.”

Life's what happens...

... while you're making other plans.

I haven't been blogging so much recently. That's because I've had some opportunities I hadn't expected and I've been trying to do two things at once, the day job with computers and some new things.

It seems the new things are winning out. I'm moving out of my computer work and into screenwriting. There'll still be a transition period, but it's now a matter of phasing out my involvement with IT. Some new people have come into that business and will be taking the company in a slightly different direction, and I hope they do well with it.

In the meantime, I have a screenplay to finish.

With a bit of luck I'll be able to blog a bit more soon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Guppy on Iran

Azarmehr writes today about a piece by Darius Guppy in The Independent a few days ago. I'd missed it.

Guppy's theme is that Iranians look with horror at the decadent place the UK has become, with drunken chavs falling over each other and vomiting in the street. By contrast, Iranian culture is sophisticated, ancient and noble. The latter is true enough, if you take a selective view of it. Of course you could take an equally selective view of Western culture and talk about Chaucer and Auden. Guppy doesn't focus on the nobility of raping girls before their judicial murder, but shows no signs of being discomfited by it. Guppy also says the election results were fair.

But it would be a mistake to get too drawn into his argument. Guppy's theme is not, in fact, Iran. It's Darius Guppy. Ever since being released from jail, he has been convinced that Britain's failure to hail him as a warrior prince is a sign of its decadence. This was in him before, in the form of a fascination with strong-man leaders of the past, like Napoleon and Hitler, but has become more entrenched since.

Earlier this year he wrote a letter to the Telegraph about his plot to have a journalist beaten up, in which he suggested that in the Britain of the past he would have been hailed as a man of honour for doing this. Of course, almost no society ever has considered the cowardly hiring of thugs to settle scores to be honourable, especially not that of Britain 150 years ago. Waiting on the steps of a man's club, armed with a horsewhip, perhaps. Challenging them to a duel, perhaps. But the anonymous hiring of thugs, no, not ever.

So he is a deluded man, sitting in exile, hating the society that failed to see and admire his nobility. This is why he thinks Britain is decadent, and it has nothing to do the contrast with Iran, that's just a convenient hook for his already-held view.

In his piece, Guppy refers to a phrase he apparently thinks deserves to enter the modern lexicon: "McDonald's-munching slaves" - that's the British, if you hadn't guessed. I have some slight sympathy, I don't like McDonald's burgers myself. I've only eaten them three times in the last twenty years, that I can remember. On two of these occasions, I was in the company of... Darius Guppy, who insisted on it. He liked McDonald's, and explained to me, with the frisson a coprophiliac might feel as he smeared excrement over his face, that he knew it was plebeian, but he just was drawn to the underbelly occasionally.

So why did The Independent print this piece by the McDonald's-munching Guppy? There is a strange connection between the two. Twenty years ago, Kim Sengupta was a very dapper young crime correspondent working for Express Newspapers, one with what I can only describe as excellent contacts within the police force. I met him at that time, still have his business card. He wrote a lot about Guppy, occasionally with surprising levels of insight into events behind the scenes.

Today, Sengupta writes for The Independent and specialises in Islamic countries and the War Against Terror, or whatever you want to call it. He is not a Neo-Conservative. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with the commissioning of Guppy's piece, but if the two did have any contact, they must have had a lot to talk about.

In passing, I notice that Guppy has been furnished with a supplementary nether orifice in the following posts, and commend the authors for their perspicacity:

The Poor Mouth - Darius Guppy: From prison bitch to regime apologist

Tim Collard - Darius Guppy, full-dress apologist for Iran's thuggish regime [Sock puppet in comments alert]

And Lucy Lips at Harry's Place put things succinctly: "Fuck you Guppy, you sleazy little crook." - also pointing out that it has been reported that Guppy is a closet anti-Semite, which might have some bearing on his views if true. In fairness, I have to say I never heard him say anything to suggest this.

The largest number five

This is strangely put:

France is home to Europe's largest five million Muslim population.
There's a smaller five million population somewhere?

The piece is about a ban in France on a woman wearing a small tent, a "burkini", while swimming, because she is a Muslim. Interestingly, since the far left in the UK has tended to ally with political Islam, we have this quote:
André Gérin, a Communist MP, who is heading a parliamentary commission looking at whether to ban the burka, yesterday said the burkini was "militant provocation" and should be banned.

"There is a political and militant project behind this outfit - perhaps even gurus who are whispering to her to play the victim and publicise her complaint," he told Le Parisien.

Some swimming pools had already caved into women-only sessions, he said, but this was apparently "not sufficient for fundamentalists".

"What they want is a world of burkas," he warned.
He is correct, that is what they want. The various rights involved, of society to maintain a common secular space, of individuals to dress strangely if they want to, are hard to balance. But there certainly is a systematic effort by Islamic militants to impose their values on us all, and this should be opposed. On balance, I think France is getting this more right than we are. In a conflict situation, some rights have to be abrogated.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Quote of the day

Are you even making a proposal? Or just asking the cash trucks to form an orderly line in front of the state school black hole?
From the comments to a post at Harry's Place advocating the introduction of vouchers for schools. The post is titled "Why progressives should support school vouchers". That's revealing in itself, containing as it does an acknowledgement of, and appeal to, an orthodoxy: this should be the orthodoxy for progressives, you're a progressive therefore you should agree with it.

The post itself makes some very good points. But the comments carry this sense of orthodoxy on. Some argue on the merits of the proposals, but many just assert things like "we should not let the public education system fail". Why not? Can we make it fail, or stop it from doing so? Maybe it's failing because of intrinsic problems.

All this reveals a herd mentality that is a genuine barrier to progress. And this is most apparent in some of those who call themselves progressives.

The biggest fake charity of them all?

Who do you think this might be?

Government funding comes in the form of Parliamentary Grants-in-aid which, over the last four years (most recent accounts 31st March 2008), has amounted to: £31.7m, £32.9m, £36.6m and £44.9m respectively. So from 2005 to 2008 the government’s contributions have increased by about 42%.

The next heading in the accounts is ‘Other grants and contributions’, which suggests more support from the public sector. For the same period this amounts to: £9.5m, £8.8m, £7.3m and £7.8m. It looks as though, you can add about another £8m (on average) in public funding to the amount received from Parliamentary Grants-in-aid.

Turning to the expenditure side of the accounts, we find that items that are attributable to research funding amount to £29.0m, £30.2m £32.3m and £38.4, an increase of 32% over four years. So the Society’s activities as a conduit for government funds directed towards research have also increased at the same time as the Parliamentary Grants-in-aid, but to a lesser extent.

But it is some other items of expenditure that really caught my eye.
2005 Informing scientific policy £0.4m
2006 Independent advice nationally and internationally £1.1m
2007 Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice £1.5m
2008 Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice £2.3m
This area of expenditure has increased by nearly six times.

Although the wording in these entries varies, it is pretty clear that they all cover the same activities, and the latter two entries are quite unambiguous. Moreover they look very much like allocations for lobbying activities directed towards the government, which in turn funds the Society.
One clue: It's sometimes described as an "august" body or institution.

Go on, have a guess before clicking through to find the answer.

Via Benny Peiser.

Did you mean...?

If you type "recursion" into Google, it asks, "Did you mean: recursion."
John Rentoul.

Never a truer word spoken

'I am kindly and old. But I am not harmless'
Tony Benn

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Farewell, Sam

Very sad:

Sam, the Australian koala who became an international symbol of hope in the aftermath of the “Black Saturday” bushfires earlier this year, has died in Melbourne.
David Tree, the Country Fire Authority volunteer who was photographed giving the exhausted Sam a drink of water, agreed a vaccine needs to be found to help the animals fight the disease [Urogenital Chlamydiosis].

"It's like not worth it now, that she managed to survive the fires but die from a disease that they should be able to vaccinate her against," Mr Tree told Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.

"I'm sobbing like a baby and I am a grown man. She meant so much - she highlighted the plight and vulnerability of Australian wildlife around the world.''


This is a good one, even by the high standards of The Guardian:

This article was amended on 28 July 2009. Due to editing changes, the original said that the dragonfly family "has more species than any other mammal". This has been corrected.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


In Afghanistan:

The war is serious here; earlier in the day, another soldier from 2 Rifles had been killed upriver at Kajaki. Though morale in the U.K. seems to be slipping, I see no evidence of low morale among the soldiers, though there are increasing grumbles that they don’t get mail from loved ones due to helicopter shortages. Helicopters are one of our great advantages against myriad disadvantages, yet our combat forces are shortchanged by penny-wise, pound-foolish governments. The helicopter shortages are adversely affecting our op tempo.
Michael Yon on the ground with British troops.

An inspiration to us all

Jack Nicholson, at 72.

(Thanks, Kes, for the swimming pic)

Rapid evolution

Interesting 15 minute talk here from Professor David Skelly. His study of the Cane Toad in Australia suggests that very rapid evolutionary changes since its introduction as a foreign species in 1935 account for its unanticipated ability to spread to new forms of habitat.

He is now looking at how species might adapt to climate change in North America, comparing populations of tadpoles in warm and in cool ponds.

What struck me, though, is that while both AGW and the cane toad in Australia have a history of the same order of magnitude, some tens of decades, it has been possible to observe changes in the toad, introduced from South America, but not in species of amphibians living in North America.

Climate change, it appears, has yet to start happening - at least, if this is anything to go by.

Tim Blair noticed something similar.


... recent evidence suggests that America's hard-working hometown legislators are feeling the pinch from a fickle and increasingly out-of-touch voter class who no longer serves our needs.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Mill and the burka

In On Liberty, Mill argued that the only acceptable reason for interfering with the freedom of another person was to prevent harm, either in self defence or on behalf of a third party; interfering to prevent harm to the person whose freedom would be curtailed would not meet this condition.

In Utilitarianism, Mill argued that morality (and to some extent public policy) should be guided by the principle of bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

On the face of it, those two ideas can conflict. Arguably, the case has to be made that they can be reconciled; how can any collective weighing of happiness influence a view of liberty that does not even acknowledge the collective?

You can reduce the frequency of conflict by assuming that people are good judges of what makes them happy, so a utilitarian outcome can be achieved by leaving them alone. This doesn't deal with issues like capital punishment; if there's a deterrent effect to be achieved by hanging someone who turns out to have been innocent, that might be the utilitarian outcome.

This might not be in conflict with the Liberty principle. If the deterrence saves the lives of third parties, haven't they been prevented from coming to harm? Mill believed that in cases of the most exceptional gravity, when evidence was conclusive, there should be a death penalty.

But did Mill progress from one idea to the other? Probably not. He was raised as a utilitarian. That's unusual, but so was his upbringing. He published On Liberty in 1859 and Utilitarianism in 1863. His speech in favour of capital punishment was delivered to the House of Commons in 1868. Either he suffered from an outbreak of liberalism in the late 1850s but reverted to utilitarianism, or he held both ideas at the same time.

While an attempt can be made (is made, above) to reconcile the principle from On Liberty with capital punishment, it's also possible to argue in the opposite direction, that a general good is not one of the two justifications for restricting the liberty of a person. The stronger argument for capital punishment comes from Utilitarianism. In a manner of speaking, for Mill at least, in this case utilitarianism trumps liberty. Is this a general rule?

Thought experiments might seem to suggest so. If a lifeboat can only hold seven, and there are eight people hanging on to it, and so it is sinking, should one person, however selected, be jettisoned so the others can live? Utilitarianism says they should and points out that the jettisoned person will drown either way, so it does them no (extra) harm.

If a city can be saved by handing over a hostage? Same argument.

But what if a terrorist can reveal the location of a ticking nuke in a major city, but only if tortured? This time it isn't so clear. That might be because it's a case we have had to consider recently, with the waterboarding scandal. And it seems that when actually faced with such an issue, the prevailing consensus has been the Liberty argument. It's widely agreed, though there are dissenters, that torture is never acceptable.

And would we really prise someone's fingers from the lifeboat and leave them to drown? Or give up a hostage to certain death? I have a feeling we wouldn't. We'd take it in turns to drag behind the boat on the end of a rope; we'd stall, the negotiator would offer himself as a hostage. Someone would make a noble gesture. We'd fight, perhaps, even against heavy odds. We'd take the liberty argument.

So is that a rule? Does liberty trump utilitarianism? Not always. We have abolished capital punishment, but the entire penal system is an exercise in utilitarianism. People were waterboarded, but this, it is widely agreed, was a moral wrong. Prisons, on the other hand, are generally accepted as necessary, even if they are necessary evils.

And perhaps there are some deeper, basic rules we know we should never break - not killing, not stealing - and these are inviolate. Perhaps throwing someone over the side would break one of these rules and it is this that prevents us from doing it, and not Mill's principle of liberty.

I can't see any general rules, or laws, that derive from these arguments, to be applied when individual rights conflict with the interests of groups of people. I think there might be things we regard as absolute wrongs and that these provide a baseline. Beyond that, when utilitarianism and liberty conflict, it has to be considered on a case by case basis - though we have some measures to lay the problem against. How does it affect liberty? How is the general well-being affected? Those are good measurements to take.

Norman Geras disagreed with Oliver Kamm about the banning of the burka, and in the course of doing so wrote the following:

[Kamm] needs to show, adducing evidence which is compelling, that women who wear the burka do so under duress, or at least that the great majority of them do. Even then, he has further to meet the point that the most natural response to the problem by way of policy would be to place a legal prohibition on the duress - on the coercion of women to wear what they would rather not. After all, if there are some or many women whose own choice it is to wear the burka, a legal ban on their doing so does not uphold their equal citizenship
This is a clear case of conflict between the rights of individuals to wear a burka, and the rights of (a group of) other women not to be coerced and forced into a second-class status, or worse. But I don't think Norm was right to say there should be a majority of coerced burka wearers. At least, not correct when Mill's measures are used. This is a question not of the greatest number of people, but of the greatest harm.

Is a greater harm done by coercing a woman into an inferior role than by banning a mode of dress? Is it really one for one, onto the scales, or does a form of slavery, at the worst, matter more than the prohibition of an extreme form of costume? I think it must. That's not to say the harm done to the individual who wants to wear a burka is insignificant. It isn't, but it is less than that done to the coerced woman.

How widespread is this sort of coercion in Europe? I have no idea. Not a clue. I don't think anyone does. How would you even gather the information on which to base an estimate? Let's just say some are. In other places, parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, we know it's a characteristic of the society, allied to other things like the throwing of acid into the faces of girls who go to school.

If this harm elsewhere is linked to the burka wearing on our streets, then the weight of harm from the latter becomes far greater. Can that link be made? I think it can in at least this way: it can only impede attempts at reform in those places if the cultural practices that need to be reformed are spreading into Europe. The forced subjugation of women should be an ebb tide, not a rising one.

In what way is it more acceptable to have women prevented by law from working if they choose to, from wearing the clothes they want, from going out unaccompanied by a man, to be refused an education than to have the sort of race apartheid that was so unacceptable internationally in the past?

In the list immediately above is "wearing the clothes they want". This cuts both ways. Individual rights are affected whether you ban the burka or not - those of the voluntary wearers if you ban it, of the coerced ones if you don't. But the wider group interest, the moral weight of the other things that accompany this coercion, the entire second-class status, on the one hand has no counterweight on the other.

What if apartheid South Africa not just still existed, but there were advocates of apartheid in European countries loudly proclaiming that apartheid was the way forward, the future of man? What if many of them came from South Africa and had brought black South Africans with them, and maintained them in a second-class status, obliging them to wear striped trousers with frayed bottoms, held up with rope, and to go barefoot? What if some of the black Africans also thought apartheid was the way forward, and chose to dress like that?

Where's the cultural opposition to sexual apartheid, the way there was with South African apartheid? Of course it comes mainly from the left, this sort of cultural opposition, and the left is crippled by splits over just this sort of issue.

There's an argument that, working from practical considerations as well as the principle that everyone should be treated the same, wouldn't let anyone in a burka anywhere someone in a ski mask would be challenged or refused entry, like a bank, or a jeweler's shop, or passport control. Or a school or a hospital. This is a secular argument, it refuses to make exceptions on religious grounds. It's also rejects cultural relativism, refusing to make exceptions on cultural grounds. I think it's right.

So some restrictions on the places where a burka can be worn is reasonable. How about a ban? There's a tactical argument. Maybe banning burkas or stripey trousers with frayed ends isn't the right way to bring the problem to an end as fast as possible. I don't think arresting women for wearing burkas would help. But a formal ban on them being worn to schools (I'm using the word burka to include any religious dress that covers the face)? Yes, that's reasonable and flows from the ski mask test - ski masks would also be rejected by schools.

I'd summarise the arguments as follows:

  • The burka can't be banned because we can't have the police arresting someone for their clothing, except where there's a clear danger of a breach of the peace (a Klansman in Harlem, perhaps). That's for practical reasons, but also on utilitarian grounds: greater general happiness would probably exist in a society in which the police aren't dragging screaming women into vans, than in one in which they are.

  • Practical reasons aside, the burka should be banned. The rights to wear and not to have to wear particular clothing balance out. But the burka is a part of a system of oppression that has no counterweight in the equation. The rights of the voluntary burka wearer are out-weighed; the burka should be banned.

  • The practical difficulties mean the burka should not be banned.

  • We shouldn't make special exceptions for the burka, so it should be treated like any other mask. That is, we should all be equal under the law. Equality of treatment is implicit in Mill's idea of personal liberty. Making exceptions generates widespread disaffection and makes only a few happier, so it also fails on utilitarian grounds.

  • The case against sexual apartheid is overwhelming; the practical struggle against it is not helped by European countries adjusting to accommodate it.