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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 24 May 2010

In Praise of Google Books

In November of 1880 a 79 year old labourer died of lung congestion in Plymouth Township, Wayne County, Michigan. He was married, had entered the US from Canada two months earlier, and was known as St George William Dunlop Mills. He was my great great great grandfather. Why he had gone to the US from Canada is unknown. He emigrated from Co. Roscommon, Ireland to Canada some time before his second marriage in 1861 to Elizabeth Williamson, also an Irish immigrant. There are no surviving Irish birth, baptismal or marriage records, just a shadowy presence on the 1867 Glasgow marriage certificate of John Mills a son by his first marriage and on  John's 1894 Coatbridge death certificate where St George is described as a railway clerk. We get fleeting glimpses of his Canadian life from the 1861 and 1871 censuses and from Toronto street directories where he is listed as at different times working for the Toronto Street Railway - shown in the photograph above - and the city's waterworks. From 1875 through to 1879 he is listed as a labourer and then the trail ends in Michigan. 
This is most of what I know about  my ancestor apart from one intriguing detail - he appears to have been born to a well-off and  well connected county family. His father, Oliver Mills of Knockhall, was High Sheriff of Roscommon in 1798  - the year of the rebellion and the  ill-fated French invasion. His mother Emma (Amy) Massy was the daughter of the 1st Baron Massy of Duntrileague, MP for Limerick County,  raised to the Irish Peerage in 1776. Given this auspicious start  why did he end his life a day labourer? Of course in the Nineteenth Century old-age often meant severely reduced circumstances even for the well-born. But now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I know there was more to it than that.
Last week, while idly searching on Google Books, I came across a report of a court case in a volume with the title: Irish Equity Reports, of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery, the Roll Court and the Equity Exchequer During the Years 1846 and 1847. It details in five densely worded pages the judgment in the case of Mills v. Mills an intra family dispute that appears to have been initiated in 1811. Not being a lawyer some of the details of the case are rather obscure to me but in true Jarndyce versus Jarndyce fashion it revolves around the terms of a will and the rights to income from land. The parties to the dispute are Emma Mills (née Massy) my great great great great grandmother and George Mills her stepson, half brother of my great great great grandfather  St George William Dunlop Mills. The case seems to end with the court appointing a receiver to sell the land which lies at the centre of the dispute. Dickens has one of his characters say of Chancery: "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!". I wonder if the Mills fortune went the same way as the Jarndyce?
The moral of my story is not however to bemoan the hard times that subsequently befell the family but to celebrate Google Books. Without it I would never have known of the existence of Mills v Mills. In and of itself this is of no significance  to anyone but me, however the ability to bring together and make available hitherto unrelated facts is potentially of tremendous importance for the growth of knowledge. Amongst other things books contain lots of discrete pieces of  information - for want of a better word - facts. Google Books makes it much easier to link these together, to turn facts into knowledge and to increase the power of serendipity.

Evidence based policy

As usual, an excellent post by Ben Goldacre on the need for evidence based social policy. We all know that RCTs are difficult to set up in many social policy contexts, but difficult is not the same as impossible. Often it just requires that politicians have the balls to say that unless you want to sit around waiting for an instrument to be provided by the Gods of Natural Experiments the choice is either ignorance or randomization. If you don't like the latter then you have to believe that the cost of ignorance is smaller than the cost of knowledge. It's a perfectly consistent position but I have no idea how anyone could claim to know that the status quo is superior to an alternative without ascertaining the facts of the matter.

Monday, 17 May 2010

It's a hard life

On Saturday we watched Michael Haneke's Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte. I had already seen it once before but I was surprised at how much detail I'd missed first time round, for example the subtitle and its orthography are significant. The greatness of the film is actually in the detail and in the refusal to provide a neat explanation of the events that drive the plot. This is what prevents it just being a facile allegory of whatever aspects of later German history you want to project it onto. OK, it is a movie about Germany, but it is more than that. As the great Nanci Griffith puts it:

And if we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all  that they'll know.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Election Special 3

One of my daughter's favourite picture story books is the delightful Es klopft bei Wanja in der Nacht (roughly 'A knock on the door in the night at Wanja's').
Wanja lives alone in a cabin deep in the forest. One night there is a terrible snow storm and after he has gone to bed he hears a knock at the door. He gets up and on opening it is surprised to see a hare who begs to be let in out of the storm. Wanja is a good natured soul and lets the hare come into the warm; Der Wanja sagt: "Komm nur herein, ich heize gleich im Ofen ein". Not long afterwards there is another knock at the door. Again Wanja gets up and this time finds a poor fox with frozen toes begging to be let in. Naturally the hare is a bit nervous about this arrangement but the good hearted Wanja extracts from the fox a promise to behave himself and all three settle down for the night. Not long afterwards there is a third knock at the door and  who should be there but a bear who is so cold that he can't stop his teeth from chattering. Now it is the fox who is reluctant to admit the new visitor - a fortnight earlier he stole some meat from the bear and is afraid that he has come to get even. The bear swears that he is harmless, Wanja lets him in and everyone settles down for the night in peace and harmony: Doch drinnen schlafen wohl geborgen Fuchs, Bär und Hase bis zum Morgen.
As morning  breaks the hare is first to wake. The storm has blown itself out. His heart is hammering and he thinks to himself that perhaps the fox's stomach will get the better of his good intentions so he better get off. Next the fox wakes up and realising that the bear may still be angry with him also goes on his way. The bear is nice and warm in his corner but when he eventually wakes he sees, hanging on the wall, Wanja's rifle and realises that he is sleeping in a hunter's cabin and that it would be best if he also slipped away. The last to rise is Wanja:

Der Wanja - noch vom Schlaf umfangen -
begreift nicht, was hier vorgegangen.
Er blickt umher im leeren Raum.
War den das alles nur ein Traum?

Doch draußen sieht er von drei Tieren
die Spuren sich in Schnee verlieren.

Der Wanja schaut und nickt und lacht:
"Wir haben wirklich diese Nacht
gemeinsam friedlich zugebracht. -
Was so ein Schneesturm alles macht!"

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Frazer strikes back, but Malinowski wins on a knockout

Browsing the LSE's website to see what their political experts had to say about the election I had the misfortune to come across this blurb for the forthcoming Malinowski Memorial Lecture. It reminded me of why I chose to leave that place -  too much completely hypocritical tolerance of this sort of thing. I was continually dismayed by the number of smart people who in private were prepared to say what they thought but in public kept their mouths shut and their noses clean. Before you start berating and flaming me I confess that all I know about the talk is what is written in the abstract so I haven't given the guy a fair shake, but let's face it, the signs aren't good. I quote:

"...is it a mistake to take our interest in an ethnographic phenomenon in the direction of an empirical investigation, when what is really needed with respect to its clarity is an imaginative contemplation of it? It is my overall argument that this is indeed the case and that the Malinowskian recourse to empirical evidence as the ultimate criterion for anthropological knowledge is misguided."

"...I take two classical topics - the ‘soul’ and ‘ritual blood sacrifice’. I will show how both are essentially metaphysical issues, not empirical ones. Understanding them, therefore, is not a question of advancement in the actual material practice of fieldwork, but of the power of the scholar's speculative imagination."

Souls are non empirical, in fact non existent, entities. The only way that anyone can say anything about them is via a process that involves imagination. Ditto for Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. That doesn't make them material for the social scientist, it makes them material for novelists, poets, theologians and all the others whose business it is to attempt to express the inexpressible. Whether they succeed or not is a matter of individual opinion not science. Tony Harrison says something to me, he may do nothing for you and I certainly won't be advocating that he is given a chair in sociology. Ritual blood sacrifice is, at least for those involved in it I would imagine, an all too empirical experience. Of course you can try to tell me, perhaps on the basis of your imagination, what the soul or ritual blood sacrifice means to Siberia's indigenous people. I may or may not  comprehend or "get a feeling" for it. It probably depends on how good your and my imagination is. I think, that through reading L. P. Hartley's The Go Between, I have an inkling of what it was like to be a child staying as a guest in an Edwardian upper-class country house during a long hot Summer and vicariously finding out about sex for the first time. Do I really understand what it was like? Almost certainly not. And even if I did I couldn't prove it to you. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. That is the point of the novel. Social science has limits and it does nobody any good to try and pretend that it is the social scientist's business to stray outside the limits they are competent to speak about. If I have time I'm happy to read poems about mystical experiences or watch a film like Tarkovsky's Mirror which is undeniably 'spiritual' but when I'm doing that I'm not doing social science. Let the metaphysicians do the metaphysics and the social scientists the social science. As Frank Ramsey said in his succinct version of Wittgenstein. 'What we can't say, we can't say, and we can't whistle it either.'

Monday, 10 May 2010

Journey's End

The Guardian's Michael White has written an excellent piece on Gordon Brown's career.

Election Special 2

I'm still finding it difficult to understand the political logic of Clegg's negotiations with Cameron. OK he has to be seen to go through the motions but we are past the stage where he has satisfied the proprieties. The main thing that Clegg's followers want is electoral reform -  the one thing he is not going to get from Cameron. That being so an arrangement - coalition or otherwise - with the Conservatives spells doom for the LibDems. If he settles for less - say an agreement to set up a body of worthies to look into it at some unspecified time in the future - he gets nothing apart from the opprobrium of being associated with an administration that once the cuts bite will be deeply unpopular. He will also be at the mercy of the Conservatives calling a snap election at a moment that is relatively favourable for their chances. My guess is that the LibDems would do badly in such an election. If he doesn't conclude a deal with either Cameron or Brown and allows the former to form a minority government then we will have an election very soon in which the LibDems will probably be severely squeezed. If people want a clear result they are not going to vote for a third party that can't, under the 1st past the post system, turn its apparent media popularity into seats. The least worst alternative for Clegg is a coalition with Labour. Such a government will be weak and it might not survive long enough to actually implement electoral reform. On the other hand the LiBDems will have a big incentive to make it work and it is the only chance they have to achieve their aim. My guess is that the Scots and Welsh nationalists can be offered some sweetners to play ball. It will all look pretty shabby, but hey it's politics, what do you expect?
An afterthought: if, as we are told, the parties should lay aside petty squabbles in the interest of dealing with economic doomsday, isn't it of some relevance that despite his overall unpopularity the public in the pre-election polls consistently rated Brown as the man they most trusted to deal with the economy?

The London Nobody Knows

We watched a rather fascinating documentary on DVD at the weekend called 'The London Nobody Knows'. It was made in 1967 by Norman Cohen who went on to make, amongst other things, the film version of Dad's Army. The documentary, based on a book of the same title by Geoffrey Fletcher, is narrated by a rather phlegmatic James Mason and takes you on a tour of out of  the way corners of London that were fast disappearing. I particularly liked the part on the East End - the kosher grocery store, the already closed Yiddish theatre, pie and mash, eels and liquor. 

One section of it focuses on some street entertainers one of whom, the man on the left wearing the tricorn, looks remarkably like a rather broken down old gentleman who in the early 80s used to perform a  pathetic soft shoe shuffle outside the entrance to the Westgate Centre on Queen Street. I wonder if they are one and the same person?

Friday, 7 May 2010

Election Special

It's obvious that everything is still up for grabs. I find it difficult to imagine though why Clegg would do a deal with Cameron for anything less than a referendum on PR. If you are going to drop the main planks of your economic policy and shackle yourself to an inevitably unpopular government you want to make sure you get something tangible out of it. Cameron can't concede PR without alienating a large section of his party. You can see their point. Unless we see big changes in the ideological positions of the parties PR would probably have the effect of keeping the Conservatives, as we know them,  almost permanently out of power. Of course sections of the party - perhaps the pro Europeans -  may, under a PR system, splinter off into something like a mainsteam conservative christian democratic party. One could imagine the same sort of splintering  forces might also operate on the other parties, for example  an Old Left redistributive but socially conservative party allied with the trade-union movement might hive itself off from New Labour. Labour is the only party that is going to offer Clegg anything like what he really wants. Of course such a coalition will itself become massively unpopular after it does what it has to do to reduce the deficit, but it is better for the LibDems to be unpopular with electoral reform than without it. If electoral reform is implemented it will be a whole new ball game. My guess is that Clegg would  acquiesce to a  Brown premiership if he could achieve that sort of change.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The abuses of literacy

One of the books I read over the Easter vacation was A Sort of Clowning: Life and Times 1940-1959 the second volume of Richard Hoggart's autobiography. One of the instructive stories it contains is about an incident of student plagiarism that occurred whilst he was teaching at Rochester in the late 1950s:
"I marked an essay on Yeats which was not only pathetic in its near-illiteracy but plainly full of plagiarisms. The man had been stupid enough to go to the library and copy in a still unformed hand whole paragraphs from different critics. The essay was like a dish made up of elements of haute cuisine embedded in a large inferior hamburger."
The student had no conception of what he had done wrong even after it was explained to him and this lack of insight, Hoggart observes, was not just a personal failing, but, he opines, a direct result of the culture he swam in:
"That young man was baffled not just because he was not very clever but because his culture had not introduced him to  - had positively discouraged him from - the idea of intellectual discrimination, differences in intellectual grasp and ability. He could distinguish a cheap car from a better, and no doubt a good swimmer or runner from a mediocre. He had never been invited to understand that some minds may be better than others. He had been introduced not to the world of ideas but to that of opinions; and manifestly one man's opinions are as good as another's..." 
Essentially Hoggart's student lived in a pick-and-mix world in which scholarship was about assembling various  nuggets of  fact and judgment in a heap. How much worse things have become in the age of cut-and-paste. The best and worst that has been thought can now be  rapidly excerpted and arranged on the page by the most minimally literate with just the slightest matrix of discrimination.
Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy was the first sociology book I ever read. I remember as a sixth-former seeing it on a bookshelf and being puzzled by the title. Wasn't the use of literacy obvious? Apparently the original title was The Abuses of Literacy, but the publisher didn't like that. Nowadays to shift units a publisher would probably force him to call it something like: Why reading makes us all dummer or Why the media makes everything shite
Rereading Uses I'm struck by how little I must have understood of it. First published in 1957 the world Hoggart is describing in the first part of the book is mainly the working class culture of the North of England in the 1920s. That was already half a century ago in the 1970s when I first read him yet I could still identify at least some elements in the attitudes and the pattern of feelings he described that were true of my family and our neighbours. It  was the autobiographical parts that appealed to me the most; that and his description of the uprooted and anxious sensibility of the scholarship boy, an alien in some respects to his family but equally an outsider even in provincial intellectual middle-class circles.
The critique of  what in retrospect was just the beginning of the mass communications revolution and its effects on the cultural life of ordinary people passed right over my head. Of course Uses contains just the merest hints of what was to come and rereading it reminds one of how much the cultural revolution of the sixties changed everything - some things for the better, some for the worse. Where he is spot on is in his delineation of the self-serving cultivation of a form of top down populism among cultural elites (especially when they own or work for TV stations and newspapers) that legitimates a 'give em what they want' form of cultural democracy and the simultaneous disparagement of any attempt at cultural discrimination as mandarin elitism. Well, when advertising revenues are at stake they would say that wouldn't they?

When Romeo met Juliet

I caught Paul Roseby, artistic director of the National Youth Theatre, on Start the Week yesterday talking about about a forthcoming BBC documentary on a project he undertook with kids from two Coventry comprehensive schools to stage a production of Romeo and Juliet at the city's Belgrade Theatre.  By any stretch of the imagination this was a tough assignment, particularly as he seems to have gone out of his way to include teenagers who have no special affection for Shakespeare. I used to play hockey at one of the schools - Sidney Stringer - and it was the epitome of inner city toughness. You kept your wits about you in the changing room and tried not to look anyone in the eye. That was more than 30 years ago but I would guess it is still a school that has to deal with special challenges. I'm a bit ambivalent about the media hooplah that tends to surround this sort of thing - there is a tendency for "parachutists" to divert attention from the grassroots arts in the community work that is going on. But if it reminds us that the arts can be a part of ordinary people's lives and change those lives then that has to be a good thing particularly in the forthcoming austerity when  public support for the arts is going to be hard pressed.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Are we living in a simulation?

Last week I was clearing up a pile of paper on my desk and came across this cartoon that I had clipped out of the Stockholm edition of  Metro a few years ago. "'Do you want to see something cool? Stand in the light and bawl Booga-Booga!' Have you sometimes wondered how a new religion starts?" I don't remember now why I wanted to keep it. If Gods are rats then divine intervention might look like this and the humans in the maze would have good grounds for believing in rodent powers that are consequential for their lives. So no great social scientific insights here. But then I came across this - a set of philosophical conjectures by a colleague in the James Martin School that  takes seriously the idea that there is a positive probability that we may all be participants in a giant computer simulation set up by post-humans ( and a bigger probability that we are not). Life is frequently much weirder than art.