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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.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Field of Dreams

One of my father's great talents was his ability to rub along with all sorts of people. I'm sure part of it was his accent -  West of Scotland - which in England, in a Farfraesque sort of way,  made him difficult to place socially. Not that he was a pushover. Shortly after arriving in Coventry with his heavily pregnant wife he was insulted on a bus by a boor moaning about Jocks coming down South and taking the locals' jobs. Like his son never one to suffer fools gladly, he told the idiot  that he'd have had no need to be in England if the English were up to the mark themselves and menacingly invited him to reconsider his opinions!
Part of his job involved managing the city's retail market. It brought him into contact with all sorts of interesting people and he numbered amongst his work pals a Jewish market trader who had been in military intelligence during the war and a East African Sikh who arrived in the UK with just the shirt on his back after losing everything in the Ugandan expulsions. For Coventry this was pretty cosmopolitan!
Perhaps the most interesting of his acquaintances though were the travelling showmen who came to the Whitsun and Summer Fairs on Coventry's Hearsall Common. These guys led a tough and independent life. Travelling around the country with their families, stalls and attractions,  their livelihoods entirely dependent on the vagaries of the weather. I remember one of them, a young and rather charming man called James Mellors coming over to our house when I was  about 8 or 9. What impressed me the most was that he had a sports car - if I remember correctly a maroon Triumph Spitfire. What's more he took me  in it on a trip to buy cigarettes at the local off-licence and even bought me a bottle of pop!
The Mellors family are a Nottingham  fairground dynasty and it was James Mellors that risked his shirt in the 1970s to buy one of the first really big elevating Paratrooper rides. Because my dad ran the Whit fair for the city I always managed to get a ride on one of  his big machines for free! I was just a child and I'd really forgotten about him until the other day I came across this story. James Mellors now heads a substantial entertainments business and has plans to build a 100 meter Robin Hood statue with viewing platform and restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of  Nottingham. I imagine the recession, not to mention the planning authorities,  will have put a brake on the scheme but, still, it is a kind of  crazy magnificent dream. I hope he eventually manages to build it.

Friday, 25 June 2010


I gather my old LSE colleague Catherine Hakim is raising a few hackles with her latest European Sociological Review article  'Erotic Capital'. There is a nice Times interview here with Kate Spicer. My take is that she has written a brilliant example of what the French would call a provocation. In plain English she is yanking the chains of the gullible, cocking a snook at a part of the British sociological establishment and reaping a windfall of publicity. If I'm right, then good luck to her. 
Consider the evidence. The main claim of her article is that sexual attractiveness is a resource that women (and men) can and do use to their advantage. If Ladbrokes were offering odds on that I'd have a flutter. Consider an employer that had to choose between two job applicants who were equivalent on all characteristics that could predict  productivity. Why would they not choose the more attractive? It won't be better for their business but it might make work marginally more pleasant. What better way to make fools of your adversaries than get them all hot and bothered over a statement of the blindingly obvious. Masterly (or mistressly(?)).
Of course in reality it is rare in job hire situations to find that the ceteris paribus clause is satisfied and that, taken with significant heterogeneity in taste, leads me to believe that the premium to eroticism will be relatively small. But of course it is an empirical issue, so get writing those research grant applications. I should think a within subject design might be a good place to start with each subject being their own pre botoxed and boob-jobbed control.
The real clue though that Hakim has her tongue firmly in her cheek is the use of the word "capital". It's a surefire giveaway of her satiric intention. Why else would she use this sociological pseuds corner way of referring to what you and I would simply call a resource that people can use to their advantage? It really hits the spot though  and sucks in the  intellectually insecure Francophone snobs of  the British sociological world. Congratulations Catherine, you've hit the target again!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

RIP Matthew Colton

I was saddened to read Matthew Colton's obituary in today's Guardian. It's more than twenty years since I last saw him but I have fond memories of playing alongside him in midfield for Nuffield Red Stars in the 1980s. He was, as they say, a committed player, tough on the opposition and tough on his own team. He was also somebody for whom doing social science was about making a difference in the world. I remember him telling me that what was most important about his doctoral work, was not the work in itself,  the career it might initiate or the glory it might bring but the consequences it would have for the kids in care that he was studying.  RIP mate.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Adjusting for disadvantage - college admissions

Andrew Gelman has a couple of thoughtful posts - here and here - on the tricky problem of levelling the playing field for college admissions. It's been quite a while since I  was involved in undergraduate admissions but when I  did it at another place I felt  the pressure to admit students that were, relatively speaking,  not academically well qualified,  because they possessed, from the point of view of administrative "targets", other  qualities. I also seem to remember that the institution on several occasions publicly denied that such targets existed which I found curious given the memos I would receive telling me that I had not admitted sufficient numbers of students from access courses or from certain postcode types. It was also striking that certain departments were singled out for the hard sell. Nobody would have dreamed of telling, for instance, the Economics department, who they should admit, but Sociology, Social Policy and other soft subjects were thought to be fair game. 
What I always struggled with was the seemingly vacuous idea of "potential". I was always being told that I should see beyond the mediocre academic performance to the potential that in some, usually unspecified, way could compensate for actual achievement. I genuinely wished I could,  but nobody ever took the time to explain to me how the trick worked. The more I looked at it the more "potential" seemed to me to be a softhearted and occasionally softbrained way of doing whatever you liked and feeling smug about it.
That's why I like the look of Andrew's suggestions much more than the shabby fudges I remember. What it amounts to is running a handicap race with weights for the sorts of things that give known advantages to those with deep pocket books. We do it in horse racing and golf so why not in college admissions? And nobody's freedom is infringed. You can still spend your money on private education, its just that your kids have to do even better in order to benefit. It's a neat reversal of the usual formula whereby kids from disadvantaged backgrounds typically have to show more merit than their advantaged peers in order to achieve equivalent results.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil... 2

To paraphrase Amos Oz: tragedy is what happens when right is in head on collision with right. Ben Goldacre again provides  a great link (where does he find this stuff?) to Adam Curtis' blog where you can watch an excellent BBC documentary from  1973 on the Exodus incident. I think it does a good job of explaining the context and in allowing key participants to tell their stories. There is a marked lack of bitterness expressed on both sides and a lot of sympathetic insight. Perhaps this was possible at the time because in the end both sides got what they wanted - the refugees eventually got to Israel, albeit via Hamburg, and the British extricated themselves from a hopeless situation in which nothing could be done, or not done, without somebody somewhere painting  them as the villains of the piece.  I wonder though whether those who were interviewed would have been quite so phlegmatic if the final scene of this Act had ended as intended. The Haganah left a bomb on one British ship set to explode when  it returned to sea after  the debarkation of its refugee cargo. And of course just as it was broadcast in 1973 the curtain went up on the next Act of the tragedy.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

More Hard Problems

As a footnote to my last post, Alexey helpfully points out that you can also view the Gary King video on Facebook without using Realplayer. Thanks for the tip Alexey.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Hard Problems in the Social Sciences

Amongst others, MSc students who took my Research Design class this year and tore their hair out over the mid-term assignment - here and here - might be gratified to know that the Gordian knot I asked you to struggle with is discussed by Gary King at a recent Harvard symposium as one of the 12 'Hard Problems in the Social Sciences'. There is a nice video (requires Realplayer) and some useful slides. Whatever your complaint about Oxford sociology, you can't say that we don't take you to the 'cutting edge'.

Friday, 11 June 2010

BP and Negative Externalities

When I was young and even more foolish than I am now I had a car accident that could easily have killed me. Driving rather fast in the outside lane of the the M40 one of my rear tyres blew out. The car turned through 180 degrees, crossed two lanes of traffic and slammed into the safety barrier. The car was a right-off and I walked away without a scratch. Just one of those forks in the road which in restrospect make you think about how very different your life - or lack of life - could have been.
A few weeks later I received a letter from the Highways Agency, or whatever it was in those days, containing an invoice for the several hundred pounds it would cost to repair the guard rail. I sent it to my insurer who paid the bill and that was the end of it.
The damage to the safety barrier was the result of a genuine accident, but that didn't mean that I should pass the cost of repairing it to the general tax-payer. My actions imposed a cost on other people - the guard rail was not fit for purpose until repaired - and it was entirely reasonable that I should foot the bill through my increased insurance premiums.
So now I ask why should anyone take seriously the emerging whinge about the treatment of BP by Obama? Why should the shareholders expect to benefit enormously from the upside of their ownership and be protected from the downside. Isn't it reasonable that the polluter should pay and that the price of the commodity they produce should reflect the full economic cost of its production? That full economic cost  includes the cost of compensating those whose livelihoods and well-being have been negatively affected by BP's activities.
My pension fund stands to suffer just like many others from BPs misfortune. But that's not a good reason for allowing them to avoid paying for the massive negative externalities they have created. If it costs a year's profits so be it. The value of shares can go up or down.
In case you need some light relief this BP Spills Coffee skit is quite amusing.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On Teaching in a University

While saying he doesn't want to pre-empt the conclusions of the Browne report on student fees, Universities minister David Willetts has...er...pre-empted the Browne report in an interview with the Guardian and given a clear indication of what government policy is likely to be. His choice of words is a little unfortunate; the costs of student's degree courses are, he is quoted as saying, a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled" and will no doubt come back to haunt him. Though the formulation is poor he is basically right. If we want a mass system of higher education then somebody has to pay for it. That somebody will be Joe Public through general taxation  and the people that accrue a private benefit from it - the students themselves. The only serious arguments are about the  proportion of the price to be  paid by each source,  the most efficacious way of getting the money into the coffers of the universities who need the money today and the consequences of the price and payment mechanism for any social equity objectives we might value. Of course that still leaves us a lot to disagree about. For what it is worth Willetts is one of the few Conservatives that I have some time for. In my view he's hitched his wagon to the wrong party, but he is smart and unlike most politicians is genuinely interested in forming policy on the basis of evidence. Universities could be in much worse hands.
That however is not what I want to blog about. It is possible, even probable, that part of of the rhetoric of the new fees regime will be endless talk about the importance of teaching. After all if students are asked to pay more,  what is more natural than to appear to offer them more in return. Now I am going to say something that will probably upset quite a few people: university lecturers are not teachers - at least not in the sense that secondary school teachers are teachers - and should not be treated as such.
Let me try to explain. I'm not saying that the student learning experience is unimportant or should be ignored. On the contrary student learning is a very important part of what universities are about and is in danger of being pushed to the sidelines by our research output fixated culture. However one can believe this without eliding the difference between a lecturer and a teacher. It's easy to make that sound like a quibble about words, but here I line up with the discourse analysts and want to maintain that the words you choose  create an implicit frame for the conversation, a frame that legitimises some arguments and rules others out of court. 
Students come to university to learn a subject. Periodically their knowledge of that subject is evaluated. It is their responsibility to prepare themselves for those evaluations, whether these be coursework, practicals, traditional examinations or whatever. Universities provide the resources that facilitate learning and preparation for evaluation. These resources come in different forms: libraries, software, reading lists, casual conversations with peers in the refrectory, intense debates in the dorms until 2.00 in the morning (does that happen any more?) and, yes, tutorials, seminars and lectures. My point is that the latter three are only part of the learning opportunities that a genuine university makes available. They are, if you like, the visible part of the iceberg, but if you think they are the whole thing then you don't understand what a university is, or how to get the most out of it.
It was clear to me before I went to university that the responsibility for learning and passing examinations was mine and mine alone. As long as I had a reading list and some past exam papers I could figure the rest out for myself. I didn't want to be told in detail what to do. I went to lectures and seminars that I found interesting and helpful and skipped those that I didn't get anything out of. I quickly realised that an hour of reading a text in the library could be of more value to me than an hour of somebody attempting to tell me what a text contained. Whether it was, depended on who that somebody was and what they had to say. Of course I made some mistakes. Spending a  substantial part of my second year ignoring the syllabus and reading a large number of books either about Marxism or written from a Marxist perspective was, in retrospect, probably not so smart. But an important part of knowing now - in fact at the end of my second year - what I didn't know then - that Marxism  is an intellectual dead-end for the social sciences - could only have come from having the freedom to do that. It meant my conclusion wasn't just a superficial opinion but something built on a large amount of study and reflection. Luckily I  picked up enough incidental knowledge of the things that were actually on the syllabus so that I could pass the end of year examinations. Looking back, what is most striking is that I never, as a student, thought that lectures and seminars were especially important for my learning. They were just one more resource to be used if and when useful.
So Mr Willetts there is more to student learning than just teaching and please remember: I'm a lecturer, not a teacher.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


I'm just back from Examination Schools where I had to sit  for the first 30 minutes of the Finals paper I'm responsible for. With nothing better to do I fell to wondering why we require our students to dress up in order to be examined? The get up itself is ridiculous and unflattering. The men look like a parody of  a cut-price Victorian toff - white bow tie and dark lounge suit (surely not!) while the women wouldn't be out of place as waitresses in a down at heal provincial tea shop for distressed gentility. I could understand it if it were a tourist attraction but nobody as yet has suggested installing viewing galleries in Schools so that parties of Korean visitors can get a whiff of authentic Oxford at five quid a pop. The dress regulations are absurd and serve no practical purpose. Why don't we let students decide whether to keep them? Even better, why don't we make them entirely optional? I know it is no fun to go to a fancy dress party if nobody else bothers to dress up. But going to fancy dress parties isn't compulsory while attending Exam Schools in subfusc is if you want an Oxford degree. Frankly it is all bullshit and in a world increasing full of the brown smelly stuff, bullshit is the exact opposite of what universities should be about.

Thoughts about Status

I mentioned in an earlier post that the first sociology book I ever read was Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. The second was almost certainly Robert Roberts' The Classic Slum an account of working class life in Salford in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. Of the two, I much preferred Roberts' lack of sentimentality and I was reminded of the excellence of his prose on reading his autobiography A Ragged Schooling.
He is particularly good on the  status distinctions that patterned working class social life. From the outside the poor may have looked like a mass, but things looked very different from the inside. Many of the distinctions he alludes to were still lived realities when I was growing up more than 50 years later amongst Coventry's affluent workers. The primary distinction was still clearly  between the rough and the respectable. This applied both to individuals  and  also to streets. By the age of  eight or nine I had a good sense of the social geography of our area and what occupancy of different types of housing stock signified. Our street was divided in two by a more major road; the terraced houses on our half had neatly lawned front gardens (now I see from Google Street View mostly tarmacked over to accommodate cars). The other half had much smaller front gardens or had front doors that opened directly on to the street. Respectable people had proper front gardens. 
Moving just a few streets further away and closer to the football stadium there were some very rough streets where kids would throw stones at you if you looked 'posh': 'posh' was a very relative thing. Rough people had too many kids, kids that roamed the streets til all hours, were unemployed or irregular workers, drank too much, got into debt, cursed and swore, beat their wives and generally made a nuisance of themselves. The respectable tended their gardens, cleaned their windows, limited the size of their families and wanting the best for their kids, went, albeit hesitant and deferential, to school open days.
After the rough/respectable division probably the next most prominent distinction was between those with and those without a trade. Time served craftsmen and those with a skill in some sense ranked higher than the unskilled or those whose skill - like driving an HGV - was not acquired through apprenticeship. Or at least that is how it felt, but I'm not sure that patterns of social interaction would necessarily reveal it.
Thinking of my parent's friends - those whom we exchanged visits with -  the skilled/unskilled divide seems pretty unimportant. In one family the husband was a carpenter working in the building trade in another he worked on the line at one of the car factories just as some of our own relatives did. As my father ascended into the lower reaches of the middle classes our social network expanded but only a little, primarily  sucking in people from the local church, a shopkeeper, a lab technician from Courtalds, the minister himself.
If I think about my own school friends I'm struck in retrospect by how little status distinctions, other than that of roughness/respectability, mattered in practice. My friends' fathers - and yes, as long as they were alive,  it was the fathers that mattered  - worked in a mixture of skilled and unskilled trades. Some worked on the line in the car factories, at GEC, Massey Ferguson and Rolls-Royce. Others had small businesses - a chip shop, a Hoover servicing franchise operated from a shed at the bottom of the garden. A couple had only widowed mothers to bring them up, one a lollipop lady the other delivering letters for the Royal Mail. What, if anything, connected us together was selection into the "grammar school" streams of the local comprehensives we all attended. The few kids in our area whose parents paid for them to go at 11 to one or other of the city's two main independent schools disappeared from our friendship network as surely as if they had been abducted by aliens. And in a number of cases the end result was such that they might as well have been.
What is most striking is the almost complete absence of the professional classes from our social world. The woodwork teacher from my school lived on our street, just a few houses down on the other side of the road, but other than a ritual exchange of pleasantries my parents had nothing to say to him. A few professional representatives of the state - the odd teacher, more rarely a doctor, lived, Ken Barlow like, amongst us. But they were not really part of our lives except when they were schooling or curing us. 
It's not that there was any antipathy towards educated professional people, it was just that they made people like my parents feel uncomfortable. We didn't fit into their world, didn't know what to say, they had different tastes and conventions: they led different, often peculiar, lives. A local couple we knew as acquaintances through the church - both delightfully unsnobbish teachers - exemplified the eccentric otherness of this world: the husband complete with apron did all the cooking in the household. What more proof was needed of the strange ways in which the professional classes carried on!
Thinking back what impresses me most is how such distinctions of status as we made can only be understood as applying at a local level. The outside world saw a mass where the insiders perceived gradations. To some extent these gradations were correlated with money. The rough were poor by anybody's standards (but not all the poor were rough) and the respectable, though not necessarily  affluent, by definition had steady incomes from which they saved to pay off respectable debts - like their mortgages. Status lay behind patterns of derogation, association and commensality in the adult world - less so in the child's world  - but it was status in the local community that created the living texture of our day-to-day world. Weber in  Economy and Society makes a few tantalizing remarks along these lines:
...in the so-called pure democracy, that is, one devoid of any expressly ordered status privileges for individuals, it may be that only the families coming under approximately the same tax class dance with one another. This example is reported of certain smaller Swiss cities. But status honor need not necessarily be linked with a class situation. On the contrary, it normally stands in sharp opposition to the pretensions of sheer property.
Status has a now you see it, now you don't quality. It's part of the taken for granted, part of the fine grain  of social relations in your local social world.

The Paper University

Ben Goldacre links to this article from Australia about the mountain of paper that falls on the academics at the coalface from the desks of our bureaucratic masters. We are indeed drowning in the stuff much of which is about the creation of arse covering paper trails. We are long past the stage where we just  infantilise our students, the modern university is also, it seems to me, well into the process of infantilising its faculty too. It's easier to create a form and tick boxes than have a conversation with colleagues about the intellectual content of their courses. Perhaps that is why there is an intellectual vaccum at the heart of many of the social sciences.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Wikipedia and Prediction

Andrew Gelman has an interesting piece on his blog about the politics of Wikipedia edits. The scientific point that is at stake here is that prediction before you have peeked at the data (fitted a model) is a completely different thing to prediction after you have fitted a model and it is...err...essentially dishonest to pretend that these are one and the same thing or are of equivalent scientific value. Think about it this way. Fit your favourite model for a binary outcome - discriminant function,  logistic regression or whatever -  to a sample of data and define a decision rule to calculate how many you got in the right box. Now apply that same model with the same parameter values to a new set of data. You won't do anywhere near as well because first time round you capitalised on chance. It's multivariate analysis 101, or at least it should be.

Peer Review

Ben Goldacre links to this piece in the New Scientist on peer review. As he points out the process isn't and in fact can never be perfect. How peer review works differs across disciplines and even within disciplines across journals. I've refereed for journals that use a double blind method and also journals where the names of authors are revealed to the referees. In sociology I would estimate that the double blind or total anonymity model is the method most commonly used. Is this the best method to use? I'm coming round to the view that we can improve things at the margin by moving to a system of complete openness. Referees should know the names of authors and authors should know the names of referees. Moreover after the review process is finished everything - the original submission, the referees reports as well as the final version of the paper -  should go into the public domain. To some eyes this will appear to be pretty radical, even lunatic, stuff. But I believe it will solve some (not all) of the problems that are chipping away at the credibility of peer review.
Firstly, as every editor knows, there is the problem of getting good referees to act and then of motivating them to do a good job. I'm told that in the US the idea of 'service' still leads the top scholars to play an active part in journal refereeing. From this side of the pond things look different. The RAE has changed the structure of incentives so that at the margin you will be better off spending an extra hour on your own work rather than writing a referee's report on somebody else's. Spending a lot of time helping your rivals - because that is what the RAE turns those you formerly called your colleagues  into - produce better work is not much of a career enhancer. 
A few years ago I was asked to referee a paper by a well known British journal. The paper was pretty hopeless, but, I felt, at least compared to much of what was published in that journal, the authors were  making an honest attempt to do science. I wrote a five page report telling them how to rewrite the paper and how to fix the errors of technique, method and logic they had made and recommended R&R. Twelve months later the paper came back to me with a different title, restructured along the lines I had suggested. It still wasn't a great paper, but at least it was now much more professionally put together. I recommended publication. It duly came out and then, to my surprise, was nominated for a prize  that is awarded annually to the best paper published in the journal. At this point the little red devil on my shoulder was whispering in my ear that I should be entitled to a share of that prize or at least a coauthorship!
If referees reports are in the public domain then that will incentivize people to do a good job and secondly the contribution of referees to the final published version will be open for all to see. This sort of openness will also help to solve what I perceived, when I was an editor, as an emerging problem - the growth of premature submission. Again the RAE is partly to blame. The publish or perish culture incentivizes people to submit articles that are in reality only seventy-five percent finished. The ends aren't tied up, the data analysis has holes in it the size of the Grand Canyon and the authors just haven't bothered to take the time to write it up properly. They know that nobody apart from the editor and the referees is going to see this version so given that almost all papers that are finally published get an R&R it makes sense to send in something that just scrapes over the R&R threshold and let the referees tell you what you have to do to achieve publication. This is not a fantasy. I've heard doctoral supervisors  give their students exactly this advice. Don't 'waste time' making the article any good. Just make it credible enough to get an R&R. I suspect in many cases they apply the same principle to their own submissions. In a cut-throat world it can quickly become a race to the bottom and intellectual craftsmanship becomes a luxury that few can afford. If my diagnosis is correct then requiring the original submission to be in the public domain will provide - as long as people have any pride in their work - a modest incentive to make the first submission serious.
My final argument for openness is that it will help to reduce some of the more unpleasant aspects of anonymous refereeing. Sad to say, some referee's reports are blatantly unfair and self-seeking. You all know what I mean. 'The article should be rejected because it failed to mention the brilliant insights contained in  a forthcoming paper by Blowtrumpet et al (currently only available as a pdf at an obscure website somewhere or other)'. You look up the paper and see that it is either irrelevant or nonsensical but the editor who is pressed for time or doesn't know any better requires that to get published you must blow Blowtrumpet's trumpet for him. There are, of course, worse things than that going on and openness won't solve them all. But requiring referees to put their names to what they write and letting everyone see what they claim seems to me to be an important part of making the refereeing process fairer. If you are going to say negative things about somebody's work you should not hide behind the veil of anonymity. I'm prepared to stand behind what I write and argue for it in the public domain. If you are not then you shouldn't be writing it in the first place.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

On not being too professional

I used to think that I was the first person in my paternal line (which is the only part of my ancestry I know much about) to go to university. It was a blow to my inverted snobbery when I discovered that it was not true. In fact my great times five grandfather John graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1743. His father, described in the entry in Alumni Dublinense as generosus does not appear to have had that privilege but clearly felt that his eldest son's well born status could be embellished with a little learning. In fact he sent at least two sons to Trinity. Edward, the brother of my x5 grandfather, was also an undergraduate and while there appears to have been a drinking buddy and intimate of his second cousin Oliver Goldsmith. A number of rather charming letters from Goldsmith to Edward Mills survive, mostly pleas for money or patronage. Going to Trinity was not needed by the brothers Mills for professional advancement or consolidation. They both inherited estates and neither were destined to be impoverished country curates. Edward, it is true, entered the Middle Temple in 1756 but he does not appear to have completed his legal education. In fact in a rather amusing letter to his cousin, Goldsmith gently chides him for his apparent lack of ambition:
I have often, he says, let my fancy loose when you were the subject, and have imagined you gracing the bench, or thundering at the bar; while I have taken no small pride to myself, and whispered all that I could come near, that this was my cousin. Instead of this, it seems you are contented to be merely an happy man; to be esteemed only by your acquaintance to cultivate your paternal acres to take unmolested a nap under one of your own hawthorns, or in Mrs. Mills' bed-chamber, which, even a poet must confess, is rather the most [more] comfortable place of the two.
When one sees the pathological ruthlessness with which academics pursue professional advantage - for instance the Orlando Figes revelations - it's tempting to envy those born in a less driven age.

More by Amos Oz

For anyone who is willing to listen and think there is more by Amos Oz in today's Guardian.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil...

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. The sentence is usually attributed to Burke though there is no evidence that he either said or wrote it. It isn't too wise to take the moral high ground about the actions of other states when you are a citizen of perfidious Albion. Brits above all others should beware of throwing stones in glass houses. However,  at the risk of upsetting dear friends and colleagues, I want to share this link to Amos Oz's comment on yesterday's Israeli military action  against civil shipping in international waters. I admire Oz  as a man, as a writer and as someone who fearlessly speaks truth to power (if you get a chance read his beautiful autobiography). It used to be that when he spoke Israel listened. I don't know whether that is the case any more but I do know there are many others like him in Israel who are appalled by what the state does in their name. They deserve our understanding and support.