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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, 30 October 2012

Say not the struggle naught availeth...

My cultural pause for this week concluded by watching Peter Strickland's Katalin Varga. It's an enjoyable Carpathian revenge tragedy - imagine Tarkovsky, crossed with Bela Tarr and a little seasoning of Tarantino. The wind moves over the long grass, there is a weird soundtrack, the camera focuses on a distant horizon for an uncomfortably long period of time and there are sudden moments of extreme violence (thankfully not too graphic). Some get what they clearly deserve but it is not clear that everyone seeking redemption will get it. Just like life really, but not, thankfully, as most of us know it.
What is amazing though is the back story to the movie which is told in one of those "the making of" interviews that now grace most art-house film DVDs. Usually these are pretty gruesome because either the director is a windbag puffed up with his/her own self-importance or they are inarticulate to the point of boredom. This one is different because Strickland comes across very sympathetically as a man on a mission - a mission that no sane person would every start out on - to realize his personal vision in a movie for €30000. Basically this guy had one shot at becoming a film-maker:  his uncle died and left him a small legacy, he had no connections with the British film industry, he had no public funding, he had no distribution deal, he had basically nothing apart from self-belief (and sometimes even that seemed like it was slipping away). The Guardian has a good write-up here
What really endears him to me is his love of the old Scala cinema. I used to go there not long after it opened in 1979 when it was in Tottenham Street. It was cheap and you could see an endless succession of classic European movies. Later it moved to King's Cross and became a bit more sleazy, but still what a cinema should be: a moment in time, a brief window on another world, a step back from reality.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Art and the Industrial Revolution

I've just finished Francis Klingender's remarkable Art and the Industrial Revolution. Why remarkable? Well it seems to me to be one of the first pieces of art history (I'm now waiting to be blown out of the water by the mass ranks of art historians more knowledgeable about the subject than I am!) to take seriously the fact that industrial workplaces and their artifacts were the subject of considerable amounts of artistic representation of one sort or another and that the attitude of the artists themselves was one of ambivalence. Of course some recoiled in horror, while others celebrated the tapping of natural resources and the taming of nature's energy that industrialism implied, without resorting to the wooden cliches of soviet style socialist realism. He also points out that in many cases the industrial artifacts themselves were things of great beauty and thought to be so by contemporaries.
The book is also a store of  inspiring tales of men (sorry they were almost exclusively men) with dogged visions tenaciously pursued.Take for instance James Sharples (1825-1893) painter of The Forge which you can see in the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
Sharples was largely self-taught, could, before early adulthood, barely read and write and earned his living as a smith in the sort of engine factory that he depicts in his painting, which was completed over three years in his spare time after his 11-12 hour shifts. The representation is very matter of fact and he is quoted by Smiles as saying: "The picture simply represents the interior of a large workshop such as I have been accustomed to work in". That's what I like about it. There is nothing particularly heroic in the work itself nor is there a hint of moral condemnation. He is simply showing it as it actually was: you have to earn your living one way or another, take it or leave it.
But there is something  quite incredible about what happened next. After completing the painting he made the usual move of producing an engraving for the popular market. The common practice was to farm this out to one of the vast number of engravers who made a business out of this sort of thing. Not our man: he decided to teach himself how to engrave on steel and took ten years to produce the plate, partly because he refused to use acid and picked out all the detail of the shading with point and rocker!
The engraving was apparently a great success, but he himself made little money from it and  spent almost the whole of his working life in a foundry.
Literal as his depiction of the workplace was, he was not entirely a man devoid of allegorical imagination. In 1852 he won a competition to design an image for the membership certificate of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers of which he was himself a member. It is, in its own way, a beautiful thing and personifies a rather attractive vision of the good society:
The mechanic refuses to repair Mars' broken sword, the slaves demonstrate that a bundle is stronger than a single stick, James Watt surveys the scene in his toga and the workshops of the world get on with the business of making reality out of improving inventions. How did we get from that vision to where we are today?
By the way, Klingender, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Hull, was a rather interesting man. One of a number of CP members and fellow travellers floating around the LSE at the beginning of the 1930s. There is a recently released  MI5 file on him.

A Winter's Tale

Half-term came early to our household, too early for the usual holiday club solution; so father and daughter took themselves off to the Unicorn Theater at London Bridge for the 10.30 am performance of A Winter's Tale. This was not Shakespeare as we know it but filtered through an English translation of a Flemish play for children based loosely on the Bard's story (which wasn't his originally anyway). And very good it was too: simple production, first rate acting and everything just as it should be for the intended 7-10 year audience and their adult minders. 
It was the first time I had been to the Unicorn and I can't recommend it highly enough. It was founded by Caryl Jenner (check out her ODNB entry if you can get behind the paywall) with the wholly laudable aim of taking children's theater seriously and taking it out to the provinces literally in the back of a van). Apparently like many people with a mission she could be domineering and didn't suffer fools gladly. Sometimes that's just the price you have to pay for getting something worthwhile done.
In the evening the adult part of the household rewarded themselves by watching Nani Moretti's We Have a Pope. Not a masterpiece, but a well made enough, amusing film with a few hilarious scenes (the college of cardinal's playing volleyball in the Vatican precincts is a classic) and a bit of pathos - what happens if an all too human pontiff decides that he is really not up to the job?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Caught on a Train

Watched Poliakoff's Caught on a Train last night and it was like finding a time capsule. I'd seen it when it first came out and remember being captivated, but I couldn't remember exactly when that was. Seeing it again took me right back to the cusp of the eighties - it was first shown  on the 31st October 1980. I must have watched it on my first weekend home from university, full of excitement about the big-wide world that was opening up. Right movie, right time. At 18 living free from parental control in a big city you are acutely aware of  cultural, social and sexual collisions. Every day is an adventure and you never know who you are going to meet or wind up drinking with  to the wee small hours. The mise-en-scene of a train journey with all that implies about claustrophobia, xenophobia, intimacy, suppressed and not so suppressed violence and border crossing is  absolutely brilliant and is  cunningly  contrasted with the dreamlike night-time scenes set in Frankfurt. You travel through Germany in The Lady Vanishes style hysteria and all that you see out of the window are the smoking chimney's of  factories. In Frankfurt you get the junkies sleeping rough under the wanted posters for Baade Meinhof terrorists and the chilly emptiness of the  Opera Cafe with the nightmarish strains of Lulu piped through the PA system. I can think of few films which capture the feel of a particular moment of European history  quite so well. Also brilliantly handled are the subtle shifts in the power relations and sympathies between the three main players. Old imperial Europe and  new imperial America meet the Brit abroad.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Getting all the dope

I don't normally do plugs for other people's books or papers: hell, they can blow their own trumpets if they have a mind to. But I am going to make an exception for two pieces of work that have an intellectual connection (of sorts). Firstly Ben Goldacre's new book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. Ben's big point is that clinicians and citizens have a right to consider all the evidence - not just the evidence from selected trials the pharmaceuticals  decide it is their interest to let you see - about whether or not a drug works better than/worse than the alternatives or indeed is actually in some circumstances harmful. Despite  assertions to the contrary by richly rewarded PR machines and parliamentary fellow travellers, all trial evidence is not placed in the public domain. Basically there is a systematic pattern of repeated evasion and falsehood which government appears not to want to acknowledge. A parliamentary question was asked today about this  and evinced  the usual amount of misinformation and obfuscation.
On a similar theme you should take a look at this new paper by my colleague John Goldthorpe. If you don't have time for the whole paper you can get the gist of it from this FT blog. This time it is a story of the partial and highly selective use of data which is informing a significant policy area - social mobility. The issue is not that data is being withheld, but that relevant data is being systematically ignored or downplayed because it does not support a dominant ideological belief that social mobility chances have declined while small quantities of undoubtedly relevant, but possibly quite flawed, data are given quite unwarranted prominence. The bulk of the data rather consistently finds that social mobility in the UK has not declined either in absolute or relative terms. From this it does not follow, as  for example Peter Saunder's would have us believe, that we live in a land of meritocratic opportunity (Peter: the direct effect of origin on destination means that some have to show more merit than others to get the rewards): but it does mean that things are not getting worse.

Is sociology useless?

Something I've been meaning to blog about for a while. The Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty has been putting the boot into  sociology for some time. With the cocksure confidence that only a degree in Modern History from Oxford University can produce he pronounces (seeming to share something of the level of scientific insight of the Italian courts): "economics has failed us" and it is up to sociology (political science seems to have got lost on the way) to explain what has gone wrong. He then has a right royal laugh at the flim flam served up at the annual buffoon's convention  known as the British Sociological Association conference. It's easy to laugh at what goes on at that dreary affair. Few of any serious standing in the discipline attend or give papers and many of the titles and abstracts do indeed read like submissions to a particularly humourless pseud's corner. 
I hold no brief for the type of sociology  purveyed by the average BSA conference delegate,  often a distressingly earnest postgraduate student fretting about identity politics, body image or reflexive modernity (whatever that is) . What has been surprising to me though is the feebleness of the response by grown up sociologists to the absurd premises of Chakrabortty's  assault. It is not self-evident - as Chakrabortty seems to think it is - that economics (as an intellectual discipline) has failed. At least as a non-economist I'm humble enough to acknowledge that though it seems to me unlikely I'm actually not in a position to venture a particularly cogent opinion (as opposed to a rent-a-mouth sound bite). I also don't see any special reasons to expect numerous  startling insights into the origins of the financial crisis from sociologists, anthropologists or indeed historians for that matter. Because something is  important - as the financial crisis undoubtedly is -  it doesn't necessarily mean that sociologists have the requisite intellectual tools to make a serious contribution to elucidating the problems and solutions.  Sociologists may contribute a lot of hot air to global warming but we don't expect them to be key intellectual players in climate science. That's not a sign of failure: it's called the  intellectual division of labour. Which is not to say that  the odd sociologist might not have interesting and important things to say about the matter - we should for heaven's sake keep an open mind. But most of us are doing other things which we don't want to drop, some of which I acknowledge are (in my and apparently Chakrabortty's opinion) silly, while others are intellectually serious and useful - but not about topics which Chakrabortty finds fashionable or of journalistic interest.
Unfortunately those sociologists that have seen fit to comment  have fallen into the  trap that Chakrabortty either wittingly or unwittingly has laid for them. They appear desperate to demonstrate "relevance" and "impact" and only succeed, to my mind, in making themselves and the discipline look as absurd as Chakrabortty evidently believes it is. Don't take my word for it. You can judge for yourself from the information contained here about a debate to be held today at the University of Lancaster. My prediction for chuckle time is the one that "...argues that the current crisis is the delayed result of the failure of capitalism after the 1970s to make a socio-technical transition away from fossil-fuel technologies". Come on Dr Szerszynski, you need to go much further back in the causal chain. How about the Big Bang?

Go to jail

Be scared; be very scared. Italy is a state (I use the term loosely) that puts scientists in jail for failing to  predict the exact timing of an event. We have truly gone back to the dark ages. What are we going to see next in Italian courts, trials of homicidal pigs, sheep and goats? Where are the protests  from the governments of  all the other EU member states  against  an obvious abuse of human rights? They seem to be quick enough to point the finger at non EU states who get a bit heavy handed with the political opposition. And, while we are on the subject, if we are going to put (real) scientists in jail for failing to predict the timing of an earthquake why not put economists in jail for failing to predict the precise timing of the the financial crisis?
Of course this  would be absurd; earthquakes, financial crises and just about everything that happens in the world are stochastic events. We know a lot about why they happen, but that doesn't mean we can predict exactly when they will happen. To expect that is like expecting a physician  at the point a baby  is conceived to predict the exact minute at which it will be born. Nobody would  demand that and only a fool would claim that because we can't predict exactly when a baby will be born therefore we know nothing about how babies are created.

Monday, 22 October 2012

To be a pilgrim

England's perfect World, hath Indies too;
Correct your Maps, Newcastle is Peru.

John Cleveland, 1613-1658

James Attlee's Isolarion is a love song to Oxford's Cowley Road. It's also about  making a  pilgrimage, a journey of self-discovery. The exigencies of everyday life prevent him from pursuing his idea to the far ends of the earth so he  settles for his own doorstep, and his own inner space.  The latter isn't exactly Conradian in its depth - Oh! the horror!  - but the book is still a pleasant enough read and I did learn a few things about the area. Did you know that Bartlemas Chapel was part of an old leper hospital,  that the now rather unprepossessing Plain was the site of  St Edmund's Well renowned in the Thirteenth Century for its healing waters, or that Iffley  had an anchorite living in the church-yard? I didn't, but then when I lived just off the Cowley Road at the end of the 1980s my attention was probably distracted by other things: the three burglaries, the senseless vandalism of my car (I could understand you wanted to steal it but why did you have to break the steering wheel off?), the harmless junkie that lived opposite  in a tiny gap between a garage and the wall of St Stephen's House. Oh and the party house in our street that insisted on musical entertainments for the whole neighborhood until 3.00 am every weekend, and the friendly neighbour with the savage dog that carried out his motor-cycle repair business on the pavement. 
Actually, it wasn't that bad a place to live if you didn't have much money and had the physical and mental resources for tolerance. At least there was diverse life there - something that Attlee quite rightly celebrates. He also has some interesting things to say about the 'consultation' process that informed the planners who created the Cowley Road as it is today. Clearly Attlee is ambivalent about the outcome. I actually quite like it, but then again I don't live there, so what I think is surely rather irrelevant. The more interesting questions he illuminates are about who exactly is consulted, who controls the self-selected tribunes of the people, how far planning decisions are made on the basis of expert evidence and who, ultimately, sets the agenda. 
Local politics can be a rough, tough and rather thankless sort of game, but it is the sort of politics that has very direct consequences for  everyday lives. Where the road crossings are and how fast the cars are moving is something that is going to make a difference: not necessarily to you, but perhaps to your neighbour's children. It would appear from his account that these sorts of things tend to attract community consensus whereas street art - what it looks like and where it is sited - are deeply divisive. Oh well, each to his own. Attlee seems to be professionally involved in the art world so as of  the proverbial shoemaker the worst I can say of him is that he might  focus a little too much on leather.

Friday, 19 October 2012


I'm currently interested (for research purposes) in boys (for that they were) who attended Clifton College, Bristol and were born between September 1888 and August 1889. Trust me, I have a good reason. There turn out, according to Clifton College Register 1862-1947, to be rather a lot of them; though quite a few didn't survive beyond 1914-18. One of  the many interesting members of this cohort is a man called Hugh Arthur Franklin. He seems to have had a pretty eventful life and was imprisoned on a number of occasions  for his activities - once for attempting to strike Winston Churchill with a whip - in support of women's suffrage. You can read about him here. The entry on him in the Women's Library link claims that due to poor eyesight he was "disqualified for war service" during WWI and served on the staff of the Woolwich Ordnance Factories. Strangely the Clifton College Register has him serving as a Lieutenant in the Hampshire Yeomanry and being mentioned in dispatches. I wonder what the story is behind these discrepant accounts. Was it that he did indeed hold a commission in the Yeomanry but served in the Ordnance Factories? But then how did he come to be mentioned in dispatches? I can find no trace of him in the army medal rolls, the surviving enlistment & pension records or the London Gazette. This doesn't mean that he didn't serve, but my experience is that most serving soldiers of the 14-18 war  turn up in the medal rolls. Two highly speculative explanations come to mind. Was he confused in the school register with one or other of his two brothers who also attended Clifton? Or was the compiler of the register just a little embarrassed by this old boy's escapades and sought to uphold the honour of the school by, shall we say, embellishing the truth? The chances are I'll never know; unless, by the wonders of Google, somebody who knows the answer hits upon this blog posting and shares it with us.

Monday, 15 October 2012

What can we learn?

In my teaching I believe in trying things out  to see whether they work. For a while I've wondered whether there might be a better way to prepare MSc students for writing their dissertation than simply meeting with them on an individual basis and saying: so what do you want to write about then? A few years ago I posted my advice about writing dissertations and a few people have told me they found it helpful, but last year I also tried a new strategy. 
It has seemed to me for some time that the  biggest obstacle MSc students face is in choosing something worthwhile to do in the first place. In a way this isn't surprising. When you start your MSc you are a million miles from the research frontier so how can you possibly know what is worth doing? In some disciplines this problem is solved by simply giving students something to work on. I believe this can work and  I have had colleagues who included it in their box of tricks. My own experience has been less happy. An essential ingredient in producing a good dissertation is a sense of ownership of the topic. If somebody just allocates you something to do then this can result in low levels of commitment and an unhealthy dependency between student and supervisor.You really don't want a student who hangs on your every word and doesn't do anything without consulting you first.
So last year I thought I'd try something different. During the first term as well as meeting my supervisees individually I also met with them for an hour a week en masse. Each was given the task of surveying the last 12 months of the top 6 generalist sociology journals in order to identify an article that a) interested them and b) we would all read and discuss. My thought was that it didn't matter what they chose, though there might be incidental benefits from our discussions, and that the real value of the exercise would be that it forced them to confront the question of the relationship between what they wanted to do/thought was interesting and what the rest of the discipline was doing/thought was interesting. To put it in a slightly pompous nutshell I wanted them to locate their own dissertation plans within an ongoing scientific research programme rather than have it appear to drop out of the sky. In my naive way I also, of course, assumed that the extra person hours put into this should help them to write better dissertations.
And so to the $64,000 question: did it work? I'm afraid I have to say that I have no convincing evidence that it did. I'm sure it was a nice experience for the students, or at least they told me so. It was certainly  a nice experience for me, partly because I got to know that cohort of students much better than I normally would have. But did they write better dissertations? I doubt it. They all passed comfortably; some did a little better then others, but on the whole the quality was on average about the same as usual and the range of marks indistinguishable from the past.
Of course the numbers are small and it was probably unrealistic of me to expect to see much of a difference; but it got me thinking about the value of "experimentation" in this particular aspect of teaching. It's really difficult to learn empirically about something like dissertation supervision. The first reason is that we only ever deal with small batches at a time - the most I've ever supervised at one time is five. Secondly, there is enormous variability in the  raw material itself ie the students and you would expect in those circumstances that the same "treatment" will produce very different results in different students. Thirdly, the "treatment" is highly idiosyncratic ie it is partly me (my expectations, experience, limitations, personality). What appears to work for my colleague won't necessarily produce the same results for me (because of all my quirks and peculiarities); and that means that it is very difficult to learn by pooling experience. I guess I'll just have to keep muddling through.

Nobel Peace Prize

So the Nobel Peace Prize goes to the European Union. That must be good news. A bit of extra cash always comes in handy when you have so many member states to bail out. Hot tip for next year is The Man in the Moon. Just think of all the benefits he has brought to world civilization...