Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

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

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Learning to read

I wasn't that much of a reader when I was young. I read the books I was given at school and a few of the Sunday school prizes I collected if they weren't too boring.  I was not one of those children that had read the complete works of Dickens by the age of 12. Mostly I preferred to kick a ball about in the back entry with my mates. Learning to read in the sense of learning what to read was pretty much a hit and miss process. Two things helped me on my way. When I was 8 or 9 one of my friends, in an extraordinary act of generosity, gave me two old hardbacks of Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories. To this day I've no idea why he wanted to get rid of them: maybe they were stolen. They were a revelation. Here were stories that were exciting and made you want to turn the page! 

My reading development must have been quite arrested because I was still enjoying the Famous Five in the last year of primary school. My own daughter liked them when she was 6 but now she is nearly 8 she finds them a bit passe. The other books I chose to read were the Jennings stories of Anthony Buckeridge, first Jennings' Little Hut, which was a Sunday school prize and then other volumes in the series which  I received as Christmas and birthday presents. By the time I was 12 I had read them all. I recall one splendid occasion when I had spent a week off school ill in bed (do otherwise normally healthy children these days ever spend a week ill in bed?) when my father, trying to cheer me up, brought home two volumes that I hadn't yet read which he had picked up cheap in a W. H. Smith sale.

I was thinking of the Jennings stories the other day while re-reading Orwell's essay on Boy's Weeklies. I must have read that essay at least 3 or 4 times and  it always reminds me that  in its early phases the sociological study of popular culture was  a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room  rather than  the academic joke it has subsequently become. Orwell was absolutely spot on in pointing out the snob appeal of the boarding school story. Nobody  around our way went to prep school and all I knew about such places came from reading the Jennings stories. I was fascinated by them. It was a world completely different from mine. Yes, the boys were away from home, but they were never lonely and they were free from interfering adults. It was all ultimately very reassuring because whatever comic disaster was threatening it was always eventually avoided by the intervention of a benevolent aunt, the arrival of a 10 shilling postal order and the good sense of Mr Carter who understood the minds of small boys in  a way that Mr Wilkins never could. The world seemed permanently stuck in 1950 and though the fixtures and fitting might seem a little primitive from the perspective of the 1970s, the sun always shone and after prep, if you were lucky, there might be a half-holiday and you could go down to the town and eat buns. This is how the solid middle class lived and how attractive it looked!

Buckeridge also wrote the Rex Milligan series about boys in a grammar school and their rivalry with the oiks from the secondary technical. I borrowed one of these from the local library but I never finished it. It simply didn't have the magic of the Jennings stories. Rex Milligan's world was too much like my own. There was no snob appeal. I didn't want to read about children recognizably like myself, I wanted to be taken to a different place. Shabby genteel as it was, I had no doubts that Linbury Court would have thrashed Sheldrake Grammar at cricket.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Question of Loyalties

I take great delight in discovering excellent novelists that I have never heard of. Allan Massie is one such and over Easter I read his A Question of Loyalties. Although it is completely different in style and feeling, I'd put it right up there with Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men as one of the best political novels I've read.

Massie's book is about moral and political ambiguity and about the consequences of being fated to live in times of  chaos and confusion. The central character is trying to  discover what motivated the actions of his father, a relatively minor political figure in Vichy France. When the State collapses even doing nothing is a choice that may be held against you in the future. Do you remain and try to salvage something from the ruins even though you know you will become politically and morally compromised?  Do you say, better I take on this burden than some of the bastards that might be itching to do it? Do you flee the country and join what look at the time to be either hopeless dreamers or even worse political opportunists? What, in these circumstances, do patriotism and loyalty mean? Loyalties to what or to whom: friends, family an idea of the nation? What are the best interests of France and the people who have no choice but to go on living there?

All these questions are considered as they presented themselves in 1940 to someone who chose to carry on living in a defeated France. We know it is all going to end badly, but they didn't or if they did all endings looked pretty unpalatable. 

And if you are wondering just how morally and politically confused people were at the the time, not just in France but also in England you should try reading the first volume of the collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. You will, I think, be quite surprised by what you'll find.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Scottish Independence

About which I have very little to say, apart from that it is the business of those that live in Scotland to decide whether to turn their nation into a state and that as a social democrat I'll be sorry to see them go. This site has a comprehensive collection of polling data. To accompany these thoughts what better than Hamish Henderson's Freedom come all ye an internationalist song written by a Scot educated in England who served in the British army: and sung by an Irishman. And this version by Lisa Rigby is pretty good too.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Graphs versus Maps

There is a nice discussion on Andrew Gelman's blog about the relative merits of maps and graphs for displaying statistical information. The important thing is not to think about how pretty the picture is, but about how to communicate the message to the reader most effectively. All purveyors of STATA graph defaults should think well on't.

So farewell then Richard Hoggart

John Ezard's obituary of Richard Hoggart in today's Guardian is one of the best  I've read in a while. Sadly he (Ezard) is no longer with us  and we can but lament that we won't be seeing more from him. I wrote something a few years ago about Hoggart inspired by reading one of the volumes of his autobiography. 

I first read The Uses of Literacy almost exactly 20 years after it was  published and it described a world that for my generation had already long vanished. And yet what I took away from it was not  the celebration of a particular sort of working class life but something much more important: the sense that literary culture was important, discussion of it serious and that flippancy about it  not something that a child from my sort of background could afford. In short it was one of the  things that legitimated my growing feeling that it was OK to have intellectual interests in a world where few did.

I believe this is one of the reasons I get mad with the sort of academic, all to common in sociology, that treats the production of words as a mere game. I can imagine that Hoggart appreciated the attitude to a  craft that lay behind Bill Shankly's famous quip: 'Someone said to me 'To you football is a matter of life or death!' and I said "Listen, it's more important than that". 

Rereading what I wrote four years ago, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that it still seems to hang together, though I am a bit puzzled by what I could possibly have meant by "matrix of discrimination". I suppose I should be thinking of motes and beams.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Μολὼν λαβέ

So the guys over at GBCS have finally  got around to responding,  in a piece titled 'On social class, anno 2014'.  Obviously the use of Latin makes the whole thing seem classy, but what the hell, let's  raise the cultural ante and go Greek!

 Like the Persians the Savage crew fight mob handed, but it is always good to see defections from the opposing ranks - three of the originals seem to have declined the opportunity to join in this round. I wonder why? Could it be that they are having second thoughts? I don't know but I think we should be told. [That's enough of the cliches. Ed.] 

But, lo, what is this? Replacing them are two new recruits. A hearty welcome to Laurison and Snee who seem to have invented the new sport of writing replies to responses to articles they didn't write themselves. Think about it, the mercenary possibilities are endless. I'm looking forward to a few guest gigs myself.

Seriously though, I will  in due course let y'all know what I think about their effort (you didn't seriously think I'd pass that opportunity over did you?) but not just yet. At the moment I'm rather busy working on things that don't involve pointing out the glaring deficiencies of logic and reason in the work of others. At least until the Easter break is over I'd like to preserve my positively cheerful mood and concentrate on construction rather than demolition.

I can give you a few teasers though. Firstly and trivially, I hope the version of anno 2014  sent to Sociology is better copy edited than the one on the web. For starters you really do need to sort out your references boys: McGovern, P., Hills, S., Mills, C., (2007) indeed. And while we are on the subject I'm still pondering the Freudian significance of the fact that though you cite my critique you don't actually manage to reference it. Whoa, that is seriously deep repression man.

And then there is the thing I'll pose as an Easter competition. You might want to have another look at the table of model selection statistics that appears immediately above Appendix 2. Let's call it Table 3 though you seem to have forgotten to give it a title. Can you spot anything odd about it?  Clue: why does classification error appear to increase as the number of estimated parameters increases? And why is the change not monotonic in the number of parameters? And while we are at it what does classification error mean in a model where some of the manifest indicators are continuous?

Jeez, you were supposed to be making things clearer, not digging an even bigger hole!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Bauman, plagiarism, blah, blah

Another week, another plagiarism scandal. THE is reporting that one of Britain's favourite blah blah sociologists Zygmunt Bauman has been a bit naughty and caught out by a Cambridge PhD student. The claim is that Ziggy was a little lax in attributing his  debt to Wikipedia. Oh well,  when your USP is to publish more words than any comparable blah blah sociologists I can see how it might be necessary to cut a few corners. But the sage of Leeds isn't giving up without a fight. Taking a leaf out of Maria Miller's book he is brazening it out with a "the rules don't apply to me" type defence. THES quotes him as saying that in 60 years he had :  

“...never once failed to acknowledge the authorship of the ideas or concepts that I deployed, or that inspired the ones I coined” and goes on to say: “All the same, while admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60-odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues that Mr Walsh obviously confuses.”and then: “As his co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him.”

Brilliant. An object lesson. When caught with your trousers around your ankles first assert against all the evidence that they are in fact securely belted round your waist. Then say that in the purely hypothetical circumstance that  they might be  around your ankles this  would, in any case, be irrelevant. Then patronize the person that points out that the Emperor is naked and exposing himself in a vulgar fashion.

And what of the bold Polity Press, publisher by appointment to Bauman and a whole host of sociology's blah blah merchants? Apparently no one was willing to comment and, I assume, no one was prepared to admit that they had been the publisher's reader. Shame also on the "senior Cambridge academic" who was prepared to opine that Bauman had “a strong prima facie case to answer” but didn't have the cojones to allow their name to be published. If you are that senior you surely have nothing to be afraid of: Mr Walsh, who in his more humble position has much more to fear,  has put his head above the parapet so why shouldn't you? Of course in academic life as elsewhere it has always been the way of the generals to shove the subalterns over the top first.