Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Symbolism of the Empty Chair

British newspapers have now turned "empty chair" into a verb.

The intention appears to be to go ahead with the election debates, without the Prime Minister but with an empty chair (or podium) to draw attention to his absence. Similar gestures have been used in the United States.

When Pope Francis failed to turn up to a Vatican concert in June 2013, a few months after his election, a white chair was left prominently on display.

Pope Francis's now famous empty chair (AP)

Commentators were quick to speculate about the meaning and motivation of the empty chair. Writing in the Catholic Herald, William Oddie wondered whether the incident indicated a curial conspiracy against the Pope. "How come that photo of the empty chair became, and so quickly, such an 'enigma'? How did it get itself plastered all over the Italian media? Why, as soon as it was known that the Pope wasn’t coming, wasn’t the chair simply removed?"

In Catholic circles, of course, the term "empty chair" (in Latin, Sede Vacante) has special redolence, as it indicates the interval between two popes. Some anti-modernists (known as Sedevacantists) deny the legitimacy of recent popes, claiming that the Holy See has been sede vacante at least since the death of John XXIII in 1963, if not earlier. Perhaps the Vatican Curia was consciously or unconsciously making a point.

Likewise, there are undoubtedly members or former members of the British Conservative Party who detest the current prime minister, and regard the party and country as being essentially without a genuine conservative leader since the demise of Margaret Thatcher. For such people, an empty chair at the election debates would have extra significance.

Maier, Vivian. “New York, NY.” Street 2. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Clint Eastwood defends 'empty chair' convention speech (BBC News, 10 September 2012)

Andy Borowitz, POLL: Romney trails empty chair (New Yorker, 31 August 2012)

William Oddie, How come that empty papal chair has become so widely interpreted as symbolic, even sinister? Is this part of a curial anti-Francis conspiracy? (Catholic Herald, 26 June 2013)

Tanisha Randhawa, Vivian Maier and [Nothingness] (19 October 2014) 

Wikipedia: Sede Vacante, Sedevacantism

Friday, December 12, 2014

More on the Purpose of Diversity

There are several arguments for diversity, and these arguments may lead to different flavours or styles of diversity. I use the term imaginary diversity for an appearance or image of diversity that may not reveal the underlying reality. And I use the term symbolic diversity for a formal procedural diversity, often found in bureaucratic organizations, which may also be a long way from real diversity.

One argument for diversity is based on justice, and the visibility of justice. When we see an organization with a largely homogeneous workforce, we may suspect that there is some discrimination going on. Nowadays, this kind of discrimination is unlikely to be deliberate policy, but can be caused in various ways:

  • the managers feel more comfortable recruiting people like themselves
  • the working practices favour people of a particular type - for example, working hours that are not compatible with childcare
  • an expectation of a particular career path - for example, entry via unpaid internships or expensive qualifications 

However, having an appearance of diversity doesn't prove the lack of discrimination. A company may employ lots of women, but few with small children, and none in senior positions. And until someone leaks the salary data on the internet, the female employees may not know if they are paid the same as male employees doing equivalent jobs.

Another argument for diversity is based on organizational intelligence. Similar people see the world in similar ways, with similar assumptions and blind spots.

Race and gender are generally more visible than other potential discriminatory factors, such as class, educational background, sexual orientation and religious affiliation.

The problem with imaginary diversity is that it privileges visible signs of difference over other, perhaps equally important kinds of difference. We don't achieve real diversity in politics merely by mixing male, female, white and ethnic, especially if the politicians (and the journalists interviewing them) all studied the same degrees at the same universities. Politicians such as Barack Obama (black male, Harvard), Hillary Clinton (white female, Yale), Ed Miliband (Jewish male, Oxford) and Diane Abbott (black female, Cambridge) have a lot of things in common: similarity here is not just a function of race and gender.

The problem with symbolic diversity is that it nominates a few kinds of difference for special treatment, while ignoring other forms. Suddenly everyone gets worked up about age discrimination or postcode discrimination or whatever, and we have an official policy and procedure about that, while other forms of discrimination are permitted or even encouraged.

Related Blogs

Relationships built on self-interest (January 2009)
What is the Purpose of Diversity? (January 2010)
Organizational Intelligence and Gender (October 2010)
Delusion and Diversity (October 2010)

Monday, December 08, 2014

What's in a name?

Richard Terrence Peter Hollingworth was until recently a district judge, as well as adjudicating immigration cases. Faced with a case involving a victim whose name was Patel, he shocked prosecutors by demanding that she should attend court the same afternoon, because someone with that name and ethnic background probably worked in a shop or off-licence and wouldn't have any difficulty taking time off work. "She won't be working anywhere important."

I'm sure judges make stupid remarks all the time, but on this occasion the prosecutor (rightly) made a fuss, and the judge is now (rightly) sacked. Although the racism is unpleasant, that is not the only shocking element of the story. The point about being a judge is that you are not supposed to jump to conclusions, racist or otherwise. Although judges may well believe privately that working class jobs are less important than proper jobs like, for example law, they shouldn't base their decisions on these beliefs. And the notion that someone working in a shop (or off-licence) can easily take time off at short notice shows gross ignorance about how the other half live. Let's not jump to conclusions, but when an Englishman has three or more Christian names and an old English surname this can be an indicator of class background.

As it turned out, the victim of Mr Hollingworth's racism doesn't work in a shop. She is 20 years old and studying law. She was horrified to learn about the judge's remarks.

If Mr Hollingworth had said "oh, she's only a student, studying isn't a proper job", he'd probably have gotten away with it.

Perhaps now Mr Hollingworth can go back to college and study law properly. Or he should try working in an off-licence. At least from now on he won't be working anywhere important. As the Hollingworth family motto says, "Disce ferenda pati: learn to suffer what must be borne".

Immigration judge Peter Hollingworth faces race remark investigation (BBC News, 7 December 2014)

Nigel Bunyan, Judge resigns after making racist remark about victim (Guardian, 7 December 2014)

Ben Tufft, Immigration judge Richard Hollingworth forced to resign after racial slur: 'With a name like Patel, she won't be working anywhere important' (Independent, 7 December 2014)

News Release: Judge Hollingworth (8 December 2014). Judge Peter James Michael Hollingworth, 63, who sits as a judge in the First Tier Immigration and Asylum Tribunal and also as a Deputy District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts)  wishes to make clear that he has no connection with Judge Terence Richard Peter Hollingworth, 63, who sat in the same courts and who you reported as having resigned from the Magistrates’ Court and being under investigation as an Immigration Judge. 

Wikipedia: Hollingworth Surname
Wikipedia: Bourne and Hollingsworth

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

School Inspections

#Ofsted's @mcladingbowl via @rachelala asks everyone to share a school inspection myth-buster. So here goes.

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, reporting directly to Parliament. It carries out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits every week across England; separate bodies handle inspections in the rest of the UK.

According to Ofsted, inspection acts in a number of ways to drive and support school improvement.

  • raises expectations by setting the standards of performance and effectiveness expected of schools
  • provides a sharp challenge and the impetus to act where improvement is needed clearly identifies strengths and weaknesses
  • recommends specific priorities for improvement for the school and, when appropriate, checks on and promotes subsequent progress
  • promotes rigour in the way that schools evaluate their own performance, thereby enhancing their capacity to improve
  • monitors the progress and performance of schools that are not yet good, and challenges and supports senior leaders, staff and those responsible for governance.

Of course, schools wish to perform well in these inspections, and to avoid the inconvenience and shame of being selected for "special measures". So it is not surprising that certain beliefs have grown up around these inspections.

Although I don't have direct experience of school inspections, I can easily imagine how such beliefs might develop. Perhaps the inspector visiting school A casually asks to see a particular document, or comments on its absence. This becomes part of the collective memory of the school. Before the next inspection, every teacher in the school has been instructed to prepare this document in readiness. In time, this knowledge spreads to other schools, and becomes widely accepted as "best practice" for passing an inspection.  

Ofsted now wishes to dispel certain myths about the inspection process, and denies that it "requires" or "expects to see" loads of stuff. In its latest clarification, Ofsted officially deprecates a number of specific practices.

But there is a critical ambiguity in the notion of requirement. These practices may not be officially required by Ofsted; but if they happen to be strongly correlated with successful inspections, it may well be rational for school teachers to continue to regard these practices as implicitly encouraged and reinforced by the actions of Ofsted inspectors. It would be a brave head teacher who abandoned those practices that had got the school through past inspections, simply because Ofsted insisted that these practices were not officially required.

Ofsted is also charged with a range of political and social objectives, including promoting British values and tackling extremism, and these implicit objectives are believed to colour its assessments of educational outcomes.

And when Ofsted insists that "it is up to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to the inspection handbook", this sounds suspiciously like a classic double bind. Of course you can have as much bureaucracy as you like, as long as you really want to do it for its own sake and not because we told you to. Oh, and please make sure none of it is "unnecessary".

Ofsted, Framework for School Inspection (July 2014)

Ofsted inspections - clarification for schools (October 2014)

Richard Adams, Ofsted tells teachers what not to do in effort to dispel inspection myths (Guardian 17 October 2014)

Graeme Paton, Ofsted being turned into a 'schoolroom security service' (Telegraph 28 November 2014)

Zoe Williams, Swamp or success: your school is being racially profiled (Guardian 23 November 2014)

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Was She Thinking?

When @emilythornberry MP saw a house draped with the flag of St George, white van parked outside, she couldn't resist tweeting a picture to her followers back in her constituency.

Picture of Emily Thornberry tweet

Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, which, as the Guardian constituency profile acidly remarks, "is routinely maligned as the natural habitat of the hypocritical, well-off, ostensibly liberal chattering classes". Perhaps as a result of this unfortunate stereotype her innocent action was widely interpreted as a snobbish reference, from a member of the North London urban elite, to the working class voters of Rochester, and she was forced to resign her position in the Shadow Cabinet.

But her constituency isn't homogeneously affluent, and she tweeted a photo of herself earlier this week, happily delivering leaflets in a housing estate. So not snobbery exactly.

So what motivated her to post the Rochester tweet in the first place, and who was its intended audience? It is now common for people to post pictures from their travels onto Facebook and Twitter, as a modern equivalent of the postcard home. So Emily Thornberry's tweet from Rochester makes it seem as if she regarded her visit to Rochester as a kind of rustication (or missus ad rusticos).

As @freedland writes, "even Thornberry’s defenders do not pretend she was trying to recruit white van drivers who fly the English flag from their homes. At best, she appeared to express the fascination of a visiting anthropologist for the natives of Rochester and Strood with their curious cultural customs." Or perhaps as @sarahditum suggests, she is drawing attention to the supposed jingoism of the Rochester and Strood electorate. How on earth could that be interpreted as class warfare?

To the extent that her thoughts and tweets are directed at the people back home in North London, she is keeping the Kentish voters at arm's length. As far as I can see, she doesn't appear in any of the photos she tweeted from Rochester and Strood, even as a tourist. Like many tourists, her tweets often lack explicit meaning, which then prompts people to project their own interpretation onto the real purpose of her communication. She casually labels everything #Rochester, although Strood has a significantly different demographic: most of the UKIP support was in Strood, while Rochester remained solidly Conservative.

Further insight into her London-centric vision can be inferred from her having retweeted a post from Buzzfeed called 27 Reasons To Fall In Love With A Londoner, which starts with the assertion that Londoners are the coolest people in the country. Yes indeed, Lady Thornberry, yes indeed.

Adam Donald, Emily Thornberry: How one tweet led to her resignation (BBC News 21 November 2014)

Jonathan Freedland, The Emily Thornberry affair proves it: US-style culture wars have come to Britain (Guardian 21 November 2014)

Sarah Ditum, Tweeting a picture of a house is not an act of class warfare, whatever the Sun says (New Statesman 21 November 2014)

Updated 26 Nov 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Forgotten Tricks

Old typewriters didn't have an exclamation mark key. Those accustomed to modern word processors might infer that people didn't use the exclamation mark. @newstypewriter even suggests that this forced writers to "convey excitement by writing artful sentences".

But if you ever used an old-fashioned typewriter, you should remember the workaround - single quote, backspace, point. Numerous people leaped onto Twitter to point out this error.

Which raises the question - how do tricks like this get erased from the collective memory? 

Another forgotten trick is the fade-out at the end of a pop single. This was sometimes used to conceal flaws in the recording, but was sometimes used as an artistic device. Indeed, the fade-out at the end of the Beatles' Day in the Life was engineered to last for an unnaturally long period. Nowadays, the fade-out isn't thought to suit the way music is consumed, and is typically only used for retro pieces such as Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … (Slate, 14 Sept 2014)

Obviously our sense of the possible is influenced by present and future technology, but it is also influenced by our experience of past as well as present technology. New technology occasionally allows people to do things they didn't know they wanted to do, but it often merely finds more streamlined ways of doing things that people could already do if they were sufficiently determined and ingenious. Look at Delia Derbyshire and Karlheinz Stockhausen, synthesizing highly original music without the aid of commercial synthesizers. Whereas if you use the same tools as everyone else, you may struggle to produce music that doesn't sound the same.

Related posts

Art and the Enterprise (March 2006)
Karlheinz Stockhausen (December 2007)

Saturday, September 06, 2014

School Uniform

#wrongtrousers @HeatonManor, a state school in Newcastle, has attracted opprobrium for putting over fifty children into detention for wearing the "wrong trousers".

It seems that the school had issued new school uniform guidelines, specifying "tailored" trousers, which many parents had misunderstood or ignored. It appears that the school interpreted these guidelines as banning tight or drainpipe trousers, and was zealous in enforcing this interpretation. Clearly there is a question here of language and class: how many parents appreciated the teachers' notion of tailoring?

If you look at the dictionary definition of tailoring, you might imagine that it meant "made-to-measure" rather than "off-the-peg". Many decades ago when I was at school, there were a few boys with wealthy parents, who had their school uniform made to measure. The rest of us had much cheaper off-the-peg clothes, and everyone could see the difference. This of course undermined one of the alleged purposes of uniform, which is to conceal differences of wealth and social background.

What is the real purpose of school uniform? Sometimes it seems that the real purpose is to prevent children from ever wearing anything fashionable. In the early 1970s, school rules prevented boys having long hair, but very short hair was fine. Then in the mid 1970s, school rules were reinterpreted or changed to ban skinheads. Obviously fashions change faster than the schools can reissue the rules.

Another alleged purpose of school uniform in state schools is to ape private schools. Many comments on this incident have accused the school authorities of behaving like dictators: imposing controls on something that is irrelevant to education, and then imposing sanctions that interfere with education. This is a very old debate, and is certainly not unique to Heaton Manor.

Meanwhile, as @MagNews comments, no reference as to affordability! Some families try to get by with one set of clothes, and may have difficulties when these need washing, while others can afford more than one set. Families typically buy new or second-hand uniforms before the start of the school year, and it's not easy to rush out and buy more clothes because the teachers don't like the first lot.

Finally, let's look at the Heaton Manor guiding principles (retrieved 6 September 2014). These include

  • Courtesy, self-discipline and respect for others – good fellowship
  • Trust, honesty and integrity
  • Acceptance of personal responsibility
  • Understanding, care and tolerance
  • Confidence, motivation, self belief and esteem – encouraging independence 

It will be interesting to see how the school explains its interpretation of these principles in this context.


Newcastle school puts 50 pupils in detention for wearing wrong trousers (Guardian 5 September 2014)

More than 50 children put into detention for wearing the wrong trousers (Independent 5 September 2014)

and before you think this is only a UK thing ...

Strict dress code nets detentions at NY school (Salon 15 September 2014)

Jessica Valenti, How many young women can a school legally punish for dress code violations? (Guardian 17 September 2014)

Updated 17 September 2014

Friday, May 23, 2014

Smart Guns

Just suppose that smart guns were safer than ordinary guns.

For example, if someone grabbed your gun and tried to point it at you. If it was a smart gun you'd be perfectly safe because there is a fool-proof mechanism that prevents its use by an unauthorized person.

As with any technological advance, some people are sceptical. How much do you trust new technology? Suppose the gun doesn't work when you need it. Maybe an electromagnetic pulse (triggered by terrorists or natural solar activity) might take out all weapons in the area. Or maybe the bad guys (or the FBI) can hack into this mechanism and disable your gun before they attack you.

Meanwhile, like many technological advances, there are political implications. In the USA, the key question is whether such a mechanism might help reduce gun violence. Some gun control activists think such a mechanism would be pretty irrelevant.

But that doesn't stop the gun rights activists freaking out at the prospect of any damn technology on their precious weaponry. A shop owner in the US claims to have received death threats from pro-gun lobbyists for offering to sell the weapons. Meanwhile, as Joseph Steinberg suggests, an obsession with smart guns may inhibit other technological innovations that could make guns and gun-owning safer.

Because once these smart guns are available, by a process of technological determinism, they become irresistible to legislators. Before long, you won't be able to buy regular guns.

Obviously that's a cause worth killing for.

David Kopel, Brady Center lawsuit to use “smart” gun mandate to trigger handgun ban in New Jersey (Washington Post 22 May 2014)

Karen McVeigh, Gun control groups accuse New Jersey of ignoring 'smart gun' law (Guardian 21 May 2014)

Michael S. Rosenwald, Maryland dealer, under pressure from gun-rights activists, drops plan to sell smart gun (Washington Post, 1 May 2014)

Joseph Steinberg, Why You Should Be Concerned About The New 'Smart Guns' (Whether You Love Or Hate Guns) (Forbes 4 May 2014)

Nicholas Tufnell, Smart guns: How smart are they? (BBC News, 23 May 2014)

Eugene Volokh, Smart guns, electromagnetic pulse, and planning for unknown-probability dangers (Washington Post 23 May 2014)

See also Batman/Catwoman: Trail of the Gun (hat tip @ChBrain).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Purpose of Wealth 2

Is America an Oligarchy?, asks John Cassidy (New Yorker 18 April 2014). He challenges what he calls the "alarmist" headline US is an oligarchy, not a democracy (BBC News 17 April 2014) reporting a recent study by Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University).

The study shows a small correlation between US policy and the opinions of the rich. No doubt this could be explained by the fact that the rich are more in touch with sociopolitical realities, which is probably one of the factors helping them to get rich in the first place. Correlation not causation? Yeah, right.

 In any case, the supposed influence is asymmetrical. Even when the rich support some policy change, its chance of being enacted is less than 50%. But when the rich oppose some policy change, its chance of being enacted is less than 20%. Thus the rich appear to have an effective veto.

But a large veto is wielded by the political system itself. Only a small fraction of policy changes are enacted, and public opinion (whether majority or rich) doesn't make much difference. Obviously, the system itself doesn't like change. Now where have we heard that before?

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (forthcoming Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Purpose of Wealth

Marc Benioff has a message for his rich tech friends: "Give back or get out". (San Francisco Magazine, 19 April 2014)

One man obviously doesn't need this message. "Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, has told a conference his children will not be left billion-dollar trust funds, despite [his] having amassed a personal fortune of $76 billion (£46 billion). The Microsoft founder was speaking at a TED conference in Vancouver when he announced that most of his wealth will instead be left to the family's charitable organisation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The charity works to improve health care, education and reduce extreme poverty around the world." (The Independent, 20 March 2014).

Interviewed at the same conference, Larry Page outlined an apparently different idea about the purpose of wealth. Asked about a sentiment that Page had apparently voiced before that rather than leave his fortune to a cause, that he might just give it to Elon Musk. Page agreed, calling Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars “to back up humanity” a worthy goal. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” he said (Wired, 19 March 2014). In Business Insider, this story is headlined as "I’d Rather Leave My Billions to Elon Musk Than to Charity" (Business Insider 19 March 2014, Slate 20 March 2014).

But surely Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars is a cause. And as Page understands the word, it is a "philanthropic" cause. He presumably doesn't want to give lots of money to Musk just so Musk can set up trust funds for his own children.

I have no idea whether Page actually believes what he says in public about charity. Obviously rich people like Gates and Page have an endless queue of optimistic people asking for money for this or that charity. One way of managing this queue is to set up a Foundation, and refer all requests to this Foundation. Another way is to put on a public show of disdain for charitable causes.

Technology entrepreneurs sometimes compete to display their philanthropic credentials. In a recent interview, Marc Benioff expressed scorn about a large donation by Mark Zuckerberg, and hinted that this was merely a politically motivated tax write off.

Where’s it gone? What good is it doing now? What are his targets? What are his philanthropic interests?

If Page wants to give his money to a company, the obvious choice would be Google itself, There are precedents for a company founder to give his shares back to the company and/or its employees in perpetual trust. Google could then invest the cash in a number of interesting and even "philanthropic" ways. Such as buying into Musk's company (Tesla Motors).

Indeed, Google's much mocked slogan, "don't be evil", would imply that all Google's cash should be invested in missions that Page would regard as "philanthropic". But then I can hear the unmistakeable voice of the late Tony Benn asking Larry Page five questions:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

This post was originally written in March 2014 about the difference between Bill Gates and Larry Page. Updated 19 April 2014 to include the difference between Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg,

See also Andrew Leonard, Tech titan throws some shade at Mark Zuckerberg (Salon 17 April 2014)