Thursday, September 01, 2016

Back Door Steps

Theresa May used to be rather keen on back doors. As Home Secretary until her move to Downing Street, she was responsible for the Investigatory Powers Bill, which insisted on back doors to enable the security forces to snoop on private communications. Now she insists that Britain will not remain in Europe by the back door. So what's wrong with back doors all of a sudden?

Now you might think I'm just making a snarky political point. Obviously the back door metaphor has a different meaning in the two contexts. But there is an important connection here, so please bear with me.

The European Data Protection Supervisor is dead against encryption back doors. By mandating encryption back doors, the UK therefore appears to place itself outside the European circle of trust. The proposed legislation would mean that any UK company or UK-based facility might be subject to an equipment interference warrant (aka back door), and would not be permitted to reveal whether it did or not. Aside from the competitive disadvantage that might follow from this potential vulnerability, UK companies and UK-based services would be challenged to demonstrate compliance with the European Data Protection Regulation, and might therefore be prevented from holding data on any European citizen. There is going to be a single market for data, and we wouldn't have access to it. Another blow for the UK service industry.

So evidently Mrs May is right. Backdoor membership of the EU is not on the table.

Anushka Asthana, No staying in the EU by the back door, says Theresa May (Guardian, 31 August 2016)

Jennifer Baker, Encryption backdoors appear on EU data chief’s ban wishlist (Ars Technica, 25 July 2016)

Lucy Mair, Supreme court strikes down Home Office's back-door changes to immigration rules (Guardian, 18 July 2012)

John Naughton, Theresa May’s surveillance plans should worry us all (Guardian, 12 June 2016)

Iain Thomson, FBI Director wants 'adult conversation' about backdooring encryption (The Register, 31 August 2016)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Waiting for Article 50

HT @NickCohen4 @DavidAllenGreen @joncstone @bencoates1 I don't know whether Brexit was foreseen in Nostradamus or the Book of Revelations, but we can find troubling harbingers in the works of two writers honoured by the Swedish Academy.

Nick Cohen applies what Kipling said of the demagogues of his age to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan Smith say Not I.

Teebs discusses Endgame
If Boris Johnson looked downbeat yesterday, that is because he realises that he has lost.
Perhaps many Brexiters do not realise it yet, but they have actually lost, and it is all down to one man: David Cameron. ... Boris Johnson knew this yesterday, when he emerged subdued from his home and was even more subdued at the press conference. He has been out-maneouvered and check-mated.

Jack of Kent invokes Godot

Stalemates can last a long time. And unless there is political will to resolve it, this stalemate will not resolve itself.

 Am still looking for hooks for the following Beckett plays. Any ideas please comment below.
Come and Go? Happy Days, Catastrophe or Neither?

Nick Cohen, There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (Guardian, 25 June 2016)

David Allen Green, Why the Article 50 notification is important (Jack of Kent blog, 25 June 2016)

Jon C Stone, Video evidence emerges of Nigel Farage pledging EU millions for NHS weeks before Brexit vote (Independent, 25 June 2016)

Teebs, If Boris Johnson looked downbeat yesterday, that is because he realises that he has lost (Guardian comment, 25 June 2016)

Wikipedia Category:Plays by Samuel Beckett

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Illusion of Independence

In October 1964, the British Labour party won a close victory in the General Election. Within weeks, there was a currency crisis, which Labour politicians blamed on the so-called Gnomes of Zürich - in other words, external and unelected powers that controlled the international economic climate. After a decade of economic crises, Britain joined the European Economic Community (known as the Common Market) in 1973, and this was endorsed by a referendum in 1975. The EEC has now evolved into the European Union, with the active participation and (sometimes grudging) consent of successive British Governments.

In 1975, one of the key arguments against EEC membership was that it was supposed to undermine British sovereignty. The argument was put forcibly at both ends of the political spectrum, by Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, and a new version of the argument has been put forward by Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP. (By the way, Professor Sked is no longer involved in UKIP, which in his opinion has been taken over by racists and the far-right.)

However, Sked's argument is rather puzzling. He puts forward a formal notion of sovereignty that is possessed in equal measure by the dictator of a bankrupt and internationally powerless country (Zimbabwe), by the elected president of a rich country with a robust separation of powers (United States), and by the UK parliament acting in the name of the sovereign. The UK parliament retains the power to repeal the European Communities Act of 1972; therefore although some elements of sovereignty may have been delegated to Europe, they have not been lost. And yet the protection of this formal sovereignty provides sufficient reason for Sked to advocate Brexit.

These notions of sovereignty were already being dismissed as Victorian in 1975, and seem no more relevant today than they were then.

There are many small and powerless countries around the world, and the idea that we should envy them their "independence" is laughable. As is the idea that our bargaining position as an "independent" country would be anything like as favourable as our bargaining position as a member of a substantial trading bloc.

It was initially thought that big business was unanimously in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. Even Swiss financiers (ironically) have warned that Brexit could lead to market turbulence and currency crisis.

However, other financiers now appear to be endorsing Brexit, claiming that they want control to pass back into "our" hands. 

So whose hands would that be? Financiers? Or gnomes? No thank you.

Alex Brummer, The sovereign that never ruled (Guardian, 6 January 1999)

Alex Brummer, 'Gnomes of Zurich' strike again with an epoch-making move in the currency markets (Daily Mail, 15 January 2015)
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Swiss wealth managers warn of 'sudden stop' in capital after Brexit (Telegraph, 15 April 2016)

Greg Rosen, Labour’s Brexit brigade should not rewrite history (Progress, 10 Feb 2016)

Alan Sked, L’état c’est nous: sovereignty is no illusion, and we should retain it (LSE blogs, March 2016)

Harold Wilson and the 1964 Labour Government:The devaluation of socialism (Fifth International, Feb 1997)

European Communities Debate (Hansard, 27 October 1971)

Wikipedia: Bruges Group, Gnomes of Zürich, Separation of powers, UK Independence Party

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Spelling Crimez

According to news reports, a ten-year-old child recently got a visit from the police after writing that he lived in a 'terrorist' house. 

Given that the family was Muslim, the Internet jumps to the conclusion that there was some racial stereotyping going on here. A day or so earlier, the Prime Minister had announced a fund (or at least partially reversed previous cuts to such funding) to teach Muslim women to speak English (which would presumably include learning the correct spelling of such words as 'terraced').

If the police were serious about gathering intelligence about potential extremists in the community, and if they believed that this was a genuine lead to an extremist family, you'd have thought they would want to treat the boy as a valuable source of information, rather than immediately alerting the family that they were under suspicion. What purpose does a home visit achieve, apart from shock and awe.

The authorities have responded to the news reports, claiming that the home visit was not prompted solely by a single misspelling, there were a number of issues arising from the child's schoolwork, and that it had not been regarded as a terror incident. The home visit had been done by a social worker, accompanied by a PC.

According to the boy's cousin, the boy is now scared of writing, or using his imagination. Arguably that's not a good use of police time, when a bit of well-timed sarcasm by a schoolteacher can achieve that outcome much more efficiently.

Update. Apparently what the boy actually wrote was this.
"I hate it when my uncle beats me. I live in a terrorist house with my uncle."
So what happened within the family after the social worker (accompanied by the PC) leaves? And what happened within the community when the media sensationalized the story? Can anyone use some imagination?

Rahila Bano, Muslim boy, 10, probed for 'terrorist house' spelling error (BBC News 20 January 2016)

Mario Cacciottolo, How much of a problem is speaking English for some Muslim women? (BBC News 18 January 2016)

Aisha Gani, Lancashire police criticise BBC over 'terrorist house' story (BBC News, 21 January 2016)

Lancashire 'terrorist house' row 'not a spelling mistake' (BBC News 20 January 2016)

Bill Jacobs, 'We've done nothing wrong' - Teachers and police respond to 'terrorist house' 'overreaction' (Lancashire Telegraph, 21 January 2016)

Updated 21 January 2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Book of the Dead

A few years ago, the British Museum had a large exhibition for the Egyptian Book of the Dead. According to John Taylor, the curator of the exhibition, it's a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey:
  • spells for controlling your own body after death;
  • spells for protecting yourself from attack;
  • spells for satisfying the gods and demons guarding the gateways you must pass through.

We bought a jigsaw puzzle at the time, which we finally got around to solving this Christmas. The jigsaw at least we solved. But what about the meaning of the picture?

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, c. 1275 B.C.E., 19th Dynasty, 45.7 x 83.4 cm, Thebes, Egypt © Trustees of the British Museum

The picture shows a ceremony called the Opening of the Mouth. This is a ritual performed on a mummy (in this case, Hunefer) to enable the dead person to breathe, to speak, and to consume ritual offerings. The priests are waving the foreleg of a bull calf over the heads of Hunefer's grieving wife and daughter.
But the spell has already been cast, so why would Hunefer need to know the spell? To my mind, the purpose of this particular page doesn't seem like practical guidance at all, but more like bureaucratic compliance. It is a certificate (audit trail) to prove that the Opening of the Mouth ceremony has been correctly cast. One might imagine an official in the Egyptian afterlife scanning the document, rather in the same manner as a US immigration official checking your visa waiver and customs declaration form. 

So the Book of the Dead seems to conflate and confuse the functions of guidebook and logbook. John Taylor acknowledges that parts of the Book don't make sense to the modern mind, and speculates:

"Perhaps there was a box-ticking mentality going on here: you should have one of these in your tomb so you get it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s completely accurate or not. You’ve got it, it’s there, it’s in the tomb, and it has got the right spells on it. It’s a part of the burial kit you must have."

Box-ticking? From one of the most bureaucratic cultures in the Ancient World? Surely not!

Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Exhibition at the British Museum, November 2010 - March 2011.

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, 1285 BC (Google Cultural Institute, retrieved 2 Jan 2016)

Hunefer, Book of the Dead (Khan Academy, retrieved 2 Jan 2016)

John Taylor, What is a Book of the Dead? (British Museum Blog, September 2010). A bit of afterlife admin? (British Museum Blog, December 2010).

Wikipedia: Ancient Egypt, Opening of the Mouth Ceremony

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Purpose of Marriage 2

A couple in Australia threatens to divorce, in protest against same-sex marriage. @garwboy is dismissive.

Actually, they are not wrecking their marriage. They intend to continue to live together as man and wife, and they intend to have more children.

Nick Jensen explains

"My wife and I, as a matter of conscience, refuse to recognise the government’s regulation of marriage if its definition includes the solemnisation of same sex couples."

In other words, same-sex marriage reframes the legal institution of marriage. The Jensens feel that same-sex marriage devalues all marriages, including theirs, and there is no real purpose in remaining tied to an institution that they no longer value. So this divorce plan appears to be a purely symbolic protest with no real content. (Like miming pissing on your feet.)

Surprisingly, Australian law doesn't recognize a symbolic protest as a valid reason for divorce. Divorces are only granted when marriages have broken down irretrievably. So unless the Jensens are willing to fake a separation for the purpose of the Australian divorce courts, they will be prevented from carrying out their threat.

In the meantime, the gesture has created a lot of noise. Perhaps that's as much as can be expected.

Gay law change may force us to divorce (City News, 10 June 2015)

Kate Aubusson, Christian couple vow to divorce if same-sex marriage is legalised (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2015)

John Griffiths, Bad news for the Jensens’ divorce plans (City News 12 June 2015)

Kirsty McCleod, If same-sex marriage is legalised, can you divorce? (@FGDFamilyLaw, 11 June 2015)

Same Sex Couple Threaten Not To Give A Shit If Other Couple Divorces (Backburner, 11 June 2015)

Related Posts

The Purpose of Marriage (February 2012)
#BigWeddingWeekend (Storify August 2014)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dark Politics

What metaphor shall we use for the travails of the British Labour Party? As the drama of the General Election abates, the Labour Party hastens to elect a new "leader". Each candidate leader sets out a position, initially intended to attract the members (and possibly the financial backers) of the Labour Party, and subsequently to attract votes in a future General Election.

The word "attract" suggests a metaphor taken from school physics lessons. As if the electorate were pulled this way and that by a series of powerful magnets, and by the magnetic personality of the right person.

More advanced physics yields some more sophisticated metaphors. I recently had this exchange on Twitter.

The "dark matter" theory leads to the idea that the Labour Party needs to identify and attract people who didn't vote for it in this election. This becomes a marketing exercise, based on a segmentation of the population. The candidate leaders fall over one another to suggest that the party has neglected particular segments of the population - the "moderate" voter or the "aspirational" voter, the socially-conservative working-class voter or the more liberally-minded middle-class voter - and to demand repositioning the party to appeal to this segment in future.

The "dark energy" theory leads to the idea that parties of the Left are always frustrated by hidden forces - the baleful influence of the City or Media - which divert the opinions and votes of people who rightfully ought to vote Labour. When she was growing up in a working-class household, @suzanne_moore diagnosed her mother with 'false consciousness'.
"This is still how most of the left operates. We have the truth, we know what is best and we will enlighten you, awaken you from your slumbers and you will be grateful."

Meanwhile, Martin Kettle points out that the search for understanding requires us to look at what was attractive about the Tories, not just what was unattractive about Labour.
"On the left, Tory motives and values are often stereotyped (as Labour motives and values are, of course, caricatured on the right) in ways that make people on the left feel good about themselves. The Tories in this view are variously greedy, mean, destructive, selfish, uncaring, small-minded, racist, nationalistic and more. But what if the motives and values that Tory voters see are less extreme – things like competent, reliable, realistic, prudent, generous, tolerant, decent or patriotic? None of those qualities is in itself in any way objectionable. It would be reasonable to vote for a party that you thought had such qualities – and I suspect lots of people did on 7 May."

The "New Labour" project under Tony Blair simultaneously tackled both parts of the matter/energy equation - appeasing Rupert Murdoch and the City, distancing the party from its traditional working class base (especially the Trade Unions) and appealing to the middle classes. This strategy was highly effective in electoral terms, while it lasted, but it was a Faustian pact. Some traditional Labour supporters believe that the Blair-Brown government permitted itself to be influenced by dark forces of various kinds: it extended the promotion of market forces into public services (especially healthcare), it participated enthusiastically in the disastrous intervention in the Middle East, and failed to prevent the systematic trashing of traditional capitalism by a handful of merchant banks. It introduced tuition fees for university students, and created or extended business-friendly initiatives such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Academy Schools programme, which were continued by the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. Between 2010 and 2015, the Labour Party was fairly constrained in its criticism of the coalition government, perhaps because it was easy to imagine a neo-Blairite government doing much the same kind of stuff. Indeed, that has been one of the main complaints of the right-wing of the Conservative Party, especially under threat from UKIP.

In the 1990s, Blair was regarded as a "modernizer"; the word is now used as a coded way of referring to Blairite candidates for the leadership, especially Liz Kendall, and implies a rejection of some out-dated notions of socialism and/or syndicalism (in other words, the baleful influence of the Trades Unions).

The trouble with modernization is that it is a management agenda, not a leadership one. All of the clean-cut and articulate Oxbridge graduates who are now competing for the Labour leadership would probably make a decent job of management, even though none of them appears to have much experience outside politics. But the debate is along familiar lines - Old Labour, New Labour, Borrowed Labour, Blue Labour. True leadership would entail creating a new narrative, not merely rehashing the familiar debate.

Not for the first time, the Labour Party now faces an existential crisis. Historian Selina Todd suggests that Labour could be reborn in a different guise and with a different purpose. Meanwhile radical Conservative thinkers (Steve Hilton) see an opportunity to seize the moral high-ground on social justice. Maybe there is some more drama still to unfold.

Daniel Boffey, Can David Cameron make Tories the new party of social justice? (Observer 24 May 2015)

Alain C. Enthoven, Introducing Market Forces into Health Care: A Tale of Two Countries (Nuffield Trust, June 2002)

Martin Kettle, It’s vital to know why Labour lost – yet more so to know why the Tories won (Guardian 14 May 2015)

Suzanne Moore, Working-class Tories are not just turkeys voting for Christmas (Guardian 14 May 2015)

Clive Peedell, The Politics of NHS Market Reforms (8 January 2012)

Allyson Pollock, A gauntlet for Brown (Guardian 11 April 2007)

Selina Todd, Has the Labour party outlived its usefulness? (Guardian 24 May 2015)

Wikipedia: Academy (English school), Private Finance Initiative (PFI), Tuition fees in the UK

Updated 24 May 2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Delight in Giddiness

@roygrubb praises @HPluckrose for clarity.

Helen says we need something. But is this really a clear statement of requirements? What exactly is she demanding here? Does she expect politicians to provide precise definitions of all the cliches and platitudes and vague promises in the manifesto or on the hustings? If benefits are going to be directed towards "hard-working families", do we need this term to be defined as well? (See Terry Eagleton's criticism of the party manifestos.)

Supposing it to be possible to legislate about "islamophobia" (or "hate crime"), the term would need to be defined properly, so that the legislation is fair and workable. My initial reading of Helen's tweet was that she believed that a meaningful definition was not possible, therefore legislation would not be possible, therefore the promise to legislate would be either foolish or in bad faith. However, instead of stating this belief directly, she expresses her challenge in the form of a case that may demonstrate the impossibility of producing a fair and workable definition.

Of course, this form of challenge is quite legitimate, but I should like to quibble with Roy's assertion that it is the clearest (most explicit) way of posing such a challenge. The fact that I initially misread Helen's tweet (as affirmed in the comment below this post) reinforces my concern about clarity. I'm not blaming Helen for this - it is rarely possible to express one's complete meaning in a 140 character tweet.  

Helen wants Ed Miliband to reassure us that any legislation would be drawn narrowly, to avoid restricting legitimate intellectual debate. However, there is a precedent for ill-defined and over-generalized terms being coded into legislation, as shown in the absurd laws on "glorifying terrorism", and we may have little confidence that the legislators will apply the appropriate rigour in coming up with a proper definition of anything.

The example quoted by Helen is interesting because it could be used to generate further examples. Firstly, the word "Islam" could be replaced with the word "Christianity". Secondly, the word "Islam" could be replaced with the phrase "Islam-or-Christianity". Could someone who wished to attack Islam and/or its adherents evade the Islamophobia laws by including a token attack on other religions and their adherents? And how would the law regard someone who claims to attack all religions indiscriminately but is accused of devoting a disproportionate amount of his bile for one religion in particular?

The example quoted by Helen is also interesting because it attacks the notion of truth embedded in the phrase "True Islam", using a correspondence notion of truth, which Richard Dawkins and other scientists take as the epistemological "gold standard". But I think many people would interpret "True Islam" in terms of some (subjective) notion of authenticity, and regard the opening statement as either begging the question or deliberate provocation.

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting.

Hamed Chapman, Labour would outlaw Islamophobia, says Miliband in an exclusive interview (Muslim News, 24 April 2015)
S. Abbas Raza, Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth (3Quarks Daily, December 2005)
Francis Bacon, Of Truth (Essays)
Terry Eagleton, Which party’s election manifesto is the best written? (Guardian 24 April 2015)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Correspondence Theory of Truth
Wikipedia: Terrorism Act 2006
POSIWID blog: Glory Glory Knockdown Argument (October 2005)

Update 14:20 UK time following Helen's comment. Clarified that this was my initial (but incorrect) reading of her tweet. Reworded from "attack Islam" to "attack Islam and/or its adherents".

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)