Lake District Rituals

09/07/2011 § Leave a comment

I’m just back from a week in the Lakes, where I have learnt a valuable lesson about weather forecasting. It seems that the met office have decided ‘sunny with cloud, rain and lightning’ is a useful prediction for the day’s climate; which seems to imply that your average weather forecaster never has to get dressed in the morning.

Still – some patches of glorious sunshine have meant more time spent walking, and reflecting on one of the customs of Lakeland walkers. When you pass another group, it is standard practice to say hello, except when you don’t. This is not an easy situation, and with that in mind I think someone needs to codify some rules. The following applies to the first person in any walking group:

Rule 1 – you should always be ready to say hello. My great-aunt Joan is very clear on this point. Once upon a time everyone was polite when they met, and if you’re not going to say hello, you’re part of a wide-ranging decline in civilised values.

Rule 2 – notwithstanding rule 1, it would also be rude to interrupt someone’s privacy. If they don’t want to interact, you should under no circumstances intrude. This would risk non-reply, which is embarrassing to you and your party.

Rule 3 – because of this, every time you approach another party of walkers, you need to simultaneously a) try to establish eye contact to check whether you can say hello; b) not try so hard that you look like some kind of crazy, starey person who has escaped from the Ambleside Home for the Chemically Stabilised. The correct glance should last about three quarters of a second.

Rule 4 – if you don’t make eye contact with the first person, be ready to try again with all the other members of the party. This is especially relevant if the leader of the other group is a man in his forties or fifties and is clearly concentrating on proving he can still climb a hill as well as he could twenty years ago.

Rule 5 – only say hello/hi/mhmm/morning once for the whole group. This is a one-to-many situation, so do not greet every person you pass, even if they all say hello to you. This is not a wedding reception.

A very, very important corollary is that these rules only apply to visitors to the Lakes. Saying hello to a local would be seen as trying to pretend to full Cumbrian citizenship when it is quite clear, from your overpriced boots to your taste in garish goretex, that you are nothing of the sort. There, if they deign to notice your existence, it’s better to settle for a regretful smile.

Dead non-presidents

23/06/2011 § Leave a comment

It’s not often that you have to worry about zombie currencies, but this week is one of those weeks. A little over a decade ago, everyone was dewy-eyed about the disappearance of the Drachma, Europe’s oldest currency. Today, everyone is terrified that it’ll come back

I find this crisis particularly interesting, because it echoes one of the most important, and easiest forgotten events in US history. All of which goes back to the question – who is it on the back of the $10 bill?


Alexander Hamilton is the spurned prophet of early American history. Setting aside the fact that he helped write the American constitution, he’s probably most famous for getting the right answer to a long list of political questions about 100 years before the rest of America. For example, he was firmly behind the creation of a central bank in America – and after another 125 years of argument America finally set up the Federal Reserve. He wanted to support the growth of industry rather than farming – eighty years and one civil war later America came round to agreeing with him.

By way of thank you, he was eventually shot and killed by the Vice President. Something Dick Cheney recently tried to bring back into fashion.

Despite all this, he was the man behind the most important deal in American political history. It was 1790 – less than a year since the new constitution had come into effect. George Washington was trying to design an entire government from the ground up, and for his Secretary of the Treasury he appointed the young Alexander Hamilton. Top economic problem at this time was a sovereign debt crisis.

America, having fought a war of independence almost entirely on credit, was flat broke. Not just nationally, but also state-by-state. Several constituent members were rapidly on their way to becoming economic basket cases, and federal debt was changing hands at 25 cents on the dollar.

Left unchecked, the United States would rapidly be divided – into those states that had a government and those that didn’t. Indeed, almost every other Latin American country in the years ahead would face the same problem, would default, and would see politics and economy stagnate. It’s not an exaggeration to say the future of the whole country was at stake.

Hamilton’s response was straight forward and direct. He didn’t horse around with bailout packages or emergency bridging loans; instead, he proposed to take the collective debts of all thirteen states and make them the responsibility of the federal government – known as assumption. Debts that Georgia couldn’t pay, the United States as a whole would. The financial system would be saved, as would the reputation of the US government.

As with everything Hamilton did, this plan caused predictable outrage. It didn’t help that most of the bonds had been bought up by speculators, betting that someone would eventually honour the devalued paper. Jefferson, Madison and the rest of the incipient Democratic party thought it deplorable to reward money men instead of the military veterans to whom the bonds were originally issued. And if those two reasons weren’t enough to make you apoplectic, you could still condemn it as an arrant grab for power by central government, cutting across the traditional responsibilities of the states.

Hamilton didn’t care that much for opposition. Since he knew he was right (and, as I say, he almost invariably was), and since no one else had a good answer to the question, he was perfectly willing to put his own future on the line. Not to mention that of the new-formed government.

This one time, he won his wager. Just as the federal assumption of debt was being debated, a separate argument was going on about the location of the proposed federal capital. In a deal worked out over dinner at Jefferson’s house, Hamilton agreed that the city of Washington would be built on the Potomac river – far further south than would otherwise be politically possible – and in return Jefferson and Madison agreed to let the debt plan pass.

Having won this round, Hamilton went on to set up the US customs service, found the First Bank of the United States and put the nation on a financial footing to start paying off some of those debts. But if he hadn’t managed federal assumption of the debt, all of this would have been in honour of a doomed country.

The lesson I take from this is that there is a virtue to insane bravery. Greece is up the spout, and the solutions that we are throwing around are devices for buying time. They might work, but whether  or not they do is largely a matter of luck. If you really want to guarantee the future of the Euro, what you need is some supremely self-confident visionary to stand up and offer an unpalatably brilliant solution. Something that is feared and hated across Europe, but which truly solves the problem that we’ve got.  

And whoever does that, I’m sure we can put them on a banknote.

Sorry I Haven’t posted

10/06/2011 § Leave a comment

Well, not really. See previous entries for why this blog will be intermittent at best. However I recently learnt about Cory Arcangel’s automated blog I’m sorry I haven’t posted, which aggregates blog posts with ‘I’m sorry I haven’t posted’ in them. No such thing as bad publicity.

Cory Arcangel is an interesting artist. His most famous piece is Super Mario Clouds, which consists of Super Mario with all elements removed except the gently moving pixelated clouds behind the game. Recently, he had an exhibition at the Barbican where you could play antiquated bowling games on consoles – but where all the games were rigged so your ball would always roll into the gutter.

Modern art comes in for a lot of stick for its supposed inutility. By the definition of a lot of people, art seems to be defined as something with a beautiful woman, a bit of nature or a ship painted on it. Stuff that you can nail to a wall or screen print on a plate.

However, that kind of art is frequently rather dull. Very interesting when you know what to look for, but otherwise really rather bland. Whereas this sort of performative art is lively, direct and visceral. A gallery full of obsolete electronics forcing their users to waste their time generating guaranteed failure seems like a brilliant metaphor for most of the time I spend hooked up to a computer. It leaves me thinking that every time I play a game, my real score is 0.

This kind of art, which has more in common with a whimsical practical joke than with anything that involves organising paint, seems much more in tune with the way I see the world. I suspect I’m not alone. If you wanted to engage with a classroom full of 14 year olds, wouldn’t an art teacher have a much easier time focusing on something that is a) fun and b) relates to the familiar?

What does Osama Bin Laden have in common with a Sierra Leonean amputee?

03/05/2011 § 2 Comments

The news of Osama’s death hits you in two waves. First, satisfaction that it is done; second, breathtaking astonishment that he was living within small-arms range of the Pakistani army’s staff college. One assumes that they can’t have been scoring too highly on the reconnaissance test.

A lot of people would infer from this that there are parts of the Pakistani intelligence services/ army/ government who were protecting Bin Laden. Keeping him safe, so he could continue his work without the intrusions of American imperialists and unbelievers. Conclusion – a large part of Pakistan is on the other side of the war against terror.

But this makes me think of a decidedly unpleasant story, told by the Dutch journalist Linda Polman. She worked in Sierra Leone in the late nineties, when the self-proclaimed Revolutionary United Front was busy burning villages and cutting the hands off of civilians. When the peacekeepers had restored a measure of order, she travelled into the bush to meet with the rebel commanders. One particular story contains a slice of evil rationality that should make any economist’s blood run cold.

In the end, [the commander] claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lop off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.” … The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilations, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country.

There’s a beautiful sense to this, if you can ignore the screaming. Aid is worth billions and can be ‘taxed’ the moment it arrives in the country. It’s a simple way to make money without lifting a finger. All you need to do is increase the urgency with which aid is required. Polman points to other countries, notably Sudan, where she argues humanitarian crisis is used as a regular tactic to fill up government coffers.

If the urge to save lives is great, the urge to kill terrorists is greater. The rewards are commensurate. In the three years before 9/11 the Pakistani army got $9 million in military aid. In the three years after, it got $4.2 billion. The increase is larger than the GDP of 25 of the world’s smaller countries. It’s the kind of money that you’d associate with corporations like Intel and Google, and amounts to about a third of the Pakistani defence budget.

So if you’re a sensible Pakistani general, you want this to continue. Especially if you’re the kind who has spent years fed up with large chunks of the country being controlled by fundamentalist bandits. Billions of dollars of military aid lets you take the fight to them, at last. But the worst thing that could happen is for that money to disappear. Regardless of whether you want it to retake the Swat valley, funnel to the Mujahedeen or buy a new Mercedes, you can all agree it must continue.

So it’s vital to make sure the reason for sending the money persists. What do the Americans want most? Revenge. They’ll settle for victory, but they’d prefer revenge; a great moment of national euphoria that closes the wound left on 9/11. If they got that, there’s a good risk they’d leave, so it must be prevented at all costs.

So, if the Pakistani military ever did stumble across Bin Laden, they had a choice. They could kill him and turn him in for a $25m reward. Or, alternatively, They could hold on to him and carry on receiving a billion and a half dollars a year, basically forever. If the situation arose, the logical thing to do (regardless of your loyalties) was to put Bin Laden somewhere very safe, very close, in a place no one would ever look for him.

Very clever. If you can ignore the screaming.

WTF is the point?

22/04/2011 § Leave a comment

Tim Gowers, legendary Cambridge mathematician, has made a post on his blog about how AV is better than first past the post, circulating under the moniker ‘WTF is the post’.

I am pretty ambivalent to the upcoming referendum, but I do despair when I see the ‘yes’ side campaign. To watch so many intelligent people approach the problem like a sixth form debating team makes you want to snap the aerial off your radio and go live in a hut on Anglesey.

The yes campaign argue that the existing system produces results that do not accurately reflect the will of the electorate. Advocates of AV demonstrate, usually with the aid of a diagram, that AV would allow people who vote for the wrong candidate to still have their views taken into account when a candidate is chosen. This way, rather than representing a simple plurality of electors, the victorious candidate must, necessarily, represent a majority!

Then, point proven, the AV supporter usually stands back and waits for a round of applause.

The trouble with the average AV cheerleader is that they act as if this is an exercise in a maths textbook (usually those extra-credit questions that they gave to the really smart kids so they wouldn’t get bored). But this is not a maths problem – it is a constitutional question. Seen in that context, the issue that really matters is not ‘has the right person been elected?’, but ‘have we got a legitimate government?’

As a historian, I don’t think this is a given. In the past thousand years, England has had governments sanctioned through conquest, divine right, insurrection, coup, inheritance, royal warrant and, most recently, by democratic election. The good thing about democratic government is that it can be sustained with relatively few intrusions on personal liberty, and with a very strong respect for ethics and law.

Holding elections is no guarantee that a government will be considered legitimate. Look at Russia before the Bolsheviks took over. Look at Singapore today – 45 years under one political party following scrupulously fair elections, but which many commentators dismiss as the results of a wider policy of deliberate social control. Nor do ‘unfair’ elections render a government illegitimate. America in the 19th century disenfranchised most of the black population, and saw its elections controlled by mob activity, bribery and machine politics; but America remained a great beacon of world democracy.

First past the post is a horrible voting system. If we were starting our democracy again from the ground up, I can think of very few reasons why we would adopt it. But even with its worst results, has it ever led anyone to say the elected government had no right to govern? That Clement Atlee was just a puppet of the trade unions; that David Cameron is the figurehead of an outmoded plutocracy? After any election we have had, would the UN have good cause to send in troops; would anyone be justified in taking to the streets to overturn the results?

This is not idle rhetoric. This is what happens when democracy isn’t felt to have worked; and it doesn’t happen here. All of us, Yes and No alike, know that we’ve got a democratic system that in a very fundamental sense represents the people. That sense of representation does change, slowly, over time. Note that this is the first time that we’ve ever put a constitutional change to a referendum. We felt quite happy accepting women’s suffrage based on an act of parliament, but now we feel major change must be agreed by the people as a whole. Nobody would call AV an integral part of our democracy.

I suspect this is why the No campaign is doing so well – it isn’t so swept up in voting calculations to lose sight of the bigger truth. All of its rhetoric is based on the fact that the existing system, despite any intellectual inelegance, is emotionally spot-on. They know that having the same electoral system for more than a century is instinctively seen as a mark of quality – people have seen it work before, and have confidence it will work again. They know that people feel that the existing system represents their views, even if it doesn’t. They realise that the winner of the election is always, always seen as the legitimate government.

That’s a democracy that works. So what if it gets the maths wrong?

In fourteen hundred and ninety two…

12/04/2011 § Leave a comment

One of those childhood mnemonics that I’ve never quite shook is a little post-Columbian couplet:

In fourteen hundred and ninety two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue

I’ve always assumed that there were more lines, although I never learnt them. Anyway, there’s no equivalent for the first manned space flight. Probably just as well, since sixty one doesn’t really give an obviously useful rhyme.

Fifty years before twenty eleven/Gararin soared and punctured heaven

Socialism marches onward!

Socialism marches onward!

This isn’t the only difference between Columbus’ voyage and Gagarin’s space flight and the first decade of space exploration. There must have been a beautiful sense of optimism following those first flights; a feeling that the night sky, suspended in infinite eternity, would soon become as tame as the seas. What followed must, therefore, be classed as a severe disappointment. It took us no time at all to tire of the stars and let the sky close over us once more.

By way of a contrast, fifty years after Columbus’ first voyage the Spanish had conquered Mexico and Peru and enforced their claim to an entire hemisphere. The Portuguese, who were better explorers and traders, had acquired footholds in India, East Africa and Brazil. Cargoes of gold, silver, spices, ivory, jet, sandalwood all began to circle the planet with the rhythm of winds, watched by a spreading diaspora of mariners and colonists.

Bearing in mind that we have half a millennium of extra technology on our side, you’d think we’d have been able to do better. You could be reading this blog in London or Lhasa within a second of posting; while no one in the whole of Europe knew of Columbus’ discovery until 1493. Why is it that the skies have stayed out of reach?

It’s tempting to say that it’s harder to fly than it is to sail. This is nonsense, in the sense that it’s perfectly true and utterly unimportant. After all, if gravity was sufficient objection to travel then Easyjet would make its money with a bunch of steerage-only tramp steamers. Broadly speaking, if you can get a fleet of satellites into orbit to locate people’s mobile phones, our reasons for staying planet-bound are hardly practical ones.

The problem is that there is very little reason to go into space, at least past geo-stationary orbit. Why does Cortes take an expeditionary force to Mexico by 1519? Answer – to boldly plunder where no man has plundered before. Likewise, when Bartolomeu Dias heads to India, he does it in the pursuit of a ready return through cutting out middlemen from the spice trade. Conversely, if you go to the moon, all you bring back are rocks. Boring rocks.

The moon offers us no real attractions – no treasure to steal, no markets to exploit, no people to enslave. Many people would celebrate the absence of pillage, profit or peonage; but the fact is that without bad reasons to go into space, we haven’t found any noble ones. If there were little green men on the moon who we could use or abuse, I’m fairly confident that we’d have shown a lot more interest. Trade and transport in turn inspire technology – fifty years after Columbus the Spanish were developing massive trade galleons to carry extra cargo in safety; while today we’ve forgotten even how to build a moon rocket.

Not to say there’s no hope, though. It’s genuinely astonishing how quickly Europe rushed to control the Americas, the Indies, the trade with China – how in about two generations explorers assembled a global system of trade. One corner of the planet, however, was left out. The first Europeans spot Australia in the early 1600s. It’s big, it’s dry, the bits they find are mostly deserts. The inhabitants had no economy, no industry, nothing worth trading and no desire to trade. Nearby Dutch merchants, trading in spices so valuable that a single shipload is worth years of labour to acquire, have no interest in wilderness.

For almost two hundred years, Australia sits half-discovered on Europe’s maps. The technology is there to explore the island, but no one can be bothered to make the journey. It’s not until the 1770s that Captain Cook is the first European to see the eastern coast of Australia.

Then, suddenly, circumstances change. With unrest in America, the British government decides that there’s a need to find somewhere new to deport criminals. At this point, a return journey to Australia takes around two years, but nevertheless, given an incentive, everything changes. In 1787, a fleet sets sail to found Botany Bay. By 1841 there are around 180,000 inhabitants, and thanks to a gold rush, six years later there are 340,000.

For space travel, there might be similar prospects. Scientists and engineers talk about the challenges of space travel, but there’s no shortage of people willing to try to solve them. What we lack is a reason to solve them in the first place; and once we figure out that there’s a particular metal that is particularly rare on earth and particularly abundant on the moon, or in nearby asteroids, suddenly we will have an incentive. And then, perhaps, we’ll have need of another mnemonic.

Past Hopelessness

02/04/2011 § 1 Comment

Do you fancy despairing at the vast indifference of time and history? Neither do I, but I find it hard to avoid when I hear old music hall songs. Listen to the following from c.1910:

(With apologies for the format)

Keep listening. Don’t stop when you get bored or when the music starts to grate or when you lose all hope of understanding what the hell it is he’s singing about. Personally, I get lost about the point where he starts talking about his Derby Kell.

Why should you force yourself to do this? You’ll probably agree with me that this is to all intents and purposes incomprehensible at the first pass. Listen again, you’d pick out more of the words. After a few attempts you could transcribe most of it. Try to capture some of the bits you don’t get using phonetics, so you can cross reference them with a dictionary of slang. Before you know it, you’ll have a fairly clear idea of what he’s saying.

Not that this will help. So you figure out that the singer has been given a watch and chain, and that this provokes ridicule from multiple sources – gangs of children, the Lord Mayor of London, the congregation at his own wedding. This is clearly meant to be humorous, but how much? The idea of a hijacked church choir turning on the groom – the joke there is fairly clear. But should we be expected to laugh at a group of children insulting his pocket watch? Or does the humour there only come from the refrain ‘any old iron’? What does that mean, anyway?

After further research you find out this is a street cry associated with scrap merchants in 19th and 20th century Britain. You search Wikipedia again, and find that these were a kind of proto-recycler. So presumably the watch is sufficiently battered to be worth considering only for scrap value. This might have been funny.

After several hours work, you might be able to get to a position where you feel pretty confident you know what the singer is saying, where he expects to get a laugh. This won’t make it funny, it won’t stop the singing sounding loud and nasal. The music will still sound like an orchestra being sawn in half. Nevertheless, you’ll feel you’ve achieved quite a feat of comprehension.

But for the whole audience the night that song was recorded, there was never a need for analysis. They wouldn’t have thought; they’d have just laughed. As they left the music hall, they’d have whistled the tune. A week later, stumbling home from the pub, they could take a deep breath and bellow upward into the fogged night ‘Any any any old iron!”

And the thing is, this isn’t complicated stuff. This is not the Bloomsbury set, this is not Freud, this is not Wittgenstein. This is tiddly-pom music for proletarians who left school at 11. The educated would have looked down on it as being cheap, nasty, shallow; empty nonsense for dull people. But for something that contained nothing, a hundred years later we seem to have great trouble understanding any of it.

I called this depressing, rather than perplexing. Does it matter that you can’t understand a song from a century ago? Not really; but it does bother me that a century hence everything we do and say will be equally perplexing to our successors. Our everyday will become every bit as alien. Worse, our entire world will be so perfectly preserved in digital aspic that we wont be able to say that knowledge has been lost, or that understanding is impossible. It will simply be that it has ceased to matter; that there will be no reason why anyone would want to laugh with us, rather than at us.

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