Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 29 min 47 sec ago
I’m sure that this point has been made somewhere or other in the general debate on email spying and the NSA/Snowden revelations, but in my opinion not often enough or forcefully enough. People who want to dismiss the whole thing as “no big deal” are, in my view, totally underestimating the scale of the blind trust that’s required of them. In other words, even opponents of ubiquitous surveillance (like Kieran in this worked example) tend to assume that the institution which has access to your information is the institution which collected it. But that’s not necessarily the case at all.
The Leveson Inquiry in the UK demonstrated that the Police National Computer could be accessed by more or less any tabloid journalist with a phone and an account with a crooked detective agency (which served as the conduit to crooked insiders). The Manning and Snowden revelations, whatever else they’ve shown us about the world, have made it clear that mid-level employees can get access to huge amounts of top secret data as long as they’ve got the wit to smuggle it out on a thumb drive.
So the question is not so much “do you trust the CIA/NSA/MI6/etc?”. It’s “Do you trust every single sysadmin working for these organisations? Every single analyst? Every single middle manager?”. The CIA might not be interested at all in my dull mobile phone conversation metadata, but someone else might – the Leveson inquiry was told how the UK’s PNC was used by one copper to check out his daughter’s new boyfriend. In terms of our personal data, the kind of uses which the agencies want to be allowed to make, while worrying enough in themselves, are the tip of the iceberg. And all the policies which might prevent it from being accessed by blackmailers, tabloid journalists, nosey neighbours and basically anyone else, are themselves top secret and not subject to any sort of legal oversight.
This isn’t a conspiracy theory, as you can see; it’s based on the fact that big and complicated systems are set up to malfunction, particularly if they are able to declare themselves above any regulation at all. And the way in which this particular system is set up to malfunction is easily predictable and potentially very damaging to innocent people. I am personally not at the stage where I trust every single person who might be hired for a low level IT job in a security agency, and I’m not sure that I trust an entirely opaque set of safeguards with no accountability either.
Feminism, social activism, eye-catching stunt made eye-catching because it’s not a stunt.
About a dozen single mothers kicked out of their hostel in east London have occupied a ‘show-flat’ in the former Olympics estate that Newham Council is trying to flog while it has 24,000 households on its waiting list.
Increasingly, I just can’t justify the amount of volunteer time I spend on Internet rights. Yes, we are handing over control of every aspect of our lives to insidiously corrupt and obviously ineffective states, and that is a terrible, terrible thing. But I live in a city of dirty billionaires and hungry children. This made me cry. Something has got to give.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I am an apostate of the economics discipline. When I was 17, I wanted to study something that would be useful to help make the world a better place. I thought that economics would meet that requirement, and it also seemed natural since I always had a strong interest in politics, in particular the question how to organize society. For reasons explained here, I eventually gave up the hope that economics (as I studied it in the 1990s) could give me that knowledge, and diverted to political theory/philosophy and later also ethics, where I’ve been happy ever since.
But for the first time since many years, I felt a shiver of regret for having left economics – and that was when in April this year I started reading Capital in the Twenty-first Century, the best-selling book by Thomas Piketty. Reading Capital was a great intellectual adventure, while at the same time enjoyable to read (many have said the translator, Arthur Goldhammer, deserves part of the latter credits). It is hard for academic economics to evoke positive feelings in its readers, but Capital did so with me for at least two reasons.
One is that the book is extremely interesting and rich, as by now many have pointed out. It brings economics back to the wider public, and gives the reader a true sense of what is at stake in studying the economy and hence engaging with economics. It opens up economics to all those for whom the study of economics is relevant – that is, all of us.
The second source of excitement came from my sense of what this book could do to change the economics discipline. Students of economics have been advocating for years that economics is too narrow, too much focussed on elegance and mathematical beauty, insufficiently rooted in both history of economic thought and empirical economic history, and insufficiently aware of the institutional and cultural context. None of this applies to Capital. In fact, I think that by putting forward such a strong, historically-based, empirically-grounded, and theory-rich account of the workings of capitalism and the resulting inequalities, Piketty is offering us a concrete alternative for how to do economics.
Heterodox economists have tried for years to say how economics as a discipline should change. In my view, overall they have failed to make much of a difference (that is not the same as saying that their arguments were bad or unconvincing!). Economics by now is a science where the mainstream is extremely powerful; other social sciences are much more internally pluralistic/heterogenous. Hence, it is hard to be a happy heterodox economist working in an economics department (with the exceptions of the handful of heterodox departments that are left). So I am not surprised that many heterodox economists left the economics discipline – and moved to economic history, development studies, economic geography, political theory, even philosophy.
Thomas Piketty has the power that heterodox economists never had. He has shown how economics can be done differently. He is a professor of economics at a prestigious university, hence he is situated squarely within the center of the economics discipline. He hasn’t used elaborate meta-theoretical critiques to show why mainstream economic models and methods fall short, but simply put into practice a different way of doing economics – while en passant noting that some of his findings are beyond the radar screen of mainstream economics because of their built-in assumptions. Sure, he’s not the first to have worked with such methodological commitments, but with the success of Capital, and building on the academic credibility gained by his earlier scholarly articles and books, Piketty may have the power to make a real difference to how the economics discipline in the near future will look like.
Alan Dershowitz expresses his opinion on academic freedom, the Salaita case, and why UIUC natural scientists appear to have been less likely than social scientists and humanities people to support him.Some, including Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who backed Summers and opposed the tenure bid of Norman Finkelstein, the controversial former political scientist at DePaul University, have a more cynical take. Dershowitz said that in his experience, academics working in STEM tend, “in general, to be more objective and principled, and those in the humanities tend to be ideologues and results-oriented, and believe it’s the appropriate role of the scholar to use his or her podium to propagandize students.” Dershowitz said he believed personal opinion had influenced how those human sciences viewed both the Salaita and Summers cases, and that scientists were likelier to examine the evidence impartially. “I would bet anything that 99 percent of the people who are demanding that [Salaita] be restored tenure would be on the exact opposite side of this if he’d been making pro-Israel but equally uncivil statements,” he said.
There is a very strong case to be made against “results oriented” ideologues in the academy but I think that it isn’t quite the case that Dershowitz is making.
To illustrate this case, let’s turn to some relevant quotes from an article in the now defunct Harvard student magazine 01238, preserved at The Faculty Lounge.Dershowitz is, however, notorious on the law school campus for his use of researchers. (The law school itself is particularly known for this practice, probably because lawyers are used to having paralegals and clerks who do significant research and writing; students familiar with several law school professors’ writing processes say that Dershowitz reflects the norm in principle, if to a greater degree in practice.) … Several of his researchers say that Dershowitz doesn’t subscribe to the scholarly convention of researching first, then drawing conclusions. Instead, as a lawyer might, he writes his conclusions, leaving spaces where he’d like sources or case law to back up a thesis. On several occasions where the research has suggested opposite conclusions, his students say, he has asked them to go back and look for other cases, or simply to omit the discrepant information. “That’s the way it’s done; a piecemeal, ass-backwards way,” says one student who has firsthand experience with the writing habits of Dershowitz and other tenured colleagues. “They write first, make assertions, and farm out [the work] to research assistants to vet it. They do very little of the research themselves.”
I don’t recall that Dershowitz was himself quoted in the article in question; quite possibly he wasn’t asked. If he had been asked, he might very well have contested the description of his research practices that the article attributes to several of his former researchers. But imagine that a scholar in a department in the hard sciences (or social sciences or humanities for that matter), tenured or otherwise, conducted his research in the manner that the article attributes to Dershowitz. That scholar would deserve to be fired, regardless of whether his or her political leanings (or research findings) leaned hard left, hard right, centrist or whatever. He or she would be guilty of the most flagrant abuse of research standards. In the hard sciences, if you’re caught throwing out inconvenient data in order to justify a conclusion, you will be disgraced, and ought to be compelled to resign. The social sciences, likewise. If you’re a humanist, and you write articles claiming e.g. that the historical sources say x, when you have carefully and deliberately omitted the sources that say not-x, again you’re likely to be drummed out of the profession.
This is academic misconduct. Put more simply, you are cheating on the job you are supposed to be doing. You are not a scholar, but a hack and propagandist. Perhaps this kind of conduct is ubiquitous in law schools (the article claims that other colleagues of Dershowitz also do this), although I personally would be surprised. Outside of academia, there may, very reasonably, be different standards. Litigators are supposed to make the best case they can under the law for their clients. However, if my understanding is correct, they too have obligations as officers of the court, not e.g. to knowingly omit relevant information or citations. It is honorable for a litigator to be a hack, but only up to a point.
Holding unpopular opinions or saying harsh things on Twitter is not academic misconduct. I personally find some of the views that Alan Dershowitz has expressed (e.g. on torture) to be repulsive and indeed, actively depraved. I wouldn’t press to have him fired for saying those things, and if his job were threatened because he had said these things I would defend his right to employment, while holding my nose. If he had reached these opinions through real academic research (rather than outsourced hackish opportunism), it would be part of his vocation- academics are supposed to follow their search for knowledge wherever it leads them. If he were expressing those opinions outside an academic context, it would be his own private business.
As per Chris, Alex Gourevitch and Corey’s broader analysis, the Salaita case is best seen as an instance of a broader phenomenon: how control over people’s employment opportunities is being used to deny them ability to express their political beliefs. It’s in the same class as this case in which a foreman at a West Virginia mine was pressured to make contributions to GOP candidates (through a centralized process, in which her boss would be able to see who contributed and who did not), and alleges that she was fired when she failed to comply.
Academics, obviously, have self interested reasons to defend against abuses of the sort that we saw in Salaita’s case. But they also should want to see these freedoms extended to the workplace more generally, even in instances where the results may seem individually obnoxious to them. Employers shouldn’t have any control, express or implicit, over their employees’ political activities outside the workplace. That they do have effective control in many US states, is more a hangover from feudalism, than anything that is justifiable in principle in a democratic state.
People who’ve been reading this blog for a long time won’t need to be told who Jim Henley is. He’s been blogging longer than we have (if we’re a product of the mid-Cretaceous, he’s been doing it since the early Jurassic). He’s also a wonderful guy. And he’s been dealing with a recurrence of his cancer, the loss of his job when his employer went under, the need to pay medical and transport bills and keep his equally wonderful family going. In short, he could use your help. If you would like to provide it, please go here.
The very insightful Ethan Zuckerman recently gave a convocation speech at his alma mater, Williams College. While his specific angle was not about this, I read it as a nice call for the importance of international students on campus, and of studying abroad (among other things).
One of the things I’ve learned in my research is that it’s much easier to pay attention to people than to places. If there’s someone you care about who’s from Haiti, if you’ve had the chance to travel there and meet people from Haiti, you’ll watch the news differently. You’ll have a connection to that place, a context for a story you hear. The events will be more real to you because Haiti is more real to you through the people you know there.
It is important though that international student recruitment not be restricted to international students who can pay full tuition. Personally, I remain extremely grateful to Smith College for its generous support of international student financial aid. When I was applying to US colleges from Hungary in the early 90s, it was the only school that came even close to offering enough aid to allow me to study in the US.
By the way, if you haven’t read Ethan’s book Rewire, you should. It’s a quick and very pleasant read with lots of interesting material and important insights on just how not connected we are in meaningful ways despite infrastructural connections.
So, Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. This morning on the bus (I should run a series called “Idle Data Analysis on the Bus”) I looked at how the high turnout compared to other Scottish elections. Data on turnout is easily available back to 1970. Here are two views of it.
As you can see, turnout for the Independence Referendum was both astonishingly high and way off-trend. In addition to the long-term decline in participation, there seems to be a hint of a discontinuity in turnout post-1997, maybe after the second Devolution referendum. (Perhaps those more knowledgeable about Scottish politics can say more.) And of course you can also see that nobody cares about European elections.
I’ll be open about my preference, only in order to tell a story. The issue came up last week in a class of mine which contains a student from the UK. I made an off-hand comment (overstating the case) that I was a bit shocked to find out that I am a hard line unionist. Two minutes later the student, sounding quite distressed, said “Yes, that’s what I’ve found out too”. I said “what, in the course of the campaign” and she said “No. 2 minutes ago”. I felt guilty. Still do.
However things go, if you want a really fun read, try CJ Sansom’s Dominion. Well, if the No vote wins, and you are very disappointed indeed, you might want to wait a year or so.
Anyway go ahead. Please be polite—at some point I will go to bed and stop monitoring.
So, I was reading The Carolina Low-Country, published in 1931, which is a multi-author description of the physical beauty and lost culture of chivalric uh whatever of the Low Country, with a large section of Negro Spirituals in Gullah. (In practice this means they look as if they were written in old-timesy ‘let’s make fun of black people’s accents’ speak, but since no one knew the IPA and it is a real creole I’m inclined to let it slide.) Naturally its opening contribution is by a Ravenel, Charleston’s most prominent family. One of my father’s favorite stories is of the two drunk men walking along the river in Charleston: one sways and falls, clutching at the other, and they both go into the river, at which point one of them shouts “save me, for I am a Ravenel!” Since this is a True Tale of the Old South it’s almost certainly actually true; that’s just how these things work. If it included more, less probable elements it would be likelier. Like if he was bit by an alligator near Colleton or something. In any case, I came upon this gem (it has been previously established that “most important, and most purely African, is the negro’s highly developed sense of rhythm”):
I was ready to chuckle over the frontispiece and the second Ravenel and the two Pinckneys on the eleven-author list (one of my brothers best schoolfriends, and our next-but-three neighbor in S.C. is a Thomas Pinckney) when I looked a leeetle more closely and saw #5: Thomas R. Waring. Well, at least I’m not a white person who pretends I never personally benefited from slavery! Below, the salt-water marsh of the May River in Bluffton, which opens up to the sea behind Hilton Head Island. They never could grow anything on that. That’s just a place to hunt deer and ducks on the hammocks, and fish, and shrimp, and get oysters and crabs. I say “just” but it’s so beautiful back in there. One place across from us we call “the Lost World,” because the brackish water gets even less salt as it forms a lagoon next to black-water swamp, and the water is clear but dark like strong tea, and every bald cypress and palmetto and pine and little water oak has tattered festoons of spanish moss gray hanging down, and everything doubled in the still mirror of brown-black water. Cicadas are the only noise, making it alternately deafening and loudly silent. I saw the biggest water moccasin in the world back there one time, crazing the black mirror with S-curves. Leisurely, like. Not the rice-planting kind, the other kind.
In January 1951, Robert Maynard Hutchins, President and later Chancellor at the University of Chicago, published a short paper in Ethics, called “The Freedom of the University”. Any academic who hasn’t read it, should read it. And if you are currently engaged in the protests against the hirefire of Steven Salaita (see Corey’s posts here and here and here and here and here and here and here), or if you worry about what Corey rightly called a contemporary instance of McCarthyism, or if you are worried about the influence of money on the universities as Henry discussed here recently, this paper, of a mere ten pages, may be even more interesting for you.
Here’s what Hutchins said in 1951.
Hutchins defined the university as “a center of independent thought” and held the view that “a university faculty is a group set apart to think independently and to help other people to do so”. He was very clear that even if faculty members make arguments and statements that are not popular with the public, they should retain the freedom to do so. Yet more importantly, Hutchins argued that this freedom of the university is important for society itself, rather than only for the faculty:
Such centers [of independent thought] are indispensable to the progress, and even to the security, of any society. Perhaps the short lives that dictatorships have enjoyed in the past are attributable as much to this as to any other single thing: dictatorship and independent thought cannot exist together; yet no society can flourish long without independent thought.
Independent thought implies criticism, and criticism is seldom popular in time of war or of danger of war. Then every effort is made to force conformity of opinion upon the entire population, and the country often goes into an ecstasy of tribal self-adoration. This loss of balance is unfortunate for the country.
The context in which Hutchins wrote was historically a very specific context, in which anyone suspected to have communist sympathies, was no longer sure they could keep their job. Hutchins argued that this great good of independent thought was under threat, since there was a “general atmosphere of repression” caused by ‘McCarthyism’ at American universities.
Hutchin’s argument that the freedom of the university is not only crucial for the very essence of the university itself, but also for a healthy democracy and society, are still valid. They are applicable to other forces trying to attack the university as the center for independent thought, and the institutions established to protect that independence, such as tenure and the democratic governance structures.
When I first read this paper (about a year ago), it struck me that its arguments can be used to analyze the threats against the ‘public university’, since we live in a climate where research is increasingly co-funded by industry (on Industry’s terms and conditions) and where the managerial structure and values of the firm have taken over the way the university is run, and are replacing the democratic governance structures and intellectual values of a center of independent thought. But Hutchins’ arguments are in fact pertinent to all instances where the essential freedom of the university is in danger – and an important current case is the hirefire of Professor Salatai, and the effects this has on other scholars in the US who hold non-mainstream views and want to express them, as well as the ridiculous case of the list of 205 (or 218 or whatever) allegedly anti-Israel professors whom students should avoid.
If you have access, read the whole paper and circulate it. It will show the Chancellor of the University of Illinois that University Presidents/Chancellors can make different decisions then simply to bow for public opinion, majority thinking or other forms of power (like big bags of money). In fact, it is not only that they can resist those pressures – it follows from Hutchins’s arguments that they should. Perhaps someone can send the Chancellor of the University of Illinois a copy of Hutchins’s article, so that she can read it for herself?
André Singer (the documentarian who made The Act of Killing) appeared on Radio 4’s Front Row yesterday to talk about his new documentary, Night Will Fall, a film about yet another documentary – this one the previously unreleased German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, the film produced by the Ministry of Information in 1945 to record what became known as the Holocaust.
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, produced by Sidney Bernstein with help from Alfred Hitchcock and a script by Richard Crossman and Colin Wills, was commissioned by SHAEF in April 1945 and meant to be shown to Germans immediately after the war.
Singer explains on Front Row that Hitchcock contributed several aspects of the film meant to emphasize the proximity of the camps to German cities, to demonstrate that the German citizens must have known what was going on there. These devices include maps like the below.
Singer says the film was never shown because only a few months after its commissioning the Allied leadership wanted the German population to cooperate in rehabilitating their country so that it could be a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and therefore thought it counterproductive to showcase ordinary Germans’ complicity in the Holocaust. His account of why the film was never shown is different from the drier one given by the Imperial War Museum.
If, like me, you’ve no easy way to get to the BFI, you can watch Memory of the Camps, which seems to draw from about 5/6 of the original footage, on PBS’s website; this version has narration by Trevor Howard.
(Related, in recent books: Joachim Fest places considerable emphasis on the “everybody knew” argument in his memoir, Not I. And there’s an interesting account of the shootings of SS officers during the liberation of Dachau in Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator.)
There’s a day to go before the Scottish independence vote. The opinion polls are fairly even; the bookies are backing “no”. But it could go either way. I’ve swung both ways on the issue, but I’m now firmly hoping that “no” will win, though I think that the campaign has demonstrated that the United Kingdom is broken, and needs a comprehensive constitutional fix, which may be hard to achieve.
My reasons for favouring “yes”, initially, were sort-of quasi-Rousseauvian. Democracy thrives better in small states where government is closer to the people; large anonymous states, whatever their political form, have distant governments often captured by special interests. That’s a general inclination, to which I would add a sympathy for Scots who are sick of being ruled by Tories they didn’t vote for and who hope for a more inclusive and socially just society. I doubt their hopes will be realized in an independent Scotland though.
For me, though, the balance of reasons decisively favours “no”, for three reasons: abhorrence of nationalism, a dislike of the idea that smaller entities claiming full state sovereignty should proliferate, and disbelief at the economics of separation, which will not turn Glasgow into Stockholm.
First, though the nationalists have kept the Braveheart references fairly muted during the campaign, there’s a strong sense that some of the emotional impetus behind the campaign draws on nationalist myth and nativist sentiment, coupled with resentment at the English. This sense has been bolstered by the way some of the “yes” campaigners have treated their opponents, as “traitors” and “quislings”. The image, tacitly encouraged by nationalists, of Scots as the victims of English colonial oppression, on a moral par with such victims elsewhere (Kenya, India etc) is hogwash. The Act of Union was the result of Scotland’s own colonial failures but launched a partnership in imperialism in which Scots played a leading role. No clean hands there. There’s some ground for Scottish resentment at their experience under Thatcher (poll tax, deindustrialization) but these are, generally speaking, experiences that they share with their northern English counterparts. This resentment grounds the myth that Scots are naturally or essentially more leftie and social democratic than people elsewhere on the island. But go back a few decades and the Tories were the majority party in Scotland. The dynamic there is the same as in places like Liverpool, where people like to think of recent political sentiment as an expression of a deeply rooted local culture, even though it pretty obviously exists as a recent reaction to relative decline. Resentment at getting Tory governments they didn’t vote for also seems misplaced: there was a Scottish Labour Prime Minister as recently as 2010, and many in the south of England didn’t vote for him (that’s just the way things work out in a democracy). Far from being disadvantaged, Scotland enjoys higher per capita public spending than England (and lots more that many places in northern England do). Finally, though Scottish nationalism builds on myths of English oppression and indifference, its modern source is the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s and a desire to assert national rights over natural resources: i.e. local greed. The general principle isn’t a good one.
Second, though I have a prejudice in favour of small countries, I don’t necessarily favour a proliferation of small fully-sovereign states. Given global problems, both economic and environmental, small independent sovereign states can get in the way of the kind of cooperation necessary. What we need is less-than-sovereign entities embedded in larger structures … like the UK or the EU. Devo-max (more devolved powers to a Scotland within the UK), the probable outcome of a “no” vote gets us closer to that outcome; “yes” takes it further away. Scotland won’t necessarily find a place in the EU easily (given what other states such as Spain want) and it makes EU exit for the rUK and the rise of a nasty English nationalism more likely. Additional sovereign states also mean additional hard borders. I agree that it looks unlikely that free movement within the island of Great Britain would be restricted, but there’s a complex and unpredicable interplay with other issues (the EU treaties, Schengen, the rise in English nativism). International human rights law only recognizes a right to free movement within the boundaries of states, and states have (unfortunately) full rights to regulate cross-border movement. That puts the freedom of Scots to seek work in England (and the English to seek work in Scotland) in the hands of venal and opportunistic politicians, and there are no guarantees of how that would work out.
Third, the “yes” campaign hasn’t been able to come up with any convincing arguments on the currency question. In any post independence negotiations, rUK will play hardball, bolstered by a rise in anti-Scottish sentiment. If rUK is unwilling to form a currency union, Salmond has the options of simply using sterling unilaterally, of launching a Scottish currency or joining the Euro. None of these options looks great, all of them look likely to be accompanied by the kind of austerity that would make dreams of Scandinavia-on-the-Clyde look even more ridiculous than they already are. (If there’s a yes, I predict a spate of books in about ten years by embittered Scottish lefties complaining about their “betrayal”.)
So I hope there’s a “no”; “yes” could turn things very nasty, both in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. But DevoMax brings its own problems. If Scotland gets so much devolved power, then why should similar local control not be vested in other parts of the UK? In short, what we need is a federal structure with Scotland, Wales and a selection of English regions being the constituent Länder. Eine Bundesrepublik Britannien, in fact. If Ed Miliband and Labour are smart, then they will make the call for a UK-wide constitutional convention part of their campaign for 2015. If not, then the question of Scottish independence will keep on coming back until “yes” wins.
But here are two belated presents – take your choice as to which one you put beneath your poisonwood tree.
George Scialabba tries to see (as George always does), the good side.
For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer, and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply, get to the bottom of things in 800 words or 20 seconds.
By and large, the quality of the eighty-eight pieces in Things That Matter is proportional to their length. Hearteningly, Krauthammer mentions that he is, at long last, writing a book: two books, in fact, one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy. Perhaps in the course of them he will, at least occasionally, surprise himself and us, vindicating Mill’s generous hope.
Mark Liberman doesn’t.
It’s a tribute to our nation’s culture that a man like Krauthammer, who so consistently expresses blatant quantitative falsehoods about national leaders, is not only out of jail but comfortably established as a commentator for a major media outlet.
Once, several years ago, I asked Henry or Kieran how many readers this blog has (I wanted to use this information to please some academic bean counters), and the number I got was about 8,000 unique readers a day. I referred to this figure yesterday in a FB-discussion, and Chris told me that currently CT has about 12,000 daily viewers. Hi, all of you! Now, how many of you read Dutch? Perhaps 250? How many of those are interested in an introduction to Ethics book? Three? (the other Dutch philosophers reading this already had their ethics undergrad training, I am sure). So I have no illusions that many of our readers will be interested in the book that I coedited and that just got published, and which features 21 chapters providing a comprehensive intro to ethics, written by 21 philosophers based in the Netherlands. But, as some of you know (Harry in particular), I care a lot, perhaps excessively much so, about the aesthetics of book covers. And I can say I am quite pleased with this one. So perhaps this book is of no interest to 11,997 of you, but I hope you will enjoy the cover.
I promise my next post will be about a really interesting book that all 12,000 of you can read, but with a very different kind of cover… Animal rights activists may take offense of that cover, but there’s luckily no relation with its content. Stay tuned.
The second stage of my travelogue finds me and the family in the French Alps, heading to the Italian lakes. Shortly after finishing this, I set off for Venice to take a ferry down the Adriatic …
1.Men in Tweeds
We left Switzerland to go to Chamonix, via the Swiss railways and the Mont Blanc Express. You need the right kind of weather for Chamonix to be special, and when we arrived the big peaks were all in the clouds. But we passed by the statues on the Rue Whymper and explained what they were all about to the kids. My wife’s grandfather climbed Mont Blanc in the 1930s, wearing a tweed suit and hob-nailed boots and carrying ropes and pitons. My uncle reached the top in the 80s, with Gore-Tex weatherproofs and blocks and wedges, the practice of banging spikes into rock faces having rather gone out of fashion as rock climbing became a mass market sport. The town was busy with extremely fit people; it was a five-day festival of what the French apparently call “Ultra Trail”, and I’d call fell-running. The runners were going to cover tens of kilometres of distances and thousands of metres of vertical ascent, but they weren’t going to get near any of the major tops.
The biggest Alps are not really all that big in the scheme of things; even Mont Blanc would be a big, but not exceptional peak if it were located in the Rockies or the Himalayas. But there’s a real sense of menace to the high European mountains; everything about them tells you to take them seriously. The danger on a mountain isn’t related to its height – Helvellyn in the Lake District is under a thousand metres high but people often die on it, while Pike’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies is over 4000 metres high but has picnic tables at the top. It is the route (and, massively, the weather) that makes the danger, and the big high Alpine peaks tend to have very few safe routes and a lot of dangerous ones. Twenty people died in the Haut-Savoie the summer we were there, and the regional mayor had to give a scathing interview about a man who tried to take two of his children (aged 11 and 9, almost the same as my kids) up Mont Blanc. He gave up shortly after having posted a video of them being swept off their feet by a small avalanche in the “Corridor of Death”.
2. The Methods of FFEs
I have a little bit of experience with the French engineering caste, as so many of them take their mathematical skills and go into equity derivatives these days; the Ecole des Mines and the Ecole des Ponts et Chausees are about forty per cent business schools these days. In some corners of the financial markets, they are ubiquitous, to the extent that “FFE” (the last two letters standing for “French Engineer”) is a recognised acronym. And FFEs have a particular way of dealing with you. They start of with, always with perfect politeness and usually in perfect English, something like;
“Hi Dan, I realise you say that it is basically impossible to get good data on this, but maybe you could help us out with a rough estimate?”
A few weeks later, they will come back; sometimes it’s the same one, sometimes a different member of the team (FFEs always work in teams). The question will now be;
“Hi Dan, I understand that these numbers are just a rough estimate, but is there any way you could help us to make them more precise?”
Then, and this is the really horrifying bit, they will start to iterate. Step by step, every little source of uncertainty is chipped away at, with a series of “just a rough estimate”, then returned to with a “can we work on making this a little more precise?”. And they know no cease; they will appreciate that you are busy, understand that this is annoying, never want to cause too much trouble, but never stop. Often, the initial enquiry will come with a strong instruction from their or your boss that you should not spend more time or effort on the question than it is worth, but this is meaningless; for an FFE, there is no such thing as too much trouble, and any imprecision is worth a literally infinite amount of time and effort to remove. The process might be terminated by the physical death of the parties involved, but I strongly suspect that this would merely trigger the first of a long series of contingency plans. And always with the subtle implication, unsaid of course under the skin of perfect politeness, that the question is actually quite simple, and that the real reason why the FFE does not have an immediate answer to a satisfactory level of precision is the laziness, slapdash attitude and failure to prepare of the people he has to work with. It’s one of the vestiges of the military culture that shaped the Grandes Ecoles, I think, and so stretches back to the order and organisation that Napoleon Bonaparte brought to the French Army.
3.Mont Blanc tunnel memorial
We took a bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel, another piece of engineering that set new standards in its time. There’s a monument outside the French side, which I thought might commemorate all the workers who died in building it. Actually, it’s a monument to the 39 victims of the Mont Blanc tunnel fire of 1999, which was the occasion for a lot of reappraisal globally of the kind of safety precaustions that it’s appropriate to take in long tunnels. You can see that the Mont Blanc authorities are still very sensitive to safety issues today – the bus had to radio ahead and check in, and we had to wait up for a minute or so, because they were preparing a convoy of trucks, which goes through with a safety car at the front and another at the back.
As regards workers dying in construction, though, I can’t find any record of there being any. There were a small number of fatalities in the construction of the Aiguille du Midi cable car, but in general, these projects were carried out with attention to detail, and as a result, they were built well and nobody died unnecessarily. I’ve made an argument in financial contexts a lot of times in the past to the effect that the “risk return tradeoff” is often a very bad way of thinking about the two concepts. Most financial risks, from Enron to CDOs, weren’t the natural and inevitable concomitants of chasing higher returns. They were just, purely and simply, failures of quality control – stupid, unrewarded risks which came about because something wasn’t being done properly. Drilling a tunnel through Mont Blanc, or stringing a two kilometre wire hundreds of feet above a glacier, is in some senses a risky thing to do, but the people who did these things didn’t treat it as ineivitable that some workers would die doing it.
4. Cranes that never build anything
As we passed the outskirts of Milan, I was surprised to see cranes sticking out of the horizon everywhere I looked from the motorway. I thought this was a bit odd; the North of Italy has been affected less than the rest of the country by the Euroland crisis, but I didn’t think that anywhere was really in any sort of state to be supporting a construction boom. It took an embarrassingly long time to realise that the “crane-count” indicator for monetary policy wasn’t going to work here; these were loading cranes, for moving metal containers round yards and on and off lorries. Of course, when you think about it , it’s obvious; Milan, Bergamo, Turin – there’s a string of cities across Lombardy that are perfectly placed to be hubs of a logistics operation even if they didn’t have a load of manufacturing of their own. Anything going to or from Italy, and quite a lot of stuff just generally wanting to make its way between France and Germany, is going to find an easier path going around the Alps rather than over them, and the A4 autostrade effectively serves as a bypass for the country of Switzerland. I saw something similar in Denver, every time I took the journey from the airport to the business district; a massive loading yard that apparently handles some large percentage of the trucking logisitcs of the Safeway supermarket chain.
5.Trucks along the way
There is a firm of refrigerated lorries based in Lambach, Austria, which is called the Gartner Group, and which advertises itself on the sides of its trucks. Tess was a consultant in the technology industry, and thus enjoys following these trucks at confusing intersections, declaring “this is the only time in my life I have been happy to follow a Gartner Group recommendation”. The trucks all seem to be carrying agricultural produce back and forth along the road from the Alps to the Adriatic, and as a result our decision to give up on thinking for ourselves and blindly follow them works better than anyone dared hope.
6. Birds on the lakes
The Italians don’t swim in the lakes, as far as I can see – they sail boats, they sometimes windsurf, and one or two of them appear to be, painfully slowly, teaching themselves to kitesurf. But, despite the posters up all round the lake shore, posting evidence of a comprehensive, EU-financed water quality testing programme, and making it totally clear that the water is indeed as perfect and crystalline as it looks, there are only a few sunbathers and literally nobody in the water. Maybe we’re late in the season, or it’s the wrong lake, or something, but this was what I saw – the Italians don’t swim in the lakes.
I do though and it’s fantastic. The water’s not as warm as a swimming pool or the ocean off Palm Beach, but it’s degrees warmer than the British seaside or Llyn Peris in Snowdonia. We share the beach with a gaggle of ducks – this family have a distinguishing mark of a single feather on each side that’s coloured white and blue, standing out from the usual mallard in a way that makes them look almost exactly like they’re wearing military insignia. There’s also a swan with her half-grown cygnets, who strut up and down the path hissing and preening, and leaving behind the most extraordinarily large green turds.
In the water, though, we are all calm, me and the birds. A few strokes out from the shore, you’re on your own to an even greater degree than if you’d walked up a path a hundred yards from the gift shop. The ducks and the swans politely glide away from me; they seem much less inclined to defend territory when they’re out on the water than when they’re on land. I can swim front crawl with my head out of the water, about the only thing left from Bronze Medallion life-saving classes, and it gets me across the bay quickly enough to not really realise how far out I am. And just as I’m ready to turn back, a bird – I thought it was a heron, but it couldn’t have been, possibly a grebe – pops up from below the surface, throws its head back to swallow a fish, and then struggles once, twice and it’s up, flying away toward the mountains.
7.Roads carved out of cliffs
For something like a year (I think, although the telescoping effect of memory seems to stretch it out to my whole childhood), there was blasting every evening outside our village, as they constructed the tunnels and cuttings that were needed to expand the A5, bypassing a few notorious traffic bottlenecks along the North Wales coast. So I tend to notice when the roads we’re driving on have been built into a mountainside, and how it’s been done. It is a hell of a lot of work, making any sort of even reasonably direct route, and the whole of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps are covered with them. It gives you a new perspective on development – there are dozens of countries in Africa and Asia where the economy has stagnated for years, simply because there is not much point making things if they can’t be transported to somewhere for people to buy them. But if you drive through the cols and passes, you begin to appreciate that these are multi-year projects, not the sort of thing that anyone would bother starting unless they had sufficient confidence in whoever was commissioning them to see the building through to the end. The big motorways have tolls on them and are generally privatised these days, but frankly when you look at the toll roads, they’re not that impressive; anyone can lay down miles of blacktop, and you can produce a project like that a kilometer at a time. The real economic secret of this prosperous belt of Europe is the network of little, perfectly maintained cuttings into the rock and stone. This sort of thing won’t pay back for a long time – like the Swiss railways, it’s something that has to be done by a community that doesn’t need a quick cash return on its money – and a mountain pass, unlike a motorway, can’t be half-finished and start paying. This kind of road is basically useless until it gets over the top to join up to a different network.
8.Jungfraujoch in the rain
The true “roof of Europe”, in the sense of the probable owner of that trademarked phrase, is the Jungfraujoch, apparently the highest railway station in Europe, or possibly the highest point you can get to using non-cable-car travel or some such; I didn’t do the research because I was just hanging around in Interlaken station having locked a mobile phone in a hire car, then waiting for my train. It looked like kind of a tourist trap though, so I didn’t go. The railway is basically a status symbol for the regional railway aimed at showing what they can do; it doesn’t serve any actual town, just the station, a restaurant and a massive great terrace sponsored by Piz Buin sun tan lotion. I could imagine thaat it would be a great sunbathing spot on the right kind of day, but when I passed through that part of Switzerland it was cloudy and grey in the valley; there’s a webcam down in the station showing what it’s like at the top, and fair do’s to the Swiss, they took it on the chin and broadcast us the images of pissing rain lashing the Piz Buin terrace as a few disconsolate tourists walked back and forth in front of the cameras, zipped up to the neck and presumably trying to convince themselves they hadn’t just wasted their money. At one point I seriously thought that the site owners had put a cut-out silhouette of a tourist up, to make the place look less deserted. On our return from Grindelwald, the sky was a beautiful clear blue, but I had already decided, ne vaut pas le detour.
9.The little things of Italy
Trains across the north-west of Italy, going from our Alpine campsite to pick up a hire car in Como Vineyards give way to apple orchards as we progress from the mountains into the valleys, but the Italian railways are perfectly serviceable. The rolling stock isn’t as spiffily maintained as the Swiss system (we only travel on one train which is noticeably new, and this turns out to be an SBB service going back toward Lugano), but it works well. And it makes sense to me that this line would have the older trains; like the North Wales line of my youth, this railway is all breathtaking mountainsides and short tunnels. I hardly speak any Italian at all, but I’m confident that there is a heated regional debate on the vital need for electrification, and that the national system is highly reluctant to shell out the cash. Meanwhile, everyone kind of knows that the bullet will be bitten one day, so nobody in their right mind is going to order new diesel kit.
But diesel is pretty cheap in Italy, and the old trains work well, and there doesn’t seem to be much freight on the lines, so the trains run nice and regularly. We roll past Banca di Bergamo, and Credito Valtinese, and Poplare di Vincenza and Banca Cattolica, as well as the conglomerates of UBI and Unicredito and Intesa SanPaolo. I would guess that if I’d been trainspotting bank brands (I mean, doing so more systematically than I actually was), I could probably have identified as much as 25% of the European Central Bank’s balance sheet – these Italian small business lenders were the main users of the Long Term Refinancing Operations which helped to save the euro. These little Italian lenders deserved help from Frankfurt – they basically never set a foot wrong, they didn’t get involved in speculation, their loans were not exactly risk free (small Italian manufacturing companies) but certainly not irresponsible, and all that went wrong with them is that the funding markets had a massive panic about the Italian state. Now they own large portfolios of Italian government bonds, bought with cheap ECB financing, and this props up their profitability and economic viability so they will still be around when the business cycle picks up again. I hope nobody starts to unwind the scheme before time – there is rarely a shortage of commentators in the Financial Times or its epigones to point an accusing finger at European banks, but these smaller Italians are the ones I really feel sorry for.
10.The real roof of Europe, and how it was built
A tourist trap that has to go down in my book as “totally, totally worth it”, though, is the cable car ride up from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi. My parents took me up when I was 16, but I hadn’t remembered how special it was; you just can’t keep something that intense in your mind at its full value. They keep adding bits to the top, but the original stop (although slightly lower than the new bit, which includes the “Step Into The Void” cantilevered glass box attraction) is still the most stunning. You go up about 6km of cable car in two stages, the last one being the longest single cable span in Europe at just under 2 kilometres. And then you come out, and you’re right on the top, and it’s a difficult top too; although the summit was first achived in 1818, the difficult south face was only completed in 1956, by Gaston Rebuffat, a legend of the Alps. Without the cable car, the Aiguille is quite serious Alpinism; from the observation terrace, you can, flask in hand, stand and watch tiny rows of climbers, roped up, make their way slowly up the glacier.
The views are indescribable. Bright, scorching light reflected off the snow, sharp granite ridges and points everywhere, and the clouds spread out a few thousand feet below you. And the constant amazement – how did they make this thing? Work started on the cable car shortly after the end of the war, and finished in 1955. There are black and white pictures of the men who built it, at work in overalls and cloth caps, drinking wine with their lunch and holding hammers in fur mittens. Swinging out to the pylons, feet on the traction wire and hands on the supporting wire. I doubt I know more than a dozen or so people who would be capable of climbing the Aiguille at all, and these guys packed cement up to the top, and steel bolts, and kilometres of wire. They’re still expanding the site and building a new terrace, so you can still see people standing bolted in, swinging picks and welding.
I can understand how it got done though. There was a head engineer, a graduate of one of the military schools. And he stood up there, as the site grew around him, smoking a Gitane and making notes in a ledger in precise handwriting, with a steel propelling pencil. And people would come to him with problems and explanations of why things couldn’t be done. And he would say “thank you so much for this information. Now, can we try just a little bit harder to get this done exactly right?”. And men, wiry men who had faced death on the glacier every day, many of whom would have been veterans of the resistance, would shuffle off and lose fingers to frostbite and risk their limbs once more, all to avoid having to meet that withering gaze again. Yeah, I know how things get done in France.
11. Roads made for motorcycles
Everywhere you go in the Alps and the Lakes, you see motorbikes. It’s not at all hard to see the almost sensual appeal of the roads themselves – you could take all the scenery away and hide it behind a screen wall (something which the planning authorities in my home town actually had to do once; there was a truly stunning sweep of the A5 Expressway over a viaduct which revealed a gorgeous bay which tended to attract drivers’ attention just at the point where, it transpired, they really needed to be looking out for a slightly tricky junction) and those roads would still be great fun to drive on a big motorbike. The bikes are in general big tourers, American or American-styled, and a lot of the cyclists are clearly members of clubs, but they don’t seem to be wearing patches or colours, so I presume they’re for the most part not outlaws. Some guest houses advertise that they are receptive to motorcyclists, though, which I would guess is not a thing that you would bother to advertise if it wasn’t teh case that most of them aren’t.
On the Italian side of Mont Blanc, there is a smaller monument than the official one to the tunnel fire victims. It commemorates Pierlucio Tinazzi, nicknamed “Spadino”, who was a security guard who essentially functioned as a motorbike cop, patrolling traffic in the tunnel. On the day of the fire, he took a breathing apparatus and rode into the blaze five times, pulling people out – in general, the ones who died were those who tried to stay in their cars. He saved as many as ten people from otherwise inevitable death, and died himself on his fifth journey into the furnace, after pushing a trucker into a fire refuge. His motorcycle melted into the tarmac. Every year in late March or early April, there is a ceremonial gathering of bikers, who ride through the tunnel, in convoy, in his memory.
I have a request1 for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.
Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.
Most of the photos I’ve posted have been selected from a rather large back catalogue, but here’s one from less than 48 hours ago. A field in Pembrokeshire, a part of the world I’ve visited every year but one since 1994 and has something of the role for me that Wordsworth evokes in “Tintern Abbey”,
…oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Jonah Goldberg thinks it through. Bonus: “and Ludwig Wittgenstein had much to say on the subject as well.” I sort of hope Goldberg actually is writing a book about Confucius and Wittgenstein.