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"We Don't Care, We Don't Have To, We're the Phone Company" (2023-04-03)

Ernestine the telephone company employee, one of Lily Tomlin's most famous creations. Quoted from a widely reproduced publicity still likely dating to 1969-70. For more and far better quality images, it is of course always best to visit Tomlin's website. Ernestine the telephone company employee, one of Lily Tomlin's most famous creations. Quoted from a widely reproduced publicity still likely dating to 1969-70. For more and far better quality images, it is of course always best to visit Tomlin's website.
Ernestine the telephone company employee, one of Lily Tomlin's most famous creations. Quoted from a widely reproduced publicity still likely dating to 1969-70. For more and far better quality images, it is of course always best to visit Tomlin's website.

Lily Tomlin's work stands the test of time in an extraordinary way, and she is still working, so we still have many more opportunities to laugh with her at the absurdities of the world. She has a striking gift for winning laughs even around issues that audiences may not agree with her about, and that is surprisingly unique. I have been thinking a great deal about the themes that Tomlin is able to explore through her character of Ernestine the telephone company switchboard operator. There are so many directions available, from critiques of monopoly, capitalism, and customer disservice, to the way it raises intriguing questions for those of us who are interested in history. After all, women once completely dominated the ranks of telephone switchboard operators, working physical switches. Women, who were and are still stereotyped as supposedly uncomfortable with or unable to cope with new technologies. It doesn't take much to find serious counter-evidence to the stereotypes, and in the case of the telephone switchboard operators, how women in such positions may be strategically positioned by employers to deflect genuine criticism and anger against them instead of the policies and actions of the employer. With this said, best of all, this is all optional. We can just laugh along. But for the purposes of this thoughtpiece, what led me to think of Ernestine the telephone company employee is the extreme escalation in loss of practical democracy as opposed to plenty of appearance of democracy. By the appearance of democracy, a couple of examples come immediately to mind.

We can have the most transparent and fair elections in the world, yet have a government unresponsive to democratic will. The slip between the cup and the lip turns out to be how the votes are tallied and used to select representatives. The completely baffling to foreigners united states electoral college system together with gerrymandering are probably the most famous examples among anglophone countries. After all, fixating on that is a convenient way to avoid looking at the significant issues with representation by population in british parliamentary systems and the way riding boundaries are manipulated in them. "Rotten boroughs" were invented under the original british parliamentary system by a clever combination of riding boundary and property qualification manipulation. Property qualifications, citizenship qualifications, and riding boundary definition are the hardcore tools for preventing the majority of the population from actually exerting democratic control of their elected governments. In a democracy the people are supposed to be in control of the government, with "the people" expected to be the majority of voters. There is no reason that shouldn't work reasonably, so long as each person gets one vote of equal weight, and the system is designed to support their participation. That is, they can't be so overwhelmed just meeting the bare minimum necessities of life that they can't undertake their part of the responsibilities of government.

We see clear evidence every day that in the so-called "developed" countries have governments in which the rule is that of modern day "property," meaning corporate power that itself is built up out of methods for legalized massive theft of labour and resources. The number of times I have heard colleagues and relatives wonder in bafflement how much will finally be enough "profit" for the corporations, even as they can't stand to face the clear implications of what we have seen. For the capitalist fundamentalists, the only amount of "profit" that is enough for them is all of it, going up forever somehow. It's quite strange and psychotic really, but key to the way this belief system has taken hold is that it didn't happen all at once. Rule of modern-day robber barons didn't happen overnight or involve a giant and obvious coup in the countries whose elites vaunt them as "the free world." As a matter of practicality, they study history, and they understand that violent coups stopped working a long time ago, and the massive world wars while very profitable, caused too much personal risk for them. All the better to get their teeth firmly into propaganda producing systems, following the claim attributed to the jesuits, that if they could get boys into their education system by the age of seven, they would be able to set up the boy's thought and behaviour for life. They've been infiltrating their ideas via pressing for massive spending cuts and strategic donations to undermine publicly funded and accountable governance, education, medicine, science and technological development for at least sixty years. No conspiracy required, the people committed to these beliefs and already quite rich, just apply their control over extreme amounts of stolen resources and the steadily fund the sorts of people who offer to do and say what they want over anybody else.

On the other hand, it has probably been salutary for so many people to be reacquainted with why elected representative-based systems cannot be simply equated to practical democracy. It is unfortunate and actually destructive for everyone whether they are rich or not, to have governments that provide merely the appearance of democracy instead of the real thing. People generally know what to do when preparing to purchase a used car so that they maximize their chances of getting a reasonably good vehicle instead of a lemon. They know that it requires some research whether on paper or online, plus being ready and able to take some time to go and carry out test drives, check the tires and the engine, smell things (seriously) and so on. It's not trivial, the vehicle needs to be dependable, repairable, meet standards to be on the road where the purchaser lives. I think that we can reasonably expect to put in as much time and effort on selecting candidates and otherwise participating in our governments, but if we are blocked from doing that no matter what we try, it has detrimental effects. As many people who think they are elites because they have managed to hang onto more stolen goods than almost the whole world are belatedly discovering, the longer they seek to neuter democracies, the less credibility they have. And the lack of credibility gradually hollows out the capacity of those governments to do even what the elites want. (Top)

"Fake News" is Not a Useful Term (2023-03-27)

Some ring-shaped onion crisps, which are apparently quite popular junk food snacks in some places, august 2020. Some ring-shaped onion crisps, which are apparently quite popular junk food snacks in some places, august 2020.
Some ring-shaped onion crisps, which are apparently quite popular junk food snacks in some places, august 2020.

I know, I know, how could I possibly write that the term "fake news" isn't useful, when there is such wide agreement that there is such a thing. Certainly scenes staged in order to feed a particular narrative out to the world via credulous reporters or reporters on retainer are far from new. They are far older than the most lazily cited examples too, with documented examples all the way back to at least the english war on the boers for control of south african diamonds and gold. Before that the propaganda came mostly in the form of broadsheets, speeches, and execrable publications like the malleus mallificarum or the protocols of the elders of zion. Trying to mess with our minds by using the seeming shortcut of our eyes has reached a probable zenith with "social media" and the now utterly debased older news media. Having seen and read officially independent news outlets of ostensibly leftist inclinations repeating the same propaganda points as their superficially opposed rightist colleagues, their mutual accusations of "fake news" mongering don't make quite the impression that I suspect was intended. In any case, at this point "fake news" no longer has any real content. It is an insult that really means, "Those people said/printed/showed things I/we don't like, don't listen to them, listen to me, I'm the biggest, and if you don't listen to me I'll scream and scream and scream and scream until I get sick."

Practically speaking, the term is like the inverse of the now infamous "natural flavour" or "natural flavouring" item on the ingredients list of most processed foods. By now, I doubt there are many people who don't know that this is a popular lie meant to hide the presence of monosodium glutamate in the food in question, because so many of us are striving to avoid eating it. Never mind that the reason many of us are avoiding it because the stuff makes us sick. Lots of substances and preservatives are technically natural and allowed into food, usually on the grounds of such claims as the amount present is too small to trigger ill effects, or that the form of the substance used is inert in the human body. The latter is a key reason why the heavily cellulose adulterated pre-grated parmesan cheese at the grocery is considered acceptable and still food. Regardless of what the various corporate food laboratory staff and advertising shills say, it doesn't change the fact that even a truly genuinely innocuous substance can cause serious illness – we know of many of these from accounts of people who must cope with migraines or food allergies (or worst of all, both). The end result is that the term "natural flavour" or "natural flavouring" is basically only good for marking a particular food product as containing something the manufacturer doesn't want to admit to, because if they did most people would never choose to eat it.

At first, any of us could be deked out by the way "fake news" is deployed though, because unlike "natural flavour" or "natural flavouring" nobody seeks to label their own stuff in this way. The outside labelling is meant to chase us away from engaging with whatever has been so labelled. So if somebody is seriously and deliberately flogging lies, they are going to be the quickest to shriek "false news" at whatever challenges their story or whatever they thing could lead to or otherwise support challenges to what they say. They'll opt for such credentially sounding labels as "information from an anonymous intelligence source" and as many claims that not accepting whatever they say on faith indicates a greater trust in those other people they don't like who only produce, you guessed it, "fake news." In other words, that term "fake news" has a big old poison pill in the middle of it, if it doesn't simply constitute a poison pill all by itself. We covered the poison pill issue last week.

Since a "news story" that is in fact fiction can't stand on its own, it needs this big offensive of psychological brow beating and noisemaking to try to stall everyone else while the people who want to do whatever the lie was meant to distract us from do whatever. A true report, or any story presented by a person striving to tell the truth, doesn't need all this nonsense. If the original action was an attempt to be truthful in the first place, and that is reinforced by prompt acknowledgement of mistakes and their correction, then we have a situation in which human frailty is accounted for in a good way. What we have right now is not that at all, but a system geared to getting certain loud mouthed people what they want while maintaining a facade of democratic decision making. The people flinging accusations of "fake news" need not have nefarious motivations in their drive to get what they want, by the way. Far from it, they may not be doing their best to start a war, remove safety regulations, or open the door to wide distribution of a poorly understood new technology with little to no safety profile. They may instead have good intentions, but total contempt for anyone who does not share their opinions and views of the world, because they are sure that the only way to have different opinions and views is to lack all intelligence. I have observed this attitude among people of my own acquaintance, including those who insist they are conservative and right wing as often as those who insist they are liberal and left wing.

Due to my own priors, I mistrust claims that take as given that practically everybody else in the world is stupid. It was actually incredibly encouraging when the leap manifesto was first released, because it struck me and still strikes me as the first genuine effort at least in the canadian context to refuse the temptation to construct people with other ideas and critiques as stupid. It's not perfect of course, but actually attempts to grapple with the fact that "right wing" positions may be taken by people for thoughtful reasons, and that it is not just a politically good idea to learn and appropriately respond to those reasons. It's a practical and respectful way to identify just and effective ways to make change. Tougher to do than flinging accusations and the like, but more effective for doing good things in a good way. (Top)

Watch Out for The Poison Pill (2023-03-20)

No pressure or anything. No pressure or anything.
C. Osborne, october 2017

As usual these days, there is plenty of controversy, poorly worked out ideas, and carefully worked out but dishonestly presented and sometimes enacted plans to go around. Due to quirks of circumstance, I have been watching in some bafflement as the same friends and family who have told me not to accept all manner of claims and plans as a good idea just because they are loudly proclaimed with a side of fancy graphics and glossy posters – accept all manner of claims and plans as a good idea because they are loudly proclaimed with a side of fancy graphics and glossy posters. While I appreciate that peer pressure is a non-trivial thing, when has it ever been otherwise after all, but this recent shift into acquiescence has been so total as to be uncanny. Some would explain it away as exhaustion from the viciously inappropriate combination of strategies applied to the pandemic. Others would point to heavy duty coercion, by which they are carefully referring to the combination of legal and economic actions used to force people to comply with specific policies, including policies that had never had such forms of coercion used to impose them before, usually for very good reason. I use the descriptor "heavy duty" advisedly: striving to bankrupt and socially isolate people in retaliation for not doing something cannot be described as "mild." Still others would point to a general atmosphere in which there was pressure to do something fast, and let the something seem decisive whether or not it was effective. Definitely not the best conditions for reasoned, effective decision making and policy implementation, whatever our opinions about the decisions or policies at hand might be. All of which kept reminding me of some critical advice from a friend of mine that stuck in my memory, because it is both very good and as always with the best kind of advice, often challenging to apply.

"Watch out for the poison pill." What did my friend mean? Well, one of the best capsule examples I know is this one, from Rosemary Radford Ruether's essay "The War on Women" in the 2002 anthology Nothing Sacred edited by Betsy Reed (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002).

I had an experience of such an appeal to the myth of sacrosanct traditional culture ten years ago when I was teaching and lecturing on feminist theology in South Africa. At one of the Bantustan universities, an African Anglican priest in elegant clerical dress and speaking the Queen's English rose to declare that feminism could not be accepted in Africa "because it is against our culture. And culture cannot be challenged," he declared in ringing tones. Earlier one of the African women had warned me about such an argument and had given me a good response. I repeated her words: "Well, white racism is part of white culture. Does that mean it can't be challenged or changed?"

There's a double-barrelled poison pill in the self-serving appeal to "sacrosanct traditional culture" and variants of this specific type of appeal to authority are hardly exclusive to south africa as it works its way through the after effects of apartheid. It has always fascinated me how nobody bats an eyelash anymore at the idea that monarchies can be made into republics or the electoral franchise respected for men irregardless of whether they own property, even if both of these are honoured more in the breach than otherwise. People sit down and figure out how to send a fancy telescope into space and deploy it. Yet the very notion that it is not only possible but actually a necessity to stop treating prison, war, or it seems mass death as "solutions" to problems of maldistributed necessities of life, is often unthinkable to the same people. This isn't unthinkable in the sense of "silly," or directing thoughts away from a subject as unhelpful.

Under conditions where there are always people hoping to persuade us to cripple our own imaginations and capacity to check receipts, there are always people ready with something that sounds good or persuasive but has a poison pill in it. They aren't necessarily even as subtle as the appeal to authority. Many of them depend on efforts to create an impression of guilt by association, a major speciality of the mainstream and most social media these days. Take for example last year's clash between Vijay Prashad and a reporter who libelled him in an article, which you can learn all about via Justin Podur's Anti-Empire Project podcast. The conversation in the podcast engaged with many topics besides this article, and I was particularly struck by Prashad's firm debunking of attempts to dilute the concept of genocide in legal and social thought via the modifier "cultural." If you would prefer not to listen to the whole podcast episode, you can skip to Prashad's comments on this, which begin at 41:38 and continue to 47:05. Applying modifiers to genocide, we are encouraged to think, is more respectful by being more specific. Prashad makes it quite clear why and how that is a bullshit idea, and how if we are fooled into accepting it, we are fooled very quickly and easily into manipulation of "genocide" into a license to keep doing vicious things.

In canada, among other countries, people are coping with new legislation that was supposed to do wonders for human rights by banning unethical and destructive practices. We can all agree that banning unethical and destructive practices is a good idea in general, although as always, the difficulties lie in the details. The problems with this new legislation come especially from a lack of clear definitions, so that practically anything can be declared an example of a destructive and unethical practice, so long as the right person insists it is. In effect, the legislation creates a strange form of ersatz and inappropriate authority in an arbitrary category of person, or in several other cases, creates an arbitrary extension of authority vested in an existing regulatory body. The original intentions may be as positive as possible, but intentions do us no good at all if the supposed solution creates or extends an arbitrary authority. For good or ill, there are no short cuts to a well-developed solution to a difficult social problem, and no way to apply and develop a good solution without actually developing definitions and applying a critical analysis and discussion that involves all the interested parties in the issue. To be sure, that means sometimes we need to apply a stopgap, temporary solution while we sort out a longterm solution, including means to adjust and improve the solution should it turn out to be ineffective or even counterproductive.

All that said, this suggests a not so subtle common feature of attempts to get something by us that seems good on its face but has a nasty poison pill attached to it. There seems to always be some form of inappropriate authority, whether an appeal to one or the creation of of one out of whole cloth via other means. After all, a good idea or policy doesn't need to appeal to authority or make up an ill-defined authority to make it work. It will appeal on its own because it is built on information and ideas that stand up to testing and scrutiny. It doesn't need to include creation of a random authority to enforce it because insofar as an enforcement mechanism is required, it can make use of established authorities with clearly defined powers and means to appeal unjust or otherwise mistaken decisions, or it includes a proposal to create a new authority with those features. All up front. This actually reminds me of a fragment of one of the great Sappho's poems. She responded to a person who said that shame kept them from speaking, that if they had good or noble things to say, they wouldn't be embarrassed to speak. (Top)

Indicators of an Untrustworthy Person, Part One (2023-03-13)

Overhead photograph of the 2006 concorde overpass collapse in montréal by John Mahoney, quoted from the montréal gazette ten year retrospective article dated 29 september 2016. Overhead photograph of the 2006 concorde overpass collapse in montréal by John Mahoney, quoted from the montréal gazette ten year retrospective article dated 29 september 2016.
Overhead photograph of the 2006 concorde overpass collapse in montréal by John Mahoney, quoted from the montréal gazette ten year retrospective article dated 29 september 2016.

Montréal has been having nothing that resembles a nice time with overpasses in these past twenty years. From older, improperly inspected ones collapsing horribly to ones under construction collapsing horribly, no one there could be blamed for taking serious steps to do their best to check details and avoid the most poorly maintained and inspected examples still open for traffic. Even the most dangerous overpasses can look mostly okay to an unguarded eye, and many people until quite recently were inclined to take the word of the city and province that everything was fine on its face. Nowadays not so much. I've thought about this a lot recently, in part due to my own near run in with a montréal overpass in a state of ill health, and in part due to the unexpected parallels there are in terms of how we are all encouraged to gauge the trustworthiness of these complex bridge constructions and anything written by a person we may not wholly agree with or like. Again and again some authority pops up to tell us what to think, and that we should not verify anything for ourselves. Bearing in mind here that I do not know the specifics of montréal's situation in terms of support for the work of its structural safety inspectors and cannot comment specifically on that, let's consider for a moment what such inspectors and analogous people vested with the authority they have need and apply to do their job. They need sufficient staff and equipment to carry out inspections at appropriate intervals and produce reports and recommendations that are acted on promptly to remove risks induced by age and the effects of accidents and extreme weather, to pick a few obvious examples. Safety inspectors are a great example of this type of authority actually, because ideally, they must be qualified via evidence of their engineering credentials and previous work record showing they stick to their guns on safety issues and will not be talked out of acting because of supposed "public relations issues" created by say, slow traffic in to a major shopping area near a major holiday.

UPDATE 2022-01-16 - Thinking over the dynamic of self-proclaimed authorities who don't have any sort of track record with the people they presume to tell what to do, I am reminded of one of the behaviour patterns identified by Gavin de Becker in his 1997 book The Gift of Fear. The point being the tactic, not that we should fear every self-proclaimed authority, although I do think it is reasonable to withhold unquestioning trust from the majority of authorities, self-proclaimed or not. The tactic is "forced teaming" where the person trying it wants our trust before they have done anything that remotely resembles earning it.

I hope that the majority of us appreciate that the various individuals who have nominated themselves as arbiters of what we should be allowed to read, hear, and think have no qualifications to do this whatsoever and should be ignored if not sent to their room to sit in a corner with a dunce's cap on. I hope, but have again run into some perturbing comments from friends and acquaintances that suggest somehow the blowhard claims of various government and advertising corporations about what is or is not "fake news" is being taken seriously. There are always lies abroad in the media, be it mainstream or not, even if we cut out all the advertisements which these days are lies by definition. The more subtle, and more insidious claim that these blowhards are making, is that we can't trust ourselves to work out that some person or group is trying to mess with our heads, so we ought to trust them to do our thinking for us. Could we all at least agree that the first hallmark of a totally untrustworthy person is that person claiming that they know us so well even though we are total strangers, that they already know therefore that we must be stupid and therefore need them to think for us? A person who tries such claptrap out on us has picked us out for an easy mark.

As I have already written in a previous thoughtpiece, Don't Read That! there is no harm in reading or listening to what somebody says or writes that we disagree with, even blowhards who think we're stupid. No harm so long as we are able and willing to test what they have to say. There is nothing magical going on here, we don't have to change our minds if we don't want to. If a blowhard has a genuine concern about a particular say, news story or book, we should be able to learn from them what that is. Then we can set aside their blowhardiness and consider whether their concern is reasonable, and whether we would prefer to take the time to go to the source and see if it is indeed as the blowhard claims. The trouble is, the blowhards generally don't have a specific concern, just some random fear or embarrassment mongering claim like "if you touch that, you'll grow worms in your hands." It's ridiculous, and an expression of contempt, not concern.

My surprise at the repetitions of claims about what we should or shouldn't believe from self-proclaimed authorities from some of my own acquaintances goes back to how often they have told me that we shouldn't believe them about so many other things. I don't quite understand how this works for politicians and advertising salesmen in particular, although on the other hand I do appreciate that the recent reconstruction of people who were not supposed to be either into politicians and salesmen is disorienting. For me that flipped over fairly quickly into having to regretfully drop those people as sources – a powerful test of whether a person can be deemed trustworthy is whether they have apparently turned coat and joined the ranks of people who are incentivized to lie for at least perceived power plus a hefty lump of cash. Admittedly, I am one of those people who tends to refuse to move on getting a sudden demand to not just walk but run as fast as possible in a completely different direction, "just take my word for it!" – a somewhat common mindset among those of us who don't find ourselves in with the cool kids at school develop. After all, we learnt after the first two or three times that such claims were usually attempts to use our presumed naïveté if not presumed stupidity to get us to do something at least embarrassing, if not outright dangerous. (Top)

Must Be Nice (2023-03-06)

Photograph by Alan Levine from the uci road world championships on 21 september 2015 via wikimedia commons under creative commons attributione 2.0 generic license. Photograph by Alan Levine from the uci road world championships on 21 september 2015 via wikimedia commons under creative commons attributione 2.0 generic license.
Photograph by Alan Levine from the uci road world championships on 21 september 2015 via wikimedia commons under creative commons attributione 2.0 generic license.

Having something of an ongoing professional and geeky interest in the latest nonsense ideas paraded out as supposedly revolutionary "new technology," I have continued to watch the dubious developments in "artificial intelligence" and "machine learning." It really is too bad that a programming methodology that is genuinely clever, albeit wasteful and full of encoded biases of the self-eviscerating sort, looks fundamentally doomed as currently applied. Overall the fastest expanding manipulations of this technology are apparently in the service of pornography sale and distribution. Not only does this reiterate how entrenched the pictures under glass conceptualization of computers is, whether or not the computer has a touchscreen attached, it reiterates the way that pornographer's money has poured online to colonize the web. They were there even before the advertising companies. Nothing said here so far is a mystery or news. The main thing that has changed is that human societies are currently at such a cultural and social nadir that not even the mainstream media is embarrassed or ashamed to praise a subset of "respectable" pornographers. They do this even as they write news stories in which they wring their hands over the growth in "revenge porn" in which men angry at women whom they may or may not have actually been intimate with post nude photos of them online, or now, use powerful image editing software to replace the faces of the women originally abused in making porn with those of the women they are attacking. Now there is an even nastier version of "revenge porn" based on "deepfakes" produced via "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence." Many of the earliest documented reports of abuse of women using "deepfakes" date from august 2021. For a disquieting introduction, including extensive footnotes with links to other articles, see Dr. Em's article on uncommon ground media, Deep Fakes: A New Front in Pornography's Propaganda War on Women.

So I found it at once disquieting, and frankly disgusting, when I encountered a man who declared breezily, in response to an article on AI'S 6 Worst Case Scenarios that deepfakes have already been around for years and "what's the worst thing that has happened?" It must be at once wonderful and dangerous, to be so profoundly oblivious. There is already a significant and dangerous social contagion arising from insisting that a fiction defines our reality, and it has grown up alongside pornographic deepfakes. Those pornographic deepfakes are already in use to harass, humiliate, and devastate the lives of women. Images are notoriously difficult to remove from the web unless and until the person affected is (a) male and (b) obscenely rich.

At this point in history, the sad fact is that nothing counts as a disaster or a problem to many people unless and until it makes an indelible impact on a rich, typically white, still usually heterosexual, man. Gay men rediscovered this the hard way during the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, when neither their responsible efforts to identify and stop the spread of the HIV virus that causes AIDS nor their efforts to support research to that end were taken seriously. Nor was HIV infection taken seriously when it turned up among drug addicts, nor even among women, and certainly not among major populations in africa. No, what finally broke things open was when heterosexual white men in the "first world" began to fall ill, especially those who were infected via tainted blood and blood products. By the time HIV got to them, the various denialists were out of ways to write off the victims as non-people because the definition of a real person in most western mainstream societies is indeed a heterosexual white man. This is hideous and ethically bankrupt on so many levels it is still amazing that this construct is so persistent. But of course it is, especially if we reconsider last week's thoughtpiece on "elites" who have constructed bubbles that reinforce their fictional worlds over the realities that the rest of us can't afford to hide from.

I don't mean "afford" only in the limited sense of monetary cost. The guy whose comment helped spark this thoughtpiece was no Rockefeller, by any means. Nevertheless, he could afford to ignore if not deny – and I do think he was ignorant in the sense of unknowing, not disingenuously pretending not to know in order to troll others – that deepfakes could or had had any "real" impact. Men are not the primary targets of pornographic abuse, women and children are. Extreme pornography or harassment via manipulation of a victim's image to make pornography using software is not an improvement because it didn't literally entail abusing them on camera. It is a form of stalking, and stalking is extremely dangerous. There is all too good reason why activist family members and survivors of stalking have worked so hard to make it illegal. Even if the man makes revenge porn has not reached the level of stalking, his behaviour indicates a dangerous escalation. Women can't afford to ignore such escalations.

This is a more broadly true principle for any group of people who are subject to oppression, because survival under such hostile conditions depends upon accurate situational awareness. But I suppose at this unhappy moment in history, the closing stages of probably the most determined attempt to persuade the many people in the working class to act like completely atomized individuals and eschew empathy, obliviousness is all too common. And to those who have managed to maintain that state, it must be nice. (Top)

Political Hanging Over (2023-03-06)

Photograph of a ballot from haidan district in beijing, november 2021, courtesy of N509FZ at wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Photograph of a ballot from haidan district in beijing, november 2021, courtesy of N509FZ at wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Photograph of a ballot from haidan district in beijing, november 2021, courtesy of N509FZ at wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apparently the current "elites" don't believe that they should ever be out of power, so much so that they have spent remarkable effort on suborning electoral apparatus around the world. At this point a significant majority of them are not only kitted out with long real life evidence of sociopathy if not outright psychopathy – so far nobody has gone full Howard Hughes in an obvious way, but Elon Musk seems closest to that grim state. A major part of that significant majority is also quite elderly, which is not an issue by itself, but is when combined with an elder's refusal to actually be an elder in the sense of mentoring younger people into their positions. It's really weird to see so much evidence that these people are quite sure it is a situation of "apres moi, le deluge," because they are on average clear that they can't and won't live forever. Sure there are a few making a really public point of their growing desperation to get some kind of immortality for themselves in the form of designer biological bodies or somehow being uploaded into what they deem perfect machine bodies of whatever type. I'm not sure how much most of them really mean it, and how many of them are just creating a sideshow in which they make a point of showing everybody else how they crassly waste the money and resources they have stolen. They are so pampered and out of contact with the real world they have lost genuine understanding of it. How's that for a real social media bubble? These people could seriously have the vast majority of their stolen proceeds stripped from them along with their power and influence and then left to live their days out in their fancy digs never having to lift a finger anymore than they do now, and the redistribution of the proceeds could actually do some real good.

I admit to a mental image of this that is utterly absurd and unrealistic, of the now considerably less jet setting but still meaningfully comfortable Bill Gates being shoed away from where society decision making is happening. "Now then, you know this isn't for you, go on home back to the harmless toys we left you with. Dealing with the real world is for responsible adults." There would be more than one tantrum in response to such discipline, but when you've got grown ass adults acting like toddlers, we already know to firmly let those blow through and not give in.

Obviously not being a member of the crowd that these "elites" are in nor particularly identified with them, their determination to persist as the political equivalent of a terrible multi-day hangover is a mystery to me. The reasonings of people with disordered perceptions and thinking patterns by definition are not going to make sense to the rest of us, yet it still seems baffling that the usual social rewards have no apparent purchase on these people. They don't seem to care about either their present or their posthumous reputation or safety, so long as they can create the appearance of being in divinity-like control of the narrative. This leads to such weird and funny contrasted incidents such as a few angry people throwing gravel at Justin Trudeau and the now infamous "Let's go Brandon" incident that has still become a meme albatross around Joe Biden's neck. Bearing in mind that I agree that yes, Justin Trudeau should not be put in danger anymore than anyone else, although again his response reveals his utter inability to understand how his policies and behaviour are impacting canadians. He clearly can't perceive why they might be furious and feel he is so shielded from the power of the ballot box that some feel desperate enough to try in your face protesting and to actually directly impact him physically, and not necessarily in a deadly or gravely harmful way. I am not saying this is right, I am saying things have reached the point of more people wondering what it will take for him to take what canadians outside of his clique tell him seriously and treat their concerns with respect and promptness. This is not a healthy dynamic. I don't think that any public figure can expect to get a pass from people shouting rude things from them, even Joe Biden, but it is by turns gallows funny and creepy to hear crowds chanting rude things at him. A few of us are old enough to have learnt enough history about authoritarian governments in the past and how dangerous crowds united in this way can become, and not merely to a public figure's image.

John F. Kennedy himself or his speech writers had a knack for coming up with aphoristic comments with a solid truth in them, including the famous "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." If we take this seriously, and that the current "elites" are in hangover mode against all commonsense, well, are they not concerned about self-preservation? Even the french aristocracy before the french revolution realized they were in dire trouble, although they did underestimate their ability to withstand or otherwise counter it. Perhaps that is what is going on with these "elites" now, on top of their penchant for building hyper-expensive bug out forts to wait out any serious problems for society at large apart from what they cause day to day. That could work I suppose, as long as all their guards and servants stay loyal, and it doesn't occur to anybody to track them down and then cement them into their fortresses in order to imprison them for good. Like it or not, whether members of the out of touch "elite" club or the rest of us, we are all already living in non-optionally interesting times. (Top)

Grey Lit (2023-02-27)

Fleuron from a 1799 edition of Samuel Butler's poem *Hudibras*, courtesy of wikimedia commons. This one of those times that the search engine algorithm let slip its origins in the work of insular u.s. based computer programmers. Fleuron from a 1799 edition of Samuel Butler's poem *Hudibras*, courtesy of wikimedia commons. This one of those times that the search engine algorithm let slip its origins in the work of insular u.s. based computer programmers.
Fleuron from a 1799 edition of Samuel Butler's poem Hudibras, courtesy of wikimedia commons. This one of those times that the search engine algorithm let slip its origins in the work of insular u.s. based computer programmers.

As so often happens, working on one article ended up revealing some intriguing material about a separate topic that is very much part of our world today, although it is not in fact very new. For the other article, for some time it looked potentially necessary to provide a formal citation for a reference to grey literature, which as the simon fraser university library helpfully defines as "...information produced outside of traditional publishing and distribution channels, and can include reports, policy literature, working papers, newsletters, government documents, speeches, white papers, urban plans, and so on." The author of this page (who may be the page owner, Janis McKenzie) also observed that grey literature is often produced by persons or organizations directly involved in the topic the literature treats, and that it is rarely peer reviewed. Since grey literature is not peer reviewed, it may vary significantly in quality. Now, unfortunately even peer reviewed work can vary significantly in quality, so we always have to keep our wits about us, consider the source and so on, but no matter what peer review does indicate that the document is part of a conversation and not primarily a marketing tool. Still, referring to such documents as grey literature troubled me, because it didn't really make sense. The obvious idea to take from the term "grey" is related to colour, and there does not seem to be such a thing even colloquially as black or white literature. That said, I have certainly heard expressions like "getting into his black books" implying not necessarily a literal colour but a sort of list of people that person dislikes or will eventually punish.

Then I turned my attention to a few of the additional links in the simon fraser university article, such as this one to GreyNet International. There the site declared the following woefully tautological definition on the basis of a 2004 survey, "Grey Literature is best described by the type of document it embodies." Honestly, I would be embarrassed to whiff on a question like whether as an analyst of the survey results or someone filling out the survey. The page gives a copious list of examples of documents considered part of the grey literature family, including reports, memoranda, manuals, speeches, questionnaires, government documents of all manner of kinds, datasheets, and yes websites. Websites are a tougher call though, because some are indeed peer-reviewed because they are part of academic projects with multiple contributors and go through a quality control and assurance process before release. But fair enough that a person cannot assume that such processes are happening even for academically affiliated websites with lots of cool bling attached, including GIS maps and Omineka instances. But the end result is that GreyNet International seems to be unclear about what its membership is working with, and I am sure that is not the intended result at all. Their about page is more forthcoming, and provides their working definition of grey literature, which is:

Grey Literature is a field in library and Information science that deals with the production, distribution, and access to multiple document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business, and organization in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.

This makes much more sense, and provides some good criteria for researchers and scholars to apply when gauging whether a potential source counts as grey literature. That is an important gauge to apply when sorting out how much work to put into assessing the item's quality, and therefore whether it makes sense to cite it at all in a more formal context. Still, this doesn't quote sort out why this material is designated as "grey." This isn't like "white papers" in the context of british parliamentary systems where the name refers originally to the white covers of these documents.

So I went back to my OED, to check on the meanings associated with grey, noting in particular "dull and nondescript; without character" ad "not accounted for in official statistics." And then things finally became clear. In my experience, the canonical examples of grey literature are government reports and reports produced by contractors for their employers. They tend to be formulaic in nature, and definitely not designed to be pleasing reading for an evening with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Add to that the current general attitude of disdain for public servants, whose products are often treated as fusty, boring, annoying, and not worth the tax dollars supposedly paying for them, and the corresponding view of contractors as uncomfortably straddling the boundary between crooks and the honest but too busy to do a good job, and we have a recipe for expecting the least of these documents. At least manuals of various types can provide accidental entertainment due to the howlers produced by machine translation, although they are rarely very good otherwise these days for their ostensible purpose. The second definition is even more telling though, because yes, most grey literature is not officially counted anywhere outside of the immediate venue they were produced in and for. But that does not prevent the documents that fall within this category from being genuinely useful and accurate, and so they may end up being cited in documents in other categories. And of course that means at some point a librarian somewhere is going to get a frantic email, call, or visit from a scholar trying to find some item of grey literature out there. (Top)

Ignoble Prizes (2023-02-20)

Logo of the Improbable Research website, also home of the Ig Noble prize, but Ig Noble in the good sense of funny and thoughtprovoking, as they explain on their about page. Logo of the Improbable Research website, also home of the Ig Noble prize, but Ig Noble in the good sense of funny and thoughtprovoking, as they explain on their about page.
Logo of the Improbable Research website, also home of the Ig Noble prize, but Ig Noble in the good sense of funny and thoughtprovoking, as they explain on their about page.

I must admit to have taken too long to look up the actual Ig Noble Prizes because of having first heard about them via a source that was perhaps caught out by an over-zealous automatic spellcheck combined with a gently nodding final human reviewer. "Ignoble" after all, has two active meanings according to my OED, but the second meaning likely counts as active only on a technicality. The first and more commonly used meaning is "not honorable in character or purpose." The second, and actually rather sadly barely used meaning is "a humble origin or social status." It is really the second that applies to the Ig Noble prizes. It is rightful to reward funny and thoughtprovoking research, and from what the chronicles at the Improbable Research website, winners are wonderfully good-humoured and get into the spirit of things. No doubt there are people who cannot abide studies of the vocalizations of the common house cat or studies of how babies respond to shadows in order to reconstruct what they are born knowing or have already surmised about physics. And there are those of us who find such studies charming and often surprisingly instructive, even the analyses that check out commonsense ideas. It is easy to sneer at experiments that test commonsense, but at its very root, that is what every experiment is, and we are better off to sort out when commonsense is correct from when we have unwittingly taken something as given because an authority said it and no more.

Alas, there are ignoble prizes of the other kind too, and they are pernicious and destructive where the research celebrated by the Ig Noble prizes are not. I am thinking especially of the one often referred to as "the Nobel prize for economics" when in fact there is no such thing, and the Nobel family is not so pleased to have their name co-opted for the prize referred to in this way. As Yasha Levine explained in his 12 october 2012 article, reproduced at The Exiled, The Nobel Prize in Economics? There Is No Nobel Prize in Economics, the prize was created and branded in order to provide stolen credibility for an ideology passing itself off as a supposedly "scientific" economics. Having already taken the step of rebranding "political economy" as "economics" in part of a process to increase the authority of wonks who wanted to impose their latest iteration of profiteering-friendly religion rather than do actual reality-based research, a nice cash prize with some good branding to snatch lots of publicity was the next step. In a society where there is genuine potential for the majority to democratically block the policies that elites want, finding some type of "authority" to use to end run around such pesky things as elections, debates, and so on is always going to be top of the bill for those elites and their henchmen. That is, such things are desired at least until they can find a way to consistently prevent people from voting for supposedly "legal" reasons, then the need for fig leaves apparently decreases.

All that said, I find it fascinating that there is apparently no award, however ironic, for genuinely invidious and destructive research. There are the darwin awards, meant to ironically and posthumously recognize the people who have improved the human genome by taking themselves out of it. They are doing well in terms of receiving nominations every year, and have become a fixture as a cultural reference in the anglosphere, and overall engagement with them seems quite constructive even on the sensitive point of why the vast majority of winners are male. Yet it seems that nobody is quite willing to make a statement ironic or critical about ethically hideous and outright destructive research, since most of it is done as part of the social cancer that is the military industrial complex. That is the origin of a considerable amount of torture carried out under the aegis of "research psychology" as well. It makes no sense to keep developing more ways to slaughter all humans and the majority of the rest of life on Earth multiple times, but the people doing it have compartmentalized their consciousness so that they are just going to work day to day, punching in and out. Nevertheless, at the moment there is a great deal of bad faith bastardization of "cultural relativism" to try to get away with having somebody else do research that entails torture and/or the production of poisonous wastes and then take advantage of their results to make new, nastier weapons.

Now, of course I must now explain my reference to cultural relativism. There are lots of definitions out there, most of them drawing from anthropology. The anthropological, restricted version seems to be generally uncontroversial, and it says that to properly understand the meaning of some practice, art or whatever in another culture, we must learn the definitions and meanings given to it in that culture. By this means scholars hope to put firmly behind them the viciously ethnocentric practice of labelling every object in another culture the observer does not understand a "ritual fetish" and insisting that the local spiritual practices are in fact "devil worship and evil." That is well worth leaving behind. The bastardization however, is the mendacious claim that anything we find morally or ethically questionable in our culture that can be gotten away with in another culture must be treated as therefore not morally or ethically wrong in that culture. I can see how this can sound plausible to some people. False claims that other peoples' spiritual practices are devil worship just because they aren't christianity make a pretence to an ethical or moral claim. Invaders have tried repeatedly to claim that their invasion is justified and morally and ethically solid gold, because they are acting to stop the horrible things being done to the majority by a vicious and powerful minority. But these have nothing to do with cultural relativism at all. They have to do with rationalizing doing something quite obviously wrong.

These days no one seriously tries to claim that slavery is ethically or morally acceptable under any circumstances. Yes, in different times and places and cultures, slavery has been conveniently defined as okay. But socially accepted and right in terms of morals or ethics are not the same thing. How can we tell that even in those instances, people were not necessarily so sanguine about slavery? Well, for one thing, nobody volunteered to be a slave. They were typically kidnapped in war, driven into debt slavery, or coerced into selling children into slavery by extreme poverty. Furthermore, the usual canonical examples held up of normalized slavery, ancient greece and ancient rome, had mechanisms by which slaves could be freed. In ancient rome, slaves in certain fields of work and lucky in their putative master could eventually earn enough money to free themselves. If slavery was okay with everyone concerned, there would be no need for mechanisms intended to blunt the tendency of slaves to run away if they possibly could. People in those places and times and cultures showed by their behaviour, the laws, and documents that no, they didn't think slavery was perfectly acceptable. Certainly the enslaved people made their own perspectives known in all the ways they could, and they did not condone the practice.

From that perspective, I think it is clear that the idea behind cultural relativism as originally set out is not that anything goes if a culture or society accepts something that our own does not, whatever our view of its ethics or morality. The idea is that we should do our best not to go in with preconceptions so that we misidentify what we are seeing and experiencing. The examples of presumed "ritual fetishes" and "devil worship" are misidentifications justified post facto by claims about them. We don't need to make such claims about why we may want to give a shame award for specific types of research, although yes, that has been done for prizes intended to be compliments. Set out the criteria, and encourage a discussion via the awards. Ah, and there's the rub. The sort of destructive research I am thinking of is exactly the sort that a great many "elites" would prefer not be openly examined and discussed. (Top)

Struggling To Define Dangerous Speech (2023-02-13)

Image of a giant trying to drink a stream from *Europa's Fairy Book*, illustrated by John Batten Dickson circa 1916. Courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com. Image of a giant trying to drink a stream from *Europa's Fairy Book*, illustrated by John Batten Dickson circa 1916. Courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.
Image of a giant trying to drink a stream from Europa's Fairy Book, illustrated by John Batten Dickson circa 1916. Courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.

We humans seem generally quite astonished and appalled by turns at our ability to speak with one another. Not without reason, even if we do get a bit silly about how remarkable it is supposed to be that we are able to communicate using deliberately emitted sounds. This is not an uncommon ability among air breathers, and while we know our own speech systems especially well and understand the nuances, we are not so clear what other air breathing animals are doing when they use sound to communicate. Yes, there is a non-trivial connection between our ability to speak, and our capacity to work together on projects that may be highly disruptive to other beings. Yet I suspect the surprise element there comes more from how one minute we can sensibly connect cause and effect and thereby avoid unwanted results, and then a few moments later act as if we have no such capacity at all and complain about how we never wanted whatever thing to happen that did. In truth, there has been no end to the belief in magic words, we all subscribe to it to some degree, even if we argue over what precisely we mean by magic. The word magic itself comes from an old root referring to having a skill or power, and not a supernatural one either. For the purposes of this thoughtpiece at least, as opposed to the previous two considering speech issues (Not So Ineffective Words and Not So Ineffective Words, Again), I am referring to the magic of words in their ability to evoke strong emotion.

In particular, I have recently read two articles on the subject of "hate speech" by Alexander Brown in the open access journal Law and Philosophy. (They are What is Hate Speech? Part 1: The Myth of Hate and What is Hate Speech? Part 2: Family Resemblances.) One quote stood out to me, because I couldn't help but wonder if it mightn't have been more useful to dig into what it said more than what Brown ended up discussing. On the other hand, what I have in mind here may have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere in the same journal or the particular community of scholars belongs to. With that acknowledged, here is the quote from page 444 of his 2017 article "What is Hate Speech? Part 1: The Myth of Hate."

...the broader work that society as a whole now expects the term 'hate speech' to do – for example, to identify or flag up forms of speech that society as a whole fears have the potential to be very socially divisive or destructive of social cohesion.

This strikes me as a much more specific and useful description of "hate speech" than usual, because it gets at what people are worried about when they try to define and control it. History shows that speech can be used to raise up feelings in people that then enable them to find rationalization and drive to act in ways that are divisive. Where we get caught is in how very vague this description still is as an attempt to define what counts as "hate speech" that must be censured and silenced. Hence Brown wrote two long and interesting papers arguing that "hate speech" is better described via Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances. The best illustration of this concept remains one Wittgenstein developed himself, the wild range of practices widely referred to as "games." By the "myth of hate," Brown is referring to the fact that "emotions, feelings, or attitudes of hate or hatred are merely contingently associated with, and non-essential to, hate speech" a few pages before the quote above. This may seem a strange claim, but it does make sense, as in the many cases that instances of "hate speech" are associated with feelings of contempt and view that the person the speech is directed at is beneath them. This is part of where the attempt to use evidence of dehumanization as a confirming marker of hate speech comes from, quite reasonably. However, I found myself troubled because framed this way, "hate speech" very easily slips into "whatever we don't like." Well, let's try backing up a bit, and try a limited case to see if it helps clarify things.

Suppose there is one unfortunate and appalling individual who insists on screaming racial slurs through a megaphone on the corner of a busy pedestrian intersection. This individual's speech is definitely not positive or constructive. Racial slurs at minimum express contempt. The individual is actively seeking to force other people to hear the racial slurs. They may or may not hope to collect a crowd of likeminded people to persuade into acting on those slurs. But the truth is, such people tend to be rather crazy, and are not taken too seriously for the most part, unless they become a public nuisance, and indeed a person acting this way would. This is the sort of persistent behaviour that generally gets a person written up on public nuisance citation with associated fines, and refusing to pay the fines and/or stop pestering people at the busy intersection may lead to more severe punishments. A judge would not ignore the content of this individual's speech in determining what punishment is necessary, and would also want to make an example in the sense of showing that forcing your speech onto an unwilling audience is wrong, and it is aggravated in its wrongness by the content of the speech. Okay, but this individual, are they on their own an active danger to social cohesion? Not unless they start to get a following. But then we'd have a phase change from crazy guy on the corner to an active attempt to organize and act upon content of the speech.

More often than not, people get this, even on highly compromised social media platforms. They know that there is an important necessary connection between what they identify as hate speech with its use to help rationalize specific actions. The obvious examples are inciting and/or organizing violence, or after the fact rationalization of violence including that involved in exploiting others for profit. One ranting jerk does not organized rationalization or incitement of violence make. The speech itself is not violence, no matter how seriously it may challenge a cherished belief or insult someone. It is a flag that must be considered and taken seriously, but we also need to tease apart what amounts to flinging shit in an argument versus systematic action clearly intended to force people into an interaction they did not want. It is fair to mute trolls who merely want to start arguments and spoil an online conversation, but I think we should admit that many trolls are not often the sort of dangerous provocateur that attempts to define and enforce "hate speech" laws are intended to catch. Trolls don't have broader ambitions beyond the equivalent of gatecrashing someone else's party. I don't like them anymore than anybody else who tries to take part in on and offline conversations in good faith. But we should not make them out to be bigger threats than they are.

Lots of speech is dangerous, but which speech qualifies as reason to punish a person up to the point of total social ostracism and impoverishment seems to be the actual question at large when "hate speech" is discussed. But that's ridiculous, it indicates that what is being sought is a rationalization to go after someone we don't like. At which point there is a real likelihood that the people asking this question or its variants are edging very quickly into "hate speech" territory themselves, in the sense of drawing together organized action followed by rationalizations to permit some form of violence against others. It's easy to get caught up in such a bad faith discussion because it almost sounds plausible. "Hate speech" in the sense of speech that is used in a systematic way to license actively attacking a subset of people in a society is serious and dangerous in the wholly negative sense. We should wish to deal promptly, consistently, and decisively to speech applied in this way. However, we must also be just as firmly committed to being consistent and genuinely checking whether what we have is a troll, in which case a certain level of severity is called for, or whether we have an organized form of attack going on. We need to watch out for mistaking a widely expressed opinion or widely asked question that makes us so uncomfortable we want to take it as an attack even though it isn't.

In other words, here we are again, stuck with a challenge that does not admit simple solutions, and so is all too easily manipulated by the clever and dishonest if we insist on responding according to our immediate sensation of an adrenalin jolt. Unfortunately, adrenalin sucks when we need any sort of nuance, and it is bad for when we need to properly assess a situation before taking action. (Top)

A Possibility Theorem (2023-02-06)

Cover of Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen's 2014 book *The Arrow Impossibility Theorem*, courtesy of columbia university press, november 2021. Cover of Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen's 2014 book *The Arrow Impossibility Theorem*, courtesy of columbia university press, november 2021.
Cover of Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen's 2014 book The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, courtesy of columbia university press, november 2021.

In the course of cleaning up some boxes and other debris from a recent combined house and office move that disgorged all manner of alarming stuff long forgotten, there turned out to be a few gems. One of these were some notes I intended to follow up years ago on Kenneth Arrow's Possibility Theorem from the book Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing by Frank Ackerman and Lisa Hainzerling (New Press: London, 2004). The two quotes I excerpted are provided below in their reverse order with page numbers noted in brackets at the end of each, and to this day it puzzles me why the first was not integrated into the main text earlier on. It seems to me important that Arrow himself actually conceptualized this idea as a description of what is possible rather than what is impossible. On my earlier read, it suggested to me that perhaps he saw it as evidence that it was possible for economists to finally stop chasing the meaningless unicorn of a perfect so-called "social welfare function."

A "social welfare function" is a formula that takes individual preferences and computes society's collective preferences as its output. Arrow's result, originally called the General Possibility Theorem and often referred to as "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem," shows that any social welfare function, defined over all possible patterns of individual preferences, that satisfies minimal standards of logical consistency, must be dictatorial – that is, it always agrees with one particular individual's preferences, no matter what others want. A famous illustration of the problem is the "Condorcet paradox": with three rival policies, it is possible that a majority prefers A to B, a different majority prefers B to C, and yet another majority prefers C to A. In this case, there is no mathematical decision rule that predicts society's choice; the outcome presumably depends on the order of voting and/or the process of deliberation. (260-261)

...the economists dream of decision rules so precise that no one will need to participate [in decision making]. But a classic work in economic theory demonstrates the impossibility of that dream. In 1951, Kenneth Arrow proved that the results of democratic decision making cannot be reproduced by a mathematical formula. This crucial result, known as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, derailed earlier attempts by economists to represent society's choices by a "social welfare function" – a quantitative description of what society supposedly prefers. Arrow's proof has not been refuted, though it may have been forgotten in the rush to apply cost-benefit analysis. (209)

From a present day perspective, including additional life experience and observations of the ongoing horrific criminal handling of the risks and actualities of global warming, let alone the COVID-19 pandemic, I do realize why others tend to frame Arrow's result as an impossibility theorem. The desideratum behind a "social welfare function" is to impose a decision that some group who deem themselves somehow better than the rest of us has decided we should be persuaded to make. That would have solved the frustrations of Condorcet's voting paradox, which shows why it is difficult and unsatisfactory to try to game an election in order to impose a pre-defined outcome. Condorcet didn't show it was impossible. Yet even without reading the entry at the encyclopedia of mathematics I linked to, just reading Ackerman and Hainzerling's description indicates what a mess election results are when describable in terms of this paradox. If a different majority can be totted up for each possibility, the end result will likely be plagued by distrust of the results on top of the fury and frustration of satisfying no one. This is not at all like the case of say, fair-handed and effective regulation, which by rights in a more just world should leave all parties to the regulatory process annoyed but satisfied that there was no better final outcome available that could balance the different interests at play. So in a real sense we get a two-for-one from Arrow's result, as it reminds us that electoral systems that logjam in this way could be replaced with more democratic, not more autocratic or technocratic ones. Well, so long as the problem is defined as one of better response to what the affected people want and need, rather than defining it as imposing what a narrow club of blinkered people think should work for everyone because it will work for them or fit their favoured model of the world.

The book cover featured here, from the 2014 edition of Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen's exploration of the implications of Arrow's Possibility Theorem is on my list of books to read, not least because Arrow himself has contributed a supplementary essay on how he developed it. So far there do not seem to be many detailed responses to his ideas in a cohesive monograph, at least in terms of materials readily visible to those of us who do not specialize in economics or political science. Their essays reflecting on Arrow's theorem spend a surprising amount of time worrying at an example of an election in the united states with controversial outcomes specifically related to the inappropriate use of ballot marking machines. The problem was not the number of candidates but that each person was not able to unambiguously mark their choice and their votes were not treated equally. It seems to me rather strange not to take these points up directly, because a person can certainly argue that the prerequisites for the application of Arrow's theorem were not remotely met in any real world way in that example. (Top)

Stories That Don't Make Sense, Example No. 7 532 246 (2023-01-30)

Illustration from 'The Fatal Mistake' the first story in the collection *Stuff and Nonsense* written and illustrated by Arthur Burdett Frost, 1884. Image courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com. Illustration from 'The Fatal Mistake' the first story in the collection *Stuff and Nonsense* written and illustrated by Arthur Burdett Frost, 1884. Image courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.
Illustration from 'The Fatal Mistake' the first story in the collection Stuff and Nonsense written and illustrated by Arthur Burdett Frost, 1884. Image courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.

At one point, I had an entirely different story picked out to discuss for this thoughtpiece. As the arbitrarily chosen number in the title indicates, there is no shortage of choice of stories that don't make sense out there, not least because let's face it, an entertaining story doesn't actually have to make sense. Sometimes the absurdity and non sequitur quality of such nonsense stories is just what the doctor ordered, just plain funny and a real release to laugh at. An example that leaps to mind for that to me is the Gumby sketches from Monty Python. There is nothing about them that makes sense at all, and a considerable amount of what makes them funny is that they don't follow from anything at all. Not even the sketch framed around the young man who goes home to explain to his family of hardworking poets that he has opted for the far softer profession of coal miner. The latter sketch actually does make sense in its own peculiar universe and in the critique of the contemporary politics of the time in england and wales. The story I had in mind was not from a religion in the usual sense either, since that would have been a rather obnoxious fish in a barrel selection because of the canard that true belief is supposed to be proved by accepting what is impossible, at least if the believer in question is a catholic. I have always found such a basis for faith an alarmingly flimsy one, because people are expected to hang an awful lot on it, and it hardly seems fair to expect a faith in the absurd to stand up to reality clobbering you in the face, as reality is wont to do to the unguarded.

On top of that, there have been all manner of politically sensitive but on their face ridiculous stories that actually aren't that new at large to pick on. The ridiculous claim that men can spontaneously declare themselves women and then demand that the whole force of the state and social stigma destroy people they choose to attack is one of them. But in the end I had to give even that one a pass, albeit with a vast reluctance. However, it is an example of a variation of a particular story that goes back before christianity, although what became mainstream christianity gobbled it up whole, so whole that christianity has no more managed to digest it than the previous beliefs and philosophical systems that took it up. The other systems I think of include ideas most associated with Plato and his later followers, and so far as I can tell many strands of buddhism as implemented over the past several thousand years, although from this it should not be concluded that it is part of all schools of buddhism. Not because I know for sure they don't, but because I have no idea at all whether they do. At which point most people can already figure out what the story is: the story of mind-body duality. In fact, this reminds me of one of many powerful reflections in Thomas King's series of Massey lectures, performed and later published as CDs and a book called The Truth About Stories:

Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous. The Native novelist Leslie Silko, in her book Ceremony, tells how evil came into the world. It was witch people. Not Whites or Indians or Blacks or Asians or Hispanics. Witch people. Witch people from all over the world, way back when, and they all came together for a witches' conference. In a cave. Having a good time, A contest, actually. To see who could come up with the scariest thing. Some of them brewed up potions in pots, Some of them jumped in and out of animal skins. Some of them thought up charms and spells.

It must have been fun to watch.

Until finally there was only one witch left who hadn't done anything. No one knew where this witch came from or if the witch was male or female. And all this witch had was a story.

Unfortunately the story this witch told was an awful thing full of fear and slaughter, disease and blood. A story of murderous mischief. And when the telling was done, the other witches quickly agreed that this witch had won the prize.

"Okay you win," they said. "[B]ut what you said just now – it isn't so funny. It doesn't sound so good. We are doing okay without it. We can get along without that kind of thing. Take it back. Call that story back."

But of course, it was too late. Once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world.

So you see, this is why stories should be of great concern to all of us, even the ones that don't make sense. Some stories that don't make sense don't make sense in a way that help us laugh. They are meant to make no sense so that we can't think or resist the demands of people who intend us harm. There are far too many of that sort of ill story that doesn't make sense now.

In the end the story that doesn't make sense that I ended up thinking about again was a different, though closely related one to the story that pretends that if only everyone was the same the world would be perfect and so it is only doing someone good to kill or torture them into conformity. That one has already had a thoughtpiece to itself. Instead, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the story that claims that we should never, ever allow ourselves room to experiment. No, according to that story, we must risk everything on whatever scheme we come up with, whether it be mad or banal, and then suffer grievously because we deserve it if the experiment doesn't work out as we expected. That story also claims that we should do this without taking any time to check whether anybody has tried something similar before, in order to see what results they got. That story claims up, down, sideways, and inside out, that if we have decided to take a huge risk, it will certainly work for us, because we were the ones so audacious as to try out the idea. There is even a little sub-story suggesting that we are cowardly or shameful if we insist on looking before we leap and taking those old stories seriously. But this story is completely crazy, because it denies us all access to our own resources passed down to us from our own ancestors, who took considerable trouble to pass down stories about the hells they had to go through so we wouldn't do that again. As a story it doesn't make sense – well, it doesn't make sense, if we expect a sensible progression of steps. If it is meant to encourage us to feel awful for being finite human beings who need to learn by experience, both our own and that shared with us by others, and to set us up for horrifying personal and social disasters when we get caught up in grandiose and destructive schemes, well then, I guess to some cruel bastard it does make sense.

This is probably going to seem a strange thing to read. Our capacity to try out new or unusual things on a small scale and see how they work out without risking utter destruction of individual life and limb or the whole of society, is an extraordinary gift. Small scale experiments don't save us from embarrassment or humiliation, or screwing something up we really wish we hadn't. But accepted and used for what it is, it helps us avoid a remarkable amount of personal and social catastrophe in tandem with paying serious attention to how the other guy's experiment went. I have taught my own history students that Indigenous communities had a knack for watching the neighbours, and if what the neighbours were trying led to havoc and general far from comfortable stuff, went, "Whoa! Let's not do what they did, okay?" And it wasn't about making fun of the unlucky neighbours, or feeling cruelly superior to them. It was about thinking how lucky their community was not to have made the same mistake, and how they were obligated to help their neighbours who could be helped. After all, those neighbours accidentally taught them what not to do, and were probably feeling embarrassed and unhappy about the results. Mistakes are easy, perfection is impossible. As long as we can accept that and act constructively on it, we can be reasonably sure of being okay. That's not as grandiose and intoxicating a story, to be sure. But it makes sense. (Top)

Unusual Second Hand Finds (2023-01-23)

Part of the original dust cover of the 1928 BBC Hand Book courtesy of flashbak.com, november 2021. Don't miss the other year book covers featured on the linked page, the scans are excellent and the covers intriguing in their own right. Part of the original dust cover of the 1928 BBC Hand Book courtesy of flashbak.com, november 2021. Don't miss the other year book covers featured on the linked page, the scans are excellent and the covers intriguing in their own right.
Part of the original dust cover of the 1928 BBC Hand Book courtesy of flashbak.com, november 2021. Don't miss the other year book covers featured on the linked page, the scans are excellent and the covers intriguing in their own right.

Secondhand books and pamphlets can be full of intriguing surprises, as many a used bookstore maven knows from browsing shelves and finding remarkable things. Not necessarily fancy or expensive in nature, not necessarily generally significant. Often wonderful food for thought and speculation. I have not had the fortune of finding old letters or anything of that sort, although by happy accident I have witnessed a fellow browser in the used bookstore find one dating back to the korean war in a book she had just purchased for a few dollars. For me there is one book that had a business card with the contact information for a mental hospital deep in central canada, and many secondhand textbooks full of a wild collection of sticky notes and slips with generally illegible reminders and pointers. One book unexpectedly coughed up a folded up mystery novel fanclub newsletter. More often my experience is with the annotations and marginalia added direct to pages, which with any luck besides bad for newer books are at least in pencil. (It isn't that I necessarily want to erase them, although yes, sometimes I do. It's that some inks actually destroy the paper as they age.) So a recent two dollar acquisition on a whim turned out to be an unexpected slam dunk.

This acquisition is none other than the first detailed annual report produced and published by the bbc corporation, focussed on its radio operations as we should expect for a book produced in 1928. I must confess to being caught out a bit to start with, because this is an actual book, perfect bound with an integrated bookmark on a braided ribbon with a frequency card, the text and advertisements printed on porcelained paper. There are a fair number of advertisements, but only about eighteen per cent of the whole, and mostly for things to do with having and listening to the radio. Radios, obviously, speakers, extra vacuum tubes, speakers, batteries. The main tie-in products are even sensible: repair services, catalogues of parts, musical instruments. Not quite sure about the donation request for the "empire pioneers" programme to resettle select trained boys as farm workers in the "overseas dominions," and yes, there are indeed two advertisements for food. This is not the usual sort of thing to have in an annual report for a business or government department these days, as a quick look at a couple of more current examples will show. Two I would suggest that are of canadian provenience are the 2020 Canadian Tire Corporation Report to Shareholders and the Annual Report of the Judge Advocate General to the Minister of National Defence on the Administration of Military Justice from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020. Fine, light-hearted stuff.

Today annual reports are more reminiscent of magazines since they are usually saddle-stapled or at most perfect bound in a letter-size format when printed, even if they are of quite substantial length. Depending on the organization, they may be very glossy with as much text forgone as possible in favour of graphics and large-size pull quotes. Or they may be little more than a few black and white printed pages stapled together, but those aren't the kind that will land online. What sets this early bbc example further apart is its original cover, which I learned was one of many designed by rather well-known graphic artists of the time. The implication in the bbc case is that to begin with not only were they profoundly proud of these annual reports, they anticipated that people would want to hang onto them. Indeed, there are many photographs and diagrams illustrating aspects of the internals of radios and transmitters as well as the seating arrangements of the bbc radio orchestra and the set up of transmission towers. There is even a proper, albeit brief index. So the thought was that people would hang onto these books, and potentially use them for longer term reference, at least for as long as their current home radios remained operable. On the other hand, the bbc designers did not anticipate that anyone would seriously make any notes in these handbooks, opting for extremely narrow margins and not a blank page anywhere except for the flyleaves. The sense of excitement at the idea of having the ability to beam messages into all homes is certainly there. Since the bbc license fee was also already a not wholly popular element of having this radio service, it is likely that the compilers hoped to encourage a sense of ownership and enthusiasm in those paying it. The bbc handbooks, later year books, don't seem to be a sales item originally, nor sent out to all license fee payers. However, I am not able to confirm that as yet. The present-day distribution via free pdfs is recent indeed.

Some of the most interesting elements of the book, and it is possible to view an excellent quality scan at worldradiohistory.com are its page and internal graphic design. They were certainly using lithographic printing to handle the range of detail in the various advertisements and photographs. I was particularly struck by how photographs almost always included people or else were landscape shots, while there were no people in any of the advertisements except for one of the ones for food or donations. This early and in england as opposed to north america, no one had concluded that the best way to sell things was to show people using them followed by implying people who used them were inevitably rich, sexy, and socially dominant. Instead they are focussed on the product. Arguably this is the sort of thing that mostly interests historians, yet it is hard not to be impressed by just how differently the propaganda industry was at this time. The literal requirement to have a radio and get a daily dose of specific government messaging is primarily associated with authoritarian states and of course with the infamous nazi regime. It can be non-trivial for a person in the u.k. to demonstrate that they should be exempt from the license fee because they don't have a receiver that could pick up bbc programming today, but this is a much later phenomenon. Before that, lacking the license to use the sort of authoritarian power that could be used to enforce radio ownership, and of course being too parsimonious to provide one for every household, the bbc had to stick to persuasion and advertising for itself. Providing useful information like the weather report and gradually building up notions of listening to the radio together as a social experience would have to do, and indeed, those were highly successful methods. (Top)

Novel Fictions (2023-01-16)

Not a novel: cover of the first edition of Virgina Woolf's short story collection *Monday or Tuesday*, courtesy of Baumann Rare Books, november 2021. Not a novel: cover of the first edition of Virgina Woolf's short story collection *Monday or Tuesday*, courtesy of Baumann Rare Books, november 2021.
Not a novel: cover of the first edition of Virgina Woolf's short story collection Monday or Tuesday, courtesy of Baumann Rare Books, november 2021.

Here is an excellent way to start a flame war among english majors. Dare them to provide a consistent definition of "the novel" that makes sense in any language other than english and sit back. I honestly had no idea that the question of what a novel is could be controversial, but then again perhaps that simply means that I am always learning how very thoroughly I underestimate the present culture of shouting matches in lieu of people having discussions where there is no requirement for everyone to agree at the end on a final answer. It is worth explaining just how this could be an open question, because in this time of late capitalism that tries to persuade us that marketing categories are the proper definitions of artforms and genres of writing, "the novel" does seem a fixed thing if you go to a library or bookstore. For me it all started with sitting down to read Jules Verne in the original french, as part of an assignment for a course. The introduction described the book as a "roman," which at first I took to simply mean what is referred to in english as a novel. That's not wrong so much as inexact, the typical fate of translation attempts I suspect, especially for people like myself who wouldn't pretend to full on bilingual status.

In english, according to the OED at least, a novel is "a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and actions with some degree of realism." The book length part of this definition is annoying in its vagueness. For the purposes of this thoughtpiece, let's take it as a minimum of 160 pages in the size and print format of a common penguin edition. 120 pages is too close to something better described as a novella, which usually shows up as part of an anthology with a number of short stories. Meanwhile, just to be bloody minded, I checked what a "romance" was supposed to be, the closest english term to french "roman." At one point it meant not the hackneyed formula books usually available in drugstores but "a work of fiction dealing with events remote from real life." That's very interesting, because in high school I got an earful about romantic novels – these were books written during the eighteenth century in england, when there was a reaction against "rationalism" in art. This doesn't mean earlier novels were necessarily realistic, although to be rational they had to make sense and clearly explain how one event followed on the next. No skipping and no going out of order, no untrustworthy narrators.

Not a novel but a roman: cover of Monique Wittig's *le corps lesbien*, courtesy of les éditions minuit, november 2021. Not a novel but a roman: cover of Monique Wittig's *le corps lesbien*, courtesy of les éditions minuit, november 2021.
Not a novel but a roman: cover of Monique Wittig's le corps lesbien, courtesy of les éditions minuit, november 2021.

My smaller, workaday french dictionary flatly translates "roman" to "novel." Le petit Robert says,"ouevre d'imagination en prose qui presenté des personnages donnés comme réels." This is a much cagier definition, "a work of imagination in prose that presents fixed characters as real." I suppose a better translation of donnés could be "defined." To me this implies that in such stories the characters are generally types who don't change, or if they do it is within a certain arc that we already know. Fair enough. The cagy part though is that the starting point is that a roman is a work of imagination in prose. No reference to length, no valorization of realism or romanticism or anything else. The illustrative examples in the definition suggest that there is an expectation that a roman is not equivalent to a short story though, which is a "nouvelle," and the exemplar sentences in my dictionaries contrast "nouvelles" to "romans." As it happens, I have several of Monique Wittig's novels in the original french, and as printed they range from 180 to 210 pages. So we could use almost the same rough estimate as in the english case for the relative boundary between novellas and novels. In the french case it makes sense that it would be a bit more at least to me, because it is a commonplace that translating from english to french often makes for a longer final text. (This is a quirk of the grammatical differences between the two languages.)

There does seem to be a broad consensus beyond english and french or indeed european languages in general that novels are longer than a novella and that they are in prose. There may be some poetry too, but not too much. How much is too much doesn't have a strict definition, although it is probably fair to say that if we flipped through a novel and it had too many pages with one ragged margin or centred short lines, that would probably be a book of poetry. After that, all hell breaks loose. Some critics insist that if a work of prose fiction sounds too "oral" then it isn't a novel. Or if it is non-linear, or if it has too many characters. Or if it is based on a different system of thought and underlying "stories that everyone knows" than those from the critic's culture. If nothing else, critics and scholars can get a good number of articles and columns out of arguing about such things. Luckily, there is no need to get tangled up in all of that or have a definition of "the novel" or "le roman" to pick them up and read them, and there is considerable variety available within the category. (Top)

A Clean Slate (2023-01-09)

Antique wooden framed writing slate. Image courtesy of rubylnae antiques, image viewed november 2021. Antique wooden framed writing slate. Image courtesy of rubylane antiques, image viewed november 2021.
Antique wooden framed writing slate. Image courtesy of rubylane antiques, image viewed november 2021.

My earliest clear memory of encountering a reference to writing on a slate was in Lewis Carroll's first Alice book, in which all the jurors at Alice's trial have slates to take notes on. At first I just accepted that they had them and apparently these objects must be a sort of book because they could write on them. That one juror had a squeaky pencil that Alice divested him of stuck in my mind because I couldn't imagine at first how or why a pencil would ever squeak. But since at that time I was still very young, and accustomed to encountering things in books that made little sense to me while having equally little obvious impact on the enjoyment of whatever the story was, it didn't hold my attention then. A few years later I finally encountered a writing slate in real life at a historical re-enactment site. My elementary school class was dutifully trotted through it and at one point set down in a replica one-room school room and duly handed wooden framed slates and pencils to write on them with. It turned out that these "pencils" were in fact small chalks of a sort of consistency and thickness I had never seen before. That's just about all I remember from that trip, that and the examples of food preserved by methods from the time waved in front of us but with no small samples provided to try, even though this was in the days when such things could be done, trusting that children of our age would know our allergies and when to say no. After all, we were big enough to be trusted to walk around a site that included an open smithy with only two teachers to keep an eye on us.

The slate pencil experience revealed how it could squeak of course, since chalk may have a grain of sand or other harder substance caught up in it that if caught in the writing end will make an excruciating sound when rubbed on stone or glass. The expression "start with a clean slate" of course is now also self evident, although funny enough, at the reenactment there was no sign of any cloth or sponge to clean our slates off with. Hilariously for my elementary school class, this meant that we were generally reluctant to write on them. I actually only located the sort of chalk that we used that day recently at an art supply store among the gear commonly used by seamsters and tailors. It is much finer than the more familiar chalk used at the blackboard, designed to make a clear mark on fabric and stay put until the finished item is washed. For individuals writing on a small to medium sized slate, it is quite effective though it responds better to a damp cloth than a dry one.

Contrary to what the context of a nineteenth century children's book and a historical re-enactment might suggest, writing slates are still easily available to this day, although not so nicely framed as they once were. The example I have available to me is framed with a soft wood, and while sturdy this would be entirely inadequate for serious classroom use. For the classroom originally they were probably framed with suitable hardwood and finished with a matte polish. Cheaper ones probably had their softwood frames finished with a quick coat of paint to discourage splintering. Further contrary to what we might expect, these slates were not just inhabitants of school rooms. This is logical because cheap paper for quick notes is a very recent thing, and not only is slate reasonably cheap and common, so is chalk. Nevertheless, it was a genuine surprise to me to learn that the clapperboards used on film sets were originally writing slates of this wooden framed stone type. I had only ever seen pictures of the more newfangled acrylic ones. These ubiquitous workaday tools, whether associated with films or not seem to be highly prized items in the world of antiques. The example in the picture illustrating this thoughtpiece sold while I was noting down the picture credit. There is still another bit of surprise in store courtesy of the writing slate, in its relevance to the infamous Donner Party.

The Donner Party was the group of people on their way to california in 1846, an area still part of mexico at the time, who made the ill-fated decision to try to take a short cut. Unfortunately it is still too common for people to underestimate how dangerous attempted short cuts are in unfamiliar lands, let alone through a region characterized by a combination of rugged terrain and areas with little drinkable water. Among the relics of the Donner family's camp, which over the years has been severely interfered with and pot hunted, were a collection of writing slate fragments. In the mid 2000s, archaeology masters student Molly Elizabeth Sword began working with these fragments, and found herself putting together the first and to date likely only brief history of the writing slate in her subsequent thesis. Her alma mater, the university of montana, has made this thesis publicly available alongside many other materials. Titled A Clean Slate: The Archaeology of the Donner Party's Writing Slate Fragments, Sword was originally supposed to study any remnant writing on the slate fragments. Considering that writing slates were used with chalk based on the re-enactment example, this doesn't seem like a strictly reasonable task to saddle a student with, unless the writing slates were found sealed within a unit in not too broken a state. This was not the case though, as might be reasonably expected from sites in an area known for rigorous weather and picked over by souvenir hunters for many years. It is to Sword's credit that she persevered and found a relevant research angle that still made use of the fragments she had to work with. The brief history falls on pdf pages 52 to 71.

Sword has apparently done some experimentation with writing slates in order to make sense of the advertisements and patents she used to study them. Besides learning that at first people often made their own frames for their slates, she comments that they are very noisy to write on, and that this was such a well known problem that a whole range of tweaks and additions were applied to quiet their use. She clarifies the noisy slate issue by explaining that the original slate pencil was made of slate rock or soapstone. Soapstone makes rather more sense as it would likely have made a better mark. It seems a cruel fate to be stuck using such a noise-making pencil if the results were barely legible anyway. This indicates that the re-enactors wisely substituted in the more available and unlikely to torment the ears fabric chalk pencils for the slate or soapstone originals. (Top)

Watch Out for the Noblesse Oblige (2023-01-02)

Cover of Scott Adams' 1999 collection of Dilbert comic strips, *Don't Step in the Leadership.* His comments independent of his strip can occasionally be a bit unhinged, which seems to be a requirement of semi-celebrities these days, but he still keeps the Dilbert strip running. Cover of Scott Adams' 1999 collection of Dilbert comic strips, *Don't Step in the Leadership.* His comments independent of his strip can occasionally be a bit unhinged, which seems to be a requirement of semi-celebrities these days, but he still keeps the Dilbert strip running.
Cover of Scott Adams' 1999 collection of Dilbert comic strips, Don't Step in the Leadership. His comments independent of his strip can occasionally be a bit unhinged, which seems to be a requirement of semi-celebrities these days, but he still keeps the Dilbert strip running.

Having run into an unexpected present-day expression of so-called "noblesse oblige," as such matters with peculiar names often lead me to do, I decided to have a look in my trusty OED to see what it originally was supposed to be about. Maybe my ideas about it had gotten a bit garbled due to idiosyncratic experience, as has been the case for a few other different terms much heard but rarely read in context. If nothing else, the romp through the crannies of the dictionary can be fun and thought provoking. As would be expected, the OED dutifully informed me that noblesse oblige refers to "the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility to the less privileged." Well, there's a telltale word that there is another whole thoughtpiece about, Privilege Check. So the sense that there is something not so great about this concept is reinforced. Then I decided to look up what "noble" has meant recently, and soon read "belonging to a hereditary class with higher social or political status; aristocratic, having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideas." After I stopped laughing – "noble" and "nobility" have definitely come down in the world – by luck the etymology section of the dictionary entry caught my eye. It was unusually short, noting that the root of the word "noble" is the same one as in the verb "to know." At which all things became clear.

UPDATE 2023-03-24 - Well, this is a rather unheard of sort of update to do not with this thoughtpiece per se, but Scott Adams who has taken his "unhinged comments" to a far higher level, at least for strategic purposes. I can't help but wonder if in part, though not in whole, he undertook a move analogous in principle to Prince's when Prince began actively making himself unmarketable to his record label so he could escape what had become a thoroughly unwanted contract (Prince indulged in silly self-relabellings and oddball musical experiments instead). I understand that keeping up with the production of a syndicated comic that is under pressure to be marketable is not a trivial task, so it seems a plausible speculation. That of course, does not excuse Adams for what he said. A few people are trying to hold him up as a free speech martyr, which I do not find plausible. He has been chucked out of mainstream newspapers and the usual "social media" and advertising company suspects, but he has found himself stable new means to present his comics and his video rants, which thanks to his popularity will ensure he is not in fact silenced and that he still has a fanbase and a broader audience. He is not losing his livelihood or becoming a social pariah, nor did he take a principled stand. If anything, he could be more fiercely criticized for the abuse of his now former platform, which will make it even harder for others who do not parrot what is considered "mainstream" and do not in anyway encourage or condone racism or any other rationalization of exploitation and violence.

If "noble" fundamentally means to be "known" or "recognized," then "noblesse oblige" is originally what is expected of somebody who has gotten rather known for their ability to gather more goodies than everyone else, by whatever means. This is not a positive way to be known, far better to be giving away as much as you can if you are so lucky as to experience a major windfall. Otherwise, chances are, you actively did something to prevent others to have enough so that you had more. Being pressed to act with "noblesse oblige" indicates a probably serious character flaw, to put it mildly. No wonder then that this term as I have encountered it has at best minimal positive connotations, and is usually said in a tone more like what we might imagine the fictional Dilbert's would be when reminding new officemates not to step in the leadership. To be sure, noblesse oblige didn't have to turn out this way. There are always other possibilities, and perhaps the term will take a turn for the better in time, although it is probably more likely that it will fall the rest of the way out of the english language at least. I can't speak to its wanderings in french by any means.

For good or ill, the people who tend to fall in the "known" or "recognized" categories these days are generally considered celebrities and won their fame, if it can be called a win, via various interactions with the entertainment industry. These days that usually means a person famous from television, movies, or sports. There are still a few royals around who are very visible and probably really wish they weren't but also would rather not undermine the absurd system that allows them to continue living off the public purse and not be denounced as welfare cheats. The trouble for celebrities these days seems to be that they are rarely famous for being excellent at anything anymore, unless having a knack for acting in appalling ways that persuade a great many people to watch them do awful things counts. Hence the strange genre of "reality television" which is a term about as accurate as "social media" and just as pernicious in what falls under it. I can't help but think that more often than not, if a person has become famous, however that happens, whether or not they sought to win the state of being known or recognized by strangers, something has gone terribly wrong both for them and society and general. After all, the difficulties that celebrities face finding and keeping trustworthy friends and relatives in their lives is proverbial.

This does make me wonder at least whether that is inherent to having such a status. Could a person be widely known, even to strangers, and it not be a problem for them or anybody else really? It seems to me that strictly speaking it is possible, but not under the conditions that we live in today. Not in a hypercompetitive social world where everyone is constantly being pressured to mistrust one another. Under those conditions, being famous has too much in common with being considered a target ripe for scamming, if not at least persistently annoying. One person who had troubles because of his somewhat cranky later fame was Charles Babbage, whom the local police allowed organ grinders to harass because he tried to make their means of making a living – making people pay them to take their awful racket away – illegal. I appreciate Babbage's early drive to counter growing noise pollution, but also that the organ grinders needed some other way to make a living then, and it doesn't sound like Babbage had a constructive proposal for that side of the equation. Either way, Babbage suffered a certain level of annoyance for his relative fame at the time.

All of this is not to deny that people can still find themselves famous for being excellent at something that is constructive and positive for themselves and others. Particularly good doctors and teachers come to mind, but they are not so common in a social context where the appearance of excellence is readily rewarded heedless of whether they really are good at healing or teaching. This makes sad sense of the often lost half of the saying about the proof in the pudding. The proof is not in the pudding when it is sitting there, the proof is in the eating of the pudding, the material experience of trying the pudding and finding it edible and tasty. (Top)

Press Makings (2022-12-26)

Kelmscott-Goudy press at the rochester institute of technology in new york state. Original photo by Jim Kuhn, october 2015, courtesy of wikimedia commons under creative commons CC0 1.0 universal public domain dedication license. Kelmscott-Goudy press at the rochester institute of technology in new york state. Original photo by Jim Kuhn, october 2015, courtesy of wikimedia commons under creative commons CC0 1.0 universal public domain dedication license.
Kelmscott-Goudy press at the rochester institute of technology in new york state. Original photo by Jim Kuhn, october 2015, courtesy of wikimedia commons under creative commons CC0 1.0 universal public domain dedication license.

In a previous thoughtpiece I set out some of my thoughts on Asocial Amplifiers, including how these advertising companies have been presented as "a means of 'creating' and sharing information using virtual communities and networks." But these companies wanted it both ways. They wanted to insist that they were analogous to internet service providers who just transport the data and can't be held accountable for what the data says, and serve as the publishing platform where people wrote and read the data. So, if the people in question did something illegal by sharing particular types of data, such as inciting criminal acts, sharing images of sexual abuse, or actively hocking pirated goods for profit, those companies wanted to be held immune from responsibility for those activities. It is understandable that these advertising companies wanted to hold these two things at the same time, because then they could avoid spending much time or money on moderation or worrying if part of their infrastructure went down and data was lost. But they also have powerful and perverse incentives to spy incessantly on the people who use them in order to sell data to other companies and push targeted advertising. Since what they sell hinges on advertising and datamining, these companies would rather maintain people's attention and get as many advertisements in front of them as possible. Therein lies the rub, because if they are capable of doing all this filtering for their own benefit, then they are also in a position to willfully profit by illegal activities that happen to also provide data to mine and potential advertisement views to sell. And so whether they wanted to do it or not, in time these companies have been forced to at least make a half-assed effort to moderate what people post and filter out the most egregiously illegal stuff. They really hate this I suspect, because it costs them money, moderation doesn't scale, and automatic filtering can't stand on its own. Machine learning doesn't automagically do the right thing, and it's hard to say whether it ever can under the present social and design conditions.

UPDATE 2023-03-30 - And now, thanks to Elon Musk managing to manoeuvre himself into a position to asset strip twitter, additional evidence of how "social media" has pivoted to keep the profits going is all too clear. I had commented to a friend that the only place left to try to find "free money" for such corporations is military contracts, and it already seemed like a great deal of state surveillance and censorship had effectively been contracted out to advertising companies. It isn't pleasant to be right about such things, although there is a certain sad satisfaction in friends and relatives finally appreciating my concerns were based on observations and documented historical precedent, not some strange fictional theory. A few of them have even noticed they had somehow gotten taken in by the idea that supposedly only other countries' large corporations may be spying for their governments on their own populations, let alone foreigners.

Social media companies are not the same as popular blogs and analogous websites where people may post comments and participate in discussions. Their comment sections and discussion boards are not the publishing platform, that is people don't use those elements to publish original works, although they may end up writing something so good that it gets reworked and hoisted into a blogpost or other work separately. Such sites have moderators who work to keep comments civil and remove and otherwise discourage posts of inappropriate content or links to it. Nor indeed are these sites loosely equivalent to party lines oddly crossbred with cable television. It makes sense that the owners of those blogs and discussion sites are not responsible for the posts of the visiting commenters, although they are nevertheless responsible for reporting posts that are blatantly illegal in nature as well as removing them from public view. The obvious examples are threats of violence and attempts to poison the space with posts of sexual abuse content. Blogs and discussion boards also have more or less explicit editorial and content policies. Logically blogposts and discussion board posts are expected to be on topic, and the community of writers in both will likely have an average political leaning or interest. But social media companies purport to be many more things than any of these, and furthermore to be neutral politically and socially, merely upholding the required laws of where they are based.

From what I understand, the particular reason that social media companies want to hang onto a claim to editorial neutrality is that this will help shield them from regulation. If they can avoid actual regulation, then no one can easily subject them to auditing and stop them indulging in manipulative practices that make them money but are harmful to everyone else. Basically, if they can manage to maintain convincingly that they are neutral, then they can just handwave away demands for regulation by saying, "Look how well-behaved we are! You can trust us! We piss off everyone equally!" I find this interesting, because regulatory bodies should be doing something similar in real life, pissing everyone off equally, but leaving everyone satisfied that their concerns have been addressed and they have been treated fairly. These other two aspects are not taken very seriously by social media companies, because of course, they are not motivated to care. They are already large enough to be acting on the assumption that what they say goes, and whatever losses they may incur through some people abandoning their platforms, fines levied in their home jurisdictions for specific issues, or occasional publicity black eyes, will never outstrip their massive profits. This all hangs on what is actually a very slender thread.

It is quite clear that social media companies are not neutral, they do not moderate or filter neutrally by any means, nor do they maintain and apply reasonable appeals processes for when their moderating and filtering goes wrong. This is partly an effect of their own politics, which are shifting to the ever more authoritarian and destructive as time goes on and they strive to avoid accountability and neutralize or destroy any potential competitors for their control not just of advertising online but of widely used and recognized means to share information. Contrary to their claims, they are far from the equivalent of a factory just autoprinting and binding books or pamphlets from postscript files sent in with orders for x number of copies in the following materials and quantities. Beyond a certain size, hard copy printing presses also end up becoming actual publishers, because once investment begins to go into editing and deciding what to accept to print and distribute beyond making sure it is not incomprehensible word salad scrawled on the equivalent of a roll of paper towels, it is impossible to be uninvolved.

Like it or not, that suggests that in the end there will be two tough steps that will be required to deal with social media companies and any other advertising company that has managed to corner a significant portion of daily communication, publishing of information, and also distribution. They will have to be subjected to a severe breaking up because they are dangerous monopolies, and they must be subjected to heavy duty code audits and regulation to tear out their most socially destructive algorithms, meaning of course that create addiction and encourage mental ill-health. The sad fact is that – and I have no difficulty conceding this – before they went into cancerous expansion mode, their basic functions often provided mutual benefit between the companies and the people who used their communication oriented elements. They were already popular and profitable, but desperate to somehow expand profits forever by whatever means they could come up with, they have become ever more pernicious. (Top)

Bonus Thoughtpiece (2023-03-30)

August 2011 photograph of a benchmark on a bridge at wantage, england by Bill Nicholls used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via wikimedia commons. August 2011 photograph of a benchmark on a bridge at wantage, england by Bill Nicholls used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via wikimedia commons.
August 2011 photograph of a benchmark on a bridge at wantage, england by Bill Nicholls used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via wikimedia commons.

Every now and again there are production hiccups here at the Moonspeaker, usually affecting the rss feed, but every now and again popping up elsewhere. In this case I decided to have a look around for other sorts of bonus items, minus such stuff as grocery store sales and old religious documents written by various men with the word as part of their name. What was left after that looks to be photographs related to various orienteering and other geography hobbyist practices, competitions and communities. The photograph here derives from one of these, but for this thoughtpiece what is especially interesting about it is what the photograph shows, an original benchmark. In my own experience I had concluded the term "benchmark" had something originally to do with the built in (on wooden) or incised (on metal) measurement scales on workbenches. That is a plausible idea, although as it turns out not the actual origins of the term. The OED describes a benchmark as at first, "a surveyor's mark cut in a wall, pillar, or building and used as a reference point in measuring altitudes." This version of the benchmark has been rendered almost moot by the advent of GPS, particularly since its accuracy for civilian use was improved. Most web searches on the term right now will turn up entry after entry of advertising copy for one or another cpu on its own or as part of a computer crippled with microsoft windows on it. Or else they will be mostly about code benchmarking, as on the intriguing search engine marginalia, although if "survey" is added as a search term a result about that sort of benchmark is the first result at least, although not a strong one.

Having spent a long summer working in land surveying myself, it was interesting to try to find some better sources about tools and history of the craft. It is a sad fact that the original practice of geometry is not much noticed today, and there is an alarming amount of deskilling affecting practitioners who now learn how to do the job with computers and GPS to do the measurements. Admittedly, land surveying is not in itself terribly complicated, and most of the tough work happens back at the office once it is time to redraw plans and otherwise work with the measurements taken. The stranger possibilities for survey mark positions and the like have long been smoothed away by industrial development for the most part. It would be exceedingly unusual now for a land surveyor to have to climb trees in order to take a sighting for example. But this does not make land surveying anodyne, as anyone who has read histories about the so-called "civilizing" of the americas or africa. Land surveying can be a prelude to exceedingly nasty business. And also some quite impressive business.

For impressive business, a major example that has been back in the news of late is the great pyramid at giza, which various scholars are still obsessively poking at in hopes of finding otherwise previously unknown and unopened chambers. Surveys inside and outside of this pyramid are critical to drawing up plans and recreating a sense of it on paper and in computer simulation. John Romer has an excellent discussion of the way what were once considered unimportant holes and marks in the stone beside the great pyramid on further examination proved to be surveyor marks critical to the eventual assembly of the whole edifice. (See his excellent 2007 book, The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited.) The role of surveying in ensuring the massive stone blocks lined up properly and the whole thing didn't collapse makes such remarkable things as tiny passages far too small for any person but possible to line up with specific stars in their positions at the time the pyramid was built practical. Those sight lines were needed for the work, they weren't a mystified effort to capture the supposed sacred light of specific heavenly objects. To be sure, they could have been mystified later, and non-egyptian outsiders have indulged in that. but so far the evidence is against the ancient egyptians having done so.

The need to re-survey, including relocating existing fixed points and replacing temporary ones is still critical to construction all over the world today. There is not too much to see around sites where single houses or basic roads are being built. But for those with an mild interest in land surveying marks and usage, and the mixed fortune of having to walk past a medium to large site where a multi-storey building is being assembled, there is often a lot to see. Besides the range of temporary marks needed as utility lines, property boundaries, and temporary work space are marked out, there are a great many others set up with sticks and flags at different stages of the work. I have occasionally seen semi-permanent markers in the form of a bunch of plastic flagging nailed into a sidewalk with concrete nails. These generally seem quite unpopular with municipalities where I live, as the nails encourage weathering, even more so where there is a winter of freeze-thaw cycles. (Top)

Aggressive Decorations (2022-12-19)

Example of a less aggressive decoration, relatively speaking, october 2021. Example of a less aggressive decoration, relatively speaking, october 2021.
Example of a less aggressive decoration, relatively speaking, october 2021.

I do get it. Most people love holiday decorations, and the options available for outdoor ones are quite extensive. They are a lot of fun, and can be quite the family project to set up. Forget strings of lights and ribbons, let alone carved pumpkins and the various items reminiscent of garden gnomes. Now there are whole kits for light shows, light and music shows, blow up figures, and quite clever structures to hang flashy items from. I have certainly seen quite extreme set ups and wondered how the home owner could afford the electric bill, but it may well be that some of those are actually part of some kind of contest and they only run the whole system for a couple of hours each evening. The elaboration of seasonal decorations really blew up with solstice decorations first, with their hallowe'en counterparts following a bit more slowly behind, as there are not as many candle and light elements to them. But of course, where hallowe'en decorations at their most fancy can get ahead is sound effects. Alas, this can go quite badly as I have recently discovered via a neighbour who set up a clever set of decorations including a looping soundtrack with a slow, squeaking trap door. The neighbour in question forgot to turn this soundtrack off – or set the timer – and vilely tormented the surrounding six to eight blocks because of the volume. This gave me unhappy pause to ponder how outdoor decorations have been steadily drifting into a less festive and more aggressive mode over the past five to ten years or so.

In origin these decorations are, as very serious christians will readily point out, pagan in origin. They were the ways that people with much closer relationships with the land and one another celebrated the changing seasons. Winter solstice is characterized by lots of lights in the decorations of the northern hemisphere, because there is great excitement about the daylight shifting from shortening to lengthening again. Not only does that mean more light, that means warmer and/or drier weather on its way including new spring growth. And just to give the world a hint about what should get started soon, people put up lights and hung things from the trees outside suggesting fruit and riches the people all hope for. Of course for hallowe'en the celebration is derived from harvest festivals and acknowledgement of the dead visiting. Logically there'd be fewer lights involved for those celebrations lest strong light chase ghostly relatives and their blessings away. Overall these were part of family and community celebrations, and it took quite some time before they were electrified. Even after the addition of electric lights, which at first were not really part of hallowe'en anyway, solstice ones used to be quite low key all told.

Unfortunately, in line with the current trends in at least some parts of canada for sure, but it does seem to be a broader north american thing since a cursory web search turns up thousands of hits for the fancier, bigger, and noisier types of outdoor decorations. This is no longer a matter of quirky neighbours having fun adding one more decoration each year or setting up some amazing garage sale finds or something of that nature. These are now blingy and more and more often noisy installations that are difficult to ignore, and I suspect for drivers dangerous to ignore because depending on time of day they have to watch out for snarled traffic and abrupt light level changes that may make pedestrians and cyclists difficult to keep track of. Bad luck or just plain lack of consideration can make these busy encrustations a genuine torment to neighbours and passersby between traffic and mishaps with sound loops like the one I already mentioned. The demand for other peoples' attention regardless of their wishes or interest is certainly of a piece with such recent practices as trying to force people to report their pronouns at the beginning of any interaction or demanding a ritual denunciation of a particular political candidate or policy at intervals in a conversation.

Still, it really is too bad. I am not especially committed to outdoor decorations, showy or not, but do admire the quite remarkable arrangements I have seen around my neighbourhood. Being more inclined to walk or cycle around, the displays oriented more to drivers are often difficult to really take in from actual street level. There is a real charm in the hallowe'en decorations I have seen that haven't been caught up in the bling arms race, including one person who may have hit the jackpot after the end of filming for a television show, based on the clever model of a crashed flying saucer complete with surprised aliens they hang in their front yard. I admit to not being quite sure what was happening at one corner lot on my former commute that by late december seemed to have tie in dioramas from multiple old christmas movies set up. And yet, maybe the reason for the bling race is less about demanding attention and actually a bit sadder in canada, where snow often doesn't stay put until the new year. Understandably many people are inclined to try to brighten up or distract from the bare trees and dormant grass and plants of their yards that usually snow and ice would help render pleasant if not beautiful. (Top)

Spelling For Fun and Profit (2022-12-12)

Illustration from page 131 of *Thomas Dilworth's Spelling Book* in its third united states edition published in 1796, courtesy of the internet archive. Illustration from page 131 of *Thomas Dilworth's Spelling Book* in its third united states edition published in 1796, courtesy of the internet archive.
Illustration from page 131 of Thomas Dilworth's Spelling Book in its third united states edition published in 1796, courtesy of the internet archive.

Although today thanks to automatic spellchecking it gets less attention and fewer complaints whether eloquent or crude, the common consensus about english spelling still leans to the pejorative. It doesn't make sense, is too irregular, has too many silent letters, and is apparently along with french deemed among the more difficult to learn to read and spell of languages written in a roman alphabet. As David Crystal has pointed out in many books and television programs, english spelling actually does make sense, and if we get a chance to learn about the basic history of written english we can put together a few excellent rules to help us manage most of what otherwise seems like chaos. English isn't spelled phonetically, and it can be surprisingly difficult to read or write fluently without the various quirks its not-phonetic spellings preserve. If it were otherwise, we would have no difficulty at all reading Forkner's alphabetic shorthand without training. What got me to thinking about this again was trying to find a reasonably accurate, though quick, answer to about when the sort of spelling book I had used in elementary school came into use in schools. Among the various things I learned was that, as we would reasonably expect, english spelling books are very old, but not too old. They are very much a product of the printing press and the attendant regularization of spellings in the first place. We complain now, but really, we have it extremely good and have for a long time. English spelling today is tame compared to the riot of variant spellings used by just one scribe before printing finally outran handwritten reproductions.

Poking around on the internet archive, I found the oldest scanned example of a spelling book or speller available there is Dilworth's, which provided the illustration for this thoughtpiece. This book was published in 1796, and it has suffered hard wear that includes water stains as well as a bit of free notation by its young owner. Unfortunately the scan is of poor quality, rendering the intriguing illustrations in the last section of selected fables too muddy to quite make sense of in most cases. People seem to be beating dogs or snakes in most of them, which is very strange, and they don't seem to quite go with the fables. Still, they are worth a look, and many of the fables feature familiar sayings and messages. Indeed, this is a common theme of such books, the inclusion of short texts for students to read and later texts to be used as both dictation and reading exercises. These texts of course included messages the author deemed necessary for children to learn and accept without question. Besides a selection of prayers and psalms, Dilworth included such injunctions as "obey your parents," among others. He also included brief sections on english grammar, etymology covering some of the detail David Crystal has brought back to broader attention. There are also tables of words for students to learn.

By 1840 worried anglophones in lower canada hoped for a spelling book reflecting spellings acceptable to them, meaning not the modified system marketed by Noah Webster, but referring to local geography and institutions. This indirectly reveals that the basic topics now introduced in these books together with the spelling had expanded. Looking further into Alexander Davidson's The Canada Spelling Book reveals a change from mostly religious material and a smattering of materials drawn from greek and roman authors to include history, geography, and even secular poetry. There are also a few more illustrations as they are now much cheaper to reproduce. Where Dilworth's book came to less than 150 pages, Davidson's reaches 220 pages and includes a lengthier grammar. But lost in the expansion is the etymological information in favour of teaching words in groups according to how many syllables they have. Davidson's book remained in print for at least twenty five years and was widely used in what is now better known as southern ontario, canada. Nevertheless, it was rather different than one of its near contemporaries in that Davidson does not provide a vocabulary key at the head of each text selection and the words themselves selected for the student to learn to spell. This is a common teaching technique today, and well established in this period as well, as N. Leith's 1843 The Juvenile Reader, which uses it alongside providing selections for dictation and recitation exercises.

By the turn of the twentieth century, canadian school standard spelling books have gone through significant changes, although the english are still printed almost exclusively in toronto. The Western Canada Series Public School Speller for example now features short texts written specifically for the book, and they are generally much shorter. Still, this book like its predecessors is designed to be used for several years of elementary school, in this case all the way up to grade eight when students are usually 13-14 years old. Unlike the older Davidson desk, this text has brought back the etymological information starting at page 184 of 232. Besides delving into prefixes and suffixes, it provides the basics of latin, french, greek, and germanic roots used in english including broad guidelines as to how they are combined. In my own elementary school years much later in the twentieth century this material made no appearance in spelling books at all and hardly showed up in what was called "language arts" in earlier grades and just "english" in the later ones. This is actually a cruel omission, even if not covering this material seems like it should be "easier." One of the ways we learn to deduce the probable meanings of unfamiliar words is by recognizing reused roots. A text that demands too many visits to the dictionary too often to read is one anyone will run aground on, and children especially as they strive to build their reading skills.

There is one more example I found that is well worth looking at, because it includes another teaching technique featured in the first two or three spelling books I saw in school. The Pacific Coast Speller by A.W. Patterson, published in san francisco in 1877. Patterson was quite proud to emphasize the role of penmanship in his book, including illustrations of both plain fonts we would expect, and cursive letters in what looks suspiciously like a copperplate hand. The readings are printed in cursive form on the reasonable grounds that students need to learn to recognize words in both those shapes and their printed forms. The result together with the page design is a clear and pleasant to read book, with the font size decreasing in steps as the word length and reading comprehension goes up. The last few pages are full of notable and useful tables that represent a genre of material that soon gets left to the almost sole jurisdiction of dictionaries. The summary of words that take specific prepositions will stand out to readers who have learned at least some french, and from there discovered that prepositions are often counterintuitive in use between the two languages. Preposition usage varies somewhat by english dialect as well, and in school students are typically trained to follow a standard based on some chosen standard, usually a metropolitan one.

All that said, this style of spelling book, typically no more than 250 pages at the most, hard covered, and with the dimensions of a common paperback novel, has basically vanished. The ones I used were in their last years of standard use, and were first printed in the early 1950s. These were tough little books, and then as now schools had difficulties replacing textbooks. Nowadays students are more likely to use softcover workbooks with plenty of bright colours, plenty of illustrations, and at least to begin with minimal etymology and maybe no instruction in cursive script at all. (Top)

The Origins and Perambulations of the Cummerbund (2022-12-05)

Cholera belt made by Fiona Canavan and held by the women's museum of australia research library website, item number NPWHF0688. Access date october 2021. Cholera belt made by Fiona Canavan and held by the women's museum of australia research library website, item number NPWHF0688. Access date october 2021.
Cholera belt made by Fiona Canavan and held by the women's museum of australia research library website, item number NPWHF0688. Access date october 2021.

Sometimes sobre research turns up delightful rabbit holes to dive down, in this case via the unusual monicker, "cholera belt." The author who mentioned it commented briefly that this was a wool flannel belt worn round the waist, often red, and it was expected to help prevent a person from falling ill with cholera. Cholera is of course a water-born disease, but this was not always clear to authorities, who tried to make sense of it using the humoral theory of disease passed down via the ancient greek physician Galen. The humoral theory states that we all have four humours, blood, phlegm, black choler, and yellow choler, and these must be kept in balance to maintain health. There is some truth to this in broad principle, we do need to have a healthy balance of our internal fluids and if we become bloated or inversely dehydrated due to severe diarrhoea, we are certainly unhealthy. But humoral theory can't and doesn't explain the cause of disease. The original idea behind the cholera belt was that a soldier would wear this to prevent his lower back getting cold after he had gotten sweaty after a day on the march, working, or fighting. The doctors were sure that chilled bowels became infected with cholera. The places the british military most famously ended up wearing these was in egypt and india, where these belts caused considerable discomfort between causing overheating and rashes of prickly heat and slipping up and down the body as the men moved.

After only a little more digging, it turned out that the cholera belt has never quite gone away, it has continued under its other name, and is now usually made out of much lighter fabrics. It's more common name today is the cummerbund, from, as my copy of the desktop OED tells me, the urdu-persian term kamarband meaning literally "waist belt." The dictionary adds, "The sash was formerly worn in the Indian subcontinent by domestic workers and low status office workers." This actually clarifies why more often than not the people who wear these items on a regular basis are male waiters at very expensive restaurants where they are expected to wear cheap tuxedos. I also happened on a rather cock-eyed paper by E.T. Renbourn in the journal medical history, "The History of the Flannel Binder and Cholera Belt," which is freely available to read online. The author did his best, but kept getting caught up in claims that the use of sashes or wide belts is primarily about fashion, not with any practical use. That certainly can be an element at work in the selection of width, material, and wearing of such belts. But he seems to have not thought too much about why and how the original kamarband developed in the first place.

Generally having pockets sewn into trousers and skirts on a permanent basis is a fairly recent thing. Before that, and also more flexibly than that, men and women alike used different tools. In europe and scandinavia they might use pockets they tied on over or under their trousers or skirts. Today these persist primarily as aprons, such as those used by carpenters and wait staff in restaurants. In much of southeastern europe, the middle east, india, and indeed parts of north america, men wore sashes and used the additional folds of cloth as tie on pockets. They might also tie the sashes on over their jackets to hold them closed. The famous exemplars in canada are the early voyageurs and later the Northwest Métis who made heavy use of their highly practical woollen sashes. Not only did they use their sashes to fill in as pockets, tied on more tightly, they serve as support analogous to the leather back belts used by weightlifters today. I could certainly see this not being evident to E.T. Renbourn, since the paper was published in 1952 and he was focussing very specifically on the cholera belt. By 1952, men were potentially well equipped with pockets via those sewn into their trousers, vests, and jackets. The belts they would use were fairly narrow and made of patent leather, designed primarily to keep their pants up, and not to be eye catching at all.

Today the more familiar cummerbund is designed as a single or one-and-a-half times around wrap at least in the north american context, and is usually fastened with snaps or hooks. I can't help but wonder if the ones rented for weddings have at least one or two pockets hidden on the inside of the front that goes across the abdomen to tuck such important things as wedding bands and cards or paper with their speeches on them. To date I have only encountered the ones for younger people renting them for their high school graduation, which tend to be a bit cheaper and include no amenities like hidden pockets. (Top)

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Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:21