UK paperback

The mouse community

Feeling the rodent love

On the train last week, I was listening to the August 2 edition of the always-excellent Nature podcast ((The New Scientist podcast is good too, but I wish they wouldn’t try quite so hard to be funky and “accessible”.)), and I learned the exciting fact that scientists have now sequenced 15 different lab-mouse strains, mapping DNA differences to traits. As paper co-author Kelly Frazer explained to the host:

I think that this is an excellent resource that we have generated for the mouse community.

Ahhh. All the little mouses are scurrying around in glee and gratitude at this new resource they’ve been given. Heartwarming!

I found this a particularly cute’n’furry extension of the strange uses in our time of the word community. ((About which word and its political usages there is much in Chapter 2 of Unspeak.)) The mouse community here invoked isn’t the “community” of mice, mice in lab-cages around the world who keep in touch, as it might be, through email and text-messaging using their tiny paws on miniature BlackBerrys. No; it’s the “community” of people who use mice in scientific experiments.

I am not about to set up a campaign on this blog and e-petition the prime minister to liberate all lab mice from their horrid doom. Still, you mightn’t guess from the happy-sounding phrase “mouse community” that scientists quite often, if not mainly, do things to mice for which the mice themselves wouldn’t necessarily volunteer — like, you know, this:

Mouse 2

I doubt he minded, though, if it was for the good of the mouse community as a whole.


A natural adjustment

‘Nature’ and ‘incentives’ in economics

While has been quiet recently, global financial markets have been very nervous, which I can’t accept is a mere coincidence. ((Also while I was “away”: my review of William Gibson’s new novel Spook Country is posted at the newly redesigned, featuring lots of stuff. Feel free to have a look around there and let me know if the site works on whatever crazy OS/browser combination you are using.)) Anyway, my eagle eye did notice that George W. Bush said, of the US subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent stock wobbles: hey, it’s just “the nature of the market“, and there is no need to fear “a natural adjustment“. Now, IANAE, but it strikes me that appeals to what is “natural” in such contexts are somewhat troublesome. A financial market is not a phenomenon of “nature” but is an aggregate of many human decisions, bound by rules and laws that some people made up, and some people want to defend from alternatives. So I am tempted to suspect that a description of some or other market phenomenon as “natural” cannot help but be a coded defence of a particular economic ideology. It is “natural”, therefore trying to alter it would be hubristic, playing God, et cetera. To be consistent, Bush’s attitude to his own health should run along similar lines. Rather than interfering with nature by having some polyps removed, he ought surely to say to himself: “If I get colon cancer, well, it’s only natural.” Nature knows best. Why worry?

That was also the suspicion I had when reading Steven E Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconvential Wisdom of Economics, of which I wrote a brief review in the Guardian. Landsburg, too, appeals to a concept of what is “natural” and so shouldn’t be contested. Noting that child labour existed in mid-19th-century England and America, and that it no longer does very much in the more prosperous modern England and America, he argues that child labour is perfectly normal and goes away after a while. Thus campaigners against child labour in the contemporary “third world” are stupid:

Evidently, child labor is a natural response to a certain level of poverty. [p 67]

That’s not “evident” at all. It may be evident that child labour is often found in societies at a certain level of poverty, but to call it “natural” is not only to pretend you have a sample size much bigger than the one Landsburg actually invokes, it is also to make an extra, ideological claim: that it’s okay and shouldn’t be resisted. But IANAE. Perhaps some readers more familiar with economics can suggest some economic usages of “natural” that are not Unspeak, or even argue that these ones aren’t.

While I’m on the subject of Landsburg’s book: it also contains one example of the rigorous restriction of vocabulary to its narrow economics sense that is really disturbingly bizarre:

Every midsummer day, at approximately 6:03pm, the setting sun makes the traffic light on my street corner essentially invisible to westbound traffic. As a result, I’ve gotten to know the local police officers fairly well. We meet on my front lawn every week or so, where I’m delivering water, blankets and cell phones to the latest accident victims while the police file their reports.

It is an astonishing triumph of modern safety engineering that dozens of cars have been totaled on my front lawn […] without a single serious personal injury. And it is an astonishing failure of the legal system that I have absolutely no incentive to step out my front door at 6:02pm with a big red flag, directing traffic until the sun moves a little lower on the horizon. [p 114]

Here, Landsburg complains pathetically that he has no “incentive” to save people from traffic accidents outside his house for an hour or two once a year. ((Well, it’s either one day a year (“Every midsummer day”) or some unspecified number of weeks every summer (“Every week or so”). But who’s counting?)) Would a concern for their welfare not count as an “incentive”? Ah, don’t be naive. An incentive is money and nothing else. Landsburg, nothing if not a rigorous homo economicus, won’t do anything at all unless the state is promising to pay him for it, or give him a tax break, or throw him some other kind of legal bonbon.

Okay, fine. So why exactly does he deliver water, blankets and cell phones to the victims after they have crashed? Where is his “incentive” to do that? Would he not save a bit of money in water, cellphone and blanket costs if he did actually go out with a big red flag and prevent the accidents in the first place? Would those savings, indeed, not count as exactly the sort of “incentive” he dreams of?

Well, as I must repeat, IANAE, and there is probably some good theoretical reason for Landsburg’s annual decision to let people get hurt and then heroically minister to them, rather than to prevent the predictable hurt in the first place. Maybe it boils down to the fact that these accidents are caused by the sun – and, you know, that’s natural.



It makes you think

As they say in the exciting new language of the internets, I’ve been “tagged with a meme”. Actually it first happened a few months ago, but I forgot about it, possibly having decided to take a stand against Meme Fascism, and possibly also because I don’t believe in memes anyway, since arguably the idea of a “meme” encodes a denial of individual agency and creativity, shored up by an annoyingly defective analogy with evolution. “Meme” is just another pseudoscientific attempt to explain culture (or rather to explain it away), destined (I hope) for the garbage bin of terminological fashion just as soon as William Gibson stops using it. You can imagine how it only compounds my irritation to realise that I used it myself in the post immediately below this one. It’s almost like the word “meme” is some kind of evil virus of the mind.

But then it happened again, so I decided to chill out and start loving the meme, irritating and nonexistent though it may be. The meme in this case is “Five Blogs that Make You Think”. I am happy to admit that I never think unless actively reading a blog. The meme, I should warn my nominees, actually has rules, which seems very Meme Fascist to me, if not actually Islamofascist. Everyone tagged by the meme is thereby considered to have won a “Thinking Blogger Award”, and that did make me think. It made me think of adapting Dr Johnson:

Sir, a blogger thinking is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

But without further ado, here is my list of five blogs that make me think, and what they make me think:

Jeff Strabone is an eclectic blog about politics, hip-hop and cinema, among other things. It makes me think that Jeff approaches blogging exactly as he does karaoke: without fear.

D-squared Digest is a blog about economics, somehow made entertaining, and other stuff, which seduces the reader into long-term dependence by endlessly deferring promised texts. It makes me think that dsquared’s anti-design design is itself a design statement.

Dennis Perrin is a blog about politics, and comedy, and the comedy of politics, scripted none more black. It makes me think that his next book will be very good.

3 Quarks Daily is a quotidian gallimaufry of all things interesting. It makes me think that there is no need to read the entire internet myself.

Cosmic Variance is a fascinating blog about cosmology, so lucidly written that it makes me think I actually understand some of it.

There you are. Consider yourselves “tagged”, people, somewhat in the manner of Lindsay Lohan’s anti-alcohol ankle-tag. Modern technology is a marvellous thing. Now, what makes you think, readers?



Michael Ignatieff’s mea culpa

Noted human-rights-professor-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff’s article about why he was wrong to think invading Iraq was a good idea — summary: I was wrong because I am too warm-hearted; and “many of” the people who were right were right for the wrong reasons, so nyer — is already receiving well-deserved kickings elsewhere. I thought I would merely add my drop of contumely by citing the following passage:

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history.

Evidently Ignatieff is appealing to some hitherto unsuspected value of “everyone”. Everyone, he claims, lacked knowledge of “Iraq’s fissured sectarian history”. That’s an “everyone” that excludes, for a start, the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State (who did not exactly lack knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history but laboured to point it out their masters), as well as academic or even casual students of Middle Eastern history. Everyone, it seems, also believed the “faulty intelligence”, though there were in fact plenty who were sceptical of it when it was first presented. (That the intelligence as a whole, rather than the cherry-picking and false presentation of it by leaders, was “faulty”, that there was an “intelligence failure”, is itself a convenient Unspeak meme.) Once you have removed all those people from your accounting of “everyone”, who is left? Apparently, a bunch of credulous ignoramuses. Is it really Ignatieff’s intention to plead that he is a credulous ignoramus? Perhaps he has calculated that such a pose will better appeal to his constituents. Let us wish him luck with such a subtle political strategy.



Child porn and thoughtcrime

I am proud to announce that I have recently made the last album by the late tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, a careering post-bop blast with supergroup backup from Pat Metheny, John Patitucci, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, and Brad Mehldau. You might object that no, it was Brecker & co themselves who made that album, appealing to provable studio dates in 2006 and photographic evidence, etc; but that would only demonstrate your ignorance as to the definition of “making”. I downloaded Testament from iTunes, and in so doing, I “made” it. Probably I should be entitled to royalties as well as artistic props.

In other news, the British actor Chris Langham was yesterday found guilty of “making an indecent photograph of a child”. Did he force a child to adopt a sexual pose in front of a camera and then press the shutter release? That would be a disgusting crime. But that’s not what he did. He downloaded some child-porn photographs onto his computer. The law says that in doing so, he “made” them.

The relevant legislation is the Protection of Children Act 1978 as amended by the Criminal Justice Act of 1994:

(1) It is an offence for a person—
to take, or permit to be taken, or to make, any indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child…

Why did “make” need to be added? If to “make” a photograph is not to “take” it or permit it to be taken, what does it mean? Well, “make” was added in 1994 along with the term “pseudo-photograph”, to cover the doctoring of innocent images of children in order to render them pornographic (update: or even the complete CGI fabrication of child-porn imagery involving no actual children: see comment #12). But Langham didn’t do that either. So when did the meaning of “make” expand even further? We have the lexical ingenuity of the Appeals Court to thank in R v Jonathan Bowden, 1999:

The wording in s.1 of the 1978 Act as amended was clear and unambiguous. It rendered unlawful the making of a photograph or a pseudo-photograph. The words “to make” had to be given their natural and ordinary meaning, and in the instant context that was “to cause to exist; to produce by action, to bring about”. By virtue of s.7 of the 1978 Act that meaning applied to negatives, copies of photographs and data stored on computer disc. A person who either downloaded images on to disc or who printed them out was making them. To download or print the images within the jurisdiction was to create new material. The reproduction of indecent material to be found on the Internet was within the mischief aimed at by the legislation when the 1978 Act was amended by adding the words “to make”.

So according to what the law perceives to be the “natural and ordinary meaning” of “make”, I did indeed make Michael Brecker’s last album, not to mention Placebo’s album of cover versions, innumerable photographs actually taken by other people, as well as articles and whole books allegedly authored before I was born. Clever me.

This use of language does serve a purpose, however, in that it disguises the nature of what is being criminalized. The law does not state clearly that merely to “look at” child pornography is an offence. It masks that fact by the verbal sleight of hand that turns looking into actual creation. (Of course, you cannot look at anything on the internet without your computer loading it onto the disk, or into a more-or-less temporary cache, or at the very least into RAM, and so making a copy.) Thus violence is done to the moral distinction between looking and doing. What is being punished is thoughtcrime.

If you download a collection of videos of beheadings by murderers in Iraq, say, are you “making” videos of beheadings? Surely not, in the “natural and ordinary meaning” of those words. I might find your close interest in beheading videos highly disturbing, but whether or not you attempted the “research” defence (as worked for Pete Townshend but not for Chris Langham; update: see comment #26), I would not consider your watching those videos by itself grounds for putting you in prison. And yet for child pornography, apparently, it is. Perhaps you think that an erotic obsession with children is so horrific that it should be classed as thoughtcrime. Very well, but let us have the law say so explicitly.

What have you “made” recently, readers?


We will help you

Rebranding the US military

What is going wrong with the US military adventure in Iraq? The problem, if you will believe it, is simply that they do not have a convincing brand identity. Such is the conclusion of a “study” or piece of “research”, as it is pleased to call itself, which was described in the Washington Post recently:

In the advertising world, brand identity is everything. Volvo means safety. Colgate means clean. IPod means cool. But since the U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003, its “show of force” brand has proved to have limited appeal to Iraqi consumers, according to a recent study commissioned by the U.S. military.

The key to boosting the image and effectiveness of U.S. military operations around the world involves “shaping” both the product and the marketplace, and then establishing a brand identity that places what you are selling in a positive light, said clinical psychologist Todd C. Helmus, the author of “Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation.” The 211-page study, for which the U.S. Joint Forces Command paid the Rand Corp. $400,000, was released this week.

Helmus and his co-authors concluded that the “force” brand, which the United States peddled for the first few years of the occupation, was doomed from the start and lost ground to enemies’ competing brands. While not abandoning the more aggressive elements of warfare, the report suggested, a more attractive brand for the Iraqi people might have been “We will help you.” ((Thanks to reader Craig for alerting me.))

There is something naggingly wrong with this military-as-brand metaphor, as implied by the Post reporter’s nicely ironical use of the word “consumers” to describe Iraqis at the sharp end of US military action. Iraqis, as far as is known, did not ask to be invaded and blown up; and indeed, so far as is known, do not want the US to stay in their country. This is not much like the situation in consumer goods, where I have never been forced to own an iPod or Volvo that I did not ask for. Still, let us see a little of what Americans got for their four hundred thousand tax dollars, by consulting the full text of the RAND report. ((I admit here that I have not read all 241 pages of it, having become distracted somewhere along the way by daydreams of how I might have positioned Unspeak as a think tank “research” “study” and thereby earned barnfuls of dollars, instead of having it published normally, like an idiot.)) The right way to win hearts and minds before an invasion, it seems, is to deliver an appropriate “positioning statement”:

Consider one positioning statement example that is derived from a hypothetical “free from tyranny” concept: To [insert indigenous target audience] who have lived under brutal oppression: U.S. forces will rid your country of tyranny [promise] because we have opposed it for 200 years [reason to believe] and support your living free from tyranny [emotional and benefit]. [p70 n34]

It is a good thing that the authors cover their collective ass by calling this a “hypothetical” “concept”, even though it sounds remarkably like the kinds of things that were said, and are said, about Iraq. This particular version of it imagines the “hypothetical” lucky people to be invaded as idiots, or at best children, who will apparently swallow trustingly the notion that the US has indeed opposed tyranny for 200 years, that being the “reason to believe” that the claimed motivations for the incipient invasion are actual. The imminent “consumers” of military might, naïve and historically ignorant as all such “indigenous” peoples may safely be assumed to be, certainly wouldn’t remember anything like this, would they?


“Reason to believe”, indeed. But what purpose would such a “positioning statement” serve, if bought?

We posit that engendering positive indigenous attitudes toward U.S. military presence is important in that it will encourage support of the U.S. military, make U.S. forces more approachable to civilians, and enable more effective and trustworthy communications. [p. 75]

No doubt. So then, how exactly to “engender positive indigenous attitudes toward U.S. military presence”? By refraining from killing civilians or torturing people? Don’t be silly. All that’s needed is a brand refocus, or “Developing a coherent external and internal branding strategy”. This can be done, it turns out, by heroic private enterprises:

A private, nonprofit business group, Business for Diplomatic Action, is currently creating a unique and successful brand-development process for the U.S. Travel Industry Association with the goal of portraying a clear and friendly U.S. identity to those visiting from overseas. Business for Diplomatic Action consults key organizational stakeholders to create an intended brand identity that resonates deeply within those organizations while also being attuned to key consumer audiences. We recommend that the U.S. military and, ideally, the U.S. government consider undergoing such a branding process. It may reveal previously unforeseen ways to create an internal and external identity that successfully encompasses the operational spectrums that are likely to challenge the U.S. military for years to come. In suggesting how such a brand strategy might be applied to the United States, Business for Diplomatic Action’s chair, advertising guru Keith Reinhard, suggests a simple yet elegant promise: “We will help you.” While his recommendation was meant for U.S. foreign policy, the “helping” promise may be a positioning message applicable to the military. It provides an intent for U.S. forces that covers the application of combat power while also meeting the test for a range of other operations. It serves as a message of inspiration for indigenous audiences, one that encompasses — and thus would not conflict with — a wide variety of potential end states. [p. 77]

There is no limit, it appears, to how credulous these childlike “indigenous” consumers of being-blown-up-by-cluster-bombs are. Tell them that being-blown-up-by-cluster bombs is actually helping them and they will go for it! They will, in fact, take it as “inspiration”! Still, it must be admitted that there are limits to how far this branding magic can go:

The U.S. military must take pains to ensure that its operations and other actions do not conflict with intended brand identity, shaping themes, or other strategies designed to earn popular support among local populations. However, the United States and its allies must, at times, risk popular support by conducting kinetic operations. Virtually any kinetic operation has the potential to alienate civilians. [p. 80]

Yup, particularly if it kills them. And here, indeed, resides the melancholic limit of the authors’ scheme: “kinetic operations”, or bombing and shooting people, are inevitably the core of what any military is for. And, despite the authors’ subsequent efforts to suggest that saying sorry and promising to fix things will make it all better, even really great branding won’t overcome the extreme alienation of your average dead civilian.

This report’s use of currently fashionable “branding” theories is consistent with the US military’s history of describing its operations in terms of commerce, so that it appears to be business as usual. ((Unspeak, pp113-114.)) Even so, it looks particularly, even decadently desperate right now, as an Unspeak tactic for reframing inconvenient realities.


A real American meaning

On the vacuity of ‘progressive’, again

Back in northern Europe (in a part not yet under water), I note that I’ve written before about how the word “progressive” in politics is smug and empty, indeed a term of liberal Unspeak, since it enables you to say you are in favour of things getting better without specifying exactly how they will. Happy, then, to see this reading confirmed by Senator Hillary Clinton last night. Asked by an audience member whether she would describe herself as a “liberal”, she distanced herself from that term and said: ((Via, as usual, WIIIAI.))

I prefer the word “progressive,” which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.

I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we’re working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family.

So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive, and I think that’s the kind of philosophy and practice that we need to bring back to American politics.

Who is not a “progressive” on this definition? Who from the Republican party will say that he does not believe in individual rights and freedoms, or that society is better when people don’t work together but stay on their couches with six-packs and reruns of The Sopranos? I did like Clinton’s invocation, though, of “a real American meaning” to the word “progressive”, as though the Republicans’ success in making “liberal” a dirty word had been the equivalent of giving it a meaning from another country where people are more filthy and devious: in all likelihood, a French meaning.

Meanwhile, during my absence, the Guardian printed my review of a novel about a man with a detachable penis (the novel’s French edition is everywhere in Paris this summer); and dsquared rose to a musical challenge from Unspeak (the very line that had so irritated Alastair Campbell) with wonderful inventiveness.


Too clever

Frank Luntz’s linguistic incompetence

Amoral yoda ((Jon Stewart’s unimprovable description.)) Frank Luntz has written a book, called Words that Work, that’s now out in the UK. Since Luntz, a “language architect” according to the cover blurb, is selling his expertise in language, ((Mr Luntz is styled “Dr. Frank Luntz” on the cover, and the usual caveats apply about someone who is not a physician insisting on his doctorate in public. Luntz’s doctorate is apparently in pol sci.)) I thought it would be illuminating to offer here a few examples of that expertise, in advance of my Guardian notice of the book, which is sadly too short to contain the following fruits:

Most people use the term Orwellian to mean someone who engages in doublespeak, the official language of the totalitarian government in George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984. (p49)

No! There is Newspeak and doublethink, but no “doublespeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. ((See, if you like, the Introduction to Unspeak.))

The original title of this book was Killer Words […] My title was a flop. It was too clever. [Focus group participants] scratched their heads and asked: “Is this book about violence and death?” Or worse yet, “What possibly would compel you to study the words of killers?” (p53)

Too clever, indeed. Or perhaps too stupid? Or maybe, given Luntz’s glee in aiding the cause of obfuscating the realities of global warming, ((See Unspeak, pp42-3. And yes, all these references to Unspeak are intended to prod you into buying it, if you haven’t done so already. (If you have, thanks!) ))Killer Words would have been a splendid title after all.

Occupy — We all know what occupy means today in the twenty-first century. But did you know that five hundred years ago, it was considered a dirty word? It meant to have sexual intercourse, literally, to “take possession of.” Once a taboo word that had all but disappeared from polite language, occupy has become completely innocuous today – unless you’re a tenant who ignores your landlord’s demands to move out. (p57)

Or unless you’re, say, an Iraqi. It’s interesting how deaf Luntz is to negative connotations that have anything to do with Republican policy, isn’t it? Meanwhile, Luntz’s little history lesson is steaming balls. The first recorded sense of “occupy” by the OED in 1325 is the one, still modern, meaning “to keep busy, engage, employ (a person, or the mind, attention, etc”. “Occupy” was also sometimes used to mean to have sex with (a woman) between the 15th and 18th centuries, but it was never “considered a dirty word”; it was never “a taboo word”, and did not “all but disappear from polite language”, since usage of its other senses continued throughout the period. ((See comments #4 and #6 below. It is actually a funnier joke by Shakespeare if Doll Tearsheet is not reporting an actual language shift but complaining hypersensitively about the slightest possibility of double entendre.)) Next:

Napkin – In the United States, you wouldn’t think twice about asking for a napkin in a restaurant. Be careful, though. If it were thirty years ago and you were in Great Britain, asking for a napkin might cause the waiter to laugh at you, thinking you wanted a nappy – the British word for a baby’s diaper. (p58)

WTF? In British English, “napkin” has meant, er, napkin since the 14th century. I’m not aware of this meaning having suddenly disappeared for a while 30 years ago: perhaps some of my more, ah, mature readers can help?


hit parade

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