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Friday 6 December 2019

The Marquis de Condorcet meets Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

A couple of times recently, I have been taken back to work I did in the 1970s on the justification for majority voting, both in government and the legal system (jury trials).

The first writers to treat the matter seriously were Rousseau and Condorcet, the latter - among other talents - a mathematician specialising in the theory of probabilities.

Condorcet showed that majority voting is a good guide to truth:

(1) the more enlightened (knowledgeable) is each individual voter, with a minimum requirement that they be more likely to be right than wrong on any one occasion (p = greater than 0.5)

(2) provided that when voting, voters are trying to give the right answer

(3) and provided that they vote independently of each other - if one voter follows the lead of another, that simply reduces the effective number of voters

If these conditions are met, then in a majority vote the probability of the majority being right increases (and quite dramatically, heading towards p = 1 [certainty])the larger the vote gap between majority and minority.

Since I did the work in the 1970s, the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has come along and it demonstrates Condorcet's theorem perfectly. When a contestant Asks The Audience to select the right answer from four possible answers, he or she can safely assume:

(1) that the Audience is quite knowledgeable- Quiz show live audiences are likely to contain a high proportion of people good at quizzes
(2) members of the audience have no motive to give answers they believe to be untrue (they enjoy giving right answers!)
(3) they vote independently of each other using push-button consoles with little or no time to consult the person sitting next to them

Hey Presto, the audience's choice of right answer will, almost certainly, BE the right answer. If some researcher checked back over Ask the Audience choices, I think they would rarely find that the Audience got it wrong. Ask the Audience is a No Brainer if you don't know the answer yourself.

There is more serious stuff in my essay "Majoritarianism" on my website

Originally published on this site on 25 August 2011

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Is there a Right not to be Conceived?

I don’t read much popular science, but recently in a local bookshop I picked up Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2016) which is a very readable introduction to modern genetics and its historical background. At one point he illustrates the hazards of inbreeding by telling the tragic story of Charles the Second of Spain who died in 1700 aged thirty nine, but after a lifetime of painful illness and distressing incapacity. When people marry out of their family then after six generations they will have sixty-two different ancestors; after eight the number rises to two hundred and fifty-four. But because of the marriage of cousins to cousins, uncles to nieces, and disregarding the possibility of unsanctioned incest, Charles the Second had just thirty-two sixth-generation ancestors and a mere eighty-two eighth generation ancestors. “This is not desirable”, comments Rutherford at page 190, notably because the probability of a recessive congenital disorder being activated dramatically increases.

A few pages later (page 200) Rutherford tells us that in 2005 one United Kingdom ethnic group produced 3.4% of all live births but 30% of all babies with recessive congenital disorders. He then goes on to discuss genetic counselling as a way of reducing such outcomes which in practice arise largely from repeated first cousin marriages, which are allowed in English law. But I was shocked by his figures, which I had never come across before, and felt that genetic counselling sounded like a feeble response. But how to think through the problem in a dispassionate way?

I imagined using something like John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. In his major 1971 book A Theory of Justice, Rawls tries to show what kind of social contract individuals would agree to if they were obliged to decide not knowing important facts about themselves as individuals. So, for example, if behind the veil of ignorance you did not know whether you would turn out to be male or female when the veil is lifted, then it is most unlikely that you would agree to a public decision making method which excluded females – or males, for that matter – from any franchise. You would tend to favour universal suffrage which minimises your risk of being disadvantaged and maximises the opportunity which others, thinking along the same lines, would be willing to grant you.

In the case I am trying to consider, those behind the veil of ignorance have not yet been conceived. Nonetheless, these potential persons can be imagined as listeners to a genetics lecture which informs them, among other things, that their risks of being born severely disabled are greatly multiplied if first cousins are allowed to conceive children, especially if done repeatedly. They are given figures and the problem of recessive genes explained. They are told that the risk of being born disabled is greatly reduced when the law forbids conception between such closely related individuals. Eventually, they have to decide on the level of risk they are willing to accept in formulating one of society’s fundamental laws, the law which sets out with whom you may and may not conceive children. (So fundamental are incest laws that we rarely pause to reflect that they are, in fact, always our foundational eugenic policies).

This kind of risk question has been posed in other ways for other life and death issues. In a 1785 classic work on majority voting, the title now usually translated as Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Theory of Decision-Making, the Marquis de Condorcet pointed out that when the death penalty is provided as a possible punishment in any society, there is always the possibility that an innocent person will be executed – and that is irreversible. So he asks us to consider the question: What probability would you accept for an outcome in which you yourself might be executed though innocent?

From the point of view of the unconceived, the choice seems fairly straightforward whether you think along Rawlsian or Condorcetian lines. Though you stand to lose something from outlawing a host of close relative reproductive relationships – you will never get to be Philip the Second of Spain - this potential loss of benefit is minimal compared to the risk of being born to a life of pain and discomfort which may be very short and may, unfortunately, be quite long. You will listen to the geneticists and you will outlaw reproductive relationships which carry a high risk of causing you serious harm if you are born within them.

This calculus done from the standpoint of the as yet unconceived is quite different from that deployed by those entering genetic counselling. They are being asked the question, Do you want to risk having a seriously disabled child? not the question Do you want to risk being one? Those counselled are real, existing people. They may be under family pressure to start a family together. They may be in love. They may be gamblers. They may not believe in science. They are unlikely to be thinking of the fact that their choices may well yield very large health care bills, to be paid for out of other people’s taxes. Overall, they are not well placed to answer the question in terms of the best interests of an as yet unconceived child.

In other words, though adults normally think otherwise, their situation in real life is not always one where they can be assumed to be good judges for children, still less for children who have not yet been conceived. Both veil of ignorance reasoning and Condorcetian probabilistic reasoning suggest that our laws about who you can and can’t have children with are lax, and that the fall-back of genetic counselling unreasonably favours the interests of the living over those of the unconceived.

Trevor Pateman  explores other gaps and failures in our moral thinking in essays included in his The Best I Can Do (2016) and Silence Is So Accurate (2017)

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Voice Mobility

The other day, I recorded my first podcast. Since I had not been in a recording studio for many years, the sound engineer suggested that I make a sample recording - just a few minutes long - and then listen to the playback before returning to my soundproof booth to do the real thing.

I sat down with the engineer and he pressed Play on my sample. What do you think? he asked at the end. I sound a bit posh is what came out, immediately. He was surprised (maybe he had heard no poshness) and puzzled, Is that a bad thing?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because it may give listeners the wrong idea about me. I didn’t start life with a posh voice; I acquired one as a result of succeeding educationally and thereby becoming socially mobile. But I’ve always liked to think that my voice has not been quite so mobile. I still recall once meeting a university acquaintance from a similar background but a decade after we had both left Oxford. I was appalled by his accent, Oxford and affected. But it probably wasn’t affected at all; it’s likely that he had just assimilated more easily.

Now here am I, someone who hasn’t taught a university seminar or been to a middle class dinner party for twenty years, placing myself in front of a microphone and immediately, to my own ear, sounding posh. Maybe the subject matter explains it: I was reading something I had written about Milan Kundera’s theory of the novel. Maybe if I had been talking in a less scripted way about my childhood or a pet hate I would have sounded different.

I had other criticisms of my first attempt. My voice was too high pitched - first night nerves; I spoke too slowly - I was afraid of stumbling over words, an age-related hazard. And when I listened to the final product, I thought I sounded a bit camp. The editor of Booklaunch (Stephen Games) who had requested the podcast picked up on the last two aspects, asking that in any future recording I should be a bit faster (but not less dramatic)

But there is a case to be made for the poshness. The voice in which I read my piece about the novel was appropriate to the subject matter. It was full of words I never learnt as a child, only much later from teachers and friends. If I had read it in my original accent, it would have sounded false because a listener would realise that those words being spoken in an identifiably lower class accent would never have been spoken in a lower class home. That falseness would have been more distracting than the poshness. In contrast, if someone who had grown up speaking with a Scottish or West Indian accent had read my piece for me, it would be less distracting or not distracting at all because those accents are not in themselves class-related. In middle and upper class Scots and West Indian homes, one also talks about the novel.

To hear the finished podcast, go to

Monday 5 August 2019

Memory meets De tre vise men of Dalarna

Click on Image to Enlarge

Like death and taxes, memory losses are inevitable. We may swear to ourselves or to someone else that this moment will never be forgotten but it will, even before old age or worse sets in. As psychologists keep trying to tell us, to little effect, our minds constantly reorganise our memories: deleting, mislaying, editing, revising, inventing. Our memory is a bit like Microsoft run amok, improving or weeding to its own satisfaction yesterday’s Word docs while we sleep.

There are things I would like to write about but when I sit down to it, I promptly discover that I remember no more than the file name. Oh, they are splendid file names but standalone they do not make a splendid story.

The objects which pass through our hands perhaps have a bit more success in being there when we want them. It’s true that we lose things, bin them, give them away, forget where we have put them but, still, some survive and often for much longer than the memories which we may hope to find still attached - but don’t.

Today I come across this charming card which has managed to accompany me through many house moves since it was purchased in 1964 - fifty five years ago! The summer of that year - I had just turned seventeen -  I organised for myself a holiday job in Sweden, working in the Hotel Siljansborg situated beside Lake Siljan in the province of Dalarna.

Everyone is familiar with one Dalarna thing: those simple, chunky carved wooden horses painted in bright colours (traditionally red) with simple floral decorations in green, white, blue and yellow - the last two the colours of Sweden’s flag. When I came to the end of my time at the Hotel Siljansborg, I was given one as a leaving present and I still have it.

The carved horses were a portable part of a larger tradition of visual folk art, centred in Dalarna, which flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which produced painted furniture and wall decorations in which the floral motifs ( the technical name is Kurbits and I was able to google it because I still remembered the word) are always present.

My card has pin holes in the top corners so at one time I must have displayed it. A horizontal banner across the top spells out what the original depicts: De Tre wise man matthei 21 Cap Malat ar 1841 an A L S  ( The Three Wise Men Matthew chap[ter] 21 Painted [in the] year 1841 by A L S ).

Aren’t they splendid? Not a whiff of the Middle East. No donkeys or camels to bring them to the stable, just fine Dalarna horses. The three kneeling figures who could have been modelled on the local priest or lawyer - maybe they were; a rather patrician Joseph and a matronly Mary, her black leather shoes peeking out from under her full skirts. It looks as if having babies is something she takes in her stride.

We are very familiar with the idea that human beings fashion God in their own image; in Dalarna, they imagined the Nativity as something which happened not so long ago and just down the road. But I suspect that their religious beliefs were at least as robust as those of people who were brought up on donkeys, flowing robes, and sandals. But either way, the Dalarna folk artists were thinking rather like those who re-thought Shakespeare as West Side Story.

On the back of the card, the work is titled De tre vise men (modernising the spelling) and given as originating from the small town of Rättvik which provided the postal address for my hotel. Then it gives the current location of the work as the Zornmuseet. That opens a file: one day, during hours off work, I walked to the Anders Zorn museum in Mora. It googles and I am immediately offered a portrait of the artist (1860-1920) which I recognise as one of which I took away a postcard. But though I can google as much of his work as I want, I can’t see the folk art which must also have been in the museum.

I  google a bit more. It is out of the question that I walked. Mora is 37.8 kilometers from Rättvik!

The World Memory finds and opens its files for me in half a second and, once again, forces me to revise my own memory.

This essay is now published in Trevor Pateman, Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero 2019). Online stockists include Amazon and Waterstones but individual orders are also taken directly at and will be charged at cover price post free in the UK at £15 and 20€ when payment is made from SEPA countries direct to a German bank account. Currently no US distribution available.

Sunday 28 July 2019

Do The Dead Have Any Rights?

Whatever rights the dead may have, they are secured for them by the living. A man writes a will disinheriting his children; they go to court to have the will set aside and a living judge decides the matter. Another man writes a will endowing a fund out of which lawyers can be paid to defend his reputation against all-comers. But in a jurisdiction where English law prevails, that would be pointless: there is no offence of libelling the dead. Only the living can be libelled. In France, the dead are protected too.

The living grant rights to the dead, no doubt guided very much by what rights they themselves would like to be accorded when they die. Rights for the dead are about anticipation, not retrospection. So in most cultures, maybe all, there are protocols for handling a dead body and disposing of it. Failure to observe those protocols is both shocking and probably a sign of some breakdown of the social order. If the protocols dictate at least a shroud and an individual grave, then something has gone very wrong if naked bodies are tipped into common graves, as often they are in times of plague and war. 

But does it make sense to say that the rights of the dead have been violated in such circumstances? After all, they know nothing of what is going on. And we can understand and criticise what is happening without invoking the language of rights. So, for example, we could say that if we don’t show respect towards the dead, we will soon cease to show respect to the living, to each other. And that is not going to be good news. This argument is a cautionary, prudential one rather than a rights-based one.

It is also the case that the language of rights seems inappropriate where there is constant flux in the protocols which set out the rights of the dead. It is only very recently in my culture that burning bodies has been accepted as an alternative to burying them; even more recently that it has been thought acceptable to harvest vital organs - with or without explicit consent -  from those who may have died only minutes beforehand. It doesn’t seem that “rights” come into it. It looks more like “needs must”.

Nonetheless, we do accord rights to the dead which are quite extensive and sometimes not always explicitly reflected upon. Most of these rights relate to property and reputation. Some deserve to be challenged.

An elderly widow with no children and a great deal of inherited wealth writes a will leaving the whole lot to a donkey sanctuary. She has every right to do so. There is no Public Advocate enabled to go before a judge and argue that the will should be set aside. There is no one who can stand up to say: Your Honour, the reality is that we have far too many donkey sanctuaries; donkeys are being bred to populate them; the sanctuaries are not much more than a lucrative scam for those who promote them. I urge you to divert the late widow’s wealth to the oncology department of her local hospital where, at public expense, she received extensive treatment for several years. It would be right for her estate to be put back into the community from which she took so much. Ditch the fake donkeys, Your Honour!

It would require a revolution in our thinking to find that argument compelling. I would welcome such a revolution, but as things stand, the imagined Public Advocate’s argument is nothing more than an open threat to property rights which - in our minds - are inextricably linked to the idea that those are things which can be passed on. Quite cursory analysis would show that there is really not much of a link between the idea of a property right and the idea of an indefinitely and indefeasibly transmissible property right. A practical demonstration of the distinction between property right and transfer right was once provided in traditional gypsy cultures where both the caravan and its contents were burnt on the death of its owner. But woe betide anyone who had thought to steal from the caravan during the lifetime of its occupant.

So much for property. What about reputation? Here there is a cluster of protocols which create or enshrine rights to externalised memory, to memorials. Someone dies, they are buried, and their grave marked with a tombstone giving name, dates, some personal details and maybe a Commendation, “A Kind Father to all His Children”; “She Loved the Donkeys”. All this involves several financial transactions, none of which guarantee that tombstone in perpetuity. In practice, grave furniture is quickly neglected by those who have paid for it; the weather takes its toll on soft stone; the graveyard fills up - and eventually everything is bulldozed to make way for new graves or simply public green space. The dead are forgotten. No one much minds because the protocol has allowed memory to be gradually, not abruptly, extinguished. Those who mourn have been given their time.

In contrast, when a memorial - a monument - to a dead person is erected in public space, whether at government expense or funded by public subscription, it seems to be some kind of assumption that they thereby acquire a right to stand or sit there, in stone or bronze, in perpetuity. There is no protocol for taking these things down, no equivalent to the protocol which allows graveyards to be cleared out. In the context of lively conflict over statues of controversial figures, it would actually be helpful to develop some kind of intellectual framework which would aid us in deciding when a statue’s lease on public space has run out. 

One criterion might be whether we still remember the name and history of a person memorialised, regardless of whether the memory is fond or hostile. Yes, for most of us, it’s still Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But who are those characters who occupy the surrounding plinths? If you can’t so much as name them, why would you want them to remain there, in perpetuity? It’s not as if the hack work of monumental sculpture ever has any artistic interest and only rarely can it claim architectural merit. Without a protocol for removing the upright monumental dead, our urban public spaces are simply doomed to become more and more cluttered by forlorn figures, very rapidly forgotten by us and attracting the interest only of dogs - the reason for plinths in part to protect trouser legs - and pigeons.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

The Bank Note Problem

In Ruritania, there are four denominations of banknotes. The Ruritanian Royal Bank issues them in unequal quantities, according to perceived need, and on a rotating basis changes the designs to make forgery more difficult and less remunerative. One design is changed every three years, and once changed the old notes for that denomination cease to be valid. So each design has a life of twelve years.

In the past, the designs comprised abstract and complicated backgrounds (so-called guilloché or burelage ) combined with unique fonts in mostly calligraphic styles, all designed to defeat attempts at forgery. But at the urging of a modernising Ruritanian government, some decades ago now, the bank changed its policy and all new designs incorporate representations of dead people who are remembered for their achievements. The modernising government wanted to see different kinds of people and different kinds of achievement represented, but did not bind the bank to any particular formula.

That posed the bank a problem. How many different kinds of people are there? How many kinds of achievement? Without answers to those prior questions it was very hard to know how to proceed. The Bank did not at first identify this problem and started out without any clear answers, rather hoping that obvious cases would present themselves, as indeed they did.  Mr Shakespeare, Ruritania’s most famous and acclaimed dead playwright, had his image uncontroversially placed on a twenty pounds sterling banknote in 1970. It was true but irrelevant that there have always been doubts about whether images of Mr Shakespeare look at all like the man they purport to represent and, indeed, whether Mr Shakespeare wrote his Works. Never mind, Ruritanian history has always been strong on fiction.

The lack of clear principles of choice immediately encouraged subjects of Ruritania to come forward with humble petitions addressed to the Governor of the Bank proposing that such and such a person, or group of persons, or achievement, or group of achievements, should be represented on the next banknote scheduled for replacement. In the common parlance of the United States, these humble petitions - however worded in terms of justice, fairness and representation not to mention Greatness - were necessarily instances of log rolling.

Anyway, the Bank had a new problem. Should it now respond to the biggest logs rolled its way or should it seek to establish some principles of fair representation? The Governor decided that Principles should be sought. A committee was formed to find them.

After the usual lengthy deliberations, the committee proposed that two categories of person should be recognised (Male and Female) and four categories of achievement (Arts, Science, Politics, War). The committee pointed out that these numbers had been arrived at having regard to the reality of four bank note combinations. All eight possible combinations of the categories (which they summarised as MA, MS, MP, MW; FA, FS, FP, FW) could be represented on four notes in just two complete banknote cycles. There would be no awkward remainders to deal with.

As for the actual personages to be represented, the committee concluded that (a) that they all be dead - there was no disagreement about that - and (b) that it was up to the Governor to decide between several possible selection procedures enumerated as follows:      a committee of experts and / or the Great & the Good to pick the person to be featured in any of the eight categories;  a simple lottery the tickets for which would bear names selected by some method or other;  a weighted lottery with the number of tickets for each name equal to the number of signatures on humble petitions submitted in favour of that name - this was seen as a concession to log rolling;

The committee also felt that a further accommodation of the public was possible:
·         A list of names, carefully selected by the Bank’s own committee, could be submitted to public vote according to one of the recognised procedures (first past the post, and so on).  This proposal neatly incorporated a guarantee against any possibility of an overwhelming public vote in favour of Banky McBankface. The name would simply not appear among the choices submitted for popular choice.

The committee did identify one unresolved problem. Since banknotes of the four denominations are issued in unequal quantities, it might be thought that the representational value of the image on them should be weighted according to the number of banknotes on which that image would appear. The committee noted that this would remove an element of simplicity from its proposals and would require assistance from someone able to do difficult sums.

The committee then took cover. 

When it learned of the committee’s recommendations, the government of Ruritania was appalled. There were far too few categories of person and it was not sure that “War” was any longer a category of achievement. What about “Entertainment” or “Sport” - perhaps these could be combined into “Culture”?  If “War” was then added to “Politics”, that would preserve the four categories of achievement. A neat counter-proposal.

But as for categories of person, the government felt it had a duty of special care for the Ruritanian Minorities of which thirty nine were currently recognised. How did the Bank propose to ensure that those minorities featured appropriately on the four denominations with only its Male and Female categories available?

The Bank replied humbly that it thought that it could cope with the increased complexity demanded by the government but would need a few extra mathematicians, a new computer, and an answer from the government to two remaining questions: Are the thirty nine minorities to be represented equally within the Person categories or in weighted form according to the number of persons identified as being members of those minorities? And if the latter, should the number be those actually living or the number who have ever lived within the borders of Ruritania? The second question was given its point by the twin facts that all Persons had to be dead in order to qualify and that today’s Ruritanian Minorities were not distributed in the same proportions or same aggregate numbers as the Minorities of yesteryear.

The government appointed a small committee of mathematicians to come up with its reply to these two supplementary questions and it is hoped that a Nobel Prize (possibly for Mathematics but preferably for Peace) will result.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Boys from Slade Green are Under-represented in Hollywood films

Click on Image to Magnify

I was born in Dartford’s West Hill hospital, which once provided maternity facilities for those who lived in Slade Green. Slade Green was an area sandwiched between Erith (which was a Borough) and Crayford (which was an Urban District), both within the county of Kent.  But by the time I was born, this part of north-west Kent was really part of south-east London and is now legally so - Slade Green is within the Northend ward of the London Borough of Bexley. In other words, I lived in a place which had no real identity or boundaries.

I lived in Slade Green from birth until the age of eight when we moved to Dartford. So you might say that I passed half of my boyhood there, not quite a tenth of my life.  I could claim to be a boy from Slade Green which I think of as some kind of outgrowth of Erith rather than of Crayford.  The postal address was “Slade Green, Erith, Kent” - I used it frequently to head  Thank You letters to aunts and uncles - and the nearest town for shopping was Erith.

Google can’t find many people who claim to be or have been from Slade Green; Jade Anouka (1990 - ) was born there and that’s the only notable name I can find. For Erith as a whole, there are well-known people who were born there including the humanist and socialist comedian and writer Linda Smith (1958-2006) who joked that Erith isn't twinned with anywhere but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham - the giant red neon Ford sign prominent on the opposite bank of the Thames. And another one: 

Erith is in Kent - the "Garden of England" - I can only assume Erith is the outside toilet because it is a shit house.[1]

A 2014 post on Reddit in answer to a question from someone thinking to move to my home territory has this to say:

“Erith is crime central, and Slade Green has absolutely NOTHING going for it.

That’s not untypical of what I can find and I doubt it’s untrue. Now to the point. 

Would it make sense to say in some selected context that people from Slade Green are underepresented in that context? If you enlarged it a bit, would Erith or Crayford or even north-west Kent make sense as things which could be underepresented? I suspect not, because there are thousands of Slade Greens in the United Kingdom, thousands of places with nothing going for them and  no special claim to be represented somewhere else. If someone from Slade Green became a Hollywood film actor ( Jade Anouka might) the fortuitous fact of coming from Slade Green would be of no relevance. If Jade Anouka got a part, no one would be asking the question, Are Slade Green actors under-represented (or over-represented) in Hollywood movies?

And yet if we generalise a bit more the question no longer looks absurd. I borrow a sociological category from Trump, D. 2018 and put it this way, Are actors from shithole places under-represented (or over-represented) in Hollywood films? Cleaned up to meet Sunday School sensibilities the question becomes, Are actors from under-privileged backgrounds …?

I don’t know the answer to that question for Hollywood, but do know that it is reckoned to make sense in many other contexts and that the answer is that those from under-privileged / deprived / poor backgrounds are often under-represented. Bankers, lawyers, politicians, museum directors …. well, they don’t come from Slade Green-like places.


My country has a state broadcaster which now has a website where every day there are feelgood stories of the form “ So-and-so becomes first X in Y” or (less satisfactorily) “first openly X in Y” and “first X in Y since …” . These stories often irritate me because so many assumptions are quietly smuggled in with the story. Why is it a good thing that the Church of England now has its first black female bishop? 

The Church of England is, from where I stand, a small but extremely wealthy (the bishops all live in what are called Palaces) religious organisation which attends to the needs of the highest in the land for infant baptisms (a reprehensible practice), weddings and funerals. And that’s about it. It has little to commend it. What is a black woman doing selling her soul to this organisation, I wonder? Why isn’t she - let’s say - a Quaker? (The BBC has not heard of Quakers; its website likes to keep things simple. There are Roman Catholics - the BBC is very much in their favour - there is the Church of England  - the BBC doffs its cap -  and nowadays there are Muslims - excellent chaps. But that’s it.)

The BBC would not feature a piece claiming “First woman to head the Institute for Torturing Political Prisoners” because it gets the point that torturing people is not very nice. The Church of England is not very nice, but it doesn’t get that.

You can experiment with variants: Cardinals elect first gay / first openly gay/ first…. since 1555 Pope.[2]

The context in which I am writing this is one in which there is endless chatter about representation, under-representation, diversity and so on but in which there seems to be very little thought about the categories X and Y which matter and what in the end counts as a satisfactory result. 

Even at the apparently simple level of male:female representation, there has to be some thinking about what counts as “gender balance” though I prefer “sex balance” since gender is a complicating factor. Fifty:Fifty looks like the right answer. But for a large organisation which has to deal with changes in the available labour force, the legacy of past training practices and so on, fifty: fifty is not a reasonable target. It would force employers to take on less qualified candidates just to keep the balance at a point in time. What might be a reasonable expectation and aim would be to keep variation in, say, the 45 - 55 range, either way, over a period of time. Affirmative action is then required if the actual figures gravitate to the outer limits of the range but otherwise everyone can just get on with their regular work.

Even then, there are difficult cases to consider. I offer just three: midwives, coal miners, primary school teachers.



Tuesday 16 July 2019

Book Learning

How many books have you read? I count in books per week rather than day or month and I reckon that my average must be about two a week and that average probably holds up over sixty years now. 

Reckon a year at 50 weeks (easier math), then that’s three thousand weeks and so, six thousand books. I don’t count books which I skim or abandon early on and, in any case, I tend to be a dutiful reader who once started keeps going to the often bitter end.

Anyway, six thousand. A very small number. The best-selling among my own books in the Amazon ranking is currently in position 560 353. Lot of books out there, most of them desperately seeking readers.

Six thousand. If you locked me in a room for a week, instructed to write out the authors and titles, I would struggle. How many could I actually recall even at the entry level of author plus title? Maybe I could make a start with the books read in other languages which I am sure would number no more than a few hundred, nearly all in French. I have (for example) only ever read two books in Spanish, both by Eugenio Coseriu and in historical linguistics - easy enough to understand since all  the technical vocabulary could be guessed via the very similar French.

Those six thousand books have left me in possession of a great deal of book learning, though they have not made me learned because I have never been much concerned to achieve “chapter and verse” recall. I have never read biblically, and can’t quote you Shakespeare or Marx or Virginia Woolf, let alone the Bible. I don’t think of books as monuments onto which memorable inscriptions have been carved, but rather as things which develop or express ideas and feelings which can be put to use without it being necessary to recall the exact words used. Sometimes the exact words matter, but not often. I’m an active reader, but not a faithful one. 

All this book learning goes towards making me an educated person, and all this book learning dies with me, if not before - I think it is already slipping away. It can only exercise its effects in my conversation, in what I write, in how I conduct my life. And then it ceases to exist at all.

Will the young people in the street now permanently attached to smartphones eventually turn to books and catch up with my kind of score, a score which must surely be common among older people?

Friday 12 July 2019

A Niqab and a Panama hat

Rational Dress

I don't know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.

Marilyn Monroe


In summer 2019 I spent a week in Wiesbaden, working. I was helping to describe for auction a collection of nineteenth century documents and correspondence originally sold off in the 1970s to pay the bills of declining and defunct Russian monasteries on Mont Athos.  In lunch breaks and evenings I did my usual thing, strolling the city and taking in people and surroundings.

In a busy midday pedestrianised shopping area a woman appears out of the crowd coming towards me: tall, slender, dressed in an immaculately well-cut, dark blue and seemingly brand new niqab. The man walking beside her is considerably shorter, hunched over his smartphone, dressed according to regulations: a bit of stubble, tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers. My rapid visual profiling doesn’t take in the logo on the trainers so I don’t know if there is a brand he might favour.

The rules are sensible which permit young men to dress in ways which are practical for life in any European city. It means they can run after a bus, vault a barrier to cross a road. They can pick up children with ease, put them on their shoulders and, perhaps most importantly, kick a ball around.

I just wish the rules were a bit more considerate about female dress. The niqab can look very stylish; so too can high heels. But both are impractical. I guess the niqab can be very hot inside on a climate warming summer day and that reminds me of how on hot days in school, decades ago, we were always agitating for permission to take off jackets and ties. More importantly, the niqab is isolating. I will come to that.

I glance back at the woman. She is staring at me, intensely, her eyes a perfect study in black and white because those eyes are beautifully picked out with kohl. But I can’t place the look as angry or friendly or just inquisitive - there is no facial gesture to help out. I’m stumped to understand why I should be worth a very frank stare. She has only her gaze to work with and I can’t interpret it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m wearing sunglasses that encourages a stare, since from her point of view there is no eye contact and so she can’t figure out my gaze either.

Then as we pass each other, a penny drops and I laugh. I’m old and male and pale and I’m wearing a Panama hat, a proper one with a broad black band. Hitherto I have understood the Panama as standard issue for bald-headed elderly gentlemen on sunny days. But I realise that on my stroll today I haven’t actually seen one. Maybe a Panama is not a German thing, even for elderly bald-heads. Perhaps it’s like this: she is my first niqab of the day and I am her first Panama. It’s the hat which causes the stare.

People do sometimes call out to me when I’m wearing a hat; there seems to be something about hats (or at least, my hats) which frees people to address you. In the central park, later the same day, a young woman sitting on a bench and making out with a boyfriend calls after me, Bonjour, though I am too slow to turn, lift my hat, incline my head, and reply - as one ought - Bonjour, Mam’selle. Anyway, it shows that there’s at least one other person in this city who reckons a Panama notable and, interestingly, French.

That brings me to the point I skipped over. We are often led to believe that in modern urban environments people walk around as if no one else exists, isolated monads who don’t interact. That is not quite right. A lot goes on, an awful lot. I give an example relevant to what I want to say.

If in the street a child is behaving in a way which is charming, delightful or just funny, I will almost certainly smile at whoever is doing the parenting. That is surely very common, not an eccentricity. It is also the case that the parent will acknowledge the compliment about the child which the smile implies - they will smile back. Some who are more bold will end up exchanging a few words, not quite “passing the time of day” but about things specific to the child, like age or name. If I smile at a parent who happens to be wearing hijab, she will smile back.

When women wearing hijab began to appear at shop tills in London and then where I live, I behaved at first in a correct but very restrained manner, as if attending a vicarage tea-party. I didn’t engage, thinking it might be unwelcome. Now I will pass the time of day, sometimes crack a joke, encouraged by the fact that there is usually a smile on offer and even a riposte. It’s quite a good idea for old white males in Panama hats to behave as if they might be ordinary human beings. We can at least try to Pass.

The woman in the niqab is pretty much excluded from the small change of everyday life. It really makes a very big difference that you can’t see a face and from the face gauge whether a compliment or a joke would be appreciated or has gone down well. Leave aside that the man in tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers might not approve. Leave aside that she is not going to initiate any exchange anyway. The face covering inhibits any exchange. I suppose that is its purpose.

The exclusion is not total: if there are women wearing hijab on the streets they do engage with women wearing the niqab and vice versa (I’ve seen this on strolls elsewhere). Perhaps the best hope for the future is that women who wear headscarves enable women fully covered to change their style, at least for everyday street life. Maybe the niqab would then become something reserved for special days, a reminder of the past, like the traditional dress that jeans-and-trainers males put on for formal occasions. It would cease to be a burdensome obligation of everyday life. In the same way, though I can't understand why anyone would want to wear impractical high heels for shopping or work - and most certainly should not be obliged - it’s understandable that someone might want to wear them for special occasions, even if they end up being kicked off and abandoned.

But there are more ways of bringing on cultural change than imagined in my philosophy. In that same lunch break stroll a five-abreast group of teenagers are coming towards me; in the middle a tall, smiling, noisy girl has combined hijab with bright yellow stiletto heels - or perhaps, vice versa.

This re-written version pasted in on 27 January 2023 replaces the original post. The substance is unchanged but the prose has been restyled.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Girl or Young Woman With a Rose: A Nineteenth Century Painting from Finland

Click on Image to Magnify

I bought the painting recently, bidding online in a Finnish auction on the basis of how it looked on screen. Now it hangs to the side of the desk where I am typing this. When shipping costs were added, it still cost me under two hundred euros. Those who viewed it in the actual sale room would have seen that it is damaged - the line which runs horizontally across the painting starting from the girl’s elbow marks a repair.

On the back, a very recent label reads “Luultavasti Aino Aalto” - “Probably Aino Aalto”. That proves to be unhelpful. The most famous “Aino Aalto” was a Finnish architect and designer, born 1894, died 1949. Google not only knows all about her work and illustrates it profusely; it also reckons there is no other Aino Aalto worth knowing about. All I get from Google is the new knowledge that Aino is a first name for a female.

The label is ambiguous. It most likely assigns a probable painter but could assign a name to the sitter. From the style of the painting, the fairly crude wooden stretcher, the style of the gilt frame, the dress and hair of the sitter - well, I think this painting dates from before the advent of portrait photography, from the first half of the nineteenth century. 

I guess the age of the sitter at between thirteen and nineteen. She’s not displaying a ring but then it’s only her right hand that you can see. The rose is probably a conventional symbol - the bloom of youth, romance - but one should remember that portrait painters (and subsequently photographers) got sitters to hold things simply to stop them fidgeting with their hands. The painter has solved the problem of the other hand by simply chopping it off.

Aino is a Finnish name. There were women painters in nineteenth century Finland, so there is no obstacle to the painter being the Aino and a label on a painting for auction is more likely to attempt to name the painter than the sitter.

In the nineteenth century, someone who was Swedish-speaking was more likely to have been able to afford a portrait in oils. That I infer from my general knowledge, not from Google, though that probabilistic knowledge certainly does not exclude that the sitter was Finnish-speaking.  Likewise, from general knowledge and from the sitter’s hair, dress and facial features, I infer that this is not a girl from the Russian governing population - the Grand Duchy of Finland passed from Swedish to Russian control in 1809. Her religion will be Protestant.

To my eye, the portrait is not in any way cute. Though she has been made to hold a rose, the girl in the portrait looks seriously at the painter, with eyes which are unwavering. If she is nearer to thirteen than nineteen, she may just be uncertain about herself. Nearer to nineteen, then she is a determined young woman.

I can think of no way of finding her name, her date of birth, details of her life, the date of her death. It’s possible that no one anywhere now knows those details, or how to retrieve them. It’s also possible that she figures in some family genealogy, but that the link between the person in the genealogy and the person in the portrait has been lost. After all, this nice portrait ended up in a public auction. 

I do think it’s a portrait, not a genre painting for which some temporarily anonymous model has been paid to sit. The idea of the “genre” painting is very convenient for art museums; it saves them from a great deal of homework, and in this case would result in the title, Girl  With A Rose or Young Woman With A Rose, depending on how you resolve her age. 

And without a name for her, that generic title cannot be improved.

A revised version of this essay appears in my book  Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero 2020; hardback only £15) and the painting is reproduced on the cover.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Motorway Service Stations: A Model for Universities?

This post from 6 January 2013 had a large number of readers; I'm not sure why. Maybe visitors who were looking for information on Brighton's club scene.

This week, The Economist has a very good piece about UK motorway service stations (5th January 2013, "Serviceable", page 21). If you want to open one, government regulations require you to keep it open 24/7/365 (and 366 in Leap Years). This seems like commonsense: people are on the move 24/7/365 and if they are on a motorway journey, they will need to stop for petrol, food, drink and the loo - and the loos (says the government) must also be open 24/7/365 and  free of charge.

Of course, motorway service station workers don't work 24/7/365. Staff work rotas.

The other day, someone reminded me of a truth I used to know very well: at weekends, my local university campuses (there are two: Brighton, Sussex) are deserted and most of their services closed down. This ought to strike us as strange. Reading, writing, thinking, experimenting are 24/7/365 things. People's brains are on the move all the time. And since universities are supposed to be connected with - and supportive of  - brains on the move you would expect this to be reflected in their opening hours. Universities are places where the lights should burn long into the night and all through the weekend.

Instead, the lights are burning in Brighton & Hove, the large town (or small city) which neighbours the university campuses. The pubs, the clubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the shops - some are open almost 24/7/365 but especially at weekends when Brighton fills up with students and other visitors arriving (often in tens of thousands) to sample its weekend delights (basically music, alcohol, drugs and maybe some sex though probably the alcohol and drugs are incompatible with much of that).

The only people missing from the Brighton late night and weekend scene are the majority of University staff, teachers and administrators who are busy doing Middling England kind of things: decorating the house, going for walks, giving dinner parties.

Innocent enough but the overall effect is to routinise intellectual life into some nine to five Monday to Friday office schedule.

Students - whatever they may think they are doing - are already living the kind of On / Off life their Middling England parents live - there's just more Off to it.

Academics have settled for attending their committees and meeting their Research Output quotas rather than pursuing the life of the mind which was once (perhaps) the vocation associated with their salary.

The life of the mind can of course be a troubling thing. Even what's left of my mind can have me sitting here banging away at the keyboard from 8 34 to 9 05 on a Sunday morning - almost a definition of Off time. But then I was always a bit defiant.

But I have learnt to compromise; the computer will go to Off and I will  take a walk along the seafront.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Walking in Port Meadow, Oxford, May 2019

Oxford is one of those places which has big open green spaces very close to the city centre. On a recent visit and taking advantage of a sunny morning, I started my day with a walk into Port Meadow, an extensive area of low-lying flood plain which has been common land for centuries. But such walks always cause me a bit of anxiety. I make them without any props and often find myself the only person out and about who hasn’t got the kind of excuse which a prop indicates; I am just a solitary walker, without even the cover which coupledom provides.

The dog-dependent are out at this time of day, their presence in the meadow justified by the dog. A notice at the entrance to the meadow tells me that to reduce the risk of dog faeces spreading parasitic infections to animals grazing in the meadow, those faeces must be gathered up and disposed of into a bin. In addition, a single person may not bring more than four dogs into the meadow, perhaps to discourage those who depend on dog walking for their livelihood and for whom the meadow would be a convenient, unpoliced shittery. A more prominent notice tells me that one of the horses which graze in the meadow has recently died in a savage dog attack and the Meadow custodians would like to know whose dog.

This makes me a bit anxious and I guess does the same for the joggers and runners who are out, mostly young women dressed in clothes which indicate seriousness of purpose and justify their presence in the open air on a sunny morning: I am here because I am keeping fit, though I rather anxiously hope that my Lycra legs do not attract the attention of a savage dog.

Then there are cyclists, most heading south towards the city centre and most, I guess, with the practical aim of getting to work or class. They look rather intense, as if they might be late for an important date. But the bicycle is the prop which legitimates their rapidly passing presence.

A few of the joggers and the cyclists greet me but, of course, there is no reason for them to stop and pass a time of day in which I would  tell them that I have just been watching a pair of young goldfinches, feeding on dandelion clocks.

There was a time when, in response to anxieties about walking alone, I used to carry a stick - an indication that I was a serious walker, up there with the  jogger or cyclist. But I could never bring myself to don the expensive garments which signify someone as a Rambler, garments made all the more signifying by their binary contrast with the Naked version. Eventually, and despite the fact that I was getting older, I gave up the stick and now present myself, albeit uncomfortably, as that species of solitary walker who pays some attention to what can be seen and what can be heard around them, but with no real excuse for being there in a meadow on a sunny morning.


Later, I walked down to the city centre, a world crowded with young people and, of course, seething with props: smartphones with their own human beings permanently attached. Where are the flâneurs and the flâneuses, I asked myself? Surely there must be other people nearby, strolling and trying to pay attention to the viewscape and the soundscape. But I don’t see many. 

As for the smartphones, their human dependents would be so full of the beauty of youth if they would but detach themselves, look up, look around, pay attention, stroll or strut their stuff.  This, after all, is Oxford and the young people I see clearly have the benefit of good diet, good dentistry, and effortless taste in the way they dress. They are quite unlike the young people I see each day in the decayed south coast resort where I live. But, fortunate or not, both rich and poor all now have in common that they are not looking at the world around them, or listening to it. Especially, it seems, when crossing a road.

But then I said to myself, In your day surely you must have had your own props; and then I thought, yes, the smartphone has replaced the cigarette. Back then, it was a cigarette which solved the problem of what to do with your hands, or at least, one hand. The cigarette - mine were always Turkish - gave you an excuse for your existence and a prop to navigate social life. If not a cigarette, then maybe a handbag or even just a rolled up newspaper  - the latter a common sight in the past.

Human beings are natural fidgets; so many of our problems stem from our inability to sit, stand or walk quietly, without a prop to soothe. In the days of portraits in oils and into the early days of photography it was a big problem, partly solved by equipping the sitter with a fan, a flower, a book, a riding crop.

I walk back to my guest house. A woman approaches, perhaps a grandmother, pushing a buggy and addressing soothing words to its occupant. She passes and I half turn to look at the baby: big-eyed, big-eyelashed, and wide-open mouthed; an old-fashioned pink plastic doll.


This piece is now included in my little book Sample Essays, available at

Thursday 23 May 2019

Going to the Dogs: Alexander McQueen's Will meets Tullett Prebon

This Blog post from 26 July 2011 had hundreds of visitors presumably because it includes the name “Alexander McQueen”; the real story is what follows on from that and it is still pertinent in 2019 where UK  government policy (or lack of one) is making it even harder to pay down debt:
All the papers report that Alexander McQueen left his money to the dogs: £100 000 to Battersea Cats' and Dogs' Home, £100 000 to the Blue Cross sick animal centre, and £50 000 in trust for the lifetime care of his own pet dogs.

In a Will worth £16 million, it's not a lot, just rather sad. Why didn't he leave it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Very few people now leave money to the State, voluntarily that is, though they used to. A Report out today indicates that we badly need them to.

Officially, public debt stands at around £900 billion or over 60% of GDP. But lots of things are kept "off balance sheet". In a report for the brokers Tullett Prebon, Project Armageddon, Tim Morgan factors them in:

Add the final costs of bank bail outs, of unfunded future public sector pension commitments and of payoffs under Blair-Brown private Finance contracts and the debt figure rises four times to £3.6 trillion representing £135 000 per household. [I am using The Daily Telegraph's reporting]

It seems inevitable that at some point, like when they die, the present generation (the Baby Boomers - people like me) should be asked to pay and, failing that, made to pay.

Only yesterday, I took comfort in the £200 000 equity in my flat, the mortgage down to a few thousand. This morning I have to subtract £135 000 from that - the burden of public debt per household. Of course, if you shared out that figure proportionately rather than simply dividing by households, it would be less. For Sir Fred Goodwin it would be more.

However unpalatable to the Tory faithful, Chancellor George Osborne is going to have to look hard at inheritance tax. I make one suggestion.

At present, there is an exemption limit and above that the State takes a percentage of the value of an Estate at death. I would modify that to a variable percentage. Just as the State imposes supertaxes on alcohol and tobacco in its attempts to discourage them or make their users pay for the social costs of their habits, so it should tax legacies it deems noxious at a higher rate than those it deems benign. Ninety five percent on legacies to cats' and dogs' homes