Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: elementary distinctions

Betaquestions: who is asking, and why?

 

Editorial note.  May I point out yet again that the rules of this journal explicitly state that readers should not assume authors actually hold the views expressed in what they write.

In the previous posting my ploy (more or less forced on me by the continued absence of an intern) of replacing useful information and carefully considered opinions and helpful solutions by questions, and thus leaving it up to readers to do the work (rather as with systems of online banking) turned out in practice to be remarkably helpful, to me, and I now see why so many other editors resort to picking up chunks of verbiage from the news tapes, or the free feeds provided by the simple-hearted goodness of advertisers attempting to promote the prosperity of outfits which believe they see further profits cavorting around the margins of their activities and that advertisements are the way to catch them.  Therefore this ploy on my part continues herewith, even if there is a certain amount of the usual stuff lower down.

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  (1) Will the World Underwater Hockey Championships (yes, they do exist) charge a team from  Kiribati a fee for participation?  (If you are unable to answer this question, give up (often the best policy in so many modern contests where all the other competitors are probably doped to the eyeballs) and try question (1b): Why was question (1) asked in the first place?)

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  (2) To the relief, probably, of many on both sides (and in this context and after this amount of time many may feel it doesn’t matter much which side is counted as ‘us’ and which is considered ‘them’) the Skrepal case seems to have been shifted to the upper archive room downstairs, probably somewhere in the filing cabinets labelled ‘not before 2050 (n)’.  If awards were handed out at annual conventions of espionage agents Bellingcat would surely be in the running for one of the main prizes at the next award ceremony, with a performance allegedly described as ‘sparkling’ even by some neutral observers.   It is true that there are still a number of matters not yet clarified.  After all,  speculation would lose its interest if everything could be tidied up and set out in the display shelves in the exhibition room for tourists.  Why did the young lady claim to work for Pepsico in Moscow, when it seemed the firm had not heard of her?  Does she still?  Indeed where is she now?  Is Yevgeny once again indulging his fondness for travel, and if so where does he get the money?  If the other side was responsible for the chemical attack in Salisbury why did they need to go and investigate the OPCW?  Who was the chap claiming to be a former very senior scientist, now retired, on the other side’s chemical weapons programme, who allegedly volunteered to spill the beans to some western journalists (strangely surveillance-free), and who for the sake of secrecy chose to be found wandering lonely, and conspicuous, along a sandy coast (though apparently the secrecy did not matter once he was talking to them face to camera in full definition through the car window?   Why did the other side make the second trip to Salisbury, almost looking as if they were trying to draw attention to their presence?  One theory going the rounds is that  they were deliberately trying to keep the Russian threat present to the minds of the journalists of the Mail and the British media in general, in order to shore up May’s position, since they thought she would be more effective in bringing disorder and confusion to the British government’s position than anyone else in politics.  I was able to get a question about that to my former colleague and occasional correspondent, Montgomery Skew, but he said he has no special insight into the issue, and he wondered anyway why the Russians would feel a need to mount any operations of their own into fomenting confusion in British politics.

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 (3) It is common for humans to try to assess the intelligence of other species, adopting a variety of tests. (It has been claimed that the New Caledonian crow scores particularly well by comparison with other species; however, according to information passed to this journal the sampling in those experiments may have been seriously biassed in their favour, since it consisted of crows attached to the university in Oxford.)  But does any reader have information about the outcome of attempts to use the techniques employed with monkeys in the reverse direction, to assess the intelligence of human beings?  (And if so, which human beings?)  (And what were the results?)

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 (4) Can you think of a better way to stifle intellectual progress in a given field than to assemble an encyclopaedia of what is known and understood in that field, choosing of course the most eminent authorities in the field, with their status decided according to the number of citations of their work, backed up if it is felt necessary by similar scrutiny of the standing of those making the citations?  All the more credit therefore to Paracelsus who understood much better 500 years ago: ‘The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.

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Editorial news

Readers will be familiar with the numerous difficulties faced by the editorial staff (currently myself) with putting together and publishing these reports.  One of the major problems has been our reliance on electronic means of communication, partly because of the unreliability of the electricity system here although from my personal point of view that is almost an advantage since it normally excuses me the need to try to make sense of the incomprehensible, i.e. our office computer, and its ‘system’ and, worst of all, the associated ‘help’ manual.  But now there is good news from, of all places, Berthold’s branch of the university in London where they have devised a new and ingenious way to achieve communication –  genetically modified carrier pigeons, controlled in flight by signals sent to an ultra-lightweight aerodynamically efficient bird-helmet.  This is the result of a joint project between the engineering department and the zoologists.  All the sender of a message has to do is to get a secretary to type out the message in the usual way, get it scanned and miniaturised, and then hand it over to the ‘bird operator’ on duty telling him where the message is to be sent which no longer depends on such constraining factors as addresses.  At the other end any competent ornithologist can soon extract the message from the ring on the bird’s leg and then all he or she needs  is a magnifying glass.   Just ten hours from London to La Sarrasine or the reverse!  And currently it’s all free as it’s working on a trial basis.  A new journalistic era beckons.

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Thought of the fortnight (seen on an English-regstered car in Bangkok)   Give a man an electronic megaphone.  Then be surprised when he signs up to the globalisation of ignorance

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Late news (extract from a letter received this day 16-11-2018 from Montgomery Skew)

By chance I ran into Berthold this morning.  Poor chap is very down in the mouth, feels things are lining up against him (‘just when things had started to go well’ – a comment which I understand includes his fairly amicable break-up with Louella.) .  He believes he has been experiencing a loss of mental acuity recently, which he is putting down to the great amount of time he has to spend in close contact with students.  Whether the loss is real or not I have no way of knowing, but he cited a couple of instances which to me sounded pretty normal for a forty-something politician manqué.  Apparently he made quite a mess of things when he was invited to act as moderator at an inter-school debate on ‘Who is our guide to the future, Darwin or Gresham?’, the idea of the organiser being that with Darwin,  proponent of the survival of the fittest, things get better, whereas Gresham’s observation about bad money driving out good  (a general principle which can effortlessly be exported to other spheres – for instance politics, road surface construction, and government funded health care – and arguably a central pillar of modern capitalism as it operates in practice, whatever the theorists in their comfortably appointed cells may assert) sees things as overall tending to go to the bad.  Predictably the debate got muddled with confusions about the difference between change and the results of change, and between causes and effects, and with other equally predictable distinctions heavily trampled on.  So equally predictably Berthold couldn’t restrain himself  (whoever had chosen him for this job?)   Egged on by his suspicions about diminishing brain power he set about demonstrating his intellectual superiority to these schoolchildren and started scoring points of his own, some on behalf of views with no easily discernible link to the issue under debate at all, and most against any of the teenagers who seemed to him to be advancing rightwing views.  It all ended in uproar and a polite letter from the school principal asking for £25 to replace two chairs beyond repair.  All that however, was of lesser importance than the collapse, just a couple of days ago, of his university’s scheme for using bionic pigeons to transmit messages outside conventional channels of transmission.  Apparently he was there by coincidence when a meeting of the pigeon group was interrupted by the arrival of a very senior officer who identified himself not by name but by his official position, in the cloud-capped peaks, and announced that the bionic pigeon programme was officially being closed immediately, with the whole department now covered by the official secrets act whether they had signed it or not, while those who had taken part in devising the programme were being transferred at two days notice to Camberley where in future they would be working as members of the Ministry of Defence.  The very senior officer was at some pains to assure them that these measures in no way implied criticism of their activities.  To paraphrase: ‘Quite the opposite; we discovered that in a world where for instance an enemy can read a message among ten million being transmitted inside a locked building you have come up with a means of conveying information such that with fairly minor modifications it may be possible to conceal the fact that any transmission at all has taken place.  Best possible form of secrecy.  We want to see if it can be made detection-free, and if so, to use it for our own purposes’.  Poor Berthold; collapse of his dream, already half sketched out, of using the bionic pigeons to rove the world from his swivel chair in the administration block, gathering reams upon reams of interesting and important and up-to-date information at rock-bottom cost, and hoisting himself into the position of world-famous pundit, in a decade or so to see his career turned into a block-buster film.

Wider world views may help

When taking over this site we regret that we found the resources significantly smaller than we had been led to believe, but the debts and certain additional liabilities considerably higher than had been clear.  However, we shall do our best.

            We should also make it clear that at no time did we have the intention of using the name which the departing owners of the site had attributed to us.  Provisionally, the postings here are to be in the name of the Distant diary.

 

7-1-2014

(1) From one point of view, the worst mistakes include those which not only are morally wrong – which so many see as irrelevant – but also against your own best interests, and which produce the opposite effect to the one intended.  Those (few) whose memories of international news stretch back more than a week will know that, after Al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, launched an attack on New York, Bush and Blair decided to arrange a retaliatory war against Iraq; this surprised many, not least because Iraq and Afghanistan are two entirely different countries, but also because as the same careful observers of international news well knew, Al-Qaeda was not represented at all in Iraq, and the régime of Saddam was strongly hostile to it.  (The surprise was sufficiently great that some nations who were supposed to be loyal allies treacherously expressed – very politely, of course – strong doubts about the wisdom of the war.  This did not make much difference, because it was discovered that there was another ground for pursuing war against Iraq, namely that the then dictator was preparing weapons of mass destruction, which, some believed might reach Blair in only 45 minutes.  It later turned out that those weapons did not exist, even though their existence had been demonstrated to the Security Council, but this did not make much difference either because the war had been well and truly (if those are the right words) launched by then.  The same observers of international news may, or may not, be surprised now to see it reported that the cities of Falluja and Ramadi, in Iraq, are at present occupied by armed representatives of Al-Qaeda.  As geopolitical mistakes go, this one was breath-taking (and for thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Arabs, life-taking).

   How might this mistake have been avoided?  Obviously, much, much more learning about the real  state of things in places you don’t know well would help and so would a better balance between realpolitik and just trying to get what you want by force.  Bear this in mind when noticing the resistance of some in America to Iran’s attendance at the conference to recover peace in Syria; even if we leave aside two and a half thousand years of close historical and cultural links (as irrelevant?), if Iran is involved in activities in the conflict then it is imperative that she comes to meet the other parties to hear their views, and perhaps be persuaded to change policy, while if she is not embroiled in the conflict then as a nation with enormous knowledge of the region, there is no reason not to invite her.  Or consider recent events in Egypt.  The American government was obviously well aware of its own relations with the Egyptian military, but how far were they aware of the basis for the brotherhood’s wide support?  On the other hand, they must have known of the special position of the military in Egyptian society, but it seems unlikely they could have looked so benignly on the counter-revolution against a president who gave evidence of being personally moderate in a difficult situation, and who had been democratically elected in free and fair elections, if they had taken into account fully the cleavage between the privileged classes who talk to the west and the great mass of the population.  For that matter, why the extraordinary reluctance to describe as a military coup a takeover which was a prime and brutal example of the type, while an increasingly farcical series of charges against the overthrown president reach the point of accusing him of espionage while in office.  What next?  Camel-rustling, hazarding ships by swimming in the Canal?

  (2) Great quotations of our time:

‘Air pollution is an urgent public health problem but in the grand scheme of things it is a good problem to have.’  From a recent issue of the Economist

It is a little surprising to find this kind of approach so boldly stated.  We wonder if traffic accidents can be entered in the same category, and perhaps coal-mining disasters too, although some who are unsympathetic to the Chinese might take a more hawkish view.

(3) Some people just are so unpredictable:

‘If a mechanical person talks to you and makes eye contact and smiles it’s very hard indeed not to talk back.’  (Remark from a researcher in artificial intelligence.)

   This must depend on who you are.  One response: “I certainly wouldn’t talk back, I’d just punch it in the face.”  And from one of our secretaries: “Sure, I’d answer back.  I’d shout ‘Help!’  and run away as fast as I could.”  Should anyone be investigating the effects of long-term research into artificial intelligence – on the researcher?

 

Proposed French legislation

I recently heard a recording of a very interesting interview on my local (French) radio station, and I thought your readers might like to hear about it.  I wrote to the broadcasting station  and asked if I could have a transcript.  I am pleased to say they agreed, and I have translated it as here:

   We are pleased to have with us today the distinguished gastronome and philosopher Louis-Gustave Capper, winner of the Prix Cinqroutes for innovative cuisine in the year 1931.  Professor, thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us.  As you know the French Assembly has again begun a project of law with the idea of imposing fines on clients of prostitutes.  We should be glad to have your views on the project and, if you will permit, I have to begin by putting a question which a number of our female listeners insisted should be put to you, when they heard this interview would be broadcast:  Are you a male chauvinist?

   (Capper)

   There are several answers to this question.  As often with such questions of a social nature, the answers vary according to the person giving them, and have nothing useful to do with the nature of the person or subject under investigation.  Perhaps we may proceed to more substantive issues.

   Do you think that there are different categories of rape?

   I do not think any sane person can believe rape to be anything other than a very serious crime, whether committed against a male or a female.  However, there is reason to think it is especially heinous when the victim is female, to judge from the fact that on occasions it leads to suicide, whereas such an outcome seems to be extremely rare when the victim is male.  Having said that much, however, is it not evident that extreme brutality, for example, will make the crime worse?

   The supporters of this legislation say that it will reduce the incidence of trafficking.  Do you agree?

   Trafficking is a term that certainly admits of different categories, since it means in essence no more than trading in some commerce that a government dislikes.  Some forms of such commerce should be encouraged by all honest citizens.  I think, for example of the illegal export of necessary medicines into countries despite political sanctions against their governments.  Iran’s citizens have long been at risk when travelling by air because of severe difficulties obtaining spare parts for civilian aircraft.  Historically there have been many countries which banned certain books which most urgently needed to be distributed in great numbers in those very countries.  I myself look fondly on those who supply me with imported cigarettes which would cost me three times as much if they were imported legally.

    I think in this case, however, they are speaking of trafficking in people.

   Now it may be that here they are talking of people being treated in such trade as objects, and this is of course wrong, though let me point out that the worst offenders in this kind of treatment are governments themselves.  But in any case they are clearly misusing the language (a lesser offence but still one where governments are egregious offenders) since as I have said trafficking is simply commerce of which a government disapproves.  And I object most strongly to morally repugnant restrictions being placed on the crossing of frontiers by human beings.  We are told that humanity benefits from a free market (an obvious falsehood since those who benefit from a free market are those who have access to the knowledge and control to take advantage of it) but even as the words are spoken we see that they do not mean at all what they appear to say.  There is to be free movement of money and of physical goods but not of people, who are by the way the ones who do the work.  A poor man loses his job in Africa.  He goes to the embassy of a European country to get the visa which, as an African, he must get so that he can travel there to earn money for his family.  It is refused, because he cannot show that he has money to support himself in Europe (and would be refused even if he could).  So he sells half his possessions to pay for a trip to the coast, where he must hand over all the money that remains to him so that he can board a rotting boat which may take him to Europe.  Is he not an investor?  He has invested until he has nothing left.  He has struggled for weeks to make the journey.  He is a man.  He wants to work.  But if he reaches the other shore, he has no papers.  He will be held in a camp like a prison until he is sent back because he is an economic migrant.  So where is the theory of capitalism now?  It is lacking one of its two main motive forces.  However, I think that here too those who complain of trafficking really mean something different from what they are saying.  They are not concerned with the crossing of frontiers but with what may happen thereafter to the people who cross them illegally.  Now we know that some are forced to work as slaves, on farms, in brickyards, in factories, or private homes and that is so obviously wrong that I have a question of my own.  In all countries that claim to be civilised there are laws against this, but not very much happens to stop it, and I would like to know why?  Could it be that it is for the convenience of friends of the government?   The other major crime committed against those arriving illegally is that they are forced into prostitution.   Holding a human being prisoner in a network of prostitution is both kidnapping and rape.  And there is rape every time that a client is served.  Again there are laws that state clearly and loudly that these are crimes, and again I am puzzled that they do not seem to be used as much as I would expect and I wonder why.

   So then you would support this proposed legislation?

   Absolutely not.  I have no objection in general to the fining of customers of prostitutes, male or female.  Some clients will be caught, and the lives of those households will be shipwrecked.  Blackmail will flourish (a doubtful benefit to society).  The earnings of some poor women who have no chance to get reasonably paid work in socially approved employment will be disrupted.  And those who continue to work in this way will be forced into more repellent and more dangerous places unless they are to risk a police raid while the transaction is proceeding.  A very serious issue is that where the prostitution is enforced the gangs that exercise control will undoubtedly find ways to provide unchecked access, and that will make them more powerful.  The number of reported incidents will be reduced but prostitution will continue.  Are they not dealing with behaviour resulting from one of the three major human motives functioning to keep the race in existence?  Perhaps the most serious result, however, will be that some of the potential clients, the most dangerous ones, will try to assuage their sexual hunger with crime.  It is certain that there will be violent attacks.  Are the supporters of this law so totally ignorant of the history of prohibition in America, where crime was driven by an urge strong enough, to be sure, but less deeply embedded in the human framework than this one.

   Surely it is desirable that this unattractive aspect of society should be repressed?

   I do not speak as an habitué of this milieu myself.  Such a dérive is neither necessary nor conformable to my inclinations, and I have no difficulty in accepting that some find this aspect of society displeasing, but then I wish to ask why this is so.  Combine to dishonour any social group and push it into a disagreeable style of life where the majority would not wish to go and even if it does not in reality become unattractive it will be so perceived by the lack of thought of the respectable.  You can doubtless think of one well-known group so harassed today, in our country and to our shame.  It is the instinct to drive out the ‘different’ and to declare that you do so because it is wrong or ugly or immoral.  But the truth is not that it should be repressed because it is unattractive; instead, the fact is that it is treated by our society in such a way as to make it unattractive.

   But the legislation is strongly supported by women’s rights groups.

   It is to me extraordinary that they do not distinguish between those who are forced into this unpleasant and dangerous occupation, and those who choose it as they have the right to do for reasons of their own which we have no right to enquire into.  These groups say that prostitution demeans the woman.  Yes, a thousand times over – when it is enforced.  There is something distasteful in beholding a woman whose talent or fortune of birth offer her a comfortable life in easy circumstances but who denies the right of a free woman to exercise the talents she is born with.  Has she not the right to make choices of her own about her own body, just as do those who strive to become athletes, opera singers, film stars or restauratrices.   Among those women’s rights groups is it not a majority who defend the right of a woman to make choices about her own body in the matter of pregnancy? Let them fine clients of prostitutes if they must (but know that unfortunate consequences will follow).  Let them take firm and powerful measures against slavery and enforced violence against women, and men.  But what they need to do is to make the simple distinction between an activity and abuses of it.  Even the most authoritarian state does not ban reading because citizens might use it to read work on political liberty.  Or to offer you another analogy, the cars of France cause pollution, problems of health, noise, fights, and most serious, accidents.  Should we ban them or instead legislate against the evils they cause, punish those who transgress, and try to reduce to the maximum their nuisances while increasing to the highest level possible the assistance they can provide to the nation’s life?

Adrian Jenkins-Lejeune

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