Happy holidays reader – back Jan 3rd

For Christian readers and tag-alongs, Happy Christmas, tomorrow.

Mazaika Snow Girl

Jewish readers, happy Chanukah, day 3 – hag sameach.


For Muslim readers, happy Al Hajira for 29th.


And the rest of you I either missed (Pagans) or nothing doing. Enjoy the telly. I might not blog for a while. This year’s New Year will be spent at the Peaks. Like most years the twelve of us will dress to a theme. In 2003 we were fairly new to it and simple cross-dressing was enough. Here’s Matt and me back then:


This year it’s Nativity (not my idea – I think somebody had a donkey costume they wanted to use). There’ll be sheep, stars and shepherds. Joseph, Matt is Mary. Anit will be our little son, and Brian the angel Gabriel. I’m Joseph – so, tevas, a dressing gown, a tea-towel – and wig, beard and paunch as usual.

UK Government acts to discourage settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Good news reported in the Jerusalem Post, meeting (unless I’m reading it wrong) with only the political minimum of protest from the Israeli government.

“The advisory comes quickly on the heels of a letter British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote two weeks ago to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam, Fayad saying he shared Fayad’s “frustration” at settlement activity, which Brown said has “continued and has accelerated since the Annapolis process was launched. “The UK is now looking at what effective action we can take to discourage settlement expansion,” he wrote.

“Given our clear position on settlements, it follows that we would not want any British national to purchase property inside an illegal settlement,” Brown continued. “We are now looking at whether there are effective ways in which we can discourage them from so doing.

“I have already asked officials to update our official travel advice to include a specific warning that potential purchasers of property in a settlement should consider that a future peace agreement could have consequences for that property.”

Israeli officials said the issue was raised during meetings with visiting British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Bill Rammell, who arrived Sunday and is leaving on Tuesday.”

The point can be made that Jews are the only group of people currently prevented by exceptional Palestinian law from buying land in the Palestinian territories. It could be said that it’s as if The Netherlands were to outlaw German nationals from buying land, while allowing Belgians to buy freely. However, Palestine is not The Netherlands – Palestine is a homeland for Palestinians which has been trying to get off the ground for 60 years. It is also a place that a small minority of Jews would like to control, for reasons to do with religion and/or security. I’m not sure about the wording of the advisory – if it refers only to the settlements, or to the territories in general, or to land bought through Israeli vendors. These things do matter – if homes and land are available to be bought and sold in the general scheme of things (another thing I disagree with) then it’s important for third party interventionists not to be discriminatory. But of course I support measures against purchasing from Israeli vendors whose presence in the Palestinian territories depends on a corrosive, blighting occupation.

But a conflict is a conflict, and extraordinary measures should be entertained. And every conflict needs peacebrokers. Much as I would rather that everybody got to live where they wanted and much as I sympathise with (though don’t really respect) the deep love that religious people hold for different bits of land, as a pragmatic supporter of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict it’s good policy to discourage settlement activity which, it is widely agreed, runs counter to the peace process – and more to the point, cause an understandable sense of injustice, disaffection and fury among Palestinians.

Were the keffiyehs at Urban Outfitters fairly traded?

A keffiyeh is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘PLOscarf’ although I read (several years ago in a good but out-of-print book called ‘My Enemy My Self‘ by Yoram Binur which I can recommend – in the tradition of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and Jack London’s People of The Abyss, an Israeli journalist passes himself off as an Arab Israeli to see how the other half live) that only black ones indicated support for Fatah whereas the red ones were for the communists. Whatever the colour, to me it’s an icon of Palestinian nationalism. A couple of years back though, to most within striking distance of an Urban Outfitters it was an item of ethnic fashion.

In these times of heightened consciousness of the Palestinian economy and the requirement that it be mixed and not so reliant on the olive, I found myself idley wondering if the keffiyehs so denuded of political significance by fashion retail train Urban Outfitters were fairly traded.

I found out that they weren’t quite so denuded of political significance as I thought – apparently there was “the retailer’s decision to label the item an “anti-war woven scarf””. And then:

“A blogger named Mobius, posting Jan. 16 on Jewschool, a Jewish blog that targets a young audience, blasted Urban Outfitters for selling kaffiyehs. Taking issue with the retailer’s decision to label the item an “anti-war woven scarf,” Mobius posted pictures of terrorists adorned in kaffiyehs.

The same day Urban Outfitters, which had offered the scarves in several color combinations for $20, pulled them from stores. Its Web site posted this explanation: “Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale. We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.””

I didn’t find out whether they were ever fairly traded though (to be honest I didn’t try too hard – they are currently dead to fashion). They bloody should have been – although I think we both know that they were almost certainly made in China, and that the people who bought them didn’t mind. Uh-huhthey were.

Why didn’t organisations like Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods campaign about this? They swear blind that everything they do is for the sake of occupied Palestinians. Well, the clue is in the name – equating anti-Zionism with actual support for Palestinians is often a mistake.

I also read that the red keffiyeh indicates support for Hamas these days. Which I found pretty poignant given what’s been going on on the so-called left in recent years.

Milgram’s findings reproduced

Stanley Milgram was the Yale psychologist who found that all but a few of the participants in his 1960s experiment inflicted what they believed to be painful punishment on other human beings when ordered to do so by an authority figure. His were seminal studies of social influence and its effects on behaviour.

Some people (I can’t remember who) raise the possibility of methodological flaws round recruitment for these and subsequent studies. Possibly the newspaper ads, emails, posters etc attracted people who were not after all ordinary and unremarkable but in fact the type of people who would cooperate with the investigators in any experiment.

The reporting of these experiments is so gappy and research ethics so evolved that I expected to keep this hope alive for some time to come.

However, today we learn (a year or so after it happened) that Jerry Burger and colleagues  reproduced Milgram’s findings, as reported in the BBC, Time, and Mail. I haven’t read the paper so I don’t know about recruitment and whether or not the participants were aware of Milgram’s work, which is famous. The research ethics criteria for conducting the study involved taking many measures to safeguard the wellbeing of participants – they seem like an exceptionally sane group of people – but what drew them to participate we don’t know.

Setting out to investigate not obedience, as Milgram did, but rather the extent to which virtual characters can substitute for real humans in social situations – Slater and colleagues reproduced Milgram’s findings with a virtual female character as the learner back in 2006 at UCL. They told recruits that they wanted to find out whether discomfort helped the virtual character learn to associate words. Administering electric shocks to the virtual character – seen and heard by two-thirds of the participants and animated, as you can see from the vids, to seem very much present – aroused all sorts of sympathetic physiological responses in the participants, some of whom withdrew from the study and others of whom attempted to interact with her in unscripted ways.

“The Learner had a quite realistic face, with eye movements and facial expressions; she visibly breathed, spoke, and appeared to respond with pain to the ‘electric shocks’. Not only that but she seemed to be aware of the presence of the participant by gazing at him or her, and also of the experimenter – even answering him back at one point (“I don’t want to continue – don’t listen to him!”). Finally, of course, the electric shocks and resulting expressions of discomfort were clearly caused by the actions of the participants.”

There was a fair bit of early withdrawal in this one, but withdrawal wasn’t reliably predicted by displays of empathy, which was interesting. Although they were not studying obedience, the investigators comment:

“We argue that whether participants complied because of ‘obedience to authority’ or politeness, or respect for expertise does not really matter. The fact is that they continued to carry out a task that they found to be unpleasant, when there was no reason for them to do so. Unlike the situation in, for example, the military, there were no real negative consequences that would follow from withdrawal – indeed participants had been advised that they were free to withdraw at any time without giving reasons. Hence, our experiment shows that it is possible to set up a situation in virtual reality where people will comply with requests to follow instructions that appear to cause pain to another entity thus causing discomfort to themselves. Explicitly they know that there is no pain, but it may be that the totality of their perceptions in that situation results in an implicit knowledge that indeed their actions are causing another entity to suffer. This idea fits with the evidence that participants in the VC tended to wait a relatively long time before giving the shocks after the Learner had stopped responding. From the point of view of their explicit knowledge waiting made no sense, but it did make sense at the implicit level.”

It’s also kind of comforting to separate obedience from willingness to enact violence – also based on Milgram’s work, there was a study (sorry, no ref – I learnt about it in a documentary about our collective propensity to fascism) about willingness to give up seats on public transport when the person making the request on behalf of the (perfectly healthy-looking) person who wanted the seat was wearing a uniform. In that case the participants were randomly selected, but they were almost all prepared to give up their seat.

So I suppose we’re always ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” and then, if we’re not satisfied with our own answer, ask the person who is making the request the same question. And if we’re not satisfied with their answer, then we change our behaviour accordingly. And either way, to carry on examining ourselves (without making a sport of it) in case we’re ethically complacent. Which it is very easy to be. Our own conscience – our guiding light – like any lighthouse requires regular, careful cleaning and can go up for sale. But it’s definitely all we have.

It’s interesting about the participants in Slater’s study who refused to even go through the motions. Sometimes conscience is more about ‘us’ – our need to cohere morally to our own satisfaction, and how we interpret this – than about ‘them’.

Flesh’s new Acer Aspire One

My  frenzied acquisition of technology continues apace. I’d been dithering around trying to choose the best sub laptop for months – there was nothing that had everything. I wanted it to weigh as little as possible, be as small as possible, have a 10″ screen, long battery life, good keyboard, web cam and mic, integrated connectivity including 3G, big processor, don’t mind about storage but want plenty of USB slots and a storage card slot with SD compatibility. I eventually chose the Acer Aspire One. Matt bought it for me and when it arrived from Amazon he gave me it – I’m writing from it right now.

There’s a more in-depth review on Trusted Reviews.

Mine’s pearl-coloured (£10 off the price) and cost c. £200.

I decided a new computer was going to be a turning point – I would do the decent thing and move to linux (which is why I thought 512Mb would be OK, and it seems to be). The AA1’s a dinky little bit of kit and the hardware is really pleasant to use. But getting to grips with the software has been all-consuming so far. I seem to have a better awareness of what is possible  with linux than my technical acumen would indicate, so I tend to arrive at How-To type pages which perfectly fit the bill of what I want to do, but miss out crucial information – like this one. (I’m certainly not complaining – these people aren’t providing services, they’re blogs and I’m grateful). The AA1’s user community is smaller than the Asus Eee’s.

Ever since acquiring the thing I’ve been blundering around in the terminal (command line) interface following instructions found on the Web. This is not the best way to learn but what the hey.

So far I’ve installed Firefox, enabled a kind of start-button thing on right click (but not yet sorted out a desktop), got myself onto our wireless network at work, set up dual monitor (but not managed to fix it so I can have different resolutions on each nor move out of clone mode), installed Skype (left off to keep prices down), sorted out all my add-ons in Firefox and made some small theme adjustments. Haven’t managed to install software which plays AVIs, or install GIMP properly (but I have half an inkling about how to). I think the best thing I’ve done was find out about and enable circular scrolling which actually works as expected. I think I can sort out the fan-speed which might be nice – currently sounds like a fly in a jar.

Setting up these things requires using the terminal. Web browsing, blogging, multimedia-viewing, creating standard documents are all absolutely perfect, easy, intuitive and straightforward, though.

I can see that doing anything more sophisticated in linux as a novice could be pretty consuming. I inch along. Macles* and Acer Guy in combination with their commenters has been helpful. Time will limit what I can do so it’s going to be slow going. But despite my early apprehension it’s proving to be quite satisfying in an in-at-the-deep-end kind of way. Having said that, I can’t tell you what I’ve learnt. Problem solving and simple replication is what I’m doing right now.

No regrets.

Update: Thanks to Macles* and his/her commenters (they flag problems and carry out troubleshooting), I’ve just installed VLC media player and can now see the AVI format that my Samsung NV6 camera records. Fabulous.

How the Met got it wrong on terrorism

Been meaning for a while to round up the Harry’s Place post in which David T pokes holes in the government strategy to forge alliances with those supporters of jihad they perceived to be moderate. He himself provides a good review of his main arguments.

I could have done with more information (I think it’s dotted round Harry’s Place) on how Islamists have exploited their improved influence. I could also do with a fleshed-out comparison between Britain and the Egyptian authorities dealing with their Muslim Brotherhood factions. I also need Islamism defined again for his purposes – does it simply mean Muslims who seek to implement Islamic law whether by violent or democratic means?

I accept David T’s main point that you may have to form alliances for information, but the wages for that information should not be a platform to influence young people in political Islam.  There are plenty of warning signs that no good can come of Sharia. We need a single secular law which allows everybody to live according to their own consciences, not a divinely-ordained law interpreted by clerics.

Imagine if a small sect of British Christians who wanted to outlaw homosexuality and abortion, legally relegate women and non-Christians as perpetual minors, and install their own representatives as a permanent judiciary, developed a militant subgroup which connected to other members of the sect internationally. The police may indeed decide it was for the best to cultivate relationships with the remaining non-militants – but to fund them to promulgate their values would be a betrayal – I don’t think this is too strong a word – of civil rights for women, gay people, and non-Christians. The question is, is this a good analogy? I think David T makes a good case that it is.

Two mathematicians hope they are wrong about the financial crisis

Nassim Taleb (polymath, scholar of randomness, author of Black Swan in which a single observation destroys years of confirmation) and his mentor Benoît Mandelbrot (pioneer of chaos theory and fractal geometry) discuss the financial crisis as an intricate system in a state of turbulence.

Mandelbrot worked on cotton price surges and plunges and concluded that human systems were much more complicated than physical ones (in the ’60s this common-sense observation required empirical proof). Taleb worked on the ’87 stock market crash and analysed the death of hedge funds.

For this crisis they say we don’t have nearly enough data to predict the outcome but they fear the intricacy of the system in combination with ignorance about the system, an outdated economic structure, over-extension of credit and the concentration of the banking system (i.e. risk) with globalising effects. Current models are inadequate. Their prognosis – Taleb’s particularly – is a disaster far worse than the Wall Street crash.

This looks likely do for us this time in a way that it wouldn’t have previously. Taleb argues that a small shortage of oil or agricultural products can lead to huge spikes in price – that we are not as resilient as we used to be because we are ‘over-optimised’ – meaning a consolidation of industry (particularly banking) in the name of efficiency – which exascerbates the impact of mistakes (globalising – aka ‘network’ – effects again). Mandelbrot argues that the system is also turbulent – economic phenomena are highly unpredictable – but he doesn’t know whether the system is inherently turbulent or whether, if not, the circumstances in which, and speed at which, turbulence can occur.

Taleb refers to the recent $700 billion injected into the US economy as pocket-money. He predicts that banks will not lend to hedge-funds, hedge funds will be forced to sell off their positions, prices of other affected entities – supermarkets requesting loans against inventory to make payroll, for example – will spiral downwards, and those will fail.

Both of them say they are waking up at night fearing the future. Neither of them offer answers – perhaps because they are mathematicians – descriptive – and not economists.

This explains the tentativeness of the response. I suppose the implication of what Taleb says is that the efficiency drive inevitable in any market situation must be tempered with the spreading of risk. Changes in regulation, mixed economies and a sense of our economic environment – like our physical one – as an ecology which we need to care for.

To what extent this is an anti-globalisation thesis, I’m not sure. I’ll have to get one of those Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions.

Oh crapola – Globalization is in the Future Publications section.