Friday, November 21, 2008

Jack Straw gets knickers in twist

According to the BBC, Jack Straw has personally intervened to order the cancellation of comedy classes at Whitemoor prison. Apparently they are "totally unacceptable".

He says, correctly, "Prisons should be places of punishment and reform, and providing educational, training and constructive pursuits is an essential part of this."

And then he goes on: "But the types of courses available, and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate in every prison.... There is a crucial test: can the recreational, social and educational classes paid for out of taxpayers' money (or otherwise) be justified to the community?"

Prison officials will be reminded, we're told, of the need for the courses taken by prisoners to pass the test of public acceptability. Now, maybe there is an issue about public understanding, as exemplified by the Daily Mail's (comic) attempt to capitalise on the issue: "Jail forced to scrap comedy course for Al Qaeda terrorist" - yes, one of the beneficiaries would have been Zia Ul Haq who plotted bomb attacks on London. What would we rather have him doing, I wonder, sulking in his cell thinking of more ways to blow strangers up, or suddenly discovering he has a talent for making jokes, and another way to make people take notice of him. The organisers' justification for the classes is that they boost teamwork and communication skills, and again Zia Ul Haq's intended targets might just benefit from him discovering that working *with* people is a lot more fun than working against them. You never know, he might even discover a truer Islam. Though that of course would be of no concern to the Daily Mail. Or, by extension, to Jack Straw, whose decision is surely not based on any criterion other than keeping not too far left of the Mail. In that he is destined to fail, as the Mail will foam with outrage if a prisoner gets so much as a pencil to write his name with.

If comedy is not a fit subject for prisoners to study, then nothing is. Comedy is not just about pratfalls and belly laughs. It's about timing and teamwork and it's about understanding the times we live in. Comedians who don't mine a seam of the society they live in don't get very far. Comedy twins with tragedy in its observation of the human race in all its glories and its perversities, and it can at its best get deep into the human soul. Which is by common consent the best episode of Blackadder? It's Goodbyeee..., the one where they die. And that is no isolated episode. It stands in a long tradition of acute observation by gentle piss taking. There was a cartoonist of the First World War, Bruce Bairnsfather, whose work was mistrusted by the powers that be at first but his popularity with the troops saw to it that he kept going. His best known cartoon is "If you knows of a better 'ole, go to it", but my favourite is one I can't find a reproduction of. A British soldier sits at a table in the open air. Behind him is the ruin of a farmhouse, around him are blasted trees, a shattered well, a smashed wagon and dead animals. Smoke rises from broken walls. He is writing a letter. "Dear Mum, We are staying at a farm...".

Comedy pierces the balloon, shatters the illusions of the egomaniac and the violent. What better way is there for Zia Ul Haq to learn an alternative to the nihilism that's been injected into his soul? But, if we were to allow that, we'd have to acknowledge that people can change, and in Daily Mail territory that is the ultimate sin.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reworking history - the Versailles Treaty

A good example of the constant reworking of history. For this year's Armistice Day the BBC carries an article by Professor Gerard De Groot revisiting the reasons for the rise of Nazism in Germany, and suggesting that the settlement at the end of World War One is not as much to blame as is usually suggested. The principal reason, he says, for Germany's abilityto act on its resentment was the decision of the USA to absent itself from European affairs - isolationism.

Perhaps this interpretation is influenced by the fact of America's current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ultimate interventionist wars. Perhaps the issue of whether or not to intervene has been made so salient by these wars that it influences our historical thinking, and makes us re-evaluate the reasons behind the rise of Nazi Germany.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading history 2

Another gem from Brown and Duguid, p 187:

"The Irish writer Flann O'Brien imagined a book handling service for the culturally insecure. For a fee, book handlers would crease the spines of your books, turn down pages, mark passages, put intelligent comments in the margins, or, for a slightly greater sum, insert tickets from operas or classic plays as bookmarks."

Apart from the image it creates, and particularly the idea of a price differentiated service, this is a good marker for the handling of historical evidence. I am not suggesting to budding historians that they should view every document or item as inherently false, designed to give a wrong impression, but just that every document or piece of evidence should be read with a spirit of critical curiosity. One need not assume that an opera ticket in a book is designed to mislead, but also one cannot assume that it means that the owner of the book went to that opera. And if he did, one cannot assume that he was "an opera goer" as opposed to someone who just went to that opera, and maybe slept right through it. The ticket and the book must be examined more critically than that, with attention to the possible and probable explanations, and to the context provided by other similar pieces of evidence.

Reading history

While reading Brown and Duguid's "Social Life of Information", I came across this brilliant example by Paul Duguid of witting and unwitting testimony (2002 edition, p173).

"I was working in an archive of a 250 year old business, reading correspondence from about the time of the American Revolution. Incoming letters were stored in wooden boxes about the size of a standard Styrofoam picnic cooler, each containing a fair portion of dust as old as the letters. As opening a letter triggered a brief asthma attack, I wore a scarf tied over my nose and mouth. Despite my bandit's attire, my nose ran, my eyes wept and I coughed, wheezed and snorted. I longed for a digital system that would hold the information from the letters and leave paper and dust behind.

"One afternoon another historiam came to work on a similar box. He read barely a word. Instead he picked out bundles of letters and, in a move that sent my sinuses into shock, ran each letter beneath his nose and took a deep breath, at times almost inhaling the letter itself but always getting a good dose of dust. Sometimes, after a particularly profound sniff, he would open the letter, glance at it briefly, make a note and move on.

"Choking behind my mask, I asked him what he was doing. He was, he told me, a medical historian. (A profession to avoid if you have asthma.) He was documenting outbreaks of cholera. When that disease occurred in a town in the eighteenth century, all letters from that town were disinfected with vinegar to prevent the disease from spreading. By sniffing for the faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letters, he was able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks.

"His research threw new light on the letters I was reading. Now cheery letters telling customers and creditors that all was well, business thriving and the future rosy read a little differently if a whiff of vinegar came off the page. Then the correspondent's cheeriness might be an act to prevent a collapse of business confidence - unaware that he or she would be betrayed by a scent of vinegar."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Course on a stick

Arrived in the post today. The whole of B201 contents on a memory stick.

I wonder what size stick would be needed to put the whole OU on a stick.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cézanne's Leda and the Swan

Cézanne's version of Leda and the Swan, eloquently captioned by one of the students at my first AA100 tutorial:

"Don't look at me like that. I haven't got any more bread."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Innovation and resistance

I'm currently reading Brown and Duguid "The Social Life of Information", one of those books that periodically comes along and kickstarts the creative juices. It's full of telling anecdotes,including Bell and the telephone. The spread of the telephone, once invented, didn't just happen. It had to be marketed. Bell tried to sell patents to Western Union in the USA and the Post Office in the UK and failed in both cases. Neither company understood its usefulness. Brown and Duguid attribute this partly at least to the power of experts. The telegraph needed experts to mediate it, clerks at both ends who could encode and decode the written word into Morse code (the original codecs, one could say). I don't agree with that: the operating clerks, who were the experts B&D mention, were not in a position of sufficient power within their organisations to influence a decision like that. And if the organisations had been looking properly they should have seen the potential for expert management e.g. of cabling, switching equipment and switchboards. I would think it was more likely the standard myopia of comfortable organisations, resistance in the Argyris sense.

So Bell had to do marketing. He put phones in hotel rooms for people to ring reception with so that people who used hotels got used to them and could see their benefits. He put phones into offices for internal communication, knowing that sooner or later the penny would drop and they would realise the usefulness of the phone for external communication. To go beyond the work and hotel sectors of the population he put phones at lunch counters so that people having lunch would see other people using them, and so on, and so on.

It's a very good lesson in the way organisations respond to innovation. And it also shows that Bell knew a thing or two about marketing.