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Category archive: Society

Friday November 20 2015

On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.

These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders.  Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:

It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.

And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.

AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees.  It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.

The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.

One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition.  I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).

I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.

What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.

I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.

Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.

Indeed.  There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.

Monday October 26 2015

I just sat down to do a BMdotcom posting, about some strange disruption inflicted earlier this evening upon the Royal College of Music by the London premiere of the new James Bond movie.  While composing this posting, I realised that it would do nicely for Samizdata, so there it went.  I don’t do nearly enough for Samizdata these days.

The posting was based on something that Goddaughter 2 (now a student at the RCM) told me.  And she also told me something else, this time not disturbing or of any public significance, but merely rather entertaining.

GD2 now inhabits a big building, full of rooms occupied by her and her fellow students.  Lots of rooms.  Lots of doors.  All the doors looking like each other.

So, one of the ladies in a nearby room to GD2 has a boyfriend staying the night.  Boyfriend needs a piss.  Being a relaxed sort of individual, he strolls to the toilet, naked.  It is deep into the night, and he expects not to encounter anyone, and he does not, at first.  But then, problem.  Which door is the door to the room of his lady friend?  He does not remember.  About four different wrong doors are opened, complete with people behind them, most of whom were surprised but amused, before the correct door is found.

If this was a movie, that would only have been the beginning of the mayhem and the reactions to being woken up by a naked man at the door would have been far more extreme than they actually were.  But for me, this was mayhem enough to be very entertaining.  Boyfriend wasn’t bothered.  Like I say, a relaxed sort of individual.  And no harm at all came of this little nocturnal drama.  Just a mildly entertaining blog posting, or so I hope.

Wednesday October 21 2015

imageIndeed.  It was front page news yesterday in the Evening Standard.  I’m guessing that the way Renzo Piano and Shardeveloper Irving Sellar have been emitting verbiage about how Paddington is now “soulless and has no life” may be what got this story onto the front page:

West London’s tallest skyscraper will be at the heart of dramatic plans for a £1 billion transformation of Paddington by the property tycoon who built The Shard.

Images of a 65-storey “skinny Shard” of apartments, offices, restaurants and a roof garden designed by Renzo Piano - the Italian “starchitect” behind western Europe’s tallest building - were unveiled today ahead of a public exhibition.

Irvine Sellar, chairman of Shard developers Sellar Property Group, said although Paddington was one of London’s most important gateways it had been overlooked for decades.

He said: “At the moment you only go to Paddington for two reasons - to catch a train or to see someone in hospital. It is soulless and has no life and yet it is only five minutes from Hyde Park and seven or eight minutes from Marble Arch.

“It is a fantastic location but it is stuck in a Fifties time-warp. We intend to create a place for people to go, where they will want to live, work, eat and shop.”

I imagine many current Paddingtonians actually quite like living in a “Fifties time-warp” that has been “overlooked” by the likes of Piano and Sellar “for decades”.

I of course love the idea of this new Big Thing.  I hugely admire Renzo Piano.  His new tower and its new surroundings, and in the meantime the process of building it all, will turn Paddington into the kind of place I will want to visit far more often than I do now.  And by 2020 there’ll be another London Big Thing for me to observe and photo from afar.  So I hope this goes ahead.  (Part of the reason for this posting is to remind me to check out that public exhibition that they mention.)

But these guys sure know how to talk about locals in a way calculated to piss them off.

Monday October 05 2015

Photoed by me last night, at Southwark tube station:


Next to the ticket barrier at Southwark tube there are a number of these little history lessons, of which this was my favourite.  This is the kind of thing you can usually chase up quickly on the internet, and find a fuller account of.  But, my googling abilities are such that I can find no reference to this fish-discouragement story.  Anyone?

Sunday September 27 2015

How much you learn from something that you just read depends not only on what it says, but on what you knew before you read it.  And for me, this short paragraph cleared up several big blurs in my knowledge of Olden Times:

The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable.  Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible.  Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could ‘make a hole in the wall of Babylon’.

That’s from the second page (page 8) of the first chapter of Agincourt, by Juliet Barket.

That bit in school history where they explained what a knight was and what knights did and how the knights did it … well, I missed it.  And ever since, everyone talking about such things has assumed that I knew it very clearly, when I didn’t.  It’s so obvious.  How would someone like me not know it?

Oh, I sort of knew it, from having seen a hundred films where film actors did this, in film battles and in film tournaments.  But I had not realised that it was a military innovation like the phalanx or gunpowder or the tank or the airplane or the atom bomb.  I had not properly realised that the essence of Knighthood was collective action rather than mere individual virtue, the point being that it was the former which required the latter.  And I had not realised that it was what won the Battle of Hastings.  Or, even more interestingly, I had not realised that it was what won the First Crusade.  (After which, I’m guessing that the Muslims then copied it.

Medieval society did not give rise to Knights.  The Knights technique of fighting gave rise to Medieval society.

I remember reading Tom Holland’s Millennium, and being presented right at the end with the result of the First Crusade, without there having been any mention (that I recall) of how a European military innovation was what won it.  (That doesn’t mean Holland does not mention this, merely that I don’t remember him mentioning it.)

So, at the heart of the European years between Hastings (1066) and Agincourt (1415 (when I now suppose the Knights to have met their nemesis in the form of the next big military innovation, the Archers (hence the picture on the front of Agincourt))) was a technique of fighting.  Like I say, I sort of knew this, but have never before isolated this fact in my head, as a Big Fact.  Instead, I have spent my whole life being rather confused about this Big Fact, reading a thousand things where the Big Fact was assumed, but never actually explained.

Why did I not correct this confusion decades ago?  Because, not knowing it properly, I had not realised what a huge confusion it was.

Sunday August 30 2015

I just watched a recording I made of a BBC TV show called Proms Extra, which is a chat show that responds to and flags up London’s immediately past and immediately future Promenade Concerts.  They were asking themselves whether they minded clapping in between movements, in connection with a performance of The Planets, in which this had happened..  The assembled commentators agreed that they did not mind at all.

Two thoughts from me about this.

First, the assumption seems to be that people clap in between movements because they don’t know they’re not supposed to.  But I think it is much more knowing than this.  I think the audience has changed its mind about this.

There has been a huge movement in music-making to achieve an “authentic” sound, by which is meant the sort of sound made by the first performers of the pieces.  Well, why not more authentic audiences?  Time was when “classical” audiences would clap in between movements without hesitation.  Sometimes they would yell for encores, of symphonic movements, before the symphony had even finished, just like at the opera.  That in-between-movements clapping is now happening (has been for quite a while actually) at the Proms tells me that the current fashion for clapping in among big multi-movement pieces is a very knowing decision, a very musically educated decision.  We are not “supposed” to do this?  Well guess what, we have decided that we will do this.

It’s not only this, but I am sure that this is part of it.

Personally, I think that not clapping something like the tumultuous third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, for instance, seems very unnatural.

However second, there is no doubt that this new convention, if new convention it will be, has not yet been fully established.  Sometimes it happens, sometimes not, and quite often in a rather tentative, awkward and rather indecisive way.  So, it must surely sometimes make life a little difficult for performers.

What if you have just given what you reckon was a tumultuously great performance of a movement which ends in a manner than just begs to be greeted with a round of applause, and there is silence?  In the older days, of strict inter-movement silence, fine.  I’m not finished.  But now?  Hm.  Did they not like it?  And, after a bit of silence, will they relent, and start clapping, just as I am starting the next movement?

The older regime of silence in between movements was at least a rule, which everyone stuck to and which newcomers quickly learned, from all the dirty looks they got if they broke the rule.  And performers could either pause or press on immediately, confident that no clapping would interrupt whatever effects they were seeking to create.

Thursday July 23 2015

Said I to myself - said I, on the 10th of this month:

I need to get out less, and this weather is not helping.

Tomorrow, the weather will be helping very much:


This is perfect.  My life today, in the last few days, and for the last few weeks, has been one mad social whirl after another, my contented solitude being having been violated seemingly every other evening and sometimes more often even than that, which is all fun and all that, but I find that an evening out puts a blight on creativity for the entire day, because what if I start something, want to finish it, but then don’t have time to, because I have a social whirl to attend and to get ready for and to find my way to and to find out about finding my way to?  Last night I whirled out to watch theatrical stuff in an unfamiliar and transportationally complicated part of town with a theatrical friend.  Tonight, I face another social whirl, to meet Perry II.  Every time I go out I take photos, but because of all this going out I have no time to show them to you people or not with the sort of insightful commentary that I want to attach to them without which what’s the point? - They’re just pictures.

So tomorrow (a day during which I have nothing else planned), I will stay in all day, and try (although I promise nothing) to do here a mammoth day of catch-up blogging, showing you a tiny fraction of the pictures I have been taking lately, all properly explained, and anything else I’ve been meaning to put here for some time that I decide to put here tomorrow, in not one, not two, but many postings.

We shall see.

Saturday July 18 2015

Incoming, this morning, 11.37 am:

Hi brian


How are you?

Oh you know, much the same as ever.

My name is Chrystal. I am 25 years old. I am from Chongqing. I like your page. How often do you visit the site? I really want to communicate with you. I am good at Thai massage and really like to eat fish. What about you? I guess that we will have many topics to talk about.

Do you have some social networks? I will be waiting for your letter.

Best wishes

I was pondering my reply to Chrystal, asking for clarification about this site I am supposed to be visiting, but going on to say that she really is a bit young for me.

But then, incoming, at 12.12pm:

Hi brian

How are you?

My name is Eugenia. I am 25 years old. I am from Chongqing. I like your page. How often do you visit the site? I really want to communicate with you. I am good at Thai massage and really like to eat fish. What about you? I guess that we will have many topics to talk about.

Do you have some social networks? I will be waiting for your letter.

Best wishes

Uncanny.  Truly, truly uncanny.  They even both said “hi brian” is the same giant blue letters.  What are the odds?  Presumably, I should continue with the composition of my reply, and send a copy to each of them.  It’s almost as if one of them isn’t a real person.  Or even – the horror – neither of them is.  Does some terrible middle aged, male, ugly criminal want to know more about me, that he can then use to his advantage and to my disadvantage?  If Eugenia hadn’t copied Chrystal’s email to me, these suspicious thoughts might never have occurred to me.

Seriously though, these sorts of (and all the other sorts of) bullshit emails pollute email, by making you assume that any email from anyone which seems even slightly off key is bollocks, even if it isn’t.  You even think it may be bollocks if the person it’s from is someone that you know.  Because, maybe someone else stole that person’s name, or just guessed it or chose it at random.  I can remember when it actually made sense to trust incoming emails from strangers, unless they were obvious bullshit.  Those days are long gone.  At first, email seemed to create a bright new world of candour and of quick and easy communication.  But emails like the ones above clog up the pipes.  They may be a joke, but they are a joke we could all do without.

Wednesday July 01 2015

Yesterday I wrote here about the twenty-first century social obligation to use a mobile phone when meeting up with someone, because of the problems this solves and despite the problems this creates.  Hence the need for me to take my mobile phone with me when going photowalkabout with G(od)D(aughter) 1.

But, on Saturday evening, the evening before GD1 and I went on our walk, I was very nearly deprived of my mobile phone, by which I mean deprived of the ability to make use of it.

What happened was that, while I was also out and about on Saturday evening, a baritone-singing student friend of mezzo-soprano-singing student G(od)D(aughter) 2, sought the help of GD2.  His mobile had run out of puff and needed a recharge.  GD2 uses an iPhone, but Baritone has an Android mobile, so Baritone could not use GD2’s recharger.  What to do?

Between them they decided that I and my Android recharger might be the answer.  I guess that GD2 then rang me on my immobile home number and discovered that I was out.  Then, knowing my aversion and incompetence as a mobile phoner, and especially as a reliable receiver of incoming mobile messages, she did not not attempt to ring me on my mobile.  Or, she did try my mobile and I did not answer.

For various reasons that I still don’t understand and which in any case do not now matter, Baritone ended up coming to my home, armed with GD2’s key to my home, and having made his entrance, he “borrowed” my mobile phone recharger.

I want to emphasise that the above quote marks are not sneer quotes.  They are confusion quotes.

For, what exactly does it mean to “borrow” a mobile phone charger?  What GD2 meant, when she assured Baritone that it would okay for him to “borrow” my phone charger, was that it would be okay for him to charge up his mobile phone, using my charger at my home.  As indeed it would have been.

However, Baritone misunderstood this assurance to mean that it would be okay for him to “borrow” my charger, as in: take it away and make use it throughout Saturday evening, in other places besides mine.  I don’t believe that Baritone would have done this without that assurance from GD2, as he understood it.  After all, whereas charging up your mobile in situ is socially very okay, taking a charger away without permission is surely a twenty-first century social gaff of the first order.  But, Baritone thought that he had permission to do this otherwise unacceptable thing.  GD2 is adamant that she gave no such permission, but I believe that Baritone genuinely thought that this unusual procedure was, in the light of GD2’s assurance, okay.  He made this clear in a written thankyou note he left on my desk.

And it normally would have been okay.  Had I not been going on an expedition the following day with GD1, then the charger could have made its way back to my home some time on or around Sunday, and all would have been fine.  But, for all the reasons that were explained in the previous posting, I needed that charger by quite early on Sunday morning at the latest.

So, despite GD2s protestations, I acquit Baritone of wrongdoing.

But then again, Baritone is a baritone.  And baritones often behave very badly, quite often at the expense of notably virtuous mezzo-sopranos.  So maybe I’m being too kind.

All was speedily corrected by GD2, who was rather insulted by the profuseness of my thanks when she brought my charger back at 8am on Sunday morning.  Of course I got your charger back.  (See what I mean about virtuous mezzo-sopranos.)

It was just as well that I did get it back.  In addition to using my mobile for all that meeting up at the start of the day, I also used it for its map app, and to tell me how Surrey were doing against Gloucester.  Very well, as it happened.  Nothing like your sports team winning to keep you going when you are knackered.

However, I now understand better why people have cameras with mobile phones built into them.  What with my bag and all, I was having constantly to choose between knowing where I was, and photoing it.

Surrey are on a bit of a roll just now.  This evening they beat Gloucester again, in a T20 slog at the Oval.  Surrey needed a mere six runs from the last four balls.  So, how did they get them?  The last four balls went: wicket, dot, dot, six.  In English that’s: probable Surrey victory, possible Surrey victory, almost impossible Surrey victory, Surrey victory.  I got that off my laptop, but I could have got it from my mobile, if I had been out and about.  Provided it hadn’t run out of puff.

Tuesday June 30 2015

As everyone else in the world found out several years before I did, a mobile phone is now an essential part of the kit you need to meet up with somebody.  So, I made a point of having my mobile with me when G(od)D(aughter) 1 and I met up at Manor House tube last Sunday.

When I arrived there, at our predetermined time, I discovered that Manor House tube has three widely dispersed exits to choose from.  Now you may say: “But how many ticket barriers does it have?  One.” You are right, but what if the mobile phone reception at the ticket barrier, this ticket barrier being below ground, does not work?  I needed to be out in the open.

Mobile phones cause plans to be more muddy and last-minute than they used to be, because that is what these plans can now be.  GD1 and I had hoped that “the exit of Manor House tube” would be unambiguous, but we took a chance on that, because we would both have our mobile phones with us, and we could make it up as we went along if things got more complicated.

I picked one of the three exits and looked around for GD1.  No sign.  I left a phone message and a text message for GD1 saying to her: I am in the Manor Park View Cafe, which is next to the big gate into Finsbury Park, which by then I was.  Fifteen minutes later, I rang again, and eventually got through to GD1.  She said: “I just sent you a text.” Ah.  She was running a bit late, which, now that we all have mobiles, is okay because now such information is easily communicated.

Anyway we duly met up in the Manor Park Cafe, and we consumed consumables while deciding to have our walk anyway, despite the weather being vile, but also deciding that we would wait inside the Manor Park View Cafe until it stopped actually raining.

What might have happened had we not had any mobile telephony at our disposal, I do not know.  The old method, which is that you decide beforehand to meet at place X at time Y, used to work okay.  Whoever got there first waited, and whoever was second said sorry, with whatever degree of sincerity seemed appropriate.  But now, if you don’t bring a mobile with you, and if you don’t make constant use of it, you are misbehaving.

I brought my mobile with me to meet up with GD1, but at a critical moment I failed to consult it.  “Getting old” will definitely be one of the categories below.

Monday June 29 2015

The question mark in my title is because I do not know whether or not this bench is unusual.  Is it truly odd?  Or did it merely seem odd to me, when I photoed it earlier this evening, because I noticed something I had never noticed before in such a bench, but which is actually not that unusual?

Anyway, this is the bench:


And what struck me as odd is those extra arms, dividing the bench into three individual spots.  There are other seats like this, but I have never seen a wooden bench of this very trad sort, with those very untrad internal arms added.  To me this was and is very novel.  I found myself thinking: Is there something particularly London (It says “City of London” on the bench) about this, to me, very odd arrangement?  Is this some sort of device to guarantee not being touched by the people who sit next to you, perhaps because there are three such people and they squeeze up against you?  And is that very London?  Something you definitely would not find in other more socially easygoing, less atomistic, places?

Also, somehow, given those extra arms, I expect also extra legs.

I encountered these benches (there were several, including the one I was sitting on when I photoed this other one) outside the Museum of London in the Barbican area of the City of London.  In case you wanted to know.

Wednesday June 17 2015

I don’t often go to pubs, because of the noise.  But Goddaughter 2, raised in France, wanted to try eating a pie in a pub, so we went to the Barley Mow in Horseferry Road to see what they had.  They had pies, which proved very tasty.

Two particular circumstances made the evening pure perfection for me, besides the pure perfection of Goddaughter 2’s company I mean.

First, they had the latest England v NZ cricket ODI on the telly, and I got to watch the conclusion of England’s outstanding and outstandingly successful run chase that has just levelled the ODI series 2-2.  And second, this being the twenty-first century, GD2 had her smartphone with her and was texting with all her friends.  I hope you aren’t bored because of me doing all this texting, she said.  No no, I said, gazing happily at the giant telly screen, you just carry on my dear.  Don’t mind me.  As I said to her when we were leaving, had I been asked to chose the perfect hour and more to spend in a pub this week, then given that this pub had the cricket on the go, and given that my ever-delightful companion was apologising for neglecting me and communing instead with her smartphone, this hour and more would have been it.

There was noise but it didn’t matter.  We didn’t do much in the way of conversation, in other words we didn’t shout much at each other, although we did a bit because it wasn’t actually that noisy.  But we were mostly doing two separate things that did not require peace and quiet to work.  GD2 didn’t need silence to read and write her texts.  I didn’t need any television cricket commentators to tell me that England were batting up a storm.

As we left I asked GD2 if she reckoned the social media have made it better for women in pubs.  She reckoned yes they probably have.  If men in pubs are diverted by men’s stuff, like cricket on the telly, then any women they have dragged along with them are now able to entertain themselves, instead of just sitting there moping and getting bored.  Or, if the men were a bit more gracious than that, they would force themselves to ignore the men’s stuff and do conversation, despite their strong inclinations.  Also not ideal.  So, social media definitely equals progress.  And if the women are distracted by women’s stuff, then the men can play with their smartphones.

One of the very few uses I have found for my own smartphone, aside from telling me where I am and where to go when I am out and about, is acquainting myself with the latest cricket scores when I am out and about.

Wednesday May 20 2015

Here is a cropped detail of a photo I took on Monday, of a rather strange hair style:


The internet knows everything, but my image-googling skills are not good enough for me to learn what is going on here.  I have seen this kind of style before, so this is no mere individual eccentricity.  There is a group of guys who all style their hair like this.  But who are they?  What else, if anything, to they believe in, besides believing in having their hair done in this strange way?  Anyone?

Sunday May 17 2015

A while back, I showed you this photo, and mentioned how a sight like that often gets me going, photographically speaking.  That one certainly got me going that day.

Here is one of the more fun snaps I then took, of a hair drying machine that looks like an alien robot about to crush your head with a pair of cymbals, ...:


... or perhaps it is about to hug you.  You decide.

And here, taken only moments later, is a picture of a celebrity (the sort of celebrity that nobody has heard of) being papparized by a bunch of big-arse paps in big-arse trousers, outside what I assume is some kind of club, just off of Seven Dials.


When you get into that state of photographic ecstasy, that’s the kind of thing that seems to present itself to you.

Who knows?  Maybe the cymbal playing alien robot had just been drying Madam Celeb’s hair.  It does have some rather artful curls in it, that have the look of having been done to her, so to speak.

Nothing wrong with her arse.

Monday April 06 2015

Last night, I ventured out to dinner at Chateau Samizdata, hoping that my seeming recovery from flu would not be thrown into reverse.  I felt okay all last night, and I still do.  Not fully recovered, but okay.  But, my sense of taste was and is a mess, in fact now I think about it, it has been for several days.  I have always thought that I have good taste.  Don’t we all?  But just now, I don’t.  Things taste somewhat nasty and metallic.

A little sickness-googling got me to this website, which tells me what would seem to have been happening.  This is quite common, it would seem.

Dinner was great, really superb.  Thank you Adriana.  Even with my taste-buds misfiring, I could still tell that this was fabulously tasty food.  But I couldn’t really appreciate it properly.  It was rather like listening to great orchestral music, but in the Royal Festival Hall.

At least I was able to photo the food being photoed:


Nowadays, this being the twenty first century and all, I think this is the test of whether your cooking at least looks like it will be good.  Do your guests get out their smartphones and take snaps?  If so, success.  If no, fail.