Never mind driving: how about the vote?

Saudi Women in Full VeilsA perpetual debate rages over the role of women in Islam. The extreme Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia is held as an example of the faith’s essential sexism, as evidenced by the state’s insistence that women cover themselves in public. Moderate Muslims argue that proponents of Wahhabism and Sharia law should not be taken to speak for all Islam, which I agree with. They also argue that the veil is not necessarily oppressive, a point on which I am not so sure.

Commenting for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent on the slow pace of change in Saudi, Gerald Butt discusses that other well known ‘test case’, the fact that Saudi women are not allowed to drive. Apparently, King Abdullah has contributed to a debate by saying that one day, this may change.

A member of the all-male Majlis al-Shura – the 150-seat unelected consultative council – caused something of a rumpus. Muhammad al-Zulfa pointed out there was nothing under Islam or the constitution that justified the ban on women driving, and the council should discuss ways of lifting it.

A heated debate ensued. Even King Abdullah found himself involved. In response to a question on American television, he said he thought a day would eventually come when Saudi women could drive.

While this is welcome, I cannot help thinking that they seem to have their priorities wrong. As a caption in Butt’s article reminds us, Saudi women cannot vote. This undermines all of Islam, demeans women, and offends everyone. Driving licences can wait – there’s only one important right that Saudi women need. Once they have the vote, perhaps they can decide for themselves whether or not they need to drive…

Creative Destruction

Isn’t it funny how everyone, everywhere thinks their culture is under attack, eh? The Islamic States fear the coming of Western Imperialism, while the Christian West complains that their time-honoured traditions are being undermined by an unjustified favouritism to alien minorities. (via CY).

I suggest this is because people know their own culture, with all its nuances and foibles, better than any other (indeed, that’s true almost by definition). They also see competing cultures as monoliths that could not fail to obliterate their own creed and traditions, given half the chance. They see themselves as the quaint corner shop, battling against a rampaging Tesco. For them, the idea of multiculturalism is an anathema. It opens up your precious culture – your soul! – to a barrage of attack.

Andrew Neil has some bad news for these people. Unfortunately, it seems the global economy we have made for ourselves has already ripped open our culture for all to attack. Our way of life is left as bare and as vulnerable to market forces as a independent high-street shop.

This week The Business publishes Neil’s lecture What China can teach the West. He says that Europe, Britain included, has a myopic and stagnant attitude to governance and economics. This will result in Europe being eclipsed by Asia, not only in the realm of economics, but of education and culture too.

It was Neil’s commentary on Hayek’s “evolutionary rationalism” that caught my eye. Institutions, especially governments and economic systems, should not be a product of deliberate design. Instead, systems should follow an evolutionary path, the product of countless human decisions. A free-market, left to its own accord.

Though Hayek clearly preferred evolution and the market to revolution and central planning, he was not a small-c conservative … [He] had no truck with those who sought to preserve the status quo, existing hierarchies or to block change. He supported the market for the very reason that it is disruptive; he relished Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”.

Neil’s implication is that economic and cultural influence are intertwined. Only the briefest glance towards the USA is enough to convince most people on this point. So presumably, these economic ideas can be applied to cultures too. In this sense, we can define multiculturalism as ‘the cultural marketplace’, a willfull encouragement of healthy competition. Give individuals a free set of alternative choices, and they will make their cultural and even ethical decisions. The societies and cultures to which they belong will mutate a little.

Should we be concerned that cultures are open to unfetterted attack from the marketplace? If you are confident in your culture, then there is no need to worry. It is a strong product and the marketplace will reward you with a thousand years of prosperity. But if your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive. Protectionism and regulation will not work, Hayek would say. Your culture will stagnate and adherents will fall by the wayside.

Concerned that your daughter is offending your family honour by having a boyfriend? (via DK). Well, change your honour system, because it’s not testing well with the target market. Bothered that people are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? Why not simply change the meaning of Christmas, to pull in the faithful? Better still, consider a merger. Take the best bits from both cultures, and sack any superfluous traditions that are holding you back.

Update: Over at The Thames, Jenks considers how our global business culture is developing. Considering how people choose to do business is a welcome bridge between the economic evolution proposed by Hayek, and and the cultural evolution I’ve been pondering here. Meanwhile at Pickled Politics, a debate rages about who, exactly, are the victims in the race riots that have plagued Sydney this week.


My girlfriend suspects I am having an affair.

She thinks this, because she often walks in when I am typing messages to someone called Sunny. While this mysterious character will no doubt be flattered by the implication, its not him I’m obsessed with, just his RSS feed. His, and those belonging to about thirty other people too.

When I mentioned in August that I would be inaugurating a blog (or a “blog” as I would have called it then), my girlfriend was slightly offended. Why communicate online when there is a whole city of real people to talk to? Why sacrifice human contact, and body language, to have a debate with someone you will never meet, never see, never know? My response was to reassure her that I was not seeking to replace proper conversations. I pointed out that we gravitate towards people with similar opinions and outlook, and it would be a tragedy if there were friends of mine I hadn’t met yet. Through the Internet I could find them, even if by some ridiculous mistake of fortune they happened to live in Nebraska. Using my website to broadcast my thoughts into the ether, I too would be famous for fifteen people.

The stigma associated with meeting people online (for debate, love, or friendship) reduces every day, but I don’t believe the Internet presents a threat to offline, non-virtual (i.e. real) interaction. Over at The Triforce, where the authors are famous for fifty people apparently, Ste Curran tells us why Internet communities are better in the flesh:

Meeting someone online is a bit like telling a ghost story. It is meant to be real, but all parties involved should know it is also essentially fictional. Everything you read on a forum, in an IM, in an email; each of these fragmented bursts of data, or microscopic-essays, or simple streams of consciousness; each of them is a representation of a single instant in someone’s life. The person producing them is communicating by sending a series of snapshots of themselves, and stringing together those snapshots misses out a big piece of what makes them them.

So the signature, the avatar, the email address you hold up as this person is not quite the same as firstname lastname behind the keyboard. It’s not they’re picking themselves out as something else with objective cynicism … The person you’re typing to is the tone of their voice, the way their eyes dart, the way their clothes fall, that fractional gasp when they’re surprised. It is in everything they don’t know about themselves.

Again, because that is super important: they are not hiding. Anything but. Something about the internet means people are more free with their conversation there than they might be if they’d known you for months in real life. They are telling you things in private they haven’t told their best friends. Even forums where you talk about nothing bring you so close. Read between the lines in the nonsense and you can build up incredibly detailed internal profiles of your online friends. You’ll still never really know them until the moment you touch.

To be honest, I’m rather wary of quoting a whole three paragraphs of Triforce material. Since I have met them online and in person, I can tell you with authority that fuelling their egos further is probably not a good idea. So no-one tell them, OK?

Thank the Lords

Common sense and decency prevails, as the House of Lords rules that evidence gained through torture cannot be used in court.

Lord Carswell

The duty not to countenance the use of torture by admission of evidence so obtained in judicial proceedings must be regarded as paramount and that to allow its admission would shock the conscience, abuse or degrade the proceedings and involve the state in moral defilement

The ineffectiveness of torture as a tool for anything has been well argued… but a couple of quick observations. First, the “ticking bomb scenario” is an unhelpful hypothetical construct. As David Luban says in the Washington Post, we give it credence only because we see so many examples of it in Hollywood. (via Clive). If it gets to the stage where a bomb is about to go off, and the only way we can discover it is by electrocuting a terrorists testicles… then I would say we’re already pretty much fucked anyway.

The other problem with the “ticking bomb” hypothetical is that it ignores the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into torturing people. If the CIA really are scheduling flights across the atlantic in order to torture their prisoners, then their intelligence gathering is clearly not being done with any sense of urgency.

Update: The New Republic carries Andrew Sullivan’s fantastic article against torture, a response to Charles Krauthammer’s apology for it. Over at Great Britain, Not Little England, there are links to further discussion, referencing Craig Murray and the Uzbekistani example.

Encountering the 'Submerged'

Last Monday I had cause to be working in Glasgow, in a theatre just south of the Clyde. At the end of the day, I planned to take a train back to the city centre. I arrived at the station ten minutes after someone had committed suicide, jumping onto the tracks. The police and ambulance had arrived moments before me, and had not yet been able to remove the body. He lay there, lifeless and nameless like a mannequin. All last week I searched all the news media for an account of what happened, but there was nothing.

With no chance of a train, the tube was a better option, and I was soon in the city centre once more. Just outside Queen Street station, I met a man with a red face and no teeth selling the Big Issue magazine. The magazine was giving away some free post-cards, so I bought his last copy. I had intended to send a postcard to some friends I had stayed with over the weekend, but they turned out to be a promotional pack for Amnesty International, who are running a campaign of awareness of domestic violence. Did you know that on average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she seeks help from outside authorities, and that every day two women are killed by a current or former partner?

Not for the first time, a doctor friend was telling me today about the evidence of domestic abuse she sees in hospital. She told me stories of young women who conceal pregancies from violent partners or disapproving parents. Others manage to live for months without even realising they are pregnant. They arrive in the hospital with pains, and despite not menstruating and the appearance of a huge, baby shaped lump in their abdomen, they insist that they cannot be pregnant. They only have to wait a month before unwelcome contractions prove them wrong.

Surely the biological facts of the matter are so obvious as to be unmistakeable? Apparently not, said my friend. For social or religious reasons, some live in denial, scared to admit even to themselves a fact that would bring shame upon them. Others have a more clinical mind-block, a psycological refusal to see the truth in a manner similar to anorexia.

I think these are relevant digressions, because they are all examples of someone so far removed from our own daily lives, that they could be living in another country. And yet we all live in the same country. Men so sad they will jump in front of a train; men without teeth or a roof over their heads; women suffering and dying in silence, unnoticed; and girls so illiterate they do not understand what will happen if they have unprotected sex. I am reminded of a passage in Fergal Keane’s book A Stranger’s Eye (2000), where talks of the ‘submerged’, people, those whose lives are so far removed from the rest of the country, that they seem to no longer undersatnd us, nor we them:

For a few weeks in a Leeds courtroom, the story of her life and death illuminated a parellel universe in which young men, women and children lived not so much on the wrong side of the tracks, but far below the surface of the nation. Submerged. The majority did not end up killing or engaging in senseless violence, nor could they in any sense be said to inhabit the same moral universe as those who murdered Anglea Pearce.

But they did live in a submerged world. It was there all around us, in every city in the country, a world of unexplained departures and missed connections, a great, quiet tradgedy that went stalking down the generations. When it spilled onto our front pages – a child dead from neglect or cruelty, a frightening drug statistic – we took notice, we were shocked. But the waves always closed over and the underwater silence resumed.

Elegance and clarity

I really don’t know what all the fuss was about.

Say five people go to a weekend music festival together. At various times during the weekend, they pay for groceries and travel expenses. R pays £3 for margerine, £3 for electricity, totalling £6. L pays £17.50 for some groceries. E spends £10 in the shop and another £2 for some communal painkillers to ease hangovers, a total of £12. K spends £7.50 on groceries and £6 on electricity cards, which totals £13.50. S pays for car hire at £113 for the weekend, then £18 for parking, £15 on petrol, and £54 on groceries, a total of £200 exactly.

That means we’ve spent £249 in total, or £49.80 each.

If S has paid £200 but owes £49.80, she is due £150.20 from the other four. However, K and E foolishly gave her £3 each, and R has already handed over £5 early in the proceedings, so really S only needs £139.20. Since K has already spent £13.50, he should contribute another £36.30, £3 of which he has already paid. £33.30 is still due. Since E has paid £12 already, plus another £3 to S, only £34.80 of her £49.80 share is due. Likewise, L has already paid £17.50 of his equal share, so he still needs to pay £32.30. R has only made purchases of £6, but since he has already paid £5 to S he now owes £38.80 to the group.

Since S is owed money, the other four should pay her back. £139.20 divided by four is £34.80 owed to S by each of the other members. By luck, this is exactly what E owed to the group anyway, so now both S and E are ‘quits’ with the group. This just leaves K, L and R. Since K only owed £33.30 in the first place, his paying over £34.80 to S leaves him £1.50 short. By a similar calculation, L only owed £32.30, so paying £34.80 to S left him £2.50 out of pocket. All is not lost however, because although R owed a total of £38.80 to the group, he only paid S £34.80 of that sum. R therefore has £4 outstanding to the group, which K and L can split between them.

To summarize, everyone pays S £34.80, and R pays supplements of £1.50 to K and £2.50 to L. Simple.

Cartoon by Sidney Harris.
Cartoon by Sidney Harris.

Captive Market

We’re cruising at 36,000 feet, the two o’clock EasyJet flight back to Edinburgh. The flight is smooth, the cloud-speckled landscape beautiful, and I am suddenly a festering, miserable bastard.

Over the tannoy, the pre-pubescent ‘Flight Customer Services Representative’ (or whatever the stewards call themselves these days) invades my airspace with adverts for Harry Potter Top Trumps. Not any old Top Trumps, by the way, but the very latest Goblet of Fire editon. You simply cannot get these in the shops. You can also buy the perfume endorsed by Sarah Jessica Parker…

As with departure lounges, in-flight shops are so insidious because there really is no escape. You cannot ring the bell, ask to get off, then simply get the next pplane, five minutes later. The steward’s voice makes it worse: not because the camp mockney accent contrasts so starkly with the refined tones of the RP you still hear on other airlines; but because he is simply inarticulate and crass. “Stick this in yer gob, you’ll love it!”. Proper diction and a sense of decorum should not be commodities that can be cut back.

When you book with a low cost airline, you should not expect all the frills. The lack of free coffee and snacks has even been expunged from the BMI flights too, so the dry and barren atmosphere is not a bother. But there is a difference between being given no extras, and being subjected to the constant onslaught of Opportunities To Buy. If this stealth commerce is the only way EasyJet can compete, then they could at least do me the courtesy of not wishing me a peaceful flight at the plane takes off. With the drone of the cabin crew’s constant sales patter, peace and quiet is clearly not high on their agenda.

Now, if they had the wit to tell a few jokes or sing a song, they might win their way back to my heart. Writing in The Independent, John Walsh laments the disappearance of bus conductors, now the old Routemasters have been all but phased out in London. We read of the conductors acting as bouncers, bodyguards, rappers, crooners and other entertainers, and even lectures on ettiquette! On the bus, there was no need to pay a premium – these unexpected extras were provided free as part of the ‘no frills’ service. And with an old Routemaster Bus, you could jump on and off the back if you needed to escape. Now the bendy buses are snaking their way through London, bus passengers are yet another imprisoned market for crass, on-board advertising opportunities. Watch this space.

The Ethics of Tetley Tea: Response

I’m delighted to announce that Tetley have responded fully and promptly to last week’s letter, where I asked some questions regarding Tetley’s environmental and ethical policy. A two page letter from Customer Services Advisor Mary Reid (printed on recycled paper I may add), fully outlined Tetley’s activities in this area.

It is our firm belief that estates who supply our tea treat their workers fairly… However, we recognise that ‘believing it’ is simply not enough. The issue is of unversal interest and it is to everyone’s benefit – both the estates overseas and packers like ourselves in the UK – to make sure that practices in the producing countries are more visible to the consumer, who may be many thousands of miles away.

In order to do this, in 1997 Tetley became one of the founder members of the Tea Sourcing Partnership

The Tea Sourcing Partnership became the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) in 2004. According to Ms Reid, it is “the biggest ‘ethical sourcing’ scheme of its kind” and has a network in place to monitor:

  • Terms and Conditions of Employment
  • Education
  • Maternity Provsions
  • Health and Safety
  • Housing
  • Basic Human Rights

The ETP website may be found at I notice PG Tips are members too.

The site gives a fairly comprehensive run-down of the groups activities, with PricewaterhouseCoopers monitoring the work that they do. My main criticism is that no actual facts or figures are given. For example, agreements are in place regarding working hours is pretty meaningless if the union and the employers have ‘agreed’ that 126 hour working weeks are acceptable! The site needs to provide full reports on exactly what the agreements and regulations actually are, and how they relate to the laws of the country in question. Only then will consumers be able to make a meaningful judgement on the ETP’s activities.

My correspondent at Tetley provided a double-whammy. By way of an explanation of their energy policy, Ms Reid provided an article from their in-house magazine. Apparently, the excess waste from cutting round tea-bags is burnt in an on-site furnace, heating the boiler at their Eaglescliff factory. Land-fill is reduced and energy is saved. My question regarding excess packaging was left unanswered, so they don’t get ten out of ten… but nevertheless I am pleased my letter was taken seriously and addressed fully.

A key criticism of the campaigns for ethically produced foodstuffs is that stricter controls lead to a rise in prices. Poorer people can no longer buy the goods, while the chattering classes consume their organic, fair-trade Java from their chrome cafitiere. It is good to find cases where a more ethical approach seems to be working accross the industry, without consumers being priced out of the market here in Britain.

Either way, it looks like I can drink my tea with a clear conscience. Kellogs Cornflakes are next.

Blogging analogies

Nosemonkey provides a long and interesting peice on the cliques and changes abound in blog network.

This is the main concern. If we all start meeting up in the real world and communicating via email rather than just comment boxes etc, is this likely to turn us all into some kind of nepotistic clique in just as bad a way as the mainstream press (pretty much) is? This whole obsession with ID cards, 90 Days etc is a prime case in point – in some areas it’s already almost turning into a Britblog hive mind…

The ‘hive mind’ idea is a popular one in science fiction, which in turn reminds me of the SETI screen-saver, where your computer analyses radio noise from the heavens in its spare time, looking for a pattern. The idea of a blog-hive-mind is like this too: Many people analysing lots of information. As Nosemonkey points out, the sheer volume of information being churned out by the established and online media means that we cannot read it all, and we cannot verify all of what we read. But the ‘blogosphere’ means we don’t have to. Between us all, we read everything, and between us we recommend the best of what we have read. The most interesting and controversial articles, or those that somehow capture the zeitgeist of the hour, will succeed in the market-place of ideas.

And the marketplace is not a bad comparision either. Why not concieve of the internet as a giant public square, where the best price can be obtained for your goods, you are sold exactly what you want, avoid tedious discussions, and spend more time finding precisely the right people to be friends with, and to argue with?

Update: From the comments section of the same article, I found a great piece on Weblogs, Powerlaws, and Inequality. Apparently it is highly unlikely that blog posts will success in the marketplace of ideas after all! As another commenter puts it: Shall we just forget about it all and get on with writing about things that interest us?

Bombing the messenger

Fuck it. Everyone else is pledging to break the law, so why not me?

The problem being: Al-Jazeera were (allegedly) threatened with bombing because they undermined the US-led war effort with their bad news. But now, the Blogger engine is running the Don’t Bomb Us website. Perhaps, at the very moment you read this, President Bush is planning to bomb Google too?

(Thanks Rachel for the tip off).