Savile Row

Sir Jimmy Savile
Sir Jimmy Savile (Photo: Beacon Radio)

So a lifetime of thinking there was something wrong about Jimmy Savile finally proved justified. Not that I’m claiming to possess what I have little choice but to call paedo-dar. Would that there were such a thing. I just didn’t like the guy. I’m not sure why – though that cigar didn’t help. There was something about his relentless funny voice and catchphrases. It seemed… I think it seemed a little lonely. Not quite connecting up with other people.

What makes a man want to have sex with adolescents – a fixation on what attracted him at puberty? The envious desire of age to possess youth? I think in large part the answer is simply, because he can. He feels a sexual urge, and an adolescent will allow him to satisfy it because obeying adults is the norm. Paedophilia is less a perversion of sexuality than a failure of conscience, the prioritisation of your pleasure over another’s trust.

Readers in various bits of the world may not have heard much of this story. Savile was a DJ from the UK who became enormously famous in the 70s for a programme called Jim’ll Fix It. Children wrote in with their requests, and the BBC would make them happen. A lot like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, except you didn’t have to be dying to get your reward.

It turns out that you did occasionally have to be molested by Jimmy Savile though.

This all came to a head after he died a year ago. As it happened, an investigative branch of the BBC had been making a programme about rumours of his paedophilia. But the Corporation pulled that – and went ahead with a glowing tribute to the wonderful work he did for many, many children’s charities.

There isn’t too much wrong on the face of that. It’s not a huge lapse in journalistic integrity to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who’s just died. But the BBC had another year after his death to investigate the rumours. And the forty years before. In the end it was rival broadcaster ITV that broke the story, leaving us with the impression that the BBC were unwilling to entertain doubts about one of their own.

You can understand that unwillingness when you think about it. Savile was hardly charismatic, more odd- than good-looking, not really talented in any noticeable way. What made him a star was the big budgets that the BBC spent on programme ideas that gave him a never-ending supply of unsupervised contact with children. It must be hard for the Corporation to get its institutional head around the idea that it spent decades unwittingly but quite literally pandering for a child abuser.

Fruit Fabrics And The Austerity Agenda

You’ll regret it!

Well I hope not of course. I hope I was wrong, and the greater cuts we’re now committed to don’t further hurt the poor and stall the economy. But… It’s hard to see how they won’t.

Too late I know, but it’s worth listening to Paul Krugman‘s argument that austerity is being cheered on by people with an agenda. Said agenda being, to free the rich from the burden of the poor. Some of you will have seen him nail the point on Jeremy Paxman’s BBC show last Wednesday. Though clearly, not enough of you.

Somehow, the mayhem wreaked by unfettered capitalism in the last decade or so gets turned into an excuse to destroy the welfare state. What is the logical justification for that? Because they can, apparently.

All right, enough of the sad. Today started dull but became amazingly hot. I found myself without suitable attire, so I bought some shorts in TK Maxx. I usually try to just buy from charity shops, but there were none nearby and this seemed the next best thing.

I love the label. Whoever wrote this is bored with their job and spends the day trying to sneak in fruit and veg references. Look:

  • “Dries faster due to the higher proportion of polyester yams.”
  • “Is fabric washed and peached for extra softness and comfort.”

The Standards Of Our Time

It is hard not to get angry and just switch off, but what is being discussed on Liveline (Irish radio phone-in) as I write is a legitimate question: Is it unfair to judge the actions of Cardinal Brady in 1975 by the standards of our time?

Quick summary: While still a priest he had a role, though apparently little more than a secretarial one, in a church investigation of allegations against the notorious serial child rapist Father Brendan Smyth. The case is among the most infamous, because Smyth was allowed to keep raping for many years despite this and other internal investigations.

As far as Brady is concerned, his job was to take down and pass on testimony to his seniors for investigation, not to act on it personally. He feels that he discharged his duty by playing his part in the system that he trusted. The criticism rests on the fact that this evidence was never acted on by those authorities. Given his personal knowledge, should Brady have gone above and beyond what he saw as his duty to pursue the matter, perhaps even drawn it to the attention of social services or police?

It is true that things were different. Nowadays it virtually goes without question that a child’s complaints should be thoroughly investigated, and given the high likelihood of anyone who has sexually abused children doing so again, not to act on credible evidence is tantamount to reckless endangerment. Things were much less clear-cut in 1975. It was not something much spoken of publicly. The standards of the time – such as they were – did not abhor child sexual abuse any less, but they worked on the widely-held supposition that something so horrific was an almost inconceivable rarity.

In other words, these standards were based on the effective suppression – by individuals, the church, and other institutions – of the truth about the prevalence of child sexual abuse. So to judge Brady by the standards of his time would be to judge him by standards he played his part in creating. That could not be acceptable.

We must nevertheless attempt to put ourselves in his position, and needless to say it is not one any of us would like. There was no guarantee that legal authorities or social services would have taken things any further, and to speak out would have almost certainly brought down the severe disapproval of superiors and peers within the organisation to which he had dedicated his life. I do wonder how many of us can honestly say that we would have gone beyond what we saw as our duty. I hope I would, I know it would have preyed on my conscience if I had not, but I can’t be sure if I would have broken rank.

And I certainly would not have risen to the position of cardinal if I did. Which is worth contemplating. People who become cardinals are precisely the people who don’t break rank, but suppress their own consciences and follow the interests and assurances of their organisation.

So I actually care little if Brady stays or goes. Whoever takes his place as cardinal will also be a cardinal. The important lesson here is about allowing any organisation to act as a law unto itself.

No Higgs Is Good News

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...
Spot the Higgs boson

It’s fun to watch television news attempting to report on the Higgs boson. Never has there been such an important story that so entirely lacks, well, a story.

News is narrative, for we are narrative animals. While others can understand – or misconstrue – cause and effect to some extent, only we¹ can tell each other about it. “This thing happened because this other thing happened.” It’s what human culture – indeed, our very mental machinery – is built around. Everything we do is shaped into narrative. Look at mathematics. There is nothing innately narrative about mathematics, it concerns things that never change at all. Yet a mathematical proof is a sort of story.

And that is in some ways misleading, because though one can deduce from something being true that another thing must also be, that doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second. The narrative drive can be distorting. Whenever we find a correlation between two things, our first assumption is always that one caused the other – even though they may be coincidental, or might both be the result of a third thing. From fairy stories to Jane Austen, all we want to hear about is how one thing causes another, how actions have consequences. If it was just a succession of unconnected incidents it wouldn’t be a story. Except in fact it would, because our minds would fill in connections between the events.

A good narrative is both exciting and enlightening. Exciting, because the best stories concern the biggest disasters. The worse the effects, the more we want to hear about the cause – so that we can avoid it. This is why we seem to like bad news so much. It also explains why we are more interested in news about people who are like us; it’s not so much that we care more about them as feel their disasters are more applicable. What makes a narrative enlightening is when it satisfactorily explains the relationship between cause and effect. “X leads to Z – and here’s why.” The better we understand the relationship, the better we can avoid Z when we see X happening. Or better bring about Z, in those rare cases of good news.

Which is why the Higgs boson fails as a story. Though it seems like it ought to be a great one, about fundamentals of the universe and the greatest depths of human knowledge, it lacks any real excitement because the vast majority of people simply lack any strong response to it at all. It could help complete or overthrow our understanding of physics. Which one of those was the good one again? Nor is it enlightening, because though we are assured by experts that it is important, even they cannot readily explain why.²

So news reports gussy it up; by using the deeply annoying nickname of “God particle”, suggesting that the Higgs is somehow much more important than all others (it’s not, it’s just harder to detect), or by hanging some other more speculative narrative on it. BBC News was guilty of that yesterday, wondering aloud if there might be some connection between the “absence” of the Higgs particle and the strange result found recently at CERN where neutrinos seemed to travel faster than light. What connection? Well none that anyone has actually thought of yet. Just, you know, some connection. (Imagine if they reported politics like that.) If the BBC’s graphics were anything to go by though, it might bring down the edifice of theoretical physics – which they illustrated with CGI Jenga blocks.³ The narrative we’re forced to take from this is that failure to find the Higgs would be some sort of disaster. And that could hardly be further from the truth.

It seems likely that the Higgs particle will be found within the next year. Physicists will be pleased if the ideas they most agree about are shown to be right, and will be glad to have a precise mass for the particle as that will help decide which version of the theory is best. But if they don’t find it, they’ll like that even more. Because it would mean they had something wrong – and that’s really much more interesting than being right.

 

  1. And possibly bees.
  2. Why does mass even need a particle? We think of mass as something an object just innately has, like length. There’s no length particle.
  3. Such an ‘edifice” in itself is a wholly wrong narrative about how physics works, suggesting that each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being completely right. In fact, each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being a little wrong.

The Death Of The Killer

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.
The most shocking of all images of Gaddafi - as a sane, smiling human being

I.Doubt.It is pleased to announce that we for one will not be showing you pictures of Muammar Gaddafi’s damaged corpse. Why so squeamish, some ask. Are we too sheltered from death? I think not. We all come across plenty real death in our lives, not least our own, and we are saturated with incredible amounts of fake death in the guise of entertainment.

It’s just decency. I think all humans feel that the dead deserve a measure of respect. As far as we can tell even our closest relatives like homo erectus, who used tools and fire and probably spoke, did not do anything with the bodies of their dead. Nomads, they simply moved on, leaving corpses where they lay. With sadness no doubt, but without ceremony. By contrast all humans, even those who have no belief in an afterlife, treat the bodies of the dead with a special respect – when they can. It appears to be an instinct, one unique to our species.

So when we turn images of real dead people into a lurid form of quasi-entertainment, parading them for shock, sales, or triumphalism, it is quite literally dehumanising.

I’m not surprised that they killed him of course. It’s a war. Should we care that they did? Yes. We should always care that the right thing is done. And I don’t think it was here. Gaddafi died in custody. According to the BBC, acting Prime Minister Mahmoud…

…confirmed that Col Gaddafi had been taken alive, but died of bullet wounds minutes before reaching hospital.

It remains unclear just how and when Gaddafi got those bullet wounds.

Nonetheless this is good news for Libya, and I hope an example for the rest of the Middle East. In Tunisia and Egypt, leaders stepped down in the face of mass protest and are alive to this day. Gaddafi clung to power, and was shot in the belly and head. That may give other dictators – like, say, Syria‘s Assad –  something to sleep on.

Electric Car Wars

Nissan Leaf at Tokyo Motor Show.
Fill it with your mighty juice

In an exciting clash of great British institutions, the Guardian’s George Monbiot has taken the BBC’s Top Gear to task over their review of electric cars. You can guess most of it – Top Gear promotes all that threatens safety and the environment, the Guardian takes life too seriously and should relax once in a while. Both these things are true.

Monbiot is wrong though. I watched that episode, and I don’t think it set out to grossly mislead. Yes, the Nissan LEAF running out of power in the city of Lincoln was staged. But everything about the program with the exception of the laptimes – and I’m not even sure about those – is staged. They drop pianos on Morris Marinas, any caravan they come near inexplicably catches light, and if they get an electric car you can be sure the battery will go flat. The programme is blatantly childish, and this is part of its attraction.

“But the point is that it creates the strong impression that the car ran out of juice unexpectedly,” claims Monbiot, “leaving the presenters stranded in Lincoln, a city with no public charging points.”

Well I for one did not get that strong impression. I saw it as Clarkson and May taking off without considering how they were going to charge up, like fools. It was silly, but it highlighted some practical problems with electric cars – problems programmes with an environmental brief are perhaps too happy to make light of in a different sense. To be out of charge in an electric car could make you long for the simple days of a hike with a can to a distant filling station.

Is there any real danger of that? When new, the LEAF has a claimed range of 160 km (100 miles). And though in practice you’d rarely if ever be charging from completely flat, a full recharge at ordinary voltages for Europe will take around 8 hours. (A figure of 11 hours under some conditions was mentioned on the programme, but that does seem to be misleading.) This isn’t actually bad at all. It means it’s capable of a daily commute of anything up to a hundred miles each way if you can recharge at work, which sounds like more than almost anyone would ever want. However it’s not allowing for the unexpected – which always happens. So for a comfortable margin of error you really want to be travelling only half that far, at least until a network of fast-charging stations becomes a reality.

But that’s still absolutely fine for about 90% of the journeys that cars actually make. So when the Top Gear team conclude that “electric cars are not the future” (and that that future is – somehow – hydrogen), they’re clearly wrong. Already a practical proposition for a lot of people, the electric car is the present.

The future is probably no cars at all.