A walk to Hackney Central

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Lacking clothes in London
I walked to Hackney Central.
At Chatham Place a white street cleaner
propped his brush on his green barrow to point the way.
Under the bridge by Argun Printers
the air was particle grey, but
Mare Street was clear of traffic.

The black assistant in Marks & Spencer
cheerfully filled my bag and
the brown post office worker
smiled my envelope and stamped my mail.
A sausage roll billboard had been red.

 

In Hackney Churchyard gardens
the resting street cleaner hailed me.
Thanks, I found the way, I called.
The sign on Morningside School said
Today is a great day to learn something.

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Dominic Cummings’ skunkworks

Dom-Cummings_outside-No-10Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

The Government is advertising for the head of a new “analytical unit” in Downing Street to be called 10ds.  “ds” stands for Data Science, but could, of course, mean Downing Street itself.  The role and person specification read as if written by Dominic Cummings:

   10ds is a pseudo start-up within Number 10 designed to drive forward the quantitative revolution. The current plan is to establish a data engineering team, data science team, a skunkworks and an analytical deep dive unit.  

A skunkworks, according to Everett Rogers, is an “enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures”.   The term originated during World War II when a small group of closely guarded Lockheed R&D workers working in Burbank, California had to endure the smell from a nearby plastics factory.  

The term typically refers to technology projects developed in semi-secrecy, and so it is surprising to be told that this unit will be at the heart of No 10.  It will bring together

a team which will focus on supporting number 10 to provide the best analysis and evidence; a data science team to help serve long time problems and empower its use across Whitehall; a data engineering team to provide high-quality timely data, creating more effective decision-making.  

Elsewhere in the document, the  term “skunkworks” appears to embrace the whole operation.  The vision of 10ds is “a skunkworks type organisation that builds innovative software to allow the PM to make data driven decisions and thereby transform government”.

It appears that the Head of the Unit will have privileged access to the Prime Minister “to advise on the PM’s priority decisions where analysis is critical, such as how to optimally achieve net-zero”.  He or she will also be expected to be creative, “to look through a different lens”.  A key part of this role is “working with multiple teams in coming up with modern innovative ways of solving the problem”.

Besides creativity, there must be scientific method.   “This role focuses on reaching the right answer based on the best available data. As such, this role prioritises data interpretation not data fitting.”   This sounds right, but data are never neutral.  The data available depend on who has provided them and for what purposes.  How will this new unit improve on existing procedures of data collection and analysis?

The document preserves an air of semi-secrecy by its vagueness.    What, for example, is the referent of “its” in “a data science team to help serve long time problems and empower its use across Whitehall” (the long quotation above)?   More importantly, what will be the relationship between the skunkworks and the existing Civil Service, which deals with public administration, and with the Office for National Statistics?  

Dominic Cummings clearly wants to reinforce his power base at the heart of government.  But it looks as if this new unit could be another distraction from the true business of government.

Flooding the zone with shit

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Possibly more significant than the Brazilian president’s diagnosis of Covid-19 was a guest at an Independence Day lunch in Brasilia three days before.   According to the Guardian (7 July), three days before the diagnosis Bolsonaro had lunch at the home of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil.   Also present at that Independence Day celebration were several top cabinet members and the president’s son, Eduardo, a politician who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America.

Nobody has been more influential than Steve Bannon in fomenting the ideas and policies of the global fascist Alt-Right.  Boris Johnson borrowed ideas and phrases – such as the ‘EU deep state’ – used by Bannon when head of Breitbart News.  The supposed US ‘deep state’ is now the object of a populist US insurgency apparently supported by the president.  Bannon was Trump’s campaign manager for the 2016 election and vice president of Cambridge Analytica, which developed and tested the ‘build the wall’ theme on the US population.   A similar meme in the UK, ‘take back control’, was developed by Dominic Cummings, who spent 90% of Vote Leave’s advertising on the Vancouver-based company AIQ that became the holding company for Cambridge Analytica.  These memes have no purpose beyond building a sense of nationalist exclusivity and nativist aversion to foreigners – and loyalty to the strong man who will keep the foreigners out.

Observers of the current chaos in the US, UK, Brazil and elsewhere often ask why the populist leaders, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, behave so ineptly.  Why do so many people follow leaders with no discernible plan or competence?  The reason, as the journalist Jay Rosen has explained, is that the plan is to have no plan.   Rather, the leaders promote massive confusion about who is responsible for Covid-19 and the economic and social situation, fixing blame on ‘leftists’, the press, China, or some other foreign element; imposing tariffs that will disadvantage their own populations; withdrawing from the World Health Organisation … and so on.   The aim, in the words of Steve Bannon, is to ‘flood the zone with shit’, overwhelming the media and the population with disinformation, distraction, and denial.  Out of this chaos will step the saviour strong man, as Trump stepped out of the clouds of tear gas released on his own people to hold up a bible in front of the White House church.  

As Hari Kunzru has written, the deployment of the US military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest would confirm the transition to autocracy.  So far, the US generals have refused Trump’s command to send troops into American cities.  Ironically, the secret agent in the fight against the Alt-Right may turn out to be COVID-19.  Neither Johnson and Bolsonaro, for all their posturing, has escaped infection. The coronavirus has presented a visible natural threat that puts all others into perspective – although a significant proportion of the US population continues to believe that it is a left-wing hoax.  Nonetheless, it appears that Trump’s appeal is diminishing.  Yet, when the intending autocrats leave the stage, the conditions that brought them power will remain.  

Daily News: Hackney kids protest

Guest post by Cayce Mae, Hackney, 10 June 2020

This Saturday (6th June), Hackney kids gathered on Well Street Common for a protest. They had signs & posters all about kids against racism and black lives matter.  Even the Mayor was there for his speech at the end. Due to COVID-19, all families were social distancing and wearing masks. They walked from Well Street Common to the bandstand in Victoria Park. All the way they chanted “Black lives matter!”  Though some people wished the protest could have taken place on a warmer day.

That’s it for now.  Join next week for more Daily News!

Dominic Cummings (in his own words*)

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*Quotations in italics from:  Dominic Cummings: Some thoughts on education and political priorities: https://static.guim.co.uk/ni/1381763590219/-Some-thoughts-on-education.pdf

As my Oxford tutor said,

I’m fizzing with ideas.

I like to bring things down that don’t work.

We need an Odyssean education 

To synthesise all knowledge

into … crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking

about complex systems.

Foresight demands 

the ability to identify and gather

great quantities of relevant information; 

the ability to catch glimpses, using that information,

of the choices offered by the branching alternative histories of the future, 

and the wisdom to select simplifications and approximations

that do not sacrifice the representation

of critical qualitative issues,

especially issues of values…

So you need people as clever as me.

So this is why

I got Gove to change the education system

into one based entirely on factual recall

tested by sudden death examinations.

Gove-Cummings

Most children won’t thrive on this, but the best will.

Maybe we can breed for brains.

If pensioners die, too bad.

And this is why

I used my powers of deception

To persuade 17.4 million Britons

To leave an economic and social community that worked.

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And this is why

I wrote rules to control the pandemic

And flouted them.

Then rewrote my blog

To show I foretold the future.

Blog-edited

 

How my home movie became a MAGA hit

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In the mid 1970s, I worked as an exchange teacher in a Los Angeles high school.  It was an exciting and formative year for me and my family.   1976 was the bicentenary of American independence, and signs and flags everywhere announced “Spirit of ’76”.  There was a palpable feeling of optimism.  The Vietnam war was over, the Viking mission to Mars was a success, and the social and technological future looked bright.  Driving the open freeways (justifiably celebrated by the British architect Reyner Banham) to the beautiful beaches of southern California, we felt endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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But we knew we were fortunate. The difference between the standard of living in our Orange County suburb and that of neighbouring communities was obvious. School districts were still segregated, and minority rights remained a political issue.  Coming from the UK, we were also struck by the alien religiosity of American life: the city where we lived had far more churches than bars.  The land of the free seemed remarkably unequal, and the separation of church and state required by the Constitution seemed to have amplified rather than reduced the power of religion.

I had brought with me to California my vintage (made in 1939) clockwork powered Bolex 16mm movie camera, so I began to record my impressions.  As a visiting educator, I was encouraged to visit schools in other communities, and I took my camera with me.  In those pre-video days, movie cameras did not usually record sound, so I recorded on tape a good deal of music and talk radio.  When I returned to the UK, I put my visual and audio impressions together so as to try to convey my mixed feelings.  The result, The spirit of 77 in Los Angeles, has an upbeat drive culminating in an orgasmic Disneyland firework display, but the scenes of urban poverty and deprivation have a counterpoint of commercial and religious radio. 

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I entered the movie for a film festival in 1978, where it was judged to require an “English voice” to explain the content – an aesthetic choice I had specifically rejected.  I showed it to family and friends as often as I dared try their patience, but for many years the film remained in a can – until the advent of YouTube.  I uploaded a digitised version in 2012. 

To view Spirit of ’77 in Los Angeles, click here

In the last eight years, the film has been viewed 160,000 times.  Currently it is receiving about 800 views a day.   The 900 published comments suggest the reasons for this popularity.   One recent post has caught what I was trying to express:

What a powerful look back at a time when people actually had hope for a brighter future. The overexposed shots really add to that 70’s vibe. The juxtaposition between rich/poor and the middle class…brilliantly done! The pop culture references really were great! I really felt like I was experiencing life in ‘77.  Reality is that much uglier now.

Many responders compare life as depicted to the present:

Everyone is skinny or fit in this video. Processed food wasn’t as rampant as is today. Obesity wasn’t even a thing

No computers, no mobile phones — a lot of time to spend with family and friends and trying to find interesting things to do during the summer breaks. The 70’s and 80’s sure was different and i loved them decades for it.

Many blame technology for reducing social and family interaction:

How great our life was in the 70´s! we didn’t have all this technology and that gave us great opportunities to meet other people face to face, not like today. I simply loved this clip!

ahh… the good times, when people were outside and kids playing because there was no social media. everyone is stuck on electronic gadgets. shame

Nostalgia for a better past is frequent:

Beautiful. Wish I could step into the screen 🙂

A wonderful time capsule of an America long gone.

 don’t know why I am such a nostalgic person but I feel an extreme nostalgic and dreamy feeling towards this I guess I will just imagine and enjoy my time

However, many comments stress the negatives as well as the positives of the 1970s:

Society as a whole was not simpler in the 70’s. The Vietnam conflict defined the culture, and in the early 70’s we had airline hijackings every other week. Alcohol and tobacco advertisements were unfettered and everywhere. But if you were a kid growing up in the middle class, it was a good time.

All seems idyllic until you see the poverty-stricken areas of South Central L.A.   Meanwhile, the denizens of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Malibu & other tony spots of SoCal were blissfully unaware of such poor areas in existence.

The 70’s were great, one minor glitch, segregation, school busing, racism, cop beatings, and just plain hatred.  And the pollution!

Some responders attempt to find political and economic reasons for  the difference between life today and in 1977:  

It was a time when we loved ourselves and every one around us, and people genuinely believed that the government’s main purpose was to govern ‘for the people.’ We watched as American citizens from all walks of life would openly, candidly, express their opinions, and make a difference that you could see in action.

Back then, people were happier and healthier…corporate greed has ruined this country.

I wasn’t even alive in 77 but I would love to go back to LA between 1950-1970s… any of those times would have been the best time to live in LA, cause I would have bought a house and held on to it.

More alarming are the frequent comments that draw on the narratives associated with Make America Great Again.   The many racist remarks are astonishingly ignorant of history, and I frequently have to delete offensive comments that have evaded the YouTube censor.

Before California became a part of Mexico 😃

back when whites ruled and wasn’t invaded to death

They didn’t start out ‘poverty stricken’. They moved poor blacks from Alabama & Mississippi to the area and made it that way.

But one recent commentator had a better grasp of history:

4:27 – “A resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.” Now 40+ years later, it’s worse than ever. TWO MILLION Palestinians locked up in the open air prison called Gaza.

Many blame liberal ideas for the decline:

The days before 9/11. The days before the satanic deep state takeover. The days before identity politics. The days before SJWs [social justice warriors].

The Left have destroyed yet another once beautiful place.

This is right before Southern California (including the suburbs) became a holding tank for illegals, gangs, drugs and liberal indoctrination.   

Some posters merely recite anti-democratic slogans:

Cultural diversity ruined LA

Let’s Make America Great Again

Liberal progressive infestation

These respondents don’t understand that the agony of contemporary American life is not down to immigration or democratic ideas, which have both been fundamental to the US from the beginning.  Economic and political policy over the last 30 years in both the US and the UK – since Reagan and Thatcher – has enriched the corporate, financial and media oligarchies at the expense of the people.  To these centres of power, Trump is a useful tool to incite populism and direct the fury of the masses against minorities, “libtards” and “snowflakes”.

I’ll leave the last word to a recent commentator.

I see a video of white ppl enjoying LA’s fruit while living comfortably keeping minorities away from the same American dream. Even with all that said it look like great times no matter the economic and social climate.

Occupying yourself during periods of isolation

This timely guest post is by Guy Saunders, who has researched people’s experience of solitary confinement.

dr guy saunders

This post is aimed at providing some ideas about what a person can do to occupy themselves during periods of time in isolation. This post is based on research I carried out looking at people’s experience of solitary confinement. I carried out interviews with former hostages and political prisoners about their use of imagination and how they got through time spent in isolation. There were common themes in their responses and some of these seemed to me to be relevant to what it is like to get through periods of social isolation.

Part One: Experiences of social isolation

When people first experience social isolation, they tend to feel disoriented for a while. When someone experiences another period of isolation, this early disorientation does not feature. It seems that we can learn how to adapt to such a condition and that this gives us the skills we need to deal with…

View original post 1,302 more words

The clear air of London and LA

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The coronavirus has caused widespread respiratory disease, but it has cleansed the streets of cities across the world as traffic has reduced. During the last three weeks, traffic in the LA freeway network has reduced by 80%, and London traffic has reduced to levels not seen for many years. Photographers have been quick to record the astonishing changes in cityscapes.

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There is a striking change not only in the city itself but in the way we see it. Hermione Hodgson’s photos of London reveal the beauty of the design and architecture of the streets when our view isn’t blocked by traffic. The sheer size, danger, intensity and noise of traffic normally take up most of our attention. When the air is clear and the streets are calm and empty, a new city emerges.

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In Los Angeles, the improvement in air conditions has revealed the background to the city often shrouded in smog.

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The burial of strangers

Walking in the Clifton area of Bristol recently, I came across a small piece of ground almost hidden behind a hedge. It was being tended by the man pictured below, who did not tell me his name but explained that he had decided to restore and maintain a burial-ground that had been used for nearly a century until 1871. The Historic England record confirms that it was an ‘overflow graveyard for St Paul’s, Clifton (demolished), much used by visitors to the Hotwells. Closed 1871’. 

The picture above comes from the 1990s and shows the state of the burial-ground more than a century after it was closed.

I was moved by the restoration, which, the attendant explained, was in remembrance of hundreds of unknown people buried there during the 18th and 19th century who had come to the Bristol Hot Wells for cure. As they were not local to Bristol, they were buried outside the parish in the strangers’ burial-ground.

The hot wells were owned by the Merchant Venturers, a Bristol business association which still exists, and were central to the development of Clifton as a genteel resort in the early 18th century. Hotwells’ popularity lasted about a century. Sewage from the river seeped into the springs, which became toxic. Pleasure-seekers went elsewhere for their fun and Hotwells gained the reputation as a last resort for the incurable, many of whom are buried in the Strangers’ Burial Ground at the bottom of Lower Clifton Hill.

A city subordinated to the virus

In the late 18th century, William Blake wrote a poem, ‘London’, that depicts the city subordinated to trade.

I wander through each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow …

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Blake originally wrote ‘dirty’ street and ‘dirty’ Thames, but, as Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (p.148), the change of adjective introduces the idea of ‘chartering’: the organisation of a city in terms of trade.  As he wanders through the streets already (in 1794) under the control of the Corporation of London, Blake notes people bound by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’: the religion that keeps the child sweeping chimneys, the patriotism that emboldens the soldier to defend the king.  But mainly he hears the curse of prostitution and the commodifying of relations that spreads both mental and physical plague.  All these, Blake implies, derive from a social system where people have to sell themselves to survive.

Perhaps our current time is the first period for several hundred years when the city is not subordinated to trade.  The stores are closed.  The streets are almost empty.  Metal beer barrels line up outside the deserted pubs.  There is less traffic and less noise.  The air is cleaner.  Most people are indoors, learning to live without the constant pressure of work.

I’m not suggesting that capitalism has been magically transformed.   But perhaps the lockdown is producing a change of consciousness.   Economic fundamentalism has failed to prepare us for or protect us from a natural and predictable occurrence.       Faced with the prospect of people dying from starvation as well as from the coronavirus, the Conservative government is supporting the population with sums of money that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.  Homeless people are being housed.   Those self-employed or on short-term contracts can hope for government funding to tide them over.   Those on permanent contracts but currently without work because of government restrictions on social gathering will receive 80% of their normal income.

Much of this promised support has yet to come through, and some people may not be caught by the safety net.  But even Boris Johnson accepts that there is such a thing as society.  Perhaps – just perhaps – we can look forward to a somewhat more caring and communal future.