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Vol. 28 No. 4 · 23 February 2006

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Don’t get mad, get even

Malcolm Bull quotes John Rawls describing Aztec society as ‘driven by slavery and the threat of human sacrifice’ (LRB, 9 February). Nasty people, the Aztecs, no doubt, but I wonder how much difference there is, sociologically, between their ‘human sacrifice’ and our ‘capital punishment’. The execution by lethal injection of Timothy McVeigh, witnessed by survivors of the Oklahoma bombing and relatives of the victims, was among other things a way for the United States, as a society, to purge itself of something unclean. For the state to kill a mass-murderer like McVeigh is obviously preferable to the sacrifice of innocent virgins (though the only Aztec human sacrifices actually witnessed by Europeans were of captured Spaniards; and the US has in recent years shown few qualms about killing off its prisoners of war). But the majority of prisoners on death row are impoverished, poorly educated and from racial minorities. They are expendable, in other words, and it doesn’t take much of a mental leap to see them as sacrifices to the gods of capital, their deaths a semi-superstitious way of preserving the life, liberty and prosperity of those in power.

Europeans didn’t witness much Aztec human sacrifice because they were too busy slaughtering and conquering the Aztecs themselves, enacting one of the genocides that Bull refers to. Strictly speaking, genocide – the extermination of a race – leaves no survivors. And one danger of describing a massacre as genocide is that it can leave too little mental space for those who did survive: if we just hang onto the fact that the Conquistadors exterminated the Incas five hundred years ago, then we can imagine that the criminality and racism of that genocide are a thing of the past – all very sad, to be sure, but there’s nothing we can do about it now – and the ongoing marginalisation and oppression of the indigenous peoples of the Andes can be conveniently overlooked. One of the many reasons for cheering the election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia is that it makes this attitude of obliviousness that much harder to maintain.

Jeremy Goldstein
San Francisco

Malcolm Bull is unduly pessimistic. The great genocides of the 20th century are passing into history; by focusing on the narrow legal definitions of genocide, he disregards the fact that in the popular mind it must involve the massacre of millions. Nothing of the kind is happening in any part of the world at the moment. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court Act of 2001 opens the possibility that Tony Blair and others will one day be made to answer charges for actions that may have caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Blair has been reported to the court, but is unlikely to be brought there because of the principle that the courts in a stable democracy should deal with their own war criminals.

However, it is well known that it is now quite likely, given the immensely strong anger people feel towards Tony Blair, that there will be an assassination attempt by someone drawn from the two main revolutionary sections of the working class: disenfranchised and disconnected Islamic workers and intellectuals, and the carers, teachers and nurses who are being thrown out of work by the use of the Criminal Records Bureau disclosure system. This is the system whereby, under the Police Act 1997, forms are circulated to employers by the CRB, repeating mere allegations made by members of the public even where there are no convictions at all. Blameless carers and teachers, often of the Vietnam War generation, and quite often of Celtic origin, are now being sacked in their hundreds, as I know from my Employment Tribunal caseload and from reading the pamphlets of the National Association for the Care and Settlement of Offenders.

Neither I nor any of my clients or colleagues in the Orpington Constituency Labour Party has the slightest intention of attempting to assassinate Blair, nor do any of my clients or colleagues at Plumstead Community Law Centre. We are, for the most part, somewhat loquacious and friendly people. There will be people, however, in the ‘Don’t get mad, get even’ category.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

Like Alan Bennett …

Unlike Alan Bennett (LRB, 5 January), and the other warm-hearted writers-in who have been sharing with LRB readers their experiences of trying to eliminate mice from their living space in the most considerate way possible, I am bound to admit that nice questions of methodology and appeals to my underlying sense of oneness with nature have never been allowed to interfere when I have been asked to do my bit in the global war on rodents. Perhaps this is because I learned in a hard school, not with mice, which always turn out to look embarrassingly small once you’ve trapped them, but with rats, which always turn out to be alarmingly big. No doubt as one mark of the disapproval felt higher up the military pecking order for my offensively civilian outlook, I was at one point in my National Service put in charge of rodent control in the camp where I was stationed, where rats were very keen on, among other undercover incursions, gnawing their way through the bottom of soldiers’ kitbags in search of the bars of chocolate that had been stuffed into them. That was bad for morale and we rodent control freaks set to with a will, stirring doses of warfarin into slops collected from the cookhouse and laying them out along what we thought might be the favourite rat-runs. Occasionally it worked and occasionally there were dead rats to be removed. So ugly were they in their rigidity I found it all too easy afterwards to extend my revulsion to the whole rodent order.

Charles Kenwright
Honiton, Devon

I tried mousetraps, superglue, poison, and chasing the mice with a sieve. Nothing worked. We could hear the mice munching through the food in the larder as we sat down for tea. Then a friend recommended a device that emits an ultrasonic whine in the room where it’s situated, and sends an electromagnetic pulse through all the electric wiring in your house. The pulse doesn’t harm the mice at all; they just hate the sound and the endless vibrations. Our mice gave up and left two days after I plugged the device in.

Simon Port
London SW12

Which 5 per cent?

Supporting Ipswich Town for 30 years has frequently been a dispiriting experience. What keeps me going is the hope that one day a combination of better players and a decent manager will return us to former glories. As far as David Runciman is concerned, I hope in vain (LRB, 5 January). Without a pot of cash, an enormous amount of luck and a manager who looks good in a suit we are condemned to mediocrity. Runciman doesn’t think that David Moyes has ‘lost it’, merely that Everton’s results have reverted to the mean. Is it really that simple? In 2001 Ipswich finished an unlikely fifth in their first season back in the Premiership; the next season they were relegated. Reversion to the mean? Maybe. But it also had a lot to do with a young manager finding himself with money to spend, a UEFA Cup campaign to plan and a new level of expectation to cope with. George Burley made mistakes. The new players weren’t good enough, the spirit of the squad was weakened and we never coped with the extra demands of Europe.

According to Runciman, luck and money win you titles; Manchester United and Arsenal can no longer challenge because of their lack of both. But the bounce of the ball didn’t win Ferguson eight titles in 13 years; and Wenger has rarely spent heavily, his reputation being forged on the development of cheap unknowns (Vieira) and misfits (Henry). Success has to be down to more than a combination of glamour and number-crunching. Otherwise all we are left to look forward to is the day when the Jude Law/Gordon Brown dream-team arrives at Portman Road.

Stephen Lake
London W3


Colin Burrow calls the ‘Nadsat’ used by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange ‘wildly innovative’ (LRB, 9 February). Isn’t it just anglicised Russian? Nadsat in Russian is the ‘teen’ part of words like ‘sixteen’.

Alan Myers
Hitchin, Hertfordshire

How do we do it?

John Leath’s comments on uncomfortable word-breaks (Letters, 9 February) call to mind an example encountered some months ago, though not, alas, in the LRB’s pages:


This, it seems to me, achieves a poetic intensity seldom equalled in the more traditional forms.

Dai Vaughan
London NW6

Go Ogle

John Lanchester (LRB, 26 January) doesn’t touch on Google’s attitude to one of the web’s leading obsessions: sex. In the lobby of Google HQ in California, a large screen displays a streaming feed of searches as they’re made – but the list is filtered. Similarly with the end of year Zeitgeist lists. Type ‘sex’ into Google and 233,000,000 results come up, but the word never makes it onto the lists of the year’s most searched-for terms. In fact, no sexual or pornographic terms are included in Google’s Zeitgeist. If they were, that’s pretty much all the lists would contain.

Mark Sinclair
London N16

John Lanchester notes that Larry Page and Sergey Brin got the spelling of ‘googol’ wrong, presumably imagining from its pronunciation that it was spelt ‘google’. The origin of the word is to be found in Edward Kasner and James Newman’s Mathematics and the Imagination (1940). The word ‘googol’ was invented by Kasner’s nine-year-old nephew when he was asked to ‘think up a name for a very big number – namely, 1 with 100 zeros after it’. At the same time, the nephew suggested a name for a still bigger number, a ‘googolplex’: 1 followed by a googol of zeros.

J. Elfenbein
Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire

In a future development that Tim Berners-Lee calls the Semantic Web, search engines will reason about a page’s contents, rather than relying on bibliometrics as they do at present. Currently, web pages are marked up with html tags that tell a browser how to display them. Tags in the Semantic Web will indicate what a site is about and be drawn from ‘ontologies’, specifications of the concepts required to reason about a subject. Building ontologies is a satisfying activity for computer scientists so inclined, and hundreds if not thousands have been created, but the scale and complexity of the existing web means that bibliometrics can increasingly do the same work. Since Amazon’s software knows that people buy The Debt to Pleasure with Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, but Fragrant Harbour with Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood, it already has information about the content of John Lanchester’s novels. Google has much more data and carries out a higher order of analysis. It is not the number of links to a page that is the measure of importance, but the PageRank of the linking pages. This seems circular but is based on a neat piece of mathematics. Consider a matrix (A) in which the entry for column i of row j is 1 if web page j links to page i, and 0 otherwise. PageRank is the eigenvector of this matrix, a characteristic sequence (e) such that Ae = λe: if you multiply the eigenvector by the matrix, you get the eigenvector back, rescaled by some constant (λ). It requires an iterative calculation: assign arbitrary values for PageRank, calculate a new value for each page from the – arbitrary – PageRanks of linking pages, then repeatedly recalculate until a stable solution emerges.

Paul Taylor
University College London

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