Dirty vapour trail over London

A few days ago, I was out and about snapping, as is my wont, and I saw something rather unfamiliar in the sky over London, a dirty-looking vapour trail.

Vapour trails usually look white, as the older vapour trail that makes an X with this new one is. Something about the way vapour trails are usually lit makes them look white, against a blue sky. Mechanical clouds, you might say. And what could possibly be wrong with that? Vapour trails are just nice, clean steam.

But that one looks a whole lot dirtier, doesn’t it? And there’s the remnants of another, across the X, horizontally.

This was snapped just before it got dark, and I presume that has something to do with it. For some reason, this particular vapour trail was not lit. High clouds blocking the sun from it, but not blocking the sun from lighting us down on the ground? Or the older vapour trail, the one that’s white? I don’t know.

What I do know is that if vapour trails always looked this dark and dirty, there would surely have been a lot more talk about restricting air travel even than there is. Air travel would long ago have become more expensive.

Now, you could say that clouds are often this dark too, presumably for similar reasons. But clouds look natural. This vapour trail looks like mechanised evil spewing into the sky. It looks, in other words, just what the environmentalists have finally persuaded a lot of people that it is, despite usual appearances to the contrary.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Emmanuel Todd (2): The eight family systems

This, the second of my Emmanuel Todd postings here, will confine itself to itemising the eight family system classifications that appear at the start of most of the chapters of The Explanation of Ideology. Each clutch of information lists the distinguishing features of each family system, and the places where each system prevails.

If this posting seems strange, see my previous posting, Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology, for some clarification.

So here are those family systems. I will here add only that “exogamous” means marrying outside your family and “endogamous” means marrying within your family.

Characteristics of the exogamous community family:

1. equality between brothers defined by rules of inheritance;
2. cohabitation of married sons and their parents;
3. however, no marriage between the children of two brothers.

Principal regions concerned: Russia, Yugoslavia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland, Albania, central Italy, China, Vietnam, Cuba, north India.

. . .

Characteristics of the authoritarian family:

1. inequality of brothers laid down by inheritance rules, transfer of an unbroken patrimony to one of the sons;
2. cohabitation of the married heir with this parents;
3. little or no marriage between the children of two brothers.

Principal regions and peoples concerned: Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Bohemia, Scotland, Ireland, peripheral regions of France, northern Spain, northern Portugal, Japan, Korea, Jews, Romany gypsies.

. . .

Characteristics of the egalitarian nuclear family:

1. equality of brothers laid down by inheritance
2. no cohabitation of married children with their parents;
3. no marriage between the children of brothers.

Principal regions: northern France, northern Italy, central and southern Spain, central Portugal, Greece, Romania, Poland, Latin America, Ethiopia.

. . .

Characteristics of the absolute nuclear family:

1. no precise inheritance rules, frequent use of wills;
2. no cohabitation of married children with their parents;
3. no marriage between the children of brothers.

Principal regions: Anglo-Saxon world, Holland, Denmark.

. . .

Characteristics of the endogamous community family:

1. equality between brothers established by inheritance rules;
2. cohabitation of married sons with their parents;
3. frequent marriage between the children of brothers.

Principal regions: Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan.

. . .

Characteristics of the asymmetrical community family:

1. equality between brothers laid down by inheritance rules;
2. cohabitation of married sons and their parents;
3. prohibition on marriages between the children of brothers, but a preference for marriages between the children of brothers and sisters.

Principal region: southern India.

. . .

Characteristics of the anomic family:

1. uncertainty about equality between brothers: inheritance rules egalitarian in theory but flexible in practice;
2. cohabitation of married children with their parents rejected in theory but accepted in practice;
3. consanguine marriage possible and sometimes frequent.

Principal regions: Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Madagascar, South-American Indian cultures.

. . .

Characteristics of African systems:

1. instability of the household;
2. polygyny.

Concerning the “African system” Todd starts his (very short) chapter thus:

Given the present state of anthropological knowledge no exhaustive, detailed analysis of the interaction between the family structures and political systems in Africa is possible.

But hasn’t Africa been overrun by anthropologists in recent decades? Yes. However:

Paradoxically, the Dark Continent, an area of fundamental importance in anthropological research, remains very poorly documented from the point of view of family structure.

That vagueness aside, I find the above list very impressive. Do I need to note the correspondence between, e.g., the list for the exogamous community family and communism, just as a for instance? In later postings, I will spell out in more detail why Todd’s body of work so excited me when I first encountered it in the 1980s. I will offer (more) guesses as to why it has been neglected.

Once I have accumulated a decent number of Emmanuel Todd postings here to link back to, I will start beating the Emmanuel Todd drum in more public places, until such time as an Emmanuel Todd blog-buzz gets seriously buzzing. (That’s three “Emmanuel Todds” in one short paragraph, and now four. Should I start calling him “ET”?)

A very quiet buzzing can already be detected. See item 2 here.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology

What causes the different peoples of the world to think and feel so differently about such things as religion and politics? Despite inventions like the telephone, high speed modern transport by rail and air, and now the latest such miracle in the form of the internet, people in different parts of the world still seem defiantly different from one another. And their differences, instead of being ironed out by modern communications technology, are instead made all the more visible and scandalous to all who concern themselves about such things. Why?

Why, historically, do political and religious ideologies often start by spreading with the speed and completeness of a medieval plague? But why do they then, with equal suddenness, mysteriously cease their expansions?

Why do the world’s different peoples, in addition to quarrelling with one another, seem so very varied in their responses to the opportunities and agonies of economic development? What is economic development?

I now believe that the best clutch of answers to these questions (and to many other related questions both historical and contemporary) has been supplied by the French historian and anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, who was born in 1951.

I have not read all of Todd’s books, because my French is not good enough. But I have read, and I own in treasured English translations, the two that appear to be the most important. These are: La Troisième Planète: Structures Familiales et Systèmes Idéologiques, published in 1983, published in English, in 1985, as The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems; and L’Enfance du Monde: Structure Familiale et Développement, published in 1984, published in English in 1987, as The Causes of Progress: Culture, Authority and Change.

The first of these books is probably the most striking one, and in this posting, I will concentrate on – in the amazingly confident title which Todd or someone chose for the English edition of La Troisième Planète – the explanation of ideology. The explanation.

I will now attempt an approximate summary of Todd’s explanation of ideology.

The peoples of the world are different in their ideological orientations because they have different “family structures”. The world’s different ideologies and ideological tendencies (communism, Islam, social democracy, Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the Indian caste system, and so on) are projections onto the public stage of ideas first learned within the family.

In the family one acquires beliefs about such things as the nature of and proper scope of parental authority, the appropriate degree of equality or lack of it in the relations between men and women, and between older brothers and younger brothers, the proper way to get married and have children in one’s turn, the appropriate relationship between one’s family and other families, and so on.

These ideas are handed down from generation to generation, and do not change from one century to the next, or even from one millennium to the next. Family structure, for Emmanuel Todd, is the independent variable. It causes other things. It is not itself caused. It simply is.

“Family structure” does not mean the particular circumstances of particular families. Family structure is the belief set that all those raised in a particular anthropological setting hold in common about the proper nature of family life. Some particular parents divorce or die young while others do not. Some have many children while others have few or none. Some children marry, earlier or later, and have children of their own, others not, and so on. Todd does not trace any connections from the particular family history of an individual or of a group of individuals to their subsequent behaviour and attitudes. It is what members of the same anthropological group all agree to be the proper nature of the family, and of the various privileges and obligations associated with it, that matters. He is concerned with the ideal family, so to speak.

In different family systems, the same events will be experienced differently, with a different degree of shame or triumph, or even absolutely differently. Divorce happens, but is usually (not always) experienced as a problem. A married sister may, or may not, retain links with her original family. Cousins or nieces may be encouraged to marry cousins or uncles, or fiercely forbidden to. Incest may be taboo (or not). Brothers may be equal, or unequal. Fathers may control their grown-up sons until death do them part, or not. Mothers may be powerful matriarchs, or little more than girls. And so on. All of this varies from place to place in the world, and it is these local agreements and global disagreements that Todd is concerned with.

What triggers history’s great eruptions of ideological and religious enthusiasm is mass literacy. When a majority of the young men can read and write for the first time, that is to say at a time when a majority of their fathers could not, then there is always an ideological upsurge. Hence the German Reformation, the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Islamic fundamentalism, the Tamil Tigers, and so on and so on and so on. Each of these eruptions into ideological modernity takes its particular and quite distinct form from the family structure that dominates in the place where it happens.

Rising literacy is easy to see coming. Anthropology is easily studied. Therefore both the timing and the nature of such ideological eruptions can be easily predicted. Todd has an impressive record of such successful predictions. (I recall Todd’s very confident announcement that Nicaragua would not turn communist, at a time when it was widely predicted that it was about to.)

So much, for now, for the explanation of ideology.

In The Causes of Progress Todd turns to other less explosive and destructive but equally important effects of mass literacy. Mass literacy, in a very basic sense, is economic development. When a population becomes literate, it gets rich. Not immediately, because it takes time to get rich, and it especially takes time to get rich if the ideological eruptions triggered earlier by mass literacy are particularly destructive.

Mass literacy among women also has profound effects upon fertility, which tends to oscillate wildly during the modernisation process. Fertility first surges, then plummets.

Further Emmanuel Todd postings here will, I hope and intend, go into more detail. In my next posting, for instance, I intend to itemise all the world’s various family structures, and which ideologies they correspond to.

I also hope to speculate about and in due course (this is a blog after all) to find out about why Todd’s theories have had so little impact in the English speaking world, despite appearing to have extreme relevance to many contemporary debates and concerns, about such things as Islamic terrorism. Is it because they are simply wrong? I don’t now think so, but I do think that Todd is often wrong (at the very least extremely contentious) about many matters incidental to his most important ideas, which has surely not helped.

Worse, from the point of view of anyone else who is interested in ideological matters being willing to spread his ideas, Todd appears to reduce all ideologists to mere sock puppets for their inner anthropologically programmed urges.

But that is all to come. For now, that will have to suffice.

My Emmanuel Todd blogging journey has now begun.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Blurry squirrel

When is a photo a bad photo? When it’s all blurry?

Well maybe so, but I rather like that blur. I’ve been rootling through my hard disc choosing pictures to print out for Christmas fun, and came across this squirrel cavorting about in St James’s Park. Click to get it a bit bigger, but no less blurry.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

The risk of not taking any risks

This is depressing. I found it in a set of rules for blogging.

Whenever you post anything to the Internet — whether on a weblog, in a discussion group, or even in an email — think about how it will look to a hiring manager in ten years. Once stuff’s out, it’s archived, cached, and indexed in many services that you might never be aware of.

Years from now, someone might consider hiring you for a plum job and take the precaution of ‘nooping you first. (Just taking a stab at what’s next after Google. Rest assured: there will be some super-snooper service that’ll dredge up anything about you that’s ever been bitified.) What will they find in terms of naïvely puerile “analysis” or offendingly nasty flames published under your name?

Maybe. Maybe.

But here’s another thought. Your future employer will be looking to see if you have a bit of go about you, a bit of spirit, or that at least you once did, once upon a time. Have you any youthful indiscretions to talk about, and if not why not? He wants, above all, to avoid hiring one of those completely risk-averse, bloodless semi-humans who organised his entire adolescence around not looking bad twenty years later. He wants someone who has tried stuff, done stuff, and made mistakes. He does not want William bloody Hague, who only became human after he had made a total cods of being Leader of the Conservative Party.

David Cameron looks just like another of these bloodless, calculating, boy-machines. If he becomes the next Leader of the Conservatives, it will be because he has now, suddenly, acquired a bit of a past, with human blood flowing through it, possibly, allegedly, maybe, no concrete evidence.

If you never do anything or even say anything that you regret, then the chances are that you will have something far bigger to regret later, which is never having done anything at all.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Rolls Royces

Is there anyone in the world who reads this blog but not this one? Perhaps, but it seems improbable. On that off chance, this demographic should be sure not to miss this analysis of an epic car chase in one of those Confessions Of movies starring Robin Askwith.

That’s a seventies Rolls Royce going through a brick wall. It seems that Mark Holland also takes pictures off of his telly.

This is not a move I would care to try unless I owned a lot of Rolls Royces, and as it happens I don’t own even one. Frankly I think the wall would, in real life, have given a better account of itself.

But, I reckon the new German Panzer Roller would probably have done exactly that to it. For months I have been watching out for one of these in the streets of London, moving slowly enough for me to photo it. Nothing. Well, one, moving far too quickly. And then a few weeks ago I finally encountered one. It was parked outside the magnificently red bricked Westminster Cathedral (the Roman Catholic one in Victoria Street), ready to take away the Nigerian bride and groom from their magnificent Nigerian wedding. It was the best looking wedding I have ever chanced upon. Great hats. Ascot, forget it. It was as if the entire occasion had been organised for my entire benefit.

I may stick up more photos of that event anon, with hats, but I promise nothing. Sadly the light was not great, which is what has put me off doing this earlier.

I was expecting to find the new Roller overbearing and ugly. But I like it.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Hundred dollar laptop

This is a very cute design.

The $100 laptop computers that Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers want to get into the hands of the world’s children would be durable, flexible and self-reliant.

The machines’ AC adapter would double as a carrying strap, and a hand crank would power them when there’s no electricity. They’d be foldable into more positions than traditional notebook PCs, and carried like slim lunchboxes.

I reckon some quite old children might fancy that.

I have recently been trying to equip myself with the perfect bag for wandering around London with, on my photography expeditions. And I can tell you that a rigid handle like that is massively preferable to handles which are floppy, because of being made of cloth or floppy leather. Floppy handles crush the fingers. But hard handles can be hard to find.

Please forgive all the phallic innuendoes in the above. And I am now reminded that there is even a reference to “lunchboxes”. Good grief.

More reportage and links, from the BBC, here.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog


Usually when you see a blog posting by me with the time 11.59 pm attached to it, that means I did it around 12.30 am and back-timed it. But last night’s posting genuinely did get posted at 11.59 pm. This, on the other hand, is being done a little later than stated. But only a little.

Sometimes quota posting is stupid. But the rule here is: something, however ridiculous, every day. And I believe in rules.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Katrina as art – and Katrina as proof of What I’ve Always Said

Today I went looking for Katrina coverage, and found this weirdly beautiful photo. What do you reckon it is?


A row of school buses sits in floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005 east of New Orleans.

I found it at this New Orleans website. (In a few days that link will probably make no sense, but as I write this now there is a great list of Katrina photos you can rootle through.)

There sure are going to be some fine coffee table books when everything has been cleared up.

And here, I found this quote:

WDSU Channel 6, an NBC affiliate, moved its operations to two sister stations, one in Jackson, Miss., and another in Orlando, Fla. With some interruptions, it got back on the air and presented news and weather programming on its Web site as well. “The Web played a big role in all of this,” said Tom Campo, a spokesman for Hearst-Argyle, the station’s owner.

The Internet, as a decentralized communications network, can be more resilient than traditional media when natural disasters occur. “Owning broadcast towers and printing presses were useless,” said Jeff Jarvis, a consultant to online media companies. “The Web proved to be a better media in a case like this.”

Which surprises me. I would have thought that internet communication, being so heavily dependent in most instances on publicly supplied electricity, with no emergency back-up supplies, would collapse in an emergency, leaving the Big Old Media still functioning and feeling ever so slightly smug about it. Apparently with Katrina it was rather the opposite. Mind you, I only know this because I read it at the New York Times website.

Main lessons: if you are planning to be hit by a hurricane: be rich, and live in a rich country, with emergency services about which it makes sense to be optimistic. Own a car, don’t keep all your wealth in your house, pile what you can of it that is in your house into your car and get out of there.

Note that me quoting that bit about the media, and saying Be Rich, is a particular example of a general law, which is that when unexpected things happen, people will wallow, as quickly as they can, in what they already believe or want to believe. Some have said that Katrina proves that Global Warming is bad, and that the USA deserves a soaking for having caused Global Warming. Others have denounced those who said that as evil opportunists. Both of which opinions are what they both already thought anyway. I’m no different.

Writing about catastrophes for big readership places like Samizdata is very hard. What if you say something tasteless or stupid? Here, if I am tasteless or stupid, who cares? I mean, what are you going to do? Cancel your subscription? What I think I’ll do is copy and paste a particularly eloquent comment that someone left on an earlier Samizdata post, and make that into a posting in its own right. (Update: done.)

To anyone who chances upon this who is in any way badly affected by this catastrophe: bad luck mate. I hope things improve for you quickly. If what you have suffered in uncorrectable, like your granny drowning or something terrible like that, well, just bad luck, I guess.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog