Author Archive for peter

Blockchains are the new black!

Harper-Charley

In late 2014, the first edition of DevCon (labelled DevCon0, in computing fashion), the Ethereum developers conference held in Berlin had a dozen or so participants.  A year later, several hundred people attended DevCon1 in the City of London.  The participants were a mix of pony-tailed hacker libertarians and besuited, besotted bankers, and I happened to speak at the event.  Since New Year, I have participated in a round-table discussion on technology and entrepreneurship with a Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, previewed a smart contracts project undertaken by a prominent former member of Anonymous, briefed a senior business journalist on the coming revolution in financial and regulatory technology, and presented to 120 people at a legal breakfast on distributed ledgers and blockchains. That audience was, as it happens, the quietest and most attentive I have ever encountered.

For only the second time in my adult life, we are experiencing a great dramatic sea-change in technology infrastructure, and this period feels exactly like the early days of the Web.  In 1994-1997, every corporation and their sister was intent on getting online, but most  did not know how, and skills were scarce.  Great fortunes were to be made in clicks and mortar:  IBM took out full-page ads in the WSJ offering to put your company online in only 3 months and for just $1 million!  Today, sisters are urging investment in blockchains, and as much as $1 billion of venture funding went to blockchain and Bitcoin startups in 2015 alone.

The Web revolution helped make manifest the Information Society, by putting information online and making it easily accessible.  But, as I have argued before, most real work uses information but is not about information per se.  Rather, real work is about doing stuff, getting things done, and getting them done with, by, and through other people or organizations. Exchanges, promises, and commitments are as important as facts in such a world.  The blockchain revolution will manifest the Joint-Action Society, by putting transactions and commitments online in a way that is effectively unrevokable and unrepudiable.  The leaders of this revolution are likely to arise from banking and finance and insurance, since those sectors are where the applications are most compelling and the business needs most pressing. So expect this revolution to be led not from Silicon Valley, but from within the citadels of global banking: New York and London, Paris and Frankfurt, and perhaps Tokyo and Singapore.




Coffee with an Economista

Francis-cafe-Jermyn-Street




Alice Nampitjinpa at Temple

TempleStationLondon20160125

Workmen replacing the wall tiles at Temple Underground Station in London have temporarily revealed patterns on the concrete walls that bring to mind the sublime optic minimalist art of Alice Nampitjinpa. For a limited time only. Guaranteed to make you homesick for Australia.

Below is Nampitjinpa’s Tali at Talaalpi (1998).

TaliAtTalaalpi1998




Home, James!

“Nothing that is mere wordplay is ever witty,” says Clive James in today’s Grauniad. This statement is so profoundly wrong, one has to wonder if it is meant to be satire. To see how wrong it is, start by reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where mere wordplay produces some of the most clever wit in English. Finish by reading or watching pretty much any play by Tom Stoppard.  What was James thinking?

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ARM Members

The African Resistance Movement (ARM) was an underground movement engaged in sabotage and violent resistance to the South African apartheid regime. Formed in late 1960, it just predates MK and Poqo, the armed wings of the ANC and PAC, respectively (although its public announcement occurred 5 days after that of MK). The founders of the ARM were members of the non-racial Liberal Party, whose leaders had been arrested, detained, and banned in the state of emergency declared in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960.  Both the ANC and PAC were declared banned organizations in that same period.  These government actions led many reasonable people to believe that peaceful, democratic protest was no longer possible in South Africa.  The ANC, after all, had been engaged in peaceful public protest since its formation in 1912 and still found itself declared illegal.

The ARM operated between 1960 and mid 1964.  According to South African History Online, ARM members came from three distinct groups:  members of the Liberal Party, who were mostly white;  former members of the Transvaal ANC Youth League who had defected to form the African Freedom Movement, who were mostly black;  and, former members of the South African Communist Party, some of whom were Trotskyites who had been expelled from the party.  Jonty Driver estimates that the ARM had 58 members: 17 in Cape Town, 27 in Johannesburg, and 14 elsewhere (Durban, PE, Grahamstown, Europe and Canada).  I can find no list of members online, so decided to compile my own.  My sources are given below.

The clear policy of the organization was to not undertake any actions in which people could be hurt. All but one of the 25 actions undertaken adhered to this rule. Most involved attempts to bring down power pylons or similar state-owned infrastructure.  The final action, a bomb left in a suitcase on Johannesburg Railway Station on the afternoon of 24 July 1964, sadly killed one elderly lady, Mrs Ethel Rhys, and maimed several others, including her teenage grand-daughter.  Warning calls had been placed to the police and to two newspapers, but no efforts were made by the authorities to clear the platform.  It is still not known whether this inaction was deliberate or not.

The planting of a bomb in a station was contrary to ARM policy and practice, and was undertaken when almost all ARM members had been arrested or had fled into exile. It was the solo work of John Harris, who was subsequently tried and executed for murder. Harris was the only white person tried and executed by the apartheid regime for a political crime (although others, such as Rick Turner and Ruth First, were assassinated without judicial process).  Several ARM members received gaol terms, and I note these below.  Members of ARM also bravely assisted in spiriting people out of the country, both fellow ARM members and others wanted by the security police,  as did the  underground railroad that operated later in Rhodesia. One ARM member, Michael Schneider, went on to help spirit Jewish people out of various countries, including Bosnia, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria and Yemen.

The decision by any individual to embark on a campaign of violent resistance cannot have been an easy one, even given the already-evident violence of the state and its organs in South Africa.  Moreover, with organisations such as the ANC declared illegal,  ARM membership would likely have led to arrest, and arrest to torture or worse, as indeed it did.  Thus, ARM membership would have required considerable courage.

  • Monty Berman (co-founder)
  • Myrtle Berman
  • Alan Brooks (1940-2008) (4 years, 2 suspended)
  • Eddie Daniels (15 years)
  • Johannes Dladla
  • Raymond Eisenstein (2 years)
  • David Evans (5 years)
  • John Harris (1937-1965) (executed)
  • Dennis Higgs
  • David de Keller (10 years)
  • Baruch Hirson (9 years)
  • Stephanie Kemp (5 years, 3 suspended)
  • John Lang (co-founder)
  • John Laredo (5 years)
  • Adrian Leftwich (1940-2013)
  • Hugh Lewin (7 years)
  • John Lloyd
  • Ruben Mowszowski
  • Hillary Mutch
  • Ronnie Mutch
  • Samuel Olifant
  • Lynette van der Riet
  • Neville Rubin
  • Diana Russell
  • Michael Schneider
  • Stephen Segale
  • Milton Setlhapelo
  • Willie Tibane
  • Antony Trew (4 years, 2 suspended)
  • Rick Turner (1942-1978)
  • Randolph Vigne
  • Ernest Wentzel
  • Rosemary Wentzel.

I welcome any updates or corrections.

Sources:

CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver [2002]: Used to be great friends. Granta, 80:7-26.

CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver [2015]: The Man with the Suitcase: The Life, Execution and Rehabilitation of John Harris, Liberal Terrorist. Crane River.

Adrian Leftwich [2002]: I gave the names. Granta, 78:9-31.

Hugh Lewin [2011]: Stones against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle. Cape Town, RSA: Umuzi.

South African History Online: African Resistance Movement

 

Postscript (Added 2016-01-17): In his apologia, the late Adrian Leftwich describes his behaviour as “shameful, harmful and wrong” (2002, page 25).  It is not clear to me if he is referring to his membership of ARM as a whole (which is the focus of the preceding part of that section of the memoir) or just his fast collapse under police interrogation, a collapse in which he gave up the names of his fellow members.  In either case, he was mistaken. Everyone in such circumstances will eventually succumb to torture and so there is no shame and no wrong in giving up names.  There was harm, but this arose from the speed of his collapse (he held out just a day, it seems) and the extent of his prior knowledge.  Membership of ARM was certainly neither wrong nor shameful – quite the reverse, in fact – and only for one action harmful. Where Leftwich appeared to have erred, at this distance of time and morality, is in tradecraft: he should not have known so much about the organization, nor its membership (ie, he should have had fewer names to give up); he should not have saved a field guide for selecting targets in a book in his flat; his girlfriend should not have stored explosives in her flat; he and the other members should have made plans to alert one another, via coded or secret means, of any arrests; they should each have had well-practised plans and places for hiding, or plans for escape abroad; etc.  In a sense, the poor tradecraft was a sign of their sincerity of intentions: anyone engaged in armed struggle for its own sake, or for the thrills it provided, would have been more professional in undertaking it. Leftwich, like his colleagues, remains a hero.




Metaphorical weathermen

Weather Underground Logo

On 14 January 1965 in New York City, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and the single was released on 8 March 1965.  The song includes the lines:

You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.

The metaphor expressed in these lines was very influential.  For instance, the main left-wing armed terrorist movement in the USA, formed in 1969, called itself Weatherman, or The Weathermen, later calling itself The Weather Underground.

Was the metaphor originally due to Dylan?  We can answer NO to that question.   On 18 March 1957, Time magazine reported on political events in Poland, where the ruling Polish United Workers Party had recently seen some liberalization of its earlier Stalinism (and the return to power of reformist communist Wladyslaw Gomulka), followed by something of a reversal back to hard-line policies.  The Time article began:

There is usually one Communist who knows the way the wind is blowing long before the official weather vanes swing into line. In stormy Poland he is a longtime Stalinist timeserver named Jerzy Putrament. When Wladyslaw Gomulka broke with Moscow last October, Comrade Putrament was so enthusiastic in Gomulka’s support that Pravda publicly rebuked him for saying that he preferred “imperialist Coca-Cola to the best home-distilled vodka.” Last month Weatherman Putrament held up a moist forefinger and got the feel of a new breeze blowing through Poland.

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John Curtin Memorial Lecture Series at ANU

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For some years starting in 1970, the Australian National University in Canberra hosted a public lecture series named for war-time Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin. As the list of eminent speakers below indicates, this lecture series honoured Curtin and the labour movement. In 1979, the chosen speaker was the prominent right-wing journalist, Alan Reid. Although he had known Curtin and Curtin’s successor as PM, Ben Chifley, Reid had worked as a journalist in the Packer stable, had played a part in the Labor split in the 1950s, had privately advised Menzies and Holt, and had deplored the Whitlam government.  Even Liberal PM John Gorton thought Reid despicable, famously saying once that while he, Gorton, had been born a bastard, Reid had become one through his own efforts.   Reid was an entirely inappropriate person to give a lecture in a series honouring Curtin.

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London life

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St. Paul’s Cathedral from Borough (HT: WP).

I was reminded of Thomas Jones’ Houses in Naples (about 1782, now in National Museum of Wales):

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Gift of God

Villa Diodati Geneva

Villa Diodati Geneva

In his personal memoir, Dance of a Fallen Monk, George Fowler describes a person he met when a late teenager who had an enormous influence on his personal development and his life. This person, whom Fowler calls Adeodatus Nikos, is a young man, not much older than Fowler, who was immensely well-read, particularly in matters spiritual and religious. Nikos is an engineer assigned to work for several months in the boondocks town in Montana where Fowler is at school, and they quickly become fast friends. Fowler is devastated when his older friend is killed in a car accident soon after leaving the town.

Interested to know more, I searched on Nikos’ name but found nada. I soon realised his name may be a pseudonym, particularly as Adeodatus could be translated as “Gift of God”. Fowler says the death happened in June 1946. There were 683 recorded deaths in Montana in 1946, of whom just 4 were of people born between 1918-1922 (inclusive). The most likely candidate is perhaps Pedro Santos, aged 25 when he died on 25 June 1946; Santos may have been from the Philippines. Fowler says that Nikos had two older twin brothers, both of whom were already married when Fowler met Nikos.

Meanwhile, I recalled that John Milton’s close teenage friend was named Charles Diodati (c.1608-1638). Diodati also died young, when Milton was traveling abroad. Upon learning of his friend’s death from Diodati’s uncle in Geneva Milton wrote a lament, Epitaphium Damonis, published in 1645. I wonder if Fowler knew about Diodati when he came to write about his friend.

The image shows Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, built originally for a relative of Charles Diodati. Byron and friends rented this house in the summer of 1816.




Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.

Last year’s post is here.